Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Otherwise Occupied

While it’s certainly nice when history is debated as a living thing- which of course it is- I am often glad that my own work is not particularly controversial. All historians write about the present; however, I’m not sure that the intellectual roots of tourism really touch a lot of raw nerves; or, at least, I hope not. It’s interesting though: you can learn a lot about a society by which historical debates flare up in that society.

In Paris, there has been a very vocal dustup over an exhibition at the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris of color photos taken in the city during the occupation. The BHVP is showing 250 pictures taken by André Zucca for the Nazi propaganda magazine Signal depicting happy, smiling French people basking under the warm sun of fascism. Critics have argued that the exhibit does not do enough to highlight the fact that these are propaganda photos and that the reality for the French under the occupation was not so cheerful. They have also criticized the posters for the exhibit for the same reasons and many of them have been taken down.

On the one hand, they’re right that propaganda is a loaded art form that needs to be contextualized. The BHVP has been a bit flippant about this, claiming that everyone knows this is propaganda after all; but perhaps they don’t and it could be a risky business publicizing the Nazi narrative on life under Nazism.

On the other hand, there’s perhaps a bit of a counter-mythology taking place here. Critics contend that the “reality” was much harder for the majority of Parisians: that they were suffering on food lines, while the Jews were being deported; but I don’t know that they’re not overstressing their case. There’s a real desire among the French to imagine that everyone was in the Resistance at that time; if not actively, then passively. There’s also a real desire to see what went on in that time as having been imposed from without and not really taking place within France. But, of course, most of the studies suggest that collaboration was the rule and not the exception under the Occupation. I think part of what makes the pictures so painful is that they show a certain reality of Parisians living comfortably in collaboration with the Nazis; even if they are propaganda, someone had to collaborate with the creation of that propaganda.

No comments: