Is it considered bad to be rich in France?
"The fact that France is seen as a victorious power can actually be found paradoxical"
The temporary division of France in World War II also complicated its end. In an interview, the historian Olivier Wieviorka explains why May 8, 1945 was only a limited cause for joy.
Mr Wieviorka, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of the war, President Macron visited the grave of the Unknown Soldier. What is the significance of May 8th in France?
On May 8, 1945, the war had ended for many French people for a while. For the majority, the conflict ended when their village, their city, their department was liberated. The liberation was also experienced very differently depending on the region. There were very peaceful liberations, especially in the southwest and in the Rhone Valley. And there were exemptions that were very costly, for example in Brittany or the Limousin. May 8th was therefore difficult to fit into the commemorative calendar, in contrast to November 11th, which addressed all French people from the start. With the signing of the armistice in 1918 between the German Reich, France and Great Britain, the First World War was over for everyone.
So after May 8, 1945, France was not in a state of frenzy?
Of course, the French were happy to see Nazi Germany surrender. But the feeling was clouded by a phenomenon that became apparent between the landing of the Allies in June 1944 and May 1945: the return of the deportees, among them Jews, resists and prisoners of war. Her condition and her reports have caused a great shock for many people and prevented the day of surrender from turning into a real day of joy. The government, too, has long contested the importance of May 8th. From 1953 it was a non-working holiday, from 1959 it was only a day of remembrance. In 1975 it was even completely abolished for the sake of reconciliation with Germany. It was not until the 1980s that François Mitterrand redefined it as a public holiday. This has helped prevent May 8 from becoming a major holiday in the minds of the French.
Above all, the landing of the Allies and the liberation of Paris have burned themselves into the collective memory. Which crucial moments were forgotten?
Yes, that is the case even in France. Here, too, the majority have forgotten what happened between June 6, 1944, when the Allies landed, and August 25, when Paris was liberated. For example, it was extremely difficult for the Allies to advance in Normandy. And after the liberation of the capital, memory seems to have stood still. But the liberation of Strasbourg in November 1944 was also very significant, on the one hand because it was Alsace and on the other hand because General Leclerc's 2nd Panzer Division played a leading role, as in Paris. Then there were the Atlantic fortresses, which the Germans occupied until May 8, some even longer. All of that has disappeared from national memory - also in favor of the two dates mentioned.
After the war, the prevailing idea was that France had liberated itself thanks to the Resistance. How did that happen?
Charles de Gaulle sold the idea that the country had freed itself to save national honor. But it does not correspond to historical reality. First and foremost, it was the Allies. The Resistance absolutely did not have the means to do so. It was also a bit forgotten that Hitler's order to withdraw from Normandy on August 16 helped the Allied advance. The resists nevertheless played a role: They carried out acts of sabotage and helped the Allies. But they would never have been able to liberate the country on their own.
With the Vichy regime, part of France collaborated with Nazi Germany. After May 8, France was a divided society - between the resists, the collaborators, the victims. . . How did Charles de Gaulle use the narrative of self-liberation to bridge these rifts?
De Gaulle summed up the situation in post-war France as follows: "In 1944 the French were unhappy, now they are dissatisfied." At first it was the concern of most French people to find their way back to normality. Often it was about survival. The rationing of food was not lifted until 1949, there was a shortage of housing. But of course there was tension between the executioners and the victims. De Gaulle tried to establish a culture of remembrance, according to which there was no collaboration or only a tiny proportion of the unfortunate supported the Nazis - that actually all French were resists depending on their strength and in different ways.
How did this go together with the fact that Marshal Pétain and his supporters were collaborating?
Of the people who supported the Vichy regime, many believed that Philippe Pétain, a hero of World War I, had secretly resisted after all. But at the same time, of course, they supported the values of the Vichy regime - which also stood for xenophobia, anti-Semitism, hatred of the republic. Many who supported Pétain believed that they were good patriots. That was Petainism's trap.
But the image of the nation as a single Resistance is cracking. What were the drivers?
De Gaulle's narrative was already crumbling in the 1950s. The turning point came at the end of the 1960s, and not just because of the 1968 movement. The political class that defended this heroic vision of a militant France is losing strength as a new generation born after 1945 begins to take an interest in the events of the war. There is an anti-Gaulle movement that also rejects de Gaulle's vision of war. Her films and books are starting to change national memory. Controversies arose around the Vichy regime that dragged on into the 1970s and 1980s. Today, however, I think these have shifted.
The controversies today are more about colonialism and France's role in Algeria.
In view of the collaboration, how was it possible that the French still sat at the winner's table in 1945 and became an occupying power in Germany?
The fact that France was seen as a victorious power can indeed be found paradoxical. There are two things that are crucial here. On the one hand, de Gaulle has won the bet he made with his activity from exile in London: namely, to change the image of France in the world. First he created a dummy image. But there were aspects that were quite realistic: France's colonies sided with the Allies, initially a small number, from November 1942 all of them. In addition, French soldiers fought with the Allies in North Africa, Italy and when they landed in southern France in August 1944. Two thirds of the troops there were French. The fact that France is ultimately the victorious power is on the one hand the result of a successfully conveyed illusion, but on the other hand it is also recognition for its war effort. On the other hand, of course, there is also the geopolitical calculation, especially by Churchill. His aim was to create a counterweight in Europe to Germany, but also to the Soviet Union. For this France had to be given a certain weight, which he advocated at the Yalta Conference in 1945.
In 1963, France and Germany signed the Elysée Treaty, taking an important step towards reconciliation. One could get the impression that the reconciliation with the former enemy proceeded faster than the internal coming to terms with the past.
Yes, there has been little inward reflection by the government in the Fourth Republic and generally under the entire de Gaulle presidency. People tried to look into the future, but little was said about the past. That is why there was this effort of reconciliation with Germany. However, it was also driven by mutual geopolitical interests. In order to create a Europe, France needed a strong partner, just as Germany did under Adenauer. On the other hand, Germany still bore the burden of war guilt and needed partners to return to the international stage.
In Alsace, I met several people who say that France, compared to Germany, did not deal enough with its role in the Second World War. How do you see it
I do not share this view at all. There is a lot of talk today about Vichy and also about the Shoah - one cannot say that the Second World War is not present. And if you look at the importance of the extreme right and the closeness of certain parties to it in Germany, and not just in the countries of the former GDR, you could say that the reappraisal in Germany was not as exemplary as it is often claimed. I am not saying that it is perfect in France. But that's not the case in Germany either.
What do you learn about the Resistance in school today?
That there were many forms of it and that you were a minority.
And what do you tell your students about May 8th?
That this is the day of Germany's surrender and the end of the war in Europe. It is also a point in time after Yalta in February 1945 and before Potsdam in the summer of the same year. It is certainly a landmark, and symbolically, it is important to celebrate the end of this nightmare. But we have a world that is soon headed towards a cold war. As a historian, one can see that with regard to May 8th, there is no clear before and no clear after. There are breaks, but also continuities.
The historian Olivier Wieviorka teaches at the Paris-Saclay College. His academic focus is on the Second World War and the role of the Resistance.
Correction: An earlier version of the interview stated that the Allies landed in southern France in August 1945; However, August 1944 is correct. This mistake happened during the editing process and is not due to a false statement by the interviewee.
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