Earlier this week, a court in Normandy ordered the prosecution of the mayor of the small French hamlet of Gonneville-sur-Mer for his refusal to take down a photograph of Marshal Philippe Pétain, the head of the Vichy government from 1940 to 1944. The photograph had, along with photographs of other presidents, hung on a wall in the council chamber for the past 70 years. Earlier this year, however, a visitor claimed to be offended by it and reported the matter to the League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, which, in turn, initiated proceedings.
The court ruled against the mayor. It accepted the prosecution plea that Pétain was “the very embodiment” of a regime that, apart from collaborating with the occupation forces, was also xenophobic and virulently anti-Semitic. The judgment also coincided with new revelations that Pétain personally had a hand in the laws that excluded Jews from French public life after 1940.
The mayor and his council did not contest the ignominy associated with Pétain and the Vichy regime. Pétain, he argued, could not be written out of the pages of history: “The figure of Marshal Pétain has its place in the Town Hall, as do memories of the most painful and most glorious moments in our history.”
The mayor may well have been echoing General Charles De Gaulle, the man whose uncompromising resistance to the Vichy regime and the German occupation allowed France to emerge with its honour intact after Liberation. In a speech during a visit to the town of Vichy on April 18, 1959, De Gaulle struck an emotional note: “history is a continuous thread. We are one people and whatever ups and downs we may have suffered, whatever events we may have seen, we are the great nation of France… I say this in Vichy. The past is finished. Long live Vichy! Long live France! Long live the Republic!”
This scarcely-remembered speech — quoted by the historian, Henry Rousso, in his much-acclaimed The Vichy Syndrome — did not, however, permeate into the innards of France. The awkward reality of a vast section of patriotic French people having endorsed Pétain’s truce with the Germans as a way out of further humiliation is undeniable. Contemporary accounts suggest that till the tide of war changed with the German defeat in Stalingrad, the average French person accepted Pétain’s National Revolution as a viable approach to restoring national honour. Certainly, Vichy stalwarts like Pétain, Pierre Laval and Robert Brasillach — all three convicted of treason after Liberation — perceived themselves as fiercely patriotic.
The awkwardness of having adjusted to the short-lived German occupation and ending up on the wrong side of history has troubled a large section of France. This may explain why, till very recently, embarrassed silence greeted attempts to probe too deep into the Vichy experience. In his own way, the mayor of Gonneville-sur-Mer has challenged this evasion.
There may be few apparent similarities between the French discomfiture with Pétain and Germany’s handling of its Nazi past. Ever since the second Auschwitz trials in 1977, Germany has unambiguously owned up to its responsibility for the Holocaust and other horrors. There have been German apologies to Israel, Poland, Russia, and countries where the Swastika flew at some point during World War II. Indeed, the earnestness with which Germany has atoned for its Nazi past once prompted Avi Primor, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany, to ask, “Where in the world has one ever seen a nation that erects memorials to immortalise its own shame?”
The willingness of Germany to confront its troubled past and yet not be overwhelmed by it took another leap this month when the German Historical Museum in Berlin opened its exhibition, Hitler and the Germans — Nation and Crime. The exhibition addresses the issue that, until the late-1960s, many Germans were unwilling to confront: that Hitler would have been nothing had he not received the enthusiastic support of the German people. The curators deliberately kept the exhibits prosaic. The idea was to show the extent to which both ordinary Germans and the elite accepted Hitler and deified him.
There is, of course, a real danger that in being obsessed with confronting the inheritance of the Third Reich the other facets of the “German genius” may be overlooked — an argument made forcefully by the English writer, Peter Watson. Watson’s contention that Germany did itself incalculable harm by endorsing the Nazis — without Hitler, the 20th century may well have been Germany’s century and not America’s — is compelling and may serve to offset the impact of the guilt-tripping commentaries that have accompanied Chancellor Angela Merkel’s robust interventions on economic and social policy. Unlike France, which is still squeamish about its Vichy past, Germany appears to have handled its history with incredible maturity.
The German experience has a bearing on India’s uncertain, clumsy experiments with the past. At the most basic level, India is happiest obfuscating many centuries of history under the mantra, “5,000 years of culture and civilization”. ‘Official’ India is most troubled when something like the dispute in Ayodhya erupts and a high court judgment resurrects an issue that has been frozen in denial — the destruction of shrines under the Delhi Sultanate and the Moghuls.
The troubling feature of India is the growing chasm between popular historical memory and the officially endorsed ‘nation-building’ history. In the popular perception, there was widespread medieval vandalism and India is dotted with physical evidence of a shrine that was either destroyed or whose denominational character was changed. Yet, since the early 1970s, historians whose works are deemed ‘respectable’ have wilfully glossed over themes that apparently run counter to an idyllic syncretic or composite culture. In schools and universities, narrative history has been junked in favour of a crude economism. It is somehow felt that ‘nation-building’ will be better served by focussing on the economic intricacies of feudal societies rather than the bigoted excesses of Aurangzeb. Outright denial or obfuscation has become the hallmark of a country with a rich history and poor historians.
Unfortunately, the experiments with disingenuity have not really worked. Academic historians constituted themselves into a cosy club during the Ayodhya agitation claiming that the whole Ram Janmabhoomi belief was an elaborate hoax and, most likely, a sinister colonial creation. No shrine, they insisted, had been destroyed to make way for a mosque in 1528. Far from neutralizing the Ram bhakts, this negationism actually drove the devout into greater bouts of frenzy, culminating in the demolition of the 16th-century shrine. Had the more pertinent question — Must India spend its energies overturning medieval wrongs? — been asked, it is entirely possible that society would not have been so damagingly polarized. The battle to set back the clock of history was actually a crusade to right the wrongs of historians.
“Our history,” the British education secretary, Michael Gove, said last month while unveiling an initiative to restore narrative history to the school curriculum, “has moments of pride and shame, but unless we fully understand the struggles of the past, we will not properly value the liberties of the present.” It is an enlightened message that could just as well be relevant for India.
History is essentially a conversation between the past and the present, an engagement that doesn’t follow a pre-determined script. However, this scintillating encounter will be hideously distorted if the past is bowdlerized to suit contemporary fashion. India is paying the price for trying to learn from a history built on questionable certitudes.