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Interview with Charles Glass

Interview by Paris Lit Up’s roving reporter, Lucy Binnersley.

Last month the American Library of Paris invited us to an evening with broadcaster, journalist and writer Charles Glass. Charles began his journalistic career in 1973 at ABC News Beirut bureau. He covered the Arab-Israeli War on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts and also the civil war in Lebanon, where artillery fire wounded him in 1976. He was ABC News Chief Middle East correspondent from 1983 to 1993. Since 1993, he has been a freelance writer in Paris, Tuscany, Venice and London, regularly covering the Middle East, the Balkans, southeast Asia and the Mediterranean region. He has also published books, short stories, essays and articles in the United States and Europe.

As both an expatriate and a student of Modern French History I am most familiar with Charles’s writings on inter-war Paris. His book Americans in Paris, which shone a light on the personal stories of those living, and resisting under Nazi Occupation. For me this was an invaluable source of guidance and inspiration, consisting of characters such as the original owner of Shakespeare and Company bookstore Sylvia Beach and also the Director of the American Library, Clara Longworth de Chambrun.

In his most recently published book, The Deserters, (the UK edition of which is called Deserter) Charles follows a group of British and American deserters into the heat of battle and explores what motivated them to take their fateful decision to run away. The result is a highly emotional and engaging study of an under-explored area of World War II history. Here Charles tells us what led him to turn his focus to Paris and his desire to explore the moral decisions that so many were forced to make during the tempestuous years of the inter-war period Second World War.

In the past you have been an expert on Middle East issues, yet your last two books, Americans in Paris and The Deserters have seen your focus turn to French soil and into the arena of the Second World War. How did this come about?

CG – I was in Paris and wanted an excuse to stay. Relics of the occupation are everywhere, and I wondered how I’d have behaved under occupation. I’ve seen Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, also the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. None are good, but people have to survive while they last. What would I have done under the Germans? I was American, not French, so I investigated what other Americans did then. They turned out to be an interesting lot. For Deserter, a French friend asked me whether any British or American soldiers had deserter in the Second World War. To my surprise, there were 150,000. To my greater surprise, no one had written about it. So, I did.

How do you choose the characters that you represent in your stories? Do you believe that they emblematic and typical of the whole or were you just drawn to their individual stories?

CG – They need to represent a large number of others. Dr. Sumner Jackson, for example, stood for all the Americans, some of whom I mention in the book, who resisted. His resistance was longer and more consistent than the others. The other requirement is that there is a strong documentary record. It helps even more if the people, like Steve Weiss in Deserter, are alive to be interviewed and provide their letters and other papers they saved.

You cover two different sides of the same coin – in Americans in  Paris those who stayed in Paris to resist the Nazis and in The Deserters those who fled from the front-line. Yet it appears that both wanted to achieve the same objective – “to preserve humanity” by the safe-guarding of their intellect, imagination and sensitivity.” In both instances, do you think that it was an individual or collective mission that drove these characters?

CG – It could be either. Sumner Jackson, for example, didn’t leave any written record of his reasons for resisting. It was clear he already hated Germany from his experiences in the First World War. His son Philippe, who is still alive and has spoken a great deal about his experiences in the war with his parents and his time at Neuengamme concentration camp, did everything he could after the war to encourage harmony between France and Germany. For the deserters, the decisions were usually sudden and personal. Most often, they simply broke down under the pressure of constant combat, lack of sleep, poor rations, the filth of the battlefield and the loss of friends.

Going on from this, and bringing the topic into a more contemporary light – reports from just after the beginning of the Iraq War showed that desertion among UK troops doubled. Although desertions did not occur on the front-line like in WWII, some soldiers took a personal stand against the war and voiced this by leaving their posts. They saw it as their duty to dissent against an illegal war. Do you see any similarities with their reasons for these desertions in comparison to those who deserted in WWII?

CG – In North Africa and Europe, where almost all the desertions took place, the deserters were not protesting against the war. The troops did not doubt its legality, although many felt that some of the things the armed forces did were immoral, like shooting prisoners or bombing villages and towns filled with civilians. But their reasons for deserting had little to do with that.

In The Deserters, the character John Bain states that “the dramatically heroic role is for the few.” In an article you stated that one of your heroes is the linguist and psychologist Noam Chomsky. Psychology plays a big part throughout, at the start of each section there is a quote from The Psychology of the Fighting Man (published in 1943). Do you think that it was innately more likely that some would be heroes and others would desert? Or do you think that it was caused by exhaustion/lack of supplies/lack of strategy etc?

CG – The army did everything it could to filter out men it believed were likely to have nervous breakdowns under pressure. In the first year of the war, psychiatrists disqualified 1.75 million American men from entering the armed forces on mental grounds. However, this process did not prevent the twenty-five per cent of all battlefield casualties that were psychological rather than physical. There is no way to predict who will collapse and who will soldier on, so far as I know. It is like predicting which soldiers will suffer physical wounds. The military tried to cope by putting psychiatric units in all forward medical stations.

You recently did a reading at the American Library and have also done readings at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. Both institutions play a big part in my life in Paris, as they did for many of the characters in your book Americans in Paris. What is your view of the role that they play in French society, both during WWII and in the present?

CG – The American Library stayed open throughout the German occupation, protected in part by the influential friends of its director, Clara Longworth de Chambrun. Clara’s son René was married to José Laval, Pierre Laval’s daughter. Nonetheless, library staff smuggled books out to Jewish members whom the Germans forbade to come to the library and most other public places. It was the only English language library, and it allowed students and others to do research in English. The Shakespeare and Company bookshop, which is one of my favourite places in Paris, did not exist until George Whitman opened it in the 1950s. He changed the name to Shakespeare and Company after Sylvia Beach, who founded the original shop in the rue de l’Odéon in 1919 [as I recall] and closed it at the end of 1941 rather than let a German officer seize some of her books. George not only named his shop after hers, he called his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman. So, we once again have a beautiful Sylvia running a Shakespeare and Company. I suspect the first Sylvia would have liked that.

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