Thursday, September 25, 2008

When America "Occupied" France

No simple explanation seems possible for explaining Post-War France.  At the end of the 18th century, they had their Republican Revolution.  In the early 19th century they became the most powerful nation in the world for under Napoleon.  They continued to be a powerful nation and were on the winning side during World War One in the early part of the 20th century.  In the interwar period they favored pacifism and opposed war, but that resulted in their quick defeat and occupation by the Germans.  An important segment of France wanted to get along with the Germans, and this segment became Vichy France.  During the war many in Vichy France “collaborated” with the Germans.  Immediately after World War II, it was in the interest of the Gaullists and French Communists (PCF) to make light of this collaboration and suggest that almost everyone at heart was in the “Resistance.”


How could the intellectuals who went through the latter part of that process be anything but neurotic.   Tony Judt, in Past Imperfect, French Intellectuals, 1944-1956, discusses “six overlapping tropes, any and all of which could be pressed into service to shape and describe the post-war situation and the choices it presented to the individual.”


I was particularly interested in the fourth trope, “Collaboration.”  Judt writes on page 52, “As a term of opprobrium this became so universal after the war that there is little point in offering examples of what had become a standard figure of speech.  Its presence here is meant to suggest, however, that its use was not at all limited to the identification of people who stood accused of sympathizing with Vichy or the Nazis.  It is the metaphoric uses to which it was applied that make it of special interest.  Thus, to take one instance, from 1947 and with growing frequency in the half-decade to follow, all sympathy for American policy, all expression of support for Anglo-American interests, in France or abroad, was stigmatized as ‘collaboration,’ and the United States cast, by analogy as the ‘occupier.’  The campaign against the Marshall Plan (by no means limited to the PCF) took as its central plank the thesis that the plan was the first stage of a peaceful occupation and takeover of France, and that collaboration with it in any form was to be condemned.  Paul Fraisse in Esprit drove home the implication of this terminology by calling for a new ‘resistance.’   


“Collaboration, it seemed, was a state of mind, not merely a particular political or social choice.  All democratic societies, Sartre asserted, harbor ‘collaborators’ in their midst, even (especially) when the collaborator does not realize his (or her) own condition.  The solution was not to identify and execute a few ‘traitors’ but to make a revolution.  In a manner reminiscent of the still unknown Gramsci, collaboration was treated as a form of sociohistorical pathology, the condition of acceding to the hegemony of an authority or ruler.  One was in this sense ‘occupied’ by the ideas and interests of others (it will be seen there why Sartre and others so readily treated the collaborator as feminine and her ‘occupier’ as male).  The only solution was rejection (in the medical sense): the social body could free itself from the condition and temptation of collaboration (whether with Germans, Americans, capitalists, or its own weaknesses) only be rebelling against its condition.  Once again, the solution was revolution.”


COMMENT:  The words that came to my mind as I read this was “intellectuals can make anything out of anything.”   I’m not thinking here of fiction.  Of course a clever writer can make up any sort of story about anything.  I am speaking of making something up meaning it.  Why would a French writer say the U.S. was an “occupier” after we had defeated the Germans and driven them out of France?   I suspect not many in France thought that at the time.  We can see footage of the French throwing flowers at Patton’s tanks and trucks as Patton’s 2nd Armored Division entered Paris on August 23rd, 1944.  But many intellectuals in France wanted to make sense of it all, and the concept collaboration came readily to mind.  Many, perhaps most, had collaborated with the Germans to some extent during the Vichy period.  Perhaps the French weren’t ready to trust each other not to collaborate.  Perhaps these intellectuals didn’t even trust themselves.


Judt describes the period when some were worried that perhaps the U.S. were in France to stay as short, half a decade.  I’m not surprised that many in Iraq believed that we might be there to stay.  I’ve read the conspiracy theories that they’ve been pummeled with over the years, but why would any in France think that about us? 


I believe the TV series, Bones, has been extended another season.  In it Angela Montenegro (played by Michaela Conlin) had been in a serious relationship with Dr. Jack Hodgins (played by T.J. Thyne), but then a person from Angela’s past showed up and for awhile Hodgins didn’t trust Angela.   Maybe Hodgins still doesn’t trust her.  In any case this was too much for Angela, too much for Hodgins as well and they broke it off.  Of course things are still up in the air (unless I’ve missed an episode), and one expects them to get past their mistrust in the coming season and get back together, but in the meantime, they still don’t trust each other. 


For Hodgins this had something to do with Angela’s old flame’s presence.  As long as he was hanging around, Hodgims was suspicious.  And as long as the U.S. was in France, many French intellectuals were suspicious.  Perhaps Angela was collaborating with her old flame.  Perhaps the French were collaborating with the America occupiers. 


After the U.S. pulled out of France, did any intellectuals slap their foreheads and say, “what was I thinking?  Of course America wasn’t interested in permanently occupying France.  How could I have been so insanely suspicious?   I’m expecting Dr. Hodgins to say something like that in the coming season.  This sort of insane jealousy is common in mankind, but does anyone ever apologize for it?  Well, yes, in a personal relationship, one must.  Dr. Hodgins will at the very least tell Angela he’s sorry.  The French who were suspicious could merely fade into the background and let those who were not suspicious do all the talking.  Maybe that is what is going on in Iraq today.   Probably there is no one left who thinks we intend to occupy Iraq forever.  Interestingly, there are still intellectuals who believe America is an Empire.  They are busy changing their definition of “Empire” to fit whatever it is we do, as it changes from administration to administration.


Lawrence Helm







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