Dominique Nabokov

Éric Vuillard, New York City, October 2018

Éric Vuillard won the 2017 Goncourt Prize, France’s most prestigious literary honor, for his book L’Ordre du jour. Its 132 small pages form very likely the slenderest volume ever awarded the prize since it was established in 1903. The book’s oddities do not end with brevity. The Goncourt Prize is usually awarded for fiction, but L’Ordre du jour, recently published in an English translation under the title The Order of the Day, comes closer to nonfiction. The author calls it a récit, a term with no exact English equivalent that means a narrative, not necessarily autobiographical, in which we are always aware of the presence of an intervening narrator.

The Order of the Day presents in minute detail two seemingly separate events in the early history of Nazi Germany. The first is a private meeting of twenty-four German industrialists and bankers with Hitler on February 20, 1933, just three weeks after the Nazi leader had become chancellor of Germany. Hermann Goering explains to the assembled men that the Nazi Party needs funds to prepare for forthcoming parliamentary elections that will settle definitively Germany’s social conflicts. He promises that they will be the last elections in Germany for many years, perhaps a century. Then Hitler comes in and harangues his visitors with an account of his worldview and his intention to rid Germany of communism. Addressing their concern about rumors of unorthodox economic ideas among his associates, he reassures them that he will uphold the rights of property and enterprise. When he finishes, the men open their checkbooks.

The second event, more complex and recounted at much greater length, is Hitler’s occupation of Austria in early 1938. The process begins on February 12 at Hitler’s alpine chalet, where the Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg has been summoned only to undergo a notorious bullying from the Führer. The browbeaten Schuschnigg agrees to a number of steps that put Austrian Nazis in control of his country, but when he pushes back with the announcement of a national plebiscite to affirm its independence, German military units enter Austria on March 12. The matter ends with Hitler’s declaration of Anschluss—union of the two countries—before a delirious crowd in Vienna on March 15.

Over the course of eight earlier books Éric Vuillard has developed a personal style of historical narrative. The Actes Sud publishing house brought out four of these récits in rapid succession between 2012 and 2016. Each one recounts in close focus crucial but disparate moments, mostly within some major historical episode, with relatively little attention to the larger circumstances. La Bataille d’Occident (2012) examines the origins and the opening campaign of World War I, turning abruptly at the end to the attempted assassination in 1915 of the financier J.P. Morgan Jr. Congo (2012) recounts the Congress of Berlin in 1884, which apportioned spheres of influence in Africa among the great European powers, and then gives some examples of Europeans enriching themselves in the Congo at the expense of the indigenous population.

Tristesse de la terre (2014) deals with the Wild West circus of Buffalo Bill Cody and the appearance in it of Sitting Bull, an occasion for comment on the spoliation of Native Americans but ending with a curious vignette of Wilson Bentley, the Vermont farm boy who first photographed snowflakes and found that no two were alike. Vuillard has a good eye for issues such as war, empire, the fate of colonized peoples, and the gulf between perception and reality.

Vuillard’s technique works best in 14 juillet (2016), an account of the capture of the Bastille by a Parisian crowd at the onset of the French Revolution. By way of deeper explanation Vuillard offers only the laconic observation that people were hungry. The book works well not only because the action is highly concentrated but also because for once Vuillard is sympathetic to his characters. It ends on a celebratory note with a blizzard of papers and files thrown out the windows of the ransacked fortress. Vuillard lists the varieties of forms and reports swirling downward in a riff that recalls Rabelais or early Céline. How gratifying it is, he concludes, in a more explicit statement of personal values than usual, to overturn everything now and then.

L’Ordre du jour strikes a darker and more sardonic note than 14 juillet. The title, which means a list of things that need to be done or an agenda, suggests that someone has planned these events, and we may suspect that the twenty-four rich industrialists and bankers had something to do with them.

The responsibility of big business for fascism’s coming to power has been an insistent allegation from the first moments of Mussolini’s success in Italy in 1920–1922. Already in 1924 the Communist International defined fascism as “the instrument of the big bourgeoisie for fighting the proletariat, when the legal means available to the state have proved insufficient to subdue them.”1 This formulation eventually hardened into orthodoxy: “Fascism is the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic, and most imperialist elements of finance capital.” In less doctrinaire terms, many people have long assumed that even if businessmen did not invent Hitler, they were his indispensable financiers. In recent years some painstaking research in business archives has brought hard evidence to bear on this controversial subject.

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The rich industrialists and bankers whom Hitler shook down in February 1933 were, as Vuillard notes, no strangers to political contributions. The recipients of their support changed that month, however. The late Yale historian Henry Turner scrutinized business archives not only to discover whether these financiers contributed to the Nazis but also to establish the pattern of German firms’ political subsidies. He found that German businessmen contributed to all their country’s non-Marxist parties. The Nazis were not, in fact, the largest recipients, for German business leaders were suspicious of some of Hitler’s associates, such as Gottfried Feder and the Strasser brothers, who pandered to popular anger at the wealthy and proposed radical schemes of economic redistribution for overcoming the Great Depression. German businessmen greatly preferred traditional conservatives with more orthodox economic ideas, such as Alfred Hugenberg and Franz von Papen. Only a few, like the industrialist Fritz Thyssen, were really enthusiastic about Hitler, and then only temporarily. The Nazi Party self-financed its operations to a considerable degree by selling books and trinkets and charging entrance fees to its enormous rallies.2

Although the Nazis had not been the first choice of German business, the businessmen were to adapt strikingly well to the Nazi dictatorship. The constraints of Hitler’s “five-year plans” for re- armament obliged them to accept a high degree of centralized regimentation, such as the allocation of raw materials, production quotas, and price-fixing. But they were more than compensated for these burdens by the destruction of the Marxist parties, the Social Democrats and Communists, that were threatening to nationalize their enterprises; the dissolution of free labor unions; and the abolition of the right to strike. (The Nazis’ dismantling of socialist parties and unions, by the way, demonstrates the absurdity of some recent claims by conservative commentators that fascism came historically from the left.)

The businessmen shifted their strategy from one based on international trade to one of autarky, as Hitler demanded, and were richly rewarded with fat armaments contracts. They used slave labor during the war without apparent concern. They offered no resistance to Hitler, even in the closing days of the war, when some generals and high civil servants plotted to overthrow him. But Vuillard goes into none of this, for he is really not interested in pursuing this subject in an analytical way.

Vuillard’s swarming details are gritty and physical. The businessmen in The Order of the Day puff and sweat as they ascend the ceremonial staircase toward the chamber where they will meet Hitler. We see “twenty-four overcoats in tan, black, brown, or amber; twenty-four pairs of wool-padded shoulders; twenty-four three-piece suits, and the same number of pleated trousers with cuffs.” In 14 juillet, Vuillard describes the destruction of the Bastille stone by stone and tells us (perhaps drawing on police reports) how a victim’s corpse looked, “in rough woolen trousers, heavy shoes, a coarse shirt, and an olive wool jacket. He had a large wound in the side, and was missing his right thumb.” In the Austrian section of The Order of the Day we follow Schuschnigg closely, watching the tops of the pines in an effort to master his anxiety as his car climbs up to Hitler’s chalet.

When Vuillard also tells us what participants in these events were thinking, he resorts inevitably to fiction: “The border lay just ahead, and Schuschnigg was suddenly seized by apprehension. He felt as if the truth was just beyond his grasp.” Unfortunately we can’t tell which parts of the text are his creations, which rely on period archives, and which come from memoirs written in afterthought. He has chosen his details not for their explicative value but for their revelation of human folly.

Vuillard has done some homework and his narratives are generally accurate, but he likes to heighten the impression of absurdity. When German military units enter Austria under the command of General Heinz Guderian on March 12, 1938, many of the tanks and trucks break down along the highway between Salzburg and Vienna. Vuillard enjoys the ironic comparison between the stalled vehicles and Guderian’s famous writings about Blitzkrieg. He claims that the “vast majority of the great German army” suffered humiliating breakdowns, though Guderian admitted to less than 30 percent.3 Whatever the exact number, Vuillard’s delight in irony seems to have outweighed exactitude.

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The most venomous portraits in The Order of the Day are not of the Nazi leaders—their images are unalterably familiar—but of British appeasers like Lord Halifax, “standing proudly behind his little line of forebears, deaf as trombones, dumb as buzzards, and blind as donkeys,” who visits Goering ostensibly for a bit of fox-hunting but really in order to transmit the message that the British government understands Germany’s position and would not object to a few adjustments in the Versailles settlement of 1919 if they can be made in an orderly and peaceful manner.

Some comments about The Order of the Day have suggested that this book explains how Hitler reached power. That is mistaken. It opens with Hitler already installed as chancellor of Germany. If one is looking for an analysis of how the former corporal became chancellor, there are masterful syntheses of contemporary scholarship such as Richard J. Evans’s The Coming of the Third Reich.4

Vuillard’s way in his récits of piling on disparate details may seem life-like, but it doesn’t amount to an explanation. The best historians may well wish to avoid crude linear causality, but they analyze how people make choices among options that are multiple but limited in historically precise ways. Vuillard doesn’t actually show us the businessmen deciding things, but when they reappear at the book’s end after the war, richer and more honored than ever, it is no doubt they who have drafted and carried out the agenda, the order of the day.

Vuillard addresses his feelings about history more explicitly here than in the earlier récits. “History as spectacle” is what he offers. Late in the book he digresses yet again to present Günther Stern, better known as Günther Anders, a philosopher and the first husband of Hannah Arendt (Vuillard tells us none of this), whose first job as a refugee in the United States was with Hollywood Custom Palace, a costume rental agency that already had Nazi uniforms and insignia in stock in the early 1940s. The Hollywood entertainment machine, Vuillard suggests, had used the Nazi regime to make profits for itself, and films that have “show[n] us this history, shape[d] our intimate knowledge of it.” We are back to representations and reality: “We can never know.” Vuillard claims that the writer’s task is to “lift the hideous rags of History” and reveal the deals and bluffs and scams beneath.

Vuillard’s prose—muscular, concrete, richly inventive, ironic, sardonic, opinionated—is no doubt the feature of The Order of the Day that most appealed to the Goncourt jury. Vuillard is expert at black humor, as in his account of the excruciating farewell lunch in London for German ambassador Ribbentrop, who is returning to Berlin to become foreign minister. Midway through lunch, Prime Minister Chamberlain is handed a note informing him that German troops are entering Austria. Ribbentrop surely knows, but he prolongs the mundanities while Chamberlain struggles to keep up a polite front. As Vuillard explains his method, “When humor tips into such darkness, it speaks the truth.” But while this episode makes clever fun of British manners, it does not really help explain why the British failed to contain Hitler in 1938.

The ten Goncourt jurors, who name their own replacements, have not succeeded better than other prize jurors in identifying the master authors of their time. Marcel Proust—who won the prize for the second volume of À la recherche du temps perdu in 1919—is the only giant among the winners. Only a few others, such as André Malraux (1933), Simone de Beauvoir (1954), Patrick Modiano (1978), Marguerite Duras (1984), and Michel Houellebecq (2010), rise above a procession of largely forgotten names. Many major twentieth-century French authors—André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Céline, Colette—never received the Goncourt. Will Éric Vuillard be among the winners who are long remembered? There is reason to doubt it.

  1. 1

    Quoted in “Marxists,” in Face of Fascism: Writing by Marxists on Fascism from the Interwar Period, edited by David Beetham (University of Manchester Press, 1983), pp. 152–153.  

  2. 2

    See Henry Ashby Turner Jr., German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler (Oxford University Press, 1985). 

  3. 3

    General Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader: General Heinz Guderian, translated by Constantine Fitzgibbon, with an introduction by Kenneth Macksey and a foreword by Captain B.H. Liddell Hart (Da Capo, 2002), p. 53. 

  4. 4

    Penguin, 2004.