Sunday, February 27, 2011

Learning from French History

Someone recently stated that the majority of European thinkers believe American thinkers should learn from European history. I for one think that an immensely worthwhile project and have especially pursued French history in the twentieth century. We saw how they got caught up in ideas that sapped their willingness to defend France. After the carnage of World War I they, many of them, resolved "never again"; which in retrospect is a nonsensical thing to say or believe. Rather than render themselves weak and defenseless because war is a great evil, they should have rendered themselves strong so the rapacious regime next door would not believe France would be an easy victim.

As it turned out, many in France thought it would be a good thing to be occupied by Germany. They admired Germany and became willing accomplices during the "occupation." Some were punished after the war but many were not and the De Gaulle tried to draw the curtain on such punishments. He created the myth that the true France resisted German occupation. And in truth most of France didn't want to dwell on the occupation. They wanted to get on with rebuilding France. But the time came when a younger generation wanted to know. Despite official censorship, movies and books were produced that drew attention to the Occupation. It was no longer believed, if it ever was, that "true France resisted the occupation."

On page 143 of The Vichy Syndrome Henry Rousso writes about Philippe Ganier Raymond: "Like Many of his contemporaries, Ganier Raymond saw the forties revival as a covert rehabilitation of fascism and denounced it as such. He was also a bitter critic of what he regarded as France's current 'authoritarian regime,' and he had some very unflattering things to say about Jacques Chirac: 'Is the prime minister a fascist? Sure, no doubt about it . . .' He described his work as a diatribe against the right, under which head he indiscriminately lumped Vichy, the Algerian torturers, and the governments of the 1970s:

'Right-wingers, you are not innocent. You and your fathers before you have committed unexpiable crimes. This is the record of what you did, sai8d, and thought over a four-year period. This is not an anthology. It is scarcely more than a sample, a glimpse at what you are capable of when you are given free rein. Stay on the right if you like, but people should know: you are murderers, and of the worst kind, murderers by proxy. Cowards.'

"Thus [this] man . . . was no ordinary journalist in search of a scoop. He was one of a group of writers, reporters, and columnists obsessed with the Occupation, some for ideological reasons, others for family, personal, or emotional considerations, still others out of a wish to be provocative. Whether one approves of them or not, and whether or not their motives were honorable, these writer played a crucial role in prolonging the syndrome. . . ."

COMMENT: I doubt that these writers could have avoided prolonging the Vichy Syndrome. It is not something the French can get rid of by choosing not to think about it. That was tried during De Gaulle's. The French want to feel good about themselves, but not, ultimately, at the price of honesty. If "True France" were not for the most part "resistant to the occupation" than what was it? We learned from "The Sorrow and the Pity" and other writings that "the Resistance" wasn't the heroic myth that De Gaulle created. The prevalent attitude during the occupation was more like the "Banality of Evil" that Hannah Arendt described in Eichmann in Jerusalem." The French during the occupation, with few exceptions, wanted to get along and if "getting along" meant getting along with the Nazis then they would do that. This isn't to say that they liked it, but they did it. Not "all" to be sure. We can't quantify the extent of the collaboration, but the curtain drawn over this aspect of the occupation was torn aside by such journalists as Philippe Ganier Raymond, especially when some of those who collaborated showed themselves to be unrepentant.

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