Learning the Lessons of Le Chambon

Andre Trocme, Roger Darcissac and Edourd Theis, March 1943

Malcolm Gladwell (y’know, the popular statistician guy who writes books about how you should expect things you don’t expect), has published an interesting article over on Relevant magazine.

It’s about how he came to understand the greatness of God while writing a book titled David and Goliath, about people turning what appear to be extraordinary disadvantages to their advantage.

He says the book can be summarised by 1 Samuel 16:7 – “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

That’s a pretty good lesson in-and-of itself so you should probably read that article after this one, but one story he recounts in the article caught my eye. One of the examples he draws upon is that of the French town of Le Chambon, which became a centre of the French resistance during the Nazi occupation, and through which many Jews were smuggled to Switzerland.

As Gladwell tells it:

Le Chambon is an area of France called the Vivarais Plateay – a remote mountainous region near the Italian and Swiss borders. For many centuries, the area has been home to dissident Protestant groups, principally the Huguenots, and during the Nazi occupation of France, Le Chambon become a very open and central pocket of resistance.

The local Huguenot pastor was a man named Andrew Trocme. On the Sunday after France fell to the Germans, Trocme preached a sermon in which he said that if the Germans made the townsfolk of Le Chambon do anything they considered contrary to the Gospel, the town wasn’t going to go along. So the schoolchildren of Le Chambon refused to give the fascist salute each morning, as the new government had decreed they must. The occupation rulers required teachers to sign an oath of loyalty to the state, but Trocme ran the school in Le Chambon and instructed staff not to do it.

Before long, Jewish refugees – on the run from the Nazis – heard of Le Chambon and began to show up looking for help. Trocme and the townsfolk took them in, fed them, hid them and spirited them across borders – in open defiance of Nazi law. Once, when a high government official Ame to town, a group of students actually presented him with a letter that stated plainly and honestly the town’s opposition to the anti-Jewish policies of the occupation.

“We feel obligated to tell you that there are among us a certain number of Jews,” the letter stated. “But, we make no distinction between Jews and non-Jews. It is contrary to the Gospel teaching. If our comrades, who’s only fault is to be born in another religion, received the order to let themselves be deported or even examined, they would disobey the order received and we would try to hide them as best we could.”

In one of the many books written about Le Chambon, there is an extraordinary line from Andrew Trocme’s wife, Magda. When the first refugee appeared at her door, in the bleakest part of the war during the long winter of 1941 Magda Trocme said it never occurred to her to say no: “I didn’t know that it would be dangerous. Nobody thought of that.”

Nobody thought of that. It never occurred to her or anyone else in Le Chambon that they were at any disadvantage in a battle with the Nazi Army.

Gladwell asks why other Christians didn’t also stand up to the Nazis and concludes, effectively, that their faith in God wasn’t strong enough. “They estimated the dangers of action by looking on outward appearances – when they needed to look on the heart,” he writes, and he may well have a point. After all, individuals do carry out heroic feats too.

But I suspect the truth is both more mundane, in that it doesn’t need a spiritual explanation, and more profound, in that it applies to all of us no matter where we think we are on our spiritual journey: by taking a stand as a town, the people of Le Chambon had a support network. This gave them a number of advantages.

There is safety in numbers, as the old saying goes. The Nazis could easily arrest or even shoot one or two lone dissidents, but a whole town full of people prepared to back one another is a rather different prospect. In short, it made it not worth the Nazi’s trouble to bother with.

It also offered moral support to the townsfolk. Not everyone is brave enough to take a stand by themselves (most aren’t) but many will do so when they see that they won’t be alone. There is even a certain amount of camaraderie that springs from such moments, when people realise that, together, they have achieved what would have been too much for one person to take on.

And the town had another significant advantage: they had strong leaders who bolstered – even formed – their resolve. Pastor Trocme was not the only figure in town to take a stand: Roger Darcissac, the principal of the local school, sheltered Jewish students within his establishment, and Pastor Edouard Theis encouraged his congregants to shelter Jews. All three men served time in the local prison but refused to confess or give up Jews within the town.

Most of the townsfolk didn’t stand up to the Nazis under their own initiative, they stood up to them because they were instructed to. In effect, these men used the tendency of people to follow orders for the good, rather than allow the Nazis to use is for the bad.

It is entirely feasible that some of the residents of Le Chambon – perhaps many of them – weren’t particularly interested in standing up to the Nazis, but that the implicit pressure from their neighbours to conform was greater than the threat the Nazis posed.

Regardless, Le Chambon serves as an example of how community is vital to resistance. As I’ve written previously, small communities are far better equipped to meet the needs of all the individuals within them and therefore survive difficult times than individuals or families are.

It is time we all began to adopt the lessons of Le Chambon and form self sufficient communities ourselves.