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A Legacy of Shame

French Narratives of War and Occupation

Ruth Kitchen

A Legacy of Shame is the first in-depth study of shame in French narratives of the Second World War and the Nazi Occupation of France. Wartime shame continues to be a recurrent theme in literature and film and is an ongoing topic of cultural and political debate and yet the problem of shame has only been mentioned incidentally by cultural critics. In the concluding lines of Le Syndrome de Vichy, Henry Rousso locates the ‘syndrome’, the continual return of wartime memories in the present, in the postwar desire to restore national unity and identity. This book proposes that beneath Rousso’s syndrome lies a disintegrated sense of shame. Although this shame is painfully exposed in narratives, it remains unacknowledged as a collective, national memory and has consequently continued to trouble postwar constructions of national identity and history. By investigating narrative expressions of shame and theories of shame produced by the events of this historical moment, the book examines the issues that this legacy presents for cultural history, collective memory and, implicitly, for postwar national identity.

This book is the winner of the Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in French Studies 2011.


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Chapter 1 Abortive Shame: Unfinished Mourning


France sustained a series of devastating blows in the war, the defeat, the Occupation and the Épuration. The French populace had no time to recover from, absorb or evaluate these events before facing the next crisis. les Français n’ont pas eu le temps nécessaire d’accepter, de comprendre, de faire le deuil de ce qui leur arrivait sans être immédiatement happés dans un autre tourbillon: c’est avec et sous Vichy que l’on a commencé de prendre la mesure de la défaite, c’est avec et sous l’épuration que la majorité a pris conscience de ce qu’était le régime de Pétain.1 These blows challenged the core of national identity. Henry Rousso suggests that comprehension and mourning of each of these events was delayed by the subsequent event. He locates the later crises in remembering to stem from this period when French society was unable to fully reabsorb the trauma and divisiveness of the war and Occupation: ‘La récurrence ulté- rieure des crises du souvenir prend sa source dans ces années-là, la société française se révélant incapable de résorber entièrement le traumatisme’.2 The inability to mourn, to accept and integrate loss is described by Freud as melancholia. In his essay Mourning and Melancholia, Freud not only associates melancholia with personal loss or bereavement but also with events such as the loss of a fatherland. Paul Ricoeur explains the dif ference between the two terms: What is...

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