I started this post on May 8, which is Armistice Day in France to celebrate the end of World War II. I’d like to talk a little bit about how collective memory and history shape our cultural views.
World War I and II are something you can’t avoid thinking about when living in France.
The first time I stayed in a host family in France (Picardie) in 2005, at the time I was keeping a journal as part of a project. Here’s what I wrote (with a translation):
L’histoire : La région de la Picardie était très blessée par la Première Guerre Mondiale et la destruction en résulte de la guerre se voit toujours aujourd’hui dans les villes qui étaient abîmées. Mon père français me parlait de la peur française envers la guerre, qu’ils ont entendu de leurs grands-parents et leurs grands-parents à eux que la guerre ne produit que des effets négatifs et elle détruit la qualité de la vie. J’ai trouvé dans ce commentaire un contraste énorme avec l’esprit américain qui représente un pays beaucoup plus jeune, et peut-être dans cette façon, naïf. Cela aide aussi à mieux expliquer les différences d’avis entre les européens, surtout les français, et les américains envers la guerre en Iraq.
History : The Picardy region was severely damaged by the First World War and the remaining destruction from the war can still be seen today in cities that were damaged. My host father told me about the French fear of war, since his generation had heard their parents and their grandparents talk about war as something that only has negative consequences and destroys the quality of life. I find this comment very much in contrast with the American feeling which represents a much younger country, and maybe in this way, naïve. This also helps to explain the difference in opinions between Europeans, especially the French, and Americans, towards the war in Iraq.
I still believe what I observed then, that as Americans we tend to view war as something that happens ‘far away’ or over there. And that’s really the point: in the US, you can escape the horrors of World War II. Certainly, we have a lot of survivors who have come to the United States, our own soldiers fought in the war, and we even have museums dedicated to World War II. But the fact is, it wasn’t at home for us. I know quite a few Americans who have a strong fascination for anything related to World War II, and really see it as an artifact to be studied. But at the end of the day, it’s still an ocean away. In contrast, in France, as I’m walking down the street, I pass the following sign once a week:
translation: Here in 1944, in this building seized by the Germans, the Gestapo and their French accomplices tortured the detainees of Montluc Prison. In memory, the Association for the Montluc Survivors.
note: Montluc was a prison in Lyon transformed during the war and used as a holding ground before deportation of prisoners. Some of Lyon’s most famous ‘résistants’ including Jean Moulin were detained here.
Similarly, but on a less grim note, I once was talking with an older French woman. I was going to soon attend a wedding and so I asked her about her own wedding day and what it was like, “Oh well you know,” she said, “It was during the Occupation, and there was a curfew, so we really couldn’t do much.” This comment really struck me. For me, the Occupation was something I had only read about and in a sense it made me realize my cultural distance to be talking with someone who had survived it and for whom it influenced something as personal as her own wedding. We know these things in theory about Europe, but it is a different story to see in everyday life just how much these two wars have shaped France today.
In the end, having a better understanding of a country’s history can help to untangle common misunderstandings between France and the US. From World War II, I can find some examples of how France’s history makes it difficult for the population to understand certain policies and practices in American society.
Take gun control, for example, in the United States. The French just can’t understand why Americans are not able to create stricter gun laws. Their perspective is all the more understandable when you look at their history, and the recent, violent events that have happened in the last century.
Even more so, I’ve come to understand that the events of World War II have shaped the way that France deals with race and ethnicity (or maybe I should say doesn’t deal with these issues). France doesn’t keep statistics on immigration, and when you fill out a form here, it is illegal to ask someone to provide their race/ethnicity. In fact, the word race in France typically is used to talk about animal breeds, or as a very pejorative term, there is no equivalent for race as we use it in the United States.
Going back to World War II, it makes sense that France would have such a view on race/ethnicity. For a country that denounced and deported over 75,000 of its own citizens and created an intermediary government that collaborated with the Nazis, it’s not surprising that they would today see any effort to recognize or categorize race/ethnicity as the possibility for a similar catastrophe to the events of World War II.
Of course, France’s current situation regarding immigration and population statistics has been shaped by many other events, but the consequences of World War II are still very present, in particular on a day like today.
It may seem simplistic, but I don’t think we can overestimate the degree to which history shapes a country. Just think about all of the things you learned in history class as a child, these are part of our collective memory as a country, things that for us seem evident because they have so profoundly shaped the way we are as a society, including the way we think. The difficulty with history is that we can learn it as facts, but I think we are less aware of how much it impacts the way we look at the world, and distinguish right from wrong.