Three World War II veterans died this April.
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Alex Cassie did not become famous and prominent in public affairs; he did his job as he had done it during the war, in years of less drama of course: loyally and honestly.
Ben Bella was released from the house arrest under which his erstwhile friend and comrade had kept him and spent a number of years in Europe, with a residence in Switzerland, like the other “historic FLN leader” whom he had defeated in the 1962-3 civil war, the Kabyle chief Hocine Ait Ahmed, who is still alive and well. But the other “historic leaders” are dead, killed in action against the French army or in purges at the hands of their own comrades or in exile by the long arm of the revolution.
Was it the same revolution Raymond and Lucie Aubrac thought they were serving during the years of fellow-travelling and what the Europeans called “tiers-mondisme,” third-worldism? Before the war, many were disappointed in bourgeois democracy, viewing it as the cause of the death instinct of the West — or at least impotent to reverse it — that seemed, since August ‘14, to be prevailing over a culture of life and progress. Even so clear headed a man as Eric Blair, pen name George Orwell, hesitated at first — as did many Americans — then found his inspiration in the plain courage of ordinary people and the green meadows of England that he knew would turn red with blood, including his own, before foreign boots trampled them. The same initial ambivalence touched many in France, even as the country was invaded, and could be at least in part explained by the collapse of will and utter confusion displayed by the government. The Communist Party, however, chose a deliberate policy of non-belligerence which translated into collaboration with the occupiers.
This was due to the Soviet-Nazi pact, designed to enslave Poland while allowing both sides to prepare for what each knew would be an apocalypse in the eastern plains of Europe. But even after the Party entered the Resistance in the summer of ‘41, following the German invasion of Russia, some ambiguity remained in many minds regarding the ultimate aims of the war, and betrayals, based on longer-term calculations, occurred. Some preferred to banish such thoughts, celebrating the common cause —
Mon parti m’a rendu les couleurs de la France, sang the most lyrical of the Resistance poets, the Surrealist-turned-Communist Louis Aragon, “My party has clothed me in the colors of France.” The Aubracs’ network welcomed the Communist reinforcements because they shared vision of the kind of world that should emerge from the global conflict. This led to tensions with the Gaullists represented by men like Jean Moulin, as well as the networks of men of the right like Henri Frenay.
Wickedly exploiting rumors, insinuations, false allegations and unproven accusations that had lingered for decades, Klaus Barbie, before he died in a French prison in 1990 — caught in South America and extradited, he was tried in a sensational trial during which his attorney defended him by arguing that he had done nothing the French army did not do a few years later, in the prisons and torture houses of Algiers and environs — claimed the tipster of Caluire was none other than Raymond Aubrac. This led to further proceedings that eventually cleared the legendary Résistant, but it left, as it had to, a bitter taste. It was no secret that there were deadly rivalries within the Resistance in France — as there were in Poland and Yugoslavia, as there would be in the anti-colonial war in Algeria, the revolutionary war in Indochina.
Ben Bella, if you put it in a comparative frame, did pretty well. After the “Spring” of 1989, when single-party rule was abolished and freedom of the press permitted, he launched the MDA, Democratic Movement of Algeria, an Islamic party that proposed a moderate alternative to the Brothers in the Islamic Salvation Front. Yet his rants against Israel and the Jews (and the Kabyle Berbers) were as filled with hate as theirs and, anyway, he got nowhere. He was given a state funeral, however, by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been a young comrade-in-arms but who ditched him to become Pres. Boumediene’s foreign minister.
Alex Cassie’s war was the least complicated — there was no unfinished business afterward for him, except the continuing business of defending his island nation. Yet — of course — even Great Britain could not be unaffected and untroubled by the aftershocks and the sequels of the world wars, the European civil wars if you want to call them that, or the wars to save the liberties Europeans had strived for so long to secure. We need not, should not, get histrionic and over-excited about where we are now, in the unending work to preserve our freedom and our liberties. We should learn, remember, transmit what we know or think we know about what others before us tried to do, wanted to do, did.
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