French History discussion

The Unfree French > Introduction/General Thoughts

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message 1: by Nadine (new)

Nadine (britishfrenchhistoryenthusiast) | 11 comments Mod
Hi Everyone, I meant to put this folder up on Friday but I didn't get around to it and then we lost power here. Since I can only write from work I am not sure how much I will be involved in the discussion until we get power back. Here are some initial questions to start off the discussion:

1) What did you think about the author's comments on reality and the French citizen perception of reality in the introduction?
2) What did you think about the author's claims that historians have a either a Gaullist or non-Gaullist take on Vichy France? What did he claim his take was and did he explain this convincingly?
3) Did you think the introduction set up the book well?

Feel free to make any comments not relating to the above questions or pose any other questions to the group relating or not relating to the intro.

- Nadine

message 2: by Mo (new)

Mo Thanks for posing the questions, Nadine. Hope you are recovered from the snowstorm!

I am on about page 200 of the book, and I feel like I have been slogging through it for quite a while. I'm usually a fast reader, but it's been more than three weeks for me so far. I was a bit disheartened when I saw one review that mentioned this was a "quick read," as I certainly don't feel that way!

First, a few general thoughts and comments:

The introduction led me to believe this would be a socio-cultural study, which sounded great to me. I expected many in-depth personal stories of peoples' experiences. Instead I feel like the author has come across some great tidbits in his research and pelts me with them without making any kind of commentary or unification. I can't fault his research, as he seems to have plenty of examples, but I somehow feel shortchanged. It seems like he is forcing me, as a reader, to do too much work with the material he presents.

I also think that he makes many assumptions about the reader's background knowledge. I consider myself to be a bright person, but I am finding that I often am unclear as to his references and assumptions. I'm feeling far out of my element at times. I'm not quite sure why Vinen includes as much detail as he often does. I'm hoping that as the work progresses there may be some kind of unification or tidying up all the strands of thought, but I don't know.

So, if it hasn't come across yet, I'm a little disappointed so far, but I'm holding out hope. It's hard for me to not finish a book, so I will definitely finish this one.

I can't wait to hear what everyone else has to say.

message 3: by William (new)

William (alundi) | 8 comments Nadine, I think your first question on the author's comments on reality and the French citizen's perception of reality is a great discussion point. For me, I found it most telling that Vinen makes a clear definition that when he is attempting to describe the French citizen's perceptions, for him, a French citizen is not necessarily one who had French citizenship and papers, but those who actually lived in France during the administration of the Vichy Republic. As illustrated in the first chapter, "Summer 1940", Vinen's recreation of the Nazi invasion and flight of the refugees, or "Exode" is most compelling when the focus is placed on the everyday or common person, including refugees from Belgium and the Netherlands. Vinen states clearly that he is most interested in presenting what the common citizen's experience was while living in the "free" or occupied zones during the period, with the objectivity or detachment in being un-Gaullist, but not anti-Gaullist.

I can certainly understand Mo's statement that Vinen "has come across some great tidbits in his research and pelts me with them without making any kind of commentary or unification". In terms of objectivity and historiography, this can be an extremely difficult thing to do, and either knowingly or unknowingly, an author can be swayed from their original intentions of historical accuracy and objectivity when reading and incorporating the notes and narratives from others of the time in question. For me, this depth of research and detail presented in so clinically objective manner really makes what follows in the book more visceral, and real, and makes me think and wonder how I may have behaved or reacted in such extreme and extenuating circumstances and situations. This lack of commentary and unification leaves space for a common reader, such as myself, to really think and try to imagine and understand what life was like during the occupation. I consider this the true historian's craft and obligation to both scholars and common readers.

