Gary: Today’s special episode is an interview with Dr. Richard Derderian. Derderian earned his PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He worked at the National University of Singapore and California Lutheran University. We are going to be talking about his book North Africans in Contemporary France: Becoming Visible about the culture of French Algerians within France following the Algerian War. We are also going to talk about his new podcast called Realms of Memory that features the insights of leading experts on how countries around the globe confront their most difficult and often traumatic histories.
Thank you very much for being on the show, Dr. Richard Derderian. We are here to talk about essentially two things. First is your book, North Africans in Contemporary France: Becoming Visible And then we are going to talk about a new and exciting podcast that you have launched that I am looking forward to very much, which I’ve already enjoyed the first two episodes for. But first, let’s talk about your book, because it is a remarkable book and one which I think is very important for contemporary France. Your book deals with how immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East became more visible to the French general public through popular culture in the 1970s onward. Yet there were many immigrants from these places going back a generation. Can you talk about immigration patterns in French history and how so many North African and Middle Eastern people came into France?
Richard: First, I want to thank you for having me, Garry. I appreciate you taking the time. And, well, you could argue on the one hand that my focus is on North Africans, and you could argue that they really fit into a much older pattern of immigration or cyclical history of immigration in France going back to the 19th century. So France is a little unique in Europe. And we know France had one of the largest populations in Europe around the beginning of the 19th century. That’s what fueled French armies from the time of the monarchy to Napoleon. But with Napoleon, you have this equal inheritance law that’s passed, which means that most of the population, the countryside, if they want to hang on to their land, they have smaller families. So just at the point where you move into the 19th century and France industrializes, the population starts to not shrink, but grow at a much slower pace than France’s neighbors. So it’s still growing. But if you look to the neighboring countries, their populations in the course of the 19th century are doubling or tripling. I mean, that’s the time where so many Europeans come to the US. So France really needs to look abroad for workers, for mines, for factories, and they look to neighboring countries first places like Belgium, then Italy. That’s the first wave of immigrants. And then once you move into the interwar period, they look a little further abroad. Places in Eastern Europe, Poland in particular. The government starts to get involved in recruiting. And then once you get into the post-World War Two period, they are trying to look into some of the same places. But circumstances have changed. The fall of the Iron Curtain makes it harder to get workers from Eastern Europe. And they had this connection to Empire, particularly Algeria, which is considered to be an extension of metropolitan France. So it wasn’t the plan, but you end up with large numbers of Algerians in particular, start to come in in the 1950s, responding to this dramatic period of post-World War two growth that the French call the 30 glorious years from the fifties to the 1970s. So they really fit into these three waves. And every one of these waves is followed by an economic downturn. So at the end of the 19th century, it’s Italians that become the focus of xenophobia in the press, hostility, right wing parties, racially motivated violence. There are scores of Italians who are killed in southern France. You move into the interwar years, you get thousands of Poles who were deported during the Great Depression. So you could argue this hostility towards North Africans when the French economy ends, this period of the 30 years of growth ends the 1970s. It fits into this older, older pattern. But what’s particular about North Africans and Algerians in particular is this colonial imperial connection. So the Algerians who arrive in France, they have to contend with other factors that that really weren’t the case with European immigration, immigrants in particular. You’ve got a powerful colonial lobby in Algeria that’s concerned that Algerian workers might get radicalized in France, that this could stir up problems in Algeria. And indeed, this happens that the Algerian nationalist movement, with the support of the French Communist Party, begins in France in the 1920s with Messali Hadj in the North African Star. So their efforts very early on during the interwar years to try to control the North African population. This is a particular history to this community. We tend to think these are recent things, but it goes back much, much further in time. And these control measures often involve colonial administrators trying to just keep tabs on the Algerian population through a whole host of different measures and even promoting stereotypes, negative stereotypes, to try to separate Algerians from the French who weren’t necessarily predisposed to have these negative images of Algerians. And you could argue that because they didn’t have the protection of home governments, as was the case with European immigrants, they were often stuck in the most vulnerable, most high risk, most difficult types of jobs, their housing conditions or horrendous. You had, we don’t even know how many. Estimate 75,000 could have been three times that many immigrants were living in shanty towns outside of French major cities from the 1950s all the way up into the 1970s. And these were places that were really not any different from the favelas in Brazil, just makeshift homes, no plumbing, no electricity, subject to fires, a maze of mud streets that you get trapped in with fire. Very difficult housing conditions. And once you push into the 1970s and the economy takes a downturn during the Giscard era, then the government starts to ratchet up even more control measures on this community. So you’ve got the end to non-European immigration. You have financial incentives that are offered to foreigners to return home. You police are given more powers to deport the foreigners who are convicted of misdemeanors. And at the end of the 1970s, there’s actually a policy that’s being formulated by the Giscard government to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Algerians. So there’s this context of insecurity that is taking shape, a long history of control and concerns that are focused on this community and lack of protections that other Europeans enjoyed. And this is really the backdrop. So on the one hand, they share a common immigration history, but there are a lot of particulars that really set North Africans and Algerians apart.
