In class, we learned about the French refusal to admit defeat against Germany and the overwhelming need to restore national pride to France after World War II. When visiting many museums and memorials in both Bayeux and Paris, we saw the over-exaggeration of the French role in military battles of WWII, resistance movements against the Reich, and even the liberation of many cities in France.
In some of these museums, there seems to be the justification of the Vichy government—who collaborated with the Nazis and were complicit in the genocide of Jews in occupied France—as the only choice to keep France from total annihilation by the Germans. Exhibits at the Caen Memorial Museum tell of the Free French Forces organized in France and their help in all fronts of the war. They also focus on the various resistance movements and their spontaneous acts of rebellion against the Third Reich. While it is true that there was French Resistance against the Nazis, the Resistance was not as strong as the museum exhibits often indicate.
In the case of the Charles De Gaulle exhibit, Vichy is indeed harshly criticized; being contrasted with De Gaulle’s help in French Resistance efforts. The Caen Museum also depicts resistance as any act along a broad spectrum—from reading a forbidden newspaper to planning armed assaults on German soldiers. The armed resistance that was stressed in almost all the museums we have seen in France, while not untrue, felt overemphasized. The French have also created a narrative that they would have liberated themselves and could have done so with or without the Allies’ help. This emphasis on their self-liberation, combined with the almost nonexistent mentions of the armistice with Germany, gives the impression that the French do not want to lose their sense of victory after WWII.
However, there were not many options for France at the time of occupation. While in retrospect it is easy to call for total resistance and to judge any form of complicity, the United States was fortunate enough to have not been put into that situation. From fear of social exile and self-preservation to pure survival and fear of death, there were many different reasons why most French people did not participate in resistance efforts. The Vichy government certainly committed atrocities such as the deportation and registration of Jews and other various initiatives that were taken by this government even without the prodding of the Nazis. Despite this, we still couldn’t imagine what we would do in that situation.
Though it is true France has been and seems to continue to attempt a restoration of their national pride after WWII. No matter the amount of resistance, the Vichy collaboration with Germany will never be forgotten. I feel it will be a long road for France to be able to finally prove to themselves and the rest of the world who they really are.