Vinen's remarks in the introduction on trying to avoid writings from those who took part in the Vichy regime of Marshall Petain, which tended to be apologetic for the government's short comings, I think, are quite appropriate and accurate, as many of those who lived during this time and wrote of their experiences, were either members or supporters of the Vichy, or those of the Resistance. Each would introduce their own biases and revisions, which may lead the author, and in turn, the reader from a clear and as objective recreation of the period. In comparison, the media skirmishes that have taken place here in the United States in recent weeks with the release of former Vice President Dick Cheney's "In My Time: A Personal And Political Memoir" between Cheney and former Bush administration cabinet members Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, exemplify the biases that often creep into first person accounts made by the "non-professional historians". I believe that the Vinen made his intentions clearly and directly, that many of those who were members of the Vichy government or who worked for the Vichy government did have such biases, and the Vinen, being a historian, had a tremendous set of challenges already in trying to make sure the inclusion of such materials and quotations his narrative were as free of biases as possible.

The "Unfree French" is a demanding read for me, but well worth the effort. I am very much looking forward to our discussions on the succeeding chapters on the "Summer 1940", "Vichy", and "Living With The Enemy".

message 4: by Mo (last edited Nov 15, 2011 12:06AM) (new)

Mo I finished the book the other day. I'd have to say I stand by my original comments. I'm interested to hear what others' thoughts are.

message 5: by Oana (last edited Nov 20, 2011 10:13AM) (new)

Oana | 17 comments Hi Mo,

I felt like I didn't know many of the people Vinen refers to either; after the introduction I stopped looking everybody up on Wikipedia and just got on with the reading. The Vichy chapter was a real slog as I am not very interested in the political end of things and perceptions of Petain.

As for the rest of the detail, I am really enjoying it. I've gotten interested in this topic over the last few months and I am beginning to connect the dots. It does make sense after a while.

message 6: by Oana (new)

Oana | 17 comments William wrote: "For me, this depth of research and detail presented in so clinically objective manner really makes what follows in the book more visceral, and real, and makes me think and wonder how I may have behaved or reacted in such extreme and extenuating circumstances and situations."

Willliam, I thought too about that. I have read other writers comment about at what point survival becomes collaboration, specifically in France. One of the reasons for reading this book is to decide for myself at what point collaboration happens and mere survival ends.

(I work in a museum and my coworkers, visitors and I always talk about WWII and what is the right way to behave in similar circumstances. Even after so many years after the war, it's still philosophically important for many to have a way to measure and judge, especially what they would have done in the same situation.)

Nadine, I am not sure what is a Gaullist take. Is it just in opposition to Vichy?

message 7: by Ed (new)

Ed | 2 comments I am new to this group and just noticed this somewhat old thread. I haven't read the book being discussed but for those interested in Vichy I would suggest Robert Paxton's Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order. It is not a quick read. I read it when I was laid up with a broken hip. It did, however, address the question that interested me: how do people rationalize their participation in evil? I would be curios to know what others think of this book.

message 8: by Rozzer (last edited Jun 12, 2012 05:21PM) (new)

Rozzer Ed asked: "... how do people rationalize their participation in evil?"

Great (and always timely) question, Ed. In the course of my life I've had reasonably long social exchanges with members of the "losing" side in WWII, whether French or German or Romanian or Latvian. And based on what I've heard from them I'd have to say that, before we get to rationalization, we have to get conscious acknowledgement of evil. And the strong impression I've received from the ten or so people with whom I've spoken is of a failure on their part to acknowledge the "evil" perpetrated by "their" side during WWII. They acknowledge being beaten. They acknowledge losing. They submit to the rules and thinking of the victors. But those who were actual participants during WWII, those who were functioning adults at the time, give (to me, at least) the strong impression of keeping any consciousness of guilt at a very large distance.

