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Joseph Darnand and the Milice in Vichy France

Updated on January 9, 2013

Pierre Laval and the Milice

Pierre Laval, Prime Minister of France aimed to create a firm power base for himself- he had been ousted from power in 1940 and did not want a repetition. He decided to form his own private police force that could also be used against the Resistance who seemed to be growing more powerful every day. The organisation was agreed by Hitler and placed under Laval’s personal control. The man chosen to lead the organisation called the “ Milice Francaise” or simply,” The Milice” was Joseph Darnand.

From humble beginnings

Joseph Darnand was a French man born at the end of the nineteenth century in the foothills of the Alps. He was the son of a railway worker and had six siblings. His father managed to scrape together enough money to send the young Joseph to seminary school in Belley but he failed to finish as family misfortune meant that his fees could no longer be paid. He returned home and was indentured to a blacksmith who taught him until the war when he enlisted leaving Joseph without instruction. Joseph was rejected by the army in 1914 for being underweight and it was not until two years later that he was accepted and received his training, receiving both wounds and decorations for his valiant efforts in trench warfare. Such was is success that he volunteered for a team of soldiers who were to take part in only dangerous activities- the fore runners of the commando units.

A War Hero from the First World War

On July 14th (Bastille Day) Darnand was at the Front and was part of a reconnaissance team sent to try and ascertain German plans for an expected front. Leading a small force Darnand captured a number of prisoners who gave the exact location and timing of the German offensive , for which the French were now prepared and able to halt and repel. Darnand finished the war as a war hero but found that his skills were not suited to the peace time forces and after failing to get his commission he left the army in 1921.

Image from German photo library believed to be Joseph Darnand
Image from German photo library believed to be Joseph Darnand | Source

Action Francaise

In the Inter war period Darnand ran a haulage firm, demanding that his drivers work hard, but treating them well. During this period he married and became a father but he still retained relationships with his former military colleagues joining Action Francaise – right wing veterans organisations. His time with Action Francaise was a time of talking and drinking with former colleagues reliving the past but he left in 1928 because he craved action rather than talk. By 1936 Darnand was involved with Deloncle and Jean Filiol who had also left Action Francaise they became busy putting stockpiles of arms throughout France using Darnand’s haulage business as a cover. Arrested in 1937 he was released without charge and as soon as war was declared in 1939 he enlisted, this time obtaining his commission as a Lieutenant.

Called to Arms against Nazi Germany

Darnand may have had doubts about fighting this war but he knew his duty to France and in 1940 he led a corps of men on surveillance duty in Forbach a town on the Maginot line, the town, previously abandoned by the French was recaptured by Darnand and his forces during a night time raid . The next day the Germans attacked and in a fierce battle Darnand’s superior officer and close friend Felix Agnely was killed- Darnand led a night time raid to reclaim his friends body . Darnand was mentioned n despatches and his name was linked throughout France with duty and heroism. Following his escape from a German prison camp he was photographed for a Parisian Magazine called “Match”.

A poster from the SOL
A poster from the SOL | Source

Legion Francaise des Combatants

In June 1940 following the fall of France Darnand returned to Nice to head the Nice section of the Legion Francaise des Combatants- however this quickly turned to be little more than a social organisation for ex military men. It was the start of his work in Vichy and as a collaborationist. Later in the year he admitted his belief that France had been wrong to fight against Germany and that the French deaths were in vain. In June 1941 Hitler attacked Russia which completed Darnands move to collaboration as he was totally anti communist and even professed the belief that the Resistance was operated by the communists!

Service d'ordre Legionnaire

During this period Darnand set up the Service d’ordre Legionnaire otherwise known as the SOL. He saw it as the elite of the elite, an organised force which would be at the forefront of the National Revolution which he and his supporters envisaged happening soon. This organisation spread throughout the unoccupied zone and became the fertile recruiting ground for the Milice.

Pierre Laval
Pierre Laval | Source

Secretary General of the Milice

Darnand was chosen as secretary General of the Milice created by Pierre Laval in January 1943. Laval gained permission from Hitler to set this organisation up on the basis that the Vichy would use it to maintain public orderDarnand viewed the organisation as the paramilitary arm of the French government and sought support from the Germans who were initially mistrusting. Initially the Germans agreed that the organisation would simply act as an unarmed supplementary police force needed to protect the Vichy government. As the position of the Germans became weaker the Milice gained power and 1944 was a year of great importance power and then failure. On January 1st Darnand was appointed Secretary General for the Maintenance of Order which increased his power and the power of the Milice.

