Americans, as NRO’s Cliff May told a skeptical BBC World Service presenter last week, are persistently forward-looking. Shrinks and analysts could give you reasons, but my hunch is that we look forward as a nation because we’re driving the big global bus, and if we don’t keep our eye on where we’re going, we all take the big plunge.
#ad#Europeans, on the other hand, are passengers–and lousy ones. Think of a coachload of belligerent drunks, and you get the idea. Not only are they clueless about what lies ahead, but their preoccupations are entirely about what they think they’ve just seen. They forget that there are good reasons why they’re not driving: most of which are scattered all over the road behind them.
Today, the president of the United States arrived in Rome, where, as the BBC reports, some 10,000 police and soldiers–four times the number of Italians serving in Iraq–are on duty to protect him from protestors who hate him, mostly because of Iraq, but also just because. The purpose of Bush’s visit? To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Allied liberation of Rome from the Nazis–who had occupied the place after the Fascists elected by the Italians had been toppled.
His next stop? Europe’s heart o’ darkness–France, where it will take 42,000 soldiers and gendarmes to protect the president and other foreign leaders gathered to commemorate the D-Day landings at Normandy, which lead to the Allied liberation of France from the Nazis, who had occupied the place after the French capitulated. While the importance of the June 6 invasion of France is given a great deal of lip service in the local media, the truth is the French press has long been very conflicted over the significance of “Jour J.” Acknowledging the debt to America and Britain has been a difficult process here for quite some time.
So maybe it’s not surprising that the French have devised a number of ways of upholstering the harder truths of recent history. For TF1, and for many others, Normandy is nothing more than fodder for an American-made celluloid “myth” in which the central event may have taken place, but the heroics in which it is decorated by American movie-makers should be accepted with an indulgent smile. Le Monde took advantage of an arte television documentary showing D-Day from the German perspective to explain that the Allies in Normandy were slipshod and mismanaged because their leaders were inept, a point of view that suggests to the French a certain similarity to Iraq. For Libération, D-Day is just another metaphor: the front-page story is “Jour J pour les gays”–an item about gay marriage. When Saving Private Ryan was released in France, Le Monde dismissed it with a savagely contemptuous review.
Why all this angst about something so triumphant? As a report in l’Humanité–the Communist daily that has become a monument to the moral flexibility of the Left by being the only paper in France to have been published before, during, and after the occupation–suggests, for France, that the real war began with the Normandy invasion. It’s the battle against American influence.
The French war with America is perhaps the only passive-aggressive war in human history; in the immediate aftermath of Normandy, it was fought with equal and allied fervor by both the Gaullists and the Communists, and it continues now as the animating principle behind French foreign policy and colors the way the French see Americans. It isn’t accidental that Michael Moore and Jerry Lewis are France’s two favorite American comics. And of course even a casual glance at the front page of Le Monde demonstrates the new moral math of modern Europe at work: Abu Ghraib=Buchenwald. Iraq=Vietnam. Bush=Hitler. Seeing a handful of bad American soldiers as symbols of American culture is the way racists think whenever they see a black gang terrorize a subway train in the south Bronx. In France, it’s the way history is written, redacted, and then written again.
But rewriting history has its limits. When Gerhard Schroeder, the German chancellor and the architect of Berlin’s economic failure, was invited to share the podium at the D-Day events, nobody in Europe thought much of it. In fact, it was hard to imagine Jacques Chirac hosting an international event without bringing along his Herr.
But last weekend, as the day approached, Schroeder and others began inflating the kind of idea that can only gain buoyancy in the artificial air of the new, improved Europe: The significance of D-Day for the Germans, he told RTL and others, was the liberation of all of Europe, including Germany, from totalitarianism. It’s an idea that has been growing in popularity in Europe for some time. As this report in the Guardian shows, when you can adjust history to fit, you can even make Germans the victims of Germany, if you want.
So seeing D-Day as the beginning of German “liberation” had a certain excitement to it. The bizarre notion wafted like a mylar trinket above the heads of the press in Europe and America for day or two, as preparations unfolded for what is seen here as Bush’s begging for European help in waging what he has successfully been able to characterize as an apologetic war. So, yes! Of course! Not only France, but Germany too had been liberated, according to this report in Libération, by the French resistance–and, okay, maybe with help from all those gum-chewing barbarians from America that l’Humanité was talking about. As I called around Paris on Monday, the idea seemed to have been greeted with a kind of awe. To a dark planet filled with the gloom of having to celebrate an American triumph, Liberated Germany was God’s own light bulb. Why does war always have to have winners and losers? Can’t we all be winners? “You must admit, it is a mature way of seeing things,” one magazine writer told me.
