Against Forgetting: Resistance Past and Present

By Robert ZaretskyNovember 25, 2016

Against Forgetting: Resistance Past and Present
VIVE LA RESISTANCE. Or so it seemed two weeks ago in France, when newspapers carried enthusiastic accounts of a great wave of popular resistance. Sighting demonstrations across the country against a newly victorious government, the aptly named Libération announced that “The Resistance Has Begun.” Under the headline “The Resistance Takes Shape,” Le Monde reported that, regardless of the motivations of the participants, “resistance is the word on everyone’s lips.” And the columnist Alexandra Schwartzbrod lyricized: “It isn’t accidental that the beautiful word ‘resistance’ is now making the rounds. The desire to resist exists — and a good thing too.”

Forget the barricades and berets, though. In this case, the resisters being praised were not French and the year was not 1830 or 1848, much less the years between 1940 and 1944. Instead, the French accounts were focused on Americans who, in the tens of thousands, have taken to the streets in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.

Of course, France does not have a patent on resistance and one need not be French to invoke the word. For those who study and teach modern European history, the Old World’s recent past holds telling parallels, and perhaps even lessons for current events in our part of the New World.

When it comes to the case of the French Resistance, the obvious difference between then and now is that France was occupied by a foreign power, while the only foreign occupation that threatens us seem to be bad hombres from Mexico and Trump brand ties from China. But the French experience, in important respects, also makes the darkness here more visible. Consider the sudden and seismic changes of the political landscape. In the span of two months, the French Third Republic, folding under the weight of a German invasion, collapsed in ruins. Rising in the rubble of democratic principles and republican laws — all of which issued, however imperfectly, from the revolutionary and universal values of 1789 — was the authoritarian and xenophobic state known as Vichy. The result of a frantic vote by French parliamentarians to give “full powers” to the elderly Philippe Pétain, the republic signed itself out of existence. Nearly overnight, the French confronted a world turned upside down, one where liberal democracy was relegated to the dustbin of history and a people was no longer defined by commonly held values, but instead by the fiction of race.

1940 came immediately to mind, the historian Robert Gildea replied when I asked for his reaction to Trump’s victory. A prominent and prolific professor of modern history at Oxford — and author, most recently, of Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance — Gildea told me that as with Brexit, so too with Trump: “I said to some students, ‘I now begin to understand how the French must have felt after their defeat in 1940.’” There was, he explained, the same sensations of “numbing, disbelief, and anger” that had settled on the French nation during that fatal summer. In an exchange of emails, the dean of Vichy specialists, Robert Paxton, echoed this sentiment: “I have to confess that at moments I think the election of Trump is a bit like having an enemy army occupy our country, with echoes of France in 1940.”

With the exception of the Socialist and, somewhat later, Communist Parties, the French political class embraced the new order. What made this order new — and yet so old — was its active collaboration with the German occupiers and stripping French Jews of their citizenship and placing their names in a national registry that eventually served as the means for shipping more than 70,000 French and foreign Jews to Auschwitz. Months before the election, the American filmmaker and historian Ken Burns already had his eyes bracketed on the French past. “I implore,” he declared in his commencement address at Stanford last summer, “those ‘Vichy Republicans’ who have endorsed [Trump] to please, please reconsider. We must remain committed to the kindness and community that are the hallmarks of civilization and reject the troubling, unfiltered Tourette’s of his tribalism.”

Beyond the unprecedented nature of events in 1940 and 2016, Paxton insisted that parallels between Pétain’s France and Trump’s America are a “bit forced.” He is right to be cautious: pushed beyond a certain point, comparisons inevitably create more confusion than clarity. But it remains intriguing, perhaps even illuminating, to compare Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart CEO and newly named chief strategist for the Trump Administration, and Charles Maurras, the ideological éminence grise of French reactionaries who welcomed Vichy as a “divine surprise.” Bannon has helped shape, as did Maurras during France’s interwar period, America’s racist and anti-Semitic extreme right-wing elements; and Bannon’s use of Breitbart to broadcast conspiratorial fantasies and anti-Semitic tropes reiterates Maurras’s use of his deeply influential newspaper Action Française. While Maurras never held an office in the West Wing of Pétain’s official residence in Vichy, he didn’t have to: his seminal role as a journalist and writer had done its work long before 1940.

And yet, in another parallel that is either heartening or harrowing, the ministries and institutions of Vichy were not filled with true believers. As Burn’s label of Vichy Republicans suggests, many Frenchmen in 1940 considered the regime a divine surprise because it offered them power and prominence that they had lost or never had under the Republic. A legion of also-rans and dead-enders, spongers and sycophants — opportunists one and all — scrambled for positions in Vichy, all the while paying lip-service to the regime’s ideological claims. While authentic anti-Semites had rallied to Vichy, others considered the regime’s anti-Semitic legislation as a little more than a sideshow — or, eventually, the price of doing business with the Germans. It is less important that all of this anticipated the motley collection of ambitious careerists and political has-beens now flocking to Trump Tower than that it serves as a reminder that self-interest almost always, for better and worse, trumps ideological conviction.

Resisters were the great exception to this rule. Of course, the men and women who opposed Vichy did not enjoy the same freedoms that Americans continue to have. On November 11, 1940, when students in Paris took to the streets to protest the German Occupation and French collaboration, they were dispersed by machine gun fire, and ran the risk of imprisonment or deportation. The American students who have held vigils on their campuses run the risk of spurring the President-elect’s ire, but little more. Yet in both cases, Gildea observed, the resisters spurned the ostensibly progressive political parties that, in their eyes, carried much of the blame for their predicament. For this reason, Gildea suggests that here, as in France, resistance “may be strongest among civil rights movements … or ‘spiritual resistance’ among some religious groups.” Just as there was a disproportionate number of French and foreign Jews in the various resistance movements, Gildea added, the most likely constituencies to resist in the US will be the religious and ethnic minorities most threatened. Just as underground networks in France saved the lives of thousands of Jews, so too might clandestine organizations in America “spring up to hide immigrants who are expelled.”

Such a prospect seems distant — at least, Gildea sighed, “for the moment.” Yet even Paxton, who reminded me that “there is another election out there in two years (or at least there still was the last time I looked),” added that “resistance there will be, and it may well prove dangerous and even fatal for some.” For now, though, the question that confronts American resisters is the same as the one that faced the French: What to do? As the Vichy specialist Simon Kitson notes, there was no standard model to adopt. “Exceptional circumstances require exceptional responses and most Resisters looked no further than their imagination for inspiration.” While some began to organize, others free-lanced. The literature professor Jean Guéhenno, for example, ended his classes on Voltaire, Rousseau, or Diderot by declaring “Et la liberté!” A simple gesture, but one that could have easily deprived him of his own liberty, if not his life.

In Nazi Germany, such gestures were even more fateful. More than 80 years after the event, the reasons for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 continue to be debated, leaving us with an image, according to Geoff Eley, of “inconclusive and ambiguous complexity.” Leading historians like Richard Evans insist upon the futility of resistance, underscoring the relentless and terrifying forms of coercion — even before the passage of the pivotal Enabling Act of March 1933 — that cemented the foundations of Nazi power. Other historians, most notably Robert Gellately, instead affirm the refusal to resist, arguing that widespread public consent, and not coercion, largely explains the rapid spread of Nazi authority.

Both schools of interpretation, nevertheless, offer unsettling parallels to our own historical era. Evans emphasizes, for example, the extent to which civil liberties had been destroyed in the early phases of the Nazi taking of power, ranging from the elimination of a free press and free expression to the state-orchestrated attacks on various minorities. While the Trump administration has yet to take office, many critics have already pointed to the president-elect’s penchant for authoritarian solutions and his propensity to see law as an obstacle and not a necessity. There is, as well, his knack for casting minorities as scapegoats and critics into conspirators. While there are no plans for concentration camps, erected by the Nazis in 1933, Trump advisors have already cited the precedent of the American internment of Japanese Americans in 1941 as a model for dealing with illegal immigrants.

The consent school offers equally disturbing parallels. A partial explanation of Trump’s success can be found in the work of the German scholar Hans-Ulrich Wehler, who emphasized the charismatic appeal of Hitler to the masses, has pointed to the “bread and circus” aspect to his regime. In a similar vein, the historian and biographer Ian Kershaw notes, Nazi propaganda succeeded not because it was imposed on the Germans, but because it “tapped into already existing beliefs” — an observation that explains, in part, why the Trump campaign found a ready-made and rabidly-enthusiastic following. But, in the end, even proponents of this interpretation agree that it was the presence of a vast apparatus of repression and violence that made open opposition difficult even in the first months. As Carl Caldwell, an historian at Rice University who specializes in 20th-century Germany, reminded me, “It was heroic simply not to vote for the emergency legislation on March 23, as the Socialist Otto Wels did.” (In his speech, Wels turned to the stunned Nazi Party members in the Reichstag and declared: “Freedom and life can be taken from us, but not our honor.” The “principles of a state based on the rule of law, of equal rights, of social justice,” he concluded, are indestructible — a conclusion that subsequent events both atomized and affirmed.)

For Caldwell, the limited means of resistance to the Nazis after 1933 — mostly expressed either through the so-called “internal emigration” of certain writers and thinkers, who turned away from society and toward their work, or the external immigration of other figures like Thoman Mann — is less relevant than the methods of resistance before the taking of power. One example, especially popular among artists, was to cast Hitler as a clown. While Bertolt Brecht’s satiric takedown of Hitler, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, was produced in 1941, long after he had fled Germany, he had written several works during the Weimar period that mocked Hitler and the Nazis. The effectiveness of these works, however, in resisting the rise of Hitler was no greater than, say, Saturday Night Live parodies were in denying the presidency to Trump. Then as now, while satire is often cathartic, it rarely is programmatic.

No less problematic, Caldwell noted, were the ideological differences between the Socialists and Communists that crippled effective resistance to the Nazis during the Weimar period. This was no less the case for post-World War I Italy. As in Germany, the interwar political parties played a version of identity politics — in this case, identities founded on social or professional class — that proved as disastrous as racial and gender politics have been in our own age. The failure of the largely middle-class Italian Socialist Party and the working class Communist Party to form a common front against the burgeoning Fascist movement, was a decisive factor in Benito Mussolini’s rise.

No less decisive, according to Alessandro Carrera, a prominent Italian scholar at the University of Houston, was the Left’s absolute conviction that socialism would inevitably triumph. This unshakeable faith that a rational and progressive politics would inevitably carry the day hobbled an effective response to fascism — not unlike the Democrats in 2016, who were blinded by their belief that reason, not unreason, would ultimately triumph. Equally telling is the way in which Mussolini and Trump, whose private lives issue straight from Bocaccio’s Decameron, nevertheless presented themselves as protectors of the faith. It did not matter, Carrera noted, that Mussolini was not a Catholic. “In fact, that was a plus. Because he was immune from Catholic weakness, he gave more assurance that he could tear apart the enemy of Catholicism.” The same, he suggested, could be said about the massive evangelical support for Trump, a group that feels no less threatened by the great changes wracking our age than Roman Catholics did in post-World War I Italy.

Even more so than Trump, Mussolini was a genius at stage-managing his ascent to power. For example, the notorious March on Rome in 1922 — when several thousand Fascist Blackshirts bluffed their way to victory, joined the next day by their fearless leader who had traveled to Rome in a first class train car — was less a paramilitary putsch than opera buffa. As for the early resistance to Mussolini, it was marked by great audacity and even greater futility. A case in point was the Partito d’Azione, a movement largely manned by urban intellectuals for whom the workers and peasants might just as easily been denizens of Pluto — or of rural Pennsylvania. The best-known member of Partito d’Azione was Carlo Levi, a doctor and writer who was arrested in 1935. Exiled to southern Italy, a desolate region ignored in turn by monarchic, democratic and fascist governments, he wrote Christ Stopped at Eboli to recount his experience. But Levi was an exception. As Carrera explains, resisters were too sophisticated for most Italians; more tellingly, like Hillary Clinton and her team, “they did not have a mythical narrative to tell.”

But these varied national and individual experiences, in turn, do have a narrative to tell. Most important, as the French writer Jacques Tarnero insists, resistance is nothing more that “la résistance contre l’oubli” — the struggle against forgetting. The early French resisters, through the publication of clandestine newspapers and pasting of posters, resisted the natural desire to accommodate oneself to the new status quo and forget what one once stood for. And while the word can mean many things, its root meaning — the Latin resistere, from stare — remains constant in these national narratives: to stand firm and remain standing. Robert Gildea clearly agreed. Paraphrasing the last chapter of his book on the French Resistance, he suggested that we are now engaged in a “Battle for the Soul of America.” Just as French resisters fought on behalf of a universal and inclusive understanding of France, so too are lines here being drawn between “a multicultural America and a monocultural America.”


Rob Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor. His most recent book is Boswell’s Enlightenment, and his A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning was published by Harvard in November 2013, and recently reissued in paperback. He also teaches at the Honors College at the University of Houston.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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