Living in Europe these days gives one the eerie sensation of being an extra in a faded black and white film about World War II. One does not participate in the cinematic action, but the events are uncomfortably close for an epoch that should have long since been relegated to the deeper recesses of the memory.
Firestorms of controversy broke out recently in Britain, France and The Netherlands concerning individual and collective actions during the war years. Meanwhile, the West German government is watching anxiously on the sidelines as former enemies exhibit a slightly lurid fascination for Europe's most recent descent into barbarism. Though each controversy involves very different men with diverse wartime roles, press reports have brought into countless European drawing rooms once again the nagging question: What did you do during the war, daddy?
There is little doubt about what Louis Darquier de Pellepoix was doing in France's Vichy government: He was in charge of deporting 75,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps. The leading French news magazine, L'Express, aroused a storm of criticism when it published an interview with Darquier, now dying in Spain at the age of 80. In the article, the ex-Vichyite denied that any Jews were killed at all by the Nazis and showed himself to be a thoroughly convinced anti-Semite. "The Jews have only one idea in their head -- to sow disorder everywhere," he said.
And that should have been the end of it -- a last burst of hysteria from a forgotten old fascist. But it was only the beginning of a cause celebre that has wracked France for weeks as editors and political personalities, including the president and the premier, debated the propriety of the magazine's publishing the interview.
The debate completely ignited the leftist press, always conjuring a rebirth of fascism in a capitalist Western Europe that it sees as dominated by traditional German bogymen. Publications such as Le Monde charged wildly that the interview with Darquier actually encouraged anti-Semitism. But such histrionics attribute to the French public the intellectual discrimination of toddlers, since the interview was presented to give all but the most simple-minded a complete abhorrence of Darquier's actions.
Even so, Minister of Justice Alain Peyrefitte felt duty-bound to initiate an investigation of Darquier for an "apology for war crimes." Of course, the investigation will lead to nothing, since Darquier is both in exile and dying, but in France, considerations of form often outweigh those of substance.
The real reason that the French are in a paroxysm of introspection is that there are hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen alive who supported the Vichy regime and its policies. All but the most blatant war criminals were discreetly integrated into French society following the war, and Darquier touched a raw nerve when he accurately pointed out that he had once been elected to the Paris city council touting his anti-Semitic beliefs.
The uncomfortable fact that Europeans must some day come to terms with is that most of the people in Nazi-occupied countries were actively engaged only in staying alive, however much they prefer to remember themselves as resistance heroes. Still others cooperated more actively with the Nazis, which is true of the Dutch as much as any other nation. But the parliamentary leader of the Dutch Christian Democratic Party has been forced to resign because of his wartime past. It seems that Willem Aantjes joined an elite German fighting unit during the war, and there is evidence that he was coerced into doing so. But no matter. The chorus of the self-righteous (some of whom were too young to remember the Nazi era) called for Aantijes' resignation from all political posts, and he was forced to oblige.
The Dutch affair illustrates the extraordinary ability of Europeans to be both courageous and morally righteous retrospectively. Everyone is boldly against the Nazis now that they are safely interred, but one wonders in amazement at the selectivity of compassion for European martyrs.
As a case in point, a London monument was dedicated last year to Polish officers massacred by the Soviets at Katyn Forest, but the British Foreign Office refused to send a representative to the ceremonies on grounds that it would strain relations with the Soviet Union. Likewise, the wartime treatment of people by the Nazis has received ample press coverage, but the Soviet savagery in incorporating the Baltic republics into the U.S.S.R. following the conflict has been forgotten. In the case of the Nazis, the criminals are defeated and excoriated; in the case of the victorious Soviets, the murderers are literally "among us," as Simon Wiesenthal might have said. Moral posturing these days seems inversely proportional to the political power of the antagonists.
British memories of the war are altogether more pleasant than those of "the continentals." The cornerstone of British wartime mythology is, of course, Winston Churchill, who is doubtless one of the great statesmen of the century. But Lord Robert Boothby, once Churchill's parliamentary secretary, set out to debunk part of the legend by declaring that Sir Winston possessed "a streak of cruelty" and was "gaga" in his later years. That naturally provoked angry protests from the Churchill lobby, which would have us believe that the wartime prime minister was practically a candidate for sainthood. Perhaps this is not an altogether unhealthy reaction, since Britain-sans-empire needs to cling to a great hero for psychological reasons. But defending Sir Winston is essentially an empty exercise, for his record speaks for itself and will survive long after his critics are forgotten.
And what do the Germans think of all of this? After all, it is they who were the great villains of the last conflict. Perhaps it is only coincidence that the West German government has greatly increased its budget for the Goethe Institute (the German Alliance Francaise ), but it may be an effort to counter the new preoccupation with the darker side of their past.
All of this came about around Armistice Day, when the British made a great show of wearing poppies, the traditional remembrance for those fallen in wars. The little red artificial flowers had the inscription "Lest we forget." But forgetting the war does not seem to be a problem in Europe at the moment. Perhaps a better monument to the fallen would be inscription "Lest we become obsessed." For it is clearly time to ignore the hateful, brooding Darquiers, to forgive the unlucky Aantjeses and to let the valiant Churchills rest in peace.