Thursday, February 17, 2011

What should the U.S. learn from European history?

Someone from Britain wrote, "It is doubtless true that some, if not most, European thinkers regard the U.S. as not sufficiently heeding the lessons of European history."

Can any nation learn from another nation's history? Perhaps to some extent, but surely through a filter of a nation's own need. But is there a "European History" that is coherent enough to be learned from? European nations do not have utterly disparate histories but neither do they have histories that can easily be lumped together except in limited circumstances and time periods. Furthermore these nations haven't learned the same "lessons of European history," so why should most "European thinkers regard the "U.S. as not sufficiently heeding" these lessons? And what exactly are they?

I have an ongoing interest in heeding the lessons to be learned from France's Vichy experience and its aftermath. I have just started Henry Rousso's The Vichy Syndrome, History and Memory in France since 1944. This book was published in French in 1987 and in English in 1994.

What lessons have the French learned from their Vichy period? Rousso on page 10 writes, "The Vichy syndrome consists of a diverse set of symptoms whereby the trauma of the Occupation, and particularly that trauma resulting from internal divisions within France, reveals itself in political, social, and cultural life. Since the end of the war, moreover, that trauma has been perpetuated and at times exacerbated.

"A chronological ordering of these symptoms brings into focus a four-stage process of evolution. Between 1944 and 1954 France had to deal directly with the aftermath of civil war, purge, and amnesty. I call this the 'mourning phase,' whose contradictions had a considerable impact on what came afterward. From 1954 to 1971 the subject of Vichy became less controversial, except for occasional eruptions in the period 1958-1962. The French apparently had repressed memories of the civil war with the aid of what came to be a dominant myth: 'resistancialism.' This term first coined after the Liberation by adversaries of the purge, is used here in a rather different sense. By resistancialism I mean, first a process that sought to minimize the importance of the Vichy regime and its impact on French society, including its most negative aspects; second, the construction of an object of memory, the 'Resistance,' whose significance transcended by far the sum of its active parts (the small groups of guerrilla partisans who did the actual fighting) and whose existence was embodied chiefly in certain sites and groups, such as the Gaullists and Communists, associated with fully elaborated ideologies; and third, the identification of this 'Resistance' with the nation as a whole, a characteristic feature of the Gaullist version of the myth.

"Between 1971 and 1974 this carefully constructed myth was shattered; the mirror was broken. This was the third phase of the process, which is analyzed here as a 'return of the repressed.' In turn this inaugurated a fourth phase, continuing to this day: a phase of obsession, characterized on the one hand by the reawakening of Jewish memory and, on the other, by the importance that reminiscences of the Occupation assumed in French political debate."

COMMENT: Whenever I hear a Europeans suggest that we Americans need to learn something from them, they seem to be referring to their EU in some way and not in their World Wars or the immediate aftermath of World War II. Those earlier periods I am quite willing to learn from. But to be told we should learn something from the way Western Europe developed during a time the U.S. was throwing a protective blanket over them is a bit difficult to accept. Will the EU in term throw a protective blanket over us while we form a Union with Canada and Mexico? They don't have such a blanket. They lost their ability to make such a blanket when ours turned out to be so cozy.

Also, is the EU so successful that it is a force to be learned from? They couldn't handle their Balkan war by themselves. They are antagonizing Russia by invited the former Soviet-Bloc nations to join the EU. It is worth noting that Russia may well have taught the EU a lesson of some sort, militarily, were it not that a bit of the U.S. blanket still remains in place. They need it at the same time they chafe at it. Just as they needed it when we were restraining the Communist advance during the Cold War, especially those constraints that occurred during the Vietnam War? Europeans have never liked the Truman/Acheson/Kennan doctrine, but many Americans can't get past the fact that this doctrine did end with the defeat of Communism as a serious challenge to Liberal Democracy.

Our "anti-war" movement during the Vietnam War by no means represents the predominate view in the U.S. It is generally conceded that the war was not well led and to that extent it corresponds to much of the allied leadership in World War I, but it is not at all conceded that we should have given up opposing Communist expansion in that region. We should have fought that war -- just not the way we did. Interestingly, the USSR learned nothing from our Vietnam experience. They had to have their own, and now have a term called, "The Afghan Syndrome.

The European thinkers may mean some aspect of Welfare-State operation. Perhaps that is what we Americans should learn from the European experience. But, I submit, we as a nation are pursuing this one aspect of European history most assiduously. Our economy is in jeopardy today because we are having European-like difficulties paying for our entitlements.

There are some things European thinkers should learn from their own history. They should learn that they need a military force (or forces) capable of defending their borders. Which borders? Consider the border with Russia for one. Are any of us sure which direction Russia is going to take in the future. They aren't even sure. The U.S. has been criticized for using its military to defend Liberal Democracy, but Russia has used its military to defend its union. Shouldn't the lessons of European (and Russian) history convince Europeans that they need a sufficient military force to defend theirs?

Rousso intends his psychiatric references to be taken as metaphors, but there has been something very like the clinical reality existing in France before as well as during and after the Vichy experience. I referenced Sartre in my note, , to say, "In 1939, 1940 we were terrified of dying, suffering, for a cause that disgusted us. That is, for a disgusting France, corrupt, inefficient, racist, anti-Semite, run by the rich for the rich -- no one wanted to die for that, until, well, until we understood that the Nazis were worse." We know in retrospect that this self-hate impeded fatally France's ability to defend itself against Germany in World War II. Shouldn't we Americans learn that lesson?

Whatever lessons there are to learn from France during the periods Rousso deals with in his book, I venture to predict that I won't find any choices the French made worthy of emulation.

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