This article originally appeared in the May 12, 1979, issue.
“We are all German Jews” chanted 50,000 Frenchmen at the gates of the Bastille in 1968; I was recently reminded of this episode, which has become revolutionary lore, when Holocaust was shown here. Seven out of ten French viewers followed the saga of the Weiss family on their television screens, even though here as everywhere, progressive critics tore the show to pieces. But the questionable mixture of commercial TV serial and inhuman atrocity, of family life and horror, gripped millions, provoking polemics in French newspapers, magazines and private homes. The exceedingly passionate nature of the stir was predictable and that is why the French Government, jealous master of its telly, was very reluctant to broadcast Holocaust and did so only under strong pressure.
And why was the French Government so worried by a serial describing only German atrocities? Because it does not want the country to awaken from the collective amnesia affecting a dark period of its recent past, the five years of Vichy and collaboration. Or to be more accurate, it wants to preserve the legend that France, with a few exceptions, was on the side of the angels. This myth was constructed immediately after the war on the basis of a simple syllogism: de Gaulle was a resister; de Gaulle is France; hence, France was a nation of resistance. And everybody, for different reasons, played a part in this mystification.
The Gaullists did so not only because it enhanced the stature of their legendary hero. As resisters they were, in a sense, both traitors to and saviors of their class. The bulk of the French bourgeoisie had backed Vichy wholeheartedly. Some businessmen collaborated actively with the Germans in keeping with the slogan of the 1930s: “Plutôt Hitler que le front populaire” (Rather Hitler than the popular front). Others merely welcomed Marshal Pétain as the current symbol of law and order. Naturally, there were many exceptions and these temporary outcasts rallied around de Gaulle. After the war, and facing strong pressures from the underground for a radical overhaul, the Gaullists were only too glad to purge individuals while preserving the system.
The left acquiesced for more pedestrian reasons, because it had its own black sheep and its own skeletons in the cupboard. The Socialists preferred to forget that many of their deputies had voted the full powers for Pétain. The Communists did not wish to remember that they became the main force within the Resistance movement only after 1941, i.e., after the German invasion of Russia. Some people argue that this myth-making was an inevitable contribution to national unity. National unity, however, is often achieved at the expense of political consciousness. The left, having then forgotten its motto about truth being always revolutionary, has been paying the price for its complicity ever since.
Conservative France required the myth and the mystification to reforge its unity just as it needs them now to preserve it. When General de Gaulle was brought back to power by the Algerian colonels in 1958, most former supporters of Vichy climbed on his bandwagon. I remember a French friend protesting indignantly at the time that his in-laws, who had a portrait of Pétain over their mantelpiece during the war, put a picture of General de Gaulle in its place; in his indignation, my friend overlooked their consistency. Ten years later, in May 1968, as society was threatened by the students’ rebellion and the workers’ strike, conservative France rallied, once again, around the General. In their big procession up the Champs-Elysées, former Resistance leaders marched in front, while neo-Nazis in the back chanted: “Cohn-Bendit to Dachau.” (For those who may have forgotten: Daniel Cohn-Bendit was a colorful student leader, Jewish and German by accident, whose expulsion from France prompted thousands of young Frenchmen to proclaim themselves German Jews.) I am not suggesting that none of the pro-Gaullist marchers was shocked by the ghastly slogan, yet, when it was reported in the press, none of them uttered publicly a word of protest. In the hour of danger, the right could not afford the luxury of morality at the risk of dissension, and today, still under pressure, it tries to complete its reconciliation. Giscard d’Estaing is the open champion of such reconciliation even if, for the time being, he cannot crown it spectacularly by burying Pétain at Verdun, the site of his World War I exploits. The country is still too deeply divided and the memories too fresh for that.