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France Without Glory

The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s

by Eugen Weber
Norton, 352 pp., $25.00

Shanghai on the Métro: Spies, Intrigue, and the French between the Wars

by Michael B. Miller
University of California Press, 448 pp., $35.00

French Fascism: The Second Wave, 1933–1939

by Robert Soucy
Yale University Press, 352 pp., $35.00

French Literary Fascism: Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and the Ideology of Culture

by David Carroll
Princeton University Press, 299 pp., $29.95

Prison Journal 1940–1945

by Edouard Daladier
Westview Press, 376 pp., $34.95

La France à l’heure allemande, 1940–1944

by Philippe Burrin
Paris: Seuil, 560 pp., FF160

Etre juif en France pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale

by Renée Poznanski
Paris: Hachette, 859 pp., FF95

Paris after the Liberation, 1944–1949

by Antony Beevor, by Artemis Cooper
Doubleday, 479 pp., $27.50

The Locust Years: The story of the Fourth French Republic, 1946–1958

by Frank Giles
Carroll & Graf, 431 pp., $26.95


In the tenth arrondissement of Paris, against the imposing façade of the Gare de l’Est, there is a large square, the Place du 11 Novembre 1918. From the south the square is approached and bisected by the Boulevard de Strasbourg; the Avenue de Verdun enters it from the east, while just to the west the Boulevard de Magenta leads away toward the Rue de Rocroy: three famous French battles and the date marking France’s victory in World War I, which saw the recovery of Alsace and its capital. Observing this evocation of the glory that was France, the casual visitor could be forgiven for failing to notice that one corner of the square and a nondescript block to the west of it are officially the “Rue du 8 Mai 1945.” Between the proud celebration of bloody national glories, with the war that ended in November 1918 the bloodiest of them all, and a modest acknowledgment of the Allied victory over Hitler the contrast is quite striking.

Despite the fact that 1945 ostensibly represented a new beginning for France, it is paradoxically the citizens of defeated nations—Germans and Austrians in particular—who celebrate the end of World War II as a liberation. For them it represented “zero hour,” the moment at which the slate was wiped clean and a new era begun. The French had no such luck. The significance of victory was clouded by the memory of defeat and by the ambiguities of occupation and collaboration. Set against the noble certainties of 1918 the meaning of 1945 was unclear.

In the first place, it was by no means obvious just what had begun and what had ended. The political authorities born of the Resistance thought it prudent to speak and act as though the Vichy government of 1940–1944 had been a brief, unhappy interlude, a sort of illegitimate interruption of republican continuity. In this, and in their claim that collaboration had been the work of a tiny minority, they echoed the mood of the country. This unity of purpose, however, was bought at the price of an incomplete confrontation with the memory and experience of the occupation years. In later decades this unfinished business would return to haunt national politics, but from the start it bequeathed to the Fourth Republic, inaugurated in 1946, a multitude of magistrates, administrators, policemen, bankers, and others who had made the transition from collaboration to postwar life unscathed. They, and the wartime regime that had employed them, clung mustily to the idea of an enduring French nation which was continuing pre-Vichy traditions.

But the Vichy regime had not come from nowhere. Just as 1944 did not signal the end of a troubled past, so 1940 had by no means marked a radical departure. Though it suited few to admit it, there was very little about Vichy that could not be found, if only embryonically, in the public life of the prewar Third Republic. To say this is not to diminish the significance, and the enormity, of what took place during the Nazi occupation of France. It serves, however, as a reminder that what made possible the particular crimes and sins of Pétain and his followers was the presence of the occupiers. What had been thought before 1940 could now be said, and what had previously been said could now be done. But it was the continuities with the recent past that accounted for the ease of the transition to life under foreign occupation.

Any account of the condition of postwar France has thus to begin by recognizing the shadow cast by the prewar decade. As Eugen Weber shows in his story of “the hollow years,” the Thirties were saturated with the theme of national decline. For all that they had beaten the Kaiser and were the dominant continental power in Europe throughout the Twenties, the French saw about them little else but deterioration and decadence. The full impact of their “victory” over Germany began to be felt by the early Thirties—by 1935 the population was falling as annual mortality overtook the birth rate for the first time; between 1900 and 1939 there was an overall increase in population of just 3 percent, itself accounted for by the high number of new immigrants during the Twenties from Poland, Italy, and elsewhere. Without them the population would have fallen further and sooner, over a period when the population of Britain grew by 23 percent and that of Germany by 36 percent. The mid-Thirties were also the nervously anticipated années creuses (Weber’s title); a shortfall of military recruits resulted from the trough in the birth rate in the years 1914–1918. Hence the sentiment, shared by military planners and pacifists alike, that France simply could not fight another war.

The demographic evidence of French decline, contrasting as it did with signs of national energy and revival in its authoritarian neighbors, added to the generally defeatist and defeated mood. This has nothing to do with the anticipation, much less the reality, of military defeat—at least until 1938 no one, including Hitler’s pessimistic generals, suspected the true extent of French weakness. Yet politicians, writers, and officers seemed to agree not only that France must avoid another war at all costs, but that the nation was somehow spiritually exhausted as well, and that little should be asked of it.1

There is no doubt that the country lacked leadership—even by the standards then obtaining in Britain the politicians were peculiarly undistinguished; in Churchill’s words the leaders were “corrupt, divided, floundering.” Still, it is not clear that the voters would have welcomed anything stronger; at every election but one they put into office men who promised them retrenchment and protection, a Maginot line of tariffs, quotas, and overvalued currency that brought short-term stagnation and long-term decline. In Weber’s words, “the spirit of Thomas Malthus ruled over the land.” The exception is 1936, when a Popular Front coalition brought into office the Socialists and their leader Léon Blum, easily the most attractive and courageous of France’s interwar politicians. His singular achievement, however, was to unite against him the forces of resentment, prejudice, and fear that were to bring the country down four years later.

