In one particularly harrowing scene in “A French Village,” a brilliant television series that became a sensation when it first aired in France, the town’s principal returns to his school just after a train filled with Jews has left the village, bound we know not where.
The deported, most of them French, have been housed in the crowded school, separated from their children, in deplorable conditions. The principal pauses briefly among the jumble of possessions left behind — bedding, clothing, suitcases, photos — and calmly orders two young men to clean up the mess.
The message is clear: Life must go on, and “A French Village” makes it clear that at all times “to live is to choose.” And the choosing makes all the difference.
The series, now available on several streaming services, is intoxicatingly addictive, beautifully constructed and features an ensemble cast of actors who dramatize, both believably and in historically correct detail, a story of how the Nazi occupation during World War II affected the population of one small French town. To say the least, it is complicated.
It might seem that the events of 1940s France have little or nothing to do with our tumultuous times and our struggle to understand our own history and disabuse our own myths. But I have found myself pondering the lessons of acceptance, collaboration and denial that are explored in the series. There is much to learn.
The German occupation of France from the summer of 1940, when a collaborative French government surrendered to the Nazis, to the summer of 1944 when Allied armies, with help from Free French forces, liberated the country, remains a period of fascination and endless debate.
One reviewer has suggested “A French Village” became a sensation in France “because it was the first major French television series seriously to address collaboration during the Nazi occupation.” But there is more to it than that. At its core the story probes, uncomfortably most of the time, what it means to resist.
Some in the small village push back, but still accept. One gruff old French police officer attempts in his own way to merely obstruct and disrupt the Nazis before he begins to openly share information that is valuable to the underground resistance. A young French police chief, his chances for promotion linked to his willing collaboration with his German counterparts, embraces a role aiding the Nazis until his own feelings for a Jewish refugee get in the way.
The mayor’s wife, an aspiring artist played by the French actress Audrey Fleurot, enters into an affair with the top Nazi intelligence official, breaks it off and then goes back to him. Even members of the underground resistance, many of them communist — we are nonetheless predisposed to applaud their courage and patriotism — are maddeningly unlikable at times.
For fascism to flourish in Europe in the 1930s, average, run-of-the-mill people — the dominant, privileged white middle class — in Italy, Germany, Spain and elsewhere had to believe they were victims of something dangerous that was out to get them. They were made to believe that “extremism” and constant “emergencies” were daily threats.
When fascism came to France in 1940 in the form of the authoritarian Vichy government, the population had to be convinced to accept the same ideas. Many did, and for often complicated reasons. They worried about making a living. They worried about social status. They believed that a strong man at the head of the state would bring order out of chaos. Many were willing to see democracy suspended, indeed destroyed in order to feel secure.
“Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given,” the historian Timothy Snyder writes in his book “On Tyranny.” Snyder asks: “Does the history of tyranny appeal to the United States?” Or are we somehow immune to the disease that has infected so many others?
At another level, the series about the French in their 1940s village forces a confrontation with history. Does it really matter what happened 80 years ago? Surely the anti-Semitism at the center of “A French Village” is no longer a concern of ours. When politicians demonize “others” on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual identity or political belief, we Americans have no stake in that fight, correct?
Separating refugee children from their parents doesn’t happen any longer, right? And why should we worry about the effects on the kids and the parents? They’re just nameless, faceless people from another country, after all.
Welcoming, indeed embracing lies told by authoritarians who are obsessed with power can’t warp our politics, can it? Allowing police to act beyond legal accountability isn’t something we need worry about, correct? Refusing to act in the face of pure evil is not a choice we need to make — or is it?
While conservative state legislatures across the land attempt to limit what teachers can talk about in classrooms — go light on the whole slavery and racism business — as heavily armed neo-fascist militias show up at political rallies to provide “security” for their chosen leaders and as some on the conservative right equate the Black Lives Matter movement with extremism and socialism, are there any lessons to learn from history?
The journalist and cultural historian Alan Riding has observed of France during and since its Nazi occupation that “probably no other country better illustrates the perils assumed by a population that is educated to revere theories: it becomes fertile ground for extremism.”
The French were — and are — a cultured, sophisticated people, exceptional in many ways and seeing themselves as many Americans see themselves: chosen and special. Yet so many so easily collapsed into collaboration with abject evil and today France flirts openly with a new generation of fascists.
In his book “How Fascism Works,” historian Jason Stanley notes that the role of French police in arresting and deporting French Jews to certain death is well documented. It’s been taught in the schools. But the leader of France’s far right party, Marine Le Pen, as recently as 2017, blamed what she called dominant liberal culture for teaching French children “that they have all the reasons to criticize (the country), and to only see, perhaps, the darkest aspects of our history.”
So, she said, “I want them to be proud of being French again.”
If much of the conservative right in America gets its way, our children and grandchildren won’t have to grapple with our messy, complicated past. We are seeing that facts, with minimal efforts, can be whitewashed, while enduring myths only need burnishing.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.