Honesty is the Best Policy: Comparing the Interpretations of World War II Through German and French Museums

Honesty is the Best Policy: Comparing the Interpretations of World War II Through German and French Museums

Comparative Blog

Erik Ehrenfeld

     No country escaped its history. While some nations worked tirelessly to come to terms with the sinister aspects of their pasts, others opted to conceal their failures. Germany, for good reason, fell into the former category, while France was an example of the latter. These differences in collective memory did not simply constitute academic disagreements; rather, they proved that some nations were more historically honest than others.

     The German museums were commendably frank about their nation’s egregious past. Each museum of the Nazi period was essentially a showcase of human depravity on a mass scale. In a poignant example, our guide at the German Resistance Memorial Center immediately stated that less than one percent of Germans resisted the Nazis. Thus, while the individuals and groups depicted at the center were rightly remembered as heroes, contemporary Germans understand that they were brave exceptions to the norm of almost total obedience to a criminal regime. The takeaway was clear and effective: an honest accounting of the past helped visitors to recognize and combat the heinous actions that every human is capable of.

Evidence of German conformity to the Nazi depravity.

     The French museums followed a different course of collective memory. Although historians have proved that few French men and women resisted the Nazi occupation, the French museums deify the brave minority and vilified or, more often, ignored the collaborationist majority. Without previous knowledge of the true situation, most visitors to the French museums would assume that most of the population resisted the occupation. I found this interpretation dangerous and insulting, as it failed to inform the public of the true nature of moral ambiguity under occupation and it trivialized the courage of the few true resistance members. I hope that the French will one day follow the German example and restructure their museums towards historical honesty and away from celebratory propaganda.

Personal effects of General Charles de Gaulle, a favorite subject of French museums.