Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Vichy Syndrome and America

The idea that “most European thinkers think Americans should learn from European history” (a comment made by someone in a discussion group) continues to intrigue me. At least I had it in mind while reading The Vichy Syndrome, History and Memory in France since 1944. That book was written by Henry Rousso and published in French in 1989 and in English in 1994. It is considered ground-breaking in the sense that it uses mental neuroses as a metaphor for France’s reaction to its occupation by Germany during World War II.

Rousso’s arguments are persuasive. There were periods of denial, memory suppression, rationalization, etc. And the hope that a preoccupation with the Vichy period would die out as those who lived through it died, appears vain. The children want to understand what their parents lived through and did. French scholars are writing books about this period in increasing numbers.

However, the most important thing we Americans might learn from the Vichy period is something we already knew: We shouldn’t be conquered in the first place, but that issue is outside of the purview of Rousso’s book. He accepts that it happened but doesn’t deal with why it happened. His interest is in the aftermath. The aftermath interests me as well but not as much as why France was in such a weak state prior to the occupation. And it wasn’t weak in terms of man-power or weapons. It was weak in the sense that it (by and large) had lost its willingness to defend itself.

No of course this wasn’t true of every Frenchmen. Many were willing to fight. But it was true of a critical number throughout France. It was true of French leadership and it was true to the extent that France did a poor job of defending itself against Germany.

So what should we Americans learn from French history during the 20th century. The most important thing from my perspective is not to take seriously manufactured ideas. Anarchy, pacifism and existentialism are not of the warp and woof of human history. It takes little reflection to realize that such ideas could not have been seriously entertained by our more primitive ancestors. These beliefs, if they were held by a primitive tribe would lead to that tribes demise in short order – which is very nearly what happened to France.

France hasn’t ceased to exist, but it has suffered what is very like psychological trauma and it hasn’t recovered.

Rousso worries about France’s historical memory. Will France be able to recall it in any accurate sense, or has too much mental manipulation in the form of shying away from it in one way or another, already gone on. Rousso concludes his book with these words: “The purpose of this book was not to rewrite the history of France in light of the Occupation but to highlight certain neglected aspects of memory. But one historical finding does emerge: the deeper structures of French society did not disintegrate as a result of the Vichy crisis. After 1944, and despite all the postwar upheavals and divisions, what Stanley Hoffman calls the ‘republican synthesis’ was consolidated once more. For all that the resurgence of old memories may create an image of a country unable to pick up the thread of its own history, French society has little by little rediscovered areas of consensus. Was the Vichy syndrome the price to be paid for this progress? If memory was sick, perhaps it was because the body of society remained healthy. Or is the disease hereditary – and incurable?”

If there is a French disease that is hereditary, I don’t believe it is anything Rousso has described. I believe rather it is the disease of concocting impractical and self-destructive philosophical theories, and then believing them.

No comments: