History and WEB in France

2012 (tv) | 2014 (web)

by Pierre Sorlin

Mapping the territory

At first sight, the web is a boundless territory where millions of words, sentences and opinions flow every day, any attempt at mapping it out seems doomed to failure because of the overabundance of messages and of the ceaseless opening/disappearance of websites. After a while, it turns out that such plethora is an illusion and that quantity means neither wealth nor variety of information. A careful inspection is enough to detect the social networks, content-based sites forums or blogs relevant for an investigation as precisely targeted as ours. The web, it is true, is in permanent transformation, but the changes must not be overrated: where history or other “serious” topics are concerned, variations are limited. The relevant topics, those which look of importance and give rise to debates are not fixed by individuals, they are part of a common knowledge circulated by school lessons, novels, magazines (there are, in France, eleven history magazines, all benefiting with a big readership), films and television broadcasts. Every now and then political events, crisis, death of important figures revive forgotten occurrences but the questions to which people refer usually are stable, at least in the middle course – say twenty years, the length of time that separates two generations. Next year, new bloggers will comment, on the web, songs, sporting competitions and personal issues different from those that move round now, but for the individuals who participates actively in one or more online forums the historical subjects of discussion will still be broadly the same as today.

Where France is concerned, the websites pertinent for our research are, in decreasing order of interest:

Forum websites: all-embracing sites which provide original papers and general information, are open to debates and receive copious contributions from people intent on taking part in the debate. The main forums are: Etudes coloniales (Colonial Studies); Forum histoire pour tous (Forum history for everybody); Geostrategic, site of high standard, mostly orientated towards contemporary problems; Herodotus; Internaute Histoire (Net Surfer History), one of the most popular history sites thanks to its quizzes and its short, clear papers; Passion histoire (Passion History); Café histoire (Pub History); Le monde en guerre (The World at War).

Community sites: where people exchange information and communicate with each other by chat or elaborated messages: Newsring: “On Newsring you, readers, lead the debates, we are content with organizing the site, nobody interrupts, all are equal”; Pearltrees, adapted from an English website, highly socialized forum where visitors can discover, share and comment everything they like.

Video websites: sites on which users can upload selections of films or videos they have produced. Visitors can add commentaries. Downloading is usually impossible. Imineo, French site founded in 2004 offers a large wealth of history videos, especially on world wars. You Tube, international site launched in 2005, bought in 2006 by Google, the most popular video website.

Newspapers’ websites: discussion or information sites published by newspapers. Le Figaro and Le Monde, dailies aimed at highbrows, use blogs as supplements to the printed version which include discussions about various topics, among other things about historical issues.

Facebook: the most popular social network, launched in France in 2004, which boasts millions of visitors. Since November 2008 maintains a special section, History of France Facebook, where bloggers post online peremptory and generally derisive opinions on past periods.

Twitter: in full expansion, likely to challenge Facebbok. Short messages with constant and possibly unconscious sexist (“queer” qualifies mechanically all those that the bloggers don’t like) and racist connotations. The comments on history programs broadcast on television show aprofound ignorance of what happened in the 20th century.

Blogs of history magazines: all magazines edit blogs that advertise and supplement their paper versions and are open to debates. Readers are mostly people of age who do not like to communicate via Internet, so that discussions are of little consequence. An exception, Colonial Studies which, because of the burning character of colonial problems in France, provokes harsh polemics.

Blogs of history teachers, who maintain pages about their didactic experiences. These blogs sound like textbooks and attract few visitors.

Who are they?

Net Surfer History brags of 70,000 visitors, Passion History 30,000, History of France Facebook 20,000, Geostrategic 15,000. Taking into account the other sites we may estimate that yearly some 150,000 French, one out of 4,000, and one out of 2,000 people wandering on the web 1 pay at least a visit to a historical site. Active contributions vary according to the theme, ongoing issues (the decline of the Western world) or calls for testimonies (“How did you live through WWII”) are likely to arouse up to 300 answers, but the average is of about 20. It is worth noticing that queries about the nature, function, value, and objectivity of history provoke animate controversies. Many openly confess their curiosity about past events and such seems to be the motivation of most visitors: “I am interested in history because I am crazy about it, it’s a deep-rooted passion, its great credit is that it stimulates imagination”(Forum history for everybody). Every week Net Surfer History publishes a questionnaire, which obtains many answers (up to 7,000; around 1,000 on average) since it often suffices to say “yes” or “no”.

Who are the users? Most have recourse to a nickname so that it is impossible to identify them. Yet a few clues may help to roughly place them. Nicknames tell a lot, the patronymics of singers or footballers in vogue signal young bloggers, Christian names or surnames of famous individuals are adopted by adults and, in the last instance, provide an indication about the intellectual or political likings of the person who has chosen that appellation. References to documents or testimonies, frequent in historical debates, are interesting hints, Jeremy who mentions the records of a grand-father who fought during WWII (Pearltrees) is probably forty of age, or even more. Quotations of original sources or second hand works, of historians, novelists or journalists point out a cultural background. Most, not to say all history websites, being freely accessible, are obliged to include commercial advertisements whose subject matter, design and targets inform about those who frequent the site. There is no certainty, but we can approximately define the regular customers of the social networks pertinent for our research.

If we take into account the indications people leave on the sites they have visited we see that four types of guests call on occasionally or regularly the history websites:

– Bloggers, individuals who keep a personal, on-going diary, and dialogues with friends, fill pages with trifles or private data that seem of limited value. It is frequently a film or a photograph that inspires these comments. The intellectual level is often weak. In October 2012 a ah-channel, Tf1, broadcast The Roundup (La rafle), film telling how, in July 1942, 15,000 Jews living in Paris were arrested by the French police and put in a camp, before being sent to Germany. The fact, regularly mentioned in the press, is well-known and the film males it clear that all was perpetrated only by French policemen. There was, on Twitter, a flood of messages manifesting surprise and anger against Hitler, “Nasty son of a whore, Hitler fuck your mother queer”. After the publication on Facebook of a picture taken in Nazi Germany, and showing everybody but one man giving the fascist salute, the observations were surprisingly odd: “Ach! What a shame, I lost an arm” – “What an indolent! No arm, no chocolate”. Someone noted that this man was risking his life, but derision went on: “He his searching cigarettes in his pocket”. Such remarks point out the limited curiosity of some young about history.

“Net surfers” who regularly wander throughout the web, skim idly over a few sites, click on “I like” and sign to leave a mark of their visit but do not express any opinion.

– Active forumers who leave personal remarks at times much developed.

– Producers of original writings. These are not numerous, there is at time merely one specialist in a website (such is the case of Monde Blog) or a tiny set of friends who try to provide an accurate, comprehensive knowledge, are careful not to take side on burning issues, while prompting the active bloggers to voice their opinion.

For my study I have taken into account the messages diffused on historical websites during the three last years thanks to the fact that all forums keep an archive going back to the time of their opening. When a debate had been launched earlier I have gone back to the first contribution.

The web as a source of information

A large majority of visitors click merely to check a detail, a date, a name, or to get some data on an issue that interest them. Such queries, being purely factual, do not generate debates. Passion History and Net Surfer History regularly ask their guests what interests them most. Civilisations external to Europe and North America do not provoke curiosity, out of the 30.000 visitors of Passion History only 87 have an interest in the Pahlavy Iran, and despite the conflicts about Islam that shake French society demands about the Muslim world are not frequent. Ancient history, Egypt, Athens, the Roman conquest awaken concern in a limited but stable cluster of readers, anxious to know what is new in archaeology, from the grave of Christ to the traces of Julius Cesar’s campaigns in Gaul. Scandalous or bloody anecdotes attract attention, 993 people visited the Net Surfer History paper devoted to king Henry III of France, notorious homosexual who was assassinated by a fanatic monk. Amateurs of ancient history or spicy details are content with reading the texts, they do not give opinions – mere facts do not prompt to make comments. Another area appealing to a specific public is military history. 28,000 visitors called upon Passion history when the site asked: “Who is your favourite military hero?”. Two websites, Battlefields and War and History are entirely dedicated to the topic. Those who frequent these sites, mostly practitioners of World of War or similar videogames, talk about their hobby, not about historical problems.

