Remembrance of the Second World War in France

The ceremony to transfer the ashes of Jean Moulin (1899-1943) to the Pantheon, Paris, December 1964. © LAPI/Roger-Viollet

The collective memory of the Second World War in France consists today of a series of elements, including the Resistance, the Jewish victims and the Vichy regime. These different memories have always been a part of the French landscape, with one at times prevailing over another as different remembrance models succeeded one another.

Corps 1

It is May 1967. Claude Lévy and Paul Tillard have written a much talked-about book, La Grande Rafle du Vél’ d’Hiv (Betrayal at the Vél’ d’Hiv), which a mainstream publisher, Robert Laffont, has agreed to publish. It tops the non-fiction bestseller lists all summer, and wins the Aujourd’hui Book of the Year award for contemporary history. That same year, in March, Claude Berri releases the film Le Vieil Homme et l’Enfant (The Two of Us), about the occupation, antisemitism and hidden children. It is a box-office hit, and wins the Silver Bear at Berlin the year of its release.

1959: André Schwarz-Bart’s book Le Dernier des Justes (The Last of the Just) is awarded the Prix Goncourt, as well as being a success with the public, selling more than 350 000 copies.

Let’s go back further in time, to 28 January 1946. A leading communist, Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, appears as a witness at the Nuremberg Trials. She naturally tells of her experience as a female politician deported to Auschwitz then Ravensbrück. But she begins her testimony by describing the selection process of Jews on arrival at Auschwitz, the gas chambers, the crematoriums, Mengele’s experiments on the survivors. In 1946, then, we have a communist leader who wishes to tell of the fate of the Jews.


Cérémonie du 18 juin 1946

The ceremony of 18 June 1946 at the provisional memorial at Mont Valérien, presided over by General de Gaulle. © Ordre de la Libération


Understanding inclusion in the remembrance narrative

These few examples, among many others, lead to one obvious conclusion: the binary approach usually taken to the history of Second World War remembrance in France is inadequate, particularly for the final-year (Terminale) high-school course syllabus. It is reduced to two points in time: immediately after Liberation, with the glorification of the Resistance heroes; and the watershed of the 1970s when, aided by Serge Klarsfeld and Robert Paxton, the Jewish victims of the Occupation were at last remembered. A twofold division often reinforced by a radical judgment: at last the time of truth has come. Let us come back to Marc Bloch who, in The Historian’s Craft, wrote that one word “dominates and illuminates the studies of historians: ‘understanding’”: “Unfortunately the habit of passing judgments leads to a loss of taste for explanations. (...) The sciences have always been more fertile (...) as they deliberately abandon the old anthropocentrism of good and evil.”

The tools exist for understanding the history of remembrance. We know this from collective memory, which is a selective representation of the past that contributes to building the identity of a society (or other group). I would suggest a number of additional analytical tools: 
remembrance models chart these remembrance approaches, which remain stable over a significant period of time and are based on real, imagined or virtual figures. But the dominance of one should not mean the disappearance of the others.  Rather than sudden disappearances and reappearances, let us think in terms of strong remembrance / weak remembrance. We need to ask ourselves how an event is selected by the collective memory.  It seems obvious it would be linked to its importance. Yet so many examples require us to look for a more nuanced answer. The exodus of May and June 1940 is a case in point. It is a major event to historians, but what do we find since the war? There are books, films, documentaries, but at present, the exodus of May-June 1940 is not a key event in the collective memory. Why? If the collective memory “selects” what contributes to building the identity of French society, what should be done about shame, fear, displacement, theft? Nothing. In the strictest sense, this event has no meaning, no social utility. So we need to understand the conditions for inclusion in the remembrance narrative.


Cérémonie du transfert

The ceremony to transfer the ashes of Jean Moulin (1899-1943) to the Pantheon, Paris, December 1964. © LAPI/Roger-Viollet


The Resistance, the dominant face of remembrance?

All these mechanisms at work account for a remembrance timeline that is clearly far more complex than the one found in school textbooks or shown on TV. So let us align the remembrance models, keeping in mind that these are only dominants.

1944-1949. Whatever people say, all memories were summoned and heard. To be sure, there were the stronger ones, like the memory of the Resistance, and weaker ones, like the Jewish memory. Weak but still present was the memory of the Compulsory Labour Service (STO). As for the Vichyists, they could only “exist” by claiming to be part of the French people’s struggle against the Occupier. But of course, the strongest of these memories was that of the Resistance. With de Gaulle in power up until 1946, surrounded by all the elements of the Resistance, this was clearly the first image that could be brought into play to rebuild the country and assert its presence to the world.

