The Plateau

The Plateau

by Maggie Paxson


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During World War II, French villagers offered safe harbor to countless strangers—mostly children—as they fled for their lives. The same place offers refuge to migrants today. Why?

In a remote pocket of Nazi-held France, ordinary people risked their lives to rescue many hundreds of strangers, mostly Jewish children. Was this a fluke of history, or something more? Anthropologist Maggie Paxson, certainties shaken by years of studying strife, arrives on the Plateau to explore this phenomenon: What are the traits that make a group choose selflessness?

In this beautiful, wind-blown place, Paxson discovers a tradition of offering refuge that dates back centuries. But it is the story of a distant relative that provides the beacon for which she has been searching. Restless and idealistic, Daniel Trocmé had found a life of meaning and purpose—or it found him—sheltering a group of children on the Plateau, until the Holocaust came for him, too. Paxson's journey into past and present turns up new answers, new questions, and a renewed faith in the possibilities for us all, in an age when global conflict has set millions adrift. Riveting, multilayered, and intensely personal, The Plateau is a deeply inspiring journey into the central conundrum of our time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594634758
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/13/2019
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 511,387
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Maggie Paxson is a writer, anthropologist, and performer. She is the author of Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village, and her essays have appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, The Wilson Quarterly, and Aeon. Fluent in Russian and French, she has worked in rural communities in northern Russia, the Caucasus, and upland France.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1




I Daniel was grieved in my spirit in the midst of my body, and the visions of my head troubled me.

—Daniel 7:15


Let's just say that suddenly you are a social scientist and you want to study peace. That is, you want to understand what makes for a peaceful society. Let's say that, for years in your work in various parts of the world, you've been surrounded by evidence of violence and war. From individual people, you've heard about beatings and arrests and murders and rapes; you've heard about deportations and black-masked men demanding people's food or their lives. You've heard about family violence and village violence and state violence. You've heard these stories from old women with loose, liquid tears; from young men with arms full of prison tattoos.

There were men on horseback calling the boys to war, and long black cars arriving to steal people away in the dead of night; girls who'd wandered the landscape, insane after sexual violations; there was the survival of the fittest in concentration camps; there were pregnant women beaten until their children were lost and bodies piled up in times of famine; there was arrest and exile for the theft of a turnip; there were those who were battered for being a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim or a Bahá'’.

Let's say that, in the world of ideas that swirled around you, approximations were made of how to make sense of this mess: the presence of certain kinds of states; the presence of certain kinds of social diversity; the presence of certain kinds of religion. And let's say that the shattering stories had piled on over the years until, at some point, you just snapped. You wanted to study war no more.

As it turns out, it's harder to study peace than you might think.

Or it has been for me. I'm an anthropologist who spent years living among country people-mostly in a couple of tiny villages in Russia-asking basic questions about how memory works in groups. I had some ideas about how I might start a search for peace. After all, even though the stories of violence were many, for the most part people seemed occupied with other things: They worked in kitchens or fields, hauled water, made decisions about what to do based on the weather, ate with guests, cleaned up after livestock. Even if they bristled sometimes, people generally faced each other day to day with working problems and working solutions. There was love and there were revelries and heartbreaks. And in spite of what they'd seen in life, or what their very own hands might have wrought on their worst days, people saw themselves as basically decent, and expected basic decency back from the world.

Surely, there had to be ways of looking for that kind of eye-to-eye decency. Surely, there were ways to study its power and its limits, particularly when people were faced with tempestuous times. Were there communities out there that were good at being good when things got bad? In my research on memory, I'd studied practices of resistance and persistence. Could there be communities that were somehow resistant to violence, persistent in decency? I didn't know exactly what I was on to, but I knew I wanted to study it. In shorthand, I called it peace.

But peace was hard to find. I dug into contemporary scholarship in anthropology, sociology, and political science; I went through databases and bibliographies and talked to colleagues who had been in the trenches with me in the study of a tumultuous Eurasia, and to other colleagues in peace studies programs or peace institutes. What I found was this: There is vastly more contemporary social science on violence than there is on peace. And most contemporary empirical research that says it is about peace is really about conflict. About resolving conflict, cleaning up after conflict, about programs to bring aid to people in conflict settings. About law and justice within the context of conflict. On the whole, these literatures are about peace only insofar as they point to the suffering of millions, and lament. 

This kind of work is important, but it wasn't what I was looking for. I wanted social science that landed smack on the inside of peaceful societies and studied human interactions at ground level there, distilling something about how peace works in its tight mechanics. I wanted empirical research that regarded the social body up close and asked about its long-term health and stability; research that asked how, in hard times, regular decency can sometimes translate into extraordinary kindness. Here and there I found brilliant examples of work like this, but strikingly few of them.

Why, I began to wonder, is peace so hard to think about? Or conversely, why is violence so easy?

When writers and academics talk about violence, it can seem to have a "thingness," to stand out from the background. It can be counted (a shot, an explosion, a bullet, a death), or so we believe. It can be added up and placed into data sets. In the aggregate, and with a measure of confidence, political scientists can fit violent acts into models, which they use to make statements about the world. Violence happens: a gun goes off; a person is killed; a neighborhood is raided; a border is breached. The n is large here; the data take shape. We can decide that more violence happens, say, when there are more young men than usual, or when there is a weak state, or mountains, or too much petrol in an economy. Violence happens, and it is awful, and it is counted; and from that counting, the contours of probable outcomes are given a local habitation and a name.

But can peace be counted? Where is it located? When does it happen? Peace lacks this analyzable "thingness": It seems like a non-event, a null set. Characterizations of peace and peaceful societies-from the Eden of the Bible to the "radiant future" of Lenin-look dull and flat, or else gauzy and kitsch. As a child, I would leaf through The Children's Illustrated Bible in the dentist's waiting room. In the Eden of those illustrations, religious peace looks like the beatific expressions of light-skinned people gazing heavenward. Perhaps a lamb sits there, too, legs folded, under a tree. Peace is bland and blond, utterly lacking the dark ring of truth.

The political peace of Marx and other visionaries of the nineteenth century is not much easier to make out. In the end, at any rate in Marx's version, it looks like getting to hunt and fish when you want and passing around the milk can so everyone gets a fair share. It's the end of history there, in the land of peace at the end of time, after the wars have all been fought and all the blood is shed. On the subject of capitalism, Marx was keen-eyed, detail-oriented, and extremely voluble. But when it came to imagining communism in practice, he, too, reverted, in effect, to lambs, legs folded, under a tree.

In these visions, peace is a thing only to the extent that it is an impenetrable, immovable, unchanging thing. There is a long philosophical history to this line of thinking, but the gist-with a nod to Descartes and his venerable method-is this: Some stuff (the physical world) is amenable to science and scientific law, while other stuff (poetry, theology, the matter of emotion) just isn't. Peace-a place where nothing ever happens-can't, in our easy thinking, be divided up at all. And if it can't be divided, it can't be studied; only felt. That's a terrible shame. After all, what could be more important than the actual content of peace? What could be more useful, when you look into the eyes of individual people who have faced violence right up close, than to have some understanding of what kind of effort peace might take? Of what ingenious (or even banal) habits it depends upon?

It's worth trying, no?

What if we began by regarding peace not as timeless, but as dynamic; not located in the beginning or the end, but in the unfolding; something not of the ether, but of lived grounds and interactions; something not perfect but flawed and rough-grained? Social science can handle that. It can handle dynamics, can look toward the longue durée, settling happily into the study of actual, imperfect behavior. That kind of research requires no calls to the angels or to Elysium. You just look into the faces of real people and the connections they make or don't make with each other, the stories they tell or don't tell, and the ways they decide or don't decide to treat a stranger as one of their own.

If peace can be this-defined within a regular, real kind of social world-how, then, would you know a peaceful community when you saw one?

A lack of violence would be a good start, of course-though this is a definition in the negative, like defining health in terms of the absence of illness, and not as the brilliant sum of systems that preserve the spark of life. Still, it's useful. Some recent research on social networks seems to show that violence is less likely when there are deep and common contacts between communities. It also seems that societies where girls are educated are less likely to be violent. In some warring parts of the world, it is possible to identify-and count and describe-specific communities that somehow manage to avoid the scourge of war and become, in effect, "peace enclaves." Little by little, with the help of data, we can begin to pinpoint places in the world where violence goes down and down-perhaps, someday, all the way to zero. And this is an excellent start.

