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France and Memories of the Second World War

My students look at the memorial of tens of thousands of names of those deported from France outside La Mémorial de la Shoah, Paris (J. Boyer-Switala)
There is a longstanding joke in France that began after WWII that every French citizen was a member of the Résistance. Clearly, this was a myth or the fierce, violent retribution against collaborators would not have been carried out so swiftly. This phrase, albeit in jest, strikes a nerve in the collective memory of the French when it comes to their role during the Occupation, and describes what historian Henry Rousso has coined as le syndrome de Vichy, or the Vichy Syndrome.
The Vichy Syndrome by Henry Rousso (
The Vichy Syndrome, simply put, is France’s ongoing struggle in coming to terms with les années noires (the dark years) of Nazi Occupation. Rousso has divided the Vichy Syndrome into four distinct stages of memory: Unfinished Mourning (1945-1953), Repressed Memory (1954-1971), The Broken Mirror (1972-1980), and Obsession (1980- Present) (McNeill).  The initial stage was spent defining the question of what made one a collaborator so that appropriate action could be taken to hold collaborators accountable. The initial stage struggled to reconcile the memories of the heroic (i.e. the Résistance) against those of the atrocious (war crimes committed by French and Nazis alike).  What developed was a memory that focused on Nazi crimes against the French, such as the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, instead of French crimes against the Jews, like the rafle du Vel d’Hiv (McNeill).
Oradour-sur-Glane, France - the entire village was murdered by Nazis in retaliation for Résistance activities. De Gaulle ordered it be preserved exactly as is as a national memorial. (credit:
The second phase, Repressed Memory, was defined by President Charles de Gaulle’s goal to “mark a clean break with the past and herald a new beginning” (McNeill).  It was during this period when a myth – the “Gaullist myth” – about occupied France was created. McNeill discusses four central beliefs within the Gaullist Myth of Repressed Memory:
1.    There was minimal collaboration – only a few insignificant dissenters who did not accurately represent French general opinion
2.    There was an extreme sense of French national unity/patriotism
3.    France’s interests were protected by an elite force of Résistance fighters
4.    Charles de Gaulle was the personification of the Résistance

These myths were critical in feeding into the repressed memory stage of France’s Vichy Syndrome as they tended not only to minimize Vichy’s power over the French, but set up the French with a very skewed reality. It should also be noted that while de Gaulle’s intentions may have been somewhat politically selfish, he did help a totally demoralized France rediscover her national pride.
President Charles de Gaulle (credit:
The Broken Mirror, or third stage, emerged shortly after de Gaulle’s death in 1970. The Gaullist Myth died along with de Gaulle himself, and France was now left to deal with the harsh, ugly truth. Rousso gives much credit to the 1969 release of Marcel Ophüls Le Chagrin et la Pitié. Running over four hours in length (I know…I watched it all!), Le Chagrin et la Pitié (English title, The Sorrow and the Pity) is a remarkable documentary that delves into the collective memory of France during WWII. It is significant because it dispels the Gaullist myth of a united, patriotic France and instead paints a picture that is far darker (and more honest) of a deeply divided France. Many who did not wish to have their mythical Gaullist bubble burst were vehemently opposed to the documentary. As a result, Ophüls and his cohorts were crudely dubbed fouilleurs de merde (excavators of shit) and the slightly less offensive videurs de poubelles (bouncers of garbage) (McNeill).  

The fourth and final phase, Obsession, brings us to France present. Seventy years after the fact, France is still grappling with its memory of the occupied years. In 1980, at the beginning of François Mitterrand’s presidency, stories of the occupation dictated the news. Thanks to people like the famed Nazi hunter and lawyer Serge Klarsfeld, there was a renewed sense of urgency in tracking down and bringing to justice some of the perpetrators who had found refuge in the Gaullist myth. 
Serge and Beate Klarsfeld - Nazi hunters (credit:
Klaus Barbie, the infamous Butcher of Lyon was on trial in 1987; Paul Tovier in 1994 where he became the first Frenchman convicted of crimes against humanity for his collaborative acts; and Maruice Papon, (whose deportation of thousands of Jews during the occupation was the least of his inhumane crimes in his lifetime) was on trial in 1997. 
Klaus Barbie - Under arrest and in uniform (credit:
This final stage gave way to several events in the 1980s through the 1990s that would give birth to not only memorials regarding the victims of La Grand Rafle du Vel d’Hiv and the subsequent deportations, but would ultimately lead to the 2005 inauguration of La Mémorial de la Shoah (Winstone, 18).
Entrance to La Mémorial de la Shoah, Paris (J. Boyer-Switala)
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McNeill, Tony. The Vichy Syndrome. The University of Sunderland. December 9, 1999.
Winstone, Martin. The Holocaust Sites of Europe: An Historical Guide. 16-24. New York: IB Tauris (2010).


Hi! Bonjour! Coucou!
I spent yesterday afternoon watching La Rafle with Jean Réno and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. And recently I read Jodie Picoult's new book, Storyteller. France during and after WWII ... so complex and your posts make it easier to grasp. Merci!
Are you in France now?
Jennifer said…
Bonjour Theresa!
La Rafle was so powerful...I saw it at a Jewish film festival a couple of years ago and had to stifle sobs, especially in the camp when they were separating the children from their mothers. Glad you got to watch it, though. It has taken forever to get to America!!
I am not in France yet. We leave July 22, but will be in London for a few days first! I cannot wait!
jojo jo said…
Dear Jennifer,
I am a French History Teacher. I like your pages about memories of WW2. I have a blog for my students, it's partly about memory:
The next time you come to Paris, you may stop in our school. It's in the Haussmann heart of Paris:
François (
Anonymous said…
What is collaboration?

If I were compelled to observe the rules of the Nazis, would that make me a collaborator?

In law, confession extracted under duress is not considered as legitimate.

Most people were forced to follow the rules set by the Nazis, in the same manner that people confess under torture, out of the fear of death. So I would not consider it as collaboration.

If I were living in Nazi occupied territory, and were forced to observe the rules made by the Nazis, then I would not consider myself as a collaborator simply because I was compelled to follow the rules made by the enemies.

Collaboration happens when someone willingly render assistance, protection and aid to the enemies.

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