Le Souvenir Français


Founded in 1887, Le Souvenir Français is a “child” of the Republic. It was founded in response to the Republican government’s desire to use the memory of the Franco-Prussian War to “build a nation”. An heir to that conflict, it has always played an active role in its remembrance.

Inauguration of the memorial to French soldiers, under the German occupation, at Noisseville (Moselle), 1908. © Maurice-Louis Branger/Roger-Viollet

Following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, two remembrance actors came to the fore: the clergy and the Republic, specifically with the Law of 4 April 1873 on “preserving the graves of the soldiers killed in the Franco-Prussian War”. From 1873 to 1878, the State funded 87 396 graves across 1 438 communes in 38 departments. Remembrance was an affair of State. Commemorating the defeat became a way of looking to the future. An overarching policy was implemented, with widespread ceremonies (14 July was established as the national day in 1880) and the erection of monuments on a massive scale across the cantons and towns of France.

The Republic and the Oeuvre des Tombes et des Prières, set up by Père Joseph, competed with one another. The State sought a new intermediary, and settled on Le Souvenir Français, which adopted its articles of association on 19 February 1887. Article 3 stated: “The Society’s purpose is to maintain the graves of the soldiers killed on French or foreign soil; to ensure the preservation of funerary monuments (...).” Its founding committee was almost entirely comprised of natives of Lorraine who had emigrated to France after the annexation.

With support from the State, Le Souvenir Français grew, and its initiatives increased in number. Between 1887 and 1913, over a hundred memorials were erected and more than 2 000 plaques laid. In the early 20th century, Le Souvenir Français became an instrument of revanchist policy.

On 4 October 1908, the first French memorial to the Franco-Prussian War was inaugurated in Noisseville, near Metz.

On 17 October 1909, a second inauguration took place, at Wissembourg, Alsace, allegedly attended by over 100 000 people. These two events marked a real awakening of pro-French sentiment among the people of the annexed provinces. The growth of the organisation was a major concern to the German authorities, who ordered its dissolution in Alsace-Lorraine on 23 January 1913.

Proud of its heritage, Le Souvenir Français was keen to play a part in the 150th anniversary commemorations of the Franco-Prussian War. Its approach is, above all, realistic – after all, who still remembers the Franco-Prussian War? When the body of the Unknown Soldier was transferred to the Arc de Triomphe, on 11 November 1920, it drew attention away from Gambetta’s heart, enshrined at the Pantheon. Then, during the interwar years, came the turn of the commune of Paris to steal the limelight. Should the Franco-Prussian War then be commemorated now, as France and the world go through a decisive moment in history, with the global pandemic? 150 years have passed, split into two equal parts: 75 years of Franco-German wars; 75 years of peace in Europe, the latter being a work in progress.

When, in 1941, he spoke of a 30-year-long war which he anticipated would end in 1944-45, General de Gaulle, who was shaped by the knowledge of the defeat of 1870-71, was forgetting when that cycle of war had truly begun – in 1870, not 1914. Yet he reflected the mood of the time, and the end of remembrance of the Franco-Prussian War which came with 11 November 1920. Let us then be bold and revive, in 2020, the remembrance of a conflict that has so much to teach us about the French Republic, Franco-German relations and the world we live in.

Playing a part in the remembrance of the Franco-Prussian War means having the courage to think of it as decisive to our lives as French, German and, ultimately, European citizens.

Serge Barcellini, Chairman, Le Souvenir Français

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