Our schools laid great stress on sportsmanship and fair play. It’s possible I took those lessons to a ridiculous extreme. When I was still in short pants and speaking soprano I was a bit of a World War II prodigy. There was actually a time you could have given me a huge map of the world and any date from the beginning of the war to the end, and I could have drawn the correct battle lines – whose forces were where – on any one of those dates.
I grew up feeling two countries got a raw deal in reputation, and my passion for fair play convinced me it was my sworn duty to help correct that injustice. One of the victims was France. We all knew Germany invaded hard, England and the Soviet Union resisted hard, but France came apart like an Alka-Seltzer tablet under Niagara Falls. A college football game in 1947 shook me into the awareness that France didn’t deserve that stigma and should be de-humiliated at once. Alas, that same process happened suddenly on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, the night of the terrorist attacks on Paris.
Back in ’47, I was sitting in Duke Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, watching the mighty Duke Blue Devils play a deep-underdog Maryland team. I was not there “the night they invented champagne,” but I was there that very afternoon when the South got its first glimpse of the wonders of the T-formation! We’d never seen anything like it. Our teams all ran from power formations like the single-wing and the double-wing. On the very first play Maryland quarterback Vic Turyn faked a handoff to halfback Lou Gambino, spun, kept the ball and ran 79 yards to Duke’s 1-yard line.
The T-formation was like a magic show to us sitting startled in the stands. Handoffs, fakes, option plays, pitchouts. Duke finally caught on and won, but not by its traditional 50-to-nothing over Maryland. The score was 19 to 7, and Maryland was given a moral victory.
And the realization seized me right there. What happened to Duke in the face of Maryland’s T-formation is exactly what happened to France in the face of Germany’s “blitzkrieg” (“lightning-war”). Both Duke and France had been utterly aced out by a revolution. The difference was, France didn’t have time to catch on that this was no longer the static trench warfare of World War I.
But that was then. And this time it was such a thrill to see France recoil and snap back, and get their terrorists and eliminate the ringleader and declare war on ISIS and start bombing and making America look like a mildly relevant loser, something like the France of World War II.
This doesn’t change the miserable showing of France against Germany. It does, however, improve the image of the French in that disaster. They weren’t beaten in any conventional way. They were aced out! That’s different. That’s better.
As to French collaboration with Germany, that was an irredeemable disgrace. Zero defense. But there’s one dirty little secret of World War II. The French were not alone as collaborators. In every single German-occupied country the extent of collaboration with the Nazis was much more extensive and murderous than is commonly known. The victors (history is, after all, written by the victors!) wanted to make the world think their citizens were all active or would-be freedom fighters. Did Osama bin Laden’s famous quote convince you that only Arabs prefer “the strong horse“? And Germany looked supremely strong until early 1943!
The other country with an unfairly tainted reputation from that war was Italy. Every joke you ever heard about Italian cowardice in combat is true. In fact, none went far enough. Italians surrendered by the division in North Africa. The Italians told the British to give them some trucks and they’d bring them more Italian prisoners. Deal done!
No football game turned on my philosophical headlights here, but I suddenly realized that Italian “cowardice” was limited to World War II. Italians fought as well as any other force in World War I. Nor could I find any record of Italian lack of bravery clear back to the Roman Legion. It struck me that the World War II Italians simply had no motivation to fight for the likes of Adolf Hitler or that comical thug-failure Mussolini.
After Italy surrendered in September, 1943, the German troops who’d been Italian allies instantly became enemy occupiers. The Germans holding their part of Italy cracked down on the Jews, but it wasn’t easy. The police chiefs of those hundreds of Italian villages were all Italian, and they vastly preferred bouncing babies, playing accordions and drinking wine to sending Jews to extermination camps. The following scene was repeated all over Nazi-occupied Italy.
Moshe, like all the Jews of the village, reported to city hall as prelude to the deportation. The police chief, Giuseppi, greeted Moshe, his friend since kindergarten, with a hug and three kisses. “I got some stupid German papers here to fill out, Moshe. Your name, age, occupation, address.” When it got to “religion,” Moshe said, “You know I’m Jewish, Giuseppi.” “Oh, of course,” said Giuseppi, as he wrote “Roman Catholic.”
Salutes now to the French who began to fight against the terrorists, and to the Italians who refused to fight for the Nazis.
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