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Museums convey complexities of France’s wartime role

France is no longer uncomfortable discussing its role in the Second World War. Samantha David meets the director of Lyon’s museum dedicated to the history of resistance and deportation

There are museums all across France exploring the country’s role in the Second World War; most are museums of resistance, some are also museums of deportation, and one (in Cahors) is styled as a museum of liberation too. The earliest of them opened in the 70s, although the one in Paris is only ten years old. As well as highlighting the heroic actions of many, gradually these museums have shone a light on parts
of WWII history that some would like to forget.

The museums celebrate the incredibly brave resistance put up by ordinary people all over France, document the deportations and more sombrely, explore French collaboration with occupying Nazi troops. 

The Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation (CHRD) in Lyon is housed in the ex-military medical school which was taken over and used as Klaus Barbie’s headquarters between spring 1943 and spring 1944. The head of Hitler’s Gestapo in Lyon, he was so infamous for his brutal interrogations, that he earned the name ‘The Butcher of Lyon’.

The basement of what is now the museum was converted into cells for prisoners awaiting interrogation. Klaus Barbie personally tortured adults and children, breaking limbs giving electric shocks, and dunking people’s heads into ammonia. He also sexually abused adults and children. He is estimated to have been personally responsible for more than 14,000 deaths.

Barbie arrested Jean Moulin (a French resistance leader – picture below) and personally ordered 44 Jewish orphans to be deported from a French orphanage in Izieu to Auschwitz, where they were all exterminated. The details of his multiple crimes are too horrific to list.

And yet, he was recruited by the US Army, who refused to hand him over to the French, who had already tried him and condemned him to death in absentia.

Instead, they helped him ‘escape’ to Bolivia where he continued working for the US and for Germany until 1983 when Bolivia finally extradited him to France. He was put on trial in 1987 in a specially constructed courtroom, but even when faced with some of his surviving victims declared, “When I stand before the throne of God I shall be judged innocent.”

He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in prison four years later at the age of 77, of cancer.

Unusually, and because of its historical significance, the trial was filmed, and extracts are screened at the CHRD as part of the permanent exhibitions. These are amongst the most chilling exhibits.

The museum also contains a vast archive of documents, but in order to make the history engaging, it aims to put the events into context by evoking daily life during the war.

One of the most popular exhibits is a reconstructed interior of a house from the era. It’s a strange experience, touching the plates and spoons on the table.

The exhibition then traces the history of the mass deportations of French citizens from Lyon, which then as now was a railway hub for trains heading east from France. This immense bureaucratic exercise was carried out to a large extent by French workers.

There is also a section about those who resisted the Nazis, either informally or by joining one of the many resistance groups in the area. The museum also houses temporary exhibitions on subjects such as the fall of the Berlin Wall.  

“It’s important that people know the history,” says Isabelle Doré-Rivé, the centre’s director. “A visit to a museum isn’t a vaccine against racism, intolerance or hatred of the ‘other’ but it is an indispensable first step. We get lots of families here, and school visits, of course, and I hope that understanding the past at least makes people less afraid of the present. Here at the museum, we talk more about knowledge than memory, knowledge of how things affect others.”

She says that history is almost never as simple as films make out, there are far more nuances and complexities. “People sometimes complain that there is too much text, too much to read in our museum, but the history is complicated. It takes a lot of words to explain it in totality.”


Sensitive subject

The subject of WW2 can be a sensitive one in France, partly because of the actions of the Vichy government, and partly because of the collaboration of some French people.

For decades after the war, many people preferred to concentrate on the actions of the resistance than to admit a more complex truth.

“Confronting the truth has been a long and very difficult journey in France, but I think it is well-known now,” says Isabelle Doré-Rivé.

“In the 60s we liked to think it didn’t happen, but by the 90s it was more widely accepted as being true, and we have advanced along that path but we still have work to do – on Algeria for example. French collaboration has been well explained, however, along with the participation of the French State, as well as the saving of Jews by ordinary French citizens.”

She says some people come to the museum and want to talk about relatives in their family who collaborated, even some German families want to talk about discovering what their relatives did during the war. “Time has passed, most of the actors in WW2 are dead now so the subject is calmer, we can have a more reasoned conversation about it.”

The CHRD was constructed after the Klaus Barbie trial and after it opened in 1992, other cities gradually opened their own museums. The ‘Maison d’Izieu, mémorial des enfants juifs exterminés’ (east of Lyon, in Ain which was in the occupied zone) was opened in the orphanage from which Klaus Barbie sent 44 children to Auschwitz; there is also another museum in Tarn-et-Garonne (in the unoccupied zone) called the ‘Maison des Enfants de Moissac’ which commemorates 500 Jewish children who were saved from deportation.

“People often ask me how I feel about working in the very building where such atrocities were committed,” says Mrs Doré-Rivé. “They are amazed that it’s so light and airy. The museum’s administrative offices are actually on the same floor where he tortured so many people.

“But strangely enough, it doesn’t bother me. The building’s history is multi-layered. Many other things have happened here over the years, and I don’t believe in ghosts, so I don’t feel there’s an atmosphere. We just work on the transmission of knowledge.”

And today, so do many other resistance and deportation museums in France. The ‘Musée de la Résistance Nationale’ in Paris is ten years old, the ‘Maison Jean-Moulin’ was opened in 1994, and Mémorial du Camp de Rivesaltes near Perpignan – detailing the site’s role as a transit camp
for the deportation of Jews to Drancy – opened in 2015.

This is in addition to military history museums, and suggests that France is indeed coming to terms with its own history during the Second World War.


Resistance was not futile for brave war hero Moulin

Jean Moulin fought in the First World War and between the wars worked in various local authorities around France. By 1939 he had become the (very) socialist ‘préfet’ of Eure-et-Loir.

In early 1940 he was arrested by the Nazis on suspicion of being a communist and having been interrogated, tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat with a shard of broken glass. A guard discovered him in time, however, and sent him to hospital where he recovered. Subsequently, he hid the resulting scar with a large scarf round his neck.

Later in 1940, having been sacked for his political views, he joined the French resistance and in 1941 travelled to London where he met Charles de Gaulle, who tasked him with unifying the various resistance groups. He partially succeeded and went back to London in spring 1943 for more instructions. Back in France again, just a few months later in June, he was arrested by the Nazis again at a meeting of resistance leaders which he had organised in Lyon.

He was extensively interrogated, every day, by Klaus Barbie in Lyon, and then again in Paris, but never gave anything away. He eventually died near Metz, on a train bound for Germany, from deliberately self-inflicted injuries. The mystery of who betrayed him remains; there are also questions about his politics and his sexuality; was he communist? Homosexual?

Theories abound, but for most people in France, none of them matter. He is a hero, hundreds of streets and schools are named after him and his ‘last letter’, written to his mother and his sister, is on the curriculum for all pupils in ‘collège’.

His presumed remains were buried in Le Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris and transferred to the Panthéon in 1964. In 1993, a commemorative two franc coin was minted featuring an image of Jean Moulin in his trademark fedora and scarf. 

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