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The Algeria Hotel : France, memory, and the Second World War /
Adam Nossiter.
imprint
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
description
x, 302 p. : ill., maps ; 21 cm.
ISBN
0395902452
format(s)
Book
Holdings
More Details
imprint
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
isbn
0395902452
catalogue key
4564927
 
Includes bibliographical references.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Adam Nossiter, formerly a reporter for the New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is the author of Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers, which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book. He lives in New Orleans
Excerpts
Excerpt from Book
Introduction: The Sewing Room When I was a small child, living in a gloomy old house at the edge of Paris, there was a room on the second floor I avoided entering. It was not a big room, just large enough for an ironing board, a Singer sewing machine, and a bed. The room was called, in my family, the sewing room. There was nothing forbidding about the little room; it had plenty of light, its colors were pale, and it looked out on the street, a solid bourgeois street of nineteenth-century houses at the unfashionable end of a fashionable district. Some time after moving to 18 Rue Weber, which is near the Porte Maillot in the Sixteenth Arrondissement, the room took on a fearful association. In this room, my parents said, a man -- the owner of the house -- had killed himself. They provided an explanation, impressive and immeasurably big, or so it seemed to me. The man had committed suicide, I was told, the day the Germans marched into Paris. He had been a famous doctor, and he had gone into the room to put a gun to his head (this last part turned out to be incorrect). It had happened in the past. When? Not the distant past, apparently. It was not recited as a kind of gruesome curiosity, as when I was given a lesson out of a guidebook in front of some European monument. This was serious: the tone was solemn. It was something that affected the tellers. My parents had not read about it in a book. The information had come nearly firsthand, or at least from somebody who had a connection to it. My parents had not known this doctor. There was no reason why his action, undoubtedly distressing, should have had any special impact on them. Yet there was something else that gave it force: the history behind it. And so the explanation itself became at least as fearsome a fact as the doctor"s death. The man killed himself because the Germans marched into Paris. For a six-year-old child, born in the United States in 1960, far in time and space from whatever sinister occurrences might have been behind the death of the man, that explanation immediately assumed troubling overtones. This was all the more true because it was associated with a clear image: I thought I knew what "marched" meant. It couldn"t have been good. When I grew older, I tended to dismiss the story. It seemed to be an example of parental exaggeration, even a far-fetched projection of certain inner fears and animosities that themselves might have been legitimate but were unlikely to have had such an intimate link to our mundane family life. There was no use putting oneself into a story not one"s own, or so I thought. It wasn"t until years later that I began coming across references to the suicide of Dr. Thierry de Martel in June 1940. Many books describing the defeat of France in that year mention this notorious death. The historians evoke it as a singular gesture, exemplary in some respects, though there were at least fifteen suicides in Paris that day. Thierry de Martel was a society doctor, an aristocrat who had had a brilliant career, a pioneer of brain surgery in France, and the director of the American Hospital of Paris. As a young man he had been an ardent anti-Dreyfusard, and before the war he had joined anti-parliamentary, anti-Semitic organizations like Action Francaise and Faisceau (Fasces). He was a fervent nationalist and a decorated World War I veteran who had lost his son in that war. Thierry de Martel had always told friends that he wouldn"t be able to bear the idea of German troops in Paris. On June 13 he wrote to his friend William Bullitt, the American ambassador: "I made you the promise that I wouldn"t leave Paris. I didn"t say whether I would stay in Paris alive or dead. Aliv
First Chapter
Introduction: The Sewing RoomWhen I was a small child, living in a gloomy old house at the edge of Paris, there was a room on the second floor I avoided entering. It was not a big room, just large enough for an ironing board, a Singer sewing machine, and a bed. The room was called, in my family, the sewing room. There was nothing forbidding about the little room; it had plenty of light, its colors were pale, and it looked out on the street, a solid bourgeois street of nineteenth-century houses at the unfashionable end of a fashionable district. Some time after moving to 18 Rue Weber, which is near the Porte Maillot in the Sixteenth Arrondissement, the room took on a fearful association. In this room, my parents said, a man -- the owner of the house -- had killed himself. They provided an