Print Project Proposal: History, Memory, and Vichy France on Wikipedia

In 2014, I spent a semester abroad in France. Fresh off the heels of an undergraduate course I had taken on the Vichy regime during World War II, I arrived eager to get the French perspective on this contested period of history. Yet when I brought it up with my host family or in my modern French history class, I got a lukewarm response at best. When I returned again in 2018 to teach for a year, I knew better than to engage in conversation about Vichy, but I sensed even more that there was an aura of shame surrounding this history in France, with the general awareness that “it happened, it was bad, it’s over, and that’s it.”

Map of Occupied France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Many scholars have studied collective memory following les années noires in France. Between 1940 and 1944, France suffered a devastating military defeat which resulted in German occupation in the northern half of the country, and a puppet government led by Phillipe Pétain in Vichy in the southern half. Building on Pierre Nora’s exploration of the complex relationship between “history and memory,”[1] historian Henry Rousso refers to the pall over the memory of this time in France as “the Vichy syndrome.” He defines this affliction as “the complex of heterogeneous symptoms and manifestations revealing, particularly in political, cultural and social life, the existence of traumas engendered by the Occupation […] traumas that have been maintained, and sometimes heightened after the events are over.”[2] As a result of this intensifying trauma, Rousso argues, collective memory of the Vichy regime has often been forged through the “organization of forgetting.”[3] Rousso’s work has since inspired scholars to examine what the French have chosen to remember and conceal about the Vichy regime among feelings of shame and recollections of defeat, occupation, and repression.

I aim to join these scholars in exploring the constructed memory of Vichy France, though through the lens of Wikipedia. As an open-source, collaborative platform, Wikipedia is an ideal place to examine where history and memory meet. The unique nature of crowdsourcing offers insight into what (theoretically) everyday people have chosen to remember about a contested past, as Wikipedia serves as a community-built space to engage with this history.

I will look at the French, English, and potentially German Wikipedia pages to examine what national narratives have been fashioned about Vichy France. How is this history told on these pages, each with likely different stakes in what is remembered? How have these pages operated under Wikipedia’s standard of neutrality, when memories of difficult pasts are never neutral? I will study the content of the pages themselves, but will also spend time on the talk pages to discover what topics regarding the history of Vichy France have been and are being debated. Preliminary research has revealed that the English page currently has 9 topics of discussion and the German page has 16, while the French page has over 50. What can this tell us about the nature of the history and memory of the Vichy regime in France? Even amid efforts to forget, the French Wikipedia page shows that Vichy France is clearly “un passé qui ne passe pas” – a past that lives on in different variants of memory to this day.[4]

Footage from the Fall of Paris, June 1940. Source: AP Archive.

[1] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations, no. 26 (1989): 7–24, https://doi.org/10.2307/2928520.

[2] Henry Rousso and Arthur Goldhammer, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944 (Cambridge.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), 18-19.

[3] Ibid, 12.

[4] Eric Conan and Henry Rouso, Vichy: Un passé qui ne passe pas (Paris: Fayard, 1994).

One Reply to “Print Project Proposal: History, Memory, and Vichy France on Wikipedia”

  1. This is a great idea for a project. You have something that is very well scoped. You have a good context to situate the project in and I think it’s a creative and novel way to get at a great public memory research question.

    I have no doubt that you are going to find interesting variance in the development of the pages and the arguments that happen on them.

    My only primary suggestion at this point is that alongside looking at the specific Vichy pages is that it will also be good to look at how Vichy France is or isn’t discussed and covered on the more general pages like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_France It’s one thing to see what the dedicated pages about the topic say, but I imagine it will also be interesting to see how prominent or not the period is in the broader view history pages on the site too.

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