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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 3 The Return of Shame: Mourning and Obsession


In relation to the return of the camp survivors, the revenants, to France, the question of shame is framed by the discourses surrounding the question of survivor guilt and shame. The psychoanalytic theories of survivor guilt of the 1960s, of William Niederland, Henry Krystal, Bruno Bettelheim and others, pointed to the camp survivor’s necessary compliance with the deg- radation and amorality imposed upon him in order to survive.1 According to these theories, the instinct for survival through self degradation or at the expense of others caused the camp survivors to unconsciously identify with their persecutor. The survivor was considered to be wracked with the guilt of having survived by becoming like the perpetrator. In rejecting this notion of survivor guilt, Terrence des Pres concurred with the arguments made by Ernest Rappaport, against the notion of iden- tification with the aggressor.2 des Pres claimed that the survivor maintained detachment and kept his identity by operating on two dif ferent levels, both ‘with and against’ the rule of death and oppression to which he was subject.3 On this model, the survivor overtly collaborated and covertly resisted. Ruth Leys argues that des Pres’s thesis overplays the idea of the inmate’s ‘free choice’ in adopting a self-consciously ‘mimetic’ performance 1 Bruno Bettelheim, Surviving and Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), Henry Krystal, ed., Massive Psychic Trauma (New York: International Universities Press, 1968), William G. Niederland, ‘The Problem of the Survivor. Part 1: Some Remarks on the Psychiatric Evaluation of Emotional Disorders in Survivors...

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