Gary: You describe the late 1970s and 1980s as a formative political era for immigrants, both in the positive sense that some politicians wanted to support them, and the negative as there was pronounced, backlash. What political parties and peoples were for immigrants? Who was against them, and what were these programs?
Richard: Well, within this context of the seventies, where you’ve got the Giscard government that’s tightening controls, ratcheting up pressures on the immigrant community. You do have a variety of groups, Catholic, Protestant solidarity groups that lend their support to the North African worker protests. You’ve got North African students that are involved in trying to help mobilize immigrant workers, trade unions, humanitarian organizations. And not unlike how Macron is searching for support on the left right now, you have Françcois Mitterrand in the lead up to the presidential elections in the early eighties, whose Socialist Party is trying to broaden their base of support on the left. So they’re trying to tap into a lot of these elements of what’s sometimes called the new left. So they lend their support to immigrant protests to rent strikes. They promise that they’re going to extend the freedom of association to foreigners. And associations in France were tightly controlled by the minister of the interior. If you are a foreigner. Up until the 1980s, they promise to extend the vote to foreigners in the municipal elections. And there was even talk of the right to difference, the La Droit de Différence in France, that there was a suggestion that the socialists might be in favor of moving more in the direction towards a pluralistic understanding of France, towards a more of a multicultural understanding of French society away from its Jacobin assimilationist history. And indeed, when the socialists come to power in 1981, they follow through on many of their promises. They extend these equal rights of association to foreigners, the end of deportation of immigrant youth. They regularize over 100,000 undocumented immigrants, and they channel a lot of state funding towards immigrant associations. But what happens is the political context changes by the early eighties with the rise of the National Front on this on an anti-immigrant platform. And the National Front basically takes this idea of the right to difference, and used it to make a case that the French difference needs to be protected. What’s really at risk is French culture that is threatened by a large number of Muslim North Africans in France. And what really needs to be done to rejuvenate, restore the nation is to try to remove this population, prioritize the French. A lot of rhetoric that sadly hasn’t really changed over the past 20 years. So it’s within this context that you have North African youth who are mobilizing to try to react to this climate of insecurity, rise of racial violence. And they organize several different marches on Paris to try to speak out against racial violence, to try to call for a more open understanding of France. And it seems like in the early 1980s that there could be the possibility of a creation of a kind of ethnic lobby in France, the first march for equality against racism. That’s the picture that I used in the cover of my book. There’s 100,000 people when it arrives in Paris in 1983. They’re greeted by the President Mitterrand at Elysée Palace. He promises to respond to a number of their key demands. But again, this political context is shifting rapidly with the rise of the National Front, and immigration quickly becomes more of a liability. And what you see is this shift in rhetoric, this idea of the Droit de la Différence, the right to difference, is quickly abandoned in favor of this new idea of a Republican model of citizenship. That which really suggests that the proper way to be included or integrated is the term that’s used, intégration, and still is the term to be integrated to France is as an individual, not a member of a group, and through shared values and and rights. And the notion of pluralism or multiculturalism gets cast as an Anglo-Saxon kind of import, a very negative kind of understanding of something that if the French were to embrace, could take them down the road to the kinds of ghettos that you see in America or the kinds of disruptive ethnic violence that occurred in places like Yugoslavia. On the one hand, you do have these efforts to organize in the early 1980s that seemed to have some early success, but then the political context becomes less receptive. And then North Africans themselves, I argue, are really undercut by deep sentiments of distrust that in order to build a lasting movement, larger movement, they’ve got to rely on French allies. And that really was part of the larger history of North African activism in France. They always had supporters on the left and second-generation North Africans. Just Africans just couldn’t agree whether they wanted to have a broader alliance-based movement or go it alone. And eventually the movement disintegrated in the course of the 1980s. And that was a major factor.
