Doing it the French-style

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.

Grey, nuance, are the stuff desperately missing in Bangladeshi cyberspace.  Hopefully Nuraldeen will make a difference.

(Based on a Mukti post from December 2012).

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