Where the Past Is Always in the Present Tense

By Richard GolsanFebruary 10, 2015

Where the Past Is Always in the Present Tense

THROUGHOUT EUROPE, summer 2014 was very much a time of memory and commemoration. Marking both the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War and also the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and beginning of the liberation of Europe from the Nazi yoke, it served as a time to recall the terrible destructiveness of both wars, to remember as best as possible these wars’ countless victims, and also to celebrate the relative peace Europe enjoys today.

In France, summer 2014 had a special resonance. To recall the Great War was to recall one of the nation’s greatest but costliest victories in history in terms of men, matériel, and destruction to French cities, and especially the northern countryside. To remember World War II was to remember the most terrible and humiliating military defeat in modern French history, a “strange defeat,” as the martyred historian Marc Bloch put, and one that no one truly anticipated. What followed that early summer defeat in 1940 were four years of compromise, humiliation, and divisiveness — the so-called “Dark Years” when, as then-President Georges Pompidou put it in the early 1970s, “the French people did not like each other.” That was an understatement, to say the least. Given the brutal impact of both World Wars, how have they been remembered, how are they remembered in the present, and how has the nation sought to come to terms with their legacies?

In 1987, Henry Rousso published his classic study The Vichy Syndrome, in which he argued that the memory of Vichy in postwar France is like a malady, a syndrome that ebbs and flows, that goes dormant and then erupts spectacularly in the present as a result of a political scandal, or the release of a powerful film, or even the publication of a work of history that challenges accepted myths about the period and French complicity with the Nazis.

Since the 1980s, Rousso argues, the Vichy past has been in what he describes as its “Obsessions Phase,” where its memory no longer recedes periodically but rather shapes and reshapes the present. In the late 1980s and 1990s, it inspired most visibly and spectacularly the trials for crimes against humanity of the Nazi Klaus Barbie and Vichy officials Paul Touvier and Maurice Papon for their roles in the destruction of French and European Jewry. Papon’s trial, lasting from October 1997 to April 1998, was the longest trial in modern French history. In politics and in national commemorations, the Vichy past has also persistently made its presence felt. The 1995 scandal over then-President François Mitterrand’s lengthy service to the Vichy regime roiled the nation, and Mitterrand’s reluctance to acknowledge France’s voluntary role in the Holocaust obliged his successor, Jacques Chirac, to publicly acknowledge French responsibility in a powerful and eloquent speech given in 1995 at the commemoration of the 43rd anniversary of the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv roundups. In July 1942, some 13,000 Jews were rounded up in Paris by French police and interned in terrible conditions at the Vel’ d’Hiv bicycle racing stadium. The vast majority were deported to their deaths.

In the new millennium, former President Nicolas Sarkozy angered many by suggesting that French school children should each adopt the memory a French Jewish child killed in the Holocaust. The suggestion was arguably morbid, and certainly insensitive. At the time of Sarkozy’s election, the philosopher Alain Badiou made waves by comparing Sarkozy to Pétain and likening the France of today to the cowardly and complacent nation that accepted defeat at the hands of the Nazis and welcomed the advent of the Vichy regime with open arms more than a half-century earlier.

In literature and films, the Vichy past and World War II are a constant source of inspiration, meditation, and provocation, and have been since the Liberation in 1944. That trend does not seem to be abating. Today, a third generation of French writers — too young to have experienced the war themselves, and also too young to have been shaped by their parents memories of the conflict — are taking it as their subject. Some are also revising the past in problematic ways in their fictions. In 2010, Claude Lanzmann, the maker of the documentary Shoah, denounced this new generation of writers for falsifying the reality of World War II and judging it anachronistically. At the same time, he expressed his sympathy for these same writers in today’s world because, according to Lanzmann at least, there is no great historical cause to embrace that would give their lives meaning and, implicitly at least, make for better writing.

To return to 2014: what is the memory of Vichy’s impact on France today, how does it manifest itself, and how does it affect current attitudes toward the present as well as the past? If the commemorative events of Summer 2014 are any indication, more work needs to be done both in fully accepting the realities of that past and acknowledging responsibility for them. For example, the D-Day celebrations in Normandy, in the presence of world leaders including Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, were designed to place France on an equal footing with other Allied invaders of June 6, 1944, and to celebrate European unity. French military jet flyovers, streaming red, white, and blue smoke behind them, and the celebration of a veteran of the Kieffer Commando, a small French unit that landed at the beach at Ouistreham, placed a premium on French participation while overshadowing the much greater contributions of the other Allies. Additionally, the coupling of the Kieffer Commando veteran with a Wehrmacht veteran seemed strained, nearly absurd. Given the horrific nature of the fighting and the brutality of the Nazi military forces present at the time, an SS veteran would have been more representative and appropriate. But of course no exercise in Franco-German and European reconciliation could have tolerated the presence of such a figure at the ceremony.

A photograph exhibit of the Liberation of Paris at the Carnavalet Museum downplayed or ignored important aspects of the historical context of that uprising. For example, victorious Allied troops in Normandy had set the stage for the liberation of the city. Only days and weeks before the popular revolt, French collaboration with the Germans and support for Vichy and Pétain had largely defined life in the capital. Among those who switched sides most readily at the liberation were the Parisian police, many of whose members had earlier rounded up Jews for deportation at the behest of the Vichy regime and the Nazis. Like the Carnavalet exhibit, a commemorative essay dealing with the liberation of Paris appearing in the newspaper Libération in late August also offered a hagiographic account of the French peoples’ liberation of their capital. Moreover, the essay cast the Americans in the role of rivals rather than allies of de Gaulle and the Free French. It concluded: “De Gaulle won. It was the [French] people who started the liberation of Paris, not the Americans with their plans for a military administration. It was a French division that entered Paris, it was the Gaullists who took possession of the city’s buildings, without firing a shot.” The German occupants are not mentioned here, and are hardly discussed in the essay as a whole.

Looking back on these events and newspaper accounts of the past, one has the impression that a new version of the so-called “Gaullist Myth” of a nation of resisters is taking hold. History is being revised. Apparently tired of the image of a defeated nation and a criminal past — so intrinsic to Vichy’s memory in the 1980s and 1990s — the nation appears to be yearning for a more positive and heroic image of France, and of the French people as well. This appears to extend, remarkably, to the French attitudes and behavior toward Jews during the Occupation. The success of Jacques Semelin’s 2013 book Persécutions et entraides dans la France occupée: comment 75% des Juifs en France ont échappé à la mort, which spends most of its 800-plus pages describing the support and rescue of Jews by French men and women and limiting responsibility and culpability for the persecution and murder of Jews to a bureaucratic Vichy administration, certainly points in that direction.

But, as if to challenge Semelin’s conclusions, and implicitly at least, the notion that anti-Semitism is not indigenous to the French people and that it can be happily consigned to the past, the summer of 2014 provided evidence to the contrary. As a result of the renewal of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and the protests it generated, familiar and violent expressions of anti-Semitism roiled the streets of the capital and the surrounding suburbs in late July. These included an attack on a synagogue in the Marais district and, a few days later, the burning of Jewish businesses in the suburb of Sarcelles. Such was the impact of these events that the daily Figaro headline for July 21 read “Anti-Semitism: France in a State of Shock.” And even though the instigators of and reasons for these outbursts of racial hatred were different from those that obtained during the Occupation, for many French, and perhaps especially France’s Jews, the sentiments and fears aroused could hardly be neatly divorced from memories of earlier fears and the reality of the murderous persecution of Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their Vichy minions. Against the backdrop of increasing, and increasingly murderous, anti-Semitic provocations in France and Europe over the past several years, the attacks of 2014 were ominous indeed.

