Pierre Bayard, Aurais-je été résistant ou bourreau ? (2013)

Would I have been a member of Resistance or a henchman? (French, no English translation)

I continue my explorations of Pierre Bayard’s unconventional non-fiction books. In this one, he tries to answer in the most rational way (shall I say scientific?) the question that everyone (?) has wondered when watching movies about WW2: what would I have done if I had lived at that period? I always find it way too convenient and optimistic when people assume they would of course have done the “right thing” and joined the Resistance. Indeed, hindsight is always 20:20. But in reality? I personally do believe most people are in the middle and wait it out.

Pierre Bayard creates an alternate life for himself where he would have been born in the 1920s rather than after the war. He models some of his options on his father’s and assumes he would have fled to the south of France at the start of the war like so many people. He doesn’t see himself as having enough convictions and awareness to join De Gaulle in London in 1940. He also highlights how luck played a decisive role in many people joining the early Resistance. Sometimes doing what now is “the right thing” was just crazy. Sometimes it was totally out of character for those who did it. He rather guesses that he would have followed his studies in a similar way that he did in his real life, but would the Nazi regime and the French collaborationists have made him angry enough to actually do something?

Along the way he cites the Milgram experiment, the French village of Chambon-sur-Lignon that saved many Jews during the war as well as the most recent genocides where a few dissenting voices rose to defend the victims: Rwanda and Yugoslavian war. I expected those examples but they still taught me many things in trying to find a common thread among those few courageous people (many of which refuse to consider themselves as heroes). Bayard also refer to Louis Malle’s movie “Lacombe Lucien” (the script was written by Modiano, which I didn’t know), where a man turns into a collaborationist just through an unfortunate random event.

If you come to the book expecting a clear-cut answer to the title question, you might be disappointed. The path that Bayard imagines for himself is rather weak and average, not glorious nor infamous, but it is statistically possible, I’ll grant him that. He explains that from 1943 Resistance gained much more traction as people calculated that the odds of the Nazis winning the war were now really low, which explains a lot (even if it didn’t make resisting the Nazis any less dangerous)

The book’s intention is laudable, but I still believe that you can’t know how you’d react by thinking about it rationally and abstractly like Bayard does. Like 2020 showed us, you can’t tell how you’d react to a global pandemic before living through one every day for more than a year (and WW2 was 6 years long!). The friends or neighbors who took risks, the first ones who wore masks, the ones who were prudent at first but then who could bear another round of confinement, the ones who confessed that they’d washed down all the groceries and the ones who couldn’t be bothered, the ones who cheated to get the vaccines first and the ones who waited until the last minute… They were certainly not the ones I’d expected. I can also say that I’m rubbish at reading people or that I didn’t know them intimately enough, but I still wonder if 2020 would make Pierre Bayard think twice about his book’s theories.

Well, what about writing an alternate version to Pierre Bayard’s alternate life? 😜

3 thoughts on “Pierre Bayard, Aurais-je été résistant ou bourreau ? (2013)

  1. Pingback: Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (2007) | Smithereens

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