Fifty-two Raised Eyebrows

52 Raised Eyebrows

This French leg of our journey felt like a sort of pilgrimage for me. I began learning French, and adjacently, French History, eight years ago in the 7th grade and have been fascinated since. Those years, combined with building my expertise on the origins of Vichy France this past semester, meant that the nine days of speaking French and learning how the French presented their own narrative should have been some of my favorite. Those nine days were incredible, if not also incredibly cynical. Touring museums like a historian means asking “why” often, and always being willing to raise an eyebrow when a plaque or display makes an especially proud claim. The French museums we toured raised a lot of eyebrows.

We began at the Caen memorial museum, which guides its visitors down a descending spiral hallway representing the downward spiral of the political climate leading up to the war. The symbolism was impressive, but the exhibit skips from the invasion of Poland to France’s capitulation, curiously omitting any explanation for France’s fall. Later, the museum’s only mention of the Vichy Government, France’s constitutional governing body between 1940-1944, was relegated to two small displays, only summarizing that they existed. This was especially striking, because it came right before an entire room, with a much higher budget, dedicated to the Resistance. These were all presented in French, English, and German, which was not a consistency throughout the museum.

Our group was lucky enough to have a few who could read French, which was helpful when we came across the few displays left untranslated for some reason. The reason raised all fifty-two eyebrows on our trip, because the Caen Memorial Museum presented different stories away from anglophone eyes. The biggest was a claim about the Allies’ superfluousness in liberation, because, according to the museum, the French were able to, and did, liberate themselves. This pattern repeated itself on a much bigger scale at Les Invalides in Paris.

France’s national military museum describes a history nothing short of valiant, heroic, and any other similar adjective which hadn’t been used too recently. Like the Caen museum, Vichy received a single section of displays out of the three floors concerned with WWII. None of the displays discuss Vichy’s politics, origins, or goals, but they did feature three cases of Petain memorabilia that compared his worship to Hitler. These displays were unironically surrounded by two other floors of ephemera worshiping DeGaulle. Les Invalides also, luckily in English this time, made some questionable claims about France’s participation. Namely that the French forces inflicted a staggering 160,000 casualties during the 1940 battle for France, forgetting to mention they suffered over one million, and that the Maginot Line “never capitulated,” because the Germans simply went around it. A full summary of these dubious displays would be longer than the entirety of this post, but suffice to say we found many more.

None of this is to say that I feel like my dreams of visiting Paris were dashed. I can honestly say that every day in France helped me to grow as a historian. Whether we were at the German, American, or British cemeteries to appreciate their symbolism and those buried there, or visiting Saint-Mère-Eglise, a vital town to U.S. D-Day paratroopers that has become a theme-park of a museum, I learned how to become a more responsible history consumer. I realized I’ve never been to the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. while touring Les Invalides. Seeing their national museum made me ask, how many of these same questions or raised eyebrows would I have at home?

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