explanation, impressive and immeasurably big, or so it seemed to me. The man had committed suicide, I was told, the day the Germans marched into Paris. He had been a famous doctor, and he had gone into the room to put a gun to his head (this last part turned out to be incorrect). It had happened in the past. When? Not the distant past, apparently. It was not recited as a kind of gruesome curiosity, as when I was given a lesson out of a guidebook in front of some European monument. This was serious: the tone was solemn. It was something that affected the tellers. My parents had not read about it in a book. The information had come nearly firsthand, or at least from somebody who had a connection to it. My parents had not known this doctor. There was no reason why his action, undoubtedly distressing, should have had any special impact on them. Yet there was something else that gave it force: the history behind it. And so the explanation itself became at least as fearsome a fact as the doctor's death. The man killed himself because the Germans marched into Paris. For a six-year-old child, born in the United States in 1960, far in time and space from whatever sinister occurrences might have been behind the death of the man, that explanation immediately assumed troubling overtones. This was all the more true because it was associated with a clear image: I thought I knew what "marched" meant. It couldn't have been good. When I grew older, I tended to dismiss the story. It seemed to be an example of parental exaggeration, even a far-fetched projection of certain inner fears and animosities that themselves might have been legitimate but were unlikely to have had such an intimate link to our mundane family life. There was no use putting oneself into a story not one's own, or so I thought. It wasn't until years later that I began coming across references to the suicide of Dr. Thierry de Martel in June 1940. Many books describing the defeat of France in that year mention this notorious death. The historians evoke it as a singular gesture, exemplary in some respects, though there were at least fifteen suicides in Paris that day. Thierry de Martel was a society doctor, an aristocrat who had had a brilliant career, a pioneer of brain surgery in France, and the director of the American Hospital of Paris. As a young man he had been an ardent anti-Dreyfusard, and before the war he had joined anti-parliamentary, anti-Semitic organizations like Action Franaise and Faisceau (Fasces). He was a fervent nationalist and a decorated World War I veteran who had lost his son in that war. Thierry de Martel had always told friends that he wouldn't be able to bear the idea of German troops in Paris. On June 13 he wrote to his friend William Bullitt, the American ambassador: "I made you the promise that I wouldn't leave Paris. I didn't say whether I would stay in Paris alive or dead. Alive, I give the enemy a blank check; dead, an uncovered one." On Friday, June 14, 1940, a brilliant sunny day, troops of the Wehrmacht entered the city. They marched up to the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-lyses. Thierry de Martel had arisen early, shaved, and dressed with his usual care. He heard the troops and their tanks. He went to his study on the second floor, stretched out on the divan, and injected himself with strychnine. His housekeeper found him several hours later, a copy of Victor Hugo's play Hernani, open to the line "Since one must be tall to die, I arise," by his side. A letter warned against any possible attempt to revive him. Six weeks later the far-right newspaper Candide paid tribute to the memory of "our faithful colleague."1 Not long ago, I looked up Thierry de Martel's name in the Paris telephone book for 1939. At the top of page 889, above an advertisement for a neighborhood confectioner that still exists, I saw "Martel, (Dr. T. de), 18, rue Weber (16e)." A few historians have used the example of the doctor's suicide to open or close their accounts, a desperate act foreshadowing the period to follow or epitomizing the one just ending.2 For me (and I realized this long after my family had left France), the story also may have been a kind of beginning. It was an ongoing problem to be solved, one that had entered the mind of a small child, survived adolescent skepticism, and been revived in the light of an adult's greater knowledge and puzzlement. For a long time I was obliged to be reminded of it every day, whenever I walked past that little room. Around it our family life continued, but so did the fact of the doctor's death. The paradox was this: something old yet bad had happened in there. It had happened a long time ago, yet it continued to be bad. And it had happened because "the Germans marched into Paris." These intruding facts would have seemed striking to me, all the more so in that they coexisted with a familial atmosphere of confidence. Several years ago, watching portions of a French newsreel from 1965, I glimpsed a trace of this atmosphere. In the newsreel, President Charles de Gaulle gives a press conference under the crystal chandeliers of the lyse Palace. Visible for an instant among the reporters, standing out because of his height, is a man with dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses. This was my father, then a member of the Washington Post's Paris office. Assembled amid all this gilt and velvet, my father and his colleagues have a deferential air about them. De Gaulle was God in those years. Some of my earliest childhood memories are infused with his image. On Bastille Day in 1966, I was taken to an outdoor fireworks display, a wondrous occasion culminating logically in the representation of the General himself, his huge nose and peaked French military hat floating in the ether. When I was a small child, de Gaulle seemed to be the reason for my father's employment, if not his existence. His name was part of the furniture at 18 Rue Weber. Unlike some of the American reporters, my father admired him, seeing as constructive the grandiose ambitions others found absurd. "On balance, the world is deeply in debt to this strange man," he wrote in 1966. Sometimes I would hear the General's emphatic voice pridefully booming out of our black-and-white television. My father shared this mid-1960s confidence. "The central feature of present-day Europe, both east and west of what used to be called the Iron Curtain, is its comparative affluence," he wrote from Paris. The article, entitled "Notes on the New Europe," is accompanied by a photograph of him sitting at a caf on the Champs-lyses, peering at the newspaper Le Monde.3 The late war continued to exist in this optimistic world, but only as a kind of negative foil. The country was moving forward; de Gaulle, as everybody knew, had triumphed in those war years, incarnating the essence of France with his refusal to collaborate. His version of the war's aftermath -- nothing of the country's murky collaborationist regime subsisted, and France had been reborn -- was the accepted one. "After the war, he wiped out most vestiges of the Vichy dictatorship and restored France's democratic institutions," my father wrote in 1966. Our admired family doctor, like many others, had "been in the Resistance," a phrase I remember as being nearly as common as "bonjour." The Marais, the old Jewish quarter, meant Sunday trips to Goldenberg's restaurant, not roundups of Jews twenty-odd years before. The disciplinarian French schoolteachers who terrorized us were "Nazis," to be successfully resisted by brave parents. Of course, no one in my family had any inkling of Thierry de Martel's political allegiances.4 There would have been a relative lack of interest corresponding, for other reasons, with an attitude that prevailed in France during those years. The country's official public relation to the war was still untroubled. Paradoxically, the war was both closer in time -- I remember buildings fitted in ancient coats of soot, just as they are in the haunting photographs of occupied Paris -- yet further away than it was to become. In that era, the war was simply a part of history, safely resolved. The French historian Henry Rousso has written that it was in 1964, the year of my family's arrival in France, that "this new version of the Occupation -- a version most comforting to French sensibilities -- achieved its definitive form: France was now cast as a nation that "forever and always resists the invader," whatever uniform he might wear, be it the gray-green of the German army or the paraphernalia of the Roman legion."5 Against this background there was the interior world of the house and the aura of what had happened in the sewing room. What made that event linger? It was not a question I would have asked myself at the age of six. Yet long after most definite memories of that time and place had disappeared, long after I left that house, the doctor's story stayed in my mind. It stayed even through years in which France was far from my thoughts. Recently I went back to the neighborhood around the Rue Weber for the first time in more than thirty years. Something much less precise than a memory, but palpable nonetheless, had persisted: the scale of the buildings and the angles at which the streets met each other were oddly familiar. It amounted to no more than a vague feeling. Yet the vagueness of this persistence put into sharper relief the memory of the sewing room.A woman I met several years ago in the town of Vichy, where I was living while writing this book, asked with some bewilderment what could have motivated me, an American, to take on the messy subject of France and its war. I mumbled something about old ties to the country, and the conversation moved on, away from the particular subjects that had brought me back. She began talking about a mutual acquaintance in the town, a bluff, friendly man with whom I had cordial relations. The woman began talking about his parents. She slyly suggested that their role during the Occupation had been less than honorable. She said their relations with the Germans had been perhaps a little too close. The woman did not make this observation because she was a student of history. In fact, as a subject of reflection, she couldn't have been less interested in the period of the war. She made the remark to cast discredit on the man's parents and, by association, the man himself. Something about this gambit was familiar to me. It was unpleasant enough -- I was fond of the person in question -- to make me think about it afterward, and familiar