Title: The History that we Write
Author: Zalia Chimera
Notes: Recently, the BBC has been doing a lot of pieces on TV about WW2 as it has been the 70th anniversary of Dunkirk and other WW2 landmarks. One of these was the anniversary of Charles de Gaulle's first radio speech after the fall of France. President Sarkozy attended the commemoration at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, alongside the UK's new PM, David Cameron.
Summary: Seventy years later, a bottle of wine and the nature of heroes.
"The voice spoke of resistance and hope; it was strong and manly. The half-dozen weeping Frenchwomen huddled about the radio cabinet where they had been listening to the bulletins of defeat and surrender ceased for a moment in their sobbing. Someone had spoken for France; Petain always seemed to speak against her, reproachful with the cruelty of the impotent."
- A. J. Lieling
"There never was a France like the Madonna that Charles de Gaulle worships in the fresco of his imagination." - David Schoenbrun
"I think that broadcast kept me sane."
It is not the kind of statement that seems to warrant an answer, so England just prises the bottle from France's fingers and takes a swig, ignoring the slightly reproachful look from his new boss and a few sullen mutters from the crowd (How disrespectful! These children don't understand what these men fought for!).
"I didn't hear the first broadcast," France says as he pushes his hair back from his face, coiling a strand around his finger in a familiar gesture of thought. "They locked me up when I arrived in Vichy. For my own protection." He snorts derisively, shaking his head even as he reaches for the bottle of wine. England passes it over without protest and watches as France drinks, eyes fixed on the line of his throat as he swallows. There are still droplets on his lips, redder than blood, and France licks them away indelicately. "I even believed them for a time. I was such a fool."
England frowns slightly and takes the bottle from him, cradling it between his hands. "They were your government, your bosses. They were supposed to protect you. Not hand you over to Germany for the sake of their Vichy state."
France gives a crooked little smile. "Ah, Angleterre, and how many times did we impose our terms upon a conquered nation and force their government to do our bidding? But non, I thought that it could never happen to me, even after Holland and Belgium capitulated. I am France and I was still an empire then, albeit diminished."
"Sometimes," England grumbles, "I think you enjoy brooding over old defeats as much as you do old victories."
"Enjoy... perhaps," France says, cocking his head to the side thoughtfully. "I have always been something of a masochist. I do not enjoy the nightmares though."
It earns him a weak smile and an awkward pat on the hand. England can attest to the nightmares. He's been woken by them many times, France tangled in the bed sheets, drenched in cold sweat, crying and screaming and begging until he is woken up. The moment's terror when France looks at him just after waking and sees someone completely different is enough to tear at his heart.
"Perhaps I could have tried harder to convince Petain to not sign the armistice," France continues as though their little aside had not happened. He twirls a stray lock of hair idly around one finger. "But I was tired and hurting and I trusted him," he says plaintively. "He was a hero. One of my heroes. I remember him bringing me coffee and cigarettes during the first war."
"I remember," England murmurs. "But then, you always have had a thing for your heroes." He wonders if France realises how wistful he sounds when he talks like that. It was hardly a golden age. "Never looking beyond the legends."
France snorts softly, giving him an incredulous look. "Angleterre, you have heroic poetry about the Charge of the Light Brigade, one of the most ridiculous failures of communication and acts of stupidity in military history."
That, England was forced to concede. He just didn't have to like it. "You always bring that up. Like the Crimean automatically invalidates anything I say in an argument."
"Oui," France's lips stretch into a smug grin. "It is true."
England glares. "You are such an arsehole."
France chuckles softly, stares over at the mingled French and British veterans gathered for the day. They had spoken to the veterans earlier, much to the bemusement of many of the other guests who were not fortunate enough to have been informed of their true identities, but they had both enjoyed that time, sharing stories and memories and being able to thank some of the people who had fought for their freedom. "But the point is, I think, that we have our beloved heroes, the ones that we trust to be our champions, and the realisation that they are just as human as anyone else, it hurts." He sighs, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, tilting his face skyward. England wonders if he is reliving those moments behind closed lids. "Being handed over to Germany by him, being deemed a failed state by someone I had believed was my champion and the realisation that he would not save me... it broke me a little, I think." France shakes his head, sending his hair into his face and he peers at England through it.
"They took me to witness the armistice, and I recall so clearly Petain's face as I was handed over to Germany, but I do not remember much else. It is a blur."
"There's no need to force it," England says quietly, giving France a sideways glance that glitters with badly hidden concern. The bottle lies forgotten now, half buried beneath memories. "You don't have to remember. It can't have been... pleasant." He remembers seeing France bloody and blank-eyed and knows that is more of an understatement than most people alive today can imagine.
France's brow crinkles and he shakes his head. "Non... forgetting the past is not the same as coming to terms with it. Forgetting is far more dangerous and I will not fall into that trap." He tucks his hair behind his ear. "It would be insulting to the people who fought for me, who died for me to forget the suffering of that time."
There is no argument to be made about that. England just grabs the bottle of wine and drains it, setting it back down with a clink. "I tried to find you, you know?" he says quietly, voice subdued. "I thought that you'd be in Vichy, but I suppose that was foolish of me."
"You weren't to know," France replies, and there's a touch of surprise in his voice at England's seriousness.
England shakes his head violently. "No! I- I fell into the same trap, I think. I couldn't believe that a boss, especially him because I remember the trenches too, would just hand his nation over." He sighs, rubs he back of his neck. "I felt so naive when I realised what had happened."
"You are very sweet about the strangest things, Angleterre," France says with a soft laugh. "I had not anticipated being handed over and they were my government."
"I should have spent more time looking before breaking ties with Vichy. At least I would have been able to keep pressing for an answer instead of sitting around hoping that you weren't-" He falls silent, not wanting to recall those days, watching the country become more and more like Germany, wondering if France was dead or imprisoned or changed and god, that last one had given him nightmares; France but not France, laughing at him as he knelt at Germany's feet like some obedient dog.
"You did enough," is the soft reply, a thoughtful expression on France's face. "Remembering is good, but we cannot change what happened. You helped me during those dark times just by not falling. And," a small smile blooms on his lips, "by letting de Gaulle broadcast."
England shifts a little uncomfortably, staring off into the distance, their two bosses standing together, shoulder to shoulder. England's boss is still giving him the uncertain looks of one who has no idea how to deal with him and isn't entirely convinced that the existence of his nation isn't some huge joke they play on all new PMs. "It wasn't much," he said quietly. "It felt like it was so little, too little when I wanted to storm the beaches despite the futility."
"I remember wanting to hear that you had," France admits, "and I remember thinking that it was a dream when you finally did. But that broadcast... ah such a small thing and I cannot say how much difference it made in the greater scheme of things, but... but I know how much difference it made to me when I heard it." He leans his head back, staring at the sky which is mercifully free of clouds. He is silent for long enough to make England feel uncomfortable, but he knows better than to interrupt France's thoughts. There is something important here, he thinks, and France will probably never speak of it again if he is distracted.
"I needed to hear someone speak of me as though I was worth saving as I was before the invasion, when Petain spoke only of how I should change to fit Germany's desires, like I was something to be ashamed of! I had not realised how much I had internalised what had been said of me, the failed state, something that needed to be fixed," France's voice turns harsh and angry, bitter to the core, "until much later when I thought of submitting, begging for Germany's attention like a whipped dog."
"You make it sound like it was something so huge," England murmurs. "All I remember was the BBC finding a dingy broadcast room and letting him get on with it. And the arguments." Oh dear lord, the arguments.
France half turns to England, a soft, sweet smile on his lips and it makes something in England's chest flutter to see it, it is so rare. "It was something small for you, Angleterre, something insignificant, but it gave me and my people a hero when they needed one. For that, I am truly grateful."
England snorts softly, scowling, because it is not his place to be soft and sweet in turn. He is sure that it would disturb them both if he was. "Don't tell that to America," he says gruffly, although there is no real displeasure in his voice. "To hear him talk, you'd think that he'd liberated the entire continent single-handedly." He rolls his eyes, his exasperation so long held that it is practically indistinguishable from fondness by now. "And you..." he adds significantly, giving France an accusing look, although it holds no real malice. "You spent half of the Sixties bitching about how de Gaulle was disappointed with you, how he wanted some paragon of virtue as his nation rather than you, you perv." He pauses, thinking about his words before grinning, a lecherous expression. "Preferably, I'm sure, a paragon of virtue with nice tits. They always want to give their lives for some Amazon in a toga." He can't quite restrain himself from making a squeezing motion, remembering those pictures of Marianne that the French had drawn, never realising that their Nation was really a skinny bloke with stubble and a rose fetish. Marianne had been very well endowed, as he recalled.
France wrinkles his nose at England's words, giving him a dismayed look. "I do not bitch, Angleterre. I am not so uncouth. I simply... voice my feelings."
"Not to your boss, you don't," England points out slyly. "Especially not to that boss." It was rather unhealthy in his opinion. He much preferred the occasional screaming argument to France's method of remaining silent until he broke.
France stiffens at that, back set in a too hard line and England can practically see the taut set of his muscles beneath the light summer shirt. "What would you have me do, Angleterre?" he asks, patting his pockets until he finds his pack of unfiltered Gaulloises and matches. He lights one as he speaks, the dark scent of the tobacco reaching England. "They are my bosses. He was my boss. I am bound to them as much as you are bound to yours." He takes a long drag on the cigarette, holding his breath for a moment before exhaling a plume of smoke.
His eyes have a misty, far off look in them. "He expected an ideal from me, oui, and I could not be that ideal, but he still fought to give me the opportunity to be myself. And I... I think I saw an ideal in him as well. He was what I needed in my darkest hours, so no matter how difficult he was to work with later, no matter that we sometimes disagreed or fought, and I know that he was not perfect, I am content to smooth away some of the rough edges and remember him as the hero of that era."
There is a silence for a moment, both of them staring over the grounds, the clamour of people, the military brass playing. And then, "You sound infatuated," England says accusingly.
France turns his head a fraction, smirking around his cigarette. "You sound much the same when you talk of Monsieur Churchill, mon cher," he says with a devilish grin, leaning close for a moment so that England can feel the cherry of the cigarette warm near his cheek. "Your Nelson and Drake too. Elizabeth..." he adds, voice a low drawl designed to needle.
"Leave her out of it," England says darkly, a warning note in his voice. "Her and Jeanne. We agreed."
"C'est vrai..." France replies slowly, holding out his cigarette to tap the ash off it. "Not them. But the others, when you talk about them, you sound like a young woman, dreaming about being courted."
"Sod off, I do not!" England yelps, all the darkness gone as though it never was, and his voice loud enough to earn him a few glares and a reproachful look from his boss which he easily ignores. His new boss has yet to learn that reproachful or disappointed or any other kinds of looks for that matter, have little effect on England.
France's fingers running lightly down his cheek however, now that still makes him blush and squirm. France laughs, high and bright, and more people mutter about them not appreciating the solemnity of the occasion.
"You are such an arse," England mutters, snatching the cigarette from France's fingers and taking a drag himself. It is dark tobacco, the same as France has smoked since before both wars, and a little bitter for England's tastes. He remembers sharing them with France in the trenches, hands cupped around guttering flames for a little warmth.
France's boss is speaking now, words of gratitude and brotherhood and freedom (France had buried his face against England's shoulder when they finally found him, clinging to him as he murmured Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité against England's skin, as though he would forget the words if he stopped), and takes another drag of the cigarette before passing it back. "Is it worth it, I wonder," he murmurs thoughtfully. "Legends are all very well, but blind reverence is dangerous. Sometimes I think that we might be better served by brutal honesty. Not just a few history books digging up the dirt years later." Heroes are all very well, but when they are seen as flawless, when people forget that men are just men, ah, that is when nations go mad.
"You are thinking a lot today, Angleterre," France says, amusement coiling in his voice. "It is most unlike you."
