Scrutinizing National Memory

Grappling with history is a difficult task, and the gift of hindsight allows one the privilege to view the experience through multiple perspectives – whether that be the Jews facing persecution, the British citizens affected by area bombing, or the French civilians living under German occupation. But as we grow away from the event itself it is easier to disassociate and create false narratives of something we did not personally experience. In France, it was especially apparent to me that the French museums were meant to appeal to the French people. They presented their history in a format that focused on French victimhood above all else.

It is fair to acknowledge the struggles French citizens faced during the war – such as the destruction caused by preparatory bombing in Normandy – while balancing it with the not-so-glorified parts of France’s collaborative role during WWII. French museums’ focus was entirely different in sites we visited in Bayeux and Paris when compared to England. While the Imperial War Museum in London had a Holocaust exhibit that was emotional, thoughtful, and comprehensive, the Caen Memorial Museum gave immense attention to the civilian victims in Normandy, rather than focusing on anything related to the Holocaust.

Additionally, the Caen Museum overshadowed possible collaboration with passive and active resistance efforts. Where there was one descriptive panel delving into the complicated purpose and goals behind Vichy France, there were four panels dedicated to resistance efforts. The disproportion between how the museum presented an established and organized government system with an unorganized and disconnected network of resistors is possibly one of the more extreme examples, but I found it emblematic of the ways in which French public history systematically presented the effects on French citizens above everyone else. While I understand that resistance efforts did occur under Nazi occupation and that French citizens indeed suffered during the war, the imbalance in how the French museums presented collaboration versus confrontation of Nazi occupiers caused me to harshly criticize and more quickly discount the information presented.

It is an overly simplistic thing to waltz into French museums and claim their public history entirely omits the systematic extermination of Jews or group the whole nation together as willing collaborators. The United States education system frequently makes similar mistakes in grossly glossing over and simplifying large portions of its own history – from American slavery to treatment of native populations – to students’ detriment. I would be evading the real issue if I were to say that the French are the only people to present their country and people’s suffering through a rose-colored and more victimizing lens. However, as a history student, I find public history entirely more compelling when there is active effort to acknowledge and analyze possible wrongdoings alongside the nationwide sorrow and grief. Rather than presenting France as passive collaborators or as actively resisting victors, a truly comprehensive history would attempt to dissect and scrutinize the narrative.

Hôtel des Invalides

Arc de Triomphe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *