Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tony Judt's Reappraisals -- the French Vichy and its traitors

Tony Judt is someone I’ve been reading for years. He has to be placed in the Liberal camp, but he has intellectual integrity. For example, he is an admirer of Whitaker Chambers. Chambers was an integral part of the American Communist world but Chambers came to a point where he couldn’t reconcile Communism with his principles. Chambers stuck to his principles, and Judt admired that.

But in other areas I disagree with Judt. In the 10/9/08 issue of the NYROB his latest book, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century is reviewed by Jonathan Freedland. Freedland writes “Judt spells out why we ought to remember the bloody and dark century just concluded. We need to know what happened, in part, because to do otherwise is to risk forgetting ‘the meaning of war.’ He adds that this is not a truth Americans ever – or at least in the twentieth century – understood directly anyway, having avoided occupation, defeat, serious civilian casualties, or even, relative to other combatant nations, the loss of many soldiers in battle. ‘As a consequence, the United States today is the only advanced country that still glorifies and exalts the military,’ Judt writes. This he suggests, explains not only the gulf in historical recollection of the century just gone . . . but also the different attitudes toward military engagement today. While other nations hesitate to go to war, the US revels in martial power . . . .”

I’m not sure what Judt means, but I’m guessing that he takes a typical Liberal stance here and means that the avoidance of war ought to trump the preparation for war. If we had gotten really really bloody in the twentieth century, like France, for example we would not “revel in [our] martial power.” Perhaps we shouldn’t totally disparage our military prowess, but if we had gone through what France did, we wouldn’t have been so ready to invade Saddam’s Iraq.

It is interesting and perhaps consistent with his belief about America that Tony Judt in 1992 wrote a book entitled Past Imperfect, French Intellectuals, 1944-1956. He is primarily interested in the aftermath of the Vichy period. But I would have him remember France in its prewar days. The predominate view was one of pacifism. It wasn’t just Neville Chamberlain’s view that Hitler should be appeased. That was a pervasive view in Europe at the time. They had learned their bloody lesson, the lesson we in the U.S. didn’t learn at all, in the First World War. As a consequence they didn’t glorify and exult in their military. The wanted nothing to do with war. They thoroughly learned the lesson Judt suggests we should have learned. And we know what happened to France as a result of that. France had a military superior to Hitler’s up into 1937, and could have stopped him if they still had the capacity to glorify and exult in their military, but they had learned Judt’s lesson. They no longer had that capacity and when Hitler’s armies moved against them, their resistance was slight.

Rather than learn the lesson Judt would have us learn, I am more interested in a different lesson. I want to look at what France became during and after their Vichy period. That seems a better lesson for us. If we lose our ability to glorify and exult in our military, we may eventually have to experience something like that. I’ve read a number of books on the Vichy period. Judt admired Whitaker Chambers for sticking to his principles, but Frenchmen who did that during the Vichy period were subject to execution – if they were caught. Marshall Petain may have been operating in accordance with his principles. He wanted to preserve France intact, but after the war he was tried in a French court and found guilty. What did the French learn from that?

During the Vichy period, or at least afterwards, many French were ashamed that they hadn’t fought the Germans. I say they were ashamed not because great numbers joined the resistance, but because after the Germans were defeated and driven from France huge numbers claimed to have been in the resistance. They refused to glory in their military before the war, but after the Germans were defeated by someone else, they pretended they had.

Robert Kagan in Of Paradise and Power wrote of America being of Mars and Europe of Venus. Not only did Europe, with the exception of Britain, do a poor job against the Germans, afterwards they drew wrong conclusions. Rather than learn the lesson Judt would not want them to learn, namely that they should have gloried in their military, they continued on with their pacifism. And as any good Freudian would expect, they rationalized their failures. They made virtues out of their mistakes. They denigrated that nation that still glories in its military, the U.S., the nation primarily responsible for their rescue. In their neurotic delusions they believed that they were right and America wrong and urged American to become more like them.

After the war, those who had been in the resistance and those who pretended to be wanted to be harsh toward the Vichy collaborators. But that was a confused time. Who really knew who did what? People made claims, and if no one was left alive to refute them, they stood. Also, many of the survivors were not bloodthirsty. They wanted to forgive the collaborators – unless they had done something really horrible. They wanted to move past that shameful period of their history. And so they eventually did. Or did they?

There are many who admire what they see in Europe today. Those Europeans are peaceful, socialistic, and well-meaning. They want nothing to do with war. What could be better than that? They look across the Atlantic at America who continues to glorify and exult in their military and are appalled. And our American Liberals and Leftists are appalled along with them. We should become more like the Europeans. They have experiences we lack. They know how to do things diplomatically because they are sophisticated in such matters. We on the other hand are “provincial” (one of Tony Judt’s favorite derogatory terms). All we know how to do is fight.

Of course it isn’t as simple as that. Judt generalized about Americans glorying in War, but he knew a huge percentage of Americans did not glory in war. We have our Liberals and Leftists in large numbers, and they agree with him and with the EU. They want America to abandon Mars and seek Venus. And we of course know that De Gaul wanted to retain France’s colonies and after the war sent an army to Vietnam and another to Algeria, but that seems only to have driven the need for pacifism more deeply into the French soul. They are learning the hard way how to turn swords into plowshares, but at least they are learning. We over here in the U.S. learned nothing in Judt’s bloody twentieth century.

Well I hope we have learned something. I hope we have learned that we had better be prepared to fight our enemies or we might end up like the French during their Vichy period. I hope we have learned that pacifism doesn’t work. I hope we have learned that in the face of a forceful enemy that to stand for one’s principles one must either fight (if one is strong enough) or die (if one is not). I for one would rather fight.

Lawrence Helm

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