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France Without Glory

By contemporary standards this statement was mild: a few months earlier Charles Maurras, the leader of the Action Française, had written an editorial that described Blum as a man “to stab—in the back,” something Maurras’s followers unsuccessfully attempted shortly afterward.4 Blum himself seems to have acted as a lightning rod for the wilder streaks of racist hysteria in French public life—during the Twenties Le Rappel, a paper normally associated with Blum’s Radical Party allies, used to describe him as a “socialist Satan…a sexually polymorphous Rabbi, etc.”5 The pleasure with which Blum’s enemies greeted the fall of France, and the alacrity with which they placed him and his republican colleagues on trial for preparing the country’s downfall, indicates the depths of the chasm dividing the French from one another.

2.

In these circumstances it is hard to resist the conclusion of Edouard Daladier, the French prime minister at the time of Munich, writing in his prison diary in 1940, that the catastrophe of France’s defeat was the work of “contemptible traitors who handed over France to the Germans just so they could bring down the Republic.” And it seems thus somehow obvious that those who anticipated and celebrated the Republic’s demise must therefore be fascists.

That is the substance of Robert Soucy’s claim in the second volume of his study of French fascism (the first was published in 1986 and dealt with the right-wing leagues of the mid-Twenties).6 Although he discusses the dozens of political sects and paramilitary leagues working on the right-wing fringes of French politics during the Thirties, Soucy’s main concern is with the Croix de Feu, the organization led by Colonel François de La Rocque, which began as a league of former servicemen, was transformed after 1936 (when paramilitary leagues were banned) into a political party, the Parti Social Français, and at its peak in 1937 could claim more members than the Communist and Socialist parties combined—at least seven hundred thousand according to Soucy. De La Rocque’s followers walked like fascists, talked like fascists, and admired other fascists, and Soucy thus reasonably concludes that they were the visible part of the well-organized, well-financed, and widely supported fascist network in prewar France that provided the basis of the Vichy regime, whose coming they almost universally welcomed.

Soucy presents his findings as controversial, contrasting them with the view of older, mostly French historians like René Rémond, who long insisted that republican France was resistant to fascism, that the veterans’ organizations were weak and peripheral, and that the ideological origins of Vichy lay in authoritarian, traditionalist sentiments and organizations like the Action Française whose roots were in reactionary monarchism. Here Soucy, a meticulous scholar, surely has the better of the argument. But today the debate seems somehow dated and irrelevant. The entire discussion has been largely derailed by modern scholarship on Vichy itself, which makes nonsense of attempts to reduce it to nostalgic atavism. 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. Because he is so intent on characterizing French fascism as anti-Semitic, anti-socialist, anti-republican—in short, as far to the right of the political spectrum—he pays scant attention to the interesting and disturbing ways in which it also had affinities with the left, and in particular with people and groups on the left who were disillusioned with conventional Marxist criticism of capitalism and who reacted with frustration to the crisis, as they saw it, of a decadent parliamentary system. The accusation of “softness,” of decadence and stagnation, and the demand for action could come from left as well as right—indeed it was just this vulnerability to attack from all sides that left the Republic so unpopular and undefended in 1940. These themes have been discussed at length and with some subtlety by Zeev Sternhell and Philippe Burrin, and while he shows due respect for their work Soucy has little to add to it.7

David Carroll does address these themes, in his own way. His French Literary Fascism is a commentary on the writings of a variety of right-wing writers including Maurice Barrès, Charles Péguy, Maurras, Robert Brasillach, Drieu la Rochelle, Lucien Rebatet, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Thierry Maulnier. These are men of strikingly unequal literary and intellectual standing (Brasillach was at best a gifted journalist, Rebatet a racist pamphleteer), but they shared, in Carroll’s view, the desire to “revitalize a rational, classical, humanist tradition that had, in their mind, been practically destroyed in modernity.” This is a fair shorthand summary of aspects of the thought of Barrès, Maurras, and Péguy, but it is misleading if it is to be applied to their younger successors. Céline, Drieu, and Brasillach had a quite different, fatalistic vision and were attracted to fascism and Nazism not by any rationalist search for the way back to a lost tradition but by the romantic appeal of its destructive energy. Carroll misses the cynicism in Charles Maurras’s writings—his well-known advice to his followers, “Politics first,” was much more than just a nationalist slogan: it was also meant to preempt any fair judgment of writers or other persons of whom Maurras disapproved. In his search for a theory relating extremist politics to a literary aesthetic. Carroll himself reaches the bizarre conclusion that “political extremism and the defense of the integrity of literature and culture constitute one and the same position.”

