Sunday, July 24, 2016

Shades of white


If people say that a statement is true, they suppose that there is a situation that really exists and that it is correctly described by the statement. As philosophers say: There is a correspondence between the statement and the fact or event. That’s why they call it the correspondence theory of truth. This theory has especially been developed by the Polish philosopher Alfred Tarski and it made him famous. As he said it “ ‘Snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white.” There seems to be nothing as true as that, but is it?
Take for example the question, who was the first soldier fallen for France in the First World War. Actually it is so that I had to think of this correspondence theory of truth when I read a book by the Dutch author Theo Toebosch about the first fallen French and German soldiers in this war. Let me concentrate on the question of the first fallen French soldier. Generally it is recognized that the unlucky man was the French teacher André Peugeot, who was then a corporal in the French army. The event took place in Jonchery in the French department of Haute-Marne, near Switzerland. When on August 2, 1914, Peugeot tried to stop a German reconnaissance patrol on French territory, he was killed in action. It is remarkable that in this action probably Peugeot killed also the first German soldier fallen in this war, namely sublieutenant Alfred Mayer, and that it was Mayer who had killed Peugeot. But that’s another story.
It seems clear what happened, but there is a problem. Peugeot was killed when France was not yet officially at war with Germany. Germany declared war on France only on August 3, although the German patrol was already one day before on French territory. That’s why Peugeot has the “honour” to be the first killed soldier. But then there must be another soldier who was the first one killed when the war “really” had begun. It was Fortuné Emile Pouget, killed by a bullet in the back of his head near Pont-à-Mousson north of Nancy on August 4, at 11.50 a.m. Since France always has stressed that it was only from August 3 on at war with Germany, it should be obvious that Pouget was actually the first Frenchmen killed in World War One. But on the other hand, the fighting near Jonchery was a real war action related to the whole range of events that we call the First World War. Should it have played a part when calling Peugeot the first French soldier killed that he was actively fighting when shot while Pouget was a passive victim, so that it was easier to make Peugeot a hero rather than Pouget?
And there is more, for some sources say that Peugeot was killed by mistake by his own men. Probably it is not what happened, but it’s a real possibility. And what to think of Mimoun Benichou and his comrades? As Toebosch tells us, he was one of the seventeen Zouaves killed in Philippeville in Algeria on August 4 at five o’clock in the morning, when the canons of the German cruiser Goeben bombarded the town. So, it happened before Pouget was killed. Note that there is a monument on the place where Pouget was hit that calls him the first French soldier killed in the war 1914-1918. Why is Benichou not honoured as such? Because he was from Algeria, and although Algeria was a part of France these days, was it really France ... ? It has the air of a political choice not to call him the first fallen.
But this blog is not about political choices. It is not about the problem who was the “real” first French soldier killed in World War One. I leave this question to be answered by others. Moreover, also whether Alfred Mayer was the first German soldier killed in this war is a matter of interpretation. And that’s what this blog about: About interpretation – and also about choices – and the relation with truth. What this instance illustrates is that there are no simple truths; there is no simple correspondence with reality. What is true is always a matter of interpretation. War is not just a matter of declaring war (even less so today), so whether Peugeot or Pouget (or Mimoun) was the first French soldier killed in WW 1 will always be controversial. Truth is a matter of interpretation and by that also a matter of choices (which may be political choices). What’s more, even if snow is white, there are always shades of white. Snow looks different in the shadow and in the sun and isn’t it so that on a photo snow sometimes looks blue?

The facts (sic) of my example are from Theo Toebosch, De eerstgevallenen. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2014.

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