We have our thinking caps on today…after a three-day holiday in which we were given plenty of time for it. You see, over this long Memorial Day weekend we had to ignore the financial news – since there wasn’t too much of it – and we actually gave ourselves over to cogitation. Now we find we can’t stop ourselves. The thing has become addictive.
Actually, thinking is usually the hardest thing for any man to do. Most men will do practically anything to avoid it – even die. And that is true in matters other than finance. We, however, will make do with the little news we can find, even if we have to fish it out of the past.
Yesterday, for instance, we talked about a nation’s idea of itself…its history…its dominant ‘narrative.’ People need simple answers to questions such as, ‘who are we?’ and, ‘what are we doing here?’ They need answers that give themselves a sense of purpose…or at least an explanation that is so plausible that it saves them the trouble of thinking.
For one thing, people don’t like to die in pointless, absurd battles. They much prefer to die for a reason – so they look for one anywhere they can. In France, they died to realise the dream of a united, centralised republican France; American martyrs fell, on the other hand, to preserve their freedom and independence…or try to extend these blessings to other parts of the planet. Of course, there are a lot of people who think France would be a better place if it weren’t quite so French. And there are plenty of others who would prefer that US troops mind their business at home.
An individual soldier who bothered to think about his own situation might decide that Napoleon’s campaign against Tsar Alexander I of Russia, or Wilson’s campaign against Porfirio Diaz of Mexico, was not really worth dying for.
But a soldier who thinks is not merely extremely rare – he is a danger to the whole system! Fortunately, very few are capable of it. And the rest of us loathe it so vigorously, we will accept any narrative at all in its stead…provided it flatters our self-importance enough.
Napoleon drove the Grande Armee into Russia by telling the soldiers that the Russians posed a grave risk to France’s Eastern Flank. French aristocrats – driven out and disposed during the revolution – had the ear of the Romanovs and the Hapsburgs; they were always stirring up plots against La Patrie. “If we don’t fight them in Moscow,” Bonaparte might have said, “we will soon face them in Strasbourg. It’s up to us to save our civilization.”
This kind of flattering threat is a perennial favorite. And so the caissons roll…the drums beat…and the martyrs fall. ‘Mort pour la France,’ say the French monuments. They died ‘serving their country,’ say the American stones.
We spent much of Memorial Day sitting on a train in the middle of nowhere. The train had broken down on the tracks, in the middle of a huge field of wheat, between Montmorillon and Poitiers. Waiting for a bus to come to our rescue, we picked up a copy of a book about French soldiers who fought for Germany in WWII. Why would a Frenchman fight for the Nazis? They seem to have chosen the wrong narrative.
Many Europeans, in the 1930s, saw Bolshevism as public enemy number one.
The Bolsheviks were godless, lawless barbarians, they thought. They had already taken over Russia…and nearly grabbed Spain too. If they weren’t stopped, all of Europe would fall under the hammer…or be cut down by the sickle. In this reading of things, Germany was not a threat to France or Britain. Instead, it was a bulwark against the commies…and the only nation with the vigour and strength to stand up to them. Many Frenchmen saw the defeat of their forces by the Wehrmacht as a happy historical necessity; now they were allied with the Germans in the fight that really mattered, the battle against Bolshevism.
The Nazis put up recruiting posters in French: “Europe United Against Bolshevism.” Sensing an opportunity, thousands of Frenchmen signed up for the Legion of French Volunteers, LVF, and were sent to the Eastern Front. A later poster shows a picture of a French soldier dressed in a snow- camouflage white uniform, carrying a machine gun. “During Three Winters: The LVF covered itself with glory…for France and for Europe.”
After three winters, hunkered down in snow-swept ‘hedge-hog’ formations, you’d think the French would have time to think…time to question the narrative that had gotten them into such a tight spot:
“What are we doing here?” they might have asked themselves. But it was easier to die than to think. Besides, at that point, dying was the odds-on favourite. What good was thinking? The war was going badly. The Germans were falling back across the Oder…with the Russkies in hot pursuit. And if they made it back to France, their countrymen would call them traitors.
No, it was easier – and maybe better – to die.
That fourth winter was the hardest one, the one when most of them stopped moving. The LVF was incorporated into the Waffen SS and covered the Germans’ retreat, often without suitable weapons or food. Their job was to hold back the Russian tanks so that the Wehrmacht and the civilians of Pomerania could make their way to the West. They fought…and then they retreated too, with the long columns of Prussian women, children and old men…beaten soldiers…deserters…lost…wounded.
The civilians, too, might have wondered about their own narrative. They had been told that the German army could stop the Russian advance at the border. They had been told that the Russian tanks were still hundreds of miles away…and in retreat! And then, suddenly, there were thousands of T-34 tanks and Red Army soldiers – who showed no mercy to anyone – on the hallowed soil of Prussia. It was unthinkable…but it was real.
And now Germany needed real heroes…real soldiers…real men to push back the Slav hordes. For centuries Prussia had nurtured a stern military tradition of the threat from the East. And now, here it was – thousands of Russia’s bloodthirsty Siberian troops…burning their houses and raping their women. And where was the German army when they needed it? It had been battered and broken on a fool’s errand in Russia. Now, the Russians were having their revenge…and there were no troops to stop them.
Still, the Legion of French Volunteers fought on as best it could – retreating, fighting, retreating, fighting – right to the gates of Berlin, where they were among its last defenders.
Of those who survived the war, many went into Russian POW camps. Few came out alive. And those that made it back to France found that they had been officially dishonoured and ostracised. They found no respect…and no jobs; what could they do but become financial journalists?
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