Sigmaringen: two lessons from a dark past

Fairytale castle? Wrong! The stronghold was far from that in the last days of 1945.

Sigmaringen is a magnificent medieval stronghold perched on a towering rocky outcrop high above the River Danube. There are wonderful views in all directions. It could almost have been designed by Walt Disney as a pretty location for one of his early movies.

But there’s a darker side.

Sigmaringen: what went on there?

As the Allies swept across France in the dying days of World War Two, Vichy was evacuated. The government retreated to Belfort, a town in French Alsace. But only two weeks later the advancing Allies forced them to move on again, across the border into Germany.

Philippe Pétain, the eighty-eight-year-old French leader, at last, realised he was a prisoner of the Germans when he and several hundred other French government officials were installed in Sigmaringen.

They were of no further use to their erstwhile Nazi friends. No German bureaucrats wanted anything to do with them.

They’d become a handicap as the tide of war turned and the Third Reich began to crumble.

By the end of September 1944, this enclave of French collaborators, misfits and traitors numbered over two thousand.

Pétain was installed on the castle’s palatial seventh floor, with French Prime Minister Pierre Laval on the level below.

But by this stage, they too had fallen out and their relationship was in tatters.

They simply ignored each other when they passed in Sigmaringen’s vast corridors and sumptuous halls.

1945 – the aftermath – Sigmaringen

When de Gaulle’s First Army arrived on 24 April 1945, Pétain, still referred to by some as ‘The Lion of Verdun’ was arrested and returned to France for trial. He received the death sentence. But this was commuted to life imprisonment due to his extreme old age, and his admirable military record in World War One.

Laval was head of the Milice française or French Gestapo. The Maquisards considered Miliciens to be more dangerous than the Gestapo and the SS. Being Frenchmen, they had extensive local knowledge and understood the regional dialects fluently.

Laval managed to arrange an escape to Spain on the very last German plane out, but the dictators had also fallen out, and Franco sent him back to France for a quick trial. He was executed in October 1945.

Sigmaringen in the 21st century – cleansed

Fast forward to the 21st Century. The original owners, the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen family, are back in charge, and Schloss Sigmaringen’s magnificent interior is now open to guided tours.

But all details of Pétain, his entourage, and their stay, have been expunged from the castle’s history. There are no Pétainist mementos whatsoever. The bizarre last months at Sigmaringen castle have been erased from France’s collective memory.

The old school wants it forgotten—the young either don’t know—or don’t care—about this dismal chapter in French history.

Unfortunately, there’s a price to pay for not wanting to know about your country’s past.

The lessons history teaches are easily forgotten.


A new brand of politics is thriving around the world.

Millions of ordinary citizens feel betrayed or neglected by the long-established political elites. High profile politicians who have the cash, power, charisma, and connections are able to manipulate the electorate with a new brand of politics. Any simple solution, wrapped up in catchphrases and promises, and presented as a glib policy, is hard to resist for a large number of unhappy voters. This has helped populism to take over from nationalism.

A tide of populist EU politicians is regularly heard in the stylish European Union Parliament building in Strasbourg.

Sigmaringen Castle in Baden-Württemberg and the Natzweiler-Struthof death camp in Alsace are each only a few hours drive away.

They are dark and almost forgotten blots on the historical map of Europe. And both are prime examples of what can go wrong when voters are hypnotised by slogans and democracy fails.

Did you previously know the history of Sigmaringen Castle? Let us know in comments below.

Image credits
1. Sigmaringen Castle via wikipedia
2. Marshal Pétain via wikipedia
3. Pierre Laval via wikipedia
4. European Union buildling Strasbourg via wikiwand
5.&6. Natzweiler-Struthof Memorial via wikipedia

About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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