Gary: Well, I see that even over time, the blaming of Anglo-Saxon culture as what’s wrong with France hasn’t changed to this day. Now, your first examination of Middle Eastern and North African people’s culture is on theatre. Why were local theatre troupes so important and how did they impact immigrant culture?
Richard: Well, I point out in my book that there’s a long history of cultural expression in the North African community. They basically bring their culture with them from the earliest days, North African cafés closely connected to musicians. You’ve got newspapers that are connected to Messali Hadj and North African nationalism between the wars. Novelists were writing about the immigrant experiences. A long history of this, but a lot of that really focused on the plight of immigrant workers or concerns about the home country. And you have this generation, this first generation of Algerians that grow up in France who are either brought to France in the 1950s or are born there. And they don’t really relate to these traditional focus of North African culture find themselves in a context where on the one hand, French society doesn’t really see them. They still look at immigration in terms of single workers earning money to send back home and eventually, who plan on returning home themselves and what they describe as the myth of return within their families, that fathers who never intended to stay in France, that their plan was to earn their money, to bring their families back home and didn’t want to recognize the fact that dreamer had become a myth, that return wasn’t going to happen, that their families were really their kids in particular had grown up in France and were rooted there. So cultural expression was a way of shattering that invisibility. And they sometimes refer to themselves as this invisible generation in the 1970s that would change in the 1980s, theater was a way of conveying their reality to local audiences and talking about their experiences, their memories. And it was something that was fairly affordable, didn’t require a lot of technical support, and it was something that was very fluid. That was one of the appealing dimensions of it that you had these rough scripts that change, but a lot of it was based on improvisation. So you had participants who really could bring their own experiences to the stage, and no performance was really identical to the previous one. So they performed again for immigrant local audiences in open air settings, community centers, residence halls, festivals. And much of this was in French because not many of them really had a great command of Arabic or Berber, the two dominant languages of North Africa. You had a heavy usage of urban type of slang called the Verlan which works by flipping the first and last syllables of words. So Verlan itself is a flipped around version of à l’inverseor reverse in this term. Beur its used to designate this generation itself is a form of Verlan that comes from flipping around the word Arab. Arab becomes [Beur] So theater is one of these earliest forms of talking about the experiences of this generation that are very different from those of their parents. And, and you see all kinds of different subjects that are included. I mean, everything from this climate of insecurity in the 1970s, threat of being deported for misdemeanor, the threat of racially motivated crimes, this issue of tensions within North African families over the fact that there was this dream of returning home and the reality that that wasn’t going to happen. And then all kinds of memories of the Algerian past, the Algerian war and how that spilled over into France. It was a formative experience. Many of these actors took with them and went on to participate in all kinds of other cultural projects within the community.
Gary: The next cultural area you focus on is radio, particularly a station called Radio Beur. Can you explain why Radio Beur was so important and what caused it to eventually fail?
Richard: Well, it was important because if you look at the French airwaves all the way up into 1981, they were it was tightly controlled by the state. And you actually only had seven legal radio stations as late as 1980. So for a population of 50 million people, that was like 25 times less than the United States. So it was important in that, you had the Mitterrand government was one of the changes that significant changes that ushered in it. It loosened controls over the airwaves and allowed for the explosion of private stations, radio stations. And among these stations, you had dozens of stations that were run by different minority groups that were called communitarian or radio stations, radio communautaire. So then they started broadcasting to their own communities who really didn’t have a whole lot of access to their music, to programming that dealt with their culture. So it was just greeted with a huge amount of enthusiasm. You had members of the community were just overjoyed. Bringing in everything from furniture to records to support the station. The station was also organizing concerts, promoting singers within the community, promoting singers from Algeria. Radio Beur claimed that it was the station that promoted a form of North African Algerian rock music called Rai. They claim they helped popularize that. So a major kind of cultural opening. Radio Beur claimed to be a part of in the 1980s. And eventually, as you push ten years on, they claim to have 100,000 listeners in the Paris area.
Gary: In your discussion of Radio Beur, you talk about generational conflict. What separated the older generation born during or before the Algerian War and the younger generation that was born afterwards.
Richard: So this was a dimension of my work that, in all honesty, was a little depressing because on the one hand I was studying this blossoming of this cultural movement that seemed to be happening in the seventies into the eighties. That was something that was novel and unusual in France, that you had these theater companies, you had singers and novelists and movie producers and radio stations. In a country that didn’t seem to have any kind of history of recognizing or supporting the public expression of minority cultures. And yet it was often a history that was riddled with failure, especially when it came to group projects in radio, Beur much like the associational movement was just undercut by distrust. So as this collective project gets underway and you move into the 1980s and it gains more of an audience. You see that you start to have concerns, a variety of different concerns, concerns that maybe the station administrators might be in league with elements of the French government or elements of the Algerian government who might be trying to undercut the independence of the station. There were concerns that maybe some of the station managers might be more interested in using the station to promote their own interest, their own political agenda. Eventually you had Radio Beur relying for much of its history on concerts as its main source of source of revenue eventually gets into advertising. There were concerns that they were maybe station members who were taking kickbacks. And eventually what happens is you get a station that splinters into different factions and factions are also connected to generational differences within the station. The people who founded Radio Beur, one of the arguments was, well, these people don’t look a whole like young people from the suburbs. And it was true that by the early 1980s, these founders were really people who are closer to their thirties than they were their twenties or their teens, which is kind of the image of Beurs and a lot of the people who gravitated to the station were younger people who really felt like they were more representative of this generation. But they were younger people who came of age at a time where economic conditions had worsened. Their professional situation was much more precarious than the founders, this older generation, who were often much more professionally established in careers. Doctors, teachers, people in banking. Founders of Radio Beur really looked at the station, not in terms of an occupation or a professional engagement. It was something, it was more of a personal militant cultural commitment that they did on the side. It was an extra, whereas a lot of the younger people who came in in the 1980s volunteered, maybe ended up working at the station. They saw the station as a source of identity, as a stepping stone towards a career. So you have this combination of sentiments of distrust that run through the station. Station tends to factionalized splinters among different leaders, three in particular. And then these younger people gravitate to one faction or another. And what starts as this project that was seen as being built by the Algerian community, brick by brick for the community, ends up in court with three different former presidents of the station, each suing each other, each claiming to be the legitimate leader of the station. Eventually, bills go unpaid. The station goes off the air for a while when the electricity bills aren’t paid, and one of the founders ends up starting up a commercial, private commercial network of stations in the south of France called Beur FM. And in the end, you have Radio Beur and Beur FM end up in competition for frequency in Paris and Beur FM wins out. Again as a private commercial station continues 20 years later to be broadcasting on the Parisian airwaves today.
Gary: So moving on, another conflict you mention and hopefully this isn’t too depressing for you, is between Berbers and Arabs. Where did this come from and what impact did it have on immigrant communities?
Richard: And I should mention, too, that one of those three Radio Beur factional members actually ends up committing suicide. So just to add to
Gary: Just to add to the Depression.
