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Can France Abdicate?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

Can France, of her own accord, resign her precarious position and her crushing responsibilities as a Great Power? The experience of Sweden may enable us, if not to solve the problem, at least to focus it more definitely.

For several generations, Sweden was a Great Power, dreaded by her neighbors, courted even by distant France. The nation felt herself heroic in her heroic leaders, Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII. It was her manifest destiny to rule the North; her safety as well as her prestige demanded that the Baltic should be a Swedish lake. For a century after the death of that crowned adventurer, Charles XII, Sweden nursed uneasy memories of vanished “greatness.” The conquest of Norway by Bernadotte was a last flare of the old imperialism. Thenceforth, Sweden let Russia and Prussia contend for the hegemony of the North and the mastery of the Baltic. She gave up any thought of spreading her rule beyond the Scandinavian peninsula; and she allowed the secession of Norway without even saving her honor on the battlefield. She is now a third-rate power, which means no power at all. She has been guilty of the Great Refusal; she has capitulated to the craven fear of being great.

The result is that Sweden and her fully reconciled sister Norway alone in the whole world have enjoyed a hundred and twenty years of unbroken peace. “Better live a single day as a lion than a hundred years as cattle,” saith the apostle of the strenuous life, Benito Mussolini. But no one would think of the Norwegians and Swedes as herds of contented ruminants. Among the nations, there is none so genuinely respected as the Scandinavian. Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, England, and France have all roused hatred and contempt as well as fear; and even we, since we have become a world power, have been exposed to the bitter denunciations of such men as Ruben Dario and Georges Duhamel. With a population inferior to that of Greater New York, the Scandinavian countries have achieved a high position in world literature. Without colonies and with negligible navies, they have developed a merchant shipping much larger in proportion than those of Great Britain and America. Ignoble peace has not impaired their stamina; as sailors, as athletes, as explorers, they vie with the hardiest. On at least three points they are vastly ahead of us. They were able to approach the drink problem intelligently. Free from ideological inhibitions, they secure efficient co-operation between bourgeois liberalism and experimental socialism. Without any loss of national pride and independence, they are willing to support a league against international anarchy. When we are tempted to despair of Western civilization, it is from Scandinavia that our one steady ray of hope comes.

Many friends of France—and, you may be sure, a far greater number of good Frenchmen—have asked themselves: “Why should Scandinavia have a monopoly of good sense? Why should the truths that thrive at the sixtieth degree of latitude lose their validity at the forty-eighth? If the country of Gustavus Adolphus and of Charles XII has been able to learn wisdom, why should the country of Louis XIV and Napoleon still yearn for ancient folly? After a career as stormy as Candide’s, could not France be satisfied with the tilling of her own garden? Why strain and torture one’s self into playing the part of a great power, when it would be so much pleasanter to be prosperous and intelligent?”

Stated in those terms, the problem is reduced to a rhetorical question, with the answer as inevitable as the result of a Hitler plebiscite: a fairly effective device in political claptrap, but worthless as an instrument of thought. There are forty-two million people in France, mostly sane. If they are not ready to follow Sweden’s example, there must be many obstacles in the way.

The first point to consider is whether the Swedish precedent may be accepted as valid. No serious argument can be based on a fluke. Switzerland developed a strong national feeling without any apparent bond of unity, dynastic, linguistic, or religious. But the Turkish Empire and the Habs-burg dominions fell to pieces, after centuries of effort, and it is extremely doubtful whether Czechoslovakia will achieve genuine nationhood: Switzerland remains a miraculous exception. In Hawaii, Polynesians, Orientals of various breeds, and Anglo-Saxons mingle on terms of social equality. Therefore it can be done; but apparently it cannot be done anywhere else. The case of Sweden, demoted and satisfied, is well-nigh unique. Even Portugal and the Netherlands have not so completely renounced: they have preserved vast colonies. Spain after 1898 seemed bent upon following the example of Sweden. But the conquest of the Riff was a relapse into imperialism, and it is one of Franco’s aims to restore the prestige of Spain as a great nation. “This fratricidal war,” says General Walch in the Paris Temps, “will have forged and tempered anew the soul of a people which had lost faith in its destiny.” Probably the General believes that Sweden needs the same drastic remedy. Germany, in 1919, had a perfect chance to become a larger Sweden, a model for the civilized world. But, even before Hitler, she deliberately chose the more arduous, the tragic and glorious path. Prestige is a disease from which few nations have been able to recover. They must live with it, or die from it.


We shall therefore have to find a wider basis for our argument than the achievement of a single country. We shall have to prove that power is a vain thing, not indispensable either to prosperity or to cultural excellence. But we must recognize that the evidence is not all on one side. Tsarist Russia, between the downfall of Napoleon I and the Crimean War, at any rate, was the very pattern of a great power. She held twenty nationalities in subjection, reconquered Hungary for the Habsburgs, overshadowed the Balkans, and weighed like an incubus even on the soul of Germany. Yet it is manifest that very small countries, like Holland and Switzerland, were far more prosperous than the formidable Romanoff Empire. On the other hand, a vast increase of prosperity under Victoria in England, under Napoleon III in France, under Bismarck in Germany, went hand in hand with increased power. The squalor of English slums was not the inevitable ransom of imperialism, but the result of paleo-technic maldistribution. Conditions were no better in the Borinage, then wholly free from imperialistic ambitions, than they were in Lancashire. America was doing well before she sought and achieved recognition as a world power in 1898. In this century, both our power and our prosperity have grown apace; but we have no right to say, Cum hoc, ergo propter hoc. In 1929, our power was greater than ever, although we had not the slightest use for it; and our prosperity was gone. No one suggests that we should restore prosperity by resuming our manifest destiny: to rule this hemisphere, to be Lord Protector of the Far East, to chide and finance Europe abundantly. Dreadnoughts are not the best of traveling salesmen; as insurance agents, they charge exorbitant fees; as debt collectors, they are absolutely worthless.

Neither is power the indispensable basis of cultural prestige. Here again, instead of a triumphant demonstration, we shall have to be satisfied with a cautious verdict: not proven. Rome defeated Greece, and accepted the cultural supremacy of the conquered. In the West, however, the Latin language and Roman law followed the triumphant march of the legions. Renaissance Italy was the battlefield of nations, but the victors humbly imitated the land they had subjugated. Turkey could not impose her crude civilization upon either the Arabs or the Greeks; nor could irresistible Russia “russify” Poland or Finland. That the defeat of the Invincible Armada was responsible for the glories of Elizabethan literature may well be doubted. At any rate, Shakespeare’s deepest notes express, not exulting pride, but bewilderment and despair.

The case of Louis XIV is equivocal. He ruled Europe almost as insolently as Hitler does today. He too could decree an Anschluss (which he called reunion) without consultation and without appeal. And at the same time, French culture spread far beyond the reach of the French arms. Is this another case of the Cum hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy? France had then evolved, ahead of other nations, a new discipline, a new formula—fortunate compromise rather than abstract principle—which all Europe was eager to imitate. Louis XIV made selfish and brutal use of the advantage that this conferred upon his country. For a quarter of a century, power and cultural prestige seemed identical. We have proof positive and proof negative that there was no necessary link between the two. Under Louis XV, France lost her military glory, but she retained and even increased her cultural primacy. The agents of her greatness were no longer princes, generals, and diplomats, but exiles like Voltaire, Bohemians like Rousseau, hack writers like Diderot. The realm of enchantment for which all were yearning was no longer Versailles, but the “kingdom of the Rue St. Honore,” the bourgeois drawing room of Madame Geoff rin. The Prussian victor of Rossbach, Frederick the Great, wrote in French, and his Royal Academy offered a prize on the subject: “Why has the French language become universal?”

As a check on this demonstration, we may reverse the terms. Under Napoleon I, France enjoyed a veritable orgy of military prestige and power. What were the results? The impoverishment of French literature and a universal rebellion against French influence. Then it was that the aristocracy of Europe made deliberate efforts to unlearn French. This is confirmed by the case of Germany. Her most glorious days were those when she did not even exist as a nation, when she was split up into hundreds of principalities, swayed by two rivals, Austria and Prussia, neither of which was exclusively German. Those days, at the end of the eighteenth century and in the first decade of the nineteenth, were the times of Mozart and Beethoven, of Kant and Hegel (who heard the guns of Jena with the utmost indifference) , and of Goethe, who stood above the strife.

This paradoxical situation recurred in our own days. Germany under the Bismarckian Empire was dreaded: but culturally she had become second rate. Wagner’s best work was done before 1870; and Nietzsche, the one outstanding figure of the period, was a rebel. On the contrary, after 1919, mutilated Austria, the shattered Germany of the Weimar Republic, and the homeless Germans of the Baltic states enjoyed a veritable cultural boom. The brief dozen years before Germany became Hitler’s enormous shadow could boast of Thomas and Heinrich Mann, of Schnitzler, Wasser-mann, Werfel, Keyserling, Arnold and Stefan Zweig, Neumann, and Feuchtwanger; and, with Remarque, Fallada, Vicky Baum, Emil Ludwig, translations from the German threatened to glut our market. Hitler’s power, greater than Bismarck’s, will not suffice to turn “Mein Kampf” into a universal classic. Most of these men were fully formed be- [ fore the catastrophe, but it took defeat to make them world famous. A menace seldom breeds sympathy; and the assertion of power implies vulgarity, which stunts the soul.

I am not attempting to deny the potency of the craving for power; I am only questioning the correlation between power and prosperity, between power and cultural excellence. Reduced to itself, in its essential purity, the idea of power is no delusion, but an undeniable and formidable reality. It is not restricted to the actual leaders, kings, ministers, conquerors. It appeals most intensely to the humble, for it