Few countries love their liberators once the cheering dies away. They have to face the depressing reality of rebuilding their nation and their political system virtually from scratch. Meanwhile, black-marketeers and gangsters thrive on the chaotic interregnum which we now call ‘regime change’. This reinforces the sense of collective shame, just when people want to forget the humiliation of having had to survive by moral cowardice, whether under a dictatorship or under enemy occupation. So liberation creates the most awkward debt of all. It can never be paid off in a satisfactory way. Pride is a very prickly flower.

So too is nationalism, as this post-Liberation period in France shows only too well. Nobody was more prickly than General de Gaulle at the idea of slights from his Anglo-Saxon allies. To judge by the transatlantic rows which continually reignite, this is clearly a ‘recurring fever’, to use Jean Monnet’s phrase. Yet in the post-war world, we were led to believe that the need for national identities would wither away. The Cold War suppressed most national problems within its international straitjacket. Then other developments, whether the United Nations, the European Union or even the contentious process of globalization, pointed to a further fading of national consciousness. But if anything, one finds in our increasingly fragmented world that many people, terrified of drowning in anonymity, seize hold of tribal or national banners even more firmly. And the idealistic notion that international organizations can rise above national interests and intrigue has also proved to be a complete delusion.

One could well argue in the light of recent events that the Franco-American relationship had never really recovered from 1944. One might also say that the liberators were rather too thick-skinned, while the French were too thin-skinned; that American businessmen wanted to leap in to exploit the market, while the French wanted to revive their own battered industry; that the GIs, ‘ardent and enterprising’ in their attempts to fraternize with local girls, simply created resentment and jealousy, especially since Frenchmen had no cigarettes or stockings to offer. The clash of the free market with the moral rationing of war socialism was bound to provoke deep discontent, whether in matters of love or of food. Frenchmen, and above all Frenchwomen, did not really blame the great film star Arletty for having a lover in the Luftwaffe. But they could not forgive her for staying with him in the Ritz, which meant that she had enjoyed access to the best food available when the rest of them went short. Hunger was indeed as powerful a motive for jealousy as unrequited love. The German writer Ernst Junger, serving in Paris as a Wehrmacht officer, had observed in the Tour d’Argent restaurant that food was indeed power.

The Occupation was a time of genuine suffering for almost all the French, and it is wrong for those who never experienced it to make sweeping moral judgements in retrospect. Nevertheless, the difficulties, both moral and physical, were such that many myths sprang up afterwards, and they certainly need to be examined. General de Gaulle himself instinctively realized the need when he made perhaps the most emotional speech of his life from the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris on 25 August 1944, the day of its Liberation: ‘Paris! Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! Liberated by herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France, that is to say of “la France combattante”, the true France, eternal France.’

There was not the slightest mention of American or British help in the Liberation. In the eyes of the Allies, this was a churlish and grotesque rewriting of history; nevertheless, it was an inspired message, creating an image of national unity where none existed and binding the sorely wounded pride of the country. Yet the people most put out by this speech were not the Allies, who had come to expect such Franco-centricity by then, but members of the Resistance. They were dismayed by de Gaulle’s deliberate attempt to praise them only as part of ‘la France combattante’, essentially the armed forces commanded by de Gaulle from outside, and making no mention of ‘la France résistante’, the secret army at home. Symbolism had become immensely important. This resentment signified more than the continuation of a power struggle between de Gaulle’s Free French, who had returned from honourable exile, and the ‘people of the interior’, who had stayed behind, but then joined the Resistance later.

The Resistance, like de Gaulle, had also cultivated a ‘certain idea’ of its own France as well as of itself. And this heroic myth, like its Gaullist counterpart, was bound to come under sceptical examination in later years. As early as 1950, Henri Frenay, one of the most outspoken of the Resistance leaders, wrote that he did not have the courage to publish his account of those years because ‘in my memory heroism is closelylinked with cowardice, ambition with self-sacrifice, mediocrity with greatness’. He openly acknowledged, however, that a ‘people’s strength often rests on legends’.

The greatest myth-makers of all were the Communists, who claimed the preposterous figure of 75,000 members executed by the Germans. Their legend of the Resistance was vital to cover historical blemishes, such as the Nazi–Soviet pact, as well as to recruit new members for the next round in the struggle. The great irony, which we discovered in the Russian archives, was that the French Communist Party, the most powerful and hitherto the most closely controlled by Moscow, was virtually ignored from August 1939, the moment of the Nazi–Soviet pact, until September 1947. Stalin’s contempt for the French was so great after the collapse of 1940 that their home-grown Stalinists were left to flounder without a clear party line until the Cold War suddenly moved into a higher gear in the early autumn of 1947.

Another contentious area is the long-standing demonization of Marshal Pétain and the Vichy regime. The utterly shameful examples of Vichy collaboration in the round-up of French and foreign Jews for the Germans have been highlighted in recent years by the scandalously belated and unsatisfactory trials of old men. It took fifty years for a French president – Jacques Chirac in 1995 – to acknowledge publicly that ‘France accomplished something irreparable’ by assisting the ‘criminal folly of the occupier’. The Vichy police’s excess of zeal greatly undermined the usual Pétainist defence that the ‘path of collaboration’ with the occupying power was the right one to take. But once again, those who have not suffered defeat and occupation must study the situation as it was felt then by individuals and communities – rumours are as important in history as archivally demonstrable facts – in order to avoid the artificial wisdom of hindsight. The primary duty of the historian is to understand. It is not to cast stones in moral outrage.

Nobody threw stones more gladly and more recklessly than the young, post-Liberation intellectuals, flexing rediscovered political and literary muscles after the atrophy of the Pétainist years. They saw themselves as the spiritual descendants of the revolutionaries of 1789. Pétainism in their view was the modern-dress version of monarcho-clerical reaction, the Whites of Old France. They admired the Communists and the hardy Red Army, while despising the US military, which they considered pampered and commercialized. Thus the post-Liberation period brought together in a fascinating fashion the tensions of the past and the present: the guerre franco-française between Old France and the anti-clerical left; the battle between intellectual traditions; and the resentments between the Old World and the New, with the Franco-American love-hate relationship. Some of them are still very much with us today.

Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper

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