At the beginning of the political year last September, when Frenchmen returned from their vacations to face a declining franc, an escalating arms race, a crisis in the Middle East, and trouble everywhere on the home front, François Mitterrand summoned his ministers to the Elysée Palace and lectured them on the sorry state of history—not the current turn of events but the history that French children were failing to learn in school. No doubt the president had other worries. But the crisis that he placed at the top of his agenda was the inability of the electorate to sort out the themes of its past. What would become of a citizenry that could no longer distinguish between Louis XIII and Louis XIV, between the Second Republic and the Third, or (and this seems to have been what really hurt) between Robespierre and Danton?
Mitterrand may not have mentioned the controversy aroused by Andrzej Wajda’s film, but he probably had Danton on his mind. He had disapproved of it when he saw it at a private screening before its release in January 1983. It had outraged his supporters on the Socialist—Communist left when it was shown at the Assemblée Nationale. And for the next half year it provided left-wing intellectuals with an opportunity to score points in the popular press by demonstrating their ability to set the historical record straight and their determination to overhaul the curriculum of secondary schools.
While the opposition gloated—“Thank you, Monsieur Wajda,” crowed Michel Poniatowski of the Gaullists—the left thundered with indignation. “What history!” exclaimed Pierre Joxe, the leader of the Socialist deputies in the Assemblée Nationale. And the worst thing was that it could be taken as truth by French schoolchildren. Victims of curricular reforms that had “cut them off from history,” they “will not be able to know who Danton was after having seen him portrayed like that.” Louis Mermaz, the Socialist president of the assembly, issued the same warning: “The teaching of history has become so bad … that the young people of today lack the knowledge of chronology that the men of my generation were fortunate enough to acquire from primary school onward. The film is misleading…. It makes me want to make a plea for the revival of the teaching of history, something essential for a nation, for a civilization.”
Such vehemence may seem puzzling to the American viewers of Danton. We know that the French take their history seriously and that it doesn’t do to tamper with their Revolution. But why should the Socialists disavow a version of the feud between Danton and Robespierre that puts Danton in a favorable light? Could not Danton’s attempts to stop the Terror be seen as a heroic foreshadowing of the resistance to Stalinism? Is not Wajda a hero of Solidarity? And shouldn’t Wajda’s Danton be expected to appeal to the moderate left in France, the champions of socialism with a human face, the party that …