Chris J. Bickerton: How can we remember what we do not know? (France's History Wars)

Roundup: Talking About History

France's non-commemoration last year of the bicentennial of Napoleon's great victory at Austerlitz was a sign of national uncertainty about the role of history and its relationship to the state.
It seems from recent events that the French malaise is no longer confined to the present. It applied to contemporary problems of the nation's economy and politics, and now it also encompasses the past. Through a challenge to French history it has reached the foundations of national republicanism. The unsurprising reaction to this has been a mixture of Gaullist hand-wringing and post-colonial self-satisfaction. But current debates have also raised some positive and key questions about the role of history, and its relationship to memory, morality, and the state.

The leading event was the fudged bicentenary celebration of the battle of Austerlitz, fought between Napoleon's army and a Russo-Austrian army in 1805, and long celebrated as a great French military victory. In an article in Le Monde, the renowned French historian Pierre Nora (recipient of the legion d'honneur, created by Napoleon in 1802), fulminated against what he called the non-commemoration of Austerlitz[1]. He wrote that this was a sign that France had reached the depths "of shame and of ridicule". The British were able to celebrate Trafalgar, the Belgians Waterloo, and even the Germans were planning to celebrate in 2006 their grand rendezvous with Napoleon, in commemoration of his victories at Iena and Auerstadt in 1806.

Yet, according to Nora, it would soon be impossible in France to teach with pride Victor Hugo's lines about hearing "in the depths of my thoughts the noise of the heavy cannons rolling towards Austerlitz".

Nora blamed this on a recently published attack on Napoleon, another nail in the coffin of French republicanism. In December 2005, the historian Claude Ribbe published Napoleon's Crime, which challenges the accepted view of Napoleon as military genius and founder of modern France. In this book, Napoleon is presented as an anti-Semite and racist, responsible for the reintroduction of slavery after its abolition by the Revolutionary Convention in 1794. Ribbe describes him as "the first racist dictator of all time" and accuses him of building a Napoleonic Reich that could only prosper through the slave trade.[2]

Ribbe's goal is the moral condemnation of Napoleon; he considers the emperor to be the inspiration for Adolf Hitler. Ribbe describes the visit Hitler paid to Napoleon's tomb in Paris in 1940, and calls Bonaparte Hitler's "master [...] the precursor who, for the first time probably in the history of humanity, asked himself rationally the question of how to eliminate, in as short a time as possible, and with a minimum of cost and of personnel, a maximum of people described as scientifically inferior".[3] Ribbe consistently claims that Napoleon's actions prefigured those of Nazi Germany, writing that "without the precedent of Napoleon, no Nuremberg laws. Hitler knows it"; and that the defences of the slave trade made by slave owners, addressed to Napoleon, expressed the same sentiment that reappeared in the concentration camps: Arbeit Macht Frei (work brings freedom).[4]

The debate over Austerlitz and Napoleon has coincided with another debate, over France's colonial history. In February 2005, an amendment to the law on the repatriated (loi sur les repatriés) was passed by both socialists and Gaullists. It stipulated that French history textbooks should "recognize the positive role of the French presence in its overseas colonies, especially in North Africa" (see Remembrance by order). This amendment was ostensibly passed as a way of recognizing the contribution of the harkis, Algerian Muslims who fought on the French side in the Algerian war[5], and at first provoked the ire of only a few historians. On 25 March, six of them published a petition in Le Monde: "Colonisation: no to the teaching of an official history". (

Not until the November riots across the banlieues of France did this amendment become a political football.[6] In response to public pressure, President Jacques Chirac established an inquiry, led by the leader of the National Assembly, Jean Louis Debré, with the purpose of "evaluating the action of the parliament in the domains of memory and history". The interior minister and rival of the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, predictably took the opportunity to launch his own initiative, commissioning the lawyer Arno Klarsfeld for a study on "law, history, and the duty of memory". These debates have become known as la querelle des mémoires (the memory dispute). ...

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