Doing it the French-style

Posted in 1971, comedy, history, movies by jrahman on December 16, 2012

That’s from the the French comedy OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus.  It’s set in the late 1960s.  Agent 117 — a French super spy (double one — got it?) — sent to Brazil to track down a en escaped Nazi who has a microfilm of French collaborators and Nazi sympathisers.  Our hero successfully concludes the mission, only to find that his boss — the head of the French secret service — is named in the list.  The spy chief says something about ‘the war being a difficult, confusing time’ and ‘the need to move forward without opening past wounds’ and appeals to French nationalism, before pinning a medal on the Agent 117.

I often hear about how the Nazis were dealt with after World War II, and our failure to do so with respect to those who committed genocide in 1971.  I don’t usually hear about a comparison with the French experience, which is perhaps more relevant for Bangladesh.

Like the Bengalis, French think highly of their culture (and both are viewed less charitably by their neighbours).  The political class in both countries folded rather quickly against a better armed and more ruthless enemy.  Both countries saw homegrown resistance, which had been glorified by their nationalist myth makers.  Both countries were liberated by stronger allies, who had their own interest in defeating the occupiers.  Both set of liberators have been viewed with suspicion by the liberated countries.

And during occupation, many people in both countries collaborated with the occupying power for one reason or other.  Some did so at gun point.  Other were actually double agents — licking the enemy’s boots by the day, slaughtering them with the resistance at night.  Many more simply didn’t want any drama in their lives.  And then there were those who actually believed in the enemy’s vision — anti-Semitism was not a German monopoly, and neither was anti-Hindu bigotry confined to West Pakistanis.

How did the French deal with their war memories?  There had been a lot of nationalist mythmaking about the glorious resistance, while the notion of collaboration was swept under the rug, and America’s role in liberating Paris was played down.  Only when the participant generations had been departing from the scene had more difficult questions begun to be raised, about who collaborated and why, and the strategic decisions taken by the political and military leaders, and the role America played in the war.

Does any of that sound familiar?

This is not to say that how the French came to terms with their history is a good model for how Bangladesh should approach our memory.  Rather, the point is that very few things in life are black and white — least of all, traumatic episodes like the Nazi occupation of France, or Bangladesh’s Liberation War.  As my friend Jalal Alamgir put it:

Witness to the massacres, our previous generation takes for granted that “the truth” about war crimes and criminals is self-evident. It is not. One on hand, official nationalist-Islamist revisions removed the identity of war criminals. On the other, many progressives, betrayed by state leaders, hardened their stance and insisted that only their version is legitimate. At a recent academic conference, I took issue with a Bangladeshi scholar who complained that Pakistanis still view the liberation war as a civil war. “Well, it was a civil war,” I said. “It was also a war of secession, an anti-colonial war, a guerilla war, and a war of independence.” All these labels are simultaneously valid; establishing one as the only acceptable definition limits our understanding of what had transpired. He was dismayed that a Bangladeshi could say such a thing.

That, precisely, is the danger: Since independence, we have had politicised histories imposed on us, forcing us to adopt only one lens or the other. We are not free to question, and the full stories of 1971 elude us. We become fanatics, either by promotion or denial.

Jalal left us a year ago.  In the heated debates this December, he is sorely being missed.


5 Responses

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  1. উদয়ন said, on December 16, 2012 at 7:14 am

    I have always thought occupied France was a good parallel with Bangladesh 1971 and all that followed.

    British PM Harold MacMillan said something on the lines of – France had managed to come to terms with Germany after the war, but it could never forgive the British or Americans for liberating it

    • jrahman said, on December 21, 2012 at 10:58 am

      That said, the French have matured enough to make a satire about it. So perhaps there’s hope for us yet.

  2. fugstar said, on December 18, 2012 at 5:57 am

    France might chime a few bars, but misses the colonial wound and pan-islamism. I guess its useful if you like images of nazis, vichys and nurember. which is what the Guardians are peddling.

    I think Bangladesh 2012 is more like Kampuchea year zero.

  3. Shafiq said, on January 4, 2013 at 4:57 am

    One thing that the virulent 71ers in forget about Nazis and post war Germany is that although Germany prosecuted many identified war criminals with exemplary zeal it also rehabilitated most ex-Nazi bureaucrats and professionals back into the state apparatus as soon as the new government under Adenauer was formed. In fact the bulk of the West German government bureaucracy consisted of ex Nazi official. There were simply no other alternative. In 1950 it was very hard to find competent professionals who didn’t have any association with Nazi government 1933-1945.

    Many of the most distinguished generals and officers of of Wehrmacht were re inducted in the new Bundeswehr. Officer who fought against the British and American armies now rubbed shoulder with them as partners and colleagues.

    I am not drawing any parallels but just reemphasizing that “very few things in life are black and white “.

    What did you mean by the “heated debates this December”? Did you men the war crimes tribulnal and the skype hacking issue?

    • jrahman said, on January 4, 2013 at 8:19 am

      Yes (re: the question in the last para).

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