France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain
For three weeks in July 1945 all eyes were fixed on a humid Paris, where France’s disgraced former head of state was on trial, accused of masterminding a plot to overthrow democracy. 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.
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