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Memory Wars: the Holocaust, Resistance and Colonialism

The final lecture brings in a third strand, the controversy surrounding French responsibility for the Holocaust. It begins with the trial of Klaus Barbie in 1987, alleged to be the killer of Resistance leader Jean Moulin as well as a deporter of Jewish children. His defence set out to demonstrate that Nazi crimes in Europe were no worse than those perpetrated by the French in their empire. The trial triggered a campaign for the French government to recognise its role in the Holocaust, which it did in 1995, while at the same time honouring those French people who had saved Jews. This process offered two models: one of victimhood to be recognised (and compensated); the other of reconciliation between victims and ‘bystanders’.  The Resistance  camp, which did not come well out of the Barbie trial, began to rebrand itself as one of deportees and martyrs rather than as fighters, and began to integrate immigrant elements - such as East-European Jews and Spanish republicans – into the narrative of Resistance and Liberation. The trial also triggered controversy about the French government’s ‘massacre’ of demonstrating Algerians in Paris in October 1961, underlining the way in which North African immigrants have been seen through the lens of the Algerian War. As constant reminders of France’s colonial past and ultimate defeat they have provided grist to the Front National mill. A neo-republican discourse on the unity and indivisibility of the Republic, which refuses to recognise minority communities as partners, has tended to exclude them from educational and professional integration. A powerful campaign has been mounted to write a ‘post-colonial’ history of French colonialism, highlighting its racism and violence, and through this to frame an account that integrates the experience of former subject people, now immigrants, but this has proved highly controversial.

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