Where is the French voice?

My blog is usually about writing, literature, people, dignity, and philosophy.

So you will bear with me as I deviate from my normal humor and address one of  of life’s unfinished horrors— France’s role in deporting 78,000 men, women, and children to death camps and its current reluctance to surrender to its role in these crimes against humanity and own up historically and publicly.

For the last month, this historical issue—a big one—has been replaying in my mind, over and over. It won’t let me go, for some reason.

Perhaps Andreas Kluth’s lovely retelling of the story of the German White Rose started this thought process. Now is the horticultural time we bury bulbs deep into the frozen ground and then await their ascension in the spring.

What has been planted in my mind is trouble. No white rose, crocus, or daffodil is coming from this bulb. The French have submerged it, deep into a collective consciousness that doesn’t seem to care…and they get away with it. No one really cares, it seems.

I’ll make it succinct and perhaps, in opening this topic, someone might lead me to an answer that will make sense. I doubt it, though.

Forty years after the Nazi camps were liberated, Germany began doing the right thing: that is, making the Third Reich and its Stephen Kingish horrors a part of every German child’s education. In places around Germany, where Jewish families lost everything, the government has made signs and arrows and directions to museums and locations where visitors can learn the truth. The Holocaust and Germany’s role in creating it, is part of German education now.

Good for Germany.

But what about France? Is Vichy France part of French eduation? What about the folks in Paris sipping a coffee on the Champs de Elysee? Can you direct Jewish tourists and historians to sites historically important to them? Can you find tiny signs?

As I understand this piece of heinous history, Vichy France and its soldiers were directly responsible for deporting over 75,000 Jews to Auschwitz after separating the children from their parents. The history of the French Jewish children during the Third Reich is one of the most heartbreaking chapters in this bad book. Anyone who has an 18 month old child, or a six year old whom you read to every night, cannot seriously imagine the horror of giving that precious being up to a guard.

And yet, only in 1995, did Jacques Chirac acknowledge this fact in a weak statement, a waffling and pathetic statement.

When one travels around France or when a French child is in school, why are the facts not being told? Where are the markers, the historic apologies?

This is what I am thinking about tonight.

Maybe there is a page torn out of this book that I have missed.

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About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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33 Responses to Where is the French voice?

  1. andreaskluth says:

    Very somber thoughts indeed. As it happens I spent three summers in France, one of them in Vichy. The French never knew whether they should think of me as German or American and I had no interest in helping them. But I talked to them, or tried to, about these things.

    The Germans came out of the war and Holocaust into a situation that is historically rare, if not unique: Their own guilt, and the horrors unleashed by them, were clear beyond any doubt. Honesty and repentance were the only options.

    So honesty it became, ruthless honesty. My parents (the education started earlier than you let on above) were the first to probe. They went quite deep (read Schlink’s excellent “The Reader”). It is psychologically harrowing for a nation and, in some cases, individuals to confront what they were confronting. But they did it.

    As a result, several German generations became famous for their self-hatred. But it was also cleansing. The (West!) Germans had a chance to start over (even though Americans missed all that, somehow). The (West) Germans have, for the most part, done it right ever since the war. Now, the youngest generation of adults is the first that can feel “normal”–in a healthy, post-modern, post-patriotic, humanist, dignified way. The last soccer World Cup was the first in which Germans, like everybody else, waved their flag in pure sportive joy and nothing else.

    The French did something entirely different, and it has been very unhealthy to say the least. The vast majority of them collaborated. A negligible few were in the Resistance with de Gaulle in London. The Allies, to their credit, allowed them to spread the myth that they played a big part in liberating Europe.

    The effect of that fib was that, the morning after liberation, every man, woman, child and dog in France suddenly “remembered” that he/she/it had really been in the Resistance all along, fighting les boches all this time.

    A lie took hold and spread, the direct opposite of the German response. The veil slips at disturbing moments–I recall the revelations that Mitterand, a Socialist (!) president, had been in the Vichy ranks. Hush hush.

    It was never cleansed. They never got it out. They never faced it, so they never absorbed or contemplated the lessons, never looked at their own dark side. Some French do, of course. But not enough. It is considered impolite for people like me to bring it up in conversation with them. One soon learns not to.

  2. Cheri says:

    Insightful. Thank you for taking your time here.
    I have ordered The Reader.

    Dank.

    I really don’t get it. What about this culture forbids a look at the dark side? Would be a very good book to research, but I don’t speak French, which would be a must.

  3. Phil says:

    It’s been estimated that 200,000 Jewish lives could have been saved during the Holocaust, had the US been willing to accept them as refugees.

    While this isn’t quite the moral equivalent of France’s deporting 78,000 of its Jewish citizens to Germany, since US’s action was one of omission rather than commission, what the US failed to do may arguably fall not far short in morality compared to what Vichy France did.

    An estimated two million Russian refugees from Stalin, many of whom had fought the Germans, were forcibly returned in 1945 by the British and Americans to Stalin’s Russia. Most went into Stalin’s Gulag, and most died there.

    I have the feeling that the above facts are not widely known. Perhaps they should be.

    • Cheri says:

      Thanks Phil for adding to this conversation with your usual thoughtful response and statistics.

      Were I up to the task, I might research and write about the above issues, but frankly, they depress me, especially when I think of all the potential lost.

      That’s really where ruthless injustice hits me–in my imagination.

  4. Douglas says:

    Having become a sort of student of the 30’s and 40’s, the willingness of so many to just “go along” with Nazi-ism and to seek financial profit and other gain from it amazes me. The extent to which a long, well entrenched, anti-Semitism (and overall general bigotry) was taken seems appalling to us now but was apparently quite acceptable then. We, in the US, were not entirely immune to this (as Phil pointed out) but we also have a history of unbelievable cruelty toward those we have deemed less worthy.

  5. Peter G says:

    Human nature, in essence, hasn’t changed since the beginning of recorded history. Given identical external circumstances, any sufficiently large crowd, alas, will behave just like any other crowd in a different place at a different time. German Americans, for instance, are the largest ethnic/national segment of the U.S. population, i.e., they’re from exactly the same gene pool as were the Nazis. The fact that there hasn’t been a holocaust-type event over here (at least not since the extermination of the Indian population) merely means that so far, the circumstances haven’t been conducive to such occurrence.

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Peter,

      Welcome to the blog.

      Then why have the Germans done the right thing and the French not?

      That is really what I am wondering about.

      • Peter G says:

        Given that, as I believe, human nature is the same everywhere, the reason the French failed to do the right thing must be that circumstances were and are different in France.

        After all, France was invaded, i.e., it was the victim, not the aggressor, and when the war was over, the world’s focus was Germany to redeem itself. I’m not a historian, but my guess is there was no pressure on France to do anything. So why volunteer to draw attention to a stain on your country’s resume that the world isn’t even plugged into?

        Tony Robbins (the self-motivation infomercial guy) always says that people rarely do what they SHOULD do, but they ALWAYS do what they MUST do. I think that’s the answer, and it goes for countries just as it goes for individuals. Germany had no choice but to go into full-scale repentance mode in order to become an accepted member of the world community again. Perhaps France “should” have done the same, but why bother? Not much negative backlash if they didn’t. And why start now? What’s the incentive other than “doing the right thing” philosophically?

        Countries don’t work like that. They don’t do what’s right. They do what’s expedient. Obviously, France got along fine without acknowledging anything. Germany wouldn’t have. Therein lies the difference.

  6. sblock says:

    Seek the truth and it will set you free. I think whether it’s an individual or an entire nation that harbors secrets and lies or denies the truth, denial of the truth and the failure to own up to misdeeds will play out in their relationships and attempts at success.

    France is a great example of the effects of denial-she never has risen to the level of credibility and effectiveness she would like to think she has. And Germany is a great example of what can be accomplished when an entire people look at themselves in the mirror, get up, dust themselves off, genuinely ask for forgiveness and then move forward. Of course, I would suggest that the way we, as Americans and victors, treated them after the war with the Marshall Plan created an environment in which they could come back and succeed. Same with Japan. At the time of the occupation, MacArthur made it clear that all US forces were to treat the Japanese people with respect and that poor conduct on our part would be dealt with harshly. What a great story to see the before and after of that conflict.

    Woe are the French-they will never garner the respect they desire with the baggage they carry.
    At least as long as they act as posers.

    SB

  7. The Village Gossip says:

    As I wander round the village, picking up useful pieces of gossip, a prominent feature of human nature is forever evident.

    Paranoid or not, we do not seem to know what people are saying about us, nor are we aware of their comprehensive knowledge of our affairs, our foibles and our prejudices.

    They are obsessed with them and many mask this truth with a veneer of politeness, affability and insouciance. None could accuse you of this, SBlock.

  8. Cheri says:

    That’s what I love about SB. He’s to the point. We need more of that in this beige world.

  9. andreaskluth says:

    If you’re planning a book, Cheri, you could include Asia and Russia.

    I spent some time in Asia, and Japan is an interesting case. As SB said, it was “like” Germany in being liberated by complete defeat (ie, unable to “pose” as victor) and receiving American aid. But it was “unlike” Germany in NOT being totally, ruthlessly and utterly honest. And that’s what the Chinese (for their own psycho-political purposes, which are not above reproach) are now using to stoke hatred of the Japanese among the younger Chinese.

    Russia has an angle on it. China does, too (Why is Mao’s portrait still on Tiananmen square?)

    Ultimately, it could be an analogy for how individuals face/do not face the past and the truth.

    • Douglas says:

      Aren’t nations always representative of their people? And their people seen as reprentative of their nations?

      • thecriticalline says:

        Didnt’ Jung have something to say about this, Douglas? I can’t recall precisely, but did he say that the French were developed rationally and appeared emotional and that the Germans were developed emotionally and appeared rational?

      • Phil says:

        Germany’s very laudable facing up to it’s Hitlerian past may, however, have had more to do with with post-war political realities than anything else.

        Germany decided to subsume to some degree, its political identity to that of Europe, so that Germans would be more “European” than “German”. This probably required facing up honestly to the past, to make the other European partners feel safer.

        Also, Germany being almost levelled at war’s end, and the sheer magnitude of Hitler’s crimes when they were revealed for all to see, and that Germany was carved up into four pieces and ruled directly by the Allied powers, meant that Germany had to start anew, and the best way was to renounce it’s Hitlerian past.

        Of course, Andreas will be infinitely more knowledgeable about all this than I (me?).

        Japan did at least retain its Emperor, and wasn’t contemplating becoming part of another political entity, as was the case of Germany. So post-war Japan did have a continuity that Germany didn’t.

        But think of this: Japan is today the most pacifistic of nations. Quite a turnaround from 70 years ago. So Japan did change much more than it is given credit for.

        Not facing up honestly to past crimes is just what all nations do. Germany was the exception.

      • Douglas says:

        Phil, then are you saying that a country’s collective perception of guilt is important? I mean, it was clear at the end of the war, what Japan and Germany had done (we keep skipping Italy’s role…) , not so clear what France had done… you see, it was the Vichy government that could be blamed and it was gone at the end, Guilt could be assuaged, swept away with the collaborators as soon as France was liberated. As Italy’s was with the dismantling of the fascist government even before the end of the war.

  10. The Village Gossip says:

    It is sensible not to be too judgmental about people or cultures.

    Whenever I am declaratory, my own flaws tend to catch up with me sooner or later.

    I had better be careful! Am I not judgmental now?

    All questions have many sides.

  11. Cheri says:

    Peter’s appraisal of why countries do what they do is logical and strikes me as accurate.

    I do take exception to the notion of France as a victim. Remember that German soldiers were not the ones separating children from their parents and then sending them on a “train ride.”

    French soldiers were the culprits and it seems appropriate and necessary for there to be a sincere and official apology, reinforced by informational sites in Paris and other places to address history.

    Courage!

    That is why the story of the White Rose touched me so deeply. People with courage who acted. What a concept.

    We love to read about Norse, Greek, and Roman mythological heroes because we admire strength and courage.

    • Peter G says:

      France was the victim (a) in the sense that it was invaded and (b) in the eyes of the world.

      Of course, merely being the victim doesn’t necessarily improve one’s character. Often it merely reveals it. Some victims will throw in with the aggressor in order to protect themselves. I believe in psychology this phenomenon is called “identification with the aggressor.”

      Besides, human nature doesn’t miraculously change at the border, so the potential for ruthlessness and genocide was present in France as well as in Germany. That’s my whole point. The French weren’t “nicer” people. They simply lived in different circumstances.

      American Indians weren’t inherently nicer and more peaceful than the Europeans who wiped them out. Overall, the Indians were the victims, but that doesn’t mean that every Indian acted like Mother Theresa. Many of them simply sided with the colonialists against other Indians and were just as brutal.

      Furthermore, in the overall scheme of things, i.e., compared to Germany exterminating millions, putting 78,000 people on a train, unfortunately, sounds like a drop in the bucket. The number, frightfully high as it is in itself, is simply eclipsed by what went on in Germany. That’s why everyone in the world knows the true meanings of Auschwitz and Dachau, but upon hearing the word “Vichy,” most people think it’s a moisturizer brand.

      No wonder no political leader in France is particularly keen to get in front of a camera to announce, “Hey, world. You’re probably not aware of this, but we actually put 78,000 people on a train to Auschwitz during World War II, and now we’d like to apologize and repent.”

      • Cheri says:

        Facing up to history, for all of us, takes guts.

        I guess I am a hopeless idealist.

        I see that you were educated in Vienna. Are you Austrian? My husband spend time in school in Vienna in 1970 ( in the winter…) We went back two years ago to study Freud and Plato at the Freud Institute. We hiked all over the old city and found his ( my husband’s) home on Gupendorffer Strasse after a brisk walk.

        We saw Ariadne a Naxos at the Opera House. We had coffee and chocolate.

  12. The Village Gossip says:

    But what purpose does a strained apology serve? Or one the purpose of which is simply to raise others’ estimation of you. Apologies are not apologies unless thay are free, unconditional and heartfelt. The focus is to be on an understanding of the wrong done, and apologies are more often an act of mere convenience. Moreover, a nation’s apology does not speak for those who lack the understanding.

    So much more is achieved by the courage and sacrifice of, say, the white rose than by those who afterwards commit the same wrong in a different, less lethal, way. Conscience dwells in the heart of the individual and resists dictation to from outside.

    I, certainly, need to guard against seeking power over others, particularly their consciences. All the trouble in the world is caused by this human failing.

  13. Peter G says:

    I’m Austrian, yes. Born in Vienna, raised in a Viennese suburb. Recently I became an American citizen. So now, in addition to facing up to my native country’s history, I must also face up to slavery and the wrongs perpetrated upon American Indians. I’m having trouble catching up with all the facing up I have to do.

    Ultimately, what we must face up to and recognize is that we are members of a species that has a rather violent history and present, whether it was the Crusades, Germany in the 1940s, Rwanda in 1994, and Darfur and the Middle East as we speak. And that every person who has ever lived anywhere on Planet Earth originated from the same DNA pool.

    So we must face up to human nature in general, and be mindful that all of us carry a little Jesus and a little Hitler inside of us, to varying degrees, and that either may emerge under certain conditions.

  14. sblock says:

    The life (or country) that goes unexamined isn’t worth living (or living in). One quality that we can all agree is attractive and laudable is humility. A little humility expressed from the heart rings as true as a bell. You know a true apology when it is served with a side-dish of humility-of course ultimately actions speak louder than words and on this account, I would say Germany has done a pretty good job atoning through its conduct since the end of the war.

    I seldom feel much humility from the French government. A lesser player, still on the world stage, the French government often sounds vacuous to me and like a poser trying to garner a stature that is simply not there in substance. It’s no criticism or dislike of the French people who come in all stripes just like the rest of us. But if I had to pick a country who I would want at my side in the event of war, it would not be France.Just my opinion. (Of course I am excuding those great folks who were part of the Jedburghs during WWII).

    SB

  15. The Village Gossip says:

    My observations are more general than yours, SB, and I do not seek, nor am I qualified to question your comparison of France and Germany.

    The kind of apologies you describe and extracted apologies are, however, mutually exclusive.

    Rules of thumb have to be applied from day to day in relations between nations, of course, and there are glaring examples of bad behaviour, but is it right to burden the French with a general condemnation? To do so is only to extend, or risk extending, the horror of Nazi Germany or its effect. The German nation was quick to recognise this and did not seek to blame others. We need to follow that example. Its good conduct did not arise from external moralising, but voluntary insights into itself

    We have to wait patiently and do nothing to damage the comity of civilised cultures, either by deed or word, while being ever vigilant of danger.

  16. The Village Gossip says:

    [I found this floating in the village pond, Andreas.]

    The need for love and comity is strong;
    Shall we, alas, reject this inward truth ?
    Steer close to all those deeds that led to wrong?
    Describe and hurt and kill with words uncouth?
    Calm reason is the order of the day
    With wicked forces now unleash’d abroad.
    An even, timely speech should now hold sway.
    Dear allies now to spurn we can’t afford
    Or call account of wretched, former times.
    Unguarded, awful war, alack, may wreak
    Our fragile lives and silence church bells’ chimes.
    A harsh and vilifying voice is weak
    Yea, how a prescient voice declares it so:
    Let’s pause to find another way to go.

    [O – Seek “A Valentine” by Edgar Poe.]

  17. andreaskluth says:

    Beautiful and deep thoughts, Village Gossip.

    “… Its good conduct did not arise from external moralising, but voluntary insights into itself

    We have to wait patiently and do nothing to damage the comity of civilised cultures, either by deed or word, while being ever vigilant of danger…”

    Amen.

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