French museum signals new attitude toward WWII. Old sensitivity replaced by desire to understand

France has never been comfortable with its World War II defeat, or the fact that the country was liberated from the Nazis by foreigners. In 1964, President Charles deGaulle refused to attend the 20th anniversary celebration of the D-Day landings. That attitude now may be changing.

A new museum in this Norman city bears the mark of a new young generation of historians. In the past, historical exhibitions treating the war focused on the Resistance. The Caen museum puts the wartime experience into a broader perspective - and gives the issue of French collaboration its due.

``The fact that the authorities accepted our independent interpretation is a sign that the French are willing to face their past,'' says Henry Rousso, the historian who designed the exhibit on the black years of German occupation. ``The French today are capable of hearing about those things.''

Until the opening of this museum, the 400,000 visitors who tour the D-Day beaches each year have been left to pick their way through a series of amateurish, often private museums, which display idyosyncratic collections.

Caen's museum is the first to give comprehensive treatment of the D-Day invasion and the war waged against Hitler's Reich. A visit to the huge white edifice on the outskirts of time begins with a descent down a wide spiral ramp running along a wall lit by a panorama of photographic images narrating the events that led to war: Germany's defeat in 1918, the stock market crash of 1929, the failures of democracy and the rise of fascism.

At the bottom, there is a large spherical chamber dominated by an eerie photo of Hitler. Music plays. Hitler shouts. Crowd voices mingle. You are in the middle of a Nazi rally.

These modern media techniques characterize the following rooms organized around the themes of occupation, resistance, and collaboration: Civilians are deported. Jews are annihilated. The war spreads. Finally, liberation comes.

A film shows the invasion of Normandy. Composed from archives, it presents the invasion both from the perspective of the soldiers landing on the beaches and the Germans in their shoreline bunkers.

The museum bears the weighty title of ``Memorial to the Battle of Normandy, a Museum for Peace.'' Caen Mayor Jean-Marie Girault, the museum's founder and chief proponent, was dissatisfied with traditional military history talking about battles, generals, and strategy. So he chose to encompass the themes of both war and peace.

``We want to explain why there was a war,'' says Mr. Girault, a member of the centrist UDF party, ``how these dangers are being reproduced today and could lead to the same catastrophe.''

The mayor would like visitors to leave with a ``consciousness of the fragility of the world balance'' and a desire to ``participate in the struggle for peace.''

This pacifist tone marked the museum's opening festivities in June, attended by President Fran,cois Mitterrand, Prime Minister Michel Rocard, and members of their Cabinet, as well as government representatives from 13 countries - including both Germanys. Mr. Mitterrand expressed gratitude to the Allied soldiers ``who died to push back the forces of oppression and intolerance.''

But he also struck the chords of reconciliation. After saluting the memory of Allied soldiers, the President went on to pay homage to their former enemies.

``How can we forget those on the other side who fell for their country and knew the bitterness of defeat?'' he asked.

Despite all the goodwill, the museum's message has failed to warm the hearts of officials from the Ministry of Culture. They provided only 15 percent of the museum's budget. The rest came from the city and regional government.

The message seems clear:

In the vacuum left by the government, it seems that local initiatives like Caen's will continue to shape French perceptions of World War II.

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