Friday, January 14, 2005

Guest blogger: France - the occupation and its legacy 

Wherever you turn these days, there's no escaping occupation. Iraq, after all, is currently "occupied", and rivers of ink (or at least digital "zeros and ones") are flowing in a fruitless exercise to find the most accurate occupation analogy from history - Algeria in the 1950s? Vietnam in the 1960s? Then, from an entirely different perspective, some rubble-rouser like Jean-Marie Le Pen will come up with an inflammatory statement and single-handedly revive the discussion about the nature of Nazi occupation in the Second World War.

Sophie Masson, an author and essayist, joins the fray as a guest blogger.

The Occupation and its effects on France

There are quite a few nations who could be said to have "got away" with their complicity in Nazi crimes. Germany couldn't, of course; but Austria, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy and France, all to varying extents, have managed to sidestep the issue. But wishing something away isn't exactly the same as making it go away, and in France at least, the country I know best, airbrushing the reality of the Occupation has meant both the absolving of the French nation from the crimes, whilst making it a most useful political issue on which just about anybody will agree.

It's in this context that Jean-Marie le Pen's most recent, and characteristically abrasively outrageous comments (designed to be splashed in the media), that the German Occupation of France wasn't all that bad (highlighted in
a post on this site) have to be seen. You see, the generally-agreed face-saving piety in France regarding the Occupation was that of course everyone was living in a state of utter fear; that the Nazi monster preyed on everybody equally, and that explains why, in a nation of 40 million or so, there were just a few thousand active resistants. It's a version of the "pos-totalitarian stress syndrome" that Arthur explained so eloquently on this site--but in France's case, I think it's nonsense. The Nazis did not target every French person; in their racist league tables, the French were not exactly in quite the same category as the fine Germanic master-race, which included Scandinavians and British, incidentally, but they were nowhere near the sub-human category awarded to Slavs and blacks people, let alone the alien, inhuman division created for the Jews and the Gypsies. Like the Italians, the French were seen as a sort of sub-category of the master-race; or if you like, a race of overseers, of deputies, frivolous and slightly risible Southern Europeans yet with a dash of steely northern spirit (after all, weren't the French named after a good Germanic race, the Franks?)

So in fact the general experience of Occupation, in France, was not of being dragged into a cattle-truck, or of being tortured or persecuted--it was of having to put up with the daily humiliation of seeing that someone else was in control of your country; of checkpoints and sudden requisitions (my mother, who lived on the Basque coast, a part of France that was directly occupied by the Germans from the start, tells for example of one incident when all her father's trucks--he owned a building company--were taken, without warning, by German soldiers).

Yes, in the German-occupied areas, the military was ever-present, and so resistance was mostly sullen and passive, with many people, like my grandfather, informing their families, between four walls, that when the Germans came, they'd give them what for (but as Maman told us wryly, when the moment actually came, he meekly handed over all the keys to his trucks without saying a word.) For those in the areas controlled by Vichy--like Toulouse, where my father, a child at the time, lived with his family--it was rather different. There were controls and propaganda, but you didn't see any German soldiers till 1942, when Hitler, losing patience with the mealy-mouthed stalling of Petain and his crew, ordered the invasion of the rest of France and direct Nazi control to be instituted, including the arrest and deportation of French Jews, who until that time, had been spared the ordeals of the foreign-born, refugee Jews who had thought that France was their haven, and who, in the Nazi-occupied areas of France, were the very first to be targeted.

Foreign-born Jews were not safe in Vichy France, either, but French citizenship protected Jews, at least for a while, in Vichy--not because that Government cared about the fate of the French Jews as people, but purely on spuriously nationalistic grounds. Even that was abandoned once the Germans took direct control in the areas controlled by Vichy, though they left Petain as a figurehead and had a French "Prime Minister", Pierre Laval. It's at that moment that began the great "rafles", or raids, which have left such a stain on French national life (though one must wonder why the fate of the refugees isn't just as great a stain). French Jews, many of whom had lived in France for generations if not centuries, were rounded up and deported to their deaths in their tens of thousands, along with Gypsies and other "undesirables." The Nazi grip on France tightened more and more, and now the Gestapo--which had its French members, of course--made its presence much more felt. But still the general population suffered more from food shortages (often caused by the confiscation of crops and other food products by the German Army) and those daily humiliations of seeing soldiers in their grey-green uniforms everywhere, than of generalised, personalised terror.

The fate of the Jews was scarcely thought about--at the time, as Le Pen indelicately reminded his countrymen, decades later, if it was thought about at all, it was felt to be "a detail" in the general national drama. What mattered much more to the ordinary people was simply keeping your head down and getting on with life; what mattered to the politically-minded was their fight against a hated ideology. The Resistance was made up of all kinds of people; from Communists, belatedly pulled into the struggle after the failure of the Stalin-Hitler pact; the social democrats; Gaullists; some traditional aristocratic monarchists, who despised Hitler and his ilk as jumped-up radicals; apolitical nationalists; German-haters; mafia types, and ordinary people with no particular axe to grind, but a hatred of those who were lording it over their towns and villages. They didn't, in general, think about the fate of the Jews either, though there were a few French Jews in the Resistance too. Of course, people didn't know about what happened in the death camps, but there was ample evidence, both in Mein Kampf and from testimonies struggling out from the East, to suggest that the Nazis were preparing something quite special for their chosen "enemies of humanity." The truth of the matter is, in general, people in the Resistance, any more than people elsewhere, did not think about it, because it must have seemed to them only a side-issue.

When liberation came, there was a general, and hideous, settling of scores, with tens of thousands of people--some of them innocent victims of unrelated, personal feuds--summarily executed, and a general state of anarchy and fierce pitched battles occurring as the Communists attempted to use the general turmoil to seize control of the country. The non-Communist Resistance was kept busy trying to keep control of the Communists, and so at this time not only was the fate of the Jews felt to be of little importance (despite the fact the death camps had, of course, been discovered)but many war criminals, and compromised collaborators, used the opportunity to belatedly join the Resistance and "disappear"; the evidence of their complicity.

When the dust settled, with the Gaullists in control, it was felt that France's national healing and peace would best be served by allocating the Communists a guaranteed place in parliament (a quota they still have to this day, despite their very low voter rating) and by drawing a veil over the complex realities of Occupied France, with what happened to the Jews a low priority indeed. You'd have been forgiven for thinking then that practically all French people were Resistance fighters!

In the 60's, a few dissident voices started to be raised, including those of French Jews--for example, Raymond Aron's magisterial History of the Collaboration, and Marcel Ophuls' extraordinary documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity--but these were not told specifically from a Jewish point of view, but as a general overview of French behaviour during the Occupation. But they were complex, riveting portrayals of the horrible ambiguities of a period many people wished to forget. Yet they also encouraged other people to recount their stories, from Joseph Joffe's memoir of being a Jewish child fleeing from the Nazis, in "Un sac de billes" to ex French Waffen SS member, Christian de la Maziere (who had been interviewed by Ophuls in his film) publishing his extraordinary honest and remorseful memoirs, "Le reveur casque". It seemed the French were ready for the full truth--but things were starting to narrow down again, too much truth was too painful, better not to confront things but let them die away naturally. In the 70's filmmaker Louis Malle's disturbing, intelligent and confronting film about a young peasant boy who joins the French Gestapo, Lacombe Lucien--was at the centre of a storm of controversy that caused Malle in the end to leave France and go to live in the USA. (He returned to the subject of the Occupation many years later with another heart-rending film,, this time about Jewish children hiding out in a Catholic school). The subject closed once again--but then came the accession of the socialist Francois Mitterand--who'd been in the Vichy government as a minor official, before recanting, and who every year still placed flowers on Petain's grave. It was during his reign that began serious agitations for France to admit to its role in the murder of the Jews; and the trial of Klaus Barbie, who'd been Gestapo chief in Lyons, added fire and substance to those representations.

Today, France is still divided over the question of the Occupation. But it has not, as a nation, beyond the usual pieties and hypocritical hand-wringing over the Holocaust, really come to terms with what the Holocaust actually was, and meant, let alone what the French allowed Hitler and his crew to do to the Jews. The trouble with what Le Pen says is not just that he is utterly without sensitivity or understanding of the human realities of this horrific crime, but that he also, by ignoring what so many public figures in France at least pay lip-service to, blows away a lot of the myths and face-saving surrounding the Occupation. A nationalist brawler, but no Nazi, he still regards the fate of the Jews as "a detail"; but the ugly truth is that many politicians and public figures in France also think that, underneath all the polite hypocrisies. The same people who'd hand-wring over the Holocaust in France are often the same who would blithely talk of the Israelis as following in the footsteps of the Nazis; the same French people who rush to condemn Le Pen for saying, in his rough yet calculated opportunistic way, that the German occupation wasn't really that onerous in France, are often the same to rush to pour scorn and opprobrium on the Americans for ridding the Iraqis of a murderous tyrant. They have not absorbed any of the reality of the Holocaust, not in human terms; all they can think about is abstractions, and political advantage. Le Pen is the irritant, the fly in the ointment, the piece of grit in the smoothly functioning machine of French political face-saving. As such, he might well, despite himself, fulfill a truly useful function.

Sophie's website is
here. I heartily recommend her books.

I usually don't comment on guest posts, but I want to just add what I said to Sophie before: the people whose countries were never occupied (primarily Great Britain, the United States and, yes, Australia) find it very easy to pontificate on this topic, including beating the French breast on her behalf, when works like
"The Model Occupation" about the German occupation of Britain's Channel Islands would, if anything suggest, some humility and self-reflection are in order.

The phenomenon of self-righteousness is even more evident in the attitude towards Eastern Europe, including (but not restricted to) questions such as "Why didn't you save more Jews?" followed by an implicit answer that it was because you Eastern European are all anti-Semites and crypto-fascists. Well, some undoubtedly were, but those in the West eager to cast the first stone seem to be unaware (or if aware, dismissive) of the fact that the standard penalty for harboring or in any way assisting a Jew was execution for you and your whole family. Despite of that, Isreal's Vad Yashem memorial lists thousands of names of Polish "righteous" who risked (and in many cases lost) their lives helping their Jewish neighbors or Jewish strangers.

We would all like to think that the Brits or the Americans would behave and more honorably better under the occupation than their European cousins did. And maybe they would* - fortunately we'll never know - but more circumspection wouldn't go astray. Those of conservative inclination among us will know that human nature being the way it is, we cannot hope for a nation full of heroes.

But the controversy over the question of occupation, collaboration and resistance is but one aspect of the inability of many (though by no means all) in "safe" democratic societies to comprehend the nature of totalitarianism and the reality of everyday life under a totalitarian system of government. Hence the abundance of ignorant and offensive "Bush=Hitler" comparisons, devaluation of the term Holocaust, and continuing fascination with communist symbolism (about which I
just blogged).

* seeing that unlike in the continental Europe, Anglo-Saxon countries did not have strong native extremist movements which would be the first to collaborate. But that still leaves unanswered the question of how an average person on the street would behave under such extraordinary circumstances.


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