I was walking toward the Bastille Market on a Sunday morning in Paris searching my mind for information that’d been lost.
What the heck is Bastille Day about again?
I celebrated it once on July 14, 2008 when I lived in Ferney-Voltaire, a small French town outside of Geneva, Switzerland. I celebrated it again last year in 2018, watching the elaborate Eiffel Tower fireworks display from a street in Paris. On both occasions, I’m sure I’d done a Google search to learn more about the holiday.
Still, nothing appeared in my memory besides the general category “Bastille, the storming of.”
When? Why? Who?
I found the answers to my questions a week later at the Army Museum in Paris. Making my way slowly from room to room and sign to sign, I read about the military history of France from Louis XIV through World War II.
I learned about how the French came to the aid of the Americans during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and then had their own revolution overthrowing the French monarchy a few years later (1789-1799).
I read about Napoleon’s wars–how power went back and forth between French royal families and Napoleon and his heir. There was a brief moment where I might have understood the succession of rulers, the Republics, and how it all fit together but it didn’t last long.
I moved on to the World War I and World War II sections of the museum. I learned about the toll of trench warfare in the first war and the extent of German occupation in France during the second. I watched video clips from D-Day and the liberation of Paris. I observed how tall Charles de Gaulle was in images of the latter.
When will I forget that he called on French people to resist German occupation despite the armistice agreement between France and Germany? When will I forget how tall he was?
Since my trip to Europe last summer, I’ve been fascinated with history. What frustrates me about studying it, though, is how quickly the facts and figures fade from my mind. I know it’s not possible to retain everything. But I want to be able to remember enough to never forget the price so many have paid for freedom.
Memorial Day in the United States came the day after my trip to the Army Museum. I remembered well this year.
Note: The July Column at the Place de la Bastille. The storming of the Bastille took place during the French Revolution in the late 1700s. The July Column commemorates events during the July Revolution (Second French Revolution) in the 1830s.