The Politics and the Pity

The Politics and the Pity

“We are all German Jews” chanted 50,000 Frenchmen at the gates of the Bastille in 1968; I was recently reminded of this episode, which has become revolutionary lore, when Holocaust was sho


This article originally appeared in the May 12, 1979, issue.

“We are all German Jews” chanted 50,000 Frenchmen at the gates of the Bastille in 1968; I was recently reminded of this episode, which has become revolutionary lore, when Holocaust was shown here. Seven out of ten French viewers followed the saga of the Weiss family on their television screens, even though here as everywhere, progressive critics tore the show to pieces. But the questionable mixture of commercial TV serial and inhuman atrocity, of family life and horror, gripped millions, provoking polemics in French newspapers, magazines and private homes. The exceedingly passionate nature of the stir was predictable and that is why the French Government, jealous master of its telly, was very reluctant to broadcast Holocaust and did so only under strong pressure.

And why was the French Government so worried by a serial describing only German atrocities? Because it does not want the country to awaken from the collective amnesia affecting a dark period of its recent past, the five years of Vichy and collaboration. Or to be more accurate, it wants to preserve the legend that France, with a few exceptions, was on the side of the angels. This myth was constructed immediately after the war on the basis of a simple syllogism: de Gaulle was a resister; de Gaulle is France; hence, France was a nation of resistance. And everybody, for different reasons, played a part in this mystification.

The Gaullists did so not only because it enhanced the stature of their legendary hero. As resisters they were, in a sense, both traitors to and saviors of their class. The bulk of the French bourgeoisie had backed Vichy wholeheartedly. Some businessmen collaborated actively with the Germans in keeping with the slogan of the 1930s: “Plutôt Hitler que le front populaire” (Rather Hitler than the popular front). Others merely welcomed Marshal Pétain as the current symbol of law and order. Naturally, there were many exceptions and these temporary outcasts rallied around de Gaulle. After the war, and facing strong pressures from the underground for a radical overhaul, the Gaullists were only too glad to purge individuals while preserving the system.

The left acquiesced for more pedestrian reasons, because it had its own black sheep and its own skeletons in the cupboard. The Socialists preferred to forget that many of their deputies had voted the full powers for Pétain. The Communists did not wish to remember that they became the main force within the Resistance movement only after 1941, i.e., after the German invasion of Russia. Some people argue that this myth-making was an inevitable contribution to national unity. National unity, however, is often achieved at the expense of political consciousness. The left, having then forgotten its motto about truth being always revolutionary, has been paying the price for its complicity ever since.

Conservative France required the myth and the mystification to reforge its unity just as it needs them now to preserve it. When General de Gaulle was brought back to power by the Algerian colonels in 1958, most former supporters of Vichy climbed on his bandwagon. I remember a French friend protesting indignantly at the time that his in-laws, who had a portrait of Pétain over their mantelpiece during the war, put a picture of General de Gaulle in its place; in his indignation, my friend overlooked their consistency. Ten years later, in May 1968, as society was threatened by the students’ rebellion and the workers’ strike, conservative France rallied, once again, around the General. In their big procession up the Champs-Elysées, former Resistance leaders marched in front, while neo-Nazis in the back chanted: “Cohn-Bendit to Dachau.” (For those who may have forgotten: Daniel Cohn-Bendit was a colorful student leader, Jewish and German by accident, whose expulsion from France prompted thousands of young Frenchmen to proclaim themselves German Jews.) I am not suggesting that none of the pro-Gaullist marchers was shocked by the ghastly slogan, yet, when it was reported in the press, none of them uttered publicly a word of protest. In the hour of danger, the right could not afford the luxury of morality at the risk of dissension, and today, still under pressure, it tries to complete its reconciliation. Giscard d’Estaing is the open champion of such reconciliation even if, for the time being, he cannot crown it spectacularly by burying Pétain at Verdun, the site of his World War I exploits. The country is still too deeply divided and the memories too fresh for that.

Everything is being done, meanwhile, to let bygones be bygones. For a projected BBC program on how World War II is being taught in the schools of various countries, I had to look over several French textbooks the other day. In five out of six, you get quite a good account of the twists and turnings of that conflict, but only the haziest picture of Vichy France, with its misguided old man (Pétain), its villain (Laval), its hero (de Gaulle) and its united nation which, after some early misgivings, rallied massively around the hero of the Resistance. No wonder that The Sorrow and the Pity, the Marcel Ophuls film reviving through documents and interviews the real atmosphere of that period, produced such a shock when it was shown in a Paris cinema; children stunned by their discovery began asking their parents questions about the past and their past. No wonder either that this brilliant documentary, produced for TV back in 1970, has not been shown on French television. The television in France is state-owned and is very much its master’s voice. The Government had no wish to show to a mass audience such an iconoclastic performance.

