On the strong recommendation of David Foster, the Daughter-Unit and I began to watch: A French Village, that seven-season long miniseries which follows five years of German occupation and a bit of the aftermath as it affects the lives of a handful of characters in a small town in eastern France close to the Swiss border – from the day that the German invaders arrive, to the aftermath of the occupation, in a fractured peace, when all was said and done. (It’s available through Amazon Prime.) A good few of the occupants of that village did not really welcome liberation and had damn good reasons – guilty consciences, mostly, for having collaborated with the Germans with varying degrees of enthusiasm. (A benefit is that this series stars actors of whom we have never heard, in French with English subtitles. Given how the establishment American entertainment media has gone all noisily woke, anti-Trump and abusive towards us conservative residents of Flyoverlandia, this is a darned good thing. Seriously, for years and years I used to only personally boycott Jane Fonda and Cat Stevens, now my list of ‘oh, hell NEVER! actors and personalities is well into the scores.)
By the outbreak of the Second World War, France and Germany had been in a love-hate relationship for a good few decades, if not at least a century. France had the style, the dash, the verve, the command of fashion and culture for decades, while Germany had a lock on scientific and medical talent, military efficiency, and a not inconsiderable sideline in mad musical skilz. In that last, and in elevated artistic and philosophical discourse they were about neck and neck. France and Germany also seem – from the point of view of an American looking backwards at that period – to also have been neck and neck when it comes to virulent anti-Antisemitism. France also contained a notable number of Communists, who were die-hard opponents of Nazism throughout the 1930s, then cynically allied with them through the medium of the Nazi-Soviet Pact … and then the Commies did another U-turn upon the Nazi invasion of Mother Russia, from whence the major support for international Communism had originated, by design and intent. (This series of disconcerting U-turns disillusioned a good few international anti-Fascist sympathizers of a more independent intellectual bent, although American Commie-symps like Lillian Hellman, Howard Zinn and Pete Seeger obediently followed where the Soviet Master Party led, throughout every violent U-turn. No doubt they each came up with a comforting reason for this ‘ally today, enemy tomorrow’ route through the political landscape.)
This whole German occupation of France turned out to be a bit more complicated than contemporary movies, and movies made shortly afterwards had it, although at this late date, anyone or any institution with a reputation to lose over how they conducted themselves during the Occupation has already done damage control or died of old age. There is a bitter joke to the effect that the French Resistance had more members enrolled post-war than during it. Understandable; once the emergency is past, every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or a Resistant. A French citizen who was a Resistant from the moment of occupation by Nazi Germany was a rare creature indeed; likely a social misanthrope with no family or employment to be endangered, a die-hard political hard-liner, or bearing anti-German resentments left over from twenty years previously, when French and German armies had slaughtered each other in job-lots of millions in the trenches of the Western Front. Later, when the hardships imposed by the German Occupation began to bite, apprehensions over just what was happening to the Jews transported east, and it began to look as if the Nazis just might possibly lose – this did wonders for recruiting to various Resistant groups.
How the Occupation affected ordinary people is vividly reflected in A French Village. Most characters are just trying to get by, living an ordinary, unspectacular life; earning a living, running a profitable business, maintaining a professional career arc, taking care of their families, friends, patients and students, having a little fun, and making do. This tracks with what I have read in various histories and memoirs and from what I understand of basic human nature. Damn few of us wake up in the morning and decide to be Joan of Arc, going down (or up) in flames. We have things to do, our ordinary uncinematic life to live … even when the choice presents itself to us, naked and unashamed.
Although in certain situations, many of us do choose the right thing on the spot: to reach out and succor, provide a lifeline of rescue from an inhumanly brutal situation. There was an account and listing of the various Righteous Gentiles who took a part in rescuing Jews from the Nazis across Occupied Europe; a good number acted on an initial decent impulse, upon appeal from friends, neighbors, and sometimes total strangers. Those people took it upon themselves – and they were ordinary, human, perhaps otherwise self-centered people – a risk; of death by work camp, firing squad, or whatever painful fate the local Nazi occupying authority had decreed. This is where, I think, most of the later Resistants came from: something personal tripped their trigger and from that moment on, they were all-in.
There is one more element, and this insight I came to as a result of reading a couple of memoirs and histories. One of them was an account of the life of Anne Frank; after the arrest and internment of her family and friends. Long afterwards a good number of the near neighbors to the House Behind said that basically, yeah, they knew there was something going on; likely Jews hiding in the outbuildings to Otto Frank’s business. They suspected that something was going on but chose to turn a blind eye. Another was an account of a doctor and his wife running a safe house catering to escaping soldiers and shot-down aircrew in the south of France – this in an apartment block which was a base for the doctor’s practice and residence. They took every precaution, laying every imaginable precaution on their guests; walking in stocking feet, no flushing of the toilet, speaking above a whisper during business hours – but still, I am pretty certain that in spite of all that, the neighbors knew very well that something was going on – all those suspiciously fit young men without any knowledge of the French language appearing at all hours, even if briefly?
The final evidence for a conviction that a large element of Resistance success depended on ordinary citizens keeping quiet about local and specific observances came from a talk with a survivor of the B-17 crew, of which my uncle James Menaul had been a member. Uncle Jimmy’s B-17 was shot down over France, upon return from the massive and disastrous attack on the Schweinfurt ball-bearing factories. My uncle and several of his crew were fatalities in that raid, but six of his comrades survived. One was captured and spent the rest of the war as a POW, but the other five had the good fortune to be collected by French Resistants and smuggled to Switzerland.
That survivor related to me an episode of being on a crowded French train, escorted by an older lady who had papers from the Red Cross attesting to her good citizenship and permission to travel freely, and a teenage boy who was below the age where he could be pressed into forced labor. He and his comrade, another evading aircrew member, were fitted out with French clothing and suitable false papers – but he said that he wasn’t assured that the clothing and papers convinced anyone in the least, save the Germans. (1943, France: young and obviously fit men, with good teeth, innocent of subtle cultural markers? Yeah, they would have stood out, as if marked with fluorescent paint…When I passed through Greece and to Spain in 1985, I could always pick out other Americans in a crowd. Imagine how it would have been forty years and plus earlier.) At some point in the train journey, according to my contact, German authorities entered the passenger car, and began working their way through it, checking everyone’s papers and tickets. At that moment, and almost simultaneously without any apparent advance coordination, every single one of the other passengers in that railway car began doing random, spontaneous stuff… talking loudly, dropping things, getting up out of their seats – doing everything possible to distract attention away from the pair of American airmen. A small thing – but vital. Did it contribute to their eventual escape to Switzerland? No notion, and it’s not a matter that can be tested. But there you have it. My interviewee believed it did, and that it was spontaneous, among a random group of railway travelers in a French train in late 1943.
Sometimes, resistance takes the form of committed actions. And sometimes – that milder form of turning away and deliberately not seeing what you have seen and noted, and keeping your mouth shut about it.