Skip to main content

Black History Month: Select Books 30% Off

Harvard University Press - home

France on Trial

The Case of Marshal Pétain

Julian Jackson

ISBN 9780674294578

Publication date: 08/22/2023

A Telegraph, Spectator, Prospect, and Times Best Book of the Year

“Enthralling.”―Geoffrey Wheatcroft, New York Review of Books

“This is a story not just about Pétain but about war and resistance, the moral compromises of leadership, and the meaning of France itself.”―Margaret MacMillan

For three weeks in July 1945 all eyes were fixed on Paris, where France’s former head of state was on trial. Would Philippe Pétain, hero of Verdun, be condemned as the traitor of Vichy?

In the terrible month of October 1940, few things were more shocking than the sight of Marshal Philippe Pétain—supremely decorated hero of the First World War, now head of the French government—shaking hands with Hitler. Pausing to look at the cameras, Pétain announced that France would henceforth collaborate with Germany. “This is my policy,” he intoned. “My ministers are responsible to me. It is I alone who will be judged by History.”

Five years later, in July 1945, after a wave of violent reprisals following the liberation of Paris, Pétain was put on trial for his conduct during the war. He stood accused of treason, charged with heading a conspiracy to destroy France’s democratic government and collaborating with Nazi Germany. The defense claimed he had sacrificed his personal honor to save France and insisted he had shielded the French people from the full scope of Nazi repression. Former resisters called for the death penalty, but many identified with this conservative military hero who had promised peace with dignity.

The award-winning author of a landmark biography of Charles de Gaulle, Julian Jackson uses Pétain’s three-week trial as a lens through which to examine one of history’s great moral dilemmas. Was the policy of collaboration “four years to erase from our history,” as the prosecution claimed? Or was it, as conservative politicians insist to this day, a sacrifice that placed pragmatism above moral purity? As head of the Vichy regime, Pétain became the lightning rod for collective guilt and retribution. But he has also been an icon of the nationalist right ever since. In France on Trial, Jackson blends courtroom drama, political intrigue, and brilliant narrative history to highlight the hard choices and moral compromises leaders make in times of war.

Author

  • Julian Jackson is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Queen Mary University of London and one of the foremost experts on twentieth-century France. His De Gaulle won the Duff Cooper Prize and Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography, among other awards, and was a New Yorker, Financial Times, Spectator, Times, and Telegraph Book of the Year. His previous books include France: The Dark Years, 1940–1944, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and The Fall of France, which won the Wolfson History Prize. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, Commandeur de l’Ordre des Palmes académiques, and Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Book Details

  • Belknap Press

From this author

Recommendations