So if the memory of the Dark Years still resonates troublingly in France today in the ways just described, if the philosopher Pascal Bruckner is correct in stating that “contemporary France has not moved beyond the logic of World War II,” what accounts for this? In an interview published in the July 12–13 edition of Libération, the historian Robert Frank argues that the French today are afflicted with a malaise he labels le déclinisme, that is, a widespread anxiety over French “decline,” over France’s place in the world, over a presumed loss of prestige on the international stage. That malaise, he continues, is attributable to le syndrome de quarante — “the syndrome of 1940”: for Frank, the French are simply unable to get beyond the catastrophic defeat of May–June 1940 and its aftermath. In his book on La hantise du déclin, Frank also stresses that in his experience this is a specifically French reaction to the memory of the war. The son of a Polish father and Scottish mother who immigrated to Paris after the war, Frank states that while Poles and other foreign friends of the family who spoke of the war remembered heroic exploits and exhilarating moments along with the tragedies, the parents of Frank’s French friends spoke only of “the debacle of 1940.” For the latter, that disaster was experienced “not as a military event, […] but as an internal wound, a trauma, a feeling of vertigo, a blow that annihilates.” In the interview in Libération, Frank goes on to state that the subsequent loss of France’s colonies only increased the weight of the 1940 defeat on the national psyche while reinforcing le déclinisme that imposes itself on the French mindset today. And linking his analysis of le déclinisme and its origins to the commemorative summer of 2014 and the memory of the two World Wars, Frank notes that, as opposed to the annual November 11 celebration of the World War I armistice, which “poses no problems,” the May 8 celebration of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, for all that it recalls, “is always divisive.”

In La dernière catastrophe (“The Last Catastrophe”) Henry Rousso takes a more wide-ranging and indeed far-reaching approach in accounting for the tenacity of Vichy’s memory in France today, but the result is more or less the same. For Rousso, the key to understanding the power of Vichy’s memory, and the power of memory itself in France today, lies in the highly traumatic impact of modern wars themselves. For Rousso, the extreme destructiveness of World War I in Europe — and its terrible cost in human lives — and the unprecedented horror of World War II were such that each created a profound rupture with the past. At the same time, the two wars destroyed any confidence in and sense of the future, along with the idea of progress that inspires faith in it. In the case of both conflagrations — but especially in the case of the Second World War — this new experience of a kind of historical “no man’s land” created a powerful need and indeed an obligation to think and experience the past differently. This transformation involved not only a fundamental change in perception, but a concomitant “moral and political obligation” to construct a souvenir collectif, a collective memory, from it.

But accomplishing the latter was, and is, no easy task, given the way the former is now experienced. As Rousso observes:

The relationship of modern societies to history, and certainly recent history, is one that is profoundly marked by conflict: individual or collective conflicts shaped by insurmountable traumas, “memory wars,” public polemics and scholarly controversies, often jumbled together. History is no longer defined primarily in terms of traditions to be respected, heritages to be transmitted, knowledge to be elaborated, or the dead to be commemorated. Rather it is defined in terms of problems to be “dealt with,” of the work of mourning to be carried out or of memory to be taken up, so much has the idea taken hold that the past has to be rescued from the purgatory of forgetfulness, and only public and private actions will permit its recovery.

Hence Vichy’s — and history’s — enduring “presence.” But as Rousso also explains, this new attitude toward history, toward the past in today’s “presentist society” embraces not only the notion that the past must be constantly recalled and rescued from forgetfulness. Once it is recalled, it must also be acted upon and judged in the present. This impulse to anachronistic judgment certainly helps account for the successful efforts to try and convict former collaborators and Nazis for crimes against humanity of the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, it also helps explain the impetus for the passage of France’s highly controversial “memorial laws” of recent years. Among other historical determinations, these laws condemn the slave trade from the 16th century as a crime against humanity, or conversely, they offer ex post facto justifications of colonialism by expressing the nation’s “appreciation” for the “positive role” played by French men and women in France’s former extra territorial possessions.

Finally, this impulse accounts at least in part for the historical and moral judgments implicit in the 2014 commemorations of the Liberation of 1944. Following a decade in which the moral vacuity, corruption, and criminality of the Dark Years was constantly scrutinized, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Now the World War II past is reimagined in morally bracing and even heroic terms. But this image is at best historically partial as well, and therefore also offers no real possibility of a kind of national reconciliation with the past. In the end, like Frank’s analysis of le déclinisme and its origins in the defeat of 1940, Rousso’s discussion also unfortunately offers no apparent exit strategy from the impasse that the memory of Vichy and World War II has become.