Which way to turn?

One of the main issues was whether the Milice should be armed. Darnand argued with Laval that arms should be issued as his men were facing increased hostility from Frenchmen who justly believed that they were passing information about the Resistance to the Germans. Members of the Milice were attacked and subject to parcel bombs and successful assassination. This issue raised questions with Darnand who actually considered joining the Resistance but his attempts to join the Free French went unanswered- he appears to have been a very complex character perhaps just interested in warfare rather than the issues behind it. During the summer of 1943 Darnand and some of his elite troops joined the new French waffen-SS and encouraged recruitment amongst the Milice and in return he gained a delivery of arms which had been captured from the French when they asked for the Armistice. In August Darnand took the oath of fidelity to Hitler and became a Sturmbannfuhrer in the Waffen- SS. He was now totally identified with the German cause


An organisation of criminals

Following Darnnands promotion in January 1944 the Milice was established in both the Southern and the Northern zones. The Milice was an organisation of the extreme right and comprised mainly of men who wanted action, who wanted to put the old guard to one side and fight.Darnand viewed the organisation as an opportunity to build an elite corps of fascists. He recruited mainly from fascist supporters or low life who just wanted to fight. Historians generally agreed that the Milice contributed to the disorder that it was supposed to quell. The number of men in the Milice is a matter of estimation and conjecture- the highest estimate being 30,000 men. By 1944 the organisation included its elite Francs-Gardes the elite paramilitary split into standing and reserve. These men were professional soldiers who received a salary and barrack accommodation accompanied by military and political training. The Reserve received some of the same training but lived at home and tried to carry on with their normal lives. There was also a youth movement to provide recruits for the future.

Exhortation in return for safety.

The Milice was not uniformly successful throughout France and indeed never gained much support in the Northern areas once it was opened up. The organisation on regional basis meant that some areas could be more radical than others ,for example the Milice in the Loire joined the German and French police in their fight against the Maquis. It was an opportunity for exhorting money and valuables from the population, especially any remaining Jews. How dedicated they were to the actual German cause is highly questionable- when the Allies invaded and Darnand mobilised the Milice very few of those in the Loire region answered his call- most kept at home trying to blend in with the population.

General Secretary for Law and Order

The Allied Invasion of June 1944 mobilised the Milice and as the Germans moved eastwards away from the Allies , Darnand and nearly 4,000 men, those members of the Milice who were loyal to him, followed. Morale was low in the organisation as the Waffen SS was actively recruiting for their regiments and these were mainly men who wanted to fight for France, indeed Himmler and Darnand met and agreed that 1,200 of his men would join the SS. However Darnand was not given command of this unit as his rank of General Secretary for Law and Order demanded, but was reverted to his SS rank of Sturmbannfuhrer, which was insufficient rank to command the unit. In early 1945 Darnand left with some of his men to fight anti fascist partisans in Northern Italy.

Trial and Sentence of Joseph Darnand

Darnand was captured by Allied forces in Northern Italy and taken back to France for trial. Darnand saw himself as “The Great White Knight of the collaboration” He has been described as a soldier, direct often blunt man with a good sense of humour. A man who was loyal to whomsoever he served and did his duty. He was an activist rather than a politician, he got things done- not only a brave man but a man capable of organisation and retaining the loyal support of his men. At his trial Darnand said that he had received support from the Vichy especially Field Marshall Petain for his collaborationist stand, only to see that support melt away when the Allies landed and made territorial progress in FranceHe was sentenced to death on 3rd October 1945 and executed by firing squad on 10th October 1945. At his trial Darnand said:

“I am not one of those who will tell you: “Monsieur Le Premier President, I played a double game.” I marched. I simply marched. I am proud of what I did, I was mistaken but I acted in good faith, I believe that I, too served.

Darnand summed up by a contemporary

Jean Gultier-Boussiere editor of the magazine Crapouillot said of Darnand “In all parties, the militants who dirty their hands are always fools. Despite his rise, Darnand remained one of these men on the bottom whom one directs readily to dirty business, then disavows if things turn out badly.”

Recommended Reading

Collaborationism in France during the Second World War- Bertram M. Gordon


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    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      Unnamed Harald- I feel exactly the same and this makes me research areas in which i have either no knowledge or limited knowledge. Working at a leading British University means I have access to books and I make the most of it.. Thank you for your kind comments.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      I found this very interesting, justhistory. I always enjoy filling in the (sometimes huge) gaps of my historical knowledge and I'm afraid wartime France is one of those gaps. Thanks for the information.