Once again a nation’s past is at the center of politics.
A national conscience stricken by collective guilt is not easily assuaged. For all the palliative steps that can be taken, from reparation programs and documentation centers to memorial gardens and mea maxima culpae, the blot invariably remains, like an ancient ox-blood fresco rotting through layers of whitewash. Restitution along the lines of the Wiedergutmachungsgeld — that innovation of the Federal Republic of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust designed to “make it good again” — does not guarantee the expiation of the sins of the past, any more than would the purchase of a costly indulgence from a medieval pardoner.
This shared sensation of blood-guiltiness creates something of a social-psychic predicament, and one common reaction to it, less sinister than outright negation or denial, is the adoption of a posture of strategic ignorance. Recall the former French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy’s 2005 visit to Yad Vashem, during which he expressed bewilderment at the Britain-shaped lacuna on a map of liquidated Jewish communities: “Were there no Jews who were deported from England?” Douste-Blazy’s infamous question was surely what the French would call “un moment d’aberration mentale,” but it also epitomized the impulse to hoist the shield of historical illiteracy amidst a devastating confrontation with the enormities of the past.
Another approach, rather more sophisticated, is to take the building blocks of history and assemble a more convenient edifice. Such a process, in psychoanalytical terms, creates a Deckerinnerung — a “covering” or “screen memory” — superimposing one narrative over another less palatable one without wholly erasing it. Such is the basis of the intriguing theory of the “figuration of history.” Collective memory, as Jeffrey Olick put it, is the result of “relations between past and present — where images, contexts, traditions, and interests come together in fluid, though not necessarily harmonious ways,” as opposed to “an independent or dependent variable, a thing determined or determining.” In this way we write and overwrite our shared story, creating a palimpsest adding up to a usable past, albeit one subject to perpetual contestation.
All of which brings us to French presidential candidate and National Front party leader Marine Le Pen’s controversial comments on her nation’s complicity in the Holocaust, uttered during an interview on April 9, 2017. “I don’t think France is responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” Le Pen opined, referring to the July 1942 round-up of some 13,000 French Jews by gendarmes obeying orders from Nazi authorities, adding “I think that generally speaking if there are people responsible, it’s those who were in power at the time. It’s not France.” Later, she clarified that “I consider that France and the Republic were in London during the occupation and that the Vichy regime was not France,” and that she condemned “without reservation, the collaborationist Vichy government. I do not want to give it any legitimacy.”
The reaction to these comments was swift and generally merciless, with her rival Emmanuel Macron characterizing her statement as a “heavy political and historical mistake” revealing “the true face of the French extreme right, which I’m fighting.” Israel’s Foreign Ministry declared it “contrary to historical truth, as expressed in the statements of successive French presidents,” while the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens tweeted: “The mask comes off. Not that it was ever really on…Steve Bannon sees this woman as a kindred spirit, btw,” in a somewhat tortuous attempt to tie the story to American domestic politics.
A handful of French figures have come to Le Pen’s defense, including Nicolas Sarkozy’s speechwriter and special advisor Henri Guaino, who told Le Figaro that “her position is mine, is that of de Gaulle, that of Mitterrand, and that the French Republic up until the speech of Jacques Chirac [in 1995, affirming France’s culpability in the Holocaust].” Laurent Jacobelli, speaking for the Gaullist politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, attempted to serve as the voice of reason — a difficult task in a matter so emotional — by proposing that “there was a Vichy France, which is a part of our history,” but “there was a Gaullist France, a Resistance, and it is this that we claim.” Although Jacobelli insisted that “Nicolas Dupont-Aignan does not maintain the same position as Marine Le Pen,” his comments indicate that there is not a tremendous amount of daylight between the two stances.
For those whose ears are even vaguely attuned to the frequency of French history, Le Pen’s comments, however infelicitous, should not seem like they came out of nowhere. Henri Guaino is quite right — de Gaulle and the Free French insisted all along that the Nazi invasion and the establishment of the Vichy client state meant that their republic had “fallen under the bondage of the enemy and all our institutions have ceased to function,” and thus “all forms of authority had disappeared.” The need for national unanimity after the ejection of the German occupiers required a certain rhetorical flexibility on de Gaulle’s part, as evidenced by his famous proclamation that Paris was “liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the assistance of the armies of France, with the support and assistance of the whole of France!” (This is perhaps the quintessence of Napoleon Bonaparte’s conception of history as a “lie agreed upon.”) The socialist President François Mitterrand would likewise take this position, insisting that demands for an official apology for the conduct of the Vichy regime constituted an “inordinate request” and that such “people who have no deep feeling of what it means to be French, the honor of being French, and the honor of French history.”
This defiant attitude was eventually abandoned by Mitterrand’s successor, Chirac, who in a 1986 plaque-unveiling at Vel d’Hiv referred to the “dette imprescriptible,” or “inalienable debt” France had incurred by dint of its administrative connivance in the Shoah. “The criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state,” Chirac later elaborated in his aforementioned 1995 address, in which he went on to lament the fact that “France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome and asylum, on that day committed the irreparable.” Somewhat lost in Chirac’s remarks was his subsequent reference to “the France that was never at Vichy,” the France that was always “correct, generous, faithful to its traditions, to its spirit.”
