There are two great myths of World War II. The first says that there was something intrinsic to the national characters of Germany and Italy, a flaw that made them uniquely susceptible to the destructive id of fascism. The second myth evangelizes the existence of a unified, democratic resistance to fascism even amongst the nations occupied by the Nazis.
Marcel Ophüls’ 1969 documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, demolishes both myths and, in the process, serves as a harrowing reminder of the ease with which liberty and human prosperity can fall when they aren’t safeguarded through constant vigilance. Few historical documents of the 20th century offer as intimate a peek into the constant struggle to identify, combat, organize against, and educate others about political oppression.
In an age where hyper-nationalist, far-right populist governments are springing yet again, The Sorrow and the Pity‘s lessons are too vital to be ignored.
The Sorrow and the Pity, subtitled “Chronicle of a French City Under the Occupation,” examines its themes through the southern French city of Clermont-Ferrand: beginning with Germany’s invasion of France, examining the dissolution of France’s Third Republic, looking at life under the Nazi-backed Vichy Regime, and criticizing the excesses of the immediate aftermath of the war. Ophüls combines newsreel footage of the era (with a critical eye towards the explicit propaganda of much of the period footage) with interviews from a vast swath of those who lived through the war. The Sorrow and the Pity puts a nearly exhaustive cross-section of the French population under the microscope.
“And so we consoled ourselves over the downfall of our nation by getting petty revenge in matters of internal affairs.”
That line, part of one of the film’s most powerful testimonials, is spoken by Pierre Mendès France, an airman in de Gaulle’s Free French forces after German occupation and later a Prime Minster under France’s post-war Fourth Republic. Mendès France was a Jewish socialist that had served in the pre-war Radical government of Léon Blum (also a Jewish socialist and a man who would be imprisoned for much of the war in the Buchenwald concentration camp on false treason charges).
Mendès France was a victim of anti-Semitic purges of the French government after the Vichy regime was established and had to flee to England after escaping from a camp for political prisoners. Mendès France recognized that German occupation was just an excuse that provided hyper-nationalist, far right powers in what had been France’s Third Republic to destroy, once and for all, the enemies of their vision of an economically oligarchic and racially pure France.
The seeds of the ghastly horrors of state-sponsored anti-Semitic oppression had existed in France for decades. The Dreyfus Affair — where a Jewish member of the French military was falsely imprisoned for over a decade on trumped up charges of treason — had transpired only a couple decades before. The primary attacks by France’s center-right parties against the leftist government of Léon Blum were thinly veiled anti-Semitic slurs, equating Judaism with imagined Bolshevik conspiracies to undermine the prosperity, security, and sovereignty of France.
The Nazis simply provided the opportunity for militant French nationalists — embodied by the head of the Vichy regime, Marshal Philippe Pétain — to recreate the state in their image. Of the many states the Germans occupied during World War II, France’s government was the only one that voluntarily signed an armistice and dissolved itself to appease German aggression.
Steve Bannon, the chief strategist of the new President of the United States, was one of the key figures at Breitbart, a website that became the voice of the American far right in the digital media age. Openly declaring its hatred for feminism, civil rights, and any perceived threats to white male supremacy, Breitbart built a following by explicitly stating the prejudiced dog whistles around which traditional conservative media usually tip-toed.
In Donald Trump, Bannon found a candidate with a resonant message of white economic populism and xenophobic anxieties and hitched his and the rest the American far right’s wagons to Trump’s star. With the help of rogue conservative segments of the American intelligence community and the increasingly clear interference of a deeply authoritarian foreign government, it put a political bloc with neo-fascist aspirations in the White House.
Democracy crumbled in Germany and Italy and France because fascists provided a diagnosis for society’s ills and a “cure.” The “diagnosis” was that Jews and socialists and homosexuals and Slavs and Roma were sabotaging the economic prosperity of “real Europeans.” And if people were willing to believe that, the fascists said the cure was a state that expelled these people from society so that the economic well-being of “real citizens” could be provided for.
It would be very easy to believe that even after French democracy fell — the fount of modern European democracy itself — that the French people organized and resisted en masse against their fascist occupiers and their government of collaborators… that their inherent spirit of liberté, égalité, and fraternité could not be extinguished.
The Sorrow and the Pity shows the danger in assuming your values are invincible.
The majority of French business interests welcomed the Vichy regime with open arms. Europe was crawling out of the Great Depression and trust in laissez-faire capitalism was collapsing. Socialist/communist parties were rising across the Continent. Europe’s wealthy made strategic alliances with fascist parties because they had convinced themselves that the only other option was a proletarian revolution. Rather than recognizing that grotesque economic inequality was permanently eroding the European social compact, they aligned themselves with dictators who would protect their wealth
Christian de la Mazière was another of The Sorrow and the Pity‘s most complex and fascinating interview subjects. Mazière was a member of the French aristocracy. He was raised in a deeply conservative family that valued military service and adherence to the edicts of the church. Like many wealthy Frenchmen, he would have preferred the restoration of the French monarchy over the democratic Third Republic. And when fascism arrived in France, Mazière enthusiastically joined the Waffen-SS (the French division of Germany’s secret police) and even fought against the Soviets on the Eastern front.
Many of the collaborators who are interviewed in The Sorrow and the Pity hem and haw over their participation in the subjugation of their own people.
Pierre Laval — a man who used his media empire to implore the French people to work with the Germans and who grew rich and powerful as one of French fascism’s most ardent supporters — is eulogized by his son-in-law as a man who was just doing what he had to do for the survival of the French people. Teachers who transmitted Nazi ideology to their students say they wanted to resist but not enough teachers were willing to go on a general strike and so they had no choice but to go along with the laws of the land. A woman defends her support of Marshal Pétain and the Vichy government by invoking Pétain’s service in World War I. What could she have done to resist Nazism when France’s greatest war hero had said working with the Germans was the right thing to do.
Mazière is much more blunt. As an aristocrat, he was a symbol of all of the excess and decadence of French wealth. He knew what a unified movement of workers meant for his family’s wealth and power, and he became a committed fascist even before the Germans arrived on his doorstep.
Actual resistance to the occupation was rare. Charles de Gaulle had his Free French forces but they were running air raids out of England. They couldn’t return home until the Allies mounted a land invasion of Europe. The resistance in France itself was carried out by peasant farmers (who were overwhelmingly socialists), patriots who had served in the French military and refused to accept surrender, and students (who were overwhelmingly socialists and/or anarchists). These resistors were dwarfed by everyday citizens who accepted the new world they lived in because they decided that it wasn’t their personal responsibility to do something about it.
The lessons of The Sorrow and the Pity and French occupation — that people who espouse ideologies of hate and oppression will commit acts of hate and oppression when given power, that you can not take for granted that the population will consider the ruinous catastrophe their actions can cause for those who differ from them in exploitable ways, that you can not assume that others will resist oppression — are horrifyingly prescient today.
Meditate for a moment on the implications of the fact that America democratically elected a man who started off his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, who was caught on tape boasting about sexual abuse, and picked a fight with John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement. How many Americans had to fundamentally not care about the security of women and people of color for this to happen? And if the Trump administration attempts to register Muslim Americans, will those who voted for him even care? It isn’t happening to them.
The Sorrow and the Pity is essential viewing because it’s impossible to watch that film and not make connections between what happened in France and how our country operates today (and how the right in this country has operated for decades). However, making those connections allows you to do something about it. You aren’t blind to the problem anymore. You can’t fight oppression when you don’t realize it’s happening or can’t see how deep its roots truly are.
If you claim to have any affection for liberty, equality, and the essential humanity of your fellow man, you will know that the time to resist is now, and your decision to resist will always have to begin with you.