The Artificiality of a Pan-European Memory of the Second World War

By Pierce Tattersall

To this day memories of the Second World War differ among the Allies, the Axis, the neutrals and even the victims of the war. On a national level, the French remember the Second World War as the epic battle of freedom against tyranny as well as an internal struggle between the heroes of the resistance movement and the villains of the Vichy regime. Germany, on the other hand, recognizes that the Second World War was a difficult period in their national memory most easily recognized by the horrors of the Nazi machine. On a grander scale, perpetrators such as Italy and Germany feel great remorse at the crimes of their forefathers. Liberators such as the United Kingdom show great pride in their hero’s victory over Nazism and fascism while victims of the Nazi offences remember the pain and sorrow of the war most. To protect their own interests’ national governments were quick to call for a return to normalcy in the post war years and this led to countries receding into their own national debates. As such, national rather than European memories of the war became popular. National heroes such as the resistance movement in France were glorified to counter the memories of the Vichy government and French collaboration with the Nazis. The divisions among wartime nation states quickly evolved into the divisions of post war memories. The European project was created in response to the carnage that the European states inflicted upon each other, to serve as a reminder of past transgressions, and to tie nations inexplicably together so as to avert the threat of future aggression. With further integration, both deepening and widening, we see the attempt to forge a European identity out of the shared memory of the Second World War. Despite the valiant effort to avert the horrors of the past, the search for a common European identity based on the memories of the Second World War is fundamentally flawed, ultimately artificial, and thus needs to be adapted to showcase the diversity in Europe rather than its similarities.

This paper will analyze the effects of Europeanization on the national debate in France to comment on the misguided notion of a shared European identity based on wartime memories. We will begin by defining Europeanization and reviewing its general effects. Next, we will delve deeper into the French national debate to understand the degree to which Europeanization affected it. Lastly, we will outline the next steps that European leaders must take to ensure that the foundation of the European project is not based on a misconception, but rather tied together by an understanding of the complexities of each member’s history and culture.

Europeanization is the term that scholars frequently use to define the interactions among European countries, and the extent to which these interactions strengthening or weakening relations. There are two kinds of Europeanization: top-down and bottom-up. The top-down approach refers to the affects that European institutions, like the European Union and European Court of Human Rights, and their policies have on national agendas while bottom-up is the opposite as it focuses on how national processes can affect European agendas and policies. [1]In using this theory to analyze the memory cultures in European nations, particularly France, we can effectively comment on the imperfect approach to the creation of a European wartime memory and even the popular idea of a European identity.

European institutions, among them the European Union and the Council of Europe have played crucial roles in simplifying national memories of the Second World War. This top-down integration of a common memory is showcased in Europe’s want of a shared European image of the Second World War. Rather than discussion centered on individual nation-states fighting and killing each other, European institutions want to promote the Second World War as a period of shared suffering to extend the idea that we cannot and must not let these atrocities happen on the continent again. Indeed, focusing too heavily on national debates could lead to fragmentation, but by attempting to fashion a collective memory the EU and others have only bred disagreement. Moreover, the Second World War was much more than a conflict among European nations. It was a complex battle of ideologies of political, ethnic, and religious origins so it makes little sense to define it as a sole instance of united European suffering.

In spite of that, EU institutions have slowly established various avenues of uniting the complexity that is European history. Specifically, the Council of Europe has been instrumental in creating organizations that promote the Europeanization of education, with the teaching of history prominent among their changes. Beginning with the Erasmus program, where students in Europe can study and live abroad for a set period of time, to the way grants are given out the reflects the EU’s desire to organize and consolidate European history. Euroclio, the European Association of History educators, receives funding from both the EU Commission and the Council of Europe and hopes to create a common curriculum of teaching across the continent. Universities across Europe offer masters and doctorate degrees in European history that focus on the discussion of European history as a source to unite the continent. [2] Similarly, there is discussion of implementing an ‘acquis historique’ to the European Union’s ‘acquis communautaire’. This would entail that aspiring member nations agree to a common history of the continent by agreeing to the shared values upon which the EU is built. These are various methods by which European institutions have promoted the teaching and acknowledgement of a shared European memory of the Second World War.

In a similar vein, the nation states of Europe have used the wartime experience to forge strong bilateral relations that they use to affect EU policy. We see most clearly nation states attempting to forge this shared identity among Franco-German relations. Memories of Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand shaking hands at Verdun in 1984 and Gerhard Schroeder’s presence at the 60th Anniversary of the D-Day landings evoke an image of shared Franco-German purpose in recollecting the sufferings, rather than the victories and defeats, of the war. Some argue that these are attempts to end historical conflicts among nations by creating a European memory. Despite institutionalized attempts to create a sense of shared suffering among nation states and unite the continent, there is a growing concern that a ‘competition of victimhood’ is being developed among nations[3]. This has been pursued not by the governments of countries, but by their populations. It was most noticeable in the disagreements among German reparations following the war and although it has since decreased in magnitude there is an underlying current that follows this thought. Either way, the newfound relationship between France and Germany promotes its own image of the Second World War onto the EU and other member states.

Europeanization is taking place across the continent but to understand the extent to which it has taken root we must analyze its effects on the national level. France is a poignant example that stresses the degree and reaction to which Europeanization affects national debates about the memory of the Second World War across Europe. Indeed, we see both top down and bottom up approaches regarding Europeanization in France. To fully understand the complexities of its effects, we will analyze how Europeanization has affected France at different periods in time.

To begin our analysis, we will recall the charismatic figure of Charles de Gaulle both during and after the Second World War. An annoyance to both Churchill and Roosevelt yet a symbol of French heroism to his followers in France to rally around, de Gaulle’s main aim was to return to France its pride as a strong and independent nation. General de Gaulle, like many patriotic Frenchmen, found it difficult to explain France’s worst military defeat since the Seven Years Wars. Either out of wounded pride or numbness at his nations defeat, de Gaulle chose to instead focus on the French resistance’s role in helping to liberate the country. A focus that would later be coined ‘résistancialisme’ by a young historian named Henry Rousso. Despite its crushing defeat, France, following de Gaulle’s lead, celebrated victory as a patriotic success because of the resistance. Post-war patriotism quelled critiques and led to the dichotomy of the despised Vichy regime against the valiant resistance fighters. Rousso was the first to explore this idea of a ‘Vichy Syndrome’ in his book of the same name. The resistance movement in France was proclaimed to have saved the national honor. [4] The period of French occupation was too recent in the public memory to enable them to thoughtfully debrief it, so a return to normalcy in order to address their real concerns of a shattered economy and rising tensions in the colonies was favored by all, and championed by de Gaulle.

Rather than discuss the traumatization of the war and come to terms with the failing moralities of Germans and Frenchmen alike, de Gaulle led the movement to simplify the national debate and split the memories of the war in order to begin the arduous task of reconstruction. His attempts to purge the Vichy elite, though soon halted, highlight his views of their policies, practices, and actions as unworthy of being considered by history as French, rather they were an aberration undertaken by weak minds. That being said it is important to realize the significance of his failed efforts to punish Vichy conspirators. He did not completely bring the French public to his side of the issue as evidenced by the public backlash that served to only poison the well for future attempts at reconciliation. The only aspect of French policy that matched de Gaulle’s hatred for Vichy was his attempts to glorify the resistance movement throughout France as symbols of French heroism.

Following his years outside of politics, de Gaulle returned to the political scene in 1958. During the early years of the Fifth Republic we see the most relevant examples of Europeanization on the French memory. The French president led the efforts to promote his ‘résistancialisme’ by lending his political views towards films such as ‘L’Armée des Ombres” and “La Bataille du Rail”, and even commissioned a few films to promote his cause. As well as being popular in France, these films were also distributed throughout Europe and spread de Gaulle’s message. Another prominent example is the decision by de Gaulle and Konrad Adenaeur to sign the Élysée treaty in 1963, thus reconciling the two countries and launching what would become the engine of European integration. Some consequences of this Treaty was the creation of an office for Franco-German Youth which since 2006 has been publishing a Franco-German History course book that proposes a joint, and simplified, memory of the war.[5] This treaty serves as a symbol of the widening cooperation between the two countries that only twenty years previously had been fighting against one another. As relations between Germany and France became closer with the furthering of European integration, the French were forced to consistently question their memories of the Second World War.

The collaboration of Frenchmen and their Nazi occupiers was spotlighted among revisionist theorists as signaling that the idea of French heroism during the war was more complicated and more involved than it first seemed. During de Gaulle’s later years and after his death in 1970, French public memory regarding the war began to subtly shift from recognition of their heroes to the castigation of their countrymen as widespread Vichy collaboration was reported. Accusations of hypocrisy were directed towards at the state and society over their misunderstanding of their role during the war. The protests of students and workers in 1968 towards the French government and in particular the police state show the public’s frustration with De Gaulle and his glorified resistance hype. [6]As post war patriotism petered out, the storm of revisionist thinking swept through the country. Discussion centered around the role of prominent politicians during the occupation, and whether or not their collaboration rendered them unworthy to continue to serve the French people. François Mitterand, who later became the President of France, was caught up in a scandal that threatened his political career when it emerged he had served the Vichy state before switching sides to the Resistance. A regular visitor to Mitterand during his presidency was Rene Bousquet who also was caught in the fervor of post-war purging. Following the war he was charged with collaboration with the Vichy state and the Nazi’s, later acquitted for beliefs that he helped the Resistance, and finally assassinated years later for his crimes against the Jewish people during the war. These instances were frequent during the revisionist years and showed the extent to which France had yet to come to terms with the duality of serving Pétain and the Free French.

The furthering integration of the European Community throughout the years of French awakening affected the French national debate in subtle yet significant ways.[7] The idea of French heroism during the war was crumbling as revisionist theories revealed the uncertainty of French efforts during occupation. Most importantly, due to efforts by their European neighbors society began to reflect on French involvement during the Holocaust and this revealed startling findings. During the German occupation the Vichy government arrested and deported 75,621 Jews.[8] Throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties the French Government tried to explain that public trials would do more harm than good, and refused to work with the public to confront national dilemma. It wasn’t until the arrival of Jacques Chirac in 1995 and his description of the deportations of Jews as a ‘dette indescriptible’ that France started to acknowledge its crimes. In fact, throughout Western Europe there was recognition and a response to the horrors committed towards Jews during the war. Indeed, following Chirac’s words, Rene Bousquet and Maurice Papon, respective Chief of Police for Paris and Bordeaux during the war who arrested and deported huge numbers of Jews, were brought to trial. As a testament to the extent to which the French had failed to understand their memory of the war, both criminals served in various capacities in the French government throughout the sixties and seventies. The conflict of minds over post-war memory was heightened with the arrival of Nicolas Sarkozy and his ‘résistancialisme’ that sharply contrasted with Chirac’s “posture of repentance”. In truth, France still has to confront the issue of post-war memory but European meddling has turned what should be a frank and public discussion into an imitated reconciliation towards memory of the Second World War.

As the French example shows, the European nation states and supranational institutions influenced the debates regarding memory of the Second World War. In a bid to avert future atrocities, the European communities encouraged compromise rather than discussion. While they recognized the atrocities committed on either side towards the end of the century, they failed to confront them. The heartbeat of the European Union, the Franco-German relationship, is based on this idea of a collective memory. By putting aside differences and focusing instead on shared sufferings and misdeeds we can move forward with integration. However, this means that countries only understand a small portion of the complex memory of the war. As we move further away from national memories of the war, we not only limit ourselves as to the complexities of the war but also invite another dilemma: which version of history do we choose?

In addition, the search for common roots has raised tensions and heightened disagreements. Nationally, we see this in the rise of far right groups like the Front Nationale in France who are increasingly skeptical of the Europeanness of the continent and instead insist that the continent should revert back to power in the hands of the national governments. Marie Le Pen, who surprised many when she arrived on the French political scene in 2002, promotes the ideals of France as a nation state to be proud of in search of reigniting past glories and in so doing attacks the EU establishment and the establishment of European identity. Even among EU members, tensions have increased since the attempts to formulate a European memory of the war have been founded. To understand this, we must first understand the Faustian paradox that Europe has both constructive and destructive natures. The continent that provided incessant warfare, religious persecution, and material exploitation also extols the virtues of human rights, social equality, and racial tolerance.[9]Different countries are at different stages in understanding their roles during the Second World War and their roles as European countries. Most have both constructive and destructive elements, but understanding the importance of both in shaping European history has become a rarity.

In searching for common ties among Europeans, the institutions have provided an incomplete, biased, and ultimately artificial set of memories. By refusing to contemplate the balance of power that was Vichy and Free France, Charles de Gaulle spread an incomplete message of French heroism. Revisionists are just as much to blame though as their extreme views fostered mass protests and riots. Furthermore, the European Union and other institutions have generalized the national debates into one collective and weak memory. To foster a common identity around an incomplete memory of shared suffering can only lead to further fragmentation as it differentiates, rightly so, against the victims and the perpetrators and feeds the competition of victimhood. When both sides of the argument are at the extremes, conflict can and will emerge as evidenced by protests in France. By recognizing each and every nation’s contributions (good and bad) to European history, we provide a more comprehensive understanding and an even more inclusive solution to the dilemma of post-war memory.

Lest we forget that today’s Europe, like the Europe before the Iron Curtain fell, consists of more than France and Germany. Western European views differ greatly from those shared by our Eastern European neighbors, summed up efficiently by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves in saying “to some it represents victory of freedom over tyranny, while to others it represents replacement of one violent regime by another.”[10] To understand the memory of the Second World War in a European context, one must understand its effects on all participants. Half of the continent views the war as a replacement of cruel regimes and the other views it as liberation. To move forward with their idea of a shared memory the states of Europe and the institutions that guide them must confront this dilemma.

By no means am I arguing that there are no shared experiences of the Second World War. I understand that the terror of bombings frightened more than just the British and German and that the Holocaust and other atrocities by the Nazi regime knew no boundaries. But these shared experiences do not translate into a collective memory; rather they serve as instances in an individual nations history that are relatable to its neighbors. There cannot and should not be a European memory of World War Two, but that is not to say that there will not ever be a shared European identity and culture. Forging this culture from shared suffering though is a mistake. As Konrad Jarausch states, the European Union cannot be an insurance policy against past transgressions and transgressors.[11] To be sure, a European identity must celebrate the interdependence of diversity across the continent rather than foolishly attempting to unite unique cultures and societies. Most importantly, if a pan-European identity is to flourish from Lisbon to Lodz then countries must shed their centrist views of history. No country should be discredited, as “less European” than another just as no county in the UK is “less British” than the next. To withstand the test of time, a European identity must be one that goes beyond political relations by forging one identity from many. It must follow in the steps of the American political realm and truly understand that differences should not separate us but should unite us in diversity. The EU is already committed to a set of values, but to forge a strong European identity nation states need something more substantial to unite around, they need something more than an artificial memory of shared suffering. We must not define Europeanness as being a member of the European Union. True, one must be European to be considered for membership but one aspect characterizes a political relationship while one must go beyond those boundaries and establish a culture and societal link between the peoples of Europe if this project of European integration is to succeed in forging a European identity that understands the many differences of the continent and unites them through those differences.


Works Cited

“1968: Workers Join Paris Students in Protests.” 13 May 1968: n. pag. BBC News. BBC, 13 May 2003. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.

Berger, Stefan. “Remembering the Second World War in Western Europe.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Boerzel, Tanja, and Diana Panke. “Europeanization.” European Union Politics: 4th Revised Edition. Ed. Michelle Cini and Nieves

Perez-Solorza. Borragan. Oxford: OXFORD UP, 2013. 115-28. Print.

Chisem, James. “The Collective Memory of WWII in France.” EInternational Relations. N.p., 11 Aug. 2011. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.

Echternkamp, Jorg, and Stefan Martens. “The Meanings of the Second World War in Contemporary European History.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Fondiller, David S. “The Vichy Syndrome: History And Memory In France Since 1944.” Rev. of The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in FranceForeign Affairs1992: n. pag. Foreign Affairs Magazine. Foreign Affairs Magazine, 1992. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.

Jarausch, Konrad H. “Nightmares or Daydreams: A Postscript on the Europeanization of Memories.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Perozani, Samina. “Elysee Treaty: A Model Worth Emulating.” SA Global Affairs, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.

Webster, Paul. “Vichy Policy on Jewish Deportation.” BBC News. BBC, 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 08 Mar. 2014. <;.

Wieviorka, Olivier. Divided Memory: French Recollections of World War II from the Liberation to the Present. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2012. Print.


[1] Börzel and Panke 406 & 407

[2] Jarausch 2

[3] Echternkamp and Martens 13

[4] Wieviorka 2

[5] Perozani 2

[6] On This Day 1968- BBC

[7] The period defined as roughly between 1965 and 1995 that was characterized by revisionist views of French memory of the war.

[8] Webster

[9] Jarausch 319

[10] Ilves and Ansip in Echternkamp and Martens 8

[11] Jarausch 315