We as a class have finished our last day here in Normandy, France in the small town of Bayeux, and I have been immensely thankful to have eaten many good meals, sipped some of the finest coffee I’ve ever had, and sampled more pastries than I care to admit. I would love to go on praising the fine French food and the many wonderful sites I’ve seen, but this isn’t a foodie or a travel blog, this is a blog dedicated to history. So now I’ll pivot to the real reason we are here, and that is to discuss the impact of the historical areas we have seen, how they have made us feel and what we can take from these sites after we are gone. For the focus of this post, I have been mulling over just how a nation remembers and confronts their past–no matter what it may have involved.
When reading about life in Occupied France and under the control of the Vichy government, one often hears about the French Resistance, how seemingly every man and woman resisted in some way and contributed to the overall fight to free their nation. We read countless stories about their bravery, acts of sacrifice, and pivotal roles in overthrowing Nazi occupation of their country, and how they helped to bring down the Vichy government. This mindset is backed up by the many displays we saw in the Caen Memorial Museum, which speaks of their established history with the British SOE and how they helped facilitate the dismantling of the French railway system. Statues also cropped up in the small towns we would pass through in our travels. Great praise of the Resistance was expressed in the Airborne Museum, highlighting how, after receiving their activation phrase, resistance fighters had “risen up in their multitudes to bring about the end of the Nazi oppression”. The airborne museum struck me as a strange place to sing the glories of the Resistance, because the museum focuses on the U.S. soldiers of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and how they led the way in predawn hours of D-Day.
Now please do not mistake me, countless stories of French resistance are true, and many brave French men and women did pay the ultimate price in the pursuit of freedom. Each time I came across a new accounting of how they did what they could, I was filled with awe and respect for their steel coated souls. I am moved by how, with limited arms, they harassed the Germans in an effort to take an active role in their own liberation.
Yet, the vast majority did not join the Resistance, nor did they participate in any acts of resistance such as passing out leaflets or sabotaging arms manufacturing. Many adopted a “wait and see” approach, while some chose outright collaboration and welcoming of Nazi rule and occupation. Reading the plaques and the museum accounts of the French resistance that have been peppered in generously while seeing little to no mention of their collaboration or indifference has been a running contradiction of what I’ve learned in my own research and other history courses I’ve taken that touch on the Resistance movement. This experience has led me to question just how do we as a nation remember, how do we come to terms with the portions of our histories that we would rather not deal with?
It seems that in order to bolster national unity and soothe the pride wounded by a crushing defeat, France has elected to praise the Resistance and to highlight it as the focus of their reimagining and retelling of the events, and to downplay the actions of those who collaborated and worked willingly with the Occupation.
I make this observation with humility, because I have never had to live under an occupation and I pray that I never have to. And yet I sense that what I have observed about French historical memory will stay with me long after I leave Normandy, and I will ponder just how we Americans reckon with our own past, especially the painful parts of it. I will continue to mull over this question, to seek out those smarter than me, to ask them their thoughts, and to ponder deeply why we recall and celebrate some parts of our history and deny or forget other parts.