Month: March 2008

10. Fleeing Hitler – the story of the Paris exodus

Hanna Diamond On 14 June 1940 German tanks swept into Paris. That the city would fall to the Nazis was by then a foregone conclusion; it had been declared an ‘open city’ the day before. In other words, it would put up no resistance against the invaders. The government had already packed up and left.

By 14 June, four-fifths of Parisians had also fled the city, leaving it looking as though it had been stricken by some medieval disaster such as a great plague. Little more than a week later Hitler would make a propaganda visit to Paris and have his picture taken beneath the Eiffel Tower.

Yet, despite the magnitude of the exodus in which literally millions of people took to the roads in any form of transport they could find, including push-carts and bicycles, it has been little written about by professional historians, as though it has been crowded out by the attention given to the Vichy regime, the resistance, and the occupation.

Fleeing Hitler jacketHanna Diamond‘s new book, Fleeing Hitler: France 1940 (OUP) sets out to redress the balance by providing a detailed account of those hot June days when Parisians sought to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the advancing German army. Though most set out with little idea of where they were going, and many spoke later of the ‘holiday mood’ of their adventure, 100,000 citizens were to die as they fled.

In my interview with Hanna Diamond we talk about the events on the road, and also the way in which the Vichy regime quickly created its own myths around the exodus.

9. Talking about animals

Martin Kemp
‘As soon as humans make images, they make them about humans and they make them about animals and the relationship between them.’

My guest on this week’s programme is Martin Kemp, Professor of the History of Art at Oxford, whose latest book, The Human Animal is a rich and thought-provoking study of the relationship between the human and the animal worlds as reflected in art and science.

It is one of those books which make you look at the world in a different way after you close it. It is full of examples of how throughout history we have drawn (often unflattering) comparisons between humans and animals, and it makes you realize that anthropomorphized animals are still all around us – in adverts, political cartoons, children’s literature – and the language of animal comparisons still infuses our everyday speech (from politicians crying ‘crocodile tears’, to a child’s taunt of ‘scaredy cat’ to the media branding a thug an ‘animal’ or a ‘beast’).
Human Animal cover

When we reach for animal comparisons, we seem to be asking what it means to be human: where is the line between animals and us to be drawn? Indeed, is there a line or merely a continuum? That this was the cause of much anxiety and soul-searching (literally, since the Cartesian view that animals were merely machines and incapable of feeling was a persuasive one which is not yet fully behind us) is apparent everywhere in the book. Darwin wrote that man ‘has a pedigree of prodigious length, but not, it may be said, of noble quality.’ In other words, we can trace our ancestors a long way back, but we may not like what we find. The Human Animal follows the history of our slow and often reluctant coming to terms with our place in the natural world.

The book does not just travel along the high road of western art and science; it also provides fascinating insights into some of the nineteenth century’s more dubious pleasures, such as freak shows and circuses. That century’s desire to understand the natural world was intense, as demonstrated by the booming popularity of zoos. Pseudo-sciences – such as phrenology, which claimed to be able to be able to read character in the bumps on the head – were in full bloom, and criminologists claimed to be able to detect ‘the criminal type’ just from examining a man’s features.

And ideas about the nature of being human seeped from scientific and intellectual culture into art: listen to the interview and get hold of the book, and I guarantee you will not look at Degas’s Little Dancer in quite the same light ever again…

If you enjoy this edition of Podularity, you can click here to listen to my interview with primatologist, Frans de Waal, in which he talks about ‘our inner ape’ and our similarities to our primate cousins.

8. A Philosopher in Everytown

Julian Baggini Philosophy can seem the most cerebral and abstract of disciplines. So what would happen if a philosopher stepped out of his study and ’embedded’ himself in an ordinary (but unfamiliar) community in his own country and tried to work out whether the English people have anything which could reasonably be called a philosophy?

That’s exactly the challenge that Julian Baggini set himself in 2005, when he left his comfort zone in Bristol and moved to Rotherham, which, it turns out, is as typical as you can hope to find of how the English live now.

We met this month to coincide with the paperback publication of his account of his sojourn, Everytown, and I asked him how his assumptions about what he would find had matched up to reality. Here’s the list he made as he travelled north:

Everytown cover‘On the train, I jotted down a list of values and characteristics I expected to find, making no attempt to mask my prejudices. I thought there would be toleration for difference, but no real love for it, and only as long as it is not perceived as threatening. There would be provincialism. People’s aspirations would be modest, or else for superficial things like fame or wealth. The best life would be comfortable and fun.

People would think religion was for weirdos and philosophy for boffins. Anti-intellectualism would be rife. People would have their philosophies of life, which would be simple but true: be thankful for what you’ve got, make the most of what you have; time waits for no man.

Although in behaviour most people would be sexually liberal, most still want to be married and think that children deserve two married parents. There would be a thin line between having some youthful fun and being a slag. Homophobia would be normal.

Despite the talk of a national culinary renaissance, people would still eat badly and the ‘best restaurant around’ would be rubbish…’