In France, May 10 is a day to commemorate the abolition of slavery. Jan. 27 is the day we remember the Holocaust, through the commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz. In a few days, there will be ceremonies to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the revision of Captain Alfred Dreyfus's conviction on charges of espionage in a trial that tore the country apart.
France in particular, but also Europe in general, seems to be in a mood for remembering and repenting. It all looks as if the need to integrate communities within nations, to reconcile them with their past in order to unite them around a common identity and therefore a common project for the future, has replaced Europe's now-completed mission of reconciling old enemies like Germany and France.
For decades, "reconciliation" and its most remarkable achievement -- the Franco-German rapprochement -- was the trademark of the project to create an ever closer union in Europe. Reconciliation may seem far off for, say, the peoples of Japan, China and South Korea, but it is taken for granted by today's Europeans.
Except for the Balkans, most European nations are at peace with each other. The genes of war now express themselves on the soccer field; competition for land has been replaced by competition for medals and titles. The first Franco-German history book was released recently and, according to its team of writers, it was not the past and the Nazi years that constitute a source of contention between French and German historians, but the present and in particular relations with the US.
So, if the mission of reconciliation has any life left, its focus has shifted. If European nation-states are reconciled with each other, they are not yet fully reconciled with themselves, with their dark shadows and in particular their treatment of minorities.
Historians of Europe will probably one day conclude that it is the Holocaust and Europe's relations with its Jews that paved the way for the opening of this process of repentance. In the words of the Polish historian and statesman Bronislaw Geremek, the liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, has to be seen as one of the founding moments of today's Europe. The silence that surrounded Holocaust survivors during the immediate postwar reconstruction of Europe has been replaced by gestures of contrition and reparation.
Responsibility for passivity as well as active crimes has been recognized. Pious lies have been uncovered. In France half a century ago, as the Cold War loomed, president Charles de Gaulle easily convinced the French that they were heroic during World War II because he was heroic. The late president Francois Mitterrand, by contrast, managed to assure the French only that they were not so bad, because he, Mitterrand, had served in the collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshal Pitain before joining the resistance.
In the eyes of historians, President Jacques Chirac's redeeming value will most probably remain his courageous attempt to reconcile France's wounded minorities with their past and the French nation through a national process of repentance. It started with the Jews and acknowledgement that the Vichy regime did indeed incarnate the French state. Thus "France" itself was an accomplice to the crimes of the Nazi regime.