What Would You Do Under Occupation?

We’ve all been fed such a steady diet of Nazi Resistance stories that we likely have no doubt that we’d be placing explosives next to the railroad tracks if we had lived under Nazi occupation.  In my personal variation of this fantasy, I imagine myself in Inglourious Basterds (probably my favorite movie), led by Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Raine in a team of Jewish commandos taking Nazi scalps.

But real life is more complicated and it isn’t always obvious what one would or should do under such circumstances.  You’d face competing practical and moral demands.  What concern should you have for your own safety or the safety of your friends and family?  What obligations do you have to resist the occupation of your country relative to minimizing the severity and harms of that occupation by cooperating?

These kinds of issues are explored more deeply than in other films in the new Norwegian series available on Netflix, called Occupied (or Okkupert).  The premise is that an environment-friendly government takes office in Norway and decides to halt all oil and gas production in favor of a new green (and fictional) energy source that is not fully ready.  This decision throws European economies into a crisis, which then spurs the Russians to seize oil and gas facilities to restart production.

You’ll have to just accept parts of this premise that seem implausible to get to the excellent exploration of what people might do if their country’s sovereignty were slipping away to a much stronger power without hope for assistance from the outside.  And given how Russian encroachment into The Ukraine was met with mostly symbolic objections from Europe and the US, this premise might not seem so ridiculous.

While watching I honestly wasn’t entirely sure who I was rooting for (other than pretty clearly against the Russians).  Everyone seems to have their reasons for behaving as they do so that it isn’t easy to judge what the right thing to do would be or to imagine what you would do if you were there. And as crowds gather across the country under the banner “Resist,” Occupied might have something to tell us about our current political crisis.

If you would like to consider another wonderfully complicated work on the competing moral obligations raised by resistance, read Jean Anouilh’s play Antigone, which is inspire by Sophocles’ play of the same name.  I far prefer Anouilh’s version because he allows each side to make its best argument, causing the audience pretty much to switch what it favors based on whoever spoke last. Anouilh’s version is especially amazing because it was first produced in 1944 in Nazi-occupied Paris, so it was speaking directly to the emergency facing its audience.

How Anouilh’s play got passed the German censors isn’t entirely clear.  They may have allowed it to be produced in part because of the strength of the arguments Anouilh gave to Creon about the need for the state to maintain order.  Unlike Sophocles’ Creon, who is clearly the villain to Antigone’s heroism, Anouilh’s Creon is an unwilling ruler who feels as trapped by his obligation to preserve the city as Antigone feels trapped by her obligation to obey the law of the gods.

Below is a taste in which Creon gets the upper hand in the argument before blowing it by urging Antigone to focus on happiness, something that she seems unable and unwilling to do.

Yesterday, I gave Eteocles a State funeral, with pomp and honors. Today, Eteocles is a saint and a hero in the eyes of all Thebes. The whole city turned out to bury him. I made a speech myself; and every temple priest was there with an appropriate show of sorrow and solemnity in his stupid face. And military honors were accorded the dead-hero. Well, what else could I have done? People had taken sides in the civil war. Both sides couldn’t be wrong: that would have been too much. I couldn’t have made them swallow the truth. Two gangsters was more of a luxury than I could afford. (He pauses for a moment) And yet — this is the whole point of my story. Eteocles, that virtuous brother, was just as rotten as Polynices. That great-hearted son had done his best, too, to procure the assassination of his father. That loyal prince had also offered to sell out Thebes to the highest bidder. Funny, isn’t it? Polynices lies rotting in the sun while Eteocles is given a hero’s funeral and will be housed in a marble vault. Yet I have absolute proof that everything that Polynices did, Eteocles had plotted to do. They were a pair of assassins — both intent in selling out Thebes, and both intent in selling out each other; and they died like the cheap gangsters they were, over a division of the spoils. Each had been spitted on the other’s sword, and the Argive cavalry had trampled them down. They were mashed to a pulp, Antigone. I had the prettier of the two carcasses brought in, and gave it a State funeral; and I left the other to rot. I don’t now which is which. And I assure you, I don’t care.
Why do you tell me all this?
You hold a treasure in your hands, Antigone — life, I mean. And you were about to throw it away. Would it have been better to let you die a victim to that obscene story? Antigone, go find Haemon and get married quickly. Be happy. Life is not what you think it is. Life is a child playing round your feet, a tool you hold firmly in your grip, a bench you sit down upon in the evening, in your garden. People will tell you that that’s not life, that life is something else. They will tell you that because they need your strength and your fire, and they will want to make use of you. Don’t listen to them. Believe me when I tell you —the only poor consolation that we have in our old age is to discover that what I have just said to you is true. Life is, perhaps, after all, nothing more than the happiness that you get out of it.

3 Responses to What Would You Do Under Occupation?

  1. AMS says:

    From experience, I don’t think that Creon blew it when he advised Antigone in the final paragraph, as there also is truth in what he imparted. Others try to harness another’s strength and fire/passion and knowledge or their own benefit, often through manipulation and flattery and without concern for the toll/impact on that individual. Those who choose to act should choose wisely as to where and how their courage, strength and passion should be directed.

    • I entirely agree. I say Creon blew it because Antigone does not seem particularly motivated by happiness. Invoking happiness makes his argument less appealing to her. In addition, she can’t see how she’d be happy anyway if she went along with Creon in violating the moral law to preserve order. As she puts it:

      ANTIGONE (Quietly) What kind of happiness do you foresee for me? Paint me the picture of your happy Antigone. What are the unimportant little sins that I shall have to commit before I am allowed to sink my teeth into life and tear happiness from it? Tell me: to whom shall I have to lie? upon whom shall I have to fawn? to whom must I sell myself? Whom do you want me to leave dying, while I turn away my eyes?

  2. The question why German censors allowed the play to be performed is the interesting one. Maybe because Anouilh’s Creon wins in the end? In Romania, I was told the favorite plays during Ceaucescu’s reign were Richard III and Camus’ Caligula. Audiences could cheer mightily at the end of each play while reality remained untouched.

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