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Apr 2002 Journal

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Incarnation of the nation

The French presidential elections are due later this year, which also happens to be the bicentenary of the birth of Victor Hugo. This coincidence has given the contenders for France’s highest office of state – the right-of-centre Chirac, the left-leaning Jospin, and the unclassifiable Chevènement – an opportunity to drape themselves in the mantle of the great writer.

Since Hugo, in the course of his long life, boxed the entire political compass – a royalist when young, he ended his days as a socialist – this should not be too difficult. The French are proud of their writers (pace the 30,000 Parisians who followed Jean-Paul Sartre’s funeral cortege) and eschew Anglo-Saxon attitudes to sexual peccadilloes. Hugo has therefore been accorded a stratospherically elevated position in the national pantheon despite his inveterate womanising.

Notwithstanding the indulgence France shows to male sexual predators, such as the unforgotten ‘people’s king’ Henri Quatre, the country also has two outstanding female national symbols: the historical Jeanne d’Arc and the fictitious Marianne. St Joan, immortalised by Schiller and Shaw, has lately suffered the indignity of being appropriated as the grubby Front National party mascot. As for Marianne, embodiment of the sprit of 1789, she has had her image emblazoned on stamps, coins and posters whenever the country had lucid intervals between surrendering to spurious ‘men of destiny’ such as Napoleon III or Marshal Petain.

Britain and America have created similarly fictitious symbols to serve as personifications of the nation. The USA have chosen as their allegorical figure the sleekly adroit Uncle Sam. In addition, they have a most impressively eye-catching gallery of Four Fathers – as well as forefathers – of the nation in the gigantic sculpted heads of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt hewn out of the rock at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. Britain has opted for John Bull, the bluff, corpulent farmer with feet firmly planted on the ground. (Currently, left-wing Brits are agitating to have John Bull replaced by the similar-sounding John Ball, an unfrocked priest who incited the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.)

The Germans, too, have a fictitious national figure. This is der deutsche Michel, a dozy trusting fellow easily cheated by his craftier neighbours. If this imaginary, peaceable character catered to a national propensity for wallowing in self-pity, real-life aggressors like Frederick the Great and Kaiser Wilhelm II generated countervailing emotions of pride, not to say hubris.

Hitler had his path to power smoothed by the spate of Fredericus biopics UFA turned out of their own volition during the Weimar years. These films purveyed the subliminal message that the Fuehrer was the reincarnation of Prussia’s national hero. In reality, Hitler shared only one of Frederick the Great’s characteristics: a will to power untrammelled by any consideration of humanity. In other respects, though, the two most famous embodiments of the ‘German spirit’ diverged totally. Had Frederick lived in the Third Reich, he would not only have been shrilly denounced as unpatriotic for preferring to speak French rather than German – he would have ended up in a concentration camp wearing the pink triangle of homosexuals.
Richard Grunberger

previous article:Maz Perutz dies at 88
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