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How can we remember what we do not know?

France's history wars

France's non-commemoration last year of the bicentennial of Napoleon's great victory at Austerlitz was a sign of national uncertainty about the role of history and its relationship to the state.

It seems from recent events that the French malaise is no longer confined to the present. It applied to contemporary problems of the nation's economy and politics, and now it also encompasses the past. Through a challenge to French history it has reached the foundations of national republicanism. The unsurprising reaction to this has been a mixture of Gaullist hand-wringing and post-colonial self-satisfaction. But current debates have also raised some positive and key questions about the role of history, and its relationship to memory, morality, and the state.

The leading event was the fudged bicentenary celebration of the battle of Austerlitz, fought between Napoleon's army and a Russo-Austrian army in 1805, and long celebrated as a great French military victory. In an article in Le Monde, the renowned French historian Pierre Nora (recipient of the legion d'honneur, created by Napoleon in 1802), fulminated against what he called the non-commemoration of Austerlitz[1]. He wrote that this was a sign that France had reached the depths "of shame and of ridicule". The British were able to celebrate Trafalgar, the Belgians Waterloo, and even the Germans were planning to celebrate in 2006 their grand rendezvous with Napoleon, in commemoration of his victories at Iena and Auerstadt in 1806.

Yet, according to Nora, it would soon be impossible in France to teach with pride Victor Hugo's lines about hearing "in the depths of my thoughts the noise of the heavy cannons rolling towards Austerlitz".

Nora blamed this on a recently published attack on Napoleon, another nail in the coffin of French republicanism. In December 2005, the historian Claude Ribbe published Napoleon's Crime, which challenges the accepted view of Napoleon as military genius and founder of modern France. In this book, Napoleon is presented as an anti-Semite and racist, responsible for the reintroduction of slavery after its abolition by the Revolutionary Convention in 1794. Ribbe describes him as "the first racist dictator of all time" and accuses him of building a Napoleonic Reich that could only prosper through the slave trade.[2]

Ribbe's goal is the moral condemnation of Napoleon; he considers the emperor to be the inspiration for Adolf Hitler. Ribbe describes the visit Hitler paid to Napoleon's tomb in Paris in 1940, and calls Bonaparte Hitler's "master [...] the precursor who, for the first time probably in the history of humanity, asked himself rationally the question of how to eliminate, in as short a time as possible, and with a minimum of cost and of personnel, a maximum of people described as scientifically inferior".[3] Ribbe consistently claims that Napoleon's actions prefigured those of Nazi Germany, writing that "without the precedent of Napoleon, no Nuremberg laws. Hitler knows it"; and that the defences of the slave trade made by slave owners, addressed to Napoleon, expressed the same sentiment that reappeared in the concentration camps: Arbeit Macht Frei (work brings freedom).[4]

The debate over Austerlitz and Napoleon has coincided with another debate, over France's colonial history. In February 2005, an amendment to the law on the repatriated (loi sur les repatriés) was passed by both socialists and Gaullists. It stipulated that French history textbooks should "recognize the positive role of the French presence in its overseas colonies, especially in North Africa" (see Remembrance by order). This amendment was ostensibly passed as a way of recognizing the contribution of the harkis, Algerian Muslims who fought on the French side in the Algerian war[5], and at first provoked the ire of only a few historians. On 25 March, six of them published a petition in Le Monde: "Colonisation: no to the teaching of an official history". (

Not until the November riots across the banlieues of France did this amendment become a political football.[6] In response to public pressure, President Jacques Chirac established an inquiry, led by the leader of the National Assembly, Jean Louis Debré, with the purpose of "evaluating the action of the parliament in the domains of memory and history". The interior minister and rival of the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, predictably took the opportunity to launch his own initiative, commissioning the lawyer Arno Klarsfeld for a study on "law, history, and the duty of memory". These debates have become known as la querelle des mémoires (the memory dispute).

End of the consensus

Challenging conventional wisdom and official histories is all to the good; it is the occupation of all radical historians. The purpose of history is properly to understand the past, and most often this means tackling accepted interpretations head-on. In this light, recent critiques of Napoleon and the debate over the pros and cons of French imperialism may signal a shift towards a climate more open to searching and probing questions. Ten years ago the conservative British historian Andrew Roberts described Winston Churchill as a racist, a sign that the mythology built up around this much-loved wartime leader was beginning to break down.[7] This might have led to a thorough reinvestigation of the Second World War and its dynamics. As James Woudhuysen has argued, many of its questions remain relatively unexplored by historical scholarship, from the race war in the Pacific to the Allied betrayal of partisans in Italy and Greece at the end of the war.[8]

There is much to be gained in France from opening space for critical historical investigation. Historians have been slow to re-examine the experience of the Second World War. De Gaulle, on his arrival in Paris in 1944, declared the Vichy era to be "a non-event and without consequence", and so it remained, buried under what a journalist called "a deft compromise", with its heroes, an innocent population, and its villains punished at the time of the liberation.[9]

This compromise has fallen apart somewhat in recent decades. The 16 years between 1981, when the first accusations were made against a former civil servant of the Vichy regime, Maurice Papon (later budget minister under Giscard d'Estaing), and his trial in 1997, were a long interrogation of France's relationship with its past. De Gaulle's death in 1970 allowed some revisionist accounts of Vichy: Marcel Ophuls' 1972 film, The Sorrow and the Pity, and Robert Paxton's book, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, translated into French in 1973, are examples of challenges to the official view of Vichy.[10]

The outcry in 2001 when General Paul Assauresses published Special Services, Algeria 1955-1957, his account of state-backed torture in Algeria, suggested that challenges to the accepted account of "the events" (the euphemism used to describe the Algerian war, only officially abolished in 1999) remain few and far between. Yet, decades earlier, Franz Fanon had already declared in his Wretched of the Earth that the Algerian war signalled the final debasement of the French republican slogan of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity", a view endorsed by Jean-Paul Sartre in the book's introduction: this set the stage for the third world-ist turn in French political radicalism, which abandoned the republican model in favour of Maoist and other alternatives.

Away from facts, towards morality

But the response in France to this failure of the Gaullist compromise has not been a flowering of critical, revisionist history. Instead, we have seen a shift from history to what Nora called "memory". Memory and history represent different kinds of relationships to the past. Memory is defined by its individualism: everybody can claim a memory of some sort, and understanding the past through memory establishes an individual relationship with it, which each can define in his own way. Memory transforms history into a sequence of individual and group narratives, each as valid as any other.

Memory is also tied to identity: it represents an attempt to understand the past in order to illuminate present identity. Memory then becomes a claim for recognition, and history becomes a process whereby those excluded and marginalized in the conventional stories told about the past can be included and recognized. Memory, by virtue of its link to individual claims and identities, brings up the question of duty: today the duty to remember is an ever-present motif behind anniversaries and commemorations. The shift to memory signifies a movement away from facts, towards morality.

This shift from history to memory was at first the work of historians and the state, and reflected an attempt to salvage French history from its critics and from the effects of the end of consensus. Nora describes this period as "the age of commemoration", pointing to the sharp rise in such events between 1989 and 2000. In 1985 the French government set up a National Festivities Bureau, the first of its kind, and each year since has been dominated by anniversaries and commemorations. Nora embarked on a major scholarly project, which culminated in the three-volume collection, Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, published in English in 1996.[11]

The moralistic element of the construction of a national memory was evident in the Papon trial. The case against him was fought in the name of memory and history, and meant squeezing into a judicial trial broader questions of moral conduct directed at the whole French postwar establishment. For this reason, the focus was less on his exact role in executing government orders, and more on his state of mind, feelings, and judgment. In the words of a journalist, the trial's purpose and interest was "to establish the degree of awareness that Maurice Papon had of the tragic events in which he participated".[12]

The shift to memory has also taken a juridical form, which today includes an outlawing of negationism - that is, denying crimes against humanity as defined by the Nuremberg Tribunals (the Gayssot law of 1990); a law declaring the massacre of Armenians in 1915 to have been genocide (2001); and a law classifying the slave trade, from the fifteenth century on, as a crime against humanity (the Taubira law of 2001). This tendency to legislate on the past is widespread in national and international politics across Europe and beyond. The recent amendment to the law on the repatriated, passed in February 2005 and today the subject of debate, was justified by the language of recognition, which the harkis have consistently used to press their case.

This shift to memory was encouraged by historians such as Nora as a way of re-establishing a national identity and collective sense of national self under the pressures of multiculturalism and communitarianism. Nevertheless, today's debates suggest that memory and history do not lie easily together. The individuated nature of memory has made possible the transformation of history into a call for recognition. Ribbe's critique of Napoleon is made in the name of recognition for the role of slaves in history. He claims that besides the tomb of the unknown soldier, France should erect a tomb of the unknown slave.[13]

The moralization of historical inquiry has also made it a victim of pessimistic concerns of the current period. The comparison between Napoleon and Hitler is of little value in helping us understand either the nature of the French response to the 1791-1803 San Domingo slave revolution in the Caribbean, the role and status of Jews in Napoleonic France, or the nature of German fascism. It proposes a twenty-first-century version of Whig history, where Great Men are replaced by Evil Men and racism becomes an eternal feature of the human condition. Ribbe claims that while the institution of slavery is considered morally abhorrent today, its consequences live on, with French society dominated more than ever by the same prejudices that drove Napoleon's actions.[14]

CLR James, in his classic work of 1938, The Black Jacobins, (see extract, The historian's true business) highlighted the danger of this kind of history: without analyzing historical figures as "projections of the sub-soil from which they came", historians will only grasp individuals and events as examples of either romanticism or infinite caprice. Ribbe's demonisation of Napoleon is a clear example of the latter. (

Reconstructing a national identity

The debate on colonization has been dominated not by facts but by issues of identity and recognition. For this reason, last year's violence in the banlieues was immediately connected with French colonial history, and it came as no surprise that immigrant communities described themselves as "the indigenous peoples of the republic".[15] This revealed very little about the dynamics of French imperialism, but demonstrated the transformation of a historical category into a label signifying exclusion and marginalization.

