A Deserter From Death | The Nation


A Deserter From Death

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One of the first signs of old age, I'm told, is when a young woman offers you her seat on a bus (and the next stage, presumably, is when you accept it). But there is a surer proof of the passing of time: when events from your adolescence are being commemorated as ancient history--as is now the case with the fiftieth anniversary of D-day. While giving you a jolt, it also puts you in a privileged position. At a time when neo-Fascist ministers are returning to government in Europe, when creeping revisionism is gaining ground, when items from Soviet archives are cleverly selected to blur the past and convince us that Communist and Nazi, resister and collaborator, victim and executioner were all the same-it is important both to say "No, it wasn't so," and to ponder the purpose of such manipulations.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

Let it be admitted from the start that this is not the neutral testimony of an objective historian but rather the committed one of a miraculous survivor of World War I1 who owes his life to sinus trouble. Before the war, in the Poland of my childhood, the gap between the haves and the have-nots was huge, as it was in the rest of Eastern Europe. Thus my father, a very successful journalist, hearing that the Mediterranean climate would be good for his youngest child's sinusitis, could afford to send me, my mother and my sister to the French Riviera. This happened in August 1939. After the war broke out we, tried to rush back home, but--second stroke of fortune--it was too late.

Not that I was untouched by the bloody conflict. Far from it. My father was sent to the gulag in distant Siberia, my older brother was killed in the battle of Tobruk and my sister jumped from a second floor in Marseilles rather than face deportation. To escape the Nazis, I had illegally crossed the border into Switzerland and on the way I mistook in the dark the greenish uniform of the Swiss for the Feldgrau of the Germans. After such an experience, you grow up very fast indeed. At the time that Allied troops were landing in Normandy, I was attending Calvin's high school in Geneva and treating my classmates as kids. But in another sense, I was a youth like any other, reading Rimbaud, discovering not only the Surrealists but also the "surprise parties," as they were called, at which we jitterbugged to Mezz Mezzrow and smooched to "Blues in the Night"--instead of providing fodder for the gas chambers as did my aunts, uncles and innumerable cousins.

The reactions to D-day in Occupied Europe were, naturally enough, contrasting. At one extreme, among the resisters and the victims, the Allied invasion buoyed hopes and strengthened the conviction that, whatever cruel damage the enemy might still inflict, it was the beginning of the end. At the other extreme, those who had linked their fate with the Herrenvolk were either getting ready for a last stand or wondering how best to climb on a new bandwagon.

But what about the mass of the people in between? By 1944 any illusions they had held about the occupiers and their collaborators had long vanished. The bulk of the population was yearning for change. True, because of the understandable obsession with food, most people's aspirations were down-to-earth. But there was also a growing revulsion against the prewar regimes that had made such a conflict possible. Only by grasping that feeling can one understand why, say, young British soldiers would vote in Labor and throw out wartime leader Winston Churchill; or why the French Resistance proclaimed that the moneyed interests would never again be allowed to dominate the press. How romantically unreal it all sounds today! Actually;, on D-day the initial reaction, as a French writer reminded us, was to exclaim 'Les Anglais!'' because in the popular imagination Britain was the first nation celebrations are a chance to to be associated with the struggle against the Nazis. The Americans' turn (whatever their actual role in the invasion) would come later. As the G.I.s spread across the liberated Continent they brought with them the myth of a distant cornucopia--the magic land of nylon stockings and Glenn Miller's "In the Mood." But it was the British who, at least to begin with, symbolized defiance of fascism. Or rather, the British and the Russians.

A personal aside: Nowadays, in these silly times, even when stating an obvious fact, one must first establish one's credentials. So let me say that I have been an anti-Stalinist almost from childhood and that my antagonism toward the Georgian tyrant, because of crimes committed in the name of socialism, has in no way diminished. Having said that, I find preposterous the current attempts to minimize either the role of Communists in the European resistance movements after 1941 or the part played by the Red Army in the Allied victory. Military experts will tell you that the landing in Western Europe would have been quite a different story if the bulk of crack German divisions had not been bogged down in the Soviet Union. Let me simply add that for someone who lived through those years of despair and contempt in France, the moments of hope were mostly connected with news from the Eastern Front. There was a joke at the time that ran, Which town is the biggest in the world? Answer: Stalingrad. Why? Because the Germans marched and marched and marched and never got to the railway station. This witticism, based on boastful Nazi communiqués claiming their troops were advancing toward the station, sounds quaint today. But at the time it was a flash of hope in a time of gloom, an optimistic message that the arrogant enemy might not be invincible.

Unique and Comparable

After the landing came the liberation of the occupied territories and then the invasion of Germany itself. Accompanying the hour of glory was the horrifying discovery of the concentration camps with their ossuaries and their waking skeletons. Even we who lived close to the camps and were supposed to know were completely shattered by those pictures from hell, defying the imagination of a Hieronymus Bosch, and will probably be haunted by those images for the rest of our lives.

Whenever I am asked, or ask myself, what it means to be a Jew--as one who does not think of Jews as a race, who is a nonbeliever and was not brought up in Hebrew or Yiddish culture--I find the rudiments of an answer in my relationship to those corpses. I know and fully accept the proposition that we should share our sympathy and solidarity with the victims, the exploited, the downtrodden and humiliated without distinction of nationality, religion or skin color, Yet I could have ended up in that charnel house myself. I almost wrote "should have ended up,'' assuming, with utter irrationality, that I am a deserter from the army of the dead.

Words should be handled with care. Not every reactionary and repressive regime is fascist. Not every horror of our time can lie equated with the Holocaust. The organized, systematic, almost scientific extermination of a people on alleged racial grounds and on such a scale seems to me to be a unique event in human history. Unique but not incomparable; quite the contrary. We are living in a crazy and increasingly dangerous world. When Jews, even if a small proportion of the whole population, can rejoice, both in public and in private, over the mad massacre of praying Palestinians; when the death of one race-car driver in the Grand Prix takes five times more space in the media than that of 200,000 blacks in Rwanda; when "ethnic cleansing," which one thought had been discredited forever, becomes bloody purification in the former Yugoslavia and looks highly contagious; when blood ties, once again, seem to negate all other forms of solidarity across national frontiers--when all this happens it is important to recall the Holocaust as a reminder of what humans are capable of performing and as a warning that it can happen here, there and everywhere if we don't tackle the deadly disease from its earliest symptoms.

For historians the past has an attraction in its own right. They wish to study events in their proper context, understand their causes and consequences. For the rest of us, the main value of history lies in the lessons it provides for our own times.

Past and Present

"We don't know yet what our past is going to be" goes the old Eastern European jest, underscoring the fact that mastery of the past is often an instrument of current struggle. Stalin was a champion at the rewriting of history, but he was not alone in this nefarious trade. Indeed, we are now witnessing in Russia (though it is probably being prompted from abroad) a vast operation involving the doctoring of documents and the manipulation of memoirs for purposes that go well beyond commercial exploitation.

Let there be no mistake: We leftists are for open diplomacy. We are in favor of the declassification of secret documents both in general and in this particular case. Although the Soviet Union should never have been a model, we can learn from its bitter experiment with socialism--and the more we know the better. Nor should we be hostile to stern judgments on that experiment, provided they are made in a historical context (taking into account, say, foreign intervention and the White as well as the Red terror). Actually, it is only in such a historical framework that a judgment can make sense. This, incidentally, is also true of studies, fashionable in recent years, of the infatuation of Western, particularly French, intellectuals with the Soviet Union. A fascinating subject, if the authors had painted in the background: the Great Depression before the war, with millions of unemployed; the anticolonial struggle in Algeria, Vietnam and elsewhere after the war. Otherwise it is, at best, merely a more sophisticated form of propaganda.

