After a long day of travel, our first full day in Bayeux, France, was filled with museums and site visits. I must confess I was sleep deprived. The previous night had been filled with excited chatter of being in France. Why be a responsible adult and go to bed early when I can stay up and have fun with friends in France?
Walking into Caen Memorial Museum took away any lingering desires for sleep. This museum, both inside and out, was beautiful. There were high ceilings, glossy polished stairs, and seemingly endless well-organized displays to visit. This museum focused on the French perspective on World War II and Normandy invasions, through French pictures and occupation memorabilia. But, the museum’s exhibits still highlighted other countries’ World War II experiences, placing France in the larger context of the war. When saying French perspective, I mean the exhibit mainly showcased how World War II impacted the culture and lives of French citizens. I distinctly remember a picture of French citizens dejectedly sitting down outside of their home that was destroyed in the Nazi invasion. It was a reminder of the terrible human toll of French civilians caught in the midst of the fighting.
Walking around the museum helped me recall the discussions about French wartime collaboration and resistance that we’d had in class this past spring. What made someone identifiably a collaborator rather than a resistance fighter? During the war and after, it is hard to generalize the French population into either of these distinct categories.
Depending on the day, we might interpret a person’s actions in a variety of ways. For example, working for the German occupiers, like helping build machinery for the Nazi war effort or providing food, and using that money to support their families could be considered collaboration. Yet, using that money to help out those who are impoverished or need help, like the Jewish population in France, could be considered resistance. It is money that is coming from unfortunate means but could still be used for good. Is the answer to refuse to work for the Germans and suffer without helping others? Is that what qualifies as resistance? These are questions that French civilians in occupied France were forced to confront daily.
Identifying who belonged to the resistance is also complicated. It is easier to view the men who actively fought against the Nazis as resistors. Rather than women doing small things like disobeying curfew or reading banned books. What level of resistance qualifies someone as a “resistor?” In the museum when discussing the resistance, I personally saw photo representation of both men and women. However, I recall readings and class discussions about the minimization of the women’s role in how we remember French resistance.
Towards the middle of the museum I found only one plaque that described collaborators in Vichy France. This plaque stated that people in France who collaborated did so for political power and economic opportunity because they believed the Nazi rule was permanent. They were relatively average people that saw an opportunity to increase their station in life. Essentially, some French citizens collaborated in hopes of securing a lavish future in the new world order. It was a simple description that acknowledged the selfishness of many French collaborators.
I believe this plaque focused on Vichy France, rather than collaboration in other occupied areas, because Vichy France stands out in our historical recollection. Vichy France was technically unoccupied by the Germans, but the newly set-up government collaborated with the Germans immensely. The Caen Memorial Museum may also have wanted to point the direction of collaboration away from areas that have positive significance to World War II, like Normandy being the area of liberation. Putting blame on more obvious culpable parties is easier than discussing a past you may feel guilty about and diminishing an overall positive historical reputation.
My interpretation for why the museum more extensively exhibited resistance in France is that it helps alleviate feelings of national guilt. If the museum designers focused more heavily on World War II collaboration in the museum France would appear in a negative light. Omitting or denying a country’s role may lead to the same mistakes and actions to be repeated. It is impossible to learn if no record exists from which to learn.
At the same time as someone who is not French I find it hard to fully judge the French’s decisions. These are all just my personal speculations that came to me while walking around the Caen Memorial museum. Overall, I greatly appreciated seeing the war from a different national perspective.