Richard: So one of the charges that that gets leveled at the station early on is that it’s too geared towards the Berber community. It’s too geared towards Kabylia. And so this is really part of a longer, older history that goes back to the French control of North Africa, where you have this original population, Berber population in Algeria and Morocco, and you had colonial administrators who felt like this population was only superficially converted to Islam and they felt like they were closer in culture to Europeans. And there were some efforts to try to promote European culture in these regions. In Algeria, an area of Kabylia mountainous region to the east of Algiers really promoted French culture. Kabyls were overrepresented in French teacher training schools in Algeria, and they even favored Berbers when it came to immigration to France. So they were they overrepresented when it came to the makeup of the of the Algerian population. I mean, it was legitimate to see the station as maybe being geared towards this particular population. That was the background. Plus also Radio Beur gets off the ground just a year or so after you have this Kabylia uprising in Algeria by Kabila’s because Algeria itself after independence had gone in the direction of promoting an Arabic Muslim culture as the unitary culture of the nation. So they themselves kind of didn’t extend a whole lot of recognition to Berber culture. And there was no first of a number of incidents that happened in the early 1980s. Radio Beur get started right after that. And it was true that Radio Beur did try to support a lot of musicians who came from, Berber musicians who came from Algeria. So the argument was that the station was supposed to be balanced and its programming and the music that it aired was supposed to have an equal percentage of Berber and French and that it was much more slanted towards the Berber community. And I got a mix of different reactions to that, but a number of people felt so strongly about this that they decided to leave the station because of it.
Gary: One final conflict that I want to bring up is with Algeria itself. How did events in Algeria impact immigrants and their children within France?
Richard: So this is the 60th anniversary of the end of the Algerian war. And if you can plug into French television now, like I’ve been doing, I mean, just some fantastic documentaries that are on the air. So I recently watched one by an a historian, Benjamin Stora, who helped produce. He’s one of the leading historians on French Algeria. And he does address in part how the war is connected to France. I mean, you had hundreds of thousands of Algerians living in France, earning money in France, and they were key supporters of the Algerian liberation movement, which, again, had a history that went back to the interwar period, to Messali Hadj, the North African Star. There were actually two different Algerian independence movements, and they really fought it out in a bloody conflict during the Algerian war and a lot of which unfolded in the places where these people feel these shanty towns where this first-generation immigrant youth were growing up, and eventually it was the FLN, the National Liberation Front, that came out on top and was able to tap into the resources of the immigrant community. So you have a lot of fighting and violence and efforts by the French police to kind of control this flow of funds from the immigrant community to to the FLN. And one of the ways to do this is by imposing a curfew. And you have the Paris police chief, a guy by the name of Maurice Papon who’s got a really dark history going back to facilitating the deportation of Jews from Vichy part of France during the war, to overseeing torture in this area of Constantine that he was a top administrator of during the Algerian War. But he ends up being the head person of the Paris police and imposes this curfew to try to put a lid on this exchange of funds to the National Liberation Movement. And in order to challenge or contest the curfew, Algerian workers demonstrate on the evening of October 17, 1961, and there’s this brutal police crackdown. And you get an unknown number of Algerians who are killed, many of whom are thrown into the Seine. And a lot of this is just records are closed or lost. We don’t really know how many people is one of the episodes, many episodes of the Algerian War that just gets buried. More has come out recently. So this is something that this first generation lives through and through their cultural work there’s a lot of memory work that’s connected to this. Radio Beur claimed that it was the first North African association group to lay a wreath in memory of Algerians who died on October 17, 1961. It’s an event that comes up in all kinds of different novels and documentaries, songs that are produced by Algerian second-generation cultural actors. And what you see as well is many of the cultural productions by members of this community, there is a sense that there’s a direct connection between the racial violence in the French present and this unresolved Algerian past. So time and again, you’ve got references to this. There’s a novel, for example, one, Point Kilométrique 190, Kilometric Point 190, which is like the spot along a train route where a North African by the name of Habib Grimzi was thrown out the window of moving train to his death by French Foreign Legion recruits. A real-life event that gets integrated into this novel by the second-generation writer. And it’s a story that kind of flashes back and forth between the violence of the Algerian war and the murder of Habib Grimzi. And you see this again, one of the most famous established writers and movie producers that come out of the Algerian community, second generation Algerian, a guy by the name of Mehdi Charef. His second novel is called Le Harki De Meriem. The Harkis were the Algerians who were who supported the French military during the Algerian war and who are just left behind and slaughtered at the end of the war and fortunate. Thousands that made it to France were stuck in camps seen as traitors by members of the Algerian community. But in this particular novel, it starts off with this the son of a Harki who is the victim of a racially motivated murder. And then, you get this as the lead into the story of how his father decades earlier was murdered at the end of the war, the Algerian war, as a Harki. So, I argue that there’s claim that ethnic minority memory could present the danger of being a divisive force of further splintering French society. But when you look at the cultural work, the memories that are conveyed through second generation North African cultural work, often you find a willingness to address events and histories that haven’t been sufficiently worked through on either side of the Atlantic. In this event, October 17, 1961, is not really even talked about in Algeria because they want to pretend that Algerian independence movement was homegrown. They want to forget the connection to the North African immigrant community. So it’s kind of a double kind of forgetting that happens in the French and the Algerian side.