The memory of the Dark Years continues to function as a “haunting past” that casts a shadow over the commemorative summer of 2014 in France, but the apparently happy news is that the memory of the Great War does not appear to be troubling or divisive to anywhere near the same extent. Certainly there is no “Great War Syndrome” that experiences remissions followed by spectacular “eruptions” into the present. To be sure, in 1990s France, dominated as it seemed to be by the memory of past conflicts and traumas — from the World War II past, to the shocks of decolonization, to the crimes of Communism worldwide — the memory of World War I had its moment as well. In November 1998, the Great War became the subject of scandal and controversy when, in a speech commemorating the Armistice that ended the War, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin chose to pay particular homage to French troops who in 1917 mutinied against their commanders and refused to participate in further attacks. Jospin chose as the site of his speech the Chemin des Dames, where the mutinies occurred, and where the mutineers were executed to make an example for other French soldiers. Despite Jospin’s good intentions, his remarks set off a brief “Franco-French civil war” in which some claimed that Jospin’s gesture was an insult to the memory of those French soldiers who fought on stoically, while others argued that the Nivelle Offensive ordered by French commanders and against which the soldiers mutinied was the first “crime against humanity.”

For whatever reason, perhaps most obviously because World War I itself did not divide the nation and set off a “Franco-French civil war,” as did Word War II according to Henry Rousso, the controversy generated by Jospin’s speech has not lingered, certainly not in the public’s mind. And, along similar lines, the fact that there is no Great War Syndrome comparable to the Vichy Syndrome in France today might explain why, superficially at least, the 2014 commemorations of 1914 did not rely on selective or distorted representations of the past, and that they did not occur against a backdrop of contemporary events that underscored the infelicities of these representations.

Still, France’s 2014 commemorations of 1914 were not unproblematic. As the novelist Pierre Lemaitre observed in an editorial in Le Monde, President François Hollande’s awkward attempt to turn July 14 into a celebration of a “renewal of French patriotism” and an exercise to “honor all those nations involved in the war” placed a premium on nationalism, when nationalism itself was among the major driving forces that lead to the outbreak of war in the first place. Also, Lemaitre added, nationalism of the kind that fueled World War I mobilized 60 million men at that time, of whom 6,000 died each day of the conflict. In no European country today, including France, is such a powerful brand of nationalism even imaginable. More cruelly, summer 1914 marked the hundredth anniversary in August of the Battle of Charleroi, which saw more French deaths in three days (40,000), and in one day (27,000 on August 22), than in any battle in French history. And those statistics do not count wounded and missing. Finally, despite Hollande’s efforts to promote and celebrate a “European” memory of the conflict, those efforts had already failed visibly in at least one context, the international conference on World War I held in June in Sarajevo. French co-organizers of the event had pulled out because their attempts to make the conference one of Balkan reconciliation had failed rather spectacularly, in part because in that troubled region, especially, the war means very different things to different peoples.

Other developments in late spring and early summer also challenged the complacent and deliberately anodyne version of the past that the July 14 commemorations promoted. As part of French literary efforts to commemorate the Great War, the Folio classique paperback series commissioned the distinguished critic Antoine Compagnon to assemble an anthology of some of the best literature produced by the conflict worldwide. In a highly moving and very personal preface, Compagnon explains that after a year spent reading the works of the combatants on both sides of the lines as well as others who had written about the war at the time, he had emerged “brutalized, depressed, overwhelmed, and transformed” by the experience. Compagnon also states that he suffered from a terrible guilt that he had never previously experienced: “I feel guilty about knowing nothing of my grandparents, of their lives between 1914 and 1918, of their fears, of their courage, of their emotions, of their wounds.” As for the works themselves that he read and anthologized, Compagnon makes the following general observation: “on both sides of the Front lines, in French and in English, in German, in Russian, in Italian, the experience of modern war is the same, as are the reactions that the combatants offer in their writings, a kind of paradoxical prolongation of the internationalism of the pre-war period.”

