History, Nationalism and France’s Role in the Second World War

By Arthur Langellier

“Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.” ― George Orwell, 1984

History is one of the battlegrounds of nationalist movements. In their attempts to naturalize the nation and to control who belongs to it, nationalists mythologize some events while silencing others. In France, the return of nationalism in last year’s elections is indicated by the place that the pretended need for a “roman national” occupied in the electoral debates.

History and the French Nation: the roman national

In France, history has been used as a tool to promote “national unity” since the Third Republic (1870-1940), which made primary education mandatory throughout the territory. In the first instance, the teaching of history was used to weaken surviving regional identities (e.g. Bretons or Basques) and to foster patriotism, by creating what Pierre Nora later coined as a “roman national” (literally translating as “national novel”, but better translated as “national myth”). Ernest Lavisse’s textbooks, in use from 1884 to 1950, are a classical example. The roman national involved creating a historical narrative of the French nation, based on a set of important events and great figures, like Vercingétorix or Joan of Arc, which would create a shared historical imaginary for all citizens.  In practice, the narrative that emerged cherry-picked from history to build a positive image of France, avoiding humiliating periods and relying on convenient stories, for example casting Gaul as France’s predecessor, whereas the latter was a geographical fiction invented by the Romans.

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Cover of the Lavisse’s history textbook. Underneath the title, the caption reads: “History should not be learnt by heart but with the heart.”

As an approach to national history, the roman national began to be criticized methodologically in the 1930s, with the establishment of the Ecole des annales (Annales School), and then in the 1960s and 1970s, as historians began to tackle parts of history which did not reflect positively on France. Examples include the slave trade and Vichy France, which had been largely silenced in national curriculums. Yet it was not until the 1990s that the shift occurred at a political level, and that a more complex and accurate picture of history began to be taught in schools, as the example of France’s role during World War II illustrates.

 

 Memories of the Second World War: from the myth of a Resistant France to plural memories

From the end of the War until 1970, the dominant interpretation of France’s role was résistancialisme – a term coined by the historian Rousso to designate the myth that the majority of France had been resistant during the war and, conversely, that the Vichy government and Collaborationists formed a minority – a “parenthesis” in history. The origins of résistancialisme lie with de Gaulle and two important speeches. First, in his Appeal of 18 June (1940) from London, de Gaulle produced a fiction essential to résistancialisme: that Vichy was illegitimate, and that the real France refused to acknowledge defeat. Second, in a speech delivered upon his return to Paris in August 25, 1944, de Gaulle conjured the image of an overwhelmingly resistant France by repeatedly insisting that the French had freed themselves, enshrining résistancialisme.

At the time, résistancialisme served two important purposes. The first was to promote national unity and reconciliation. As Liberation proceeded, there were waves of épuration sauvage (“wild purges”), which led to some 10,000 summary executions of war profiteers and those accused of Collaboration, as well as the shaving of around 20,000 women’s head. In a context of civil strife, résistancialisme was a means to restore social order. The second purpose of the résistancialiste myth was to place France among the ranks of the war victors and to preserve its status as a great power.

The myth of a Resistant France became the “preferred memory” of World War II, especially after de Gaulle came to power in 1958-9. Résistancialisme was consecrated through ceremonies, like the transfer of Jean Moulin’s ashes to the Pantheon, one of the highest honours of the land. The myth even outlasted de Gaulle in the form of president Pompidou’s strategy of “national reconciliation”, leading to the pardon in 1971 of Paul Touvier, a known Nazi collaborator. This was the flip side of privileging résistancialisme: it denied justice to many and excluded other competing memories, especially of the Holocaust. Indeed, had the stories of former Jewish deportees become public, the French state and police’s complicit role would soon have resurfaced, destroying the myth of a primarily resistant France.

