Tricks of Memory

The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944

by Henry Rousso, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Harvard University Press, 384 pp., $37.50

When Alain Resnais made his somber masterpiece on Nazi-occupied France, Night and Fog (1955), he was required before the film could be licensed for showing to delete certain scenes in which a French policeman’s kepi appears in deportation scenes at the refugee camp at Pithiviers (near Orleans). Thus the unpleasant truth that French police helped the Nazis deport Jews was erased from public memory by the censors. Henry Rousso’s account of the vanishing kepi recalls the opening anecdote in Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting. There it is the hat that remains, while its former wearer, an out-of-favor minister, disappears from an official photograph of the Czech prime minister and his cabinet standing on a balcony.

Kundera goes on to suggest that forgetting a painful past may be a tempting form of escape, and that much more than government censorship may be involved in what is remembered and how. Henry Rousso, in a somewhat different way (he is a researcher at the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent in Paris), explores similar ambiguities in how the German occupation of 1940–1944 has been commemorated, portrayed, remembered, and forgotten by ordinary people in France. He shows us a French Historikerstreit less bookish than the German one, no less bitter, with more varied ramifications in film, memorials, and popular commemorations.

Rousso identifies four periods. First came a time of “unfinished mourning” when no satisfactory way could be found to celebrate a Liberation that was in fact a defeat for substantial parts of the French elite, and honor the dead in what had been, in effect, a civil war. No counterpart could be found for Armistice Day of 1918, on whose meaning practically all the French were willing to agree. Next, from about 1954 to 1971, came a tacit agreement to bury these quarrels in an embittered silence. Gaullists and Communists informally shared an “invented honor”—an official memory of a France that was almost unanimously committed to the resistance (albeit with different interpretations of who had furnished the heroes). Partisans of Vichy were mollified by the “shield” theory presented by Robert Aron’s long-orthodox Histoire de Vichy (1954), according to which Marshal Pétain had saved the French from worse. Then, as Rousso puts it, the “mirror was broken” around 1971. The official interpretations came under question. Finally, as the old taboos disappeared, the current obsession with Vichy and collaboration began.

It even became possible to prosecute prominent Vichy French public officials who had been protected during the postwar purge by well-placed friends and old-boy networks. Thus a law of December 1964 suspending the statute of limitations in cases of crimes against humanity, drafted with German war criminals in mind (following similar legislation by the Federal Republic of Germany), was applied instead to French collaborators. The Gestapo chief in Lyons, Klaus Barbie, was in fact the first person condemned in this new cycle of trials. The first charges under the act, however, were filed in 1973 against Paul Touvier, a particularly bloody-handed official of the…

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