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Hope cuts across barriers

Obama and equality

After eight years of political free fall, President-elect Barack Obama is being cast as America's knight in shining armour: the liberator, the longed-for messiah. Hopes are so great that they are bound to be disappointed to some degree, and this may already be happening in the arena of equality and civil rights.

Many people have taken Obama's victory as symbolising that there are no barriers left anywhere - no racism, no sexism, no class problems. On the one hand, it is true that we "have come so far", as Obama himself said in his acceptance speech. The distance travelled over the past 50 years is considerable. African Americans have become much more integrated in workplaces, in the media, in the professions. Women no longer enter clubs by the back door, nor are they barred from professional sports; and half of all law school graduates are female. An all-American diversity of minorities - gays, Latinos, Hmong Americans, Arab Americans and Jewish Americans - has made strides, thanks to various civil rights laws barring discrimination.

So it is not just the nadir of the Bush administration that, by contrast alone, renders Obama's ascendancy so attractive. Our democracy has demonstrated an unusual ability to rethink its hierarchies and remedy its own inequalities.

At the same time, the United States remains marked by significant social divisions. Housing and schooling are still disgracefully segregated by race. The conditions in our prisons - to say nothing of the astronomically disproportionate rates of incarceration for blacks and Latinos - are so dire that they have become a matter of concern to international human rights organisations. Hate crimes against gays, Sikhs, non-English speakers and Muslims are on the rise. Women are still bumping their heads against glass ceilings and fighting for invitations to corporate power lunches. And given the plummeting economy, class divisions and resentment are likely to become much more of a force in American society than in the past.

So it is a sad paradox that Obama's success is sometimes used as an excuse to undermine the very laws that allowed the country to transform itself over the past decades. Our media throngs with pundits who crow that we have arrived at a "post-race" moment. The calls to end affirmative action (or positive discrimination) programmes in schools and recruitment grow louder; there have been disturbing moves to eliminate crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Barack Obama will have little to say about this in the short term. The future of many civil rights laws now rests in large part with the courts. And one of the most enduring legacies of the Reagan and Bush years is the composition of our federal judiciary: more than three-quarters of the appellate courts are Republican choices, appointed for life. Similarly, the Supreme Court is composed of four relatively liberal justices, four hard-right justices and one wavering, somewhat unpredictable tie-breaker.

In working to elect Obama, we Americans explicitly acknowledged the wretched recent past: the inexplicable ruling of 2000 in Bush v Gore, the uncounted ballots, the disenfranchisement not only of felons but of anyone whose name "resembled" that of a felon, the degree to which these actions victimised communities of colour, liberal communities and Jewish and immigrant neighbourhoods. In view of this recent history, armies of citizens turned out en masse to monitor the polls this time round. This was a wonderful expression of "the will of the people" but at the same time the courts seem to be moving in the opposite direction. In the past couple of years, our highest courts have upheld new prerequisites for voting, such as photo IDs issued by a government office. This may sound neutral, but such requirements have a history of being ciphers for more complex racial realities: in rural black communities, for example, where birth certificates may be lost or never have been issued, the ability to vote had been based on showing something like a utility bill.

There are so many serious struggles ahead. Yet, over the course of his campaign, Obama repeatedly reminded us that "out of many we are one". Indeed, he won this election because he built a real community on the ground; he didn't just woo a statistical constituency. And if anything at all can sustain the "superhuman" expectations abroad in the land, it just might be that feeling of cohesion and engagement. I'm not thinking of the industry of hagiography surrounding his image - the T-shirts, the hats, the button badges, the praise songs - but of the phone networks, the Twittering, the websites, the accumulated power of millions of small donations from students, labourers and "poor widows". African Americans felt suddenly connected; young people showed up in unexpected numbers; Americans of all stripes really worked to get Obama elected. That sense of investment is why up to four million people will be flocking to Washington, DC on Inauguration Day, exhilaration undimmed.

This is hope in action and we must share Barack Obama's good-natured sense of purpose. But it must not be defeated by burdening a single man with the dead weight of idol worship. It is about all of us, huddled around our newborn dreams for the future, keeping them alive and shepherding them to fruition.

Patricia J Williams is the James Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia Law School

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle