“I love my country too much to be nationalist.” – Albert Camus, First Letter: July 1943.
The collective Letters to a German Friend were clandestinely written and published by Camus during the Nazi occupation of France. The context must be taken into account here: these letters do not discuss Germany as it stands today, but rather what it represented under the Third Reich – fascism and the intolerance of diversity and dissent. Camus himself states that the letters should be viewed as “contrasting two attitudes, not two nations, even if, at a certain moment in history, these two nations personified two enemy attitudes.”
Thus, in Letters to a German Friend, the German friend represents the attitude of blind allegiance to the nation regardless of how unjust the nation becomes – a representation of the right wing populism and resurgence of ethno-nationalism we now see sweeping across the world in current times. Conversely, Camus, writing from the perspective of the French resistance, represents a different kind of patriotism – a patriotism that holds the nation to the highest standards and will accept nothing less.
Nationalism as articulated by Camus is the sort expressed by the Palestinians, Kurds, Saharwi and other populations struggling to liberate themselves from occupation, fighting for their right to self-determination in an inclusive manner which incorporates resistance to other forms of oppression such as patriarchy, imperialism, and environmental degradation. This nationalism is the complete antithesis of the exclusionary ethno-nationalism that is increasingly rearing its ugly ahead in Europe and beyond.
As we visit Letters to a German Friend in order to explore their relevance today, Germany should be understood as representing the “darkness” and France as representing the “light.”
First Letter: July 1943
Being a hero is not displaying a chest covered in nationalist tattoos while you rage and scream absolute nonsense, wave a flag in one hand, and clutch a can of lager in the other. That’s not heroic. That’s just being a dickhead. The only danger these people are in is of getting fired when their boss sees their picture on social media.
In answering the charge from his German friend that in failing to embrace the ideals of fascism, Camus is demonstrating that he does not love his country, Camus states, “I didn’t love my country […] if insisting that what we love should measure up to the finest image we have of her amounts to not loving.” Do members of various right wing groups who gather under their respective flags and shout slogans of ethno-superiority and hate really love their country? By advocating a nationalism based upon ethno-uniformity and exclusion, whilst employing a corrosive rhetoric blaming migrants for poverty and unemployment – rather than the policies formulated by the rich for the rich – these so-called nationalists are certainly not insisting that their respective countries “measure up to the finest image[s]” that can be constructed of them. It would seem this particular brand of ethno-nationalists have failed at the first hurdle.
Heroism. Every right-wing nationalist likes to think of themselves as a hero. A hero of the working class is the usual trope. Being a hero is not displaying a chest covered in nationalist tattoos while you rage and scream absolute nonsense, wave a flag in one hand, and clutch a can of lager in the other. That’s not heroic. That’s just being a dickhead. The only danger these people are in is of getting fired when their boss sees their picture on social media.
Heroism is endangering yourself in order to fight for the just and the good; demanding that your country do the same, and agitating for a change of political structure if necessary in order to achieve it. Political prisoners on hunger strike are heroes. Leyla Guven is a hero. Unarmed Sudanese protestors marching into a hail of live ammunition whilst chanting the word “peace” are heroes. Freedom fighters resisting violent occupation and exploitation are heroes.
As Camus tells his German friend, “the kind of courage we applaud is not your kind.” Courage is “fight[ing] while despising war” and “facing destruction while cherishing the idea of a higher civilization” as did so many who rose against Assad for example, only to be met with hostility and contempt from right-wing nationalists when they sought a place of safety in Europe.
The costs to those who stand by their morals and oppose fascism, oppression, and institutionalized hate are dear. Camus says of the French resistance “we paid for it with humiliations and silences, with bitter experiences, with prison sentences, with executions at dawn […].” He states, “I have never believed in the power of truth in itself. But it is at least worth knowing that when expressed forcefully, truth wins out over falsehood.” We should take heart from this. With struggle and tenacity we can overcome the often-repeated falsehoods of migrants and refugees being the enemy, of benefits claimants stealing from us, of the necessity of austerity, and of the sacrifice of labour rights and the environment as necessary for economic progress.
“France was worthy of a higher love,” Camus writes, whereas Germany, “on the other hand, has received from its sons only the love it deserved, which was blind. A nation is not justified by such love. That will be your undoing.”
Second letter: December 1943
This letter opens with reference to Camus’ German friend telling him that unlike France, “We put Germany before truth and beyond despair.”
Camus perfectly articulates true patriotism by responding, “If at times we seemed to prefer justice to our country, this is because we simply wanted to love our country in justice, as we wanted to love her in truth and hope.” Surely it is logical that nationalism and patriotism should be expressed through high standards being held for the country, with refusal to accept anything less than that country attaining such high ideals? Why should we be proud of a country that contains tens of thousands of empty homes, but where thousands of people are homeless – literally dying on the streets? Why should we be loyal to a country where ordinary people work for such low wages that they must suffer the humiliation of visiting food banks, whilst the elite hand each other’s corporations tax breaks, store their money offshore and flounce around at the higher end of the wealth divide, exploiting others whilst simultaneously eroding our public services. Why would we be proud of a country which is closing down libraries? And a country which sells arms to the likes of Saudi Arabia is not one worthy of reverence.
