Divided Memory by Olivier Wieviorka

Friday, July 27, 2012

Divided Memory

by Olivier Wieviorka; translated by George Holoch
Stanford University Press

When I teach courses on the French Resistance to American college students studying in France, I find that the students are confused and fascinated after they discuss the topic with their home-stay families. They report in class that the reactions of their host “parents” are clearly divided in a way they didn’t expect. Some of these French families respond with a quick “Ah oui, ce sont de vrais héros” (Ah, yes! True heroes!), while others are more ambivalent: “Quel triste moment dans notre histoire” (What a sad moment in our history). The implication of the latter is that foreign students should study a more positive moment in French history. Clearly France’s experience during World War II is still a sensitive subject. Olivier Wieviorka’s political history Divided Memory: French Recollections of World War II from the Liberation to the Present points to the tensions that always existed and continue to inform the ways the various segments of the French population attempt to commemorate World War II.

France was one of the great military powers of the first half of the twentieth century, and yet after the six-week Battle of France in 1940 the German Army invaded and occupied all of France. When Philippe Pétain, the great hero of the Battle of Verdun, took over the government at the age of eighty-four, he signed an armistice with Germany that divided France into two zones. Nazi Germany governed the northern occupied zone, including Paris and the entire Atlantic coast, while Pétain, steeped in the ideology of the right-wing National Revolution, governed the nonoccupied zone from the spa town of Vichy until November 1942, when Germany took over the administration of the entire country (http://www.atlas-historique.net/1914–1945/cartes_popups/France1940–44GF.html).

The 1940 armistice was brutal: over one million French prisoners of war remained in German camps through 1944, and France was responsible for paying the costs of the occupation—20 million Reichsmarks per day. The authoritarian and collaborationist Vichy regime, which converted the French national motto from “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” to “Work, Family, Fatherland,” dissolved all unions, imposed censorship, and instituted its own anti-Semitic legislation. It also carried out all that Nazi Germany demanded.

The “divided memory” of Wieviorka’s title refers to the failed struggle that the French have engaged in since 1944 to construct a unified narrative of the war. The French experience of World War I is neatly symbolized by the poilu, the Gallic soldier courageously defending his nation from inside the fetid trenches of the Somme. But as Wieviorka writes, “No discourse, no place, no symbol can, by itself, account for the plurality of ordeals undergone by the forty million contemporaries who lived through the dark years. This diversity unquestionably led to the fragmentation of French memory of World War II.” How the “fragmentation of French memory” was aided and abetted by successive administrations is the subject of Wieviorka’s study.

To begin with, the author explains, even the term “memory of the war” is complicated for the French. The phrase can allude to the brief periods during World War II when France participated in traditional armed conflict (May and June 1940 and from the summer of 1944 through the end of the war in Europe almost a year later). The second “memory of the war” refers to the French experience of the German occupation. Finally, the third evokes the Vichy state: “For the first time in the history of the nation the extreme right came to power and, under cover of the National Revolution, was intent on applying its program. . . . Drawing its inspiration from the legacy of the reactionary and revolutionary right, adopting the men and ideas of the interwar period, its roots lay deep in French soil.”

These three distinct meanings of the “memory of the war” and the unsuccessful attempts of various administrations to develop a unified way to remember the war years combine to make the French politics of memory extraordinarily complicated. Wieviorka asserts that the politics of memory are made more problematic by the distinctive voices of the populations who experienced the war quite differently. Roughly 1.6 million French spent the war in camps (prisoner of war, concentration, extermination), while about 600,000 worked as conscripted laborers in Germany (the Obligatory Work Service, in French the Service du Travail Obligatoire, or STO), and even fewer as members of the French Resistance fighting against Vichy and Germany (260,000 former resistance fighters had received government-issued Combatant Volontaire de la Résistance identification cards as of 1996).

Divided Memory begins with Charles de Gaulle’s provisional government (1944–46), continues through the Fourth Republic, and ends with the individual presidencies of the Fifth Republic (de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, and Nicolas Sarkozy). Like other scholars before him, Wieviorka shows how de Gaulle imposed his vision of the war on his nation by downplaying French support for Vichy, accentuating the role of the French military during World War II, deemphasizing the role of the Allies in the liberation of France, and stressing the notion that the entire population resisted the German occupation.

One of the most interesting elements in Wieviorka’s study is his analysis of the role played by French associations in the struggle over the construction of the postwar memory. These organizations are nonprofit dues-generating groups that sometimes engage in political lobbying. In the aftermath of World War II they defended the medical, legal, psychological, and financial needs of their members. They represented many varieties of French participants in the Second World War: former racial and political deportees (men and women), internees, prisoners of war, anciens résistants, forced labor conscripts (STO), and military veterans.

