France and the holocaust

France’s Council of State (its highest court) has ruled yesterday about the involvement of France in the holocaust. According to the BBC coverage

The Council of State said the state had permitted or facilitated deportations that led to anti-Semitic persecution without being coerced by the occupiers.

But the council also found reparations had since been made “as much as was possible, for all the losses suffered”.

KZ StruthofIt is obviously not ideal that court cases have to alter our (or France’s) understanding of history and therefore it was right of Jacques Chirac to offer an apology in 1995. However, sad enough, it took a president so long to. Remember that his predecessor Francois Mitterrand for all his glory received abroad had until the end kept an ambigious relationship to collaborateurs with the Vichy regime and his own role during occupation has never really been full scrutinised. As little respect as I have for Chirac, I admit that at least he finally changed the French perspective on its own involvement in the holocaust and the memory of these tragedies. One of these manifestations is the upgraded and quite impressive museum in and around the former German concentration camp (KZ) Natzweiler-Struthof which opened an impressive museum and new sites at the end of Chirac’s presidency.

I visited the Struthof museum/camp in summer 2007 and thought particularly the museum was a pretty impressive place. The site has set itself to capture the double tension between understanding the particular role of the Alsace between France and Germany as well as presenting the concentration camp. However, I was shocked when I walked through the museum and did not see a single critical mentioning of the French involvement in the holocaust or indeed of the Vichy regime. When I mentioned this observation to my (French) French teachers, they could only agree and told me that there was never any critical discussion of France’s role during the holocaust when they went to school.

Courts should not write history. But maybe this ruling serves as a useful reminder to those educating this great nation. You cannot discuss the presence if you do not understand your past.

[picture from www.struthof.fr]

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