Last month saw the publication of the English translation of the diaries of the French writer, Jean Guéhenno, among the most authentic accounts of Paris under German occupation. It is easy to understand why Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944, enjoys cult status in France. Guéhenno was one of the towering figures of the quiet intellectual resistance to the new dispensation. He didn’t pick up a gun and join the Resistance but he refused to publish as long as the army of occupation was in place. “I am going to bury myself in silence,” he wrote in his private journal. “I will take refuge in my real country. My country, my France, is a France that cannot be invaded.”
Guéhenno’s private resistance is unquestionably important in demonstrating that the national will cannot be broken by a catastrophic military defeat. It bolsters the mythology that built up around Charles De Gaulle and the Resistance and serves to negate the alternative National Revolution of Marshal Pétain and his collaborationist Vichy regime.
Yet, Guéhenno’s diaries don’t quite live up to the larger political project. The writer no doubt filled his diary with his voyages of intellectual discovery and re-discovery that lifted his spirits in gloomy times. However, what may strike the reader is the vitriol poured on fellow intellectuals and “mediocre” journalists engaged in ‘collaboration’. Guéhenno seems obsessed with debunking the Vichy regime.
By contrast, the Germans get a perfunctory look in, and are mentioned in passing as the overbearing “guests”. They are about as remote as individual Britons were in Nirad Chaudhury’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, a life-tale centred on undivided Bengal. As an idea, Nazism dominated Guéhenno’s consciousness, just as an interest in Western civilization never left Chaudhury. But in the end, occupation — minus some of the lived irritants, such as food shortages, lack of heating and the despair over the unending execution of “communists” — comes across as an abstraction.
This blurred image of the real adversary seems significant. Whether in occupied France or colonial India, the day-to-day dealings and confrontations (both real and symbolic) were with the forces of collaboration. It would seem that those who believed that France suffered a humiliation in 1940 on account of the moral decay of the Third Republic were far more numerous and influential than is admitted. In hindsight, Pétain and Laval may seem pathetic and despicable boot-lickers. However, as a re-look at the film clips of the time suggests, their popular acceptance after the reality of military defeat had sunk in was far more widespread than the history books would have us believe.
On February 24, 1941, for example, Guéhenno went with a friend to see the inaugural rally of Rassemblement National Populaire, a body claiming to be both ‘European’ and ‘socialist’ and urging even greater collaboration between France and Germany. The gathering, the diarist was forced to admit, wasn’t exclusively from the “particularly low order”: “There were five or six thousand people in Salle Wagram. Not one worker. The great majority was composed of shopkeepers, clerks, office-workers, and pseudo-intellectuals… The common species of frenzied petty bourgeois in shiny cotton oversleeves was the only species represented.”
What is relevant is not Guéhenno’s distaste for the collaborators but his observation that the treacherous lot actually represented a definite social constituency. This grudging admission is at odds with the stereotype — particularly in films — of the typical collaborator being either a sadistic policeman or someone from the dregs of society. Indeed, what really angered the likes of Guéhenno was the extent of intellectual support for the Vichy regime. This is something that France has never been able to come to terms with since it violated a notion of French enlightenment.
The reason for dwelling at length on the four-year experience of France on the day India celebrates its 67th Independence Day is actually a little perverse. Every nation, particularly one that achieved self-government after a prolonged struggle, needs an ‘official’ history that is bequeathed to future generations. For India, the discourse is one of sporadic but unending struggles against British rule that reached its culmination with the mass movements under Mahatma Gandhi. Earlier, the script permitted little deviation. Today, however, the Gandhian movements are seen to be complemented by other struggles, notably the revolutionary nationalism of the likes of Bhagat Singh, the endeavours of Subhas Chandra Bose and the INA, and lesser-known ‘subaltern’ insurrections. From Siraj-ud-Daula, Tipu Sultan and Nana Saheb to Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi, Independence Day is dedicated to their collective memory.
This is exactly as it should be. Nations live by stories that are handed down through the generations. These permit embellishments and even exaggerations. But, even in a land exposed to the myriad convoluted plots of the Mahabharat, caveats and awkward details are often seen to be needless and unduly confusing. This search for twitter-like simplicity and certitudes may explain why one facet of history has been blotted out: the phenomenon of loyalism.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the British Empire in India would not have lasted for as long as it did without the active — and sometimes enthusiastic — collaboration of Indians. There were never enough Europeans to maintain control over far-flung areas. French citizens who remained in their posts as policemen, magistrates, tax collectors and teachers, serviced Germany’s occupation of France. Likewise, Indians serviced the British raj, including its formidable army. Indeed, until the late-1930s, the larger belief in the endurance of British rule remained intact in the minds of most Indians. All attempts by the Congress to create a parallel authority came to nought. The structures of administrative control, including the loyalty of the army, remained firmly intact till 1947 and were inherited in totality by the successor regime.
This phenomenon demands explanation. The loyalty of Indians wasn’t secured by coercion alone. Had force been the only motivation for adherence to British rule, the character of India’s freedom struggle would have been very different and may even have resembled the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya or the armed struggle in Southern Africa. A Gandhi would have been irrelevant had India experienced, say, Portugese rule.
There was a large measure of ideological acceptance of British rule in India, especially after 1858, when the rulers chose to insulate indigenous society from experiments with Western modernity. For Hindu communities accustomed to varying degrees of subordination under the Sultanate, the Moghuls and their successors, self-government seemed too abstract and unrealizable. Unlike many Muslim communities that saw in British rule a loss of power, ‘Hindu’ India didn’t attach a premium to political power. Many prominent Hindus, particularly in Bengal, even saw British rule as liberation from the dark ages. Demolishing this political fatalism, in fact, made Gandhi’s achievements all the more significant. He was more than a Hindu leader but he motivated Hindus to break out of their defensive social ghettos, encounter public life and challenge authority. Most important, he did it without mounting a military challenge.
Political choice is born of circumstances. In France, collaboration remained intact from the armistice of June 1940 till the D-Day landings four years later when Germany’s final defeat seemed inevitable. France was liberated by a military re-conquest and loyalties were again re-negotiated. The French who cheered Pétain in 1940 embraced De Gaulle in 1944. Subsequently, the unhappy Vichy chapter became a subject of national denial.
National histories don’t permit awkward moments. This is as true of India as it is for France. After all, in similar situations, how many Frenchmen could honestly say they would have resisted Vichy? And how many Indians would have disavowed Queen Victoria for an uncertain future?
Independence and freedom are never inherent. They always need a context.