Tribune. The French have never really emerged from the shadow cast by the five years which went from 1940 to 1945. To be convinced of this, it suffices to observe the public debate of the last decades as much as the current success of Eric Zemmour. But I will content myself with indicating this reality which is familiar to me: France is the country in the world where the greatest number of documentaries devoted to the Second World War are produced and broadcast. Make no mistake: if they are produced and broadcast, it is because they meet an audience that has never been denied, in all age groups. On the international film markets, this French specificity never ceases to surprise. The collective imagination of the French still seems stunned by these five years and by the crime which, over time, has come to represent them: the Shoah.
The painful memory of two episodes of this period, the defeat of 1940 and Vichy, both linked, is, I believe, one of the causes of the long existential, political and moral crisis that our country is going through. The stinging memory of this “Past that does not pass” explains why this page of history can today be cleverly, efficiently and dishonestly exploited, in the service of reactionary and xenophobic thought. In these events and in their memory, we must look for some keys to understanding and, perhaps, some weapons.
It all starts with a defeat. The French have never fully recovered from the astonishing debacle of 1940, which saw a powerful and self-confident country defeated in a few weeks by its hereditary enemy. The wound is all the more acute in that in theory, the Allied forces were superior to the German armies – including in number of tanks and planes -, that the French leaders did not fail to recall that France and its empire had of the first army in the world, and that everyone knew – and still knows – that France was fighting against the incarnate evil, Nazi Germany. This astonishing defeat is at the origin of a feeling of irremediable downgrading, source of a protean crisis of confidence and an endless melancholy. In addition, this injury sustainably nourishes the feeling of betrayal of the elites.
This reaction crosses time. It travels in the unconscious, in minds, in families and it is unique, as the American historian Philip Nord has observed. In a book published in 2017 – France 1940. Defending the Republic (Perrin) -, this researcher at Princeton notices that France is the only one to experience such a feeling of guilt, which does not exist, or much less, among the other vanquished of 1940: the Belgians, the Dutch, including the attitude directly favored the Nazi victory; the Poles or the British, who took so long to abandon their pusillanimity and their temptation to come to terms.
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