Blogs > Cliopatria > Memory in the Shadows of Diplomacy

Aug 17, 2004 10:32 am

Memory in the Shadows of Diplomacy

This weekend, France commemorated the Allied landing in Provence in August 1944. Dick Cheney was invited, but did not attend. Of course, he can be excused because he is campaigning hard for his reelection. Tony Blair was invited, but did not attend. It is more difficult to excuse him: Blair is on vacation (something that Le Monde has noticed), and he made an appearance at the opening ceremonies at the Athens Olympic Games. It was, nevertheless, a remarkable event. Jacques Chirac, speaking before veterans and heads of state from African nations, recognized the sacrifices that French colonial subjects made for liberation and for the fight against Fascism in general. He even awarded the Legion of Honor to the city of Algiers, which he called “the capital of fighting France (France combattant).” (The reports from French television are here–you can access the video on the right sidebar.)

Recognition of Africa’s role in both World Wars has been growing. Several books have been written about the African dimensions of European wars. Senegalese soldiers served on the front lines as shock troops (literally to frighten Germans with their blackness) in the First World War. French colonies were a refuge for politicians as well as a source of soldiers in the Second World War. After the war native leaders in the colonies (like Senghor) expected that Africans would be awarded individual rights (as citizens) and territorial rights (full representation in the legislature). The subsequent disappointment encouraged Africans to find other alternatives to France.

While the African contribution to France is being remembered, the Americans are ignoring the same memorials, forgetting in the process. Americans are not aware of memorials like this that are taking place. French newspapers and television news are rife with stories that document the progress of the Allies sixty years ago as well as the private and public memorials that are taking place. [Aside: These popular histories have become a guilty pleasure of mine: every week the Wednesday edition of Dernières Nouvelles D’Alsace has at least two articles dealing with WWII and the deliverance of Alsace.] Unfortunately, the rhetoric of the last two years has created a rift within which the feelings and thoughts of Frenchmen and Frenchwomen are lost. Most Americans may believe that France is ungrateful for its liberation sixty years ago. Furthermore Americans remain unaware of the contribution of French institution–in this case the colonies–in continuing the fight after occupation.

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Nathanael D. Robinson - 8/18/2004

I do not want to go into a tit-for-tat comparison of the different war efforts of each country. I think that it is counter the spirit of my post. Yes, Poles were brave, and they had much to contribute. But that is not at issue.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/18/2004

You make a good case that the contribution of the Poles was much greater. If I have any remaining discomfort it has to do with distinguisihng clearly between the commitment of the individuals and the contribution of the whole in any such comparison.

Grant W Jones - 8/18/2004

I know it's hard, if not impossible, to quantify such things. But, look at the overall contribution.

In Spring 1939, Polish intelligence turned over an Enigma machine to the British. It's hard to think of a single, greater contribution to allied victory than that. During the Battle of Britain, the legandary Douglas Bader's Duxford Wing of five squadrons, sixty fighter planes, was 10% of the RAF's total fighter strength. It included one Polish squadron, one Czech, one Canadian and two Brit. Eastern Europeans manned several squandrons of the RAF in the battle. The Poles furnished 100,000 troops, which fought in the British Army. And then there is the bravery of the Polish Home Army, only to be betrayed. What few Polish naval vessals could, made their way to England to continue the war. The RN had to sink the French Battle Fleet in order to keep it out of German hands.

I also think that the contribution of the French underground has been overblown. Unlike the French, the Poles and Filipinos actively resisted from day one.

Richard Henry Morgan - 8/17/2004

Provence was a bit of a sideshow, in the larger scheme of things. But on the larger issue of colonial forces in the World Wars, there is an interesting literature on Lettow-Vorbeck, and his memoirs continue to return the investment of reading time.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/17/2004

You may be right about the relative contribution of the Poles and the Free French; I know too little about the Polish contribution. But I am curious how one measures such things.

Grant W Jones - 8/17/2004

It is also forgotten that the French fired upon American soldiers landing in North Africa in November 1942. Those other "Africans," white South Africans, that fought from beginning to end are also forgotten. Yet, also forgotten is that Free Polish soldiers (not to mention Enigma) and airman did much, much more to defeat Germany than the Free French.

Why France's black African colonies went with DeGaulle, while others, like Syria, sided with Vichy is an interesting topic.

Then there is Darlan's tragic fate. He had an opportunity to achieve greatness (he could have had DeGaulle's position) instead he met an ignominious end.