French History @ IHR: Itay Lotem, Memories of Colonialism in Britain and France

Date & Place: Monday 14 March, in the Wolfson Room NB02, IHR Basement, North block, Senate House

Speakers: Itay Lotem (QMUL)

Paper Title: Memories of Colonialism in Britain and France

Chair: Rob Priest (RHUL)

Click HERE to listen to an mp3 recording of the paper (right click to save).


Concepts of national memory are at once seductively simple and extraordinarily complex. We understand intuitively the ways in which national myths underpin identity, yet it becomes much more personally challenging when we question the foundations of those mythologies and our own relationships to them. This has become an increasingly prominent issues in contemporary political discourse owing to the passionate and vital discussions of colonial legacies.

Yet, in considering national mythologies, it helps to set them in comparison. Itay Lotem spoke about British and French memories of colonialism in general, and of episodes of colonial violence in particular. The use of torture in the Algerian war of 1958-1962, and in the Mau Mau Uprising of 1952-1960, were the two touchstones of his comparison, and he played out the legacy and reckoning of these events in popular discourse. By describing how reactions to both these events had experienced prominent moments of resurgence after 2000, he teased out similarities and differences in Britain and France.

Surveying French attitudes, Itay considered Benjamin Stora’s work on the memory of the Algerian War, and in particular, he discussed the frameworks of “memory agents” and “memory wars”,[1] and the way that these actors jostle for prominence in the national narrative. Stora’s work (both in book and documentary form) helped to ‘expurger la silence’ of torture in Algeria, ensuring that it was not considered an obscure historical fact, but an important fact of continuing relevance to discussions of the War’s legacy. Yet, Stora weighed popular consciousness of the event lightly against the importance of state recognition, given the fragmentary memory of the events that existed between different groups. For Stora, it was not important to reconcile the memories of Pied noirs and the tortured, given the diverse identities held by these ‘memory agents’ and their basis in distinct stories.  Indeed, for the public, it was often the emotional appeals that engaged, rather than the state’s attitude, or the precise details of partisan memorial legacies. Itay referred to a newspaper piece in Le Monde in 2000, in which a woman who had been tortured sought out her rescuer. This piece energised the debate, building on the academic research to really create a space in which “memory agents” could compete. The reconciliation of this state and popular engagement was embodied in the first months of François Hollande’s presidency. In October, he recognised the massacre of Algerian protesters in Paris in 1961, and then in December he embarked on a state visit to Algeria in 2012, in which he recognised “the suffering the colonial system has inflicted.”

He contrasted this with a much more muted response to colonialism in Britain. Here, the testimony of the victims was not heard, except really though academic intermediaries. Itay demonstrated how the 2006 lawsuit for Mau Mau veterans built on the momentum generated by academic studies by David Elkins and Caroline Elkins in 2005. Although these studies both had very different approaches (and styles), they helped to spark a new engagement with the Kenyan Emergency in Britain. Elkins’ piece, he stressed, had lent an important moral clarity to the issue which supplanted the legal complexity of the case for many casual observers. Previous attempts to launch legal proceedings in 1999 and in 2002 had floundered, though the systematic documenting of the 2006 studies provided new and valuable information. Again, official recognition was the ultimate aim of these legal cases, though popular engagement has been spottier. The subsequent revelation of the ‘Migrated Archives’ was perhaps a prelude to greater engagement on these grounds.

Ultimately, Itay was keen to stress that his comparative approach did not equate or level the experiences of Britain and France. Kenya, he stressed, was not Algeria. Yet, both were key to understanding the difficult narrative of colonial retreat, and of questioning how systematic violence had been brought to bear in support of exploitative systems of power. Analysing how these memories have been serviced, shaped, and deployed in popular discourse gives an important insight into the texture of our own national mythologies and their difficult composition.

Discussion afterwards raised some interesting points about how colonialism is taught in schools, and how this varied in France and in Britain. Itay referred to the excellent piece he had recently written in The Conversation, and of how the centralisation of curriculum control was part explanation of how in Britain, colonialism had skirted the controversy of the French experience. Likewise, when the German experience (with reference to the Herero and Namaqua Genocide) was raised, Itay spoke at length about processes of reckoning which followed the Second World War, in which Britain had a very different narrative to that of France and Germany.




[1] See especially Benjamin Stora, La guerre des mémoires : la France face à son passé colonial (Éditions de l’Aube, 2007).


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