WW II History and national character

My friend Amitai Etzioni has some very flattering things to say about me in his weblog. That gives me a vested interest in having everyone believe what is in fact the case: that Amitai is a person of (almost) impeccable judgment, and that his opinions are therefore to be taken seriously.

Moreover, since the praise of the praiseworthy is above price, it seems ungrateful of me to continue to criticize him for his account of the conduct of France and its people in the period around 1940, and for the significance he wants that account to carry about the moral status of Frenchpeople today.

Still, duty is duty, and I would be deficient in respect for Amitai if I let his rash words pass, as if he were some mere Krauthammer.

In his new post, Amitai:

1. Acknowledges my original point: that, while the United States remained neutral, France fought the Nazis. But he adds “for five minutes or so.”

2. Reminds me of the collaborationist Vichy government, which “they” [the French] “set up in Southern France.” (My original post mentioned that government, though not by name.)

3. Asserts that French resistance to Nazi occupation was “largely fictional.”

4. Points out that Charles de Gaulle and the Free French were mostly a headache to the British and the Americans.

The fourth point is indisputable, and if Amitai had merely pointed out that Gaullist foreign policy (Chirac being, of course, the current head of the Gaullist party) has always consisted mostly of temper tantrums, extortion, rent-seeking, and free-riding, he’d get no argument from me. I have no brief to carry for the French government.

But the other three points I find really hard to take: at the level of simple historical fact, in terms of a decent respect for those who died defending their country, and as utterly irrelevant to the use Amitai wants to make of them: to denigrate today’s Frenchpeople as somehow hereditarily disgraced by the political behavior of their countrymen sixty years ago.

First, the facts. France declared war on Germany, without having been attacked or threatened with attack, in September 1939, and surrendered in June 1940. That’s a long five minutes. In that five-minute period, France took 300,000 military casualties, including 120,000 killed. (No, I didn’t know that, either; I just googled “French casualties 1940” and found this.) The notion that the French army just ran away from the Germans is simply false, and it seems to me shameful to slander the dead in that way.

As to the Resistance, if by “largely fictional” Amitai means simply that lots of people falsely claimed membership in the Resistance after the war, of course that’s right. Only a small number risked the Nazi torture chambers to continue to fight for a defeated country. But neither the torturers nor their victims were “fictional,” and again it seems to me wrong to deny those who risked much worse than death the honor that is their due.

And as to Vichy, of course the existence of that government was a disgrace to those who served in it or worked with it. But to discuss it as if “the French” had established it is rather a far fetch, unless you want to say that “the Poles” established the Gomulka regime or “the Germans” established the DDR. For that matter, “Vidkun Quisling” isn’t a German name, either. (And if you think the Anglosphere would have acted differently, then please name the leader of the Guernsey resistance movement; the Channel Islands were peacefully occupied by the Germans during WWII.) Alas, wherever there is conquest there will be collaborators.

But my point was not really about the history of the Second World War. My point was the appalling tendency among the triumphalist wing of the warhawks to translate intergovernmental disputes into ethnic terms: to abuse the people and culture of France rather than criticizing the current French administration.

What I really want to know, then, is not where Amitai got his unfacts about the era around 1940, but why he, like so many people less smart and less wise than he is, so badly wants to believe them.

Having had the good fortune to be born an American rather than a Frenchman (Camembert or Corneille: I can’t decide which is more disgusting), my concern is not with the French national character but with our own. And the current bout of Froggy-baiting says something about that character that doesn’t make me especially proud.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com