How does a country cope with shame?
In July 1942 French police in occupied Paris carried out “Operation Spring Breeze”—arresting 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, who were detained in the Vélodrome d'Hiver (a cycling stadium). The detainees were held for five days with little food or water, while awaiting transport by cattle cars to camps in the East—mostly to Auschwitz. Of the 4,000 children rounded up in this raid, only six adolescents returned.
The Jews deported in Operation Spring Breeze represented only a quarter of the 42,000 ultimately deported from France to Auschwitz—811 of whom survived. However, the role of French police in conducting this raid remained a particular stain on the French conscience. After the war, many in France denied any culpability, claiming it was a Nazi operation. In 1994, President François Mitterand declared, “I will not apologize in the name of France. The Republic had nothing to do with this. I do not believe France is responsible.”
But in 1995 President Jacques Chirac reversed this position, acknowledging the work of 450 French policemen, and issued a public apology: “These black hours will stain our history forever ... France, home of the Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.”
In 2017 President Emmanuel Macron renewed this apology: “It was indeed France that organized this roundup,” he said. “Not a single German took part. It is convenient to see the Vichy regime as born of nothingness, returned to nothingness. Yes, it’s convenient, but it is false. We cannot build pride upon a lie.”
There was surely a time when French citizens would have found it impossible to believe that their countrymen could be implicated in such a crime. But gradually, under occupation, a large part of the population, infected by the virus of racism and the cult of nationalism, succumbed to regarding their fellow human beings as the Other, not truly French, “not like us.”
In Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 play Rhinoceros, he describes a town in which the citizens are gradually turning into rhinoceroses—rampaging through the streets, destroying gardens and causing a ruckus. At first people are shocked and horrified—but they gradually yield to the “new normal,” accepting that there is nothing so wrong with being a rhinoceros; in fact, it is those who cling to their humanity who are the real outsiders and dangers to public safety!
Only five years ago, in September 2015, Pope Francis spoke to a joint session of Congress, outlining a vision of the fundamental values—liberty, equality, compassion and solidarity—that make a country “great.” He did this with reference to four “great” Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Weaving a narrative intertwining religious truths with the highest civic ideals, he called for welcoming immigrants and refugees, caring for the earth, ending the death penalty, dedication to the poor and the common good and pursuing the goal of global solidarity.
Five years ago, that message seems like a time capsule from a different era. Did he already hear what most of us could not?—somewhere on the horizon, the distant hoof beats of the rhinoceros? He could not literally have known that the next year a presidential candidate would campaign under the slogan of “Making America Great Again,” and that, with strong Catholic support, he would go on to pursue an agenda aimed at countering all the policies and “fundamental values” outlined in his speech to Congress.
Yet five years later, I listened to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast where Attorney General William Barr, fresh from making good on his promise to execute federal prisoners, was awarded the Christifideles Laici award for his “selfless and steadfast service in the Lord’s vineyard.” He was followed by President Trump, who was lauded for his unparalleled commitment to the “culture of life.” And in between, there was a keynote by a respected Catholic bishop who lauded the Christian inspiration behind the Declaration of Independence and the importance of religion in the public square. There were pictures displayed of St. John Paul II in Poland, and even of the President honoring the Shrine of JPII, fresh from having bravely, with the help of his attorney general, dispersed demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets to pose with a Bible in the public square.
Someday, many may look back on our time and pretend that it was not we who put children in cages, dismantled environmental regulations, fiddled while 200,000 died, applauded those who marched under banners of hate—or imagine that it was all the work of a regime that was born of nothingness and returned to nothingness.
But we cannot build innocence upon a lie.
Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books, most recently, A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives.