Throughout the past semester and in my high school history classes, I have always been taught that after the French surrendered in World War Two, the secret “Free French” did not do much of anything to help the Allies win the war. Visiting France, I saw a completely different narrative. Each museum we visited in Normandy discussed in detail the contributions of Free France, led by Charles De Gaulle. France spared no time or detail in discussing the contribution of the Free French, especially in the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. A big focus was on De Gaulle’s BBC radio speech in 1940 while he was in hiding in England, where he called for the rallying of Free France after the country fell to Germany. In class, we discussed that while this was an important speech for morale, the number of people in the French resistance was small and unimpactful. A whole panel on French liberation and D-Day gave most credit to the persistence of Charles De Gaulle and his leadership of the Free French.
I also found it interesting to note the differences between the British and French museums. A big focus of the British perspective of World War Two was a focus on the “People’s War.” Credit was given to “The People.” In France, credit was given to De Gaulle. These museum sites really helped me understand that each country of the war had some freedom to write their own narrative after the war ended. The French chose to focus first on their leader, as seen through the museums I visited in France, and second on the country’s people. Frances near obsession with crediting De Gaulle for their taking back of their country seems like a compensatory coping mechanism to lessen the embarrassment of needing so much help winning back the country.
One of the many posters praising Charles De Gaulle and his war efforts during WWII.
On my first night in London, I found myself entering an attic in Camden, The Camden Comedy Club, and laughed as a comedian made many jokes and struggled to participate as she referenced politics I didn’t understand. By entering a new nation one enters a knew political and social climate. Suddenly, jokes were centered around the Royal Wedding and Brexit rather than Donald Trump and the Mexican border. The Royal Wedding was a massive buzz everywhere from Trafalgar Square to Kensington. Brexit was whispered around with weighted connotations about future implications for the British people. And yet, what I found most interesting was that these buzz words fluttered across the City of London in a similar manner as any breaking news story would around New York City. It was dealt with in posters, with humor, and with a marked desire for commercial gain. The Royal Wedding is a national celebration of an old English tradition of monarchy as well as capitalism. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s faces were plastered all over shiny mugs and magnets ready to be sold at a kiosk anywhere and everywhere. And while Brexit has serious implications as heavy as any deal Donald Trump is currently pulling out of in the United States, the British people, in their classic British manner reminiscent of Hitler jokes during the Blitz, cope through laughter.
As I watched political history unfold and new skyscrapers rise in London, I could not help but notice a simple fact. The British are not yet over World War II. A few months ago I asked an Englishman named Christopher if I could use the name Chris, and his knee jerk response was “sure sure, anything but Adolf, right?”. It seems that thousands of air raids cannot so easily be forgotten. While I expected to experience World War II memorabilia during our time at the Churchill War Rooms or Bletchley Park, I was not expecting to experience it in everything I did during my free time. Our comedian began making jokes about Winston Churchill and his handling of Dunkirk within twenty minutes of her set. From this moment on I knew, the Second World War was still fresh in English memory. Everywhere from the Tate museum to St. Pauls’ cathedral, plaques were posted commemorating fallen soldiers, and art was on display to celebrate the British strength in World War II. It seems indisputable to assume that, whatever the current political and social climate in the United Kingdom may be, modern London is a direct product of Second World War sufferings and efforts. If a comedian can connect Churchill to a recounting of her failed blind date, then it can transcend into the functioning of modern society from Parliament down to the individual Englishman.