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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

1.

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.”

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

3.

Anyone seeking to understand more fully the intolerable atmosphere of the time should turn to La France à l’Heure Allemande, Philippe Burrin’s anatomy of occupied France, which is in my view the best work to date on its subject, judicious, thorough, exhaustively documented in German as well as French sources, and damning in its very fairness. Burrin makes the obvious distinction between active collaboration, whether venal or ideological, and the mundane accommodation of people who more passively “went along” with the Nazis and Vichy, and lived in what is sometimes called a “gray zone.” He pays particular attention to such accommodation, showing how it grew out of pre-war disillusion with the Republic and the widespread desire to return to “normal” as soon as possible after the defeat—the wish that Pétain might keep the country out of harm’s way fathering the thought that he had indeed done so. With each accommodation to the occupiers—all too often undertaken in anticipation of their desires before they were expressed—it became harder to take a stand the next time.13 What Daladier said of Gabriel Le Roy Ladurie and his colleagues at the Worms bank was also true for most of the Vichy officials: “They weren’t traitors in the ordinary, traditional sense, but rather men eager to accept defeat. Emigrés in their own land.”

Burrin is particularly acute about Vichy’s abandonment of the Jews under its control, initially the foreigners, then those of French nationality. It was shameful, but it was not an act of vicious, premeditated anti-Semitism, an enthusiastic policy of assistance in the Nazi project of mass murder. It was ordinary, quotidien French anti-Semitism of the kind that had been rampant in the Thirties and before. This is confirmed in Renée Poznanski’s exhaustive account of Jewish experience under Vichy, where she shows, paradoxically, that the Vichy government was not preoccupied by anti-Semitism. Its rulers didn’t care for Jews, of course, but for the most part they weren’t determined from the first to persecute them. Anti-Semitism was just one of the ways in which Vichy sought to ingratiate itself with the occupier and obtain concessions. And so, in Poznanski’s words, Jews were first excluded from the national community, then deprived of their nationality, later of their employment and their possessions, and only then abandoned to the Germans.14

And sometimes it was not even abandonment, just unthinking unconcern. The point is brought home forcibly by Burrin’s detailed retelling of the story of Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, co-founders of the historical journal Annales. Anxious to preserve the journal’s right to publish under the Nazis, Febvre brought intolerable pressure upon his Jewish friend and colleague to remove his name from the masthead. When Bloch initially demurred, Febvre resorted to the most contorted arguments, finally insisting that it was an act of intellectual and national resistance to keep the journal in print, and that it was somehow self-regarding and un-French of Bloch to refuse to make a sacrifice. The outcome is well known; Bloch finally conceded and went on to join the Resistance and be tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Febvre published the journal through the war years and inherited the mantle of the Annales school thereafter. This sad story captures much of the self-delusion but also the meanness of spirit with which the French entered the abyss during the Vichy years. 15

If Vichy’s daily betrayals were acts of commonplace mediocrity, its major crime was its very existence. This is Burrin’s second theme. Because a “French state” existed, and undertook its own initiatives (such as the execution of Communist hostages) in order to assert that existence, the choices that faced men and women in other occupied Western European countries were more complicated in France. Thus while it is true that a higher percentage of Jews from the Netherlands or Belgium died in the war (75 percent and 40 percent respectively, as against some 25 percent of the Jews from France), it is also true that individual Dutch and Belgians were more likely to protest the persecution or exclusion of a Jewish colleague or to dissent from an official order.

That orders to persecute people were given by a French government and enforced by French police tended to confuse the public—at least until 1942, after which the mood of the country swung steadily against the regime.16 In other occupied lands the Germans were the persecutors, along with a handful of unpopular quislings, and the occupied nation was the victim. In France it was the established elite of the country—generals, prefects, civil servants, professors—who were giving the orders, while the categories of victims expanded in stages—first political refugees, then Communists, then foreign Jews, then resisters, then French Jews. There were limits to the popular capacity for accommodation to this situation, but thanks to such “salami tactics” they took longer to reach. It is for this reason that Léon Blum was right to recoil in a horror of anticipation when Pétain was voted full powers: “Je considère la France comme déshonorée.”

The sour taste left by this experience contributed significantly to the confused feelings of the postwar years.17 As Daladier had anticipated in July 1942, France was liberated by others. There was resentment of their liberators, and a sense that things were somehow worse in 1945 than they had been under the occupation, as indeed they were, since some of the most serious damage to French buildings and communications was done during the German retreat that followed the Allied landings.

The result was what outsiders saw as a distinctly ungracious and ungrateful mood. Observing the June 18, 1945, parade of General Leclerc’s famous Second Armoured Division the British Ambassador, Duff Cooper, commented: “One couldn’t help thinking that all these [airplanes and vehicles] and most of the equipment was of Anglo-American origin. Not a single English or American flag was shown. There was no evidence of an ounce of gratitude and one felt throughout that France was boasting very loud, having very little to boast about.”

Uncertain how to regard their liberators, the French were also at a loss for ways to digest the memory of their own victims. Survivors from the concentration camps, if they had been deported for acts of resistance, could legitimately be celebrated as heroes and, in the case of those who did not return, as “morts pour la France.” This established a link, in the public mind and on numerous village memorials, with the dead of World War I and helped restore some sort of meaning and pride to the years of occupation. But many of the dead were killed by other Frenchmen in what had become, by 1944, an unacknowledged civil war; others—some 74,000—had been deported and exterminated on racial grounds. Plaques marking the graves of pre-war politicians like Georges Mandel and Jean Zay, murdered by the Vichy Milice, initially described them as the victims of “France’s enemies” or of “Nazi barbarity.” Only forty years later were they revised.18 In the town of Pithiviers, near Orléans, a monument was erected in 1957 “A nos déportés morts pour la France.” Here, too, it was not until 1992 that the municipality put up a new plaque, more accurate if less reassuring. It reads: “To the memory of the 2300 Jewish children interned at the Pithiviers camp from July 19 to September 6, 1942, before being deported and murdered in Auschwitz.”

The difficulties of remembering (and forgetting) the recent past were not high on the list of private concerns, however. Postwar France was in a sorry state, at least as dilapidated as it had been in the Thirties and a lot poorer. The economic infrastructure was in a dangerously neglected condition—there were nearly twice as many fatal accidents in the mines in the early postwar years as there had been before 1939, and France had lost over twenty thousand kilometers of railway. Two million six hundred thousand dwellings had been destroyed or damaged, from a housing stock that was already seriously inadequate before the war began. There was a critical shortage of food—Janet Flanner reported in 1945 that Parisians were hungrier than they had been in any winter during the war. Workers in one Gennevilliers factory weighed on average nearly 17 pounds less in 1945 than they had in 1938, and fourteen-year-old boys in 1946 were found to be seven centimeters shorter on the average than boys of the same age and from similar backgrounds just eight years earlier. There were bread riots in some provincial towns.

Within two years the well-founded grievances of France’s working population led to mass strikes and deep social discontent. The newly minted Fourth Republic seemed unable to address these problems, and the instability of its coalition governments was made worse by a constitution that deliberately weakened the executive branch (a legacy of longstanding and well-grounded republican fears of executive dictatorship, from Bonaparte to Pétain). A newly introduced system of proportional representation gave disproportionate influence to a few dominant political parties, without allowing any of them to form a stable government. Meanwhile the rise of a powerful Communist Party divided the country and seemed to threaten civil war, at least until 1948. There were depressing and frequently noted indications that the country had come through another war only to return to the Thirties, “a climate of indubitable and growing malaise,” Janet Flanner wrote, “…as if the French people, or all European people, expected something to happen or worse, expected nothing to happen.”

It is thus not surprising that, after a short-lived moratorium, the prejudices and habits of the pre-war decade reasserted themselves. Charles Maurras’s Action Française was revived under a new name (though its founder languished in prison), and its spirit hovered loweringly over the fragile democratic consensus. Even anti-Semitism resurfaced—the taboos of a later generation had not yet taken hold, and much that would be frowned upon after the Sixties was still acceptable in the late Forties.19 As in the Thirties, the left was not immune. It was Jacques Duclos, the wartime leader of the French Communists, who would later call Pierre Mendès-France “a frightened little Jew,” while in 1948 his colleague Arthur Ramette drew attention to some prominent Jewish parliamentarians—Léon Blum, Jules Moch, René Mayer—and then asserted, “We Communists have only French names,” a claim that was as unseemly as it was untrue.20

Part of the story of these years, from the liberation of Paris until the first signs of economic recovery and civil stability, is retold in a lively and attractive book by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper, who confine their attention to Paris. The authors make particularly good use of published and unpublished diaries, notably those of the Parisian gossip Jean Galtier-Boissère and of Duff Cooper, British ambassador for much of this period. Duff was married to the glamorous Lady Diana Cooper and the Coopers moved in the most exalted circles. As a result the book at times reads like the Bottin Mondain, full of duchesses and princes, every page liberally sprinkled with particles and hyphens. The authors write with great intimacy of these people (as well they might—one of the authors is Duff Cooper’s grand-daughter). But for the most part they see their subjects clearly enough, and we learn here not only that “Coco” Chanel, Arletty, and Florence Gould consorted happily enough with SS officers throughout the war, but that the SS men were entertained by a remarkable number of prominent French magnates from the banking, champagne, and horse-racing worlds, not one of whom seems to have suffered in later years for his or his firm’s imprudent choice of wartime company.

After the war such things were soon forgiven. Where amnesia was not enough, hypocrisy filled the gap: “The sales staff in smart shops who had served Germans without a tremor now patriotically refused to serve the wife of a collaborator.” Meanwhile new clients and a flourishing black market brought the carriage trade back to life; the authors give a full account of some wonderful-sounding dinner parties and balls, and the bitchy remarks made at them, including the Mistresses’ Ball in June 1949, given in honor of Lady Diana by some of her husband’s former lovers. (Commenting on the Coopers’ marital arrangements, the Duchess of Windsor is said to have remarked that “the worst part of having an affair with Duff was the prospect of Diana coming to comfort you when it was over.”)

A passing reference to Sartre is the occasion for the authors’ only major gaffe: Charles de Gaulle did indeed advise against arresting Sartre—“You don’t imprison Voltaire”—but he said this not in 1947 but twenty years later, as president. In 1947, whatever he thought of Sartre’s writings, De Gaulle was, to his own regret, in no position to recommend for or against incarceration of his opponents. On the whole, however, the book is accurate, even though it pays too much attention to a gratin that was more than a little curled at the edge.

A more balanced account of France in the postwar era is to be found in The Locust Years, a thorough reconsideration of the Fourth Republic by Frank Giles, a senior British news correspondent. He is informative and wise about the lost illusions of France’s postwar foreign policy, including the forlorn attempts to restore in Germany and Central Europe a French influence that was gone for good; and about the errors, and worse, of colonial policy, by which France spent millions of francs (one-third of the national budget in the early Fifties) only to suffer a costly defeat in Indochina and a debilitating, pointless “dirty war” in North Africa. Giles also reminds us that there was in the late 1940s and 1950s a shadowy, persistent threat of military rebellion by an officer corps embittered by its earlier humiliations and alienated from all civil authority.

But Giles astutely notes the achievements of the Fourth Republic, too, all the more striking for its unpromising beginnings. Not only did France share in the birth of a postwar European community, whose coming was announced by its foreign minister, Robert Schuman, with the presentation of his “Plan” in Paris in May 1950; but at some indefinable moment in the mid-Fifties, even as the Algerian war was sounding the death knell of the Republic itself, France shook off many of its nineteenth-century habits, and, by reorganizing production and methods of distribution, entered the modern world. This development was symptomatically registered by the brief flourishing of the populist demagogue Pierre Poujade and his supporters, nervous provincial shopkeepers who had no future in the coming France of hypermarchés and Euro-subsidies and who somehow obscurely understood this before almost everyone else.

At the opposite end of Paris from the Gare de l’Est there is another square, the Place du 18 Juin 1940. It is drab, stuck within a complex of shopping streets, movie theaters, fast-food outlets, and the Gare Montparnasse, the city’s least attractive railway terminal. The date that it celebrates is of course that of the speech on BBC radio given by an obscure French general who had escaped to London to continue his country’s struggle. Few heard the speech and fewer still followed its example at the time. But as the profligate, delinquent postwar republic ran out its time, the significance of that event was to grow. The Locust Years is worth its price just for Frank Giles’s marvelous account of the last desperate hours of the Fourth Republic, in May 1958, as the army and the colons postured threateningly and the parliamentarians, despairing of their responsibilities, turned in fear and anticipation toward De Gaulle’s retreat in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, to the sound of the “measured tread of the stone statue as it stepped down from its pedestal and began to make its fearsome way forward.” It is the paradox of Giles’s story, and of modern French history, that it was not until an unsuccessful colonial war and a military rebellion had conspired to undermine its democratic institutions and place them in the hands of a reproachful commendatore that France’s postwar recovery could truly begin.

Letters

France’s Hollow Years’: An Exchange August 8, 1996

  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.

  4. 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.

  5. 5

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

  6. 6

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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).

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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).

  13. 13

    Thus the Félix Potin company sacked a senior Jewish employee in August 1940, in advance of any legislation requiring it to do so, in the hope of forestalling trouble with the Germans. There were many similar cases.

  14. 14

    Poznanski here provides some support for the views of Henry Rousso and Eric Conan, who have recently argued that it is profoundly misleading to put the Jewish question at the center of our understanding of Vichy France, a form of historiographical overcompensation for previous neglect that carries risks of its own. See Rousso and Conan, Vichy: Un passé quine passe pas (Paris: Fayard, 1994).

  15. 15

    There is a cruel irony in Lucien Febvre’s victory. He was largely responsible for giving the postwar Annales school of French history and its many foreign admirers a radically structuralist and an apolitical, even ahistorical, cast, something that was alien to Bloch’s vision of the discipline and its responsibilities, and from which some fields of French historical scholarship are only now recovering. He also by his influence and example did much to divert historical attention away from controversial issues from the recent past, especially if they involved personal or political actions. His own wartime record long benefited from this neglect.

  16. 16

    For a thorough discussion of the catalytic effect of the 1942 roundups of Jews on the official Christian community, see W.D. Halls, Politics, Society and Christianity in Vichy France (Oxford: Berg, 1995), especially Part III, “The Scapegoats.” The year 1942 was also a turning point for the organized Resistance, partly as a reaction to increased repression, partly because of the growing hopes for an Allied victory, but perhaps especially as a result of Vichy’s efforts to appease the Nazis by promising to send thousands of young men to work in Germany. Faced with the choice of forced labor or clandestine resistance, many chose the latter. For a timely reminder that there were indeed resisters in occupied France, see André Rougeyron, Agents for Escape: Inside the French Resistance (Louisiana State University Press, 1996), the translation of a memoir originally published in France in 1947.

  17. 17

    Compare the hard-bitten, cynical tone of Marcel Aymé, Roger Nimier, and other “disabused” novelists of the Forties with the comparatively innocent provocation of Raymond Radiguet in the Twenties. E.g., Marcel Aymé, Uranus (Paris: Gallimard, 1948) and Roger Nimier, Le Hussard bleu (Paris: Gallimard, 1950). See also Raymond Radiguet, Le Diable au corps (Paris: Grasset, 1923).

  18. 18

    There is a remarkable discussion of this subject in Annette Wieviorka’s Déportation et Génocide: entre la mémoire et l’oubli (Paris: Plon, 1992), and in the recent survey by Wieviorka and Serge Barcellini, Passant souvienstoi!: Les lieux de souvenir de la Seconde Guerre mondiale en France (Paris: Plon, 1995).

  19. 19

    For a thoughtful discussion of this point, see Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Mémoires: la brisure et l’attente 1930–1955 (Paris: Seuil, 1995), pp. 188–189.

  20. 20

    As so often in France, such sentiments probably have more to do with wounded national pride than with unadorned racism. As late as 1976, on learning the details of an exhibition planned to memorialize French victims at Auschwitz, the Ministère des Anciens Combattants requested certain changes—the names on the list “lacked a properly French resonance.” See Sonia Combe, Archives interdites: Les peurs françaises face à l’histoire contemporaine (Paris: Albin Michel, 1994), p. 14.

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