With Holocaust the authorities were rather lucky. The TV program in which it was shown, Les Dossiers de l’écran, usually combines a film with a live debate. At the time, however, a television strike was on and nothing could be filmed live. The debate was thus limited to the last episode and it was properly stage-managed. Though twenty persons were invited to take part, the limelight was clearly focused on Simone Veil, the Minister of Health. Madame Veil is undoubtedly the most popular member of the ruling coalition and had just been chosen by Giscard d’Estaing to head the list bearing his colors in the forthcoming elections. She is elegant, has charm and personality. She also has tragically valid credentials to participate in the discussion. In 1944, at the age of 16, she was deported with her whole family and lost her parents and a brother in the death camps. As expected, she dominated the debate with dignity. understanding and tact. Everything thus worked well until almost the last moment when a youth, invited to represent the rising generation, asked her point-blank: Why does your Government tolerate that a man who had aided and abetted the Nazis should be the major press lord in France? Mme. Veil then lost her temper and her poise and accused the youngster of asking irrelevant questions, and the young in general of “confusing issues.”

A word of explanation is needed here. The man at issue is Robert Hersant. During the war, he was a leader of a small but rabidly pro-Nazi group. He vituperated against the Jews at a time when words were deadly weapons and, after the war, was sentenced to “national indignity.” But a great deal of water has flowed under the bridges of Paris since then: Today, Hersant (Le Canard Enchaîné, the satirical weekly, always spells his name Herr Sant, so as not to forget his political origins) has a controlling interest in three major national dailies: the popular France-Soir the once respectable Le Figaro and the middle-class I’Aurore. He also owns a host of provincial papers and knows on which side his bread is buttered. He was a friend of Jacques Chirac. He and his papers are now wholeheartedly for Giscard d’Estaing. Mme. Veil found it awkward to condemn publicly such a powerful ally.

Whatever she may say, past and present are deeply intertwined. Indeed, Holocaust would probably not have been shown in France but for the uproar provoked by a scandal at the close of last year. The Paris weekly L’Express chose then, presumably for commercial reasons, to splash an interview with a certain Darquier de Pellepoix. That honorable gentleman was Vichy’s Commissioner for Jewish Affairs. Sheltered all this time in Franco’s Spain, he had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Whereas in France today, except in the gutter fascist press, racists must take precautions, proceed by allusions and innuendoes, the unrepentant criminal spoke with the xenophobic venom of the good old days of collaboration. Too much was too much. M. Hersant’s papers joined in the chorus of indignation over his indecency. If they thought that stirring up old memories would create trouble, they were right. Former resisters, victims of concentration camps and plain liberals raised their voices asking for truth, the full horrible truth.

In the pandemonium it was discovered that other men who had presided over the deportation of Jews from France were still at large. It turned out that a M. Jean Leguay, head of police in occupied France, was living in Paris on a pension as a retired civil servant and apparently adding to his income by working for American companies. In the private proceedings started since then by the families of some Jewish victims, it is being alleged that M. Leguay not only negotiated the deportation of Jews with the Nazis but also showed zeal in his collaboration. Where the Germans asked for the adults, the French offered them the children as an additional gift, at a time when death was the only possible destination. It was also discovered that his former superior in the Vichy hierarchy, a M. René Bousquet, was now the honorable adviser to an important merchant bank (was because after the outcry he had to resign under threat from the labor unions) and had been on the board of the internal French airlines, a state company headed by Antoine Veil, the husband of the lady Minister, Indeed, gossip has it that he occasionally attended the smart dinner parties given by the Veils. Here one’s mind boggles: what sort of striped ghosts hovered over their banquets?

History has these cruel ironies as well as lessons that are seldom learned. At the anti-racist meetings I have attended here since the airing of Holocaust, the young were most firmly opposed to commemoration for its own sake. They want memory to be used as a weapon. In their passion, they may occasionally forget the specificity of the genocide of the Jews. Yet, fundamentally, they are right in their emphasis on the universality and the permanence of the disease. Anti-Jewish scribblings on the walls, occasional attacks against a synagogue, the fact that the dean of a faculty of medicine in Paris has just dared to proclaim himself a racist and a Nazi (even though he had to resign immediately)–all these are disquieting signs. But anti-Semitism is not, or not yet, the main symptom in France. The same newspapers, the same interests, the same people, or their successors, have for the moment picked foreign workers as their main target. A burglary, a rape, a mugging is for them a good occasion to conjure up the shadowy figure of a “dark-skinned foreigner.” They put the blame for unemployment, for the overcrowding in schools and hospitals, on the “foreign invasion.” They stir up hatred, appealing to man’s most irrational fears and his basest instincts. Racism is a many-headed hydra.

As the crisis deepens in Europe and unemployment rises, we must be lucid and vigilant if we don’t want the middle classes first, and then entire nations, to run amok once again. Whatever her ladyship may preach from her ministerial pulpit, the young are right in “confusing issues.” It can happen here, it can happen anywhere and it is not just a question of German Jews. Come to think of it, when the thousands of young Frenchmen proclaimed their German Jewishness I stood in the crowd next to Aimé Césaire, the great poet from Martinique, who, made this caustic comment: “I am willing to shout, but nobody will believe me.” Aimé Césaire is black.

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