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  • Published: 19 September 2023
  • ISBN: 9780241450253
  • Imprint: Allen Lane
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 480
  • RRP: $55.00

France on Trial

The Case of Marshal Pétain

A prism into the most controversial period of twentieth-century French history, from one of the great contemporary historians of France

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 a radio speech after this meeting, Pétain said 'It is I alone who will be judged by History.' Five years later, in July 1945, the hour of judegement - 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. As head of the Vichy regime, 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.

  • Published: 19 September 2023
  • ISBN: 9780241450253
  • Imprint: Allen Lane
  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 480
  • RRP: $55.00

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Praise for France on Trial

Julian Jackson brings to life here with his customary mastery the trial in 1945 of France's highest ranking military officer, accused of having betrayed his country. Philippe Pétain knew extremes of glory and shame in his long military career. In 1919, as the supreme commander of French armies in World War I, he rode down the Champs-Elysées at the head of a victory parade. After June 1940, with almost unlimited power and prestige, he governed France under German occupation. In 1945 he sat in a French courtroom charged with treason for his exercise of that power. In this compelling book, Julian Jackson gives the reader a seat in the jury box and then follows France's debate over Petain - hero or traitor? - over the next fifty years.

Robert Paxton, Mellon Professor Emeritus of Social Science, Columbia University

The great general of the First World War, collaborator with Germany in the Second, how is Marshal Philippe Pétain to be remembered? His trial on charges of treason divided the French in 1945 and has divided them ever since. In the hands of Julian Jackson, a superb historian with the sensibility of a novelist, 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, Emeritus Professor of International History, University of Oxford

A superb book ... Jackson is that rare beast: a distinguished academic historian who writes with flair and clarity... one could almost be buried in a work of high-class fiction... 5/5 stars

Simon Heffer, Sunday Telegraph

If... cowardice, bad faith, dishonour and moral ambivalence is your thing, read on... A highly talented storyteller, Jackson certainly knows how to set the scene... What is chilling in Jackson's beautifully researched and meticulous account of the trial is the hopeless mediocrity of almost all people involved in it: from judges and jurors (résistants and parliamentarians) to lawyers prosecutors and witnesses.

Agnès Poirier, Observer

Julian Jackson, the foremost historian of the period, here provides a magisterial account of this extraordinary yet also somehow squalid courtroom drama and its context. ... [A] fine, thought-provoking book.

Max Hastings, Sunday Times

A splendid book ... The central narrative of the trial grips like a thriller ... Jackson's vivid prose is leavened by wit and sharpened by telling details ... This is a substantial achievement by a historian at the top of his game.

Munro Price, Literary Review

In France on Trial, his masterful account of the case, the historian Julian Jackson explains that it was not just Pétain who was being called to account, but the whole of France.

John Thornhill, Financial Times

Painstakingly researched ... Jackson vividly reconstructs the drama.


An enthralling book ... The past is dangerous, you see. Real, hard history of this kind can reach out of the page and stick its thumb in your eye. Who needs fiction when the truth is as gripping as this? 5/5 stars.

Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday

An essential key to understanding the country's recent past.

Patrick Marnham, Spectator

A scrupulous and vivid reconstruction of the trial

Richard Vinen, Times Literary Supplement

'It is a sound approach to cover such a big canvas, one that springs to life thanks to Jackson's command of sources and exquisite use of anecdotes. ... There is a cinematic quality to the way Jackson brings us into the packed courtroom ... Listening to the testimonies, we too wrestle with terrible dilemmas'

Stephanie Hare, The Critic

Professor Jackson's clear exposition of a criminal trial in the context of modern French history is an excellent illustration of a certain class of case with serious political consequences, beyond those of the accused.

Robert Shiels, Irish Legal News

I have nothing but praise for the way Jackson tells the story, with a clear elucidation of the swirling political passions, and vivid portraits of the heroes and villains, and those in between.

Piers Paul Read, Tablet

Julian Jackson's France on Trial is one of those instant classic history books that are immediately recognisable as a masterpiece of scholarship. Although ostensibly about Marshal Petain's trial in the aftermath of the Second World War, Jackson weaves in all the main issues regarding French resistance versus collaboration, and the profound chiaroscuro between the extremes. I read it in Lyon, where the superb Resistance Museum records in powerful detail the crimes of Klaus Barbie and others, and it proved the perfect intellectual backdrop for the trip.

Andrew Roberts

Brilliantly researched and vividly narrated ... Jackson manages to engage the reader, adopting a rich literary style to communicate ... the atmosphere in and outside of the court and the personality of the characters ... Riveting.

Daniel Snowman, Jewish Chronicle

[An] outstanding book ... Jackson's vivid, stylish, sometimes even cinematic reconstruction suggests this court case was about far more than one elderly man ... Jackson skilfully evokes the trial scene's atmosphere... [a] gripping and timely book.

Andrew Lynch, Business Post

Highly detailed ... an impressive command of the nuances of this trial ... authoritative.

John Reeves, LA Review of Books

This account of Philippe Petain’s 1945 trial for treason is a superb achievement, both reconstructing France’s Vichy shame and thoughtfully analysing its aftermath.

Daily Telegraph, Top 50 Books of 2023

Perhaps the history book of the year. Jackson understands France like few others: he looks in vivid fashion at the trial of the arch-collaborator, and how the actions of a man who had embodied France’s heroism in the Great War became, 20 years later, the symbol of its shame … he subtly argues that the whole French nation, and not just its disgraced leader, was on trial.

Simon Heffer, Daily Telegraph, Books of the Year

France on Trial stands out – a meticulously researched, attractively written account of the trial of the first world war hero turned Nazi collaborator Marshal Petain and its woeful Vichy background. Excellent on Petain’s legacy in modern right-wing French politics, Jackson adopts the requisite tone for a historian of our times, interrogating uncomfortable truths with objectivity mixed with lightness of touch.

Andrew Lycett, Spectator, Books of the Year

This extraordinary book exposes how various sides in the Petain debate have manipulated the historical record in a desperate attempt to make the past palatable.

Gerard DeGroot, The Times, Books of the Year

Julian Jackson’s France on Trial grapples with the life and (mis)deeds of Philippe Pétain—the French general who led the Vichy regime during the Second World War—and the country’s dark feelings of hatred and guilt after the war.

Prospect Books of the Year

A brilliant journey through the trauma of Pétain’s trial, as the various elements of French society tried to reconcile following the civil war that raged alongside the German occupation.

Robert Lyman, Aspects of History, Books of the Year

This is a finely tuned history…Those who enjoy tales of the sparring among excellent lawyers arguing an important case will find this book riveting. And for those who want to understand contemporary France and its intricate politics, France on Trial provides…a vibrant analysis of a trial and verdict that remain contentious almost eight decades later.

Ronald C. Rosbottom, Wall Street Journal

[An] enthralling book, as gripping as it is scholarly.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, New York Review of Books

Few historians know 20th century France as well as Jackson, and fewer historians write as well as he does. His account of the trial moves seamlessly between the comic and tragic, the appealing and appalling.

Robert Zaretsky, Forward

Jackson has woven a story so rich in both the historical and the metaphysical that it leaves the reader with a sense of uncertainty about how to view Pétain … [He] demonstrates to near perfection that history is not always black and white.

Dustin Bass, Epoch Times