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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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Conclusion From Guilt to Shame and Back


At the start of this book, I examined the dif ferences between guilt and shame. In this concluding chapter, I will brief ly consider how this study of wartime shame might elucidate the problem of guilt in the war and Occupation context and outline the implications of the legacy. In his 2013 work, Aurais-je été un resistant ou un bourreau?, literary critic and psycho- analyst Pierre Bayard embarks on an extended meditation on the circum- stances of war and Occupation and the question of whether, if he had been alive at the time, he would have been a resister or a persecutor, literary critic and psychoanalyst, Pierre Bayard argues that the attitude of attentisme, of going with mainstream attitude of seeing what would happen, was typical of the majority of French citizens. He cites the example of the Milgram experiment carried out at Yale in the 1960s, where subjects were required to administer electric shock treatment to a person in another room and to continue doing this as the screams of pain and the intensity of the shock increased, to point out that the attitude of going along with the status quo is a general trend in human behaviours. Bayard notes that attitudes of heroism and those of les Justes or les sauveteurs, terms borrowed from Tzvetan Todorov’s Face à l’extrême are exceptions rather than the rule.1 In line with this observation Henry Rousso states that the complex resides in acknowledging that the Resistance was the work of a few...

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