26. January 2005 · Comments Off on Who do You Trust, and Where do You Stand? · Categories: General, History

A couple of years ago, I wrote (here) about my adventures in the periodical stacks and the microfilmed archives of various newspapers, while in pursuit of a degree in English at California State University, Northridge. I spent hours in the Oviatt Library, reading periodicals and newspapers from the Thirties and Forties, leafing over the pages of magazines, sepia with age, and bound into heavy volumes, or spooling miles of film though the microfilm readers, my entrée into the world of my parents and their parents, and a disconcerting view of how things appeared the very day or week that they happened, before the historians set to and put it all to rights, smoothing out the wrinkles and making all the below-the-surface connections apparent.

There was an essay I read, whose premise has always stuck in my mind, although I cannot remember the author, or where it was published. I have the vague idea it was in the Reader’s Digest, reprinted from somewhere else— the Atlantic? New Yorker? Harpers’, maybe? Something meditative and literary anyway, penned by a woman sometime after the defeat of France, when England looked like being the next to fall, maybe even after Stalinist Russia had changed sides yet again, but well before Pearl Harbor, when the US was uneasily and technically at peace. But the war was on the authors’ mind, war and occupation, the loathsome-ness of the Nazis, and the tension between resistance and collaboration; France would have been occupied for at least a year, when the essay was published, and America was still a neutral, with businessmen, diplomats and journalists moving somewhat freely around the Continent.

The unremembered author wrote as someone familiar with Europe, and current events, and imagined herself at a literary cocktail party in her elegant New York apartment, looking around at the other guests and thinking “What would you do, under Occupation? How would you conduct yourselves? Would you resist? Collaborate? To what degree, and why?” She sketched out the character and background of her guests— old money, new money, artist, writer, actor, academic, non-conformist, businessman, man-about-town, and poseur—-and ventured suppositions on who would go along to get along, and who would quietly resist. I don’t quite know what struck me about the essay, other than her calm and even slightly chilly acknowledgement of the fact that, yes, given a military defeat and occupation of ones’ own country, the reactions of a personal circle of friends would be all over the ethical map.

There would be no united front, given ordinary day to day realities, and the necessity of making a living and keeping safe those you loved. Of course there would be individuals who wholeheartedly embraced their new overlords, and some who would feel obliged to strongly resist, and those in the middle who would have to work out some kind of accommodation, some way of enduring the situation without feeling ethically soiled. The writer did get that part quite right, but the trouble with that kind of speculation is when it got to specifics about people. Speculation is a more or less educated guess, and people can be more complicated than even the most imaginative writer can fathom.

A very few people are absolutely straight forward, and possess the heart and courage to carry on with the principles that they are renown for, like this man. But this man— for most of his life a soldier, patriot and hero— still fell resoundingly short of what anyone would have expected of him in the crunch. Yet this man, a bon-vivant, adulterous husband and dodgy businessman from whom nothing principled and high-minded could have been expected calmly risked everything to save lives, hundreds of lives. And this unremarkable young student nurse organized an escape line which funneled Allied evaders across three borders and a mountain range. If people sadly have the capacity to disappoint, they also have capability to take your breath away with their courage and dedication…. And most times it is just not something that you can see in advance. But what you do see it, the least you can do is recognize and honor those qualities.
In four days, the Iraqi people vote, in defiance of murder, bombs and terror, and it is in my mind that we may see the same hopeful, reckless courage, for out of that is a free nation born.

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