Occupation and Resistance

July 2001

By David Cogswell

Turner Classic Movies recently played a fascinating 1971 documentary on the Nazi occupation of France called "The Sorrow and the Pity" by French filmmaker Marcel Ophuls. I found it absolutely gripping, and especially relevant since I feel that we are more or less under an occupation now in America.

Vast differences obviously exist between the the political situation in the United States in 2001 and France during the Nazi occupation, but it would not be wise to dismiss the parallels too easily.

It was fascinating how at first the French were stunned, stymied. As Hitler weighed his decision about "who should pay for the war, France or England," the Nazis clamped down their power structures on France and most people just went along with it.

The Nazis put their propaganda machine to work generating messages of "collaboration" to soothe the people into compliance, while subtly reshaping their thinking, the messages backed by the ever-present threat of Nazi force.

The elderly military hero Marshall Petain was put in place as a figurehead of a new government that would administer the Nazi rule in France. The story was just believable enough to quell resistance in a population that would rather believe that everything would be okay than to face the real consequences of the Nazi takeover.

The propaganda encouraged Anglophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism. It also contained a message of German superiority over the French. It would require German structure and order to "clean up the French mess" so that France could become an important part of a new united Europe. It was fascinating how the Nazis used a combination of propaganda, terror and strategically placed forces to maintain control, then gradually tightened the screws and sucked the country dry of all of its resources, including labor.

Gradually resistance coalesced. It began with the young and the working class. A British agent said the working people were "so kind, they would give you anything, they would let you sleep in their homes. If they only had a room and a kitchen, they let you sleep in the kitchen." The bourgeoisie, he said, were "more neutral." They would never help. "The working people would get you anything you needed, but the bourgeoisie, they wouldn't help. They were scared. They had more to lose."

It reminded me of the resistance that is gradually coming together here (he said hopefully) to the quasi-fascists that are now in control of the country and who use very similar methods. In the case of the controllers in Washington today, the physical force is exercised more subtly, more selectively, while the propaganda is much more sophisticated, much more powerful and ever-present. The contrasts themselves are instructive.

Some similarities are certainly worth noting. The present regime got into power in a quasi-legal fashion, taking over organs of government and turning them to its own purposes. The United States has more of its population incarcerated than almost any country in the world. The majority of the country is more or less compliant to whoever exerts the greatest power. The modern equivalent of the bourgeoisie - the top 20% or so of the economic pyramid - has too much to lose to rock the boat whether the country is ruled constitutionally or by an oligarchy. That administrative class is rewarded enough to keep quiet, and strategically placed to keep the 80% or so below it in positions of servitude. Only the top 5% or so really reap the benefits of the country's production. That is the group that really controls the show and has things arranged through slick tax breaks and corporate subsidies so it can continue to suck those below dry. Just like in France in the '40s and many other situations throughout history, those who are on not in a privileged position and who are complacent will gradually see what they have taken away.

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