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There is a way that great literature can redirect us to a better understanding of history. This is what happened when I read the first part of Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. Here is the story.

You can read a good review of Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise here:

I’ve read the entire first part of Suite Francaise along with several reviews, and it’s clear that this is a great work of art from the Russian perspective of Irene Nemirovsky, a Jewish woman originally from the Ukraine, then living in Nazi-occupied France until her death from typhus in a concentration camp. During the few years that she lived in the French countryside during that stressful time, she wrote the first two novels of the Suite as a kind of contemporaneous account of various humans as they moved through France during different stages of the occupation. Her intent was to write of five stages, but she only lived long enough to complete two, plan the third, and make sketchy notes for the others. But what she did complete was achieved brilliantly and incisively.

From what I understand, even her use of French has a distinctly Russian flavor since her major influence was Tolstoy’s War and Peace, along with vestiges of Turgenev and Chekhov. It’s also clear, then, that this book should be read and taught in universities and schools, both as a work of art and as an illumination on a society under stress with all the human complexity that involves.

Not to diminish The Diary of Anne Frank, but Nemirovsky’s work moves out much more greatly into the French society of Nazi occupation with all its irony and perspectives on French people and German soldiers that cut right through all the propaganda and stereotypes to paint a much more complex human picture. The Suite is not a diary per se, though it was written as a contemporaneous account of a time and place that every human soul should become acquainted with in order to understand what humans are really like in these situations: some good, some not so good; some altruistic, most selfish and insensitive; the soldiers not really brutish, apish Huns but rather human beings caught up in circumstances where they often try to do the right thing and make human connections, only then to be carted off to the horrors of Hitler’s vain attempt to occupy Stalinist Russia with the shadow of War and Peace looming here in a big way, only from the point of view of a Jewish woman, now French in the most ironic fashion, since all the upper class Russians of Tolstoy’s world spoke French and sympathized with the newly revolutionary French view of the world while actually living as aristocrats. The implications of this layer of history are always present between the lines, so to speak, and that is what great literature does sometimes when it acknowledges recurring themes and includes the history that informs it.

As I read the novel, I kept wondering why the Nazis were so (relatively) easy on the French, why the French military was willing to collaborate with the Nazis in rounding up Jews, and why the French people didn't fight back harder. That caused me to delve into the history of World War II, which in turn led to a complete re-education on Hitler’s real intentions in the way he prosecuted the war in Western Europe. It has been a very emotional and heartwrenching relearning also, as I have come to realize that Hitler's primary objective was to conquer and take over eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and to repopulate this area with the superior race of Germans which was to be the thousand year Reich. The aggression against England, the Netherlands, and the occupation of France was only a preliminary objective in order to keep them out of the east and to use their land for resources, along with exterminating the Jews. However, Hitler never intended to replace the non-Jewish people in these countries permanently because he considered the people of Western Europe to also be superior racially. From the beginning Hitler's real aim was to replace racially inferior people with superior Germans -- not only Jews, but also the Slavs and Baltics. Thus, his intention was literally to exterminate most of the population of the Soviet Union, driving any remaining Soviets to Siberia from which to cull out a slave population for the Germans who were to settle the rest of the country. Fully three-quarters or more of the German military force and its resources were pulled out of western Europe and deployed for this operation, starting in June of 1941; and they remained in the Soviet Union for three years or more before the Soviets were able to start driving them out, finally pushing into Berlin to end the war.

In the Soviet arena of the war, huge numbers of people were killed, and vast numbers of cities, towns, buildings, and industries were destroyed. At least twenty million Soviet civilians were killed, and that is a conservative estimate, notwithstanding the many millions of soldiers. This is where the real Nazi part of WWII was fought. The western side appears to have been more or less just a side effect. In comparison, the USA lost 400,000 troops and no civilians. George Marshall said that if Hitler had not moved into the Soviet Union, the Allies would have had to use many more troops to win the war; but that was never going to happen because Hitler never intended to wage the race war in western Europe permanently.

