Hildegarde

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French

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I know where I have to start this post today–with the fact that I managed to consistantly misspell Foucault’s name throughout the post yesterday.   It’s the consistancy that surprises me, because I’m not unfamiliar with Foucault or his work.

There’s something Freudian going on there…

The other place might be to say that I am, as it happens, reading the book Mique mentioned, Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia.   I’ve had it on my TBR stack for years now.  I first picked it up when it was originally issued in hardcover.

I think it was, possibly, just the sheer size of it that was getting to me.  It’s a very interesting book, and not what it looks or sounds like from either the title or the organization.

But back to Michel Foucault, and how, being “only” fourteen, his work can’t possibly have anything to do with his behavior during the war.

Foucault was the son of a collaborationist family in Vichy France, and their collaboration was thorough enough to get him admitted to good and selective schools and eventually to university, although he didn’t attend until after the war.  

And although fourteen was youngish at the start, it was older than a fair number of people who actively worked in the Resistance and got shot for their pains.  And at the end of the war he was eighteen, and still taking loyalty oaths.

But Foucault is, indeed, a mild case in this particular circumstance.  Paul de Man actively wrote anti-Semitic propaganda for Nazi periodicals during the occupation.  People like Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir continued their careers without so much as pausing for breath during the same period, the price of being left alone being their silence about the trains leaving Paris for Germany, full of Jews.

After the war, two things happened: 

First, Sartre and company got very Jesuitical, adopting the theory of the “mental reservation” as a catch all excuse for their behavior–yes, they looked like they were collaborating, passively if not actively, but they were really thinking transgressive thoughts in their heads.

Second, a concerted effort was made to smear as “right wing” any writer or thinker who had actually not collaborated, and especially those who had actively resisted–Raymond Aron, Marc Bloch.

You could tell the active resisters because, more often than not, they were dead.

And this worked for decades.   “Common wisdom” became the idea that the Soviet Army had beaten back the Nazis singlehanded, that “bourgeois capitalism” was incapable of staving off right wing totalitarianism (since it hadn’t done so in France), and that capitalism was just another name for Naziism.

Otherwise sane people engaged in nonsense it’s hard to credit, such as deliberately surpressing the work of Bloch and attempting to ruin Aron while simultaneously whitewashing Heidigger’s actual membership in the Nazi Party.

And now, it seems, we’re in an interesting era for this particular history. 

The grandchildren are beginning to write memoirs of their grandparents, and the memoirs are not conducive to a continued believe in the “mental reservation” idea of “resistance” to the Nazis.

I think we’re going to see, over the course of the next decade or so, a complete rewriting of the history of the French Resistance. 

And it ought to be interesting.

But I don’t think it’s strange that this should be happening in France rather than somewhere else.

For one thing, France is the country and the national culture that most strenuously valorizes intellectuals, and intellectuals are the people who write history.

And philosophy.  And politics.  And ideas.

Other people in other places collaborated, but they did not emerge at the end of the war in control of the war’s narrative.

The French intelligentsia were therefore in a unique position to save their own asses when the blame started being thrown around. 

And since they largely had control of the universities, the periodicals and the publishers, they were also in a position to suppress the sort of writers who might make for uncomfortable comparisons.   It’s a tribute to Raymond Aron’s sheer force of will that he managed to hold out anyway.

What becomes more and more interesting to me, the more information is released about this chain of events, is that what looks at first glance as yet another episode of intellectuals falling in love with totalitarianisms turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Some French intellectuals did so fall in love, and then stayed in love by switching their totalitarian impulses to Communism–but there were other intellectuals, and they did not. 

Every once in a while, somebody points out in the comments on this blog that people who fall for Communism are looked at indulgently while people who fall for Fascism are treated as beyond the pale, but that is not actually true.

Plenty of people who fell for Fascism are treated not only leniently, but as if that episode in their lives had never happened at all. 

Deconstruction, though, and existentialism in the French version, remain what they have always been–a way to hide your own history in plain sight.

Written by janeh

April 3rd, 2011 at 7:56 am

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  1. “Every once in a while, somebody points out in the comments on this blog that people who fall for Communism are looked at indulgently while people who fall for Fascism are treated as beyond the pale, but that is not actually true.”

    As the somebody–or one of the somebodies?–I’d agree if you substituted “always” or “actually.” Watch the horendous fuss in the EU over any suggestion of moral equivalence. Communist murderers are better people than Nazi murderers because–well, they just are.

    On collaborators, I largely agree: France is unique. Keep in mind that everyone east of Berlin was rolled over by the communists–Greece as an exception, of course–and Germany (with Austria) and Italy are the guilty parties. so we’re talking, really, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. The Danish occupation is interesting. The government stayed in place, but held the only free elections under German occupation and managed to save all their Jews. The Dutch and Norwegian governments go into exile and raise forces for the allies. There are collaborators (often subsequently shot) but not collaborationist governments of any standing. Belgium, of course, isn’t quite a nation or a culture. But France had a reasonably legitimate government and armed forces under occupation made up of the same people who ran things before the War working closely with the Nazis. It’s the government in exile which really doesn’t look kosher. (Headed by a pre-war Colonel who had been in the cabinet for a matter of days before he jumped ship? Oh, come now!) So France is pretty well unique in having people who worked with and for the Nazis continuing uninterrupted into postwar politics.

    Worth remembering the cultural aspect though. In Mussolini’s Italy, a Jew who converted to Catholicism had a defense or sorts. In France, the Jews rounded up and handed over were very largely East European refugees, not Jewish families which spoke good French and had attended the right schools. THOSE Jews were among those doing the rounding-up, even in special police units raised for the purpose.

    Jewish anti-semetic police: further evidence of my basic conviction that people are just no good.

    robert_piepenbrink

    3 Apr 11 at 1:36 pm

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