In other words, we are for truth, but the whole truth; for the systematic publication of documents (and not just in Russia) under the supervision of serious historians. Otherwise, you never know whether the text was tailored to suit a purchaser who wants to prove that the Rosenbergs were guilty, that Alger Hiss was a spy. Actually, this whole campaign seems to be aiming beyond such individual targets and probably beyond the objectives of some of the participants. If we were to accept its basic premise, namely that Hitler was merely a disciple, that the real trouble started with Stalin, nay, with the Bolshevik Revolution, we would have to reappraise our whole conception of modern history.

Revisionism itself is being revised. Its cleverest practitioners have realized they could not wipe out the Holocaust; those dead millions will not vanish into thin air. But you can make light of its importance and shift the blame for it. The revisionist historians in Germany no longer deny that Martin Heidegger was a Nazi. Instead they argue that, faced with the choice of two evils--Communism and National Socialism--he wisely chose the lesser, i.e., Nazism. In France you can't yet go as far. Nevertheless, even there a brazen attempt was made last year--with a book, a television show, a press campaign and, naturally, a "Russian document," to describe the leader of the Resistance on French soil, Jean Moulin, as a Soviet agent. The whole fraudulent construction was rapidly destroyed by prominent resisters and principled historians. The purpose, however, was obvious: If even the hero Moulin was a spy, Soviet or Nazi, what does it matter, ma chère? Whom can we trust and whom should we blame? The next stage came in Italy, where the neo-Fascist Gianfranco Fini, the chief ally of the new Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, proclaims that Fascism is no longer a relevant problem and that Benito Mussolini "was the greatest statesman of the century."

History's image is growing faint not only because of the passage of time and because many of the actors are gone. It is being distorted because the political climate has changed and conscious efforts are being made to change it still further. In the circumstances, anything that refreshes the memory--books, films, trials or celebrations, and particularly anything that transmits the true image to the younger generation--is very precious. Earlier this year the French tried 79-year-old Paul Touvier, who during the war was chief of intelligence and operations of the Vichy militia in Lyons. What is important is not that this former executioner and still unrepentant Jew-hater was sentenced to life. What matters is that many people learned about the past from his trial and that a Frenchman was for the first time condemned for his participation in "crimes against humanity"; they also learned about the role of a section of the Catholic Church in hiding and protecting the culprit. Touvier, however, was a mere thug, a flunky with blood on his hands. If, as may be hoped, Maurice Papon, a more important figure, is finally brought to trial later in the year, the complicity of the French administration will be illustrated and the impact will be greater.

But aren't D-day celebrations the best opportunity of all to teach about the past, with the beaches as the stage, the television cameras focused and the entire world as an audience? And are we not lucky to have rulers able to rise to the occasion and proclaim in our name from Normandy our revulsion from Fascist tyranny and Nazi crimes? We would be luckier still if the same honorable men were not to embrace, next month in Naples, the newcomer Berlusconi, who whitewashes Fini, who thinks that Mussolini, etc. And they do all that because our masters believe that the new regime, with its businessman boss and its Thatcherite ministers, will keep Italy safe for capitalism. The French have a good expression for their empty talk: des paroles verbales, verbal words. If we say much more on the subject, we could be sued for insulting our heads of state.

But we owe it to the Americans, the Canadians and the British who risked and in many cases lost their lives to free us from the Nazis; we owe it to all the victims and to those who fought on other fronts, particularly in Eastern Europe; I owe it to the 23-year-old kid whose head was blasted by a German bullet in Tobruk and who, by a quirk, will remain my big brother forever, to say what was the true nature of their struggle. Undoubtedly, they fought to break the barbarian rule of Hitler and his thugs. They also fought so that this world war would be the last. Yet in doing so, each one in his fashion and with varying degrees of consciousness, they also battled for a different world. It is this struggle that we must carry on, or rather resume. This is our heritage on D-day as dark clouds are, once again, gathering over Europe.

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