Monday, April 17, 2006

D-Day and WWII Subjected to Ever-More Historical Revision

Two years ago, No Pasarán noted that the prevalent anti-Americanism in Europe was sifting into the 60-year commemorations of D-Day and World War II. Throughout the media, there was a systematic will to find negative information about the Americans or to minimize their contribution (the 60th anniversary of America's bloodiest battle on the European front, six months later, was basically ignored in France) while extolling the contribution of the French, all the while showing a systematic desire to find cases of suffering among the Germans …and the French themselves (in that perspective, you may find some of the letters to the editor of Le Monde during the commemorations, uh shall we say, edifying).

Which brings us to French television in the spring of 2006: John Rosenthal of the Transatlantic Intelligencer takes on what he calls the "creeping historical revisionism that is part and parcel of the wave of anti-Americanism that has swept across Europe over the last five years." Read his description of the France 3 documentary (sic), La Face cachée des libérateurs.

[After hearing the customary] swing music in the background, and [seeing the customary] stock footage of the liberation -- the joyous celebrations of GIs and French civilians intermingled -- … the upbeat swing giving way to an ominous, funereal march. "These images speak the truth," the voice-over allows, "but not the whole truth." In what follows, "The Dark Side of the Liberators" does its part to dampen the grateful "fervor long inscribed in the collective memory" -- or even to transform it into hate.

The narration talks of "atrocities committed": a formula that would usually imply that the acts in question were sanctioned by the military hierarchy and hence not a matter of simple crimes. A French historian interviewed for the film describes the American troops stationed in Cherbourg tenderly as "a veritable army of termites": "People are fed up. After a while, the French civilians can no longer accept that the Americans act like they're in a conquered land." German women are said to be subject to a "paroxysm of violence" even "exceeding that inflicted on the English and French."

The individual cases discussed are apparently true. They are, after all, based on US court martial records from the time -- a fact that reveals that these are not, after all, a matter of "atrocities" in the usual sense of the term, but rather of crimes that were immediately recognized and prosecuted as such by US military authorities.

I am sad to say, this is nothing new. When interacting with Frenchmen, you will often hear "No, no, of course we are grateful to the Americans of World War II." Then, depending on whether you seem ready for the "truth", they will innocuously add, more or less sotto voce, a but: "But of course, they did it [participated in World War II] for their own interests." Which is their privilege to say, of course (as free men and women liberated by the Allied armies).

Except for two things:

First, it takes a communal view of the matters, one that ignores the individual's thoughts, opinions, desires, dreams, plans, projects, contributions, sacrifices, and sufferings. Apparently, all Americans, as one, made a collective decisison to gain monetary interest in Europe and Asia, sacrificing 400,000 lives in the process. (Question: did the 400,000 dead agree with the decision to fight for Coca-Cola; did their widows, their orphans, their parents, their neighbors, their countrymen?) That makes the description sound ridiculous, right? The only option, then, is to suggest that the American powers that be (those treacherous political and financial of theirs' that we are so familiar with) fooled the American people into going to war for their unspoken interests. (And never mind that any individual of the slightest measure of common sense, whether a soldier getting ready to embark to put his life at risk or the (voting) family member of same, would weigh the pros and cons (and any hint of hidden interests) of so doing — remember, the individual doesn't count in this convenient scenario.)

Which, when you think about it, is exactly how the French think the Iraq war is being conducted. (If you want to know why Europe lags behind America in so many ways, it is because the collective viewpoint is so predominant there, whereas in America it is generally recognized that every individual is first and foremost exactly that: an individual. I have earlier written about how the First World War also illustrates this collective mindset.)

As John writes in the Legend of the Squandered Sympathy,

the very expression “the Americans” has long been used in [France] as a metonym to speak, for instance, of the American government or American corporations, thus suggesting, given the normally accusatory context, a sort of collective national guilt.
The second problem with this collective way of describing the Americans (and suggesting their collective national guilt — notice how, in the opening of her Libération article, Sophie Rostain seems to state unequivocally —and with a sneer of disdain — that all "the handsome GIs who landed in France in 1944 behaved like barbarians") is the double standards involved. Indeed, the French apply the metonym to noone else. Not to the Russians. Not to the Japanese. Not to the Germans (!!). Certainly not to themselves. In fact, often you will hear a Frenchman whine, "How come the Americans didn't join the war earlier, to help us?" Well, if the French were participating in the war for their own interest, why should anybody come to help them?! But of course, that's not the case. How could you even imagine that?! Because with everybody else but the Americans, war becomes nothing but a fathomless tragedy. So, actually, what I have said about the collectivist viewpoint being only applied to the Americans is not entirely true; the difference is that for the Yanks, the collective description is applied with a negative emphasis (treachery, greed, villainy, barbarity, hypocrisy, stupidity, naïveté) whereas for everybody else, it is used in positive terms, or with a heroic aura attached to it. (Think of the innumerable times when you have been reminded of how much the Soviet Union (or the Soviet people) sacrificed during, and for, the war — an opinion with which, again, there should be little controversy except for the fact that double standards are being applied.)

In fact, go back to John Rosenthal's article, and go to the three final paragraphs. What is interesting in the "story made of blood, sperm, and tears" is whom the documentary does not incriminate for World War II-era rapes and crimes (except as part of "an alibi-making flourish with which the film concludes"): The German Army. The Japanese Army. The Red Army. The French Army. (JC Durbant has many more details.)

With rapes and crimes in the wake of every army, asks John,

Why not, then, a film on the phenomenon in general? The narrator also mentions that "the German army" was guilty of "mass rapes" throughout Europe. Curiously, however, unlike for the three Allied nations, no specific numerical estimate or range is given -- as if the inclusion of the crimes of Nazi Germany was an afterthought or a matter of obligation. The very gesture of inserting the Nazi crimes -- and relatively inconspicuously to boot -- among the others, only serves to underscore the revisionist implications of the entire exercise. Were the liberators, then, no better than the conquerors? Maybe worse?
Finally, a question for those of you who think today's hostility to Uncle Sam is not anti-Americanism but only temporary opposition to Bush and the neocons: again, do you notice any familiarity with the war in Iraq?

Update: In response to someone who left a comment here, I would like to ask a question: would you tend to agree with the European intellectual (if that's the word) who said that America is
a decayed country. And they have their racial problem, and the problem of social inequalities … My feelings against Americanism are feelings of hatred and deep repugnance. … How can one expect a State like that to hold together — a country where everything is built on the dollar.
I wonder whether you would tend to agree with the European leader who evoked America’s “historically unique and shameless ill treatment of truth and of right”, adding that America's “so-called” president was “guilty of a series of the worst crimes against international law” and pointing out that
first, he incites war, then falsifies the causes, then odiously wraps himself in a cloak of Christian hypocrisy, and slowly but surely leads mankind to war, not without calling God to witness the honesty of his attack …

A threatening opposition was gathering over the head of this man. He guessed that the only salvation or him lay in diverting public attention from home to foreign policy … Thus began the increasing efforts of the American President to create conflict … For years this man harboured one desire — that a conflict should break out somewhere in the world.
Hmmm… Makes one wonder who uttered those immortal words

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