Monday, 27 January 2014

Paris, March-June 2014. Introduction to an exhibition

(The like of which we are unlikely to see listed officially in the UK)

« Shot as an Example 1914-2014. The Republic’s Ghosts»

In the media the resonance accorded to the victims of military tribunals is immense, almost disproportionate: from the end of the conflict, press, literature, cinema and comic strips took it in turn to tell the story of the suffering of those shot for the sake of example, transformed in the collective unconscious into emblematic victims of the leaders’ presumed incompetence. This process ended with the executed being now merged with the mutineers of 1917.

Detaching itself from polemics and going beyond the components of a collective memory which is often painful, conflicted, and therefore sometimes liable to bias and blockage, present-day historiography is now able to contemplate with clarity the functioning of military justice at the time of the conflict, restoring it to the long-term context of its evolution since the French Revolution and incorporating it in that of the Great War.

Taking into account, but not limiting itself to, the omnipresence in the media  of the 650 or so executed men, over-represented in  collective memory in view of the 1.4 million French dead in te Great War, the exhibition «Fusillé pour l’Exemple 1914-2014.  Les fantômes de la République» aims to present to the public the state of historical research on the subject to shed light on it and enable them to form an opinion.

Arranged in the rooms of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, it will open in spring 2014 for three months.

To achieve the goal of giving citizens the means to take over their history in order to let them consider calmly the idea of justice in wartime and the results of its application, it was decided to combine a rational and rigorous presentation of the facts and of the exaplanatory work carried out by historians, particularly in the last 15 years or so, with another, more subjective style giving access to war as lived experience, suffering, incomprehensibility, and daily strangeness which are difficult for us to imagine now.

The solution has been to devise a layout to serve this basically educational project. Consequently it made perfect sense for the exhibition’s director (commissaire) Laurent Loiseau, to assemble a scientific management team made up of the leading French specialists on the topic and an artistic team tasked with setting out a sensitive, contemporary arrangement for a public seeking knowledge but also involvement/ to be informed but also to participate.

It’s an ambitious project, in scale and strength, and has surprised the organisers with the evocative power it unleashes.

The emotion engendered by the productions of the associated artists is balanced all along the line by recollection of the facts, supported by archival research.

Further, the exhibition does not limit itself to describing how military justice in 1914-18 worked, it also analyses what happened after the conflict, in the interwar period and in the present day, when civil society and contemporary historiography has difficulty in knowing how to deal with the empathy aroused by the suffering of the ordinary soldier (« poilus »). Beyond the facts, the exhibition goes on to questions the role of the historian in the City: how can we move from a time of conflicted memory, painful for descendants of the executed men, to a time of reconciled (apaisée) history ?

Far from supplying answers, this exhibition sees itself as stimulating questions by appealing to each individual’s rationality and understanding. This approach, appealing to intelligence, a critical mind, and perception, seemed to us a priori a way of evading a risk of divisive discourse,. It makes the most recent knowledge available while giving the visiting citizen the opportunity of forming an opinion on the debate which has already started in the run-up to the 1914 commemorations. What about those shot « by France » ? Were there cases of  injustice ? Can we, should we, redress them symbolically ? The debate couldn’t be.more relevant. The exhibition is meant to contribute to this sensitive discussion.

Those who planned it were bearing in mind Paul Ricoeur’s reflection in his master work La Mémoire, l’Histoire, l’Oubli (Memory, History, Forgetting): « C’est sur le chemin de la critique historique que la mémoire rencontre le sens de la justice. Que serait une mémoire heureuse qui ne serait pas une mémoire équitable ? » (It is by way of historical critique that collective memory meets the sense of justice. How could such memory be happy without being fair?)

Historians and artists have addressed that question, with their own sensibilities and with humility. They will thus present their historical and artistic approach to this particular memory within the vast and painful collective memory of the Great War.

 From an article on the official French site listing 1914-18 centenary events:          
Fusillésés               - > Les Fusillés de la Première Guerre mondiale

See also:       (dated: 2013-10-03):       A new report requested by France's Ministry of Veteran Affairs recommends that French WWI soldiers who were executed by their own side for desertion be officially considered under a new light.

and » 1915: Four French Corporals, for cowardice [Today, i.e. On This Day]:  17 Mar 2008 - A 1999 study numbered 550 French executions. ....

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