Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On the dangers of liberating the French

            One of the quirks of history that has puzzled many, over the years, has been the fact that though France was liberated by British-American forces, the predominate attitude in France has been one of antagonism against America and Americans (and to a lesser extent the British).  Shouldn't France feel more grateful to America, and if not, why not?
            Many who pursue this issue start with Roosevelt's contempt for De Gaulle.  As soon as it became clear that Germany had defeated France, De Gaulle fled to Britain with little more than what he was wearing.  Yet in a very short period of time he declared himself to be the head of Free France.  Roosevelt wasn't impressed.  The real leader of France, in his opinion was Petain.  Roosevelt would rather do business with the real power in France, as much as existed during the Vichy period, than with the wishful thinking of Charles De Gaulle.  And De Gaulle resented Roosevelt deeply. 
            But it would be better to start at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.  Not to see the seeds of the difference of opinion about liberation, but to understand why France needed to be Liberated.  Late in the 19th century France went through a period where Anarchy was extremely popular.  While the political anarchists were eventually subdued by the French authorities, the artists picked up the threads of anarchy and wove new types of art, music and literature.  They opposed the more orderly forms that existed in the past and sought an individualistic display of willfulness where everything was permitted, especially if it opposed the "powers that be." 
            Thus, at a very critical time in French history, when France desperately needed its young men to be willing to defend France, the young men remembered the rallying cry of the anarchists: "death to France.  The young men who needed to fight for France against Hitler's Germany were disgusted with the "powers that be," with "the state" and with mankind in general.  Across the border in Germany, meanwhile, the young men were singing Deutschland uber alles.
            But so what?  Your aunt Sophie shouldn't have turned to chocolate after Uncle Fred died and ballooned up to 300 pounds either.  She had her heart attack.  No big surprise there.  And though her heart stopped; she was brought back to life by the paramedics.  Let's give your aunt the latest medical care even though she probably wouldn't have suffered the heart attack if she had maintained a decent weight and exercised instead of eating chocolate.   In hearing no more than this about your Aunt, I would expect her to be grateful to the paramedics for having saved her life. 
            Many Frenchmen would have objected right after the liberation  to my analogy.  They would have said that they weren't dying under Philippe Petain and his Vichy government.  They were getting along just fine.  However, the other Frenchmen went on a rampage of slaughter -- killing or degrading the collaborators.  These latter would surely appreciate being liberated.  But no, or if they did, it didn't last long.  They didn't feel like the defeated.  And the liberators had the maddening habit of thinking that 1) they had liberated France and 2) France should be grateful to them.  France!  Imperial France!  France of Louis XIV and Napoleon!  No, it was impossible.  America should consider it an honor, perhaps nothing more than partial repayment for past occurrences when France helped America.  The American attitude was not to be borne.
            The American attitude, meanwhile was not steeped in history.  The young boys wearing the American uniforms knew that they had been called upon to liberate the French.  They had done it and now, the strange French, many of them, resented them.  It was beyond understanding.
            Earlier, in Britain, the British engaged in a bit of resentment as well.  They too were in trouble.  They toyed with pacifism.  It was popular to think that wars were caused by misunderstandings.  Since it was inconceivable that Britain would go to war over a misunderstanding, they need not build a war machine to match the German one -- except for their navy, but that was needed to protect their empire.  The British were initially happy to receive the influx of American soldiers with all their weapons, but before too long their opinions changed.  They complained that the American soldiers were "over paid, over sexed, and over here."   But, were the American soldiers blameworthy for behaving in that manner?  Or did they behave approximately as we would expect any liberating force to behave?
            One might wonder to what extent the French were responsible for their own ancestors who degraded French morale to the point that the Germans were able to defeat them so readily.  Later at the Nuremburg trials, the judges decided it was not a legitimate defense to claim, "I was just following orders."  But isn't that very like what the French were doing -- following "instructions" when they accepted the teachings of their ancestors and turned against "the status quo," "the powers that be," "the supposed need to defend one's country"?   If we sent German's to prison for "following orders," why can't we get the French to take responsibility for "following the instructions of their teachers"?
            Hovering back behind this look at the liberation of the French in 1944 is the subsequent liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban and Iraq from the regime of Saddam Hussein.  Are the Afghan and Iraqi people going to behave any differently than the French?  And have the Americans learned anything from the earlier resentment against them?  It is too soon to tell.

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