Gary: Drawing on Wieviorka. You claim that many French yearn for an imagined past where integration was successful. Can you point out what this past was and why it does not hold up to scrutiny?
Richard: So I mentioned earlier that you have this period during the 1970s and then when the Mitterrand Socialist government comes to power in the early 1980s, there’s this brief flirtation with this notion of pluralism, multiculturalism under this label, la joie, la différence, and that quickly disintegrates with the rise of the National Front on this anti-immigrant platform that uses this notion of difference to take a stand in defense of French culture. In response to this, you have this articulation of this Republican model of citizenship. So there may have been a long tradition of Jacobin assimilation in France and an aversion to group identities. But there wasn’t ever really a particular model of citizenship that gets articulated. And this is what happens in the course of the middle part of the 1980s, particularly when they’re debating changes that are proposed to the French nationality code. So they articulate this idea that there’s something unique to France as Republican model of individual integration different from the American British Anglo-Saxon model of promoting group allegiances, group identities. That’s seen as something that goes in the dangerous direction of a Balkanize and potentially Balkanize and ghettoized in France. And some of this notion of the Republican model is based on an imagined past, that this is what you’re really doing is returning to a success story of the Third Republic that has successfully integrated previous waves of immigration. And again, it’s a notion that doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny in that as I mentioned earlier, that there was always a lot of backlash towards immigrants with every economic downturn at the end of the 19th century. The violence the targeted Italians towards efforts to deport thousands of Poles. And this argument that they were at the time seen as too culturally different to integrate. Plus, France has never really been the colorblind society that it claims to be. There was always an effort, especially during the Third Republic, to try to accommodate and work through differences. When Alsace-Lorraine returns to France after the end of the First World War there are accommodations made to the Protestant and Catholic communities that have nothing to do with this core Republican value of laicité, the separation of church and state. It is a kind of return to an imagined past, an idea that if things aren’t working in the present, we need to try to go back to an emphasis on what worked in the past, and particularly an emphasis on French secularism and then an individual approach to inclusion of new members into French society.
Gary: So one final question about the book. You talk about print, art exhibitions, plays, radio and television. Now, your book was published a little less than 20 years ago. If it had been written today, it would have to include the Internet. Do you know how this has impacted North Africans in France today and in what ways?
Richard: Clearly it’s a different universe. Social media just didn’t exist. I mean, even the podcasts have only been around for maybe a little over ten years. But if you look at a station like Beur FM I mentioned earlier, clearly they’re tapping into social media now to promote what the station is doing. They have 17,000 Instagram followers, 216,000 YouTube subscribers. So social media is an extension of what of the efforts of the station to try to reach its target audience. And a lot of the memory work. Now, you can find this in social media. So I mentioned these marches that took place in the in the early 1980s. And these marches, you often had people who would were carrying pictures of Algerian youth who were murdered and visiting the places like the place where Habib Grimski was thrown off the train. So there was a lot of memory work that was a part of these marches. And now you can post this on Instagram. So you can if you look at hashtags 17th October 1961, you can see a lot of images of efforts to mobilize, to create a greater awareness. I should mention, too, that there’s still a lot of work to do on this. Macron was the first president just back in January to acknowledge the injustice of what happened in October 1961. And then you have certain things that carry over across the Atlantic. So following the murder of George Floyd, their efforts to show solidarity and you’ve got thousands of people who demonstrate in France. And on some occasions these demonstrations are connected to minorities who’ve been murdered by the police in France. And there’s an effort to mobilize demonstrators by using social media. So definitely plays a role in trying to reach out to communities, trying to mobilize against racism or racially motivated violence or police injustice. And it’s a way of digitally remembering the past.
Gary: So now moving from your book to your podcast, you are launching what seems like a truly fascinating podcast called Realms of Memory, whose first two episodes are currently out as of this recording. Can you explain what the podcast is all about?
Richard: A lot of what I’m focusing on is really what’s in the news right now. It’s something that we’re living. Was a great article that came out today in The New York Times on how something like 400 Confederate statues have been have been dismantled, removed just over the past few years. The article featured this one company that just earned thousands of dollars in federal contracts. Basically, a lot of other contractors are afraid to go anywhere near this because it’s such an explosive issue in this particular contractor that was removing a lot of the monuments in Richmond, Virginia, in particular. I was going to work with a gun and a bulletproof vest to protect himself. So, a lot of this is in the news, whether it’s the toppling and removal of Confederate statues, whether it’s all the controversy surrounding how we remember and talk about the history of slavery and racism, the 1619 project or critical race theory, how that played out in the confirmation process of Judge Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson. But make a point that this is not limited to these struggles over difficult episodes and past. It’s not limited to the US. You can look around the world and you can see the French struggling to come to terms with the memory of Algeria. You can look at Spain grappling with the violence under Franco. You could go to Taiwan and look at the memory of a million mainland Chinese who were uprooted in 1949 when the nationalists lost to the communists and they ended up in Taiwan. So these stories of traumatic histories that countries are struggling with are all around the globe and how they’re addressed, how their work through is something that I’m trying to feature in the podcast by interviewing scholars that work on these subjects to try to see, well, what what’s being done, what hasn’t been done, what’s come out of this work?
Gary: The first episode is on Germany and how it more than perhaps any country has successfully acknowledged its shameful past and how it can act as an imperfect blueprint for the rest of the world. By contrast, your second episode is on Japan, which to this day refuses to acknowledge most of its war crimes during the Second World War. Why do you think these two countries took such a divergent path towards historical memory?
Richard: So I started with Susan Neiman’s book and been reviewed in The New York Times, writes for The New York Times, runs a think tank in Berlin called The Einstein Forum. Just published this book called Learning from the Germans Race and the Memory of Evil, which really looks at how the Germans grappled with the memory of the Holocaust, the Nazi past, and. And she argues that you get this country that was really an international pariah at the end of World War Two and has become one of the most trusted nations on the planet and a leader in Europe. So you have this dramatic turnaround. And she argues that a lot of this has to do with the memory work that it did in the decades after the war, and that Germany is one of the few countries that really had the courage to confront its past. And to not get stuck in seeing itself as a victim of the war, eventually coming to take responsibility to see itself as a perpetrator. And she argues that its courage to take responsibility has really been a trust builder within Germany and between Germany and other other states. And I think there’s a lot of pressure on Germany now to take the lead in the action to what’s going on in Ukraine and the country. One of your previous episodes, Meg Brown, was talking about how there was no desire to see Germany rearm in the 1950s. So this is like a dramatic change. Now there’s looking to Germany to take the lead. But what Susan Neiman argues is that this took a long time. So if we’re going to learn from the Germans, one of the lessons we have to to learn is that it wasn’t easy. It took decades, and there was a lot of pushback to it. And as late as the 1990s, she points out that even though academics were aware of a lot of topics, a lot of things that had happened during the war, had published on it. There was still a lack of recognition among ordinary Germans and and outrage. When an exhibition was organized on the role of the German military, the Wehrmacht in the crimes that took place in Eastern Europe, ordinary Germans were shocked and outraged because they had family members who served in the German military. And they didn’t want to think that their father or grandfather could have been involved in that. So it took a long time. There was a lot of pushback, much like there’s a lot of pushback against efforts to question our own history in the US. And she argues that how this happened, again it was over time and Germany was a nation divided between a communist east and a democratic West Germany and really happened differently in each part of Germany. It happened in more of a top down way imposed by the leadership of East Germany in many respects was way out in front of West Germany and the bottom up way in West Germany, a lot of private initiatives that put pressure on the government to do more to recognize the past. But again, the argument is that if Germany can do this eventually, if it can come around so in other countries. Then if you look at Japan. I interviewed Akiko Tanaka, who has published a book on the Yasukuni Shrine and how the Japanese remember the Asia Pacific War. And Yasukuni Shrine is kind of like Arlington National Cemetery for Japan, but not really. There’s no one buried there. It’s just you’ve got to register of names. It contains a register of all the nations war dead, these going back to the middle of the 19th century. But it’s a place that also has war criminals who are enshrined there from the Asia Pacific War. So it’s at the center of this controversy about, you know, how are the Japanese doing enough to make amends for the past, really dealing with this. They’re working through it. And what you see in Japan is that there’s no equivalent to what happens in East Germany with a leadership that tries to focus on crimes of previous regime. Instead, you have conservative leadership in Japan, the LDP, which governed Japan for most of the postwar period. It’s actually tapping in to the memory of the war. It’s making promises to try to restore Yasukuni Shrine, which gets decoupled from the state after the war. It’s trying to use the shrine to reach out to war bereaved families, to try to build a base of support. And even up to the present day, there’s a museum on the shrine grounds. It’s been connected to the shrine since its beginnings called the Yushi Museum, that presents this revisionist history of the Asia Pacific War as really Japan taking a stand in defense of Asia. So you’ve got kind of the right locked into maybe more of a heroic understanding of the past and then the left in Japan, that tends to look at the shrine as part of the process of promoting fanatical nationalism. Representative of all that was wrong with what the wartime Japanese government did. But even on the left, she points out that the left is not really questioning or looking closely at Japan’s role as a perpetrator. The left has played a leading role in Japan and promoting what are known as peace museums. Japan has more peace museums than anywhere else in the world. And these are museums that really feature all the harm that war does, but it’s largely harm that was done to the Japanese. A lot of these museums were founded in places that experienced bombing during the war by people who lived through the bombings, either as kids or wives on the home front. It’s largely the story of victimization, not really questioning the responsibility of the Japanese on the war. So you have a kind of country that’s still locked into heroic or victimized understandings of the past. It still hasn’t done a whole lot to question. Japan’s role as a perpetrator, its responsibility for crimes committed during the Asia Pacific War.
Gary: Finally, what painful memories do you think France has repressed, and what can we look forward to in your podcast for future episodes?
Richard: The Algerian war is often talked about in Freudian terms as as an event that doesn’t get addressed. It’s true that you look at de Gaulle’s government, the policy beginning in the 1960s is extend general amnesties and you have a horrendous story of violence. These documentaries I mentioned that are on French TV now, they’re interviewing these people who tried to assassinate de Gaulle. And you watch them and you’re wondering, why weren’t these people sentenced to life in jail? But there were these general amnesties that were extended to the military, people who tried to organize coups against the government, the secret army organization that carried out a reign of terror in Algeria. But once all is said and done, the desire is to forgive and forget and move on and something that is not really included in the school curriculum for decades. There isn’t any established date to remember the war. It takes a long time before the Algerian War is even labeled as a war, much like you see in the Russian government in Ukraine. It’s like a police intervention or a special operation. It’s a long time before it gets labeled as the Algerian War. So clearly, there’s still a lot to unpack there. As I mentioned earlier, events like October 1961 or massive massacre of Europeans that took place at the end of the war or a massacre of Algerians that took place in 1945 and Sétif. So, there are uprisings that are brutally put down across the French empire from the 1940s into the 1950s and from Algeria to Indochina. It could be could be unpacked. So there’s a lot of work to still be done on the French past particular if you’re looking at these traumatic episodes.
Gary: Well, thank you very much for being on the show. The book is North Africans in Contemporary France: Becoming Visible, and the podcast is Realms of Memory. Thank you very much, Dr. Derderian.
Richard: Thanks for having me, Gary.
Gary: As always, donations keep the podcast going. So if you would like to make a one time donation or become a patron, please consider doing so. Thank you very much for your continued support.