Occupation, Humiliation and Resistance

By a curious coincidence, I’ve been reading Jean Guéhenno’s Journal des années noires, which has just been reprinted in France, probably to coincide with the release of the first English translation. The book is in the form of a journal kept by Guéhenno between the French surrender in June 1940 and the liberation of Paris in August 1944. The  author was a French intellectual and writer, who taught at the prestigious Lycée Henri IV in Paris.

Much of the subject-matter of the journal is what you would expect. There are details of rationing and shortages, of cold and hunger, of attempts to get news from elsewhere,  and also of the cynical manoeuvres of the political elite, and the desperate efforts of some of the hardline collaborators to ingratiate themselves with the Germans. But there’s something else as well, which lends a curious contemporary resonance to the Journal.

What comes most clearly out of it is the sheer humiliation of living in a conquered and occupied country. Partly this feeling is strategic, seeing your proud country brought down and your feeble government pushed around by the Germans.   But it is also on the level of everyday life. The German occupiers enjoy total power and total impunity. Humiliation breeds  resentment and even hatred. Resentment produces acts of terrorism which are fleetingly described in the journal, in the form of bombings and the assassination of German officers. In turn, the Germans take a violent revenge.

Does this remind you of anything? It would be surprising if it did not, although the differences are equally important. The occupation of France lasted only four years: a heartbeat in the time of the occupation of Palestine. The Germans, for all their brutality, mainly avoided large-scale violence until the fighting at the end of the war. And the French always had the knowledge that the British and the Soviets were fighting hard against the common enemy. Nevertheless, the picture that the book paints, of humiliation and resentment begetting violence, must be something approaching universal. Odd as it may seem, people don’t actually like being occupied. When they don’t like being occupied they tend to resist, peacefully at first and then violently. And, equally oddly, they come to intensely dislike if not actually hate their occupiers, and want them destroyed.

Who would ever have thought it?

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