enough not to have surprised me at all. It had that deep familiarity of something that may have been implanted a long time ago, a way of thinking I might have lived with half consciously for years. The woman was reaching back into a past that was, in some sense, still alive for her, even though she professed disdain for its more everyday manifestations -- for instance, the books about the war and the Occupation that crowded bookstore shelves, even in Vichy. A recurring story about France in the American press over the last several decades was that memories of the Occupation had unexpectedly come back to haunt the country. Whenever scandalous revelations surfaced about the half-hidden wartime record of some official, the point would be made: France was newly haunted by its past. This seemed to me unprovable, inasmuch as it concerned "France." I met many people there who appeared genuinely indifferent to what had happened a half-century before and whose lives showed no sign of being influenced by it. Yet it also seemed clear, just on the surface, that in certain times and places, this phenomenon of being concerned with the past, sometimes to the point of obsession, did exist. The mere fact that old men, some of them quite respectable, were being accused of misdeeds long afterward appeared to be evidence. Clearly, some long- finished events still had the power to move people, or infuriate them. The notion of a continuing past couldn't have seemed ridiculous to me. Early on, there had been the story of Dr. Martel, and later, awareness of the recent Jewish past. This sequence was not coincidental. Discussions about the Holocaust were infrequent in my family. My father, a secularized Jew from the Upper West Side of New York City, was nineteen when the war ended. He turned to the study of economics, a tool to remake the world, and toyed with the idea of joining Israel's fight for independence. Unqualified admiration for the Israelis didn't survive reporting trips to the Middle East, but he was more likely to be preoccupied by their struggles than by, say, the Warsaw Ghetto (though, as a young reporter in 1954, he wrote movingly about a pair of ghetto survivors who had settled in New York.)6 I told him once that I had been reading Primo Levi. "Who is that?" he asked. The Holocaust museum project in Washington, D.C., disturbed him -- evidence of morbid obsession, or so he thought. It wasn't that he was uninterested in what had happened to the Jews; far from it. But it was not a subject of continuing interrogation. It seemed more important to understand the world from outside that prism. This imperative didn't apply to me. The Holocaust imposes itself, its shock waves felt all the more strongly in my generation's adulthood for having been muted earlier on. These reverberations made the shiftings in public consciousness that had occurred in France easier to comprehend for someone like me, born long after the war. Indeed, the phenomenon of a previously half-acknowledged, now renascent history was not unfamiliar. If the past had resurfaced for the French, it had done so largely through the portal of the Jewish experience. The wartime crime for which President Jacques Chirac accepted national responsibility, in his landmark speech of 1995, was the persecution of the Jews and not, say, French assistance to the Germans on the eastern front. The reasons were bound up with the complicated reckoning that had taken place in the country, itself related to the larger, international change of perspective on the continuing significance of the Holocaust. In the years after the war, certain facts had not been dwelt on -- French officials had helped the Nazis deport Jews, and the Vichy government's policy of bureaucratic anti-Semitism was not innocent in the genocide. French Jews themselves had not been eager to focus on these facts. A quarter of the country's prewar Jewish population of 300,000 had been deported. Those Jews who remained wanted to regain their place in France -- a place Vichy had denied them -- not demand justice that might mark them out once again. Their fellow citizens needed no encouragement to accommodate this reticence. Through the 1950s and 1960s, years in which my family lived there, the question of French persecution of the Jews was not "simply marginal, it was totally hidden," Henry Rousso has said.7 Then de Gaulle died, in 1970. The next year an innovative documentary film about the memory of the Occupation, Le Chagrin et la piti (The Sorrow and the Pity), put on the screen persecutors and persecuted for the first time. It was banned from French television for twelve years, but crowds flocked to showings in a small Paris theater. In the years that followed, the old facts that hadn't exactly gone away came to seem indigestible. It was true that in the wave of anger against collaborators immediately after the war, some 10,000 had been shot, legally and otherwise, around 40,000 were jailed, and perhaps another 45,000 were deprived of civic rights. But in no other occupied country in Western Europe did a smaller percentage of the population receive prison terms -- 12 per 10,000. And, minor exceptions aside, the genocide of the Jews was never a focus in this account-settling. So, decades later, there was a