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France’s Hollow Years’: An Exchange

In response to:

France Without Glory from the May 23, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

In my opinion, not that of a French Gaullist, but of a Dutch social democrat, Tony Judt [NYR, May 23] treats De Gaulle unfairly.

It is indeed telling, as Judt starts out to say, that, in contrast to the great Parisian throughways commemorating the First World War, only a minor street refers to the Allied victory in the Second (by the way, are there any streets in London or Washington named after Joffre, Foch, or Clemenceau?).

It is just as curious, however, that Judt, writing on French defeatism in the Thirties and in the war thereafter, only mentions De Gaulle at the end, sneeringly, and only in relation to his attitude vs. Sartre. Could he please corroborate his statement that the general “was, to his own regret, in no position to recommend for or against incarceration of his opponents”? The man was an autocrat, but not a despot.

I should think it more important to Judt’s subject that, during those Thirties, De Gaulle tirelessly fought against the “attentisme” of the French military. Amongst other things, he wrote several passionate, highly relevant, indeed prophetic books to make his points, notably Le Fil de l’Epée and Vers l’armée de métier. Sadly, his repeated exhortations to form an armored rapid reaction force, in accordance with the state of the technology, and offsetting the weaknesses caused by the enormous bloodletting of 1914—1918, were less heeded by his countrymen than by the German Panzer generals.

Finally, De Gaulle’s part in the Allied victory of 1945 and in the French resistance has been overglorified by himself and his followers, but it remains a real one, and one brilliantly played, considering the very poor cards that had been put into his hands.

Jaap Querido

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

To the Editors:

Although I admire Tony Judt’s superb review of nine books in his article “France without Glory” and was pleased that he found some previously controversial parts of my own work so convincing, I must take issue with two of his comments. His remark that I am intent on characterizing French fascism as anti-Semitic is seriously mistaken. Indeed, it is one of the major arguments of my book that too often scholars have attempted to divorce the French extreme right in the 1930s from fascism by equating all European fascism of the era with German Nazism, even though Mussolini publicly opposed anti-Semitism before 1938 (which is one reason many right-wing Jewish-Italians joined his movement). Colonel de La Rocque and Jacques Doriot, the leaders of France’s two largest fascist movements in the mid-1930s, were much closer to Mussolini than to Hitler in this respect and no less “fascist” for it. It was only after the Popular Front led by the Jewish socialist Léon Blum came to power in 1936, and even more so after 1940 under the German Occupation, that La Rocque and Doriot (Doriot more than La Rocque) played the anti-Semitic card.

Even more puzzling is Judt’s comment that: “The question is no longer whether there was an indigenous French fascism. What is more interesting is to ask how it arose and on what local sources, if any, it drew. Here Soucy has less to tell us.” Since more than 200 of the 320 pages of my book are devoted to the question of how it arose and on what local sources it drew (including major funding from steel, electricity, and railroad conglomerates)—and since the first volume of my work (which Judt mentions) also focuses on the same question—it is not clear to me what “less” means. The section in my book on “left fascism” may be too limited for Judt, but so too were the numbers of those who supported left fascist organizations (under Vichy, Marcel Déat’s RNP—whose “socialism” sharply diminished after 1940—had only 2,638 party members, of whom only 12.8 percent were industrial workers). Social history is not the whole story, but neither are marginal intellectuals and fringe movements. La Rocque’s Croix de Feu was far from marginal, and had its nemesis, the Popular Front, not declined after 1937, backlashing French fascism might have gained even more steam.

Robert J. Soucy

Professor of History

Oberlin College

Oberlin, Ohio

To the Editors:

I can’t help wondering if Tony Judt’s recent review of nine books having to do with France in the 1930s and 1940s doesn’t constitute some sort of record for The New York Review of Books. I suppose it is something like running through the Louvre at top speed in an attempt to break the previous record of “The Tour du Louvre”—which was once the subject of a hilarious column by Art Buchwald on American tourists in Paris. One can rightfully claim to have “done the museum” in this way, but whether one has actually looked at any of its paintings is another issue altogether. That obviously isn’t the point of the race.

I thus am fully aware that understanding the books listed at the top of his essay had little if anything to do with Tony Judt’s race through them. So I realize I am mixing apples and oranges when I point out that he missed the point of my book—French Literary Fascism: Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and the Ideology of Culture—and that even a cursory reading of any of its chapters or a closer reading of the entire introduction might have helped him avoid his mistakes. I write simply to point out to those interested in the problem of fascism, especially the “literary fascism” of French intellectuals and literary figures, and the general problem of the relation of aesthetics and politics in a fascist context, that Mr. Judt was running much too quickly to give an accurate account of my analysis of these complex problems.

In the first place, the “misleading” claims he asserts I make about Brasillach, Drieu La Rochelle, Rebatet, and Céline cannot be found in my book. On the basis of a hasty and partial reading of my introduction, he projects onto me an interpretation of their work that is far different from the one I give. The title of one of my chapters—“The Art of Anti-Semitic Rage: Lucien Rebatet’s Aesthetics of Violence”—should have given him at least a hint that I was in fact concerned with what he calls “the romantic appeal of [fascism’s] destructive energy” and that I did not reduce the various fascist writers’ work, no matter how vigorously most (not all) of them defended a radical form of classical humanism, to the sterile imitation of classical models. For not only do I argue that almost all of the fascists treated in the book were influenced by Charles Maurras and had a paradoxical relation to both his classical aesthetics and his anti-romantic organicism, I also analyze their profound difference with Maurras and the place of modern, experimental models of literature and art in both their aesthetics and politics. Their fascination with both destructive and “productive,” “revolutionary” force is a central problem in the overwhelming majority of the chapters of the book.

As concerns Céline, I acknowledge in the introduction itself that his pamphlets “could hardly be considered typical of the self-proclaimed ‘rationalism’ and ‘restraint’ of French literary fascism in general.” I treat him as an exceptional case and consider his unrestrained, absolute “poetics of race” as an extreme model of what Etienne Balibar has called “fictive ethnicity.” I analyze in some detail in each of the chapters of the book the role of violence and force in the fascist aestheticizing of politics, and nowhere do I confuse Céline or Rebatet with Maurras, or Drieu la Rochelle with Barrrès or even Brasillach. Tony Judt certainly has the right to disagree with my general argument and my interpretation of the various fascist writers, but it seems to me only fair that he actually read and present my analyses before deciding that I misrepresent the work of the writers I treat.

I also find it bizarre that Tony Judt finds the following statement, also from the introduction, to be “bizarre”: “Political extremism and the defense of the integrity of literature and culture constitute one and the same position.” I wonder if he still would object to it if he read again the sentence that precedes the one he quotes: “As my reading of their [the fascist writers’] political and cultural essays will show, the ideological and the literary-cultural are inseparable in their own work [emphasis added].” My statement thus clearly refers to the work of the fascist writers discussed in the book, and it is in no way a general “conclusion” that is meant to apply to all contexts and to all writers, as Tony Judt seems to imply. Such a generalization would not just be bizarre but, even worse, absurd. It is true that I could have added the emphasis I include here or used the phrase “in their work” in both sentences, but that would have been redundant for any reader who was not racing through the book (or, in this case, through the introduction) as well as taking shortcuts at every turn. At least in “The Tour du Louvre,” you are supposed to pass through every room. There is little evidence that Tony Judt made the effort to do that in his race through my book or through some of the other books cited in his essay. This just might disqualify him from breaking the record for which he seemed to be striving. However, I leave that for others to decide.

David Carroll

Professor of French

University of California

Irvine, California

Tony Judt replies:

I am grateful to friends and correspondents who have reminded me that France in the Thirties was a very lively place, and not simply the gloomy anticipation of an impending catastrophe. The late Richard Cobb used to say that the streets of Paris were “exciting” then, and he was doubtless right. But those same streets which so captivated some young contemporaries were also a place of fear and intimidation to others. Huge demonstrations against foreigners and Jews, like those in which the young law student François Mitterand participated, were the product of a dangerously overheated atmosphere. Eagerly-awaited weekly journals like Candide and Gringoire sold hundreds of thousands of copies to avid readers of what Pierre Birnbaum has called their “delirious cosmology” of racism and character assassination. In the words of Raymond Aron, the calmest and most rational of observers, “France no longer existed. It existed in the hatred of the French for one another.”

I thus have no quarrel with Dr. Querido, who quite misunderstood my allusion. In his courage and prescience De Gaulle was a rare figure in interwar France, as he would be during and after the war. He was indeed the “last great Frenchman,” as a recent biographer has it. And yet his roots were in the anti-republican right, which is why the history of French fascism is so complex and troubling. I accept Professor Soucy’s insistence that he does not characterize French fascism as anti-Semitic, though his book suggested otherwise to me and rightly so. Our disagreement concerns my suggestion that Soucy is insufficiently concerned with what I called its “local sources.” By this I meant its more distant origins in mainstream and radical thought before and after 1914, and I imagine Soucy would agree that this is not his main concern, as he acknowledges in his letter. I still think it a pity he plays down this dimension, though I continue to applaud his insistence upon the importance of fascism in interwar French life—itself a contentious claim until quite recently, as I noted.

I hope I didn’t misread Professor Carroll’s book on “Literary Fascism”—I certainly did read it end to end, though I confess that I found the introduction to be the most informative part. And while it is true that I found much of what he wrote to be obscure and repetitive, his general line is clear enough and cannot be sloughed off onto his subjects. As he puts it on page 7, “in a sense, literary fascism exploits the totalizing tendencies implicit in literature itself.” I don’t know what those implicit tendencies might be, and I found no further enlightenment in the author’s reading of Maurice Barrès, Charles Péguy, and others. But Professor Carroll’s main grievance seems to be that I did not do his own book full justice—i.e., that I gave it insufficient space. I sympathize with his complaint; it is in the nature of review articles to address a general topic rather than discuss particular books in great detail. My own practice in such cases is to stay with the larger theme, while paying special attention to the more interesting and significant works under review. Readers of Professor Carroll’s book may judge for themselves whether I was consistent in this instance.

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