Memory is a rich and powerful intoxicant. It can be as seductively misleading as it can be corrective. By invoking memory and heritage we can chide as we inspire, promoting a sense that life’s challenges can be more ably met when clad in the armour of past experience. Significantly, this has often been the case with national identity, and memory has often framed the values espoused by our politicians and leaders.
I was struck, very recently, by the poignancy of two maps. These maps are rich resources that must have taken years of work to produce, and the results are amazing. They tell the story of two cities during the Second World War, yet in their focus, they also tell the story of our memory. France’s war was punctuated by Defeat and Liberation, and between those moments we tend to seed a story of brave resistance. In Paris, this narrative is at its most potent: jarring images of Hitler in front of the Eiffel Tower only intensify the jubilant scenes of De Gaulle declaring the Liberation to crowds of supportive patriots. Britain’s war, in turn, is framed between Dunkirk and D-Day, with the Blitz serving as the backdrop for the everyday acts of heroism that suffused the period.
This map of ‘Lieux de mémoire’ (or sites of memory – the phrase itself obviously invoking the writing of Pierre Nora) shows the rich heritage and memory of France’s capital. It layers stories of tragedy and bravery over cobbled streets and modern motorways. The map, produced by Musée de la Résistance can be found HERE
I’m struck by the poignancy of De Gaulle’s speech of 25 August 1944 made on the steps of the Hotel de Ville, and how it illustrates this geography of memory, of loss, and of celebration:
Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!
Well! Since the enemy which held Paris has capitulated into our hands, France returned to Paris. She has returned bleeding but resolute. She has returned, enlightened by this immense lesson, but more certain than ever of her responsibilities and her rights.
This map of London’s bomb sites offers a different sense of British war-time experience. It speaks of obduracy, endurance and the ephemeral “Blitz spirit” that has animated British politicians ever since. The scars of this bombing disfigured many areas of the city, creating tragedies and erasing history even as it was withstood. The map, produced by the ‘Bomb Sight’ project (funded by The National Archives, the University of Portsmouth, and JISC), can be found HERE
Here too we can see evidence of the national myth-building that supported the war effort. Churchill specifically referenced the scars depicted in this map in a speech on 11 September 1940:
These cruel, wanton, indiscriminate bombings of London are, of course, a part of Hitler’s invasion plans. He hopes, by killing large numbers of civilians, and women and children, that he will terrorize and cow the people of this mighty imperial city, and make them a burden and an anxiety to the government and thus distract our attention unduly from the ferocious onslaught he is preparing. Little does he know the spirit of the British nation, or the tough fibre of the Londoners, whose forebears played a leading part in the establishment of Parliamentary institutions, and who have been bred to value freedom far above their lives.
Between these maps and these speeches are a sense of French solidarity and republicanism, and a picture of British self-reliance and liberalism. The way they connect to these national myths is an important means of investigating the claims behind them, and must energise all historians to learn what lies behind each pin on the maps.
Each of these maps is an important resource and I though immediately of how I might use them in teaching. The first task that springs to mind would be to ask students to pick two points and research their connection, to unearth small stories of significance. I’m thinking here about amazing stories like that of George Dukson (notably told by Matthew Cobb in this article in The Independent HERE, and his site HERE). The story of this peripheral figure is inspiring and tragic in equal measure, and belies the significance of every point on both of these maps. That story also helps to show us how national narratives have a richness that belies their political utility (again, I’m thinking of an excellent post by Will Pooley on ‘Grainy History’ HERE). Beneath the polished exteriors of packaged myths lie stories that alter and develop the values they are purported to endorse.
The Society for the Study of French History’s annual Douglas Johnson Lecture was delivered by Professor Andrew Knapp in 2014. In this lecture, he highlighted the forgotten narratives of British bombing in France to produce a compelling sense of how the mythology that grew out of war’s end marginalised difficult moments (the lecture was recorded and is available HERE). Of course, there has been much work done to outline the sense that a resistencialist myth dominated post-war France, before a generational reckoning began in the 1960s. For Britain, too, national myths have been wrestled with as justifying specific essentialised qualities of ‘Britishness’, and circumscribing the granular detail that makes the response to the Blitz all the more poignant (notably in the work of Richard Overy, there is reference to jumbled civil defence strategies and the propagandising of Londoners’ resilience that overwrote more nuanced and often more difficult responses).
These two maps, like these two cities, lie at the heart of national mythologies. Yet, the fantastic work of the researchers that compiled them illustrates the importance of individual stories to these grand narratives. Challenging and adapting the ways in which we read our own history should not be seen as revisionism or an innate rejection of previous myths. Rather, as in the streets of Paris and London, the layering of history atop its forebears produces a rich tapestry of meaning that tells the story of our national history. These ‘imagined communities’ in which we live are bound in part by the reverence we place on the heritage we share. The deep horizontal bonds that Benedict Anderson credits as the foundations of national identity are neither singular, neat, nor exclusive. If we can acknowledge the value of nested identities, we can also acknowledge the values of nested memories in our national mythologies. The monuments that populate London and Paris resonate with their individual stories even as they endorse our collective nationhood.