One begins to get the sense that this is all rhetorical legerdemain. It must be admitted that the Free French and La Résistance demographically paled in comparison to occupied and Vichy France, and that polite fictions were bound to result from the former’s victory. But it must also be understood that the notion of the “eternal” or “real” France — in exile or underground — was genuinely essential in ensuring that Vichy’s place in the transition from the Third to the Fourth Republic was that of an illegitimate interregnum, a horrible discontinuity, and not just another regime in step with the grand march of the French people. Anyone approaching French history in a spirit of good faith must understand the balancing act going on here, a sort of symbolic double-entry bookkeeping in which grotesque historical liabilities are offset against ennobling patriotic capital. How the math adds up precisely will necessarily depend on the auditor.
It is, in any event, exceedingly difficult to take seriously the claim made by the vice-chairman of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF), Jonathan Arfi, that on this issue “Marine Le Pen is exactly the same as her father,” and that her comments were “a way of inscribing the Front National into its Vichy and collaborative tradition.” Le Pen was clearly drawing a distinction between France and Vichy France, and disavowing its shameful legacy entirely, which is presumably the antithesis of collaboration and Holocaust negationism. If her sentiments are more or less identical to those of the nationalist de Gaulle, the socialist Mitterrand, the Republican Guaino, and for all intents and purposes the neo-Gaullist Dupont-Aignan, would that not make them all part of a collaborative tradition? The mind reels.
There is always going to be something of a psychological tug-of-war when addressing the cruelties inflicted by a nation in the wrong. France has been engaging in this back-and-forth discourse for some six decades, and one can sympathize with Guaino in his exasperation: “This debate has already taken place ten times, and I stand by what I have said in the past.” But the endless debate is an unavoidable result of the debt itself. Carl Jung, analyzing German collective responsibility in the aftermath of the Second World War, observed that “guilt can be restricted to the lawbreaker only from the legal, moral, and intellectual point of view, but as a psychic phenomenon it spreads itself over the whole neighborhood.” It is a “state of magical uncleanliness,” but a “very real fact” all the same. Germans, who were subjected (justly) to Allied posters reading Diese Schandtaten: Eure Schuld! (These Atrocities: Your Fault!), experienced this phenomenon in its strongest manifestation, but for all that a 1951 poll of West Germans revealed that a mere 5 percent of respondents felt guilty towards Jewish victims, and only 29 percent approved of reparations payments on their behalf to victims of the Holocaust. Gradually, however, a culture of Kollektivschuld, or collective guilt, did firmly take root in Germany, with far-flung consequences. The Bundesrepublik’s willingness to take in an outsized portion of Syrian refugees has been attributed, by Petra Bendel of the Bavarian Central Institute for Regional Research amongst others, to the fact that “German citizens know that the regulations of the Geneva Refugee Convention stem from the historical experience with Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust.” Countries like Poland and Hungary, which have dettes imprescriptibles of their own (think of the Jedwabne pogrom or the Gold Train), have opted to eschew the so-called “culture of shame,” and have been able to address foreign and domestic crises differently for that very reason. How a nation confronts its past, and how a nation guards what Mitterrand referred to as the “deep feeling” and “honor” of belonging to a people, turns out to matter a great deal.
The upside of this roiling symbolic struggle has always been that France has shown an admirable eagerness to grapple with its own history. It is impossible to visit the shrine in the Mémorial de la Shoah in the Marais district of Paris, or the battered village of Oradour-sur-Glane, preserved as if in amber, without coming away deeply sobered. The renewed interest in the novels of Irène Némirovsky, and the ongoing broadcasting of the incomparable television drama series Un village français on France 3, indicate a country by and large willing to explore the nuances of the occupation period. The downside is that the debate over the legacy of Vichy and far-right anti-Semitism tends to overshadow rather more pressing concerns for France’s Jewish community, particularly those outlined in Jérôme Fourquet and Sylvain Manternach’s haunting recent book L’an prochain à Jérusalem? (Next Year in Jerusalem?). As Gilles-William Goldnadel has noted, it is “wrong to single out FN as the main foe when real criminal anti-Semitism comes from the Islamists and the ultra-left who back them.” Contesting the legacy of the Vichy regime does nothing to forestall attacks like those on the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school in Toulouse, or the Hypercacher kosher superette in Porte de Vincennes, or the daily outrages against persons and graves taking place all across France.
None of this is meant to constitute in even the slightest way a defense of the National Front and its populist platform, nor of Marine Le Pen as an individual or a politician. Were the author a citoyen de la République he would opt for François Fillon’s political program if given the choice. But amidst all of the resultant headlines — “Marine Le Pen sparks outrage over Holocaust comments,” “Marine Le Pen denies French role in wartime roundup of Paris Jews,” “Vél d’Hiv: la double erreur politique de Marine Le Pen,” and so on — it is necessary to maintain a sufficient supply of good faith, with which one might at least acknowledge that Le Pen’s statements were basically consistent with the very ideological and moral bases of the Fourth and Fifth French republics. They are similarly consistent with the motivations behind Free France and the résistance intérieure française, which inspired such heroic efforts aimed at denying, symbolically if not always practically, the legitimacy of the Vichy regime. It is not entirely unreasonable to attribute culpability to the complicit French of the time and not to France qua France, and to twist such words into a statement of support for the “Vichy and collaborative tradition,” as CRIF did, can be seen as cheapening what should be a powerful charge.
Primo Levi observed in The Damned and the Saved that “to keep good faith and bad faith distinct costs a lot; it requires a decent sincerity and truthfulness with oneself, it demands a continuous intellectual and moral effort.” That selfsame effort is required to properly make sense of the figuration of a nation’s history, which sometimes requires the dispassion to cut through the multifold screens that overlay the collective consciousness and conscience in the interests of uncovering the truth, and sometimes requires the sensitivity to understand why, for better or worse, those screens are there in the first place.