Camus tells his friend the difference between the Germans and the French is that “we made demands. You were satisfied to serve the power of your nation and we dreamed of giving ours her truth.”
When all evidence points to the neoliberal establishment and its war mongering, greedy politicians being our enemy, why are so many of us ignoring this truth and continuing to support these tyrants? We are implicating ourselves through our silence and lack of action. It is worth noting that just as the French resistance stood for what is right during the Second World War, the Gillet Jaunes are at the forefront of the contemporary resistance against increasing inequality and the power structures that favour the rich.
The coercive force of dominant social and political ideology, along with the consequence of the cowardice implicit in refusing to acknowledge the truth and fight for it, is illustrated in the following story which was told to Camus by a French priest:
A German truck is taking eleven Frenchmen to the cemetery where they will be shot. Five or six have engaged in subversive acts as part of the resistance, whereas the others, including a sixteen-year-old boy, have done nothing. A German chaplain has been placed in the truck with the prisoners with the job of reassuring them as much as possible before their deaths. The sixteen-year-old boy is entirely consumed by fear, but managed to tell the Chaplain he’s done nothing wrong. The Chaplain takes no action other than to turn his back on the boy in order to speak to the other prisoners. The boy leans back against the canvas sides of the truck. When he does this, he realizes there is a gap between the canvas top and the body of the truck. The boy takes the chance to escape, jumps down through the gap and starts to run across the fields which lie next to the road.
The chaplain realizes what has happened and “must decide whether he is on the side of the executioners or on the side of the martyrs in keeping with his vocation.”
As the reader, you may fool yourself into thinking the chaplain will remain silent on the matter, but instead he immediately chooses to alert the soldiers to the boy’s escape. They halt the truck and chase the boy across the fields. The boy is caught, beaten, and carried back to the truck where he is put in the corner. This time an armed soldier replaces the chaplain. The boy looks at nobody the rest of the way to the cemetery – he simply sits in silence, shedding no tears, staring at the road awaiting his impending death.
Camus references this story in his letter to his German friend in order to illustrate, “You no longer distinguish anything, you are nothing but a single impulse. And now you are fighting with the resources of blind anger with your mind on weapons and feats rather than ideas, stubbornly confusing every issue and following your obsession.”
This last sentence screams Trump and Brexit, whilst the story itself resonates clearly with the rise of right wing populism around the world. Racists in the UK and US feel they have a green card to attack non-white people, people they believe to be immigrants, and those who don’t conform to their ethno-nationalist ideals. Police attack refugees, and states arrest and charge volunteers who distribute food to them or pull them out of the sea to prevent them from drowning. Four people arrive on the shores of the UK by boat and the right wing press loses its mind. Never mind the fact that we’ve blindly stood by and let our governments contribute to the conflicts and economic disasters which have resulted in these people – people just like us – being forced to leave their homes in the first place. What the fuck is happening to us?
Camus describes the struggle waged by the French resistance as “an obstinate, collective struggle […] this war is one they chose for themselves instead of accepting it from idiotic or cowardly governments, a war in which they recognize themselves and are fighting for a certain idea they have formed for themselves.”
In our quest for justice, equality, freedom, and the construction of our nations in the form of the best they can be, we must renounce the anti-immigration trope constantly regurgitated in the right wing and mainstream media. We must send a clear message to our own idiotic or cowardly governments that we see them. We see their truths. We recognize the prevailing neoliberal establishment as the enemy of people everywhere and we’re coming for them. We must demand in the strongest possible terms that people be put before profit, and this can only be successful when we, as a people, are united both within our own nations and across international borders – looking out for each and other and resisting oppression.
“You readily accepted despair and I never yielded to it. Your current position is ‘because you turned your despair into intoxication.’”
Third letter: April 1944
As self-reflective people who believe in truth and justice and pursue them in a spirit of hope and unity, we say to those who consciously collude with fascist regimes and structures “we have a superiority that will destroy you.”
Fourth letter: July 1944
As the resistance against the Germans gains strength, Camus writes to his German friend to explain the different trajectories their lives have taken. He says of his friend “you readily accepted despair and I never yielded to it. Your current position is ‘because you turned your despair into intoxication.’”
Camus emphasizes his refusal to accept that despair, saying, “I merely wanted men to rediscover their solidarity in order to wage war against their revolting fate.” Our fate, our collective fate, looks revolting right now. As our countries succumb to the despair wrought by austerity, rising unemployment, increasing insecurity, increasing alienation and marginalization from those who are supposed to represent us – the public increasingly feeling like pawns in a reckless game – we must choose not to accept it. We must fight back through people politics, building our communities from the bottom up, helping each other and recognizing the truth that no one life is of more value than another.
Camus’ final letter to his German friend contains this quote:
“Man is mortal, that may be; but let us die resisting; and if our lot is complete annihilation, let us not behave in such a way that it seems just!”
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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