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Was "Passive Resistance" to the Nazis Enough?

Before the documentary Nuit et Brouillard (“Night and Fog”) was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956, French authorities censored a still image that appears in the film. In the photo, an unnamed man stands at the far left side of the frame, keeping watch over a wooden building and a scattered crowd of people. A fake beam has been drawn just over his head, concealing … something.

In the uncensored version, released many decades later, we see that what has been blocked is a jaunty rounded cap. It’s called a kepi, and any French civilian would have recognized it as part of the uniform of the French police. The officer is guarding prisoners at Pithiviers, a transit camp 50 miles outside Paris where Jewish deportees were put on trains for concentration camps farther east. He’s not a Nazi guard or member of the SS, but there he is, aiding and abetting the Reich.

Night and Fog was one of the earliest works of its kind—a dogged, revelatory Holocaust film that showed Nazi atrocities in all their horror, down to the fingernail-scratch marks left on the ceilings of gas chambers. In exchange for covering up the kepi, preventing the French from seeing one of their own blithely supervising genocide, censors ruled that the documentary could keep its final scenes of dead bodies being pushed by bulldozers, like road rubble, into massive pits. Night and Fog’s director, Alain Resnais, considered the quid pro quo sufficient for his purposes.

In the 1950s, would the French have been surprised by the notion that “ordinary” people had allowed or encouraged the extermination of the Jews? The war had ended only 10 years earlier; they had lived through it. They knew which neighbors had acted with cowardice or bravery, and that most, really, had lived somewhere between those two extremes. France had undergone a purge of Nazi collaborators and Vichy supplicants under its postwar leader, General Charles de Gaulle, but its results, we now know, were wildly ad hoc; some perpetrators were released and others were shot in the head. De Gaulle’s insistence that good people and bad people had already been sorted, and that the French ought to forgive one another and move on, clamped down on conversations about ambiguity. Uncertainty itself was banished.

More than three-quarters of a century later, the witnesses have nearly all died, and Holocaust stories are told at a remove of three generations or more. Anyone who writes about the war must now wrestle with the idea that sometimes the facts are diluted, lost, erased, enhanced, and flat-out wrong. They also must acknowledge that a limited set of categories has come to define the people who lived in such morally compromising times: victim, villain, or hero. But what of those stories that cannot be labeled as either valor or evil? Perhaps we venture only warily into this territory because degrees of culpability are so hard to parse out: Who was acting under duress, and who willingly exploited their countrymen? Who kept silent out of fear, and who was “just following orders”? This group of people might be harder to capture in retrospect, but understanding the nuance of their wartime experience is important if we ever hope to grasp how humanity holds up under the most grotesque of psychological conditions.

Burkhard Bilger didn’t know until his late 20s that his grandfather Karl Gönner had been a Nazi—a party chief, in fact, in a small village called Bartenheim in the Alsace region of France, “the great fault line of Europe,” which has at various moments in history been part of neighboring Germany. After the war, Gönner’s Nazism wasn’t discussed in the family: Bilger’s mother and her siblings were children of the war and their reticence was common for Germans at the time, who hoped to quietly bury their nation’s ugly past. For Bilger’s family in particular, with a former Nazi as their patriarch, the urge to stay mum may have been preservational. They’d been taught “never to ask questions,” he explains in his new family memoir, Fatherland. “The answers could only be dismal or self-incriminating—or worse, self-justifying.”

Read entire article at The Atlantic