During our time in Bayeux, we visited a series of French museums with exhibits on D-Day and the Second World War. It was interesting to see the French perspective, having only studied the events as they relate to American forces in any detail. There was far more emphasis on the efforts of the French Resistance movement, and not much mention of Vichy France and their collaboration with the Nazis. One exhibit in the Caen Memorial Museum went so far as to say that France would have liberated itself soon enough, with or without Allied help. Countries tend to tell their side of history, but this view is highly problematic, and I found it troubling to see it voiced so prominently in a museum display, especially as groups of young school children filtered through the museum with us.
Other exhibits, including a short film that we watched in Arromanches, the town that lies beyond Gold Beach, had a focus on the aftermath of the invasion and the toll taken on French citizens during the ensuing weeks of combat. Around 20,000 civilians were inadvertently killed during this time, and those that survived watched their homes be destroyed in the chaos. This was something we hadn’t discussed as much in class, and I found the images and stories presented to be of particular interest and value to our studies as they opened a new narrative that I hadn’t considered before. There’s so much focus on the Normandy beachhead landings and following military engagements that we often overlook what some of the French people caught in the middle of these events went through, and the true cost of total war.
When considering what was presented in these museums, it is clear that France wants to paint an image of themselves as victims under occupation, shading over any of Vichy’s complicity with the Nazis or the deportations of Jewish people that they allowed to take place. This idea of national victimhood also coincides with the memory of the Resistance, which got a great deal more credit in French museums than sources that we studied in class gave it. The French national memory of the Second World War feels troubled, and it is evident in every museum that we visited that they are not yet ready to come to terms with some of the ugly and difficult to process realities buried in their past.