Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Evidence of the Second World War in France

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From 1940 to 1945, the French State committed to a collaboration with Germany under the Vichy-Regime which lead to a division of beliefs in society in the post-war period. There was a lack of ‘official truth’ in France during that somber period as a result of the privatization of the main sources of evidence, such as official archives. This paper aims to study the evidence used to shape the truth in that time, and how interdisciplinary research helped set the collective memory of the French people.

Construction of the collective memory[edit]

Map of France 1940-1944.[1]

By studying infrastructural and geographical changes one can learn about a region's history and subsequently that of its residents. Hence, the concept of evidence in geography is an important factor in the process of establishing a memory of past events. History restores and generates geographical evidence. [2] The existence and non-existence of plaques, streets renamed after war heroes, memorials, museums among other symbols built all over the country illustrate the government's aim to build a collective memory. [3] The geographical omnipresence of this type of evidence in the public space, shaping the landscape and the urbanism, strongly influence the psychology of people and reconstruct their memories. The territorial distribution plays a major part in this process.

In this case, most of the museums dedicated to the resistance and the deportation during the WW2 are settled in the former Vichy area. Although resistance actually occurred there, it might be perceived as an attempt to boast its role in the region which collaborated the most. [4] Hence, to unify its post-war divided country, the French government led by De Gaulle constructed a new collective memory overemphasizing the myth of the Résistancialisme and omitting the dark sides of their history. However, most of the official museums and memorials dedicated to the resistance and deportation during WW2 appeared decades after the end of the war as a result of the restoration of the truth. [5] Prior to this, only a few small and private ones where disseminated across the country. This absence of official museums suggests a struggle of the government to forget its past.

Indeed, museums are also needed as pedagogical tools to pass on memories. Without this type of evidence, it becomes easier to erase parts of history. Evidence-based education uses evidence to identify starting points for teaching and learning. Information of past experiences from teachers are points used as evidence to establish academic curriculums.[6]

Duty of remembrance designates a moral obligation to commemorate a tragic historical event to prevent its reproduction. Politics impact what evidence is taken into consideration to expand throughout education. In this case study, duty of remembrance influences the evidence French education is based on. Consequently, pedagogy allows scholars to acquire constructed memory, thus considered as an 'official truth'.[7]

Law and justice, presumed as a moral concept within judiciary, approach evidence epistemologically. Validity and justification as well as truth are crucial elements when considering evidence in a legal sense. However, approaches to evidence in justice and the law vary distinctively with respect to different legislatures. Even if there is no consensus concerning its definition, legal evidence has to be viewed as an independent concept. It is primarily seen as a means in the process of proving a claim or accusation to be true or false. When referring to evidence in a court case, this is the most common meaning. In this particular sense evidence can be oral in the form of testimonies, visual as in documents or physical with regard to objects. Evidence in the law has to be factual and valid.[8]

Under the rule of the Vichy-Regime, France’s legislation changed drastically. Whilst collaborating with Germany, France’s defeat was mainly believed to be the fault of Jews and foreigners which prompted several anti-Semitic statues and xenophobic laws to be imposed. These statues led to the deportation and mass-murder of many French Jews as they were being denaturalized as citizens. Proving the Vichy-Regime’s complicity with Germany after the war was deemed difficult as there was a lack of legal evidence. The first time France admitted to being partially at fault for deportations and the genocide of WW2 was 1995 by then president Chirac. This period of failed recognition of France's fault was crucial in shaping the collective memory, as the lack of evidence meant that living in denial was easy.[9] Despite Vichy France’s undeniable antisemitism, they did not actively want to aid the Germans in their crimes against French Jews. Regardless, the issue itself was that they discriminated against a minority and thus singled them out, which consequently enabled the Germans even further.[10]

Construction of the individual memory[edit]

Phenomenology uses experimental neuropsychology and philosophical qualitative research methodologies to understand how an experience is lived by an individual. This discipline observes notably the way identities evolve throughout the time as well as the way people recall memories. Thus, testimonies are biased evidence, constantly modified in the consciousness by time and environment. [11] Phenomenological methods include oral history, diary methods and qualitative interviews paying particular attention to individuality. Oral history allows to subjectively and realistically describe an event as lived by an individual for instance, whereas interviews supply information on the perception on concepts such as forgiveness and reconciliation.These methods are critiqued for their lack of quantitative research methods resulting in a low generalizability.[12]

Testimonies found in literature, art and documentaries are considered as some of the most controversial pieces of evidence. After WW2, testimonies and personal pieces played a crucial role in forging a collective truth and giving a voice to victims of the collaboration. Because it was based on deeply personal experiences, artwork from this period became persuasive and forceful evidence. Art, literature and film making from this period all approach evidence in a similar manner, namely by looking at the human experience and trying to convey their reality and emotions. However, memories are subjective and can be hard to deem viable in other disciplines, such as justice and sciences. This leads to them being less respected in terms of classifying evidence. During psychological resilience, expressing lived trauma through art allows to uncover the truthful events. This resulted in the creation of many pieces of evidence such as books, films, paintings, etc.[13]. For example, a long investigation consisting of survivors describing their different coping processes was conducted. Moreover, these documentaries were often censored by the government. The movie "The Sorrow and the Pity” by Marcel Ophuls which described the life of the French during the occupation and showed that they were actually very few to resist, for instance, was censored until 1981. [14]


Regardless of Vichy France’s collaboration with Nazi Germany and thus its liability for many crimes, deportations and murders, committed during that period, it seemed rather difficult to find evidence of any misconduct. Through Interdisciplinary work, encompassing evidence in law, art, geography and education, the truth was finally established and France's malpractice during the collaboration was acknowledged. This illustrates the value of interdisciplinary methods. They help to understand complex problems and gain an adequate understanding of issues, often englobing different disciplines. The importance of variability in approaches to knowledge is considerable in terms of taking all aspects and perspectives into account and thus in finding an adequate and more truthful response.[15]


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