“I drew my pistol….”

I haven’t avoided this topic intentionally. Yet I know I haven’t really mentioned it thus far either. But it’s an issue that invariably crops up, so I thought I might as well address it and be done with it.

At the first hint of a fight, “the French surrender”: How often have we heard variations on that barb?

The most notable recent expression of it was found in the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” insult. That first appeared in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons: In a typically obnoxious comment, Willie, Springfield Elementary’s Scottish janitor, proclaims to a class of French language students, “Bonjoooouuur, ya cheese-eatin’ surrender monkeys!” It was then resurrected and appropriated by a U.S. political polemicist for a silly 1999 article. A few years after that, he recycled it over France’s adamant refusal to join in (and diplomatic attempts even to prevent) the 2003 assault on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Others took it up as well.

Overlooked amidst the childish name-calling, was that from 2001 French troops were fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan alongside U.S. and British forces. And of course the “surrender” potshot did not begin with bitterness over France’s opposition to invading Iraq, or a throwaway line in The Simpsons: those were merely newer manifestations of it. In the novel – which takes place in 1994-1995 – I nod to the slur’s likely long familiarity to most readers:

[Isabelle] slumped. “You win. I am too weak. I surrender.”

James could not resist a dig. “Well, that’s very French!”

She stuck her tongue out at him.

As he finished tucking the bed sheet under the mattress, James wrote off her assertion. “You? Too weak? Huh. Yeh, right!”

With the centenary of the First World War almost upon us, visiting Verdun’s battlefield and cemetery should educate just about anyone. (I write “just about” because some individuals always prove beyond reach.) The almost incomprehensible scale of the carnage of that 1916 horror is so overwhelming you’ll almost surely find yourself with tears running down your face. It is also hardly surprising that any people who had lost hundreds of thousands in a battle like that never would be gung-ho to see such butchery repeated.

My most vivid recollection – and I am hardly alone – will always be the “Bayonet Trench.” All that is visible are a group of bayonets sticking up out of the earth at regular intervals. An entire company had been deployed there, leaning their rifles on the parapet, and had evidently been buried and killed where they had stood when a bombardment collapsed their trench on top of them. (It has also been argued that bayonets were attached to the rifles afterward by survivors, to mark the spot. The exact truth will probably never be known. Regardless, the company had been entombed in the trench all the same.)

France endured far fewer military losses in 1939-1945’s Second World War. The “surrender” insult seems rooted in the French army having been defeated by the Germans in the spring of 1940. In that 1999 “surrender monkeys” article’s “Top Ten Reasons to Hate the French,” the author makes that abundantly clear by topping his personal list with this (although he also seemed to think he could claim he had had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek):

“They surrendered Paris to the Germans without firing a shot.”

They did? What one learns. Apparently the Germans suffered some 27,000 killed, 111,000 wounded, and 18,000 missing (and most of those “missing” turned out to be dead) …. as the French “surrendered” Paris “without firing a shot.”

What actually happened in early June 1940 was the French government withdrew from Paris after it realized it could no longer be held. In doing so, the government also announced loudly that it would not be defended – to try to spare it and its inhabitants the same fate as Warsaw the previous September and Rotterdam on May 14. But then again, why should readers expect a “journalist” to grasp history much beyond what he picks up from watching The Simpsons anyway?

In Strange Defeat, French actual historian Marc Bloch reflects on why France had been so unexpectedly and shockingly overwhelmed. In the short book, written in 1940, he argues persuasively that it was the country’s political and military establishment that had been defeated, not the ordinary French soldier. The lengthy German casualty list that resulted from just six weeks of combat might well be said to support that contention.

Yes, the Germans had prevailed. But their high command had been exceedingly nervous, and fearful of a reverse, until almost the very end of the campaign. The German victory was not the spring driving holiday across the pleasant French countryside that some today seem determined to think it was.

French jets overfly a Bastille Day parade. [Photo by me, 1995.]
French jets overfly a Bastille Day parade. [Photo by me, 1995.]

My Passports is a novel, not an academic treatise. Still, I put varying memories shared with me into my characters’ mouths. One example:

“Near Dunkirk, Belgians we were with wished to surrender,” Marcel recalled. “We feared they would tell the Germans our position. One punched my commander. I drew my pistol, punched another and we locked them in a basement.”

I simply couldn’t omit the likes of that. The complexities of France ever-challenges the historian. Even in a novel that focuses mostly on individuals’ lives and personal experiences, weaving in its complexities subtly and realistically into the storyline is similarly challenging.

Another comparison. Marc Bloch would join the Resistance in 1942. Ultimately he would be arrested and shot by the Gestapo in June 1944 – shortly after the Allies had landed in Normandy. Strange Defeat was published posthumously.

Half a century or so later, U.S. “journalists” would write of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Ensconced in front of their PCs, the biggest danger to their life and limb was usually the risk of paper cuts when re-filling the printer. Or perhaps spilling hot coffee into their laps.