Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Historical Memory

President Sarkozy wants the schools to emphasize selective memories of World War II, including the story of resistance hero Guy Môquet and the deportation of Jewish children. To judge by this exercise in video journalism, he has a more fundamental problem to solve first. World War II itself has been forgotten. May 8, V-E Day, has been celebrated in France for generations, but the meaning of the event is evidently lost on many Parisians. When asked why the day was a holiday, they gave answers ranging from commemoration of May '68 to welcoming the sunshine.

Of course Americans would do no better on this quiz. And in the interest of full disclosure, let me tell a tale on myself. The first time I was in France on a May 8 was in 1977. I happened to pass a spot where some politician was giving a speech from a flag-bedecked podium. Many uniformed old soldiers were in the crowd. I walked on to a café, ordered a coffee, and asked the waiter what the fuss was about. He answered that it was a celebration of the victory over the Germans in World War II. So, two lessons: even the educated need educating about specific events, and it's never easy to measure a population's actual depth of historical knowledge. Was the well-informed waiter who educated me about May 8 more or less representative of the French population than the sun-baskers singled out for ridicule in the video? Or have the intervening thirty years caused historical memories to fade? I have no idea.

Thanks to Scott Guye for the tip.


kirkmc said...

Well, Americans would do no better for two reasons. First, we don't celebrate V-E Day; we celebrate Veteran's Day, and don't keep in mind the other "days" aside from the one in November. Second, we have more than one "V" Day for WWII - we also have V-J Day, so the war wasn't actually over for the US on May 8.

Not that this is an excuse for ignorance, but I'm just saying...


Leo said...

"...Or have the intervening thirty years caused historical memories to fade?"

Definitely Art. When I was a young boy (in the 50's) we were taught the significance of May 8. And then time passed. And then Germany (fortunately) ceased to be described as the "enemi héréditaire" to the point that President Giscard d'Estaing wanted to do away with the celebrations which he thought almost obscene facing his friendship with Helmut Schmidt. He was prevented from doing so by the war veterans generated uproar immediately seized by Chirac to reinforce his case against "le Parti de l'Etranger".

As for me la fete du Printemps would suit me well.

kirkmc said...

You might want to read about the strange "parcours" of the May 8 holiday here:



Anonymous said...

...and (to build on Kirk's comment) in the book of Henry Rousso, "Vichy, l'événement, la mémoire, l'histoire". Rousso tells the story of the May 8 celebration and its "political life". Celebration for a victory to which the French only barely participated, and for the end of a war they actually lost in 1940. Which is the all problem: May 8 did not really fit into the post-1945 "De Gaullian" rhethoric.
As for this French ignorance of history, this video presentation seems to me like a poor argument: I could go out in the street and find peoples who do not know what a germ is, or think Einstein is a pop singer. Not that I deny the fact that many French are ignorant about most historical developments, though.