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Lessons of History

The first person I knew who called the Republican right “fascist” was a Southern gentleman of my acquaintance who should know what the term means. He’s a spry 80-something now, a veteran of the Second World War. I have to say I was shocked at the clarity with which this usually courtly older man spit out the word. It sounded so extreme to me. This is not a word one should bandy about lightly.

The second person of my acquaintance who used the term is a friend almost half his age. I figured she too knew what she was talking about. Both this friend and her husband of nearly 30 years are first-generation descendants of Jews who survived the Holocaust. In fact, her husband’s parents outfoxed the stormtroopers who emptied out the Riga ghetto. The married by common consent while hiding with other survivors in the Eastern European forest.

I saw this woman recently, in Europe, where I made a special detour during a family birthday trip in Paris to visit a museum in Lyon, France, dedicated to the history of that city’s brave anti-Nazi Resistance during the Vichy regime, when the Nazis occupied Paris.

During the Second World War, Lyon was the capital of the Resistance, says the museum’s brochure. “Situated in the Southern zone, in accordance with the 22nd June 1940 armistice [Lyon] became the most important city of free France.”

The museum is housed in the building whose cellars were used by the gestapo. Their brochure is headed by the words, “History, Essential to Our Present Day.” Anyway, I walked through the museum, alone with my thoughts, until I was surrounded by a bus-full of German high-school students on a tour. I am always aware of the generation gap when I am at a museum. I stopped to read the news-articles created by brave patriots on mimeo machines, printed and then smuggled into the hands of French partisans, united by their hatred of the Vichy collaborators.

The young people gravitated to the videos. Of course. I stopped to watch them, glued to a video of an older woman who was describing the incredibly brave witness of her friend [dead] who as a young woman in the early 40s – recall that French women didn’t have the vote till 1944 – apparently listened carefully to what the German gestapo agents in Lyon’s cafes said. They apparently considered her a part of the furniture. Her German was excellent, however, and she shared what she learned with the partisans.

I am so glad I went there, to the museum, because I learned who stood up, when the call came, when the die was cast, against fascism in Europe. It was a strange mix – working people, labor unions, communists, socialists, Jesuits, students, women, immigrants, and so on. Some of the people who are demonized by the right in many countries, when you come to think of it.

Since then, I went back and read a bit about the deportation of Jews by the Nazis from France. It’s really interesting. The Jews of France, who thought of themselves as “French,” and who were often quite patriotic, had no idea, when the knock came on their doors, that they were being shipped to death camps. Those who survived, just a handful, maybe 2,500 out of 75,000, said to a person they had no idea what was happening. They thought they were being sent, as many other French were, to work camps.

It took many years for the stories to really be told. I am thinking of Lanzmann’s “Shoah.” Devastating. And I saw a film just this past week, a fictional story called “Sarah’s Key.” Hidden history. Lingering questions.

I happened to seek out the less-well-known Nuremburg files on France not too long ago, on the Internet.

It talked about “the brutal or gradual seizure of sovereignty, the carefully worked out interference of the German authority in all domains, the creation and implacable execution of a program of economic pillage in order to achieve the exhaustion of the occupied country.” It talked about a secret police apparatus owned by the party, which led to the party taking the place of the state. It talked about a united political – financial – economic nexus, combined with the Army, and a judicial system no longer independent of this nexus.

Of course, other filmmakers, notably Chabrol, catalogued the propaganda piece that was supposed to make the French want to go along. It didn’t work, in fact, if you look at the text of some of these mimeographed newspapers circulated by the partisans, they use the word for lies: mensonges. Regular people knew they were being lied to. In hindsight it became clear.

Scholars later wrote about Hitler’s ideology, that it was based on a nostalgic attachment to a romanticized version of Germany’s national past, and on a revulsion for the political dimensions of modernity – i.e., internationalism, democracy, and pacifism (Jackel). Lots of people went along with it, but not everyone was duped.

I believe, especially after Anders Breivik in Norway, that we may have more to fear from the far right in this country than we are admitting to ourselves. I noticed on the Southern Poverty Law Center blog, that the FBI recently dismantled its domestic terror threat unit after right-wingers complained.

I also noted, in the recent arrest of a man named Schaeffer Cox for speeches he made in Montana and Colorado actually calling for murder, that he bragged about members of his fringe group having doctors, surgeons and high-tech jammers and even aerial laser tools. This stuff is alarming. People should remember history and take note.

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