Compagnon’s wrenching reaction to reading the literature of the Great War, and his deep sense of family connection to the conflict, point to two very French realities about the war and its memory that the July 14 commemorations tended to gloss over. The first is that, as Pierre Lemaitre points out, for many French, the Great War remains a powerful and often painful memory that is very much alive today. He notes that in signing copies of his 2013 Goncourt Prize–winning novel Au revoir là-haut (“Good-by Up There), many individuals requested a dedication addressed to ancestors who had died in the Great War. Lemaitre adds, “Arithmetically rare are those French families that were not directly impacted by this war, and also one might add, there are not as many generations as one might think between the soldiers of 1914 and us.”

The second reality to which Compagnon alludes is that the massive suffering caused by the war was a pan-European phenomenon. It was also one that, for Lemaitre at least, should bring Europe closer together and forge a reality that is more than a superficial and ineffectual economic bond. In celebrating the nations of Europe that participated in the Great War, the July 14 celebrations, or at least Hollande’s stated purpose for them, missed the boat entirely. And, Lemaitre laments, this was the case elsewhere in Europe, where what was or would be celebrated were edifying national memories and national histories. For the Poles and the Czechs, this would be the creation of their nation-state; for the Serbs, an opportunity to “present the truth of what happened.” In the end, Lemaitre writes, there are “too many interpretations, too many fragmented memories.”

So if the Great War remains a fragmented and fragmenting past across Europe today, as Lemaitre concludes, and if, within France, it remains a traumatic memory of terrible loss not so far removed in time as one might think, why does it remain ultimately less troubling, less obsessive, than the memory of the Dark Years? In the late 1980s Umberto Eco wrote: “One forgets not by cancellation but by superimposition, not by producing absence but by multiplying presences.” Perhaps the Great War and its memory have effectively been blotted out, eclipse-like, by the still urgent and powerful weight of the Dark Years and Vichy, along with the also-lingering memory of decolonization.

But, perhaps something else is at work. As the centennial of 1914 approached, some remarkable novels about the Great War appeared in France. Most notable among these was Pierre Lemaitre’s own novel, Au revoir là-haut. But there were other powerful fictions written about the war as well: Jean Echenoz’s 14, translated into English as 1914, and Jérôme Garcin’s Bleus horizons. None of these novels shy away from depicting the horror, brutality, and murderousness of the Great War. But unlike contemporary fiction dealing with World War II, these novels stress one important, indeed crucial, theme: fraternity, even in suffering and death, among the French combatants and survivors themselves. While this theme present in three novels is hardly conclusive proof of a shared national perception, the fraternity invoked points to the possibility at least of a sense of national solidarity where the memory of the Great War is concerned. And the recollection of collective suffering in a common cause tends to bind together rather than to divide.

But if solidarity in the memory of the Great War distinguishes that memory from the memory of the Dark Years in France today, this solidary memory still remains national in scale and scope. In this sense, it is not different from other European national memories that, for Lemaitre at least, form a fragmented mosaic that prevents the idea of Europe from having any real historical and cultural substance in the present. If this is the case, then the French commemorations of summer 2014 tell us not only that the work of French memory is not yet complete, but also that the very real work of constructing a Europe’s future has scarcely begun.


Richard J. Golsan writes about 20th- and 21st-century France.

LARB Contributor

Richard J. Golsan is University Distinguished Professor and Distinguished Professor of French at Texas A&M University. His research interests include the history and memory of World War II in France and Europe and the political involvements of French and European writers and intellectuals with anti-democratic and extremist politics in the 20th and 21st centuries. His most recent book is French Writers and the Politics of Complicity (Johns Hopkins, 2006). Golsan served as a Visiting Professor at the University of Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle in 2001. He has been recognized by the Italian government in being named to the Ordina Della Stella Della Solidarieta Italiana and by the French government by being awarded the Palmes Academiques. He has served as Editor of the South Central Review (SCMLA) since 1994, and is also Director of the Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research at Texas A&M and the Centre Pluridisciplinaire, funded by the French government.


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