The Legacy of Nazi Occupation: Patriotic Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe, 1945-1965

By Pieter Lagrou | Go to book overview

2
Heroes of a nation: Belgium and France

Nowhere was patriotic legitimacy more crucial to post-war politics than in France: it was General Charles De Gaulle's only legitimacy when he returned from exile and declared the constitutionally legitimate heir of the Third Republic, the Vichy regime, null and void.1 The amalgamation of colonists and exiles that had made up his Free French Forces was not a firm basis on which to build a new regime. De Gaulle was thus forced to promote a generous and collective vision of the French struggle for liberation, to pass over in silence the role of Vichy and of the Allies, and to nationalise the contribution of the resistance movements on the French territory. As provisional head of state between the liberation and January 1946, from the (extra-parliamentary) opposition until 1958 and as president of his self-styled Fifth Republic until 1969, De Gaulle applied a commemorative policy which assimilated the Nation and the Resistance in a symbolism that was simultaneously heroic, emblematic, abstract and elitist. The national honour had been safeguarded throughout the ordeal of the war by the heroes who presided over its destiny, in exile or on French soil, as combatants or as martyrs. Gaullist speeches and rituals staged tributes to the army and the nation through exemplary figures of patriotism and amalgamated the ambiguous victory of the Second World War with the patriotic triumph of the first. Abstract commemoration and its consensual appeal suited the general better than the cult of veteranism as a social movement. De Gaulle opposed the re-establishment of a Ministry for Veterans after the liberation, since he identified it with the political abuse by the Vichy regime (see chapter 10). He resented the organisations of PoWs and labour conscripts, both of which brought together hundreds of thousands of dubious heroes, and he certainly did not

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1
See Rousso, Le Syndrome de Vichy; Gérard Namer, La Commémoration en France de 1945 à nos jours (Paris, 1987); Pierre Nora, 'Gaullistes et communistes', in Les Lieux de mémoire, t. III, Les Frances, vol. I, Conflits et partages (Paris, 1992), pp. 360–71; and Paul Thibaud, 'La République et ses héros. Le Gaullisme pendant et après la guerre', Esprit 198 (1994), pp. 79–80.

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