Surprisingly, historical periods or names that were long landmarks in French culture and provoked bitter political controversies have lost their appeal. For about a century right and left quarrelled about Joan of Arc, saint sent by God or daughter of the people. The present view is more relativistic: “Michelet has invented the Joan of Arc familiar to us at a time when the State had the power to create symbols. Such old icons are now shattered” (Pub History). When Net Surfer History asks: “Which date marks a milestone in French history” the taking of the Bastille, national holiday, is mentioned in merely 92 out of 6,600 answers. On the same site, only 24 people think that the revolution was of importance, while 48 express about Napoleon mixed judgements: “Like many others before and after he behaved as if he were head of clan, his nepotism was boundless. His genius, not merely military, let us pillars that continue to support our society in the 21st century” – “I admire his understanding of French mentalities which helped him to manipulate our ancestors. I am impressed by his innovative, efficacious enterprising mind. I admire less the military leader”. De Gaulle is seldom mentioned. A few thank him for defending the honour of the country; others find him ambiguous (“I have never understood his ideas about Algeria”, Colonial Studies) or old-fashioned (because of his incapacity to understand what happened in May 1968).

Wikipedia is by far the most sought-after site, because it heads the list on the first page of Google, but also because it is usually accurate and precise – hence the choice of three problems which seem relevant for all European countries. Here are the French Wikipedia articles on these questions, with a comparison with the English, German and Italian Wikipedia:

  • Resistance in the Nazi occupied Europe

The largest part of the French text is dedicated to general characteristics that give its originality to this side of the conflict. The article stresses the various motivations of the partisans, some fighting against the invaders, some combating fascism. In many instances both motives were shared by all fighters, but at times there was a division regarding the objectives, which could result in conflicts between two organisations, as was the case in Yugoslavia and Greece – the case of Italy is not mentioned. For France the article notes the political unification under the lead of a National Council of Resistance, but does not signal the numerous local divergences.

Three forms of resistance are distinguished: civilian, organised, exterior. Civilian resistance came to the fore through non-violent mass manifestations such as inscriptions on the walls, wearing of forbidden signs or symbols, strikes as in the Netherlands against the persecution of the Jews, gatherings in Greece to counter the forced departure of workers towards Germany and above all shelter offered to Jews, allied soldiers who did not want to be captured, people in danger of arrest. Organised resistance consisted in: publication of clandestine papers, collection of information to be transmitted to the Allies, operation of sabotage of railway lines. There were also guerrilla organisations, which in Greece, Yugoslavia, Poland, were able to take control of wide territories where the occupiers could not penetrate. Special mention is reserved to the Jewish resistance movements in Warsaw and in forty ghettos, as well as in the extermination camps of Sobibor and Auschwitz. A final party goes through the various national movements of resistance.

The article attempts to give a synthetic view of resistance. Interesting as an introduction to the topic, it is however extremely superficial, fairly different and less comprehensive than its English counterpart titled: “Resistance during WWII” which puts aside the fight against Nazism. The English text relates the conditions in which resistance was possible, lists more precisely the various forms of resistance, follows the operation year by year, which gives a better view of the progressive development of the clandestine struggle. This article mentions also the cases of resistance against the Allies, especially against the Soviet army in Eastern Europe. The German essay, “Resistance against National socialism” is a comprehensive list of topics that should be dealt with and an outline of these various points. The paper opens with a much restrictive specification: “We take into account as resistance against Nazism the resistance of individuals or groups, the 20th July attempt on Hitler’s life, the White Rose as well as the action of unions, churches and political parties in Germany and that of states that existed between 1933 and 1945″ – in other words clandestine resistance in occupied countries is written off. The Italian Wikipedia item is a translation of the English one.

  • Shoah

In a long introduction the French articlensignals the “unique” character of the mass slaughter of the European Jews. Going back to Hitler’s seizure of power, in order to show the evolution from persecution to annihilation, the text expands on the Nazi ideology and the measures taken, up to the attack against the Soviet Union. Then it divides the matter geographically. For Eastern Europe it describes the ghettos in Poland, explains what were the Einsatzgruppen and what their mission was, enumerates the massacres perpetrated in 1941 and 1942. It passes then to the death camps, evokes the harassment of the German Jews, mentions the Wannsee conference, shows how raids were organised systematically throughout the occupied countries, with a special insistence on the French situation, and on the participation of the French authorities and police. A paragraph is dedicated to the extermination by gas of the Polish Jews, which leads to an extended, precise study of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The shipping to Auschwitz and murder of nearly half a million of Hungarian Jews is treated separately. The text ends with forced work and death marches.