What some of Carroll’s subjects did indeed have in common, not so much with one another as with their fellow citizens, is an obsession with renewal. Something, they felt, had gone badly adrift in France and needed to be addressed. Hence the widespread fascination with powerful new regimes in Rome, Berlin, and Moscow; hence, too, the growing interest in the idea of “Europe,” a catchall solution to the dilemma of national decline that appealed to pacifists, fascists, racists, economic planners, and social reformers alike. Drieu wrote a pamphlet in 1931 called L’Europe contre les patries at about the same time as Jean Monnet and other young professionals were starting to discuss pan-European alternatives to the stagnant, antagonistic, self-defeating economic policies of the era.

This doesn’t make Drieu, the future collaborator with the Nazis, a proto-European any more than it makes crypto-fascists of Monnet and like-minded contemporaries such as the socialist Paul-Henri Spaak in Belgium. But it illustrates the range of persons affected by the idea that things had somehow to change.8 There were many who would have nodded approval at Paul Claudel’s sour little diary entry of June 25, 1940, consoling himself for his country’s defeat: “No more Popular Fronts, trade union confederations, raised-fist demonstrations, petitions signed willy-nilly by Communists and Catholics; no more of the vile tyranny of bistrots, free-masons, wogs, pions and school-masters. At least, let’s hope so.”9

The Vichy years certainly put an end to all that, at least temporarily. But in most other ways they were to prove a disappointment to all but a few of those who had initially welcomed the collapse of the Republic. The occupation was brutal in its economic effects—by 1943 the Germans were consuming, in one way or another, the equivalent of half of France’s 1938 national revenue, at a time when productivity had sharply fallen. The Germans got everything they wanted, more or less when they wanted it. The defeat of 1940 proved to have been not an opportunity but a national disaster. Edouard Daladier, the much-maligned French politician who had the misfortune to be his country’s prime minister several times during the most humiliating decade in its history, put the point succinctly and with prescience in a diary entry for November 7, 1940: a policy of collaboration would “guarantee Germany control over our principal industries…and reduce France to the state of a colony or a protectorate. As an approach, it is far less spectacular for the victor and far less painful for the defeated nation than territorial annexation, but it is far more effective.”

The diary Daladier kept after the Vichy regime put him in prison in 1940 makes interesting reading. It is a reminder that unlike many of his contemporaries he had never had many illusions about Hitler. He was, it is true, pressured by Neville Chamberlain into accepting the Munich settlement, as Stanley Hoffmann notes in his foreword. But he knew from the outset that Munich was a disaster for French diplomacy and a national humiliation and he was astonished and embarrassed to find himself welcomed back to Paris as a national savior—he had half expected to be lynched.10 In the diary he takes understandable revenge on the French generals: “What a pathetic lot they are. How could I ever have trusted such men?” “We didn’t lose the war because of a lack of matériel; we lost it because of the mind-boggling incompetence of military leaders mired in the past,” a judgment in which historians now concur.

He does not, though, explain why he did indeed trust men like Gamelin, Weygand, and Pétain, and others right up until the end, or why he accepted unquestioningly their deliberate over-estimates of German military capacity in September 1938, when the German army had just five battle-ready divisions on the French frontier and military intelligence assured him there were fifty.

Still, Daladier paid for his mistake, and dearly. Imprisoned by Vichy along with Léon Blum, Paul Reynaud, and other “guilty men” of the Third Republic, he spent over four years in captivity; he was deported in 1943 to Germany and then transferred by the SS to their redoubt in the Tyrol, where he was rescued at the last minute by the Americans. In 1942 he was put on trial, along with Blum and General Gamelin, in an attempt by Pétain to blame his enemies for the defeat and use the verdict as an excuse for doing away with them. The trial opened at Riom on February 28, 1942, and was abandoned in a hurry six weeks later, after Blum and Daladier had turned the tables on the prosecutors and presented a powerful and embarrassing indictment of their opponents.

Daladier’s version of events is here just a little tinged with self-aggrandizement and smugness—in the journal he plays the leading role, but it is clear from the trial transcripts and other sources that it was Blum, deprived of documents and in ill-health, who truly transformed the proceedings, demonstrating incontrovertibly just who was to blame for France’s defeat and convincing his persecutors that a discreet retreat was in order.11 But it took considerable courage on the part of both men to stand up to their enemies—neither expected they had much chance of survival. Daladier, not a man hitherto credited with political backbone, emerged with his reputation vastly enhanced. On the whole, then, Donald Cameron Watt’s assessment of the man seems about right: “Nearly, but not quite, a strong man and statesman.”12

  1. 4

    Similar sentiments could sometimes be heard from the left—Louis Aragon’s 1931 poem “Front Rouge,” written at a time when the former surrealist was ingratiating himself with the hard-liners in the Communist Party, contains the line “Feu sur Léon Blum”: one of an intermittent series of Communist attacks on Blum, not all of them free of racist overtones.

  2. 5

    Quoted by Pierre Birnbaum in Un mythe politique: “La République juive” (Paris: Fayard, 1988), p. 296.

  3. 6

    Robert Soucy, French Fascism: The First Wave 1924–1933 (Yale University Press, 1986).

  4. 7

    See Zeev Sternhell, Ni droite ni gauche: L’idéologie fasciste en France (Paris: Seuil, 1983) and Philippe Burrin, La Drive fasciste: Doriot, Déat, Bergery (Paris: Seuil, 1986). Soucy reasonably admonishes Sternhell in particular for paying more attention to ideologies and leaders than to mass movements. But fascism was about more than just masses and movements, especially in France, where it never came remotely close to taking power under its own steam.

  5. 8

    In their different ways even such unimpeachable democrats as Marc Bloch and Léon Blum confessed to such feelings, albeit after the fact. See Marc Bloch, Strange Defeat (Oxford University Press, 1949, reprinted 1981); Léon Blum, A l’Echelle Humaine (Paris: Gallimard, 1945).

  6. 9

    Quoted by Philippe Burrin, La France à l’Heure Allemande (Paris: Seuil, 1995), p. 25. A Pion (“pawn”) is a sort of servile second-class school-master, a glorified monitor, object of scorn for teachers and pupils alike.

  7. 10

    In a diary entry for February 21, 1945, Daladier defends himself by recalling French weakness at the time—and with the observation that the Allies were now accepting much bigger annexations in Eastern Europe and were doing so from a position of greater strength.

  8. 11

    There is a detailed summary of Blum’s defense at Riom, including a verbatim account of his exchanges with the prosecutors and judges, in L’Oeuvre de Léon Blum, 1940–1945 (Paris: Albin Michel, 1955), pp. 137–407. See also Henri Michel, Le Procès de Riom (Paris: Albin Michel, 1979) and Frédèric Pottecher, Le Procès de la Dèfaite: Riom Février-Avril 19–22 (Paris: Fayard, 1989). Daladier does, however, show considerable respect for his fellow prisoner, though he finds Blum always a bit too optimistic for his own world-weary, skeptical taste.

  9. 12

    Donald Cameron Watt, How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War, 1938–1939 (Pantheon, 1989), p. 617. Eugen Weber, quoting Tacitus, is a little harsher: “Had he never become emperor all would have agreed that he had the capacity to rule” (p. 163). The most thorough account of Daladier’s place in modern French history is that of Elisabeth de Réau, Edouard Daladier 1884–1970 (Paris: Fayard, 1993).

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