The centenary of the First World War in France has raised a number of difficult and sometimes sensitive questions about how the nation should remember and commemorate the experiences that so profoundly shaped the country. 2016 sees the centenary of one of the most important battles for France, yet it also stirs up some uncomfortable memories associated with the Second World War.
The battle of Verdun is widely acknowledged to hold a particular place in French memory. Seen as a symbol of sacrifice and resilience, it soon came to be a defining reference-point for the French experience in the First World War, quickly gaining special status in the commemorations in the years that followed. Yet memories of the battle of Verdun were also inseparable from memories of the ‘hero of Verdun’, General Philippe Pétain. It raised the question of whether and how Pétain’s role should be commemorated.
The discovery that postcards of Pétain were on sale at Douaumont provoked shock, consternation and alarm on social media. The newly-opened Mémorial de Verdun responded with a formal statement that no images of Pétain would be on sale at the museum. However, in live-tweeting the events of the battle, the Memorial has not sought to airbrush Pétain from history. Indeed, Pétain’s role is covered in full, treated no differently to any other protagonist. Could this be an indication that France is finally coming to terms with the contradictory image of Pétain?
With the far-right Front National now an established element on the French political scene, and regular incidents of anti-Semitism, memories of Pétain and of the Vichy regime in the Second World War remain firmly entrenched in the nation’s political culture. Indeed, in 2014, extreme-right polemicist Eric Zemmour’s defence of Vichy’s record on the persecution of the Jews became a best-seller in France, prompting furious debate about the regime’s true historical record.
Here in the UK, a new play, entitled The Patriotic Traitor and written by Johnathan Lynn has recently sought to reopen the debate about Pétain and De Gaulle, who, as a young captain, was captured at Verdun. Starring Tom Conti as Pétain and Laurence Fox as General de Gaulle, the play asks which of the two men was the traitor in the Second World War, Petain for his collaboration with the Nazis or De Gaulle for ‘abandoning’ France for London. The play suggests that part of the tragedy of Pétain’s story is that he did the same in the two world wars. But whereas his actions made him a hero in the first, the same actions led him to be labelled a traitor in the second.
In military terms, the battle of Verdun is generally seen as not having been exceptional, but it was significant for the impact it had upon the French people. It was the first time since the Marne in 1914 that French forces truly feared a German breakthrough. According to Antoine Prost, French soldiers saw it as battle like no other, one in which they must not surrender, whatever the cost.
After the failures of General Nivelle, Pétain introduced a new system of rapid troop rotation, ensuring that men spent no more than eight days on the front line at a time. This eased the burden on soldiers, but it also meant that the numbers of men who fought there was high, creating the impression that the whole nation had served at Verdun. In the years that followed, Verdun became for many politicians, artists, journalists and writers the battle that one had to have experienced. The town itself was awarded the Légion d’honneur by President Raymond Poincaré on 12 September 1916, and with the construction of the Douaumont ossuary and military cemeteries after the war, soon became a site of pilgrimage. The myth of Pétain as the ‘hero of Verdun’ soon developed, its lasting power over the French people symbolised by the trust many placed in the aged marshal when he claimed to be saving France once again in June 1940.
This year’s official centenary commemorations, scheduled for 29 May 2016, will focus upon Franco-German reconciliation, and will be led by President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But with France facing ongoing challenges following the terrorist attacks of 2015, the French government’s hopes of evoking the spirit of ‘sacred union’ that supposedly held the country together through the First World War seem unlikely. In many respects, the divisive legacy of Pétain and what he represented lives on.