feeling that the reckoning with the past had failed and that it was necessary to revisit that time. "The Purge was botched," the melancholy director of a provincial archives said before unexpectedly turning over quantities of records to me. And even those who hadn't been particularly interested in the fate of the Jews were now forced to think about the war again.8 Along with the film, one man, an American scholar, had helped create the mental landscape in which this new perspective could arise. Nearly thirty years after the appearance of Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, his history of the Vichy government, the scholar's name still arouses passions in France. "Have you seen this? It refutes Paxton!" a man in late middle age said triumphantly, brandishing a book at me, in a country house outside Vichy one afternoon. I met people who contemptuously mispronounced the historian's name, and an elderly woman in Paris who said fiercely that she had kept his book on her bedside table for almost three decades. In Bordeaux in the fall of 1997, Robert Paxton had been called on to testify in the trial of Maurice Papon, the retired functionary prosecuted for helping in the wartime deportation of the town's Jews. Stepping out of the courthouse, the modest Columbia University historian was mobbed by a horde of reporters, fans, and curiosity-seekers. The large crowd that showed up to hear his testimony was rapt; the young man sitting next to me said, reverentially, "It's so strong, isn't it?" Back in his hotel room, in a semichaotic atmosphere with the phone constantly ringing, Paxton and his wife formulated an elaborate plan to avoid the reporters dogging his steps. He was unused to this kind of attention; in his own country he remains obscure. With mild distaste he asked, "Did you see it the other day?" adding, without waiting for my reply, "It was like a school of bluefish, a feeding frenzy." He had the reserve you would expect of someone whose pastimes are harpsichord playing and bird watching. With a schoolboy's bewilderment, Paxton said, "It's almost like a cargo cult. Somehow, I'm coming from afar with some kind of medicine." Paxton's book had established truths about what happened in France during the war which have not yet been shaken. He destroyed myths that originated partly in the propaganda of Marshal Ptain's Vichy regime, and which, for the most part, the Gaullist government had seen advantageous to maintain. The most important of these truths had to do with an innocuous word that even today cannot be used casually in France: collaboration. In the late 1960s Paxton, using German documents that French scholars had never consulted (he was mocked for this exploit by one prominent critic, still active in the pages of France's second newspaper, Le Figaro),9 found that "collaboration," far from being a policy pressed on weak French officials by overbearing Nazis, in fact had been just the opposite: a goal in which the Germans were only mildly interested, but one ardently pursued nonetheless by leaders of the Vichy government, Ptain foremost among them. The second of Paxton's truths had to with the nature of this government. Under the armistice signed with the Germans in June 1940, the French had been allowed to maintain their government; it established itself in the spa town of Vichy, while the former capital and the most prosperous three-fifths of the country -- the north and the coasts -- were occupied by the German military, a situation that persisted until November 1942, when the Germans moved into the south as well, following the Allied invasion of North Africa. France north and south continued to be administered mostly by French civil servants, under the intermittently watchful eyes of the Germans. Paxton's analysis showed that the Vichy government was not a stopgap affair simply reacting to the German presence -- the received wisdom. Instead, it had far-reaching goals for an authoritarian reorganization of society. "Vichy was not a Band-Aid," Paxton wrote. "It was deep surgery."10 It was driven by a right-wing ideology with deep roots in French culture. Marshal Henri Philippe Ptain, the hero of World War I, and his subordinates were going to take advantage of France's defeat to establish a reactionary new order, rolling back seventy-odd years of parliamentary democracy. The viewpoint of the American historian was disquieting. It suggested that "Vichy" had been more than merely a disagreeable but illegitimate pause, which was the Gaullist orthodoxy for many years. His book was received respectfully in the United States in 1972, but it was turned down by the major French publisher Gallimard the following year, before being accepted by a smaller publishing house. The country's historical establishment greeted it coolly. Paxton himself was puzzled by the poor reception he received from the Institut d'tudes Politiques, France's leading political-science institution. But the popular press, for the most part, was intrigued by what he had written.11 There is a quiet outrage in the historian's impeccably documented pages, and it touched a chord with a new generation in the years that followed. "The more I studied the Vichy regime, the angrier I got," Paxton said when I asked what had motivated him. Modestly, he disclaimed the title of groundbreaker, pointing to the German historian Eberhard Jaeckel and to Marcel Ophls's The Sorrow and the Pity. But the 1968 publication of Jaeckel's book went largely unnoticed and it has been long out of print, and in France Le Chagrin et la piti is not even available on video. Paxton's work is what provincial schoolteachers know, and his book is the one universally available in France. His influence is still felt. At a symposium in his honor at Columbia in 1997, Henry Rousso defined the unique position the American had come to occupy in the intellectual life of France. He compared Paxton to a "site of memory," almost like one of France's historic monuments: "Robert Paxton has thus become a character in the national novel of France. He is the messenger, come from afar to deliver the unpleasant news to a country that was steeped in its past and, until that point, proud of it . . . His word has served almost as a kind of gospel for an entire generation."12 He had helped create a new, different consciousness, one that eventually brought into the open a more complete picture of the country's wartime experience. There were judicial proceedings against old men like Maurice Papon, waves of activity by French and foreign scholars, and newspaper headlines that added nuance to the notion that de Gaulle had "wiped out most vestiges of the Vichy dictatorship," as my father had put it back in 1966. For one thing, the country's president from 1981 to 1995, Franois Mitterrand, turned out to have been, in his youth, a more enthusiastic participant in that authoritarian experiment than anyone had suspected. These public manifestations seemed to be signs of something that had never actually gone away: a familiar relationship with the recent past. They created the possibility that you could perhaps get a glimpse of this relationship. It might be the last such opportunity, a moment at the point of its disappearance. The war has been over for nearly sixty years. The obituary pages of French newspapers these days record, at least once a week (or so it seems), the death of a famous rsistant. For three years, I lived and worked in three towns in France trying to find out what it means to coexist with the past. I took it as a given that in the places I went to, certain people -- more than just a few, perhaps not enough to impress a pollster -- were obliged to think about the past. Did this mean that they lived with it? Did the past manifest itself through the words they spoke? Could the ongoing effect of the past be measured? Did past events -- the events of the war -- continue to exist in any objective sense? What might be the relationship between a preoccupation with the past and expressions of this preoccupation? I started with a prejudice: memories -- in other words, that which had survived the passage of time -- should be taken seriously. Memory's distortions, if I could identify them, would be precious indications of how people lived with the past today. I chose the three towns in order to examine different phases of intensity in the relationship with the past. These phases of intensity would increase from town to town -- each had had a different degree of closeness to the events of the war. This would allow me, or so I hoped, to get as close as possible to the question of what it might mean to live with the past. I wasn't interested in what could be considered the artificial transmission of the past -- that which took place, say, in the classroom. Rather, I wanted to find manifestations, even random ones, that could be considered echoes of lived experience. First I installed myself in Bordeaux, in the fall of 1997, for what would probably be the last trial in France having to do with the war. Maurice Papon, who had been an official in the government's local administration in those years, now found himself accused of complicity in crimes against humanity, a number of compromising documents with his signature having been accidentally discovered sixteen years before. The old port of Bordeaux was associated with an ancient, proud commerce, not the war, though it had been the largest city outside Paris in the occupied zone, the area occupied by the German military. I wanted to see how the inhabitants reacted to this unprecedented confrontation with the past. Unexpectedly, the trial lasted six months, giving me plenty of opportunity to observe. The judicial proceeding itself, in all its strangeness -- a man in his late eighties being examined over events more than a half-century old -- offered a controlled opportunity to measure the late twentieth century's relationship to those events. Maurice Papon was the first high French civil servant ever to be tried for taking part in the genocide of the Jews, though not the first of the nation's officials. There had been long delays in his case, some engineered by him, some due to judicial sluggishness. In 1994 Paul Touvier, a former member of Vichy's paramilitary political police, the Milice, was convicted of crimes against humanity for the murder of seven Jews fifty years before. But the significance of Touvier's trial was limited by the defendant's loutishness and insincerity. After Bordeaux, I moved to Vichy, the resort in the center of France