In September 1944, a few months after being greeted by cheering crowds in Paris, Marshal Philippe Pétain, the head of the wartime État Français, was driven across the German frontier into exile under Gestapo escort. He no longer had access to the national radio service, so, as he passed through France, typed copies of his last speech had to be thrown to passers-by from the window of his car. Julian Jackson, the author of a previous magisterial biography of Charles de Gaulle, now undertakes a more complex task in telling the story of Pétain’s subsequent three-week trial for treason in 1945. The novelist and resister François Mauriac summarised the ordeal as the ‘trial that is never over and will never end’. Jackson describes it as ‘the central crisis of 20th-century French history’.
He opens this absorbing account with a vivid description of Sigmaringen, the castle in southern Germany where the Gestapo escort eventually lodged Pétain, and where he stayed with his demoralised government for seven months until the Nazi leadership surrendered. At Sigmaringen, the fallen head of state presided over a Ruritanian chamber of horrors. As chief waxwork, he was rewarded with a floor of the schloss to himself. His pro-German prime minister Pierre Laval was restricted to a lower floor, with an inferior menu consisting largely of potatoes and cabbage. If Laval’s ulcer played up, he could call on the deranged anti-Semite novelist and medical doctor Louis-Ferdinand Céline for expert attention. From the windows of the castle, Pétain could glimpse the solitary figure of Joseph Darnand, his minister of the interior and commander of the murderous French Milice (militia), strutting around the park in his Waffen-SS uniform.
Pétain had come to power in 1940 as a national saviour, the one man who would get France the best deal following military defeat and the ‘desertion’ of the British army at Dunkirk.