This week is the anniversary of the entry of Great Britain into World War One, conventionally considered the real, irreversible beginning of that four-year-long deadly war. The social damage of the war extended much beyond its formal end in 1918. Here is a personal memoir, an excerpt from my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography.
I was born 24 years after my maternal grandfather’s death and physical disappearance at the theatrical mass killing of the battle of Verdun. That was like an eternity to a child but like an instant for older adults, including my own widowed maternal grandmother and the tens of thousands of widows of her generation. The damage they had suffered was irreversible. It went well beyond mere grief, they knew well. Providence was not going to produce hearty males in numbers sufficient to replace the two millions who had been killed or made severely invalid. In many cases, the women’s lives would be sterile in every way. There was little talk on the subject of this great absence except on special commemorative days and on November 11th, the anniversary of the World War One Armistice. That was when small children were dragged to suburban cemeteries through interminable Metro and bus trips. There, they were expected to pray on the tombs of unknown relatives including for those who had no graves of their own like my maternal grandfather. I did a mediocre painting of such a childhood cemetery visit when I was in my sixties. In spite of its artistic mediocrity, looking at the painting inspires in me a sort of revolt of the heart.
Absence can be felt as keenly as pain. Perhaps, the absence of hundreds of thousands of grandfathers was like the kind of pain amputees are said to suffer in their missing limbs. There was a solemn underlying sadness all around that was not explained by anyone or by anything and that was part of normalcy. The perpetual sadness induced a degree of emotional unresponsiveness, including to small children. It was the kind of neutrality you expect to find in many (but not all) old people. Paradoxically, precisely because of the scarcity of old men, I grew up in an old society, one that had aged before its time. I realized bit by bit, and first on the occasion of my visiting non-belligerent Sweden at seventeen and then, the US, that the “war to end all wars” had broken a central spring of French society. One hundred years later, I think it’s still broken. It’s a society that has not felt young since the summer of 1914. It’s a society where still today, many of the young sound old.
The second, lighter shadow over my childhood is related to the first. In World War One, Frenchmen did their patriotic duty and died in vast numbers as a result. (So did the British and, even more so, the Germans.) The French victory tasted worse than had many past defeats. When the guns of war begun booming again, not much more than twenty years later, the pre-World War Two French had not recovered. It’s a well accepted fact that many left for war with the firm intent to come back, no matter what. In addition, their military leadership was so incompetent that it suggests a subtle form of treason. (This is extensively if soberly described in the American journalist and historian William Shirer’s The Collapse of the Third Republic
The French defeat in the early phase of World War Two was swift and ignominious. The resulting four years of Nazi Occupation produced even more ignominy with many more collaborators with the Germans than resisters and some resisters who were also collaborators ( I mean such as former Socialist President François Mitterrand, decorated by both the Vichy pro-German government and by the Resistance). Thousands of quite real French resisters were only impelled by their addiction to another totalitarian ideology, communism. When the Allies – with a token French force – finally liberated France, there was a brief domestic bloodbath of enacted recriminations and then a massive cover-up. Most French Jews survived yet every one had Jewish neighbors who did not come back, neighbors “disappeared” with the participation of the French police. In my childhood, my mother spoke openly about those crimes, my father, much less although he was personally clean himself. Most people around us said nothing at all on the topic ever. Children don’t understand history, even recent history but they can often catch the smell of history, especially when its stinks.
I grew up in a society that felt guilty, and with good reason. [As I said,] my father behaved better than most Frenchmen but guilt and shame are contagious. To an extent, I was reared to become a man by men who had lost much of their manhood. My childhood was surrounded by vicious whispers and by heavy silences. On a national level, there was a general conspiracy of half-muteness about who had taken advantage of the Nazis’ presence to do what to whom. After World War Two, the new French Republic raised from the dead by De Gaulle through sheer willpower never cleared its decks. Both De Gaulle’s nationalist followers and their Communist allies, each for their own reasons, preferred a make-believe reconciliation with the collaborators. In consequence, oppressive, silent evil was all around and inside French society. One prominent politician and gross World War Two criminal was unmasked, tried and convicted only in the 1990s, 45 years late, a lifetime late. He had occupied the highest positions in the French national police and been a cabinet minister several times in the interim. There was a massacre of Algerians in the middle of Paris in 1961 under his watch. In the seventies an alert journalist even discovered and denounced the continued existence of an old Nazi occupation period locational file on Jews in the basement archive of the Paris police. No one had thought to destroy it. Perhaps, no one had wanted to. I don’t know.
Jacques Delacroix: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography
is available from me by email at:
The electronic version is also available with Amazon at: