The more I read of what happened in occupied France during the Vichy years of the Second World War and the aftermath, the more I see parallels with our current situation both in the post-Brexit UK, and in the USA as it grapples now with a post-Trump future.
‘France for the French’
‘Make America great again’
‘Take back control’
You could argue that the USA has been occupied for the last four years by the not-so-subtle forces of the extreme right. The often highly fluent and plausible defenders of a conservative agenda so easily hid, whether deliberately or not, those more rabid and indefensible views that were, gradually and deliberately, making inroads into mainstream conservative politics. As the USA emerges from that occupation, as liberation proceeds, people must never let their guard down even in the interests of unity.
It is, of course, wonderful to hear President Biden talk of seeking unity, of restoring American democracy, but there is a danger that the poisonous, indeed evil, nature of far-right views – white supremacist, misogynist, racist – could be folded into the political fabric of society and hidden once again. They would not be forgiven, far from it, but they would be buried enough to allow people to become complacent. The full truth would not be told. The hateful views would be ascribed to deprivation or to some other social cause, ignoring the fact that this would be an excuse, not a reason. And Americans would tell themselves they had their democracy back, while all the time, the hateful views would be re-grouping, re-energising, re-emerging.
After the end of the war and liberation, France struggled with the story of its own behaviour during occupation. The urge towards reconciliation and healing was strong. But the urge towards revenge was stronger. And this was because of the actions of Marshal Pétain and the Vichy government. Their active pursuit of German policies, sometimes going beyond what Germany demanded of them, led to unforgiveable acts of outrage against their own citizens. Remember that France voluntarily rounded up and deported more than 75,000 Jews to their deaths and instituted the Service du Travail Obligatoire that forced young French men to work in Germany to make up for the dearth of German workers who were fighting the war. From 1940-1944, Germany called for 1,575,000 workers – 785,000 workers actually went (La Vie des Français sous l’Occupation, Henri Amouroux). Many déportés didn’t come back.
If President Biden’s government does not recognise and confront the evil aspects of the previous regime, if it does not allow for proper accounting of the dishonourable and dangerous behaviour of the Trump years and satisfy the need to punish, to make sure there are consequences for the wrong doers, then it will be complicit in them. And it will encourage the hateful views that will continue to lurk beneath.
As in France in the 1930s and in the USA in the years from 2016, so now in the UK we find a land that has turned its back on the immigrants it once welcomed. By a small but deadly margin, the UK voted to close its borders and to reject the Polish builders, the Eastern European care-workers, the Portuguese nurses. Foreign labour became a scapegoat in the battle for hearts and minds. The UK government chose not to build a wall – no need for walls on an island – but to ban entry. It stoked the lies and intolerance, encouraged the hateful views.
As in Vichy France, we find that an elite in the UK garners wealth, influence and power through the activities of a government that does not serve all of its citizens, but instead rewards some and robs or neglects the rest.
‘Vichy spoiled the rich.’ (Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order 1940-1944. Robert O. Paxton.)
The Vichy regime spread its favours through economic and social policy. The Trump administration gave tax cuts to the wealthy. The UK government, less sophisticated, simply gives out consultancies, hires its friends and hides the connections.
There is one thing Trump and Johnson should never forget, however.
Marshal Pétain was sentenced to hang for treason. The sentence was commuted. He finished his life in a prison fortress, disgraced.