Historians such as Nora are today merely reaping what they have sown: in ceding to the shift from history to memory, they laid the basis for the abandonment of history altogether. Nora laments the passing of a national consensus that would at least have recognized the centrality of Napoleon in the construction of the modern French nation. Yet the collapse of such a consensus was contained within the concept of memory, much as multiculturalism – heralded as a basis for a new British identity – has over time revealed itself as way to hide the fact that there are few definitions of Britishness that British people can agree upon.

What is valuable about today's debates is that a certain awareness of an irreconcilable tension between memory and history is beginning to surface. Henry Rousso has drawn attention to the dangers of the "judicialization of history".[16] The "culture of memory", argues Rousso, is beginning to serve as a check against historical scholarship. Memory instrumentalizes facts as a tool for the construction of identities and as a means by which moral judgments can be made. History is concerned not with remembering, but with establishing these very facts: its purpose is the pursuit of knowledge. In Rousso's words, "how can we remember what we do not know?" In these circumstances, we should take advantage of current debates over the role of history, and its relationship to politics, national identity, and morality. Today, we need more history and less memory, more understanding and less remembering.

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  • [1] Pierre Nora, "Plaidoyer pour les indigènes d'Austerlitz", Le Monde, 12 December 2005, reprinted on one of le Monde's blogs. (
  • [2] Claude Ribbe, Le Crime de Napoléon, Privé, Paris, 2005: "The inferiority of Africans, and their instrumentalization in the interests of the prosperity of the "Napoleonic Reich", are at the heart of the system of which Napoleon dreamt, and which unfortunately he sought to realize."
  • [3] Claude Ribbe, op cit.
  • [4] Claude Ribbe, op cit: "The slave owner Bélu dedicated to Bonaparte 'On the colonies and the slave trade', in which he attempted to demonstrate that, to compensate for physical exhaustion, the 'exhaustion of the mind' of slaves often made their condition 'equal in happiness to that of the master'. This in some ways prefigured the 'liberating' forced labour that was inscribed at the entrance of concentration camps".
  • [5] Sandrine Lemaire, "Une loi qui vient de loin", Le Monde diplomatique, January 2006. (
  • [6] Christophe Barbier and Eric Mandonnet, "Le mal de la repentance", L'Express, Paris, 15 December 2005. (
  • [7] Andrew Roberts, Eminent Churchillians, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1994.
  • [8] James Woudhuysen, "Dresden: Don't Apologise - Understand", spiked-online, 8 February 2005. A historian who has tackled the issue of the Allied treatment of partisans is Gabriel Kolko, in his The Politics of War, Random House, New York, 1968. For a revisionist account of the Second World War, see James Heartfield's essay at,
  • [9] Denis Jeambar, "Le devoir d'histoire", L'Express, 2 October 1997.
  • [10] Pierre Nora, "Reasons for the current upsurge in memory", Eurozine, April 2002. (
  • [11] Charles-Robert Ageron & Pierre Nora, ed, Les Lieux de Memoire, Gallimard, Paris, 1997.
  • [12] Eric Cona, "Les Français et Vichy", L'Express, 2 October 1997. (
  • [13] Claude Ribbe, "A l'esclave inconnu", Le Monde, 24 December 2005, as reproduced on Ribbe's website. (
  • [14] Claude Ribbe, Le Crime de Napoléon, argues that "the descendants of the French that Napoleon returned to, or wanted to return to, slavery are today continuing to suffer the consequences. It is banal to state that those descendants of slaves coming from the overseas departments are today not full citizens, but exist apart, without real representation in a society more than ever susceptible to prejudice".
  • [15] "Nous sommes les indigènes de la république", Appel pour des Assises de l'anti-colonialisme post-colonial, January 2005,
  • [16] Henry Rousso, "Mémoires abusives", Le Monde, 24 December 2005.

Published 2006-05-10

Original in English
First published in Le Monde diplomatique (English language edition) 2/2006

Contributed by Le Monde diplomatique (Berlin)
© Chris J. Bickerton/Le Monde diplomatique (English language edition)
© Eurozine

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