France has seen many commemorations of war in 2014. Not only is there the beginning of the Great War but also the 70th anniversary of the Normandy Landings. A number of leftist pundits have said, ‘Enough! How many more ceremonies do we need?’

French President François Hollande measured his words carefully this Remembrance Day:

To commemorate is not simply remembering the dead but also a reminder of our duty to work for peace, security, human rights and democracy. Every time that nationalism, hateful ideologies and separatism appear, we should remember the infernal spiral of the summer of 1914, because peace … is at the mercy of fanaticism. This is why we need the military in peacetime.

He went on to defend the French military’s presence in parts of Africa as well as in Iraq. Then, he spoke of French citizens:

Patriotism means never tiring of serving one’s country. Patriotism means talking about history in order to meet the future straight ahead. Patriotism isn’t nostalgia. It is a willingness. A willingness to put France first on the world stage by preserving her identity, that is, [as] a social republic. 

He ended by saying:

France is our inheritance. Europe is our future.

It should be noted that Hollande is the least popular president in French history. His approval rating is 12%. A banner demanding his resignation appeared during the ceremony. But I digress.

France has a more ambivalent remembrance of the Great War than other Allied countries. Perhaps this is because so much of the Western Front is in that country. These recent haunting photos show the battlefields which still bear visible scars from a century ago.

Historian Rémi Dalisson, a professor at the University of Rouen and author of a book about France and Remembrance Day, recently spoke with Le Monde. Dalisson unpacked the baggage surrounding the Great War. A summary and excerpts follow. Although this is French history, it also reflects what others in Allied countries no doubt also felt and partially explains the revisionism we have about the war today.

Dalisson said that November 11 became a national holiday in France in 1922, after four years of political debate. Veterans wanted the day to be an occasion to remember the horrors of the war and contemplate the loss of their comrades:

So, this meant that people would not be working that day and would come together to contemplate the patriotism of those who died for their country. [For the veterans], it was vital that communities come together to consider their [comrades’] sacrifices so that there would never be another war again. This day was intended to become as important as July 14 and Joan of Arc Day.

Le Monde asked about the latter, highjacked by the Front National in recent years, to the extent that many French believe that the authoritarian political party created the day themselves:

It wasn’t invented by the Front National but by the Third Republic on July 10, 1920. Set for the second Sunday in May, it is the national day of patriotism, of courage. Given priority by the Vichy government, it became obsolete after the Second World War … Joan of Arc Day is still widely observed, which says something about the relationship the French have with their commemorations.

This day of patriotism left November 11 as a day of contemplation. This was the official stance of the veterans who were witnessing for the future. There was to be no presidential speech because this was the day to remember those [soldiers] who died. We find this model in other countries, including Germany.

The professor discussed the occasional highjacking of November 11 ceremonies by radical groups on both sides of the political spectrum during the 1920s and 1930s.

Le Monde asked if November 11 was meant to boost the national morale. Dalisson replied:

As with July 14, the idea is not so much a national morale boost as it is unifying around a set of values …

With the ambiguity surrounding November 11, the state wants to fuse the nation together, but around which values? Pacifism or a triumphalist republic? We don’t really know …

Those questions also describe Britain. The important point is that everyone who has worn a poppy, watched war documentaries, watched the Remembrance Sunday ceremony or visited the field of poppies this year at the Tower of London can take away the message they wish. That said — and speaking personally — I hope that they also take time to consider the courage and valour of those who died in battle. Those two values are in short supply these days.

Back now to the interview. Dalisson said that it was French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who, in the 1970s, declared November 11 a day of remembrance of those who died not just in the Great War but also in the Second World War and subsequent conflicts. However, this proved controversial not only then but also in the subsequent Mitterand and Chirac administrations; from the 1980s onward, a number of government reports have complained of too many public holidays.

It was only in 2012, when Nicolas Sarkozy revived November 11, that it was once again considered as a national day of remembering the war dead.

Dalisson explained:

I think Giscard was fascinated by the Anglo-Saxons. There’s also a generational element. Giscard was born in 1926, ten years after Mitterand. For that generation, the Great War does not have the same resonance. There was also the idea of Europeanising national holidays, introducing different rituals. Equally, Giscard was following his political philosophy of bringing in change. He observed July 14 at the Bastille. He increased the singing of La Marseillaise. Many people didn’t go [to November 11 commemorations]. The memory of war was just too volatile.

The interviewer returned to discussing the national values and objectives of November 11. Here, Dalisson mentioned revisionism with regard to war dead:

The values of bravery and patriotic sacrifice were already being discussed the day after the Great War ended. For the veterans, what was important was the suffering and remembering the dead, not necessarily republican heroism.

Today, the myth of the Great War soldier has changed: it is no longer of the squaddie as triumphant hero but, rather, a victim … November 11 is becoming a public holiday of peace, like May 8, with a speech about Europe and the future. 

And that describes the speech Hollande gave.

Dalisson added that this year’s commemorations have had an international aspect to them, with dignitaries from non-European countries, e.g. New Zealand, participating. The emphasis, he says, is on the global involvement in the war.

The final question — also of interest to those of us who live in other Western countries — concerned the reasons why our perspective of the Second World War differs to that of the First (emphasis mine):

This is linked to current geopolitics: the rise of nationalism in Hungary, the situation in Ukraine. We have talked at length about the [centenary of the] assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 2014, where Bosnian Serbs refused to participate in official commemorations. The memory of the Great War reopens many wounds of [national] minorities. The problem of nationality, bottled up during the Communist era, is a resurgent one today. In this context, it is difficult to invite heads of state to Paris where the peace treaties were drawn up between 1919 and 1920. The Second World War is much easier to commemorate: we can gather everyone around the table to celebrate the victory over Nazism.  

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The next set of posts on the Great War will appear, all being well, in November 1915. They will address how the British attitude towards this conflict changed between 1918 and the 1930s. The books and plays about the war which appeared during and after that decade appear to have shaped our national outlook permanently.

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