A. J. Liebling, “Uncollected War Journalism” (1939-1963): Infrapolitics and Resistance

Haven’t they any cooperatives? It is to the interest of the dairies to be clean. Then they would get a premium for the milk. It is just like the ships. If you have a good ship, with the proper number of watertight compartments and all new safety things, then you pay such a low insurance rate, you know. And if you treat the crew right, it is a good crew, and then you don’t have to pay so many men. In Denmark it has all worked out beautifully. In a cooperative one bad one hurts all the others. (596)

Is it not amazing that we find in a small report by an overweight American journalist about the fate of the Danish navy during World War II, such a concise argument for anarchist principles of organization? I argued in my last posts on A. J. Liebling’s World War II writings that we see in the fighting of the war plenty of unrealized potentialities. Here, perhaps, is another one. In any case, readers of the New Yorker cannot say they were not by none other than a Danish sailor.

Liebling’s reports from the Second World War are insightful on many levels. They speak of the experience of common soldiers, the character of commanders, and the perceptions of war from the home front. Of most long-term significant is what his stories reveal about the winning of the war and the power of vernacular forms of protest. As important as the military was to the victory, the painting Liebling presents of occupied Europe is one a Gulliver being tied down by thousands of little strings. Liebling had a fascination and love for France, which comes through in his writings. He even wrote an entire book on the French resistance, The Republic of Silence (of which two selections are included in this collection). Their contribution was not simply armed resistance, but a great diversity of infrapolitics (a term coined by James Scott for unseen and underground political action).

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One of the most memorable in this collection of war reports to the New Yorkers (pp. 573–815 in World War II Writings) is about the “V” campaign. The campaign used radio to encouraged people in occupied territories to write the letter “V” on public buildings with chalk. The letter was given different meaning depending on the local language. When transformed into morse code, it became the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In effect, this turned a piece of German music into an international symbol of resistance (to the great annoyance of the Germans). Liebling estimates that this cheaply run campaign kept two German divisions from the front in attempt to suppress graffiti, but the use of a musical phrase for resistance was impossible to repress.

The radio broadcasts encouraged other forms of day to day resistance to the occupation, which may have had a cumulative effect that shaped the war’s outome. The colonel in charge of the program said in one broadcast:

This week I’m asking you to buy anything and everything and leave nothing for the Germans. Buy before your money becomes worthless. . . . Farmers, soon you’ll be getting your harvests in. The Germans want to get their hands on your crops, but there are ways to hide them. You will neede to keep your families from starving during the winter, and if you can save a little more than you need for yourself, it will be worth its weight in gold. . . . A lot of you city people have insurance policies. Nearly all the insurance companies have been bought up by the Germans, so every time you burn a hole in your carpet or break some china, don’t forget to claim; bury the Germans in paperwork. And if you can’t do any of these things, mark up the V where they’ll see it. Beat out the V rhythm. (608–609)

Of course, the effectiveness of this sort of thing could not be determined by the bureaucratic institutions that ran the war, but they likely helped cultivate an anti-fascist ethos in these countries and may have helped prevent its reemergence.

“The Lancaster Way” shows how small industries in small towns in England became critical production centers in for the war effort, while also sustaining a strong working class culture and spirit of autonomy. The vernacular ingenuity of these smaller urban spaces was, according to Liebling, nothing short of stunning.

Another set of articles I would like to highlight are those dealing with the French press under Nazi occupation. Liebling was interested in how the press in a city could keep its independence while also suffering from increasing corporate centralization. His 1964 book The Press is about the threat to democracy by centralized media ownership. While we might think that the press was completely restricted under the Nazis, we find the opposite was the case. “The only great nation with a completely free press today is France. All valid French newspapers are illegal.” (653) The press, in open rebellion of this censorship flourished. I suppose by the same logic, the most repressed spouse is the most likely to seek out affairs. Liebling describes the various major underground newspapers, their varied perspectives, and how they got into print. Repression created a solidarity of varied perspectives, which ultimately proved a boon to the left. “The Gestapo called them all Communists. This is an example of Nazi and collaborationist propaganda that had boomeranged. . . . the words ‘Communist’ and ‘patriot’ in the French popular mind. . . became synonyms, which gives an increased impetus to the Leftward tendency caused by the treason committed by the great industrialists.” (655) Had the Germans allowed some press freedom, what may have emerged was a waffling “neutral” newspaper that was politically anodyne and a complicit supporter of the occupation. Through censorship, the Germans created a radical French media culture. Later, Liebling suggest this contributed to the post-war alliance between the French working class and the intellectuals.

newspaper1

Liebling’s Second World War writings teaches us that the people can trap the state in its own rhetoric, immobilize it through non-participation, and silence it. The tools and strategies used by the European resistance are still available to us even if they will look different in application. The power of infrapolitics has never really declined.

A. J. Liebling: “Mollie and Other War Pieces” (1964)

Besides the Jews, the Corps [Franc] had hundreds of political prisoners from labor camps in southern Algeria—Spanish Republicans who had fled to Africa in 1939, anti-Nazi Germans who had come even before that, and French “Communists and de Gaullists,” to employ the usual Vichy designation for dissidents. . . In the Corps Franc, they were at liberty to march and fight until they dropped. They were also a fair number of Mohammedans, good soldiers, who had joined to earn the princely wage of twenty-three francs a day. . . I remember a former carabinero who had fought in the Spanish Loyalist Army, and a baked of Italian parentage from Bone, in Algeria, who said, “I am a Communist. Rich people are poison to me.” 320–321

Corps Franc

Corps Franc

This passage from A. J. Liebling’s Mollie and Other War Pieces reminds us of how broad the anti-fascist alliance was in the 1930s and 1940s. Leibling focused a great deal on the French resistance and the French home front in his World War II writings. France was his second home after New York City and he seemed to never tire of going there. The fall of France and the return to Paris (The Road Back to Paris) defined the major arc of the conflict. A group like the Corps Franc was made up of thousands of the defeated and colonized, but participated in this anti-fascist struggle. Although Liebling does not quite get to this point, I do think there were the seeds planted for some alternative post-war worlds. One thing that is clear in this reading is that it was by no means the will of many of the participants on the allied side that capitalism would emerge from the war triumphant. It was not the values of empire and capital that won the war (although sometimes their mechanized logic did seem to shape the conduct of the war).

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Mollie and Other War Pieces came out in 1964 and, along with The Press, was one of the works left incomplete at his death. Mollie and Other War Pieces is mostly collection of his war correspondence, picking up where The Road Back to Paris left off, starting in the North Africa campaign, continuing to D-Day and the defeat of Germany in France, and ending with a lengthy description of a war crime in rural France that seems small when compared to the scale of the war, but summarizes Liebling’s view about the moral necessity of fighting fascism. The story on the soldier Mollie open the book. “Mollie” was a Russian-American soldiers who was killed in action in North Africa. He was a memorable soldier, given the handle Molotov by his comrades. He was a good solider, a bit extravagant in his living, but also politically radical and often in trouble (one report has him court-martialed a couple dozen times but always getting off). Liebling goes back to New York and digs up the personal history of Mollie and finds that he was a union man (but negligent about his dues) and sustained a rather infamous life. I think this piece is important to read for its insight into the diverse points of view that made up the US Army during the war and the radical politics of so many soldiers coming out of the Great Depression.

It cheers me to think there may be more like him all around me—a notion I would have dismissed as sheer romanticism before World War II. Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience. He has become a posthumous pal, thought I never knew him when he was alive. He was full of curiosity—he would have made a great explorer—and fond of high living, which is the only legitimate incentive for liking money. He had faith in the reason of his fellow-man, as when he sensed that the Italians at Sened were no more eager to fight than he was. The action that earned him his Silver Star cost no lives. It saved them. (342)

Several soldiers pass through Liebling’s narrative of the war which values perhaps similar to those of Mollie. Liebling spends a great deal of time looking at the French home front where we similarly find a great diversity of political perspectives, but a strong tendency toward the left among the anti-fascist forces. He discusses collaborators as well, but his focus is on the resistance. His section on the free French press during the occupation is wonderfully fascinating if only for the evidence that it was largely a movement of the left. These resistance movements against the Germans fed into traditional French revolutionary politics.

In another village, also in Brittany, an officious gendarme tried to make the farm wives stop baking, because the farmers are suppose to deliver all their flour to the government. Enraged women dumped him into a horse trough. In the Yonnee departments, farmers hide requisitioned horses and cows; in Loir-et-Cher, the farmers deliver no eggs, insisting that the hens stopped laying in 1940. In Seine-et-Oise, the peasants have formed committees to demand high grain prices. Everwhere the peasants unite to hunt informers, just as farmers in Iowa, not long ago, used to chase process serves. La Terre holds up the example of the scorched earth set by the Russian peasants. (452–453)

Liebling builds up these stories about the French resistance to the fight to liberate Paris on the eve of the American arrival to the city. This did not prevent appreciation for the Americans who helped make the liberation possible but did allow the Parisians to “feel they earned it [liberation].” (524)

Libération, 23 août 1944

The book also contains Liebling’s description of D-Day, which he observed from a boat in the English channel. While of interest to those who want to see another perspective on that big battle, I am more interested in seeing the war from the margins, fought not by generals and states but by the motley crew of anti-fascists. This side of the war—the one that did not just fight for the idea of liberty but tried to live in their actions during the war—needs to be told more often.