England just glares. France ignores him as he takes a final drag of the cigarette before stubbing it out and dropping it into the empty wine bottle. "You were not defeated in that war," he says bluntly. "You did not suffer that indignity. You can glory in your victory, in your steadfast people, in your finest hours, so perhaps you cannot understand. For me... non, for many of us, those of us who capitulated and were occupied..." He pauses, mulling over his words for several moment before continuing, his voice hesitant in that way that suggests he is not quite sure how to make himself understood. "For me... I think it is not a bad thing to look at those who resisted with pride, even when they sometimes did not deserve it, even when they perhaps were not always as successful or noble as France would like to believe." He smiles wistfully. "How would I have looked myself in the mirror afterwards, if all I had left from that war was Vichy's legacy? Non, this way I was allowed to keep my pride, and a country without pride of some kind might as well not be a country at all."
England remembers Germany after the war, broken and shamed, his pride crushed beyond repair for more than a decade afterwards. He had been barely a shadow. He cannot imagine how France would be in such a situation, does not want to imagine it. No, perhaps this is for the best.
He snorts softly, shaking his head. "Like you even know what pride is you old pervert," he says, flashing a smile at France.
France gives him an indignant look. "Hmph! The pride of les Anglais certainly outstrips their actual skill. You have become flabby," he adds, poking England in the stomach playfully, grinning when England bats his hands away.
"I have not become flabby!" England protests, falling back into the habitual bickering with ease. "I just happen to be more than skin and bones like you! It's hardly pleasant to wake up with your bony elbows digging into my chest."
"And yet you keep returning to my bed, Angleterre. You cannot find me too repulsive."
"Pity," England says, baring his teeth. "I do it out of pity."
"Non, desperation I think is more accurate."
"Rosbif." Their smiles match, all teeth and danger and barely hidden affection. France leans forward, bumping their cheeks together lightly. He laughs suddenly, shaking his head, hair falling about his face. "You do remember that portrait that Russia made of us, yes? Those 'amazons in togas' as you so succinctly put it."
England frowns suspiciously, and nods. "I remember," he agrees. "I think the artist really resented that we were all men when it came time to do it."
France nods easily, kicking his legs idly against the wall. "Russia was so pleased with the portrait, I remember. He wouldn't stop talking about how they gave him such a lovely hourglass figure."
It is England's turn to roll his eyes at that, lips quirking upwards. "Can't say that I noticed. The two of you were given rather magnificent bosoms though." His grin loosens, become slightly lecherous.
"Now who is uncouth?" France asks swiftly, elbowing him in the ribs. "Your own bosom was not exactly displeasing either," he adds, just to make England flush more.
"Yeah well, got to keep up appearances haven't I? Can't be outdone by bloody Europeans. Matter of pride."
"Of course, Angleterre. Of course."
"You're mocking me."
"Always, mon cher. You would not know what to do if I acted otherwise."
- Charles de Gaulle made his speech on June 18th, 1940, declaring himself the head of the Free French. He declared that the war was not over and spoke of resistance against the Germans. de Gaulle was virtually unknown, the lowest ranked general in the French army, but he became the leader of the French forces who made it to Britain.
- Philipe Petain has broadcast the previous day after being declared head of France. He explained that France had lost and would seek an armistice with Germany. Petain was trusted by many people as he had been a hero of the First World War.
- The quote at the beginning of the piece comes from the book 'Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation 1940-44' by Charles Glass. A. J. Liebling was an American who has escaped France and gone to Portugal, one of the only places in Europe it was by then possible to get a ship to America.
- The picture that France and England talk about (the one with the magnificent bosoms) is one of Marianne (France), Mother Russia (Russia) and Britannia (Britain) which was made in Russia in 1914 to display the cooperation of the Triple Entente powers in the coming First World War. The Triple Entente comprised the Entente Cordiale, Franco-Russian alliance, and the Anglo-Russian Entente. It was formed to provide a counterweight against the growing power of the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. The entente essentially ended British neutrality in Europe.