France Blog

Sailing on the ferry from Portsmouth to Normandy, the choppy waters of the English Channel were not the only thing that was causing my stomach to churn, for I was filled with both anticipation and dread of travelling to a truly foreign country for the first time. While Britain is certainly distinct from the United States in many aspects, the shared language and multitude of cultural similarities imparted a sense of familiarity and comfort that was conspicuously absent in France. Other than a few momentary misunderstandings, particularly regarding the disparate French and Anglophone understandings of what a “menu” is, my compatriots and I managed to survive without any major catastrophes. Noticing and adapting to different cultural norms, while far more daunting than London, was fascinating, exiting, and, in regard to the ubiquity of pastry shops and (relatively) inexpensive three-course meals, delicious.

However, the distinct French language and customs were not the only notable differences between France and the United Kingdom. Throughout Normandy and Paris, we visited a variety of museums, cemeteries, monuments, and historical sites that all conveyed different perspectives of World War II history. While all of these locations were intriguing and informative in their own right, the overall narratives and foci of the French museums contrast starkly with the formal, detached empiricism of the British sites. For one, many of the exhibits, particularly the American-funded Utah Beach and Airborne Museums, are quite narrowly focused on military affairs. Being a military history enthusiast, I greatly appreciated the plethora of military artifacts, OOB’s, and battle maps; while I believe that a thorough comprehension of the actual fighting in Normandy is both relevant to the location and crucial to a larger understanding of the war, the dominance of purely martial aspects occasionally risked reducing World War II to a mere campaign narrative. In contrast, the “more French” Caen Museum aspires to a far broader, more universal understanding of the war. By chronicling both the interwar and wartime periods and addressing most military, political, and social aspects, including the Eastern Front and the Holocaust, the Caen Museum attempted to convey a general message of the essence of total war and its calamitous effects on Europe. However, similar to the idiosyncrasies of British “empiricism,” this universalist lens has imperfections that reveal a distinctly French perception of the World War II period and its significance. While acknowledging Vichy collaboration and the relative paucity of vigorous resistance in occupied France, the museum delves very little into these subjects. Similarly, the exhibits oversimplify the participation of France’s empire in the war effort, largely neglecting the moral complexities of colonial exploitation. Simultaneously, the conspicuous passages on the deleterious effects of Allied bombing in Normandy, while valid, further underscores this French perspective.

Yet, compared to Les Invalides, the Caen Museum is a shining beacon of objectivity. The Army Museum in Paris, while fascinating in its display of militaria, presents a grossly distorted view of the war and France’s part in it. The ignominious defeat of 1940, collaboration, and the roles of other Allied countries (save the USSR, interestingly enough) are all swept aside by a cavalcade of French military “triumphs.” Even allowing for the inherently limited focus of the exhibit on the French military, the museum is almost ridiculous in its pro-French bias, particularly the effusive Charles de Gaulle exhibition. However, having viewed the broader picture of France’s military and political history in Les Invalides’ military pantheon and in the glittering halls of Versailles, I can largely understand the prevailing nationalistic tone of French museums. France possesses a rich history as a political, military, and cultural giant in Europe; at the same time, France faced great crises and deep divisions throughout the twentieth century and particularly during the world wars. While I can never condone the distortion of historical truth, I believe that France’s self-righteous and skewed view of the war is symptomatic of the country’s continuing struggle to define itself and achieve domestic political and social harmony.

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