Like its German counterpart, which is much longer, the French text is precise but, despite an excellent illustration, lacks emotion. There is no final assessment of the consequences of the slaughter, neither to the Nuremberg trial, not to emigration to Palestine. The Italian chapter follows chronologically the extermination of the Jews in occupied Europe; the Italian case is briefly presented as a consequence of the German invasion in the country.

These articles are not indebted towards the English text titled The Holocaust (there is a brief mention of the term, Shoah). The introduction is a clumsy survey of the slaughter which stresses the fact that all Germans and the collaborationists their allied countries were directly or indirectly involved in a massacre that did not provoke any proclamation of solidarity with the victims during the war, although the killing, industrially organised by the state, was known to many. Extermination camps and medical experiments are briefly signalled. Then comes an extensive, well-documented analysis of German anti Judaism, from the unity to the advent of Nazism. The policy against the Jews is chronologically related, in terms more precise but not much different from the French account but with an accurate study of German public reactions and of the Jewish resistance. The structure of the article is a bit muddled but the distinctive features of the Shoah are much better analysed than in the French and German articles.

  • End of the communist “bloc”

Rather short French article, which begins with the fall of the Berlin wall, then returns to Stalin, describes the situation of the Soviet Union and its “satellites” during the Cold War with an emphasis on the ageing of political leaders and on the incapacity to improve the economic situation. After a brief allusion to changes that occurred in Hungary and Poland in 1989 the text focuses on Germany. A final paragraph details the end of the communist regime country by country.

It is a precise, elementary exploration of the 1989 events, which does not explain why the “bloc” broke up so quickly and does not consider the long-term consequences of its collapse. The Italian article is equally concise. Laconic on the origins of the crisis it outlines the events in the different eastern countries. The German entry is a general history of the communist world, the fall of which is imputed to the division of the bloc during the perestroika: “In the fall and winter of 1989, the communist leaderships lost in all Eastern European countries (excluding the Soviet Union) their monopoly power. The reasons lay in the economic collapse of uniformly structured States, the internal problems of the Party dictatorship and external problems caused by the divisions between the different countries”. The introductory chapter of the English equivalent is better, it takes into account the campaign of civil resistance in the people’s democracies and the adoption of varying forms of market economy, shows the important part played by Solidarity and includes the failed manifestations of Tiananmen Square in the story. The study of the various countries is not much different from the French and German ones, but the repercussions of 1989 are cleverly analysed.

There is a stunning difference between the English and the other articles. The former are better informed. They present and comment documents, texts or illustrations, quote and discuss judgements of contemporaries or historians. The French texts, which try to be synthetic, are short, lack documents, pass over too many events. Whatever their authors they sound like papers written by amateurs, in the style of many contributions published in history websites.

The active forumers and their controversial issues

“Do you read history books?” asks Forum history for everybody: only 211 say “yes”. “Do you agree with the reduction of history teaching in primary schools?” interrogates it some time later: sixty per cent find it’s a good reform.

It appears that internet has generated a new public, people who have no time or no desire to plunge into books and, at least in a partial manner, do not like history lessons, but who have pleasure in skimming history websites. The gathering of numerous inquisitive visitors, intent on finding simple information, is a godsend for the active forumers, the minority of Sunday historian who read books and are roughly aware of what is fashionable in the field. A debate launched in Forum history for everybody about “Who may claim to be historian?” has given way to revealing statements: “A historian – it is nothing, it doesn’t exist” said someone; another one pointed out that: “You may have a history degree and misinterpret the facts. You may also have no degree and prove methodologically perfectly accurate” – in other words these amateurs insisted that they were as good historians as the professional ones. But they warned the passive visitors against oversimplification and factual errors: “How can we popularize history without making it coarse?”, “Can historical erudition hinder mythical representations?” (Monde Blog) “History is told in so contradictory terms” (Colonial Studies). Implicitly, the active forumers presented themselves as clued-up, on the ball minds entrusted with imparting a minimal knowledge to a mass of illiterate. In Newsring, Paratout (a nickname which means “Attending to urgent things”) maintained peremptorily that “Young French ignore their history” and started offering them a lecture. These active forumers do not hesitate to correct the “tourists” who put forward ill-considered statements. An amateur having said that “After the Muslim conquest, the jihad eradicated Christianity from North Africa” an activist rectified severely, with documents in support of it: “Where have you found that? After the Muslim conquest there were Christians there at least up to the 12th century as proved by a letter of Pope Gregory VII to the archbishop of Carthage” (Forum history for everybody). The same thing may happen in Community sites, essentially managed by active bloggers, who are not lenient towards amateurs.

Whatever their age, those who move on history forums are massively inquisitive about the contemporary period. The most successful quiz on Forum history for everybody, with 6,000 participants, was about “History and current events”. What appeals to the majority is war, not the details of operations, weaponry and strategy, in other words precise data, as is the case with those who cultivate military history, but something more general, the part played by war in the evolution of the 2Oth and 21st centuries and the theoretical debates about legitimacy of killing, collective or individual responsibility, necessity or ineffectiveness of armed conflicts. 27,000 visitors of Passion History, practically the near total of users called for more papers about WWII. A half of the 6,600 visitors who reacted to the Net Surfer History questionnaire mentioned above said that the milestone in French history was the end of WWII, and 998 that it was the end of WWI. Three main themes come forth in this realm: WWI, WWII, the Algerian war.

WWI is less often mentioned than WWII, yet it is an extremely important topic, because forumers or bloggers are unanimous in expressing sorrow about the conflict, and because, as we shall se later, it is the question that best documents the recent evolution of French public opinion. All users agree in grieving the sufferings of the soldiers: “We mustn’t forget this sad period of French history. Knowing what happened twenty years later we feel ashamed, it is as if these young men had died for nothing, only for glory” (Net Surfer History); “Nearly all of us have lost a grandfather or some relative” (id.). Some 8,000 visitors consult the Passion History file dedicated to “How were they able to bear it?”. Some suggest an explanation: “We must thank them for their bravery and for the fact that they were faithful to their ideal, even if they did not know what fate awaited them. They had trust in what they were doing” (Net Surfer History). The greatest number is not in concord with such idealistic vision. Interestingly, many signal broader aspects of the conflict, Forum history for everybody expands on the colonial troopers sent to the front line, while Didier (above 40?) explains: “Algerian soldiers of French countrymen, they fell by thousands to the profit of a few bourgeois and for absurd dreams of vainglory. Today Alsace [the province France wanted to recover during WWI] forms with Bade [German province, on the other side of the Rhine] an Euro region” (Pearltrees). The memory of the Great War, that had been for decades the object of a national cult, binding together all French in the celebration of the national army, has become the record of a tragic slaughter.

WWII is a rather different occurrence in font of which the French do not know where and how to place themselves since their country played a modest role in a conflict on the subject of which they are still divided. “Opinions voiced any time that collaboration/deportation/resistance in France are at stake disclose a deep uneasiness” (The World at War, July 2011). Geostrategic is a site of high quality where participants aim at sustaining dispassionate, thoughtful dialogues about warfare in modern times, but when France in WWII comes up for discussion forumers rush over and arguments begin. A straightforward question, introducing a purely theoretical debate: “In a war, is it better to take the towns or to wait until they fall?”, unleashes a controversy because someone has made allusion to Paris in 1944 and to the fact that the Allies liberated the town instead of skirting round it. 77 people take a stand, 15,000 bloggers read conflicting observations: the taking, wanted by a French general, was profitable to the Allies who were not obliged to skirt round the capital and leave behind them the garrison; no, the garrison wouls have capitulated soon, the taking was useless and achieved uniquely to please the communist party.

The deportation and extermination of the Jews occasion the most violent discussions. Since the President has acknowledged, in July 1995, the responsibility of the French government and police for the arrest of more than 15,000 Jews, who were then handed over to the Germans, the Shoah is at the centre of all talks relating to the conflict. Given that, after the President’s statement, it is no longer possible to transfer the blame onto the Nazis, another query arises: who was answerable? Only the public authorities? Or all those who did nothing to prevent the drama? The point of importance is that lots of ordinarily passive visitors find it urgent to take a stand on the topic. Being not used to writing long text, they express themselves briskly: “There is an attempt at minimizing the part played by our country in the all-encompassing Nazi enterprise of extermination” – “Is that to say that everybody is accomplice, therefore guilty?” – “The mere fact of shutting one’s eyes on the deportation of one part of the population means that France had its part in the whole operation” – “What you are saying is a sheer manifestation of Franco phobia by someone who is taking no risk” (The World at War). Indignation and condemnation of the French submission to Germany predominate, nobody tries to justify the authorities, at the utmost some plead: “in a situation of war you have no possibility to react efficaciously” (ibid.). At the present moment the dispute is frozen on incompatible stances. Such retroactive considerations, based on feelings, with no hint at concrete situations, sound unrelated to the tragic reality of the Shoah. Beyond the fate of the victims, it refers to political preferences (especially in the debate about Pope Pius XII and the Jews launched in Passion History). It reveals also a desire, from the part of the “tourists”, to have their say. We are confronted, here, with the subjective, affecting side of history discourses, those who take sides on the web may be at the same time intent on learning and eager to manifest their personal views, especially when they are filled with emotion or feel indignant. The advantage of history, glance taken from the present at events that cannot be reproduced, is that it lends itself to both operations deepening of one’s knowledge and expression of one’s opinions.

My assumption about the will to give vent to one’s strong beliefs is reinforced by a strange phenomenon, WWII serves as a pretext to display contradictory but impassioned judgements about the USA. “America” has long provoked admiration, envy and hostility in France, but the refusal to take part in the second Iraq war, approved by a large majority, has accentuated the diffidence. Calling forth the memory of his father who, being a resistant-fighter, was arrested by the Germans, Laget (most likely above 50) notes: “He has never understood my hostility to the Iraq war, for him the American star painted on a jeep entering the concentration camp was still the symbol of liberty” (Pearltrees, January 2010). In such occurrence the divergence between two generations is rational. Outspoken diffidence comes to the fore when an anonymous blogger explains that “After the war, the division of Germany allowed the US to fight against the communist expansion in Europe. Stalin would have preferred an unified Germany to get more war reparations. Germany was divided. The Russians were the losers on two sides, Germany was not unified and they had the poorer, less economically developed part” (Passion History). On occasions, we are close to non-sense: “De Gaulle has liberated us from the Americans who, thanks to secret agreements, were going to occupy our territory during 99 years” (Net Surfer History). According to the content of this contribution, the author is a man over 70, but the young are not better informed about the NATO treaty, “After the war we were colonised by the Americans, luckily enough de Gaulle kicked them out” (History of France Facebook).

However contradictory they may be, the comments on WWII prove moderate. Opinions about the Algerian war show acid and strained. Two generations were born after the end of the conflict, those who fought it are now above 7O of age, but even in “historical” websites participants are not prepared to play it cool. “I believe that we are knotted in a dialogue of the deaf. If you take into account propaganda and brainwashing on both sides you realise that it is an explosive mixture” (Figaro Blog). Is it better to have a discussion about it or to keep silent? “Talking is good to root out the devil” – “Yes, but it is the job of historians. A debate, why not, but only with the passing of time, to get rid of mawkishness, laments and claims” (Newsring) “At school I was never told anything regarding the Algerian war. It is crucial to teach the horror of this independence war, not only to children but to all French” (Newsring). “It is not a “forgotten” history, rather the opposite, much is said about the colonies in schools, there is too much about it – which is not better tan too less” (Forum History for everybody). As is the case with WWII, but on a much larger scale, bloggers repeat endlessly the same assertions which boil down to two leading ideas, on the one side: “The present state of disorder in France results from the abandonment of Algeria” (Herodotus), on the other: “France condemns the Armenian genocide but doesn’t recognizes what it did in Algeria” (Monde Blog). On the web the Algerian war is not yet amenable to a relatively dispassionate, historical approach; for the time being it gives way to an enduring harping. Still, something is worth considering: those who debate are over thirty of age or even older, they contend in the blogs of Figaro and Le Monde, newspapers read by “serious” people. The 11 March 2012 the channel A2 put in the air a two-hour history of the conflict, The Algerian War. The Split. The program, diffused on YouTube, gave way to harsh arguments akin to those circulating on Facebook and characteristic of young net surfers. Instead of disputing about facts and dates the visitors indulged in sexual insults, fuck, queer, poof a.s.o.. “Stop using coarse expressions, neither our parents nor our religion allow us to do it” warned naively a surfer.

Europe on the march

A glance at historical sites shows that there is practically nothing about the past of other European countries. Net Surfer History asked its visitors which country interested them, they said that it was Russia, not the 2Oth century Soviet Union but what preceded it, the realm of the tsars, the Orthodox Church and Dostoyevsky. We have signalled a negative perception of the USA, the opinions expressed about other nations, especially about Britain are not more favourable: “English people loathe Napoleon, they are jealous and it gives me great pleasure” (Net Surfer History). [A young, while looking at the picture of a extreme-right celebration around a statue of Joan of Arc, with a French flag]: “Joan of Arc! These English! swines, bastards, pigs, we should hang them with their guts. I like our flag, but the European Union’s is a bit of a nuisance” (History of France Facebook). “If de Gaulle had kept Algeria this country would be French today, with its oil and gas, we would be a great power and not entangled in a paralysing Europe” (Herodotus). We have mentioned above the indignation aroused by the film The Roundup about the arrest of the Jews in Paris; a few bloggers took advantage of it to blame the German: “I understand why I have never th Germans with their queer Hitler”. The numerous bloggers who participated in a debate regarding the admission of Turkey in the U.E. were unanimous in stating that its entrance was undesirable, suffice to quote one message that summarizes the predominant opinion: “It will not be possible to federate Europe with Turkey whose territory holds the most important quantity of US military bases. To boot, like Britain, Turkey champions the international interests of the United States. Britain hasn’t adopted the euro and is only interested in a European common market, which explains why it backs the admission of Turkey” (Pearltrees).

However, a closer study of the sites reveal a different attitude, which appears clearly in texts dedicated to WWI. French politicians and historians asserted for decades that Germany’s aggressive policy and worldwide ambitions had triggered the conflict. The point of view prevailing today in history forums is radically different: “If, after the hostilities, Germany was proclaimed responsible, it was because of the meanness of the victors, a way of getting profitable reparations. In fact all belligerents had their part in the rise in international tension” (Forum history for everybody) – “It was a crazy conflict. The United Kingdom and France signed the Entente Cordiale to help each other in their respective colonies and counter the growing power of Germany. Russia entered the alliance. Germany an Austria were surrounded by potentially hostile powers” (Imineo) – “France lost Alsace in 1871. It was a traumatism but it was not normal to ‘enclose’ public opinion in what turned out to be a national obsession. It would have been cleverer to start negotiations about the status of the region” (Forum history for everybody) – “And today they would be European citizens like the French, Germans, Belgian and others” (Id.) – “A typical French victory. They made Germans believe that it was the end of the war with a return to the previous borderlines. Something Germany had proposed in 1916. The Germans agreed but they were obliged to accept the Versailles treaty. The were completely taken aback but could not do anything but sign” (Youtube).

We have already encountered this curiously distanced view of Alsace which, as one of the bloggers rightly says, was an “idée fixe”, an axis of the French foreign policy late after the end of WWII. The change of mind with regards to Germany is doubly noticeable. It is first the fruit of a hard, long-lasting work, carried through by a German-French team of historians, which wrote an account acceptable in both countries and now taught at school. The opinions expressed by bloggers, their general agreement on a responsibility common to all the nations engaged in the fighting, demonstrate that the enterprise has produced the desired effect. They prove also that pupils or students remember and reproduce what they have learnt. Scholarly teaching continues to govern the way that earlier period can be meaningfully talked of and reasoned about. Reciprocally, once it has been assimilated by the majority, the new reading of the past becomes obvious and everybody hastens to repeat it.