So I'd think that the rationalization of evil only requires being addressed after people accept that their own actions, or those of others with whom they were complicit, truly were evil. And I'd guess that homo sapiens has many different ways to protect itself/themselves from painful knowledge of this kind. Think of all the other kinds of knowledge that get shunted into dead storage in the brain. The human animal has to function, and has to function with a large and capable brain. Which, to me, means that the huge majority of brain activity happens outside of consciousness, in order to free up consciousness for the performance if its allotted tasks. And I'd think that participation in evil is just one of the many kinds of things that get swept under the mental rug.

message 9: by Ed (new)

Ed | 2 comments Thank you for your very thoughtful and helpful comment, which certainly rings true in my experience. It is still striking to me that our moral and legal institutions operate on the expectation that people will acknowledge responsibility for the evil they have done, while from the perspective you present that is not quite "normal" for humans.

message 10: by Rozzer (new)

Rozzer Yes, Ed. That's a more and more important question, I think. Not just with regard to "history," but also raised more and more frequently through the now ongoing developments in neuropsych, the books about which are now booming.

Traditionally, we've all thought of humans as being in control of themselves. Responsible for their actions. Able to choose and distinguish good from bad, right from wrong. But there's always been, for each of us, incoming information from reality that tends to show us we really aren't free agents. Not something any of us want to hear, but it's always been there. And most of us have used our immense human capacities to deny this reality, to refuse to pay attention to the incoming data flow.

But within the past fifty years the strength of that incoming flow has become much stronger and much harder to resist. And in the last twenty years, with the vast expansion of significant neuropsych research, the absolute fact of our not being masters in our own houses has been and is being impressed on us over and over every day. It's usually under the topic of "free will," which we've found to be anything but. And yet it's really hard, as you point out, to imagine a society in which people are NOT believed to be free agents.

Responsibility. It's all about responsibility. It's all about society being able to hold people responsible for what they do and say. Personally, I can't even begin to imagine any human society without responsibility. I just can't think of any other way of organizing a human society. And in the end, what that means (what I think that means) is that regardless of the biological, chemical, psychoneuro truth, we all have to organize our societies and ourselves AS IF we had the kind of agency that we now are beginning to know we've never had and never will have. AS IF. It's the only way.

We can do this. We can still hold people responsible for the evil they do or in which they're complicit. That process may now become a much more self-conscious and tragic effort than it has been in the past. But I don't think we can do anything else. I don't think there's another choice.

Making people acknowledge their guilt of evil. There are and always have been a whole suite of methods, unconscious methods, that permit people to retain their self-love in the face of unfortunate circumstances. Always. Is it easier now to wiggle out of responsibility? I'd rather doubt it. I think we're talking of human realities that go back all the way. Because of all the recent work in this area we just know a lot more of what actually happens as people try to live with themselves. You can leave your country, you can change your name, you can take all kinds of steps to alter your life. But you always have to live with yourself. And that can frequently require selective forgetting, not only of facts but of values as well.

Ed wrote: "Thank you for your very thoughtful and helpful comment, which certainly rings true in my experience. It is still striking to me that our moral and legal institutions operate on the expectation that..."

message 11: by Rozzer (last edited Jun 13, 2012 05:19PM) (new)

Rozzer Hmmm. Having re-read my own post I can see that others might wonder just what I'm doing here in this group. My post contains no really French references and you people are talking about a book on Vichy France. Permit me to introduce myself. I've been familiar with France and the French since childhood (though I'm American), and have been married to an echt Franzosich French lady for 42 years, much of that time spent in France.

I'm of an age which permitted me to talk with many survivors of Vichy and wheedle from them what I believe were sincere opinions about what happened at the time. As well as having read not only history but reprinted contemporary journalism that gives me a feel for what took place. The overwhelming impression I've received, over many decades, is of confusion. The confusion of the people at the time, the confusion of the French, whether citizens or refugees, and their being entirely unable early on in the war to predict what would happen next.

Of course, anyone having a feeling for the traditional, innate conservatism of the French people could easily have predicted, after June 1940, the general atmosphere of restraint and great care in expressing themselves that they adopted or their taking any specific political position. That may or may not have been true of the Communists or their sympathizers, but I believe it would have been true of almost all members of the family into which I married.

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