chosen almost by accident, after the armistice with the Germans, to be the seat of the French government. The world has known this government ever since as the Vichy government; the town is indelibly associated with a regime long since condemned to opprobrium. The inhabitants would thus be forced to think, regularly and in all likelihood unwillingly, about the past. Finally I looked at Tulle, a provincial capital in the south- central region, where German troops carried out a terrible massacre one hot afternoon in June 1944. The killing had been so public, and so awful in its means, that the inhabitants couldn't have failed to have been marked by it, probably down to the present. In an earlier book about the persistence of the past, I looked at the legacy of an unpunished civil rights murder in one corner of the American south. For years the dominant culture there, the whites, had been able to tell itself that the story was settled. This was part of the fabric of everyday life -- an element that, in its small way, helped ensure the smooth dovetailing of one day with the next. But the story was not settled. For the African Americans in Mississippi, it was one of a thousand irritants, at times symbolizing all of them, with the potential to sour ordinary existence. It summoned up memories of a past -- segregation -- that echoed enough into the present to make the unresolved murder all the more vivid. Whites could scornfully dismiss it as just "history," but in the episode I wrote about, they discovered that they too had been living with the old story, albeit negatively. The vehement professed indifference that greeted the presumed murderer's reindictment after thirty years offered a clue about the story's real place in the thinking of those I interviewed. You could see that in Mississippi "history" might actually be present, a past lived with to an unsuspected degree. Whether or not the particular "history" in question was fully part of lived experience might not necessarily be important; the imagination was capable of filling in what was missing. It seemed to be a characteristic of memory that the smallest detail had the potential to expand, in the individual, into a story that might appear overwhelming. And then reasonably contented living would not go forward until there was some resolution, or until many more years had gone by than a past that could be measured simply in decades. This knowledge helped me undertake a similar exploration of the relationship between past and present in France. Some aspects of memory would not change, across continents and vastly differing circumstances. Still, the point has been made many times: an American writing about France during the war should do so with some circumspection. The United States has never been conquered, never been occupied. The phenomenon of an old event, a past, that continues to be bad is something a white American like myself might hope to understand, but only at a distance. All the more reason why I never intended, in undertaking this book, to confront another question often encountered in recent writings about France: whether or not the country had "come to grips" with its past -- presumably, whether or not it had fully explored, and honestly judged, the way its leaders and significant numbers of its citizens had thought and acted in that period. It seemed evident to me that it had not. But to a greater or lesser degree, no national entity has "come to grips" with its past. All relationships with the past are a continuing dialogue, more or less honest according to circumstances, culture, and tradition. This is not to say that it was possible for me to approach portions of the research for this book in a spirit of perfect neutrality. Nobody whose writing touches on France during the war can fail to wonder at what is "in one special sense, a mystery," as the historian Tony Judt put it -- the mystery of what happened in the country with claims on universal civilization.13 The French wonder about it too. Their deep involvement with their own recent history is, in one sense, an exotic phenomenon to an American. Our country is not used to collectively looking back in this impassioned way. But in another sense this phenomenon is instructive. The experience of the French, or so it seemed to me, could offer lessons about living with searing history -- ambiguous choices, painful humiliation -- years into the future. Copyright 2001 by Adam Nossiter
Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2001-06-01:
It should surprise no one that the four years of fascist rule in France, anathematized with the humble disyllable "Vichy," spark memories so painful and humiliating for those who lived through them that many have felt that the entire episode was better relegated to oblivion. Employing journalistic persistence and scholarly fastidiousness, reporter and author Nossiter (Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers) explores the peculiar relationship between truth and memory via interviews with some who witnessed that time, many of whom wished never to recall what they had seen and some who simply denied it altogether. This book ponders the function of memory and the willingness of the French to come to terms with their history. Not a scholarly study but a journalist's investigation, this is an excellent complement to the work of Robert O. Paxton (Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944) and is recommended for both public and academic libraries. Michael F. Russo, Louisiana State Univ. Libs., (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2001-06-25:
Nossiter takes on some weighty issues in this disappointing study. A former New York Times journalist and author of Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers, he spent part of his childhood in De Gaulle's France, which prided itself on resisting the Nazis, until in later decades, a much uglier truth France' s cooperation with the Nazi regime and its deportation of Jews began to come to light. Nossiter attempts to explore the effects of this double consciousness through three communities. First, he focuses on the trial, in Bordeaux, of Maurice Papon, who was instrumental in deporting French Jews to the camps of Eastern Europe. Nossiter then moves on to Vichy, a resort town-turned-headquarters of P?tain's Collaborationist government. The book's last section deals with the southern working-class town of Tulle, where, in retaliation for a Resistance raid, the SS rounded up the town's men and publicly hanged 99 of them in a single afternoon. Nossiter has done his homework: the book is replete with names, facts, anecdotes and observations. But he set himself a near-impossible task to take the pulse of an entire country and compounds it with a first-person narrative that keeps readers from engaging with the people and events described. Add to this the fact that Nossiter is delving back 50 years, and the result is a series of disconnected and uneven vignettes connected by Nossiter's constant reminders to readers of what he's trying to do. His voice is not compelling enough to carry such a lengthy, weighty narrative. Nossiter's exploration will likely be sought out only by Francophiles (and Francophobes) and those interested in scholarly research on the topic. (July 16) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Reviews
Review Quotes
"intelligent, intimate and elegantly presented . . . Algeria Hotel is a salutory lesson in the lessons of history."--Richard Bernstein
"intelligent, intimate and elegantly presented . . . Algeria Hotel is a salutory lesson in the lessons of history."--Richard Bernstein The New York Times
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, April 2001
Booklist, June 2001
Library Journal, June 2001
Publishers Weekly, June 2001
New York Times Book Review, July 2001
Washington Post, July 2001
Boston Globe, August 2001
New York Times Book Review, August 2001
San Francisco Chronicle, August 2001
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Summaries
Main Description
Adam Nossiter spent part of his youth in France. During those years, in the mid-1960s, President de Gaulle forged the myth that France bravely resisted the German occupiers of World War II and that the nation was innocent in the crimes of the Holocaust. Collaboration with Germany and the deportations of Jews were subjects not dwelt on -- not until many years later. THE ALGERIA HOTEL is Nossiter's intensely personal confrontation with the effects of this awakening to the underside of the French record in the war. For three years he lived and traveled in France, listening to people talk about the war -- mapping their stories, silences, evasions, and even lies. In Bordeaux, Nossiter follows the trial of Maurice Papon, the retired French official accused a half century later of orchestrating the deportation of Jews. He settles in Vichy, the seat of France's wartime government; shadowed by the Algeria Hotel, which housed the agency for Jewish affairs, Nossiter journeys into the dark heart of France's compromises with the Nazis. In Tulle, he listens for the echoes of a single afternoon when the Nazis carried out a terrible massacre of the town's residents. An artful weave of vivid portraits, clear-eyed reporting, and meticulous historical research, The Algeria Hotel is an absorbing and resonant portrait of a nation and its people. Illuminating the many ways painful memories of the past leave their mark on the present, Nossiter reveals deep truths about how we remember and why we forget. The result is a searching and beautifully written narrative of how the French today live their lives haunted by the war and its crimes.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Sewing Roomp. 1
Bordeaux, Papon, and the Exigencies of Memory: The Stain on the Stonep. 19
Papon's Wagerp. 23
The Missing Contextp. 38
The Exigencies of Memoryp. 56
The Judgment of Papon: History's Revengep. 75
Vichy and the Pleasures of Forgetting: Bordeaux-Vichyp. 95
The Past Effacedp. 97
Reimagining the Pastp. 119
Interlude: Escape from Vichyp. 145
Vichy and the Jewsp. 174
Vichy Livesp. 208
Postscript: Xavier Vallat at the Parcp. 215
Tulle: Living Memory: Vichy-Tullep. 219
Its Normal Lifep. 220
Unavoidable Pastp. 226
Measuring Silencep. 232
A Difficult Storyp. 240
The Privileged Witnessp. 246
Living Memoryp. 256
Woven Historyp. 269
Conclusionp. 273
Notesp. 279
Bibliographyp. 288
Acknowledgmentsp. 301
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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