Fixing History: Narratives of World War I in France

For nearly a century, the French have entertained an unshakable conviction that their ability to recognize themselves-to know and transmit the essence of Frenchness-depended on the teaching of the history of France. In effect, history was a discourse on France, and the teaching of history-"la pedagogie centrale du citoyen"-the means by which children were constituted as heirs and carriers of a common collective memory that made them not only citizens, but family. In this essay, I examine the rhetorical and conceptual effects on history writing that emerge out of this preoccupation with the elaboration of a continuous, coherent national identity. Focusing on schoolbooks, I begin by looking at the dominant, nearly hegemonic model of French history created by Ernest Lavisse in the 1890s-a model informed by the dream of a unified, unitary French nation, embodied in and articulated through the history of France-and at the disruption of this paradigm in the aftermath of the Great War. I then consider a text written in the 1990s specifically to repudiate the kind of nationalist narratives that prevailed for most of this century-a new supranational history of Europe. I argue that, in their different experiments with fixing history, both Lavisse and the contemporary textbook authors did not so much repair a deficient history as produce a historical fixation, creating mythicized histories that are complete, closed, predictable, and at bottom ahistorical. Finally, I turn to a recent World War I novel, A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot, in order to suggest ways in which the narrative strategies of a fiction writer may be useful to historians in thinking about a different kind of historical project.