The conflicting ways these associations wanted to commemorate their members’ roles in the war greatly contributed to what Wieviorka calls France’s “divided memory.” For example, during the Fourth Republic (1946–58) there were at least five different associations claiming to represent former resistance fighters. This overrepresentation led to the lack of a unified voice: “Split into diverse if not rival associations, the Resistance was therefore unable in the aftermath of the war to form itself into a unitary and powerful structure able to carry its voice into the public square.” Instead the politicians framed the story; they created powerful statutes that defined which victims had the right to various degrees of recognition and compensation. The state therefore “determined the public image of the dark years for many years to come.”

Finally, the question of who should receive the coveted combatant’s card—allowing veterans special loans and additional retirement benefitswas up for debate throughout the years of the Fourth Republic. The complication here was determining who was a military combatant. Should a member of the French armed forces who never saw battle but was imprisoned as a POW for the duration of the war receive the full rights of a French army combatant? Should an Alsatian forcibly conscripted into the Wehrmacht earn the combatant’s card? What about members of the Vichy forces in Africa? And finally, should the French men who were conscripted by Vichy or the Wehrmacht but who deserted be considered for these privileges? After all, they engaged in “military” resistance against the enemy. Toward the end of the Fourth Republic, Wieviorka writes, the government passed decrees that attempted to deal with these complexities, but not without creating conflict with the armed forces.

The chapters in Divided Memory that address the presidents of the Fifth Republic examine similar tensions. The story that de Gaulle told during his presidency (1958–69) was that of a people unified in their fight against the invader. De Gaulle was thus able to maintain “consensus over dissension” by downplaying greatly the impact and importance of Vichy on the French memory of the war. However, de Gaulle’s description of the Vichy years as a “parenthesis” in the history of France conveniently ignores the fact that, as René Rémond (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=acls;cc=acls;view=toc;idno=heb01311.0001.001) and Zeev Sternhell (http://press.princeton.edu/titles/5869.html) demonstrate, Vichy France was not an extraordinary blip in French history. These scholars show that there had been a long and healthy history of right-wing and even fascist politics that ultimately led to Pétain’s “National Revolution.”

De Gaulle’s unifying myth also deemphasized the specificity of the Jewish experience in France during World War II. The Vichy regime stripped Jews of their positions as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. From 1942 on Vichy officials forced them to wear the yellow star and deported 75,000 of the 350,000 Jews in France. Only 2,500 returned. However, during the early years of the Fifth Republic the Jewish story was hushed. As de Gaulle told it, Jews suffered just like resistance fighters and other political victims—no more, no less.

The presidents who followed de Gaulle—Pompidou, Giscard d’Estaing, and Mitterrand—did not strive to maintain this consistent story for a number of reasons. For one, historians demanded that the truth be told about Vichy, and the Jewish community wanted the Shoah to be recognized for the central event that it was. Game-changing works like the documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, directed by Marcel Ophuls (1969), and the American historian Robert Paxton’s now-classic book Vichy, France: Old Guard and New Order 1940–44 (1971; 1973 in France) shed new light on popular support of Vichy and the degree to which the regime enthusiastically solicited collaboration with Nazi Germany. Works such as these forced the French to face the ugly memories of their war experiences.

Finally, the French story of the war was complicated by the efforts of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, French human rights activists known for their lifelong pursuit of Nazi war criminals and their extensive work documenting the French victims of the Holocaust. The Klarsfelds’ research on Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” led to his 1971 arrest in Bolivia. He was subsequently tried and prosecuted as a war criminal in France. The couple helped to convict the other major French war criminals as well: René Bousquet, Paul Touvier, and Maurice Papon.

Additionally, French Jews began speak of the particularities of their wartime experiences—such as the social marginalization that preceded the deportations to the extermination centers.

François Mitterrand’s fourteen years in office constitute a chapter of their own. The former Socialist president’s complicated personal trajectory during the war years, in addition to the growing power of the newer voices (scholars who recognized Vichy’s importance; Jews who wanted to tell their stories) continued to lead to policies that fostered an ambiguous, divided memory of World War II. During the war Mitterrand had been a prisoner of war and a low-level official in the Vichy regime. He then joined the Resistance in 1942 yet continued to support Pétain. Only in 1944 did he apparently completely renounce Vichy.

As president, Mitterrand sustained his political schizophrenia. Every year from 1984 to 1992 he laid a wreath at Pétain’s tomb on the Ile d’Yeu, and he was not enthusiastic “in urging the judicial authorities to bring Maurice Papon or [Mitterrand’s] friend René Bousquet before the tribunals” for crimes against humanity in deporting French Jews. On the other hand, he commissioned a number of museums and memorials, among them the statue at the site of the former Vélodrome d’Hiver (Vél d’Hiv), a bicycle stadium in Paris where the police rounded up 13,000 Jewish men, women, and children for eventual deportation to Auschwitz. Mitterrand also established July 16 as the National Commemoration Day of the Victims of Racist and Anti-Semitic Crimes Committed by the French State (Journée nationale à la mémoire des victimes des crimes racistes et antisémites de l’Etat français). This holiday, although an important symbolic gesture, was not a formal apology for France’s role in genocide. French Jews had to wait a little longer for that.

In the final chapter, “Memory Assuaged? From Jacques Chirac to Nicolas Sarkozy (1995 to the Present),” Wieviorka begins by highlighting the difficult situation confronting Chirac upon his election in 1995. The popular image of the Resistance had been muddied by the realization that many French collaborated in some way with the Germans and yet also resisted the occupation.  Just as in Mitterrand’s own story, there was not a clear distinction between hero and villain. This complexity was compounded during the Chirac years by his 1995 acknowledgment of Vichy’s role in the deportation of French Jews and his assertion that Vichy was not distinct from France, but rather embodied France then just as the Republic does now.

Wieviorka cites a portion of Chirac’s 1995 speech admitting that by orchestrating the Vél d’Hiv roundup,France “committed an irreparable act.” He further notes that during this time the attention paid to the victims of World War II may have overshadowed that afforded to the heroes. “Positive models gave way in favor of martyrs,” and he demonstrates this movement through the changing memorialization of the Normandy Landing, in which an exhibition and commemorations were held in honor of the French victims of the allied invasions. Wieviorka explains that historically little attention had been paid to the French victims of these operations, mainly those killed in Allied bombings. In the mid-90s historians began to research and write about these fatalities.

Wieviorka’s analysis of the Sarkozy administration’s commemoration policy is very brief, given that Divided Memories was published in France just three years after the former president took office. The historian discusses some of Sarkozy’s controversial directives. One, for example, concerned the last letter of a seventeen-year-old communist militant, Guy Môquet, written just before his execution by the Nazis in 1941 (http://media.education.gouv.fr/file/35/42/0/lettre-guy-moquet_119420.pdf; http://www.humaniteinenglish.com/article593.html). Sarkozy’s first directive as president was to declare that teachers would read his letter to all French high school students on the first day of school each year. After the first year and a great deal of political pressure, this directive was dropped. Teachers called into question the “subjection of memory” and pedagogical imperatives issued by someone who was not a teacher. Communists criticized Sarkozy for conveniently eliding the fact of Môquet’s communism. Wieviorka concludes this short section by explaining that through gestures such as these, Sarkozy was following in the footsteps of his immediate predecessors by clouding the issues and sustaining France’s divided memory. France’s newly elected Socialist president François Hollande made his first pronouncement about Vél d’Hiv at the official commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the roundup in July. “The truth is,” Hollande said, “this was a crime committed in France, by France" (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/22/francois-hollande-wartime-roundup-jews).

Wieviorka’s well-researched and cogently written book is a solid addition to the analysis of the way the French remember their experiences during World War II. It will not, however, become a classic text on the subject. The most important book in this field, Henry Rousso’s The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (1987, http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674935396) is the text of reference for anyone who wants to understand the stories the French have told themselves about resistance and collaboration. Rousso uses a psychological framework to trace the ways the collective memories of these events have changed since the war. He analyzes historical, judicial, political, scholarly, and cultural texts to tell an incredibly convincing story. Wieviorka’s study is a good companion piece to Rousso’s classic.

Although Wieviorka occasionally uses examples taken from the cinema, he basically restricts himself to a political analysis. Whereas Rousso takes just a few pages to discuss how France publicly commemorates the war, Wieviorka analyzes in depth the evolution of national commemoration days, memorials, museums, plaques, and the like. He traces with care the various political voices in the battles over how and what to remember. Communists, Gaullists, Socialists, anti-Gaullist former resistance fighters—all have a stake in how we remember this particularly complicated moment in French history. Wieviorka does a good job of fleshing out some of the details that Rousso simply mentions and adds a thoroughly new analysis of the role of associations in the debates. Although I would not recommend this book as an introduction to the debates surrounding the French memory of World War II, it serves to add much-needed contour to the studies that have preceded it.