Still, for me, the close-up is necessary. What is peace, face-to-face, even as war rages all around? You should be able to find it, in how a community solves even its small problems; how it handles inequality and sharing; how it defines and deals with diversities; how it makes a habit of protecting the vulnerable in troubled times; how some behaviors become, in effect, unthinkable within it.

If you want to study peace, face-to-face, you need to find peaceful faces. And you need to have a plan. And you need to start counting things, maybe, but the right things.

Above all, you need an example. 


I have an aunt, Barbara, who sends me things-mostly little family keepsakes and her own artwork. Years ago, she sent me a book that arrived smelling of old wood and tin. That book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, by Philip Hallie, seemed special-and my aunt said that our family was somehow connected to its story-but I didn't read it right away.

Then one day-after many travels and many adventures, and many hours contemplating the meaning of violence I had learned of up close—

I did. 

It was a remarkable story, set on a tiny plateau in south-central France called Vivarais-Lignon. From 1939 to 1945, the people of Vivarais-Lignon took in hundreds if not thousands of strangers who had been doomed by the Nazi occupation of the Second World War. They were farmers, tradesmen, clergy, teachers, and politicians-and despite terrifying conditions all around, they fed the strangers, hid them, schooled them, and eventually ferried them off to safety in Switzerland. The rescuers were in constant mortal danger. And indeed, some villagers were punished by the German occupiers and the collaborating French police. Some were killed.

How many people-as a collective, no less-would do this? How many would gird themselves for the mortal haul? And how many, in the face of the daily pressure to go with the forces of the blood-dimmed tide, would resist? These people, tested by fire, landed far on the end of the bell curve drawn by "rational choice." So rare was their shared effort during the Holocaust that the community of Vivarais-Lignon is one of only two to be singled out by Israel's Yad Vashem for memorialization in its Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. 

Was their effort during the Holocaust a brilliant fluke-or something more, some deeper reflection of their social practice? Hard to say, but there is this: It turns out that for hundreds of years-from the time of the first religious wars in France, through revolutions, colonial wars, and the fascist and nationalist conflagrations of broader Europe-the community of Vivarais-Lignon has been, on and off, actively sheltering vulnerable peoples in violent times. So perhaps the people living in this high plateau do know things that we don't. Perhaps we can learn them.

And so, having found an example of a place on the end of the bell curve, a place where common decency seemed to have become uncommon decency, I began to hold this example up like a precious stone, its structure a crystalline mystery.


One day, I decided to hitch a ride with friends to Washington, D.C., to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which promised to take me down into the depths of the story that was drawing me forward.

The museum's interior is a marvel of evocation: You enter into the rust-gray walls of an elevator. As the doors open, the story begins, as it will end, in darkness. Right away, there are images of skeletal human beings looking straight into the camera-one man, bald and in rags, holding a metal bowl-and corpses on train tracks, in Buchenwald and Dachau. Then you walk, in the dark, toward the story of the rise of Nazism. Photographs of men with swastika armbands; of muzzled dogs, eye-high and ready for attack. Songs that, even if you don't know German, sound like the melody of a nation careening toward its moral end. Down the hall, you see posters from the 1930s that explain the Nuremberg Laws, using little stick silhouettes in white (for Aryan), black (for Jew), and gray (for somewhere in between). And then, artifacts of that era's hair samples, and eye-color testers, and metal instruments invented to assess the size of a forehead, a nose, or a skull-all to determine the hidden presence of a Jew. Here, up close, is the science of race in all its Weimar glory-early anthropology's poisoned fruit.

I wound my own way through the exhibit, feeling my hand brush up against the railing from time to time in the dark. The war years passed like the ticking of a great, unstoppable clock. Tick. 1938: Kristallnacht. Jews race over borders, smuggle themselves onto ships, fleeing as they can. Tick. 1939: The German army-eager to increase the Lebensraum for the Aryans of the Third Reich-gobbles portions of the Czech lands and Poland, and Jews are sent to ghettos. Tick. Spring of 1940: France falls. Tick. 1941: Germany advances its armies eastward toward Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, followed quickly by elite mobile killing units called Einsatzgruppen. Village by village, SS soldiers aim guns at locals together with the question, "Where are your Jews?" and the goal: to gather, shoot, and kill them all. Tick. Tick. Babi Yar. 

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