Résistancialisme did begin to crack towards the end of the 1960s and the 1970s, as new historical work like Paxton’s La France de Vichy (1973) made clear that the Vichy government had actively sought collaboration as a matter of policy. Moreover, in the 1970s a series of trials worldwide, including the landmark trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, helped bring to light many testimonies and historical documents, thereby empowering the voice of Holocaust survivors. Progressively, evidence piled up contradicting résistancialisme, for example highlighting the direct involvement of the French state in the operationalization of the Final Solution, though the Holocaust’s very existence was itself sometimes challenged by historical revisionists.

The gradual surfacing of evidence finally led to the official abandonment of résistancialisme at the highest political level in the 1990s. In a landmark speech on 16 July 1995, president Chirac acknowledged France’s responsibility for the notorious Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, during which the French police arrested and arranged the deportation of over 75,000 Jews in Paris. With this speech, Vichy could no longer be considered as a mere “parenthesis” in the history of France.

The Backlash against Repentance

Since the 1990s, France has entertained a healthier relationship with its past, attempting to deal with past mistakes. In fact, the preceding account of France’s role in World War II is largely based on what I was taught in school, as part of the national curriculum.

However, this trend towards a more complex understanding of the past has been mired in controversy, as the intense debates that followed Macron’s declarations on colonialism prove. It even seems to have produced a nationalist backlash, which became particularly apparent during the debates preceding last year’s presidential elections. Several candidates, including Sarkozy, Fillon, Mélanchon and, unsurprisingly, Le Pen, criticized how history was being taught in schools. The common thread behind their attacks was a critique of what Sarkozy once labelled the “Repentance movement”. [1] According to Fillon, not only are French children becoming ignorant of certain aspects of their History, but even worse they are being taught to be ashamed of it.[2] Similarly, article 97 of the Front National (FN)’s manifesto argued for the need to “reinforce national unity through the promotion of a roman national and the refusal of divisive repentances.” [emphasis added]

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Translation: ‘I am a descendant of Vercingétorix!’ ‘See you in Alesia!’. The drawing is a reference to Sarkozy’s claim on 19/09/2017 that: “Whatever the nationality of your parents, […] when you become French, your ancestors, are the Gauls and Vercingétorix.”
Historians daring to study episodes that reflect poorly on France are accused of undermining national identity and love for the nation. The “nation” is invoked as a limit on truth. These candidates instead seek to return to a sanitized and idealized historical narrative, the roman national, sometimes rebranded as the récit national (national story). Yet historians should seek to establish facts and to work with their brains, not “with their hearts”.  In fact, I find it insulting to suggest, as these candidates do, that French citizens can only ever be proud of their nation if they are sold a lie. In my opinion, it is immensely more shameful to refuse to face the past and to childishly refuse to own up to past mistakes. Moreover, as this article has attempted to illustrate through the example of World War II, idealized accounts of history usually put forth as the roman national are inherently apologist and exclusionary, for example inhibiting the voices of the survivors of the Holocaust.

 

Nationalists always seek to manipulate history, often to exclude certain groups by establishing tenuous links between nationality and history, and to silence inconvenience truths. The FN is a clear example of the latter, as for the last decade Marine Le Pen has attempted to rebrand the party, culminating in her decision to hold a vote next March to change the party’s name. The FN has every interest in voters forgetting certain facts of both France and the party’s history. For example, Le Pen wants us to forget how Victor Barthélémy, one of its founders, not only acted as the secretary-general of the French Popular Front, one of the main Collaborationist political parties, but also directly partook in the Val’ d’Hiv’ Roundup. No wonder that when asked about the Vel’ d’Hiv’ a few months ago, Marine Le Pen claimed that France could not be held responsible, and disparaged those who taught children to be critical (of the nation).

 

[1] http://www.lemonde.fr/election-presidentielle-2012/article/2012/03/09/sarkozy-la-france-ne-peut-se-repentir-d-avoir-conduit-la-guerre-d-algerie_1655126_1471069.html

[2] http://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2016/09/28/roman-national-recit-national-de-quoi-parle-t-on_5004994_4355770.html

 

 

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Arthur is a third-year undergraduate of International Relations at King’s College London. Although he was born in France, he has spent most of his life abroad, which is one of the reasons he is interested in nationalism.

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