The life of Joseph Darnand – a “hero and condottiere” according to Pierre Giolitto (2005: 102) – appears distinctive, yet typical of many of the Vichy regime’s misguided ways. Already a hero of the First World War, he proved courageous again during the battle of France in 1940, during which he was taken prisoner by the Germans, and then escaped from them. But by the time France was freed by the Allies, Darnand had ended up before a French firing squad. Though intensely patriotic, he had eventually chosen to wear a German uniform.
Originally from a poor family, Joseph Darnand did not manage to become an officer after World War I, in spite of his military exploits. This made him deeply resentful of the French Republic and its elite. He eventually left the army in 1921 and opted for political action in the extreme right, first within the Action française movement, but especially in its terrorist anti-republican offshoot La Cagoule. Darnand settled in Nice, and after the Vichy regime was established, he became president of the Alpes-Maritimes section of the new Légion française des Combattants, a showcase for Maréchalisme, a political movement supporting collaboration with the Germans in virtue of their trust and support of Marshal Pétain. He soon attempted to turn this locally successful organization into a sort of national paramilitary elite, as well as the backbone of the Service d’ordre légionnaire (SOL), which became the Milice (a French paramilitary, extreme-right militia which frequently acted as an auxiliary to the Gestapo), in 1943. As soon as he returned to power, Laval, who needed support from a mass movement, began to rely on Darnand, whose engagement in collaboration with Nazi Germany was increasingly clear: he swore an oath of loyalty to Hitler and joined the Waffen-SS (elite Nazi SS troops) in August 1943. In January 1944, under German pressure, Laval made Darnand his Secretary-general for Law Enforcement and the symbol of the end of the Vichy regime, which had become an extreme police State. Darnand’s operations against the maquis (Resistance guerrilla fighters), as well as the executions decreed by the courts-martial that he set up, were the emblem of this tragic “end of the regime.” In September 1944, Darnand accompanied Pétain and the Vichy government in exile to Sigmaringen in Germany, then he incorporated his Milice in the German Charlemagne division (a division of French volunteers in the German army). He was sentenced to death by the French High Court of Justice, and was shot on October 10, 1945.