According to Sartre’s, “Paris Under Occupation,” the French’s misfortune under German occupation is understated because of their atypical experience. They escaped the fighting, so to many, including the British, they escaped sacrifice. However, the Parisians existed in a limbo where they lived in a skeleton of what used to be a lively city. During this time, Paris lost her identity to the Germans causing anguish among the already war-weary Parisians. Today, unsurprisingly, Paris has regained her status as the epicenter of French cultural and political life. However, like most countries affected by the war, the city is filled with artifacts and reminders of the war and its heroes. For instance, as evident from the abundance of things named after him, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French during the war, is an integral figure in French history.
The Eiffel Tower, one of the most recognizable features of the city, stands as a national symbol of Parisian culture in the now thriving city.
In the Musée de l’Armée there is an apparent dichotomy between Vichy and the Free French. After France’s fall at the beginning of the war and the signing of an armistice, France was partitioned into a free and occupied zone. In the former, Phillipe Petain, a war hero and a political favorite among the rural conservatives and urban liberals alike, set up a new French state. Vichy France, the name of the new state, was set up in collaboration with their Nazi occupiers, adhering to and sometimes anticipating what they thought would please the Germans. Vichy executed anti-Semitic policies, deported thousands of French Jews, and implemented conscription laws that required French citizens to go to Germany to work. After the war, the collaborators of Vichy were denounced and punished. Although the French do not ignore the collaborationist state in their history, it seems they chose to emphasize the resistance led by Charles de Gaulle more than Vichy. Even more so, de Gaulle is often lumped into the Allied alliance with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. A lot of the rhetoric used by the museums insists that de Gaulle’s contributions were as important, if not more important, than the Anglo-American contribution. One section of the museum boasts the role of French paratroopers on D-Day, something we had not previously studied in class. Finally, to tie together the WWII section of the museum, we watched a film in the Charles de Gaulle wing. The film, while educational and entertaining, had obvious biases towards the importance of the Free French and de Gaulle. The French emphasis on the resistance rather than collaboration implies the French remember the actions of side that won and ignore the cooperation with the Nazis and anti-Semitic policies of the other. Another instance of the French failing to come to terms with their involvement during the war is shown in their commemoration of those deported during the war. Although French Jews were largely deported to concentration camps, their Memorial des Martyrs de la Déportation fails to mention them and instead focuses deported people as a whole. Additionally, in the Musée de l’Armée, the Holocaust is all but skipped over. There is a tiny room that is very easily missed and focuses mainly on political prisoners.
A display from the Holocaust section of the Musée de l’Armée. In english it reads, “the deportation of political resistors, political hostages.” There was little mention of Jewish victims of the Holocaust and instead focused on political prisoners.
The Caen Memorial Museum in northern France mirrors a similar dichotomy between the Free French and Vichy. The museum begins with a broad overview of the interwar period down a winding decline to symbolize the deteriorating nature of the political state. Directly after this, without mention to anything specific about the French interwar period, France fell. Additionally, the museum posed the fall of France in a passive way, as if France was taken from them, despite the fact that an armistice was signed. Similar to the Musée de l’Armée, the museum mentioned Vichy and Petain once before moving on to an extensive discussion of the resistance. Finally, it seems that the French were again lumped together with the Allies, boasting when the Allies were doing well and disassociating themselves from the Allies’ mistakes. I believe this is the French’s way of avoiding responsibilities for the faults of World War II. While the French were certainly on the Allies power’s side, they were not an integral part of the D-Day landings and war effort as a while, as they portrayed themselves to be.
While it is apparent that they French have not entirely came to terms with the war, it is important to remember the comfort of the American experience. It is quite easy to become critical of other countries historical memory, especially because the United States benefitted from their involvement in the war. While the French must come to terms with their history on their own, there is an important lesson to be learned. Although the war experience was different in every country, in order to conduct meaningful and productive public history, one must take objective look at our own experience and convey it in an unbiased manner, something that even the United States has issues with.
A serene sunset on the Seine.