But the shared wisdom of the press is always on the roll, like loose marbles in a big box, and by the next day, the constantly contorting, morphing understanding of those with whom I talked had begun to change: Maybe it was going a little overboard to give Germans the status of war victims, after all. The difference seemed to be John Vinocur’s “Politicus” column that ran in Tuesday’s International Herald Tribune, and which quickly became a topic of conversation in Paris, and, I’m sure, elsewhere. Vinocur politely suggested that when it came to Germany, maybe “liberation” was a concept that had been dragged into a rhetorical alley and mugged:
Specifically, there is basic evidence that it is historically inaccurate….If the idea of Germany’s liberation, or its start, is superimposed on the period from June 6, 1944, to the Nazi capitulation, then it involves 11 months when German armies fought the Allies with what military historians have described as extraordinary fury, when American, British and Soviet forces suffered scores of thousands of casualties, when no trace of a broad German uprising against Hitler occurred, and when hundreds of thousands of Jews all over Europe continued to be sent to their deaths in Nazi extermination camps–a last convoy leaving Paris on Aug. 17, eight days before the city’s occupiers were defeated…
Clearly, this is not a movement consciously aimed at minimalizing Nazi crimes as the mark of ultimate bestiality. But it does involve an inroad into history, in which a modern generation seems to be finding comfort in a positive word–”liberation”–that effectively raises the status of the great mass of Germans in 1944 and ‘45 to that of the few German Social Democrats, resistance fighters and gays actually freed from concentration camps like Dachau near Munich.
It’s certainly not the first time Vinocur has taken aim at this kind of Franco-German goofiness and the IHT may carry a follow-up Vinocur column to coincide with the D-Day events; check over the weekend or on Monday to see.
Tuesday night, I went to dinner with friends. Of the four of them, three were carrying that day’s IHT and the conversation centered on Vinocur’s column. And the next day, at dinner at Chez Georges with a French publishing executive, the observations in Vinocur’s column were the main course: “I was so glad to see it,” said the publisher. “He took an idea that had been just sitting there, ignored by everyone, ran right over it and killed it.”
‐If Bush is going to the U.N., it must be election day in France. It’s weird how the timing always works out with this, but the only reliable electioneering tactic available to either Chirac or Schroeder is playing the anti-U.S. card at the U.N. Hence, the current round of negotiations concerning the American-backed Security Council resolution on Iraq will be made much more difficult by the proximity of the June elections for the European parliament. The EuroPress is as obsessed with these elections as the bureaucracy builders in Brussels are. Average Europeans, according to the IHT, just don’t care. This flabbergasts Polly Toynbee, who writes in the Guardian that she cannot comprehend why the disgusting unwashed are, for some mystifying reason, unmoved by elections that may well result in the huge, vaporous, cloud of fat-filled gas emanating from Brussels congealing and descending on them like yet another layer of lard-like “government.” She thinks they should rush out and embrace the glutinous mass of statutes, taxes, and scams that represent the very best of modern European political thought. It isn’t as though voters are being given much to vote for, though: Most of the political parties vying for seats in the European parliament are on the run from the proposed EU constitution.
‐ Kyoto, mon amour. The bizarre fascination many Europeans have with the Kyoto protocol every now and then comes head-first against the bridge abutment of reality. As the EU Observer sadly notes, neither European companies nor European governments are even close to hitting their much-sanctified Kyoto targets. Like the stability pact and much else that ornaments European posturing, the Kyoto accord is just another slogan, this one used to bash around American environmental policies. I was thinking this, by the way, as I walked along a quiet French country lane where the septics and manure pits of the nearby farms emptied into a smelly roadside ditch that drained into the River Lys–near which was posted “Poison.” Maybe it was a road walked previously by Vladimir Putin. After negotiating some concessions from the EU for itself, Putin took a look at France and decided to ratify Kyoto, too.
‐Another invasion. Normandy, be damned. A recent state visit and a swarm of related exhibits, TV shows, department-store sales, joint military exercises, and street decorations all celebrated France’s love of all things Chinoise–including, reports Eursoc, an ardent desire to make sure China has more weapons than it has now.
–Denis Boyles writes the weekly EuroPress Review column for NRO.