Eugen Weber brings out very well the mood of the era, with a characteristic abundance of examples and illustrations, and he has no trouble showing how disturbing it appeared to contemporary observers, at home and abroad. Foreign diplomats and correspondents commented frequently on the sheer mediocrity of French public life, the loss of national confidence, and the desire for peace at any price of which Munich was but the symptom.

Even they did not always know how bad things were—that a significant proportion of the daily and weekly press was in the pay of the German and Italian embassies, that 33 percent of eligible men were physically unfit for military service in 1938 as against just 17 percent in Germany, that General Maurice-Gustave Gamelin had signed France’s military commitment to Poland in 1939 in the full knowledge that he neither could nor would fulfill the formal promise to attack Germany if Poland was invaded.2

In his Shanghai on the Métro, Michael B. Miller wants to counteract the conventional, gloomy view of interwar France. He is, however, not wholly convincing in his attempt to read the jaunty, cloak-and-dagger mood of interwar spy literature back into French life in order to discount the notion that France was in a state of terminal disrepair. It is a pity that he pushes this claim so hard, since his book is otherwise appealing. The French, like other peoples, were indeed much taken with the subject of secret agents and international intrigue between the wars. As Miller shows, they eagerly read the books of Joseph Kessel and Robert Boucard and other writers who specialized in fictional and real spy stories. The proliferation of real spies was partly a result of new technical possibilities—tapped telephones, bugged rooms, airplanes, codes, and always and especially international trains—but also, in the French case, of the tendency of the Third Republic politicians and officials (like their successors to the present day) to engage in plots, to circulate rumors of plots, and to get involved in scandals. Most of these, like the Panama affair or the Stavisky scandal, had more to do with domestic financial and political corruption than with international intrigue. But the adventures of the Dutch dancer Mata Hari as a German agent during World War I, and numerous schemes attributed to the exotic Bolsheviks or their White Russian enemies, added an air of plausibility to the most outrageously exaggerated fictional accounts.

What the authors of these stories could not know, and Miller unfortunately does not discuss as much as he might, is just how important spying really was in interwar diplomatic dealings, and in a way that had not been true before the Great War. Between them the Poles, the Russians, the Japanese, the Germans, the French, and the British (but not yet the Americans) had established most elaborate systems of deception, espionage, and intrigue. Some of these—the “Red Orchestra” (the Soviet spy network in Western Europe uncovered by the Gestapo in 1943), the Poles’ success in the breaking of German codes, the planting of German and Soviet spies deep within the British “security” network—were to have a real effect on the course of events.

The writers whose stories of secret agents and intrigues in foreign ministries Miller retells in detail also fail to capture something central about French life in the years before 1939. They miss its fundamentally nasty quality. The extent of public hatred, of personal attacks, of racial and xenophobic vitriol in France at that time is hard to grasp today, if only because modern press and libel laws forbid much of what passed for public comment before 1940. There were bitter personal feuds such as the one carried on for years within the Radical Party between Edouard Daladier and Edouard Herriot; there was class anger—or, rather, proletarian anger, and fear on the part of the company proprietors; there were decades of suspicion separating the clerisy from the Republic, further widened by the revolutionary mirage of the Popular Front. The Bishop of Dax revealingly commented in February 1941 that “for us the année maudite was not 1940 but 1936”—the year the Popular Front was formed. There was suspicion and dislike of foreigners—the first thing the republican government of France did upon the outbreak of war in September 1939 was to intern anti-Nazi refugees, many of whom would then be handed back to the victorious German authorities by Vichy the following year. And always and everywhere there was anti-Semitism.3

This came primarily from the right, of course; the romantic fantasy of France as a rural nation of stolid, prosperous peasants was never more widely promoted than in the decade when, according to the 1931 census returns, it first ceased to be so. Xavier Vallat, a rightwinger later to be Vichy’s first Commissioner for Jewish Affairs, distinguished himself in the French Chamber on the day in June 1936 that Léon Blum became prime minister with the following comment: “To govern this peasant nation that is France it would be better to have someone whose origins, however modest, lie buried in the entrails of our soil, than a subtle talmudist.”

  1. 1

    Manès Sperber, an Austrian-Jewish refugee in France, later commented that “in Paris a high culture had reached ripeness and was now beginning to surpass it.” In Sperber, until My Eyes Are Closed with Shards (Holmes and Meier, 1994), p. 149.

  2. 2

    The late Jean-Baptiste Duroselle’s definitive account of French foreign policy in the years 1932-1939 is appropriately titled La Décadence (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1979).

  3. 3

    Yet it is worth recalling that of all European countries France was the most hospitable to immigrants and refugees throughout the interwar decades—at their peak in 1931 the three million immigrants represented some 7 percent of the population. The country was a curious mix of institutionalized generosity and social resentment.

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