1949-1957. The situation changed completely at the end of the 1940s. But make no mistake: all memories of the war came crashing down, including that of the Resistance, which fell from a greater height. We forget the context. On the agenda, two major events came along, requiring a new remembrance model: the Cold War and the colonial wars. Needless to say, a new geopolitical geography began to be mapped out from 1947. Two examples give an idea of the extent of the upheaval: the fight against the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc became a priority in France, where the Communists were expelled from the government and there was a crackdown on foreign Communist Resistance members and the Spanish Communist Party, which was dissolved in 1950 and many of its members exiled. Meanwhile, in the Soviet bloc, the targeting of former foreign Communist Resistance leaders in France in high-profile cases added to the confusion. The name Artur London sums up this scrambling of remembrance: in the 1950s, an entire branch of the Communist Resistance was condemned to silence by the French Communist Party itself. But in addition to the Cold War there were, of course, the colonial wars. With the First Indochina War and the Algerian War, there was hardly room on the agenda for battles over Second World War remembrance. The result was a remembrance model in the 1950s characterised by a weakening of all elements – and more nuance. Therefore, while the memory of the deportation of the Jews was all the weaker for having fallen from less of a height, let us not forget the publication of the Diary of Anne Frank, which was a phenomenal success in the 1950s, including in France.

1958-1969. When General de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, he owed his legitimacy to one event: the call to arms of 18 June 1940. Everything else came as a result of this unlikely act. It would drive an aggressive remembrance policy that put the Resistance at the heart of remembrance. There was nothing more symbolic than Jean Moulin’s entry into the Pantheon on 19 December 1964. This centrality of the Resistance was even stronger since the main opposition party, the Communist Party, had an entirely convergent remembrance policy.

Remembrance is born out of civil society

1969-1984. A new remembrance model came into being with de Gaulle’s departure in 1969, and his death a year later. But it was not the figure of the Jewish victim that predominated. Not yet. Much is made of Robert O. Paxton and his Vichy France (published in 1972 in the United States, and in French translation in 1973), and Serge Klarsfeld and his work as a lawyer, historian and remembrance activist. But what predominated at the time, as evidenced by documentaries like Le Chagrin et la pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity) and, even more, Français, si vous saviez, was the image of a weak, cowardly, widely collaborationist France. Something of a black legend seems to have emerged. But the reference to Jewish persecution was still marginal. It was against this backdrop that the (negative) face of Vichy emerged.


Beate Klarsfeld, militante

Remembrance activist Beate Klarsfeld outside the German Embassy in France in the 1970s. With her husband, Serge Klarsfeld, she campaigned for the acknowledgment of the Holocaust and for those involved to be held accountable.
© Heritage-Images/Keystone Archives/akg-image


1985-2007.  The figure of the Jewish victim came much later than is generally believed. The mechanism at work was interesting, too, for in contrast to 1958, it was born out of civil society, the legal and remembrance campaigning of Serge Klarsfeld, his two-volume history Vichy-Auschwitz (1983 and 1985), and Marrus and Paxton’s Vichy France and the Jews (1981). It went on to receive considerable media attention, in particular from Jean-Marie Cavada on TV. Against a backdrop of the Klaus Barbie trial, French society was won over. The State would not step in until ten years later, with Jacques Chirac’s famous speech. It is understandable; the face of Vichy was still there, and still more negative than ever. But the focus was on a single element of its policy: its contribution to the deportation of French Jews.

2007-2021.  Things don’t stop there. Under pressure from the sovereigntists Henri Guaino and Max Gallo, Nicolas Sarkozy came up with a new remembrance model that would make more of the image of the Resistance. But Simone Veil and Serge Klarsfeld were wary of the sovereigntists and of the “messy” initiatives of the new president. Even so, this set the ball rolling, and under his successor, François Hollande, elected in 2012, a form of converging remembrance became the rule. Two events in particular can serve to illustrate it: the unveiling of the Drancy Memorial in September 2012, and the admission to the Pantheon of four members of the Resistance, two women and two men, in May 2015.


Cérémonie du 70e anniversaire

The ceremony of the 70th anniversary of the Vél’ d’Hiv’ roundup, Drancy Memorial, 16 July 2012. © Bertrand Guay/AFP


So here we have six successive remembrance models – far from the binary approach that remains the rule. And even then, we had to limit the disruptive references that show more effectively the often more complex nature of each episode. Moreover, we have yet to finish what was begun under Emmanuel Macron. There was a clear desire to raise the profile of the Resistance in an overarching message imbued with values and with the power to mobilise. The terrorist attacks clearly illustrate the dilemma. The attacks of November 2015 obviously put the figure of the victim in the spotlight. And yet, whether it was police officers, firefighters, ambulance staff, neighbours who opened their doors or front-line aid workers, or the fact that mutual aid prevailed over “everyone for themselves”, there was plenty of room for hero figures. The attack that cost Arnaud Beltrame his life, followed by the murder of Samuel Paty, more a hero than a victim, showed another way. This reference to the terrorist attacks was deliberate, as was the reference to Covid-19, where the collective memory is built contemporaneously with the event around the figure of the heroic healthcare workers. It shows the need to broaden our horizons in two directions: we cannot fully comprehend the segmented remembrance of the Second World War – that of the Resistance or the persecution of the Jews – if we do not consider all elements; and we cannot fully comprehend the fluctuations of the collective memory of the Second World War if we do not look at the movements of the collective memory concerning other issues. Like the so-called “hard” sciences, in this way we can be sure not to attribute what we see to an artefact of segmentation and not to miss explanatory elements that fall outside our object of study.


Denis Peschanski, research director, CNRS