Something else interesting I learned. In Hitler's quest to exterminate the Jews and the Slavs and to take over Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War became an opportunity to test the new equipment, the Nazi military force, and strategy. That was such a success for the Nazis, that it helped drive the momentum for entering Poland and starting the process that would lead to the offensive against the Soviet Union. This was Hitler's plan from the beginning. It's also possible that Hitler could have defeated the Soviets and won the war there if he had listened to his generals when they wanted to attack Moscow instead of occupying the Ukraine, but it's hard to say given other factors in play by that time. However, to say that Hitler would have won the war if he hadn't turned on Stalin and attacked the USSR is based on a faulty premise. That was Hitler's primary objective from the beginning, along with exterminating all the Jews in Europe and the USSR. It would be more accurate to say that Hitler would more likely have gained his objective if he had planned the Soviet incursion more rationally, by taking the possibility of winter warfare into consideration, by realizing that Stalin was as much a crazed ideologue as he was and could equally muster up a strong and determined defense and then offense, and by listening to his generals.

Thomas Mann called Nazism "devilish nihilism." He was actually very sympathetic to Communism, regretting that it got co-opted by an autocracy which deprived the Russian people of the freedom they deserved. That is the way it appears to me too, that true Communism never got very far off the ground, with its ideals both in theory and practice corrupted and taken over by autocratic, power-mongering zealots. One of the best books on the tragedy of this loss is Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. Darkness at Noon is one of the finest works of art of the last century, greatly conceived, brilliantly and tautly styled, and possessed of great depth artistically... a true cold bonfire of the profundities that have absorbed us as humans for the last century or two. The novel gives us a good idea of the way communism in the ideal turned into a transmogrified nightmare in practice, showing the inside perspective of a Soviet idealist learning too late what has brought him to his dark and ultimate fate in a system that has destroyed all the hopes and dreams of its original proponents. This is a book that should be on every high school and college reading list, and it should definitely be taught in conjunction with its formative predecessors Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes, and its great successors, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I do believe that no study of Marxism and the history of Communism could be nearly as accurate or compelling without a study of DAN in conjunction with the history of the Moscow Trials. If that isn't a great reading experience of one of the most finely written and gripping tales of a man struggling greatly and freely while imprisoned and betrayed by the movement that he helped create, and which created him, then I don't know what is. It also makes a great contrast to the way American novelists dealt with Communism from an extraverted and more trades-union pov.

To end, Koestler's epigraphs also grab the reader and lead right into the internal life of the protagonist caught in a web of nightmares, both real and in the dreamworld. One epigraph mistakenly claims its source as Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The English translator wrote it as : "Man, man, one cannot life quite without pity." No English translation of C&P contains this line. This worries me a little, because here we are dealing with the translation of a translation. It would be very nice to know exactly what Koestler had in mind here, and one would like to be able read the quote in the context of the relevant passage in C&P. Koestler also includes an epigraph from Machiavelli to the effect that a successful dictator must do away with Brutus, and the founder of a republic must get rid of the sons of Brutus. Amazing. A review I read on the life of Cicero shows us that he very much wanted to be part of the plot to kill Caesar and lived to regret the fact that Antony was not murdered, too. Remember that Brutus was a noble Stoic, an "honorable man." What irony! This is also true of Rubashov in DAN -- like Brutus, part of the making of the political system that made him and ended up destroying him.

Post Edited (01-Jul-15 16:04)

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Nemirovsky, Mann, and Koestler: Nazism v. Communism 1624 ananda 01-Jul-15 16:04
Re: Nemirovsky, Mann, and Koestler: Nazism v. Communism 462 Borgia 04-Jul-15 19:38
Re: Nemirovsky, Mann, and Koestler: Nazism v. Communism 930 ananda 13-Jul-15 16:26

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