Reflecting on the role of a national culture of remembrance

From the Ship

War Memory Delivered by the State

Jan 28, 2021

This article is part of a reportage series from selected ports of call of Peace Boat’s 102nd Global Voyage, seen through the eyes of students from the University of Tuebingen who joined the voyage.

University of Tuebingen students in Marseilles, France

by Janna Articus, Lea Gelfert and Anna Spaulding

Marseilles is the last port of our voyage with Peace Boat. In our quest to understand how different countries deal with their war past, we have a somewhat different experience here to that of previous ports.

We meet several representatives of the French National Office for Veterans and Victims of War (ONACVG), part of the French Ministry of Defense and responsible for the national remembrance policy. This type of organization does not exist in Germany, at least not in this form. We are very excited to learn about their work.

In the room where our meeting takes place, there are French flags and a big picture of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, on the wall. As an introduction, we are shown a very patriotic promotional video: a man in military uniform crouches behind a wall. He aims his rifle at something, then shoots... Men ducking in a trench. A big explosion, stones pelting down. Soldiers carry a wounded comrade... A funeral procession, a French flag on a coffin... Men in a tank drive through a city. People on the streets cheer them on... Veterans in wheelchairs…Soldiers are lined up in a square, a man walks up to one of them and puts a medal on his uniform... "100 years of serving combatants and victims of war. ONACVG".

We are definitely annoyed after watching this video. For us, peace students, this is a very unusual situation that leaves us feeling skeptical about this kind of war memory. It feels strange. In Germany, such form of official war remembrance would probably be unthinkable.

Photo - ONACVGAt the National Office for Veterans and Victims of War (ONACVG) in Marseilles

The ONACVG is in charge of the national remembrance of World War II and other important armed conflicts in French history. As part of its remembrance work, this organization is responsible for the maintenance of memorials, organizing national days of remembrance, and providing educational work in schools.

We learn how the culture of remembrance has been changing in France in recent years. For example, 2018 was the centennial commemoration of the end of World War I. A large military parade is traditionally held on this day, but President Macron decided to cancel it, and instead of highlighting France's role in ending the war, he talked about the importance of having a shared European narrative and understanding of war and peace in the region as a common European culture of war remembrance. 

Furthermore, after World War II, France was long seen as a country that had strongly opposed the Nazi regime. It took quite some time before the crimes of the French Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis, were properly addressed. The first president to accept responsibility for the deportation of Jews from France to the concentration camps in Germany was Jacques Chirac, in 1995. We also learn that the ONACVG organizes exhibitions on the Algerian War of Independence as well as visits of Algerian war veterans from both sides to share their stories in schools. These veterans often have very different memories of the war.

Controversial memory of colonialism

Algeria, one of France's longest-held overseas territories, gained independence in 1962 after eight years of extremely violent and cruel warfare. For a long time, this war was a taboo in France, especially questioning the role and methods of the French army. Strong voices among the political right and traditionalists in France still express regret for “abandoning” Algeria when giving up the colony. Moreover, we learn about Algerian soldiers who fought and died for France in World War I and World War II. Nevertheless, Algerian soldiers and victims are practically excluded from France's national memory of the World Wars.

Looking at France today, particularly at French schools, we see many children with ancestors from former colonies, some of whom fought against independence, some of whom fought for independence. Some may even have ancestors who were French soldiers. This is all quite confusing, and dealing with such contrary memories is very challenging. We wonder what the role of a national culture of remembrance is in a country greatly shaped by migration like France. As young Germans, we belong to a generation influenced by the post-World War II Franco-German friendship. Among other things, the strong relation between France and Germany enables school and university exchanges, and it is a good example of which path to take after a war and how to form long-lasting peaceful relations. 

Photo - Reflection and discussionDiscussing dealing with the past in France

In the final port of Marseilles, and throughout our voyage with Peace Boat, it has been very important for us German students to study how France and other countries we visit deal with their war pasts, and how they utilize lessons learnt. Visiting Marseilles was a valuable learning experience! 

This report from Marseilles is adapted from the radio series broadcasted by the Wueste Welle, Tuebingen. Listen to all podcasts here (in German)

Our partners in this project: University of Tuebingen and Berghof Foundation Tuebingen