«Comparative Afterlives : Vichy France and the Algerian War A few weeks ago, when I was preparing this lecture, I didn’t expected that I would have ...»
- The end of the Vichy regime is a complex period where the desire of reconstructing the country and closing the books was challenged by a profound feeling of bitterness, even of revenge. During these period, political parties, veteran associations, former resisters proposed what will become a dominant interpretation of the Dark years: the country was victim of the Nazi barbarity, the collaborators were “a handle of miserables”, Vichy was an authority de facto which never had any kind of a legitimacy, and the “true France”, the one of the République, the one of the homeland of the rights of men, survived in London, Algiers or in the Resistance. The role of Vichy, its profound impact on French society, and moreover its role in the Final Solution were played down, not to say completely ignored for counscious or unconscious reasons.
Nevertheless, the Vichy regime and the collaborators were put on trial, in a massive way: about 350,000 people were at a moment or another under the threat of a prosecution;
and there are six to seven more French collaborators (about 1,500) who were legally executed in France between 1944 and 1953 (without mentioning the 10 000 summary executions) than former nazis in the Western occupied zones of Germany at the same time.
Then, the process of memory began with very mixed feelings: the proud to see the Nation, thanks to the France libre and the Resistance, being part of the Victors, but the repressed shame for having been obliged to leave with the enemy during four long years; the happyness to see the democracy restored but the ambivalent remembering of the support given to Marshall Pétain, four years before.
In the case of the Algerian war, the first step, the “exiting war process” was very different. The nation as a whole has rejected the war for a long time, and most of the French people didn’t feel really concerned by the “événements”, except the fact that in total, about 1,200.000 French men served in Algeria between 1954 and 1962.
of North Africa and its brutal decolonization: France has today the most important Muslim community all over Europe, and the most important Jewish community as well.
On the contrary to what happened after WWII, no soldiers or officers were judged after 1962 for their behavior in Algeria. The end of the war was marked in its very beginning by a process of amnesty. The first one is part of the Évian agreements, in 1962, between the new République algérienne and France. Other important laws were voted in 1964 and in 1968 to pardon those who helped the FLN, and the former members of the OAS. Thus, the books were closed quite immediately, and speaking about the books doesn’t mean to speak about the lone Algerian war, it refers to the whole process of colonization. From one day to another, the Nation seemed to forget the profound social and cultural consequences for having been during a century and a half a worldwide colonial Empire.
2° Mourning, forgetting and amnesia
Here, there is a real common situation between the legacy of Vichy France and the Algerian war. From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, Vichy and Collaboration were no more issues in French society, and became more or less “taboos”. A similar phenomenon happened after 1962 for the Algerian War, and lasted until very recently.
But, here we must be careful when speaking about “amnesia”. To my opinion, a “collective amnesia” is in cultural matters what an amnisty law is for lawyers : it is a fiction. It means that it is a constructed representation of the past shared by a collectivity which decides not to speak any more about the past. Actually, amnesia means frequently “silence”, and usually “official silence”. By no way, it means that people forgot what happened. It means that they accepted more or less, and not without strong resentments to look forward and not backward.
In a heuristic way, a period of silence about the past can be identifed by the fact than it precedes a period into which the past is alive in a society. It’s because many survivers began to testify in the 1980’s about the Holocaust that we realized to what extent they were silent before. This is the same thing with the Algerian war: the growing number of witnesses talking about the war in the 1990’s emphasized the profound silence wich occured in the previous years.
Here again, we have to be careful: until very recently, official silences, collective or political amnesias were usual ways to cope with a traumatic past, for example the legacy of a civil war. This changed quite recently, with the tremendous impact of the memory of the Holocaust, which led to consider that remembering is a supreme value of modern global societies.
3th and 4th steps: A process of anamnesis, and hypermnesia
In this context, one can observe a similar movement of anamnesis for the Dark years and the Algerian war. The revival of the Vichy syndrome began in the 1970’s, and reached a peak in late 1990’s, with the Papon trial – this is now a well known situation; the revival of the Algerian war began in the 1980’s and reached a peak in the 1990’s as well, it means at the same time, like two rivers merging.
One can explain the revival of the Algerian war by two contextual explanations, one at an international level, the other one, at a social one.
The first Gulf war, the first Intifida and the general situation in the Middle East are here important elements. Moreover, the beginning of the civil war in Algeria, in late 1990’s, the growing influence of islamists movements led to a comparison with the past, especially for some fundamentalists who still continue to blame France and those in Algeria who are faithful to the French culture. In their perspective, the Algerian war was less the war of independance of a former colony than a war between Islam and Christianity.
On the other hand, I haved already mentioned the situation of millions of young French citizens, from Algerian background, who began to fight in the 1990’s for a better integration, either by claiming equal rights or facing racism (SOS Racisme), or joining some religious groups challenging the so-called French model. Whatever are their political choices, including burning cars, they are not in a logic of silence and reconciliation, but in a logic of victimhood and recognition, which is probably the faith of any second or third generation after a traumatic event: remember the word of Ezekiel, in the Bible : “The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the children's teeth are set on edge ».
12/13 This last statement leads me to invoke here another series of explanations, not linked to the specific meaning of the Algerian War in French or international politics, but which refers to a specific way to cope with the past in contemporary societies, what we can call the “era of victimhood”, by comparison to the “era of the witness”, emphasized by Annette Wieviorka.
The era of victimhood
Comparing battles for memory is not to provide here comparisons between the crimes committed by the Nazis and their French accomplices in the Holocaust, and crimes committed by the French army in Algeria. This comparison is simply nonsense to my opinion at a historical level. The war in Algeria was not a genocide even if it had obviously a racist dimension: the round up of October 17, 1961 has nothing to do with the Vél d’Hiv round up, despite what what was suggested at the Papon trial. The French army committed undoubtedely systematic acts of torture; but the FLN committed numerous war crimes too, especially against civilians, and including against Algerians: the civil war in Algeria, between different factions, or the repression after 1962 led to a tremendous number of casualties which were not caused by the French.
Whether we accepte or not these factual elements, there is no doubt that the comparison has been often made by groups or people defending the point of view of the “colonized”. What is interesting here is not to point out the usual instrumentalization of the past, but to underline to what extent there are similar ways of acting upon the past, with the idea – the illusion ? – to repair it. Here, the memory of the Holocaust has worked as a model from which it is possible to identify the main features.
We can see in both situations the same valorization of memory and the denunciation of forgetting.
We can see the same difficulty to establish a consensus for a commemoration which can be accepted by all the parties.
We can see the same metonymical use of the past: the persecution of the Jews is seen as the main element of the Vichy regime; the 17 October 1961 subsumes all the other crimes committed during this war.
We can see the same use of late testimonies, and finally the same will to intsrumentalize the law and justice as vectors of memory, which succeedded in the case of the Holocaust survivors, but failed in the case of the Algerian war.
- To my opinion, after the recent period of recognition of the Holocaust survivors, the Second World War is probably now over. The legacy of colonialism is not. But what is at stake is less the memory of the last episode, the décolinization wars, than the the proufound impact of the whole process during almost two centuries: this is what some historians call “l’impensé colonial”, which means the unability for instant to establish an objective balance of history, and then can lead either to undersetimate the ethnic dimension of current social problems, or to overestimate them, and to adopt a very easy explanation coming from the past, in order not to face the reality: for example, what is at stake today, is it the unability of the French society to integrate the grand sons of the former colony, or to accept 6 to 7 millions of Muslims, which is a different problem ?
- the duty of remember was a value in the case of the Holocaust until very recently.
- today, please, forget the Holocaust a little bit
- what is a duty to remember in the case of the Algerian war ? Probably, we probably may rely on the old tradition, the one which encourage the forgetting of the old wounds in order to let the possibility to live together.