A duality of Memory: between collaboration and Resistance

Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Le Corbusier and François Mitterrand are personalities known to the general public. Yet, studying their past shows us that the history and study of the lives of these people are more complex. Characters of their time, marked with the seal of an era crossed by tensions and the triumph of far-right ideas, this part of their life has resurfaced in a totally different context, which has aroused and this until our days, a passionate debate, especially on the side of historians.

The context: personalities who reflect a memory ambivalence

No one has yet imagined, much less faced the human problem that the war will leave behind. There has never been such destruction, such disintegration of the structure of life. This statement, taken from the work After War, a history of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt, expresses the general feeling of a catastrophic human outcome for Europe after the Second World War. But more than that, the scale of this war has left indelible traces in the minds of Europeans, an object of memory for the generations who have succeeded the people who survived this war and who faced it daily.

World War II marked the ideological victory of democracy and freedom over dictatorial and authoritarian regimes. Even today, the life of European societies is punctuated by the memory of events, imbued with this victorious ideology, such as the celebration of the actions of the resistance and of the events which marked the end of the war.

In the case of France, a Duality of Memory has emerged since the period of liberation during which the men from the resistance rebuilt France and reinstalled the republic on French territory, which was then exiled to London and Algiers. However, the ruins of the Vichy regime and the men who embodied it, for the most part, expelled from the administration, condemned by the post-war justice system, left their mark on public opinion. The great writer, Céline, François Mitterrand, a politician who held office under the Vichy regime, but also the architect Le Corbusier for whom the Pompidou center is currently devoting a vast exhibition. Their presence in the public space did not fail to arouse curiosity about these people, curiosity which helped to unveil their past to bring out the hidden and above all disturbing sides of the lives of these men. This is what we will try to decipher by studying more precisely the personalities mentioned above. The first part will be devoted to short biographies including the elements which make it possible to understand each of these public figures then in a second part, it will then be necessary to present a sometimes surprising past and which created a lot of controversy at the time and again today, as the figure of Le Corbusier demonstrates.

Personalities recognized in the public space

Céline, Mitterrand and Le Corbusier are three personalities known to the general public who have left their mark, respectively, in the fields of literature, politics and town planning. However, their past has given rise to controversy, the intention of which is not to revive them but to describe them.

Louis-Ferdinand Celine, whose real name is Louis Destouches, was born on May 27, 1894 and largely led a Parisian life. At the end of the century marked by the Dreyfus affair, this event will not be without consequences. He lived in a family for which the values ​​of order, the army, work, and the country are constitutive of the principles of the Destouches family. His father also read a readily nationalist, anti-Semitic press and he would never recognize the innocence of Captain Dreyfus. Céline comes from a family of small traders and artisans. His training is relatively basic, despite some language stays in England in particular. At the age of 18, he enlisted in 1912 in the French army by advance call. His combat injuries and the specific operations of his regiment earned him the Croix de Guerre and the Military Medal. The war marked him and he developed his pacifist and pessimist inclination. He passed and obtained the Baccalaureate in 1919 then began studying medicine until 1924. His work Voyage au bout de la nuit appeared in 1932, he obtained a Renaudot prize and was then met with tremendous success. His main works are four in number: the first, mentioned above, then came Death on Credit (1936), Casse-pipe (1949) and From One Castle to Another (1957). His life and the atmosphere in which he lived had a great influence on his thoughts as we will see later and above all, he was the subject of lively controversy, still relevant today.

François Mitterrand, was born in 1916 into a Catholic family. Ambitious, he will become an essential political figure of the French Republic after the Liberation. A rising star under the Fourth Republic, he became a resolute opponent of General de Gaulle. His work The Permanent Coup d'Etat published in 1959 amply demonstrates this. A presidential candidate in 1965 which was the first election by direct universal suffrage, he was defeated by De Gaulle but this defeat did not make him withdraw from politics, quite the contrary. Establishing himself more and more within the French left, he became the first secretary of the Socialist Party after the Congress of Epinay in 1971. He was subsequently a candidate for the presidential election of 1974, defeated, he was again the candidate of the left in 1981, the year of his electoral consecration. Thus, François Mitterrand was and still remains today, one only has to listen to François Hollande who has placed himself in the heritage of François Mitterrand, a public figure known to all but for whom his past has remained for long unknown until it was propelled into the public limelight and some elements were revealed. (cf: history for all: article on the biography of François Mitterrand).

Le Corbusier was born in 1887 in Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland. From his real name, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, he quickly developed a passion for architecture and drew his inspiration from the many trips he made during his youth (Europe, North Africa, the Balkans). Settled in Paris from 1917, he disseminated his ideas on the subject of town planning through the magazine l'Esprit Nouveau, which he helped to found, an art and architecture magazine in which he took part. the pseudonym of Le Corbusier. His most famous achievements are expressed through the radiant city of Marseille, the chapel of Ronchamp, among many other achievements. He was therefore a recognized builder in France and even more so throughout the world, but also a painter, sculptor and decorator. However, this personality is the subject of a very recent controversy, while he is exhibited at the Pompidou Center. His past close to the far right, his anti-Semitic remarks and his relationship with the Vichy regime resurfaced.

A reality: a disturbing past

The public history of these personalities is known to the general public because of the notoriety they have acquired over time. However, this notoriety could not hide their past which was revealed sometimes causing amazement in the case of François Mitterrand in particular. But let's start with Ferdinand Céline first.

Louis Ferdinand Celine has therefore been the subject of a number of divisions within public opinion. His undeniable literary talent could not hide his affinities with the values ​​of the extreme right. From the end of the 1930s, he did not hesitate to advocate racial hatred in two of his works: Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937) and L'Ecole des cadavres (1938). He considered himself "the number one enemy of the Jews", a marker of virulent anti-Semitism. These considerations led him to explicitly support the Nazi regime and collaborate with the Vichy regime. He wrote numerous letters which have scanned the various collaborationist journals, some of them distributed. This promiscuity with the extreme right will condemn him to the ban of the French public space. However, he did not know the fate of the anti-Semitic and collaborationist writer Robert Brasillach.

The case of François Mitterrand is more thorny. His past with the Vichy regime appeared on the public scene with the publication in 1994 of the book, A French Youth by Pierre Péan, investigative journalist. François Mitterrand worked for a year in the Vichy administration, during which time he received the Franciscan in 1943, a decoration which had been given to him by Marshal Pétain, who was approved with a handshake. It should be noted, however, that Mitterrand who supported Marshal Pétain, but who was against Germany, he was therefore "Vichysto-resistant" (Jean Pierre Azéma), subsequently fully invested in the resistance to to become an essential link. Finally, François Mitterrand's path was that of many other French people, that of being torn between resistance and collaboration. Michel Winock explained in an issue of the newspaper “L'Obs” that François Mitterrand has never challenged his Pétainist past. From 1987, he made the tomb of Marshal Pétain flower every year on the island of Yeu. Which provoked some protests ... Mitterrand, a character who brings together resistance and collaboration within the same history, that of France, thus breaking the simplistic duality of two opposing camps and removing all the complexities of the story.

Unlike the two previous personalities, Le Corbusier and his past close to the far right has been revealed by very recent works such as Le Corbusier, a French fascism. Le Corbusier was never in politics, but that did not prevent him from having well-defined opinions. He was anti-Semitic and these few words taken from a letter sent in 1913 to Auguste Perret tend to show it: these cautious Jews at the bottom of their race, wait ... or even these idiots of Jews, ignoble and offensive. Like Celine, Le Corbusier asserted his far-right ideas in the 1930s in the context of a virulent surge in anti-Semitism in France and more widely in Europe. The journals he helped found will clearly expose racial theories, such as the journal, Plans in 1930. Note that Le Corbusier was influenced by many fascist personalities such as Pierre Winter, member of the fascist movement, Le beam. The architect was also a great admirer of Mussolini for whom he went to Italy. From his experiences, his convictions only came out stronger when the Vichy regime arrived. Close to Jean Giraudoux, writer and general information commissioner, Le Corbusier showed his support for Hitler's policy as well as that of the Vichy regime. Upon liberation, he escaped the purge set up against the Vichy collaborators, probably because of support within the political circles of the time.

Ultimately, the study of the past of these three personalities reveals the complexity of these three men. Their promiscuity with the far right is known today, although it remains to be explored in the case of Le Corbusier for whom the Pompidou center is organizing an exhibition celebrating his works. Even more, the far-right past has affected all components of society and not just French political life as we often think. Literature and town planning have also known darker periods, which in no way detract from the genius of these men, that of Céline and her talents as writers, that of Le Corbusier, the town planner who worked at the construction of the UN building in New York in 1947. As for François Mitterrand, through his career he was the symbol of a "synthesis" between the two Memoirs that faced each other and this, even today , that of Resistance and Collaboration. These cases are therefore complex for the historian, because he must take into account the totality of the lives of these men in their entirety, taking into account the duality between a public life made of notoriety and a past more disturbing than some would like. never know. The truth dictates that the lives of these people be taken in their entirety in order to hope to understand them.


- Le Corbusier, a French fascism, by Xavier de Jarcy. Albin Michel, 2015.
- From one Céline to another, by David Alliot. Robert Laffont, 2011.
- A French youth: François Mitterrand, 1934-1947, by Pierre Péan. Plural, 2011.