The saved and the shaved

The Liberation of France
August 9, 1996

It is often left to the outsider to tackle the most disturbing questions. H. R. Kedward, by introducing this edited work with the statement, "It could well be argued that the identity of contemporary France is rooted in the history of Vichy and the Resistance in the same way that 19th-century France was rooted in the revolution of 1789", has undoubtedly put his finger on the principal characteristic of French historiography of the liberation.

Until the beginning of the 1980s, the business of writing a scholarly account of the occupation, and thus of the liberation (and indeed of the purge), had been entrusted to one organisation, the Comite d'Histoire de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, a body directly linked to the office of the prime minister. The liberation is so problematic that it is perhaps for this reason that Pierre Nora has not included it in his magisterial census, Lieux de memoire. As Francois Mitterrand said: "Laissons le temps au temps."

By adopting an image-centred approach, the contributors to this book have used a method that is no longer new, but that seems to offer an inexhaustible wealth of interpretations.

There are pious images from Resistance cinema, accompanying a study of Rene Clement's 1946 film, La Bataille du Rail which immortalised the courageous actions of the cheminots but which, as Martin O'Shaughnessy notes, does not linger unduly over the collaborators and even less over the anti-Semitic policies of the French state under Petain. Much later, in 1990, came Claude Berri's Uranus, with heroes and villains now side by side, a harrowing film in which Ginette Vindendeau discerns "l'histoire de la mediocrite". Between La Bataille du Rail and Uranus lie 45 years of unspoken words, and of the frenzied labours of a manipulated collective memory.

Then there is the image of the tonte, shameful and wounding as it is to our contemporary sensibilities: those women found, or presumed, guilty of affairs with the occupier who had to submit their heads to the barber's razor beneath the gaze of a jubilant crowd (and what gazes meet our eyes in the collections of the Imperial War Museum). The tontes have continued to haunt memories despite the long silence of academic historians, and The Liberation of France affords an opportunity to reflect anew on the way in which war rewards women with the crumbs of power, both symbolic and real (women in France received the right to vote by an order of April 21, 1944, just three months before the liberation). Here, the book succeeds in restoring to the liberation its carnival dimension, albeit a lousy carnival.

As the product of a conference held in April 1994 at the University of Sussex, The Liberation of France had probably neither the means nor the desire to be exhaustive. It brings together writings by historians and specialists in literature and civilisation in an interdisciplinary encounter that should happen more often - for history, as this book once again demonstrates, is enriched by such encounters.

Sonia Combe is librarian, Biblioth que de documentation internationale contemporaine, University of Paris-X.

The Liberation of France: Image and Event

Editor - H. R. Kedward and Nancy Wood
ISBN - 1 85973 087 6
Publisher - Berg
Price - £17.95
Pages - 369

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