A French Tragedy makes a readable contribution to the profound reinterpretation of the second world war that has been visible in the past decade in Europe. In those countries that endured Nazi occupation, the war years are coming to be seen not just as a struggle between enemy powers, but as a civil war in which societies fractured along class, ethnic or ideological lines and any semblance of national cohesion vanished. In France and Italy, in particular, the debate engages politicians and public alike, since it threatens the founding myths on which postwar regimes legitimised themselves.
Once it was right wingers with suspect sympathies who cast doubt on the wartime resistance's boast to stand for the nation. But in the past decade, a more detached attitude to the resistance has been evident on the left as well, and a greater willingness to face up to the realities of resistance violence and its consequences. In 1991, amid the collapse of Italy's postwar republic, founded explicitly on the values of the resistance, the historian Claudio Pavone wrote Un Guerra Civile, his as yet untranslated masterpiece on the struggle between partisans and fascists in wartime Italy. Here the memory of the war was being wrenched away from the myth-makers and turned over to scholarship. The implication of Pavone's work was that the Italian nation was less a wartime reality than the site of a fratricidal struggle; it is not surprising that many find such an interpretation unsettling.
Some, like Tzvetan Todorov, think that to deconstruct the heroic mythology of the war is an ethical necessity, a sign both of the resilience of a national culture and of its willingness to look beyond the old combative ideologies for new sources of moral renewal. Todorov uses history primarily as a springboard for philosophical reflection, drawing on a tradition of the intellectual as contemplative moralist. His moralising impulse emerges in A French Tragedy from the detail of the unfolding narrative, and the book is the more effective for that.
In the summer of 1944, as allied troops landed on the Normandy beaches, the French resistance was keen to show it could act unaided against the occupier. "National insurrection," a senior resistance figure proclaimed, "will give our country a new soul." In central France, a small group of maquisards "liberated" the small town of Saint Amand-Mont-Rond, killing a handful of collaborators and arresting others. What began as farce ended in failure and tragedy. After less than 48 hours, German troops retook the town without a fight; their sole casualty hurt himself falling off a bicycle. The erstwhile heroes fled to the woods, taking along a group of collaborators as hostages. The Germans shot 19 townspeople, arrested another 200 and threatened many more killings if the hostages were not released. Brave, self-appointed negotiators shuttled between the two sides to avert further catastrophe. "The maquis ordered the drinks and left us the bill," was how one inhabitant summed up the fiasco.
The episode was a struggle in which the Germans had only walk-on parts, and almost all the decisive moments depended on the actions of Frenchmen. The stand-off between the maquis and the collaborationist milice was created, perpetuated and ultimately resolved by Frenchmen. It was French maquisards who released their female hostages and later executed male miliciens while on the run from the Germans. It was Lecussan, the Vichyite hardliner installed as new subprefect of Saint Amand, who - on learning about the killing of the militiamen by the resistance - took the fateful decision to arrest the town's Jews as a reprisal. A French Gestapo agent played a leading role in the execution of the Jews once it became clear that they could not be deported to the east and were to be killed locally.
Todorov is an intellectual and a moralist rather than a historian, and his book is based on existing sources, not new research. But he brings out vividly the enormous confusions, ethical and practical, of this internecine conflict. He wants us to escape from a simple world of villains and heroes, of evil collaborators and gallant resistance fighters. The resistance, after all, sparked off the crisis by their reckless uprising, and then made matters worse. By executing the miliciens they triggered off a new round of reprisals, which led to the deaths of 25 Jewish men. There should have been 26, but one, Charles Krameisen, managed to escape. A fortnight later, yet another round of reprisals was sparked off when a maquisard shot a local milice chief. This time it was the Jewish women of Saint Amand who paid the price with their lives, among them Krameisen's wife.
Todorov avoids any simple moral or political equating of the maquis and the milice; for him, their roles and responsibilities were different, and there is no doubt where his own sympathies lie. Nevertheless he argues that they shared a tendency to put ends above means, to gamble with human lives for abstract ideals. Todorov has his own heroes and heroines - people such as the astonishingly courageous negotiators who shuttled between the two sides, attempting to overcome their mutual suspicion to resolve the hostage crisis. They are the kind of people who place individuals above ideologies.
In Facing the Extreme, life in the concentration camps - in extreme circumstances - becomes a source for reflections on the nature of heroism, of virtue and vice, of the origins of good and evil. The same concerns are evident here as before - the critique of heroism, the preference for caring for others over ideological conviction. But the realities of the camps are described at second hand in the author's reworkings of what we must today call classics of Holocaust literature. I, for one, have had enough of this sort of thing. One would do better to read Primo Levi, Jean Amery and Varlam Shalamov than to spend time working through Todorov's meditations on them. They knew at first hand what they were writing about and did not bang on about the lessons to be learnt from their horrific experiences.
Why do we need a book like this? Well, Todorov considers the "extreme" important because moral life was "more visible" inside the camps than outside. I don't agree. The stakes may be lower in our humdrum late 20th-century daily life, but in other eras philosophers and theologians had no hesitation generating systems of ethics from the dilemmas of neighbours, business partners or squabbling families. But today? A series of reflections on the ways people behave after a couple of pints at their local pub? Probably not. It would hardly be an appropriate subject for a French thinker, grappling with the problems of our times. No one argues with the importance of the Holocaust.
Moral life was not more visible in the camps, but it was certainly more dramatic. Modern mass violence - culminating for Europeans in the mid-century evils of the Holocaust and the gulags - cries out for explanation, casting an allure that sober historians have done their best to dispel and ignore. But the public thirsts for more. There is an element of voyeurism here, but also a deep desire for reassurance and guidance: what lessons should be drawn from the extreme forms of barbarism, suffering and heroism evident in the 1940s?
To which we must add - at least on the Continent, both east and west - a more explicitly political dimension, too: what does all this mean for communism? We know where we stand on the Nazis, but communism collapsed only yesterday, and remains a powerful presence with which French intellectuals in particular are still grappling.
Todorov's general approach is one kind of response to the popular mood. He is weary of all ideologies, and he wants more ordinary virtues to be valued. People must care for individuals, traditional female virtues must be encouraged over male ones (there are many "musts" in these didactic works). History returns, meanwhile, to being what it was for Livy: a source of moral guidance for the reader.
It is hard not to see Todorov's work in the context of the much broader moralising impulse, which runs like a powerful current through much recent rethinking on the war and which tends to regard morality as something quite separate from, and even in a sense opposed to, politics and ideology. The Daniel Goldhagen debate, for instance, was about whether Germans in the Third Reich could be held morally accountable for what happened to the Jews. Goldhagen was uninterested in Nazi ideology; what mattered to him was the will and conscience of individual Germans. His approach caught many scholars on the back foot. After all, we live in an era of specialists, and historians and moral philosophers see themselves as two distinct species. The academic criticisms of Goldhagen failed to move a public that warmed to his emphasis on taking responsibility for one's actions.
More recently, Roberto Benigni's wildly successful film Life is Beautiful focused on a heroic Italian-Jewish father whose sole concern was to shield his son from truth of the Holocaust. The hero is an emblematic Todorov figure, caring for an individual and indifferent to ideology. The politics of fascism, Nazism and the Final Solution evaporate in Benigni's play-acting and in the eventual triumphant reunion of mother and child.
It's hard to think of a more disgusting piece of wishful thinking than Benigni's mendacious film - a world away from Todorov's sober and honest reflections. Yet the question of moral behaviour in the era of mass violence does not, in itself, seem a trivial one to me; it is more that, too often, it is addressed in a way suggesting that ideology is bad and morality is good, self-evident and existing outside history and politics. But a more honest approach is to accept that, in the era of mass violence, people's moral universe was often circumscribed by their ideological sympathies; to accept that for much of our century, if not today, moral decisions were saturated with political values. The reason why many people avoid confronting these simple facts is that they seem to point towards a disturbing moral relativism. But the alternative is to go on staring in complacent fascination at the horrors we have escaped, and continuing to pat ourselves on the back for our lack of political engagement.
Mark Mazower is the author of "Dark Continent: Europe's 20th century" (Allen Lane, £20)