My inaugural “Rebel Art Friday” post last week regarding Richie Haven’s haunted recording “The Klan” was, by a considerable margin, the most visited post in GTFUP.org’s illustrious history, and this was largely thanks to a group of impassioned Havens fans who stumbled upon the post, and then were gracious enough to spread the good word.
So as any good marketing person would advise, to build on that momentum generated entirely by goodwill towards a beloved American cultural icon, GTFUP will naturally be focusing this week on …
An obscure French historian, Agnes Humbert, and her seminal (though now out-of-print) diary of the German occupation of France: Resistance.
Ms. Humbert’s fascinating, devastating, and lyrically-delightful book is broken up into three distinct parts:
- A real-time diary, beginning with the fall of Paris in 1940; documenting the earliest stages of resistance among Ms. Humbert and a group of dedicated Parisian thinkers; and ending a beat before Ms. Humbert’s arrest.
- A reconstructed diary documenting the kangaroo-court-trial of Ms. Humbert and many of her resistance comrades (seven of whom were sentenced to death), followed by Ms. Humbert’s imprisonment for the remainder of the war, first in France, and later in a series of horrific work camps in western Germany.
- A brief recounting of the liberation by Allied forces, and a bedraggled but fearless Agnes Humbert stepping up to serve as an ad hoc bureaucrat for a region of gutted German villages, and, for good measure, as a part-time Nazi hunter.
It’s fucking fantastic.
There are, to be sure, significant distinctions between the rise of authoritarianism in the 1930’s and 40’s, and America’s own struggle with an authoritarian/kleptocratic regime today. And the sheer spectacle and magnitude of the Occupation was a decidedly different setting than the slowly-boiling-frog reality we are living through now.
Nevertheless, the echoes and warnings in Ms. Humbert’s personal story of the rise of fascism – particularly her narrative of a tightening Nazi grip on an utterly disoriented and unequipped Paris – are unmistakable.
She writes of Paris’s own Weak-Kneed Comfortables, an upper-middle class clinging desperately to a false belief that they can simply ride out an inconvenient storm; of France’s institutions – not just the Vichy government, but once-idealistic artistic societies, powerful businesses and feckless judges – cowering and buckling beneath the relentless assault, on everything France held dear, by the German occupiers.
Ms. Humbert’s descriptions of the early phases of the Resistance are a playbook both for what, and what not, to do if you’re navigating a hostile authoritarian government. And her descriptions of the angst and boiling anger she and her comrades felt, and the unqualified joy it gave them to find one another – to recognize that resistance spirit in corners of Paris they never expected – rings especially true in this moment.
The meat of Resistance is Ms. Humbert’s recollection of her incarceration and slave labor under the Nazis, and this, like all Holocaust literature, is striking for the depravity of her captors, the depths to which humans can sink. It is also powerful to witness Ms. Humbert recount instances of unthinkable cruelty, while recognizing in hindsight that, in the broader context of Nazi atrocities, she didn’t have it all that bad.
Indeed if there is one lesson, echoed in Resistance, that we can learn from every instance of authoritarianism throughout history, it is that the reality is always worse – broader, deeper, bloodier and uglier – than each of us individually, in our own little universe amidst the raging storm, can possibly imagine.
I was struck most, however, by Ms. Humbert’s recreation of the months immediately following the liberation, not just her heroics as a Nazi hunter and humanitarian, but her beleaguered mixture of anger and tenderness towards the German people.
We are still, thankfully, in the early stages of authoritarianism, and if we can beat back this hideous un-American tide, we can limit the damage. But we can also learn something from Resistance, both with regards to how to view the true, corrupted enablers and evildoers, and how to assess those among us who were just hopelessly swept up in the madness.
Agnes Humbert’s Resistance is an immensely worthwhile endeavor for myriad reasons, including its value as a handbook/cautionary tale for budding revolutionaries. But the reason I chose to highlight Resistance for this week’s Rebel Art Friday is that it is, in addition to all of that, a glorious piece of writing.
Ms. Humbert’s pointed wit, her intellectual vigor, leap off the page, and her indomitable spirit carries her narrative through moments of sheer, incomprehensible darkness.
I remember reading, as a teenager, a critical essay (Google has let me down in locating the piece I’m thinking of) about the uncomfortable moral haziness of Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful”, and other films and works of art that dabble with the Holocaust as a vehicle for sugary sentimentality, and even laughs. It’s a complicated conversation, one that came to mind reading Resistance precisely because of how irrelevant it is to Ms. Humbert’s extraordinary, and quite funny, work of rebel art.
Because Agnes Humbert lived this; she had the courage to run headlong into a raging fire; she paid an immense price. And when she feels the need to wax sentimental about the few Germans who showed her a sliver of humanity, or crack jokes in the face of unthinkable pain and cruelty, it is decidedly earned.
I am well aware – I’ve been told by my most loyal readers (thanks Mom!) – that this blog is depressing, that it does not paint a sunny enough picture of what lies ahead. I see that as necessary realism (GTFUP, folks!), but I am also constantly aware of the need for a dose of humor and righteous laughter in the face of dark times.
Spending just a little time in the company of someone with the spirit, humor and fierce intelligence of Ms. Agnes Humbert, makes that a helluva lot easier.
Women are leading the fight against Trumpism in the United States, and countless women, like Agnes Humbert, played a critical role in the French Resistance. If that kind of thing tickles your fancy, check out Caroline Moorehead’s A Train In Winter, a dense but endlessly fascinating history of many of those steely, courageous ladies…
Or if books are not your preferred medium, the stunning film “Army of Shadows” draws from another first-person account of the Resistance…
And if you only have a few minutes, search your favorite media machine for hundreds of versions of the French Resistance anthem “The Partisan.” Here’s a nice, accessible version from Leonard Cohen:
And finally, I wasn’t kidding when I said that Richie Havens fans lifted GTFUp.org’s “stats” to new heights.
I’m grateful, and as a shoutout to those folks – just in case any have decided to check in again – I’m posting his iconic Woodstock performance below. I also want to close with a quote, one that I think ties in very nicely with the incredible generous spirit of Agnes Humbert, from the late American master:
“If I carried around other people’s ignorance, I wouldn’t have a hand free for my guitar.” – Richie Havens