Works in Progress - Spring 2012

Morality in the Time of War

By Darcy Courteau | March 14, 2013


In defying France’s prevailing Nazi collaborators during World War II, a farm commune in the south-central region of the country presented a strong and unified front. The Resistance was generally characterized by small insurgencies and single acts of valor, but most of the 24,000 inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and its outlying farms risked their lives to hide as many as 5,000 people, mostly Jewish children. Protestant leaders negotiated the refugees’ release from Vichy camps used as Auschwitz way stations and took them to Le Chambon. There, villagers buffered the children, many orphaned, from further trauma, sending them to pick mushrooms in surrounding forests during sporadic Nazi raids.

A central conundrum of the Holocaust is how so many could be infected with hate, but in light of Le Chambon, anthropologist Margaret Paxson asks what made people choose, collectively, to do good even while being terrorized. (Paxson is a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.) Over the course of four trips to Le Chambon, which continues to shelter refugees from around the world, Paxson found the region’s people reserved, viewing rescue work not as heroic but as second nature and tending to see children as connectors among communities. She traveled terrain so rugged it once confounded the Nazis. “The snow, the winds, the kinds of forests that were bounteous, that you could get lost in,” she says, “are part of the story.”

Paxson will publish her findings in a follow-up to Solovyovo, her study of a Russian village, where she similarly investigated how social mores persist despite state repression.

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