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France on Trial

UK Publisher: Allen Lane / Penguin


Few images more shocked the French population during the Occupation than the photograph of Marshal Philippe Pétain – the great French hero of the First World War – shaking the hand of Hitler on 20 October 1940. In the radio speech after this meeting, Pétain told the French people that he was ‘entering down the road of collaboration’. He ended with the words: ‘This is my policy. My ministers are responsible to me. It is I alone who will be judged by History.’ Five years later, in July 1945, the hour of judgement – if not yet the judgement of History – arrived. Pétain was brought before a specially created High Court to answer for his conduct between the signing of the armistice with Germany in June 1940 and the Liberation of France in August 1944.

Julian Jackson uses Pétain’s three-week trial as a lens through which to examine the central crisis of twentieth-century French history – the defeat of 1940, the signing of the armistice and Vichy’s policy of collaboration – what the main prosecutor Mornet called ‘four years to erase from our history’. As head of the Vichy regime in the Second, Pétain became one of France’s most notorious public figures, and the lightening-rod for collective guilt and retribution immediately after the Second World War. In France on Trial Jackson blends politics and personal drama to explore how different national factions sought to try to claim the past, or establish their interpretation of it, as a way of claiming the present and future.

Julian Jackson is Emeritus Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London, and one of the foremost British scholars...