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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 Vichy French paramilitary police (La Milice), who had helped the Germans repress the French Resistance. The passionate feelings that swirled around Touvier were linked to current politics, because Touvier had been first recalled to public attention by an ill-advised pardon by President Pompidou, and next when it was revealed that Touvier had been concealed for years in various monasteries and religious establishments by intégriste Catholics.

Subsequently even highly placed former Vichy officials were prosecuted under this act for having participated in the deportation of Jewish refugees. They included the former head of the French police, René Bousquet; his Paris deputy Jean Leguay; and Maurice Papon, the former secretary-general of the Prefecture of German-occupied Bordeaux who rose after the war to become a cabinet minister under De Gaulle. It is true that their indictments have moved at a glacial pace. This July, Touvier, now being prosecuted and awaiting trial, was allowed bail by an appeals court which led to a new round of public protests and private shrugs. The incident confirms one of Rousso’s conclusions: the “guerre franco-française” over whether collaboration with the Nazi occupiers was a crime or an act of astute pragmatism is repeatedly reignited by new controversial public acts.

It should not be surprising that the Vichy quarrel endures in a political culture where people were willing until very recently to shed blood over Joan of Arc, not to mention the Terror of 1793. The government of Marshal Pétain and its policies were, after all, the most controversial events in French public life since the execution of Louis XVI and the fraudulent conviction for treason of Captain Dreyfus.

What is harder to interpret is why the silence of a “Cold Civil War” gave way around 1971 to open debate about the occupation years. Such deep groundswells of opinion resist easy historical interpretation. Intellectuals like to think that their own books, articles, and films change the direction of opinions, but Rousso puts other influences first. The demonstrations of May 1968 and their repression shook certainties even deeper than political ones, and encouraged young dissidents to express themselves flamboyantly. The controversy surrounding French television’s refusal to show Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity in 1971 fanned the curiosity that the government had hoped to suppress. Most of all, a new generation of young people asked their parents devastating questions about what they had done in the war.

Rousso’s book has the merit of reminding us that public memory is neither stable nor automatic. Perceptions of Vichy have been shaped, prolonged, or suppressed by what he calls “vectors of memory.” At first, the winners and losers took an active role in shaping memory. The Vichy faithful had their rites and “lieux de mémoire,”1 quite apart from those of “official memory.” For example, their pressure group, the Association pour la Défense de la Mémoire du Maréchal Pétain, bought and maintains a museum in the Marshal’s old office in the Hôtel du Parc in Vichy. Such active efforts to shape memory usually slacken as the participants die off. The Vichy quarrel, however, has been transmitted to new generations by becoming grafted upon historic quarrels—between right and left, Catholics and anticlericals, defenders of the Rights of Man and anti-Semites.

The state has also acted vigorously to shape memory. For example, De Gaulle staged a two-day ceremonial reburial of the Resistance hero Jean Moulin in the Pantheon in December 1964. Rousso gives a rich account of the military parades, carefully balanced delegations of Resistance heroes, and the oration by André Malraux that marked the occasion. Rousso has paid particular attention to film and television, which undoubtedly has been more important than scholarly history in influencing perceptions of the past in postwar France.

Rousso believes that the French administration’s efforts to muffle these quarrels by secrecy actually sharpened them. In addition to the vanishing kepi already mentioned, the historian Michèle Cotta had to cut sections of her excellent selection of collaborationist texts 2 because the French amnesty law of 1951 forbids publishing in such a context even the names of persons convicted in the postwar purge trials. The French sixty-year rule for access to political archives is the most restrictive of any Western country. Rousso is certainly right that this discourages dispassionate scholarship and encourages rumor and sensationalism.

Sooner or later, the bitterest historic quarrels lose their intensity, and lieux de mémoire that once were charged with emotion cease to attract crowds. This reviewer remembers being the only visitor in the peeling, dusty diorama on the site of the Battle of Waterloo. The life span of divisive historical memories has varied greatly from case to case, however, according to specific histories of the sort that Henry Rousso shows us how to unravel. Unlike the American “revolution,” which quickly became a matter of anodyne memory about which there was little dissent, the Civil War retained its divisive force in American politics for a century, fed by conflicting sectional economic interests and the race issue. Despite current passions, it seems a plausible guess that the division of opinion on Vichy and the Occupation will not last that long.

This is not because the divisions over Pétain, collaboration, and the postwar executions and purges were any less passionate than those aroused by slavery, Fort Sumter, and Appomattox. Still less is it because Americans are more conscious of their history than the French. It is because in the current era of internationalized consumerism and a rootless universal popular culture, people generally seem to care less about the past. Thus the slightly anticlimactic bicentennial of the French Revolution revealed that the passions that had poisoned French politics for almost exactly two hundred years are now mostly dead. Similarly, the centennial of De Gaulle’s birth in 1990 showed how quickly the General, loathed both by the left and partisans of European integration, and threatened with assassination by partisans of French Algeria less than thirty years ago, has become a consensual plaster saint.

The time of consensus has not yet arrived for Marshal Pétain, however. The transfer of his remains from the prison where he died in disgrace in 1951, on the Île d’Yeu, to the monument at Douaumont, near Verdun, where he won glory in 1916, and where he wished to be buried, is even less likely under Mitterrand than at the time of De Gaulle’s omnipotence. Some of Rousso’s most interesting material, drawn from opinion polls, demonstrates that young people now hold harsher feelings about Vichy and Pétain than their elders. While older people became more lenient over time, a 1983 SOFRES/Louis Harris poll showed that, though 43 percent of those over sixty-five thought that Pétain’s life sentence in 1945 was unjustified, only 16 percent of the eighteen—twenty-four age group found it too severe. Indeed 10 percent of them thought that Pétain deserved the death penalty as opposed to only 5 percent of those over sixty-five.

Rousso makes no claim to an exhaustive theoretical analysis of the complex interplay between history and memory. When he uses medicopsychological terms like “syndrome” and “repression,” they are only metaphors for the obsessive quality of the feelings involved, and not an explanatory device. His book succeeds as a practical demonstration, for a particularly vivid case, of how to study a people grappling with a past.

It is remarkable how few similar works there are about, say, the American Civil War or the French Revolution. In Patriotic Gore Edmund Wilson examines impassioned literary expressions of opposing points of view, and Pieter Geyl’s Napoleon: For and Against analyzed conflicting scholarly assessments, but both rely firmly on authoritative texts from the high culture. One understands a historian’s hesitation before the poorly documented and ill-defined wider popular memory as a subject. Rousso shows us, however, how dramatic and revealing this genre can be.

  1. 1

    See Pierre Nora’s pathbreaking work on how places and institutions become associated with public memory, Les Lieux de Mémoire: Vol. I, La République; Vol. II, La Nation (Paris: Gallimard, 1984–1986).

  2. 2

    Michèle Cotta, Les Collaborationistes, 1940–1944 (Paris: Armand Colin, 1963).

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