The joint commission of historians has produced a different discourse about the origins of WWI that supplants the pre-existing one. There is no doubt about the dedication of the team-members, but they were able to work together, and their account was ratified, because the political, or historical, circumstances made it possible. The talks that circulate on the net regarding this topic evidence a change in the relationship between Germans and French, a playing-down of superseded prejudices kept alive by a history-based tradition. The relinquishing of unfavourable bias is a limited but significant furtherance in the building of the E.U.


For a long time, approximately a century, history, as it was told in schools, aimed at persuading the young French that they were heirs to a glorious past, work of great men and heroic anonymous heroes, and that it was their duty to defend it. What was the impact of such exhortations? We shall never know, on that subject we have only a few testimonies written by people who spoke for themselves, nor for the mass of ex school pupils. The web provides us with a new source of evidence; it allows us to follow those who visit history sites, to observe what interests them and to take notice of their opinions. In relation to the whole French population these people are not in great numbers, but even in other disciplines there are not that many inquisitive minds who, being not content with surfing on Facebook, pop in specialised networks either to amuse themselves or because they are looking for some specific information. We lack opinion polls likely to tell us why these individuals wander through the net and whether, previously, they were or were not used to glance at history magazines. Yet the fact that, according to their own declarations, most do not read history books suggests that another public was born with the free access to internet.

In the pre-digital era, there were writers who produced history articles or books, and clients who bought and maybe read these texts. The web has not destroyed this scheme, history magazines and books mushroom, but what is fresh and innovative develops outside the traditional circuits, in a different sphere, which is the realm of web users. A distinct, unprecedented process is maturing under our eyes. Those who travel throughout the web are sill consumers of ready-made information, but unlike book readers they are not silent, they can express a point of view and do not hesitate to do it. The main, most striking change is the emergence of an uncommon category of visitors, who insert on the web texts in which they mingle data, judgements, queries and criticism. These forumers are not content with telling what they have in mind, they start dialogues, answer to each other, introduce other arguments and quote documents. In various instances, the conversations gather tens of participants and take an extremely vivacious turn. Yet such talks seldom last long since they express more feelings or impressions than precise, verified data. Collective interest spreads out rapidly, then declines gradually. Some questions do not launch replies, other trigger off animated debates. All reactions interest us, the former because they make known which topics appeal to history-buffs, the latter since they show what worries and even divides a sector of public opinion. We have come across three moments that are of particular importance for the French. All of them came in the 20th century and, given the distance in time, may be deemed historical events. However, with regards to WWII and the Algerian war, the talks moving round the web prove subjective, passionate and do not contribute to an understanding of what happened. They reveal an anxiety about how history speaks to the present and raise questions of national disunity and self-image. Such is the worth of history sites: by giving free rein to their convictions instead of narrating what happened, amateurs evidence questions that bother them.

All of us feel concerned with lots of every day problems such as accident, unemployment, cost of life, and we ignore whether the situation will improve or deteriorate. Uncertainty regarding the future is always distressing. Conversely, what went before our days, the events that occurred for instance in 1914-18, 1939-45 or 1954-1962 will not change. Earlier periods can be endlessly reinterpreted, but there are no doubts about the way they finished. Retrospective discussions give satisfaction because they do not relate to immediate, urgent, at times insolvable difficulties. Yet, the survey of these controversies does not merely satisfy an intellectual curiosity, it helps to detect veiled sources of social conflicts. Take the enduring division of French public opinion regarding the colonial adventures of the country: while being carefully kept out of political debates, such partition emerges through history debates under way on the net.

Serving as a pretext to express opinions, history gives also fuel to prejudices and unfounded, hereditary animosity – remember the peremptory judgments made against Americans and English. The balanced valuation of responsibilities in the launching of WWI shows that unfavourable bias can be corrected. Of course, history lessons were not enough to rectify firmly rooted preconceptions, many factors contributed in bringing together Germans and French, however a dispassionate appraisal of both nations’ pre-war policy removed an irrational obstacle to mutual understanding. Other blockages, illusorily justified by olden crimes, bring into conflict countries belonging yo the European Union. Taking advantage of opinions expressed on the web, the Union could lend a hand in clarifying contentious issues – not an easy task and one that requires time and patience.


1Precise figures about the number of people who visit the web in all countries can be found in <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8552410.stm>.


Études coloniales