Harnessing the Holocaust: The Politics of Memory in France

In This Review

Harnessing the Holocaust: The Politics of Memory in France

By Joan B. Wolf
Stanford University Press, 2004
264 pp. $49.50
Purchase

This subtle, scholarly, discerning book is more than a study of "the politics of the Holocaust" in post-World War II France; it is also an examination of how a series of events, starting with the Six-Day War in 1967, led to drastic changes in the relationship between French Jews and the French Republic. Before 1940, France's Jews had embraced the country "without recognizing the incongruity between adopting universalism on the one hand, and claiming it as consistent and harmonious with their Jewish identity, on the other." But the war "justified and even obligated Jews to claim their Jewish identity in the public sphere," making Israel "the center of many Jews' conceptual universe" and the Holocaust "a trauma whose uniqueness needed to be safeguarded." With scrupulous attention to data and public discourse, Wolf analyzes events from the clash between Charles de Gaulle and French Jews over the Six-Day War to the more recent rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen and President Francois Mitterrand's shifting position on whether the government should acknowledge some responsibility for the persecution of Jews during World War II. She concludes that "the very notion of political identity in France has undergone a seismic shift since the end of World War II" -- a transformation that has been amplified by Muslim immigration and reflected in the recent controversy over religious symbols in public schools. Wolf thus illuminates one of the most searing and divisive debates in contemporary France.