Friday, 9 May 2008

(Don't) mention the war?

Yesterday was yet another public holiday (May is a bumper month), this time commemorating the end of the Second World War in Europe in 1945.

One of the things that has really struck me over the last year is the way in which the legacy of the second world war years is still, in the twenty-first century, astonishingly present here. I would guess that we've watched on TV almost a dozen documentaries on the war years - not the gung-ho bang-bang things that I grew up with, but thoughtful, critical, investigative pieces that pull no punches and glorify nothing.

I grew up in England in the 1960s on a diet of war; my father spent the war in the RAF, my mother lived and worked in the East End of London and faced almost continuous fear in the form of daily bombings, along with the loss of many of her friends. She, and I think he as well, always looked secretly on those years as the 'happiest' in their lives; my mother was never more vibrant than when she was describing the moments when a V2 rocket engine had cut out and everybody held their collective breath, or the atmosphere in the communal shelters (sadly she spent much of her later life in depression, never able perhaps to recreate those same feelings of aliveness). My father told endless war stories and we watched black and white war films every Sunday afternoon. The war, in our house, was portrayed as something rather glorious.

The French legacy is different. Occupation, collaboration and the Vichy government, resistance and finally liberation have had a profound effect on France's national psyche which continues to this day. Much - the shadow of Pétainism, anti-Semitism and the horrors of collaboration, including the exportation and subsequent execution of some 76,000 French Jews - was simply too painful to talk about for decades; I studied French and French culture in the 1970s and it was barely addressed. Instead, France developed a powerful mythology of an occupied country typified almost entirely by resistance.

More recently, though, France has begun to come to terms with its wartime shadow-self and there has been a much more greater commitment to openness, with, for example, a new round of war trials in the 1990s, endless reflection on and debate about Mittérand's role in collaboration and Chirac's public apology in 1995 to the Jewish people for crimes committed by the Vichy régime. Collaboration is no longer swept under the carpet but acknowledged more freely, as in Sarkozy's speech at the official ceremony and wreath-laying yesterday - even if it is usually a bit well-of-course-we've-moved-on-from-that-and-I-don't-know-what-possessed-us. (Yes, that was the same Sarkozy who recently caused more than a bit of a stir with the suggestion - now dropped - that all French final year primary school children should be twinned with a Jewish child that had died in the Holocaust, and should learn 'their name and their existence' to keep their memory alive).

The role of the Résistance is still powerfully present in almost an every day fashion, especially here in Ariège which was one of the strongholds, with many Résistance groups involved in (amongst other things) leading people over the Pyrénées into Spain. Being an isolated farmhouse, it's very likely that Grillou played its part in the network; our village of Rimont has a particularly shocking tale to tell (too long to add here, but I'll post the story shortly) and many of the inhabitants come from Résistance families. Interestingly, Ariège attracts more than an average share of modern day resisters - the néo-rurales, as they (we) are called here: those who come to live a different life. Some are soixante-huitards (those involved in the social and political changes of 1968); others, like us, are downshifters; still others are young counter-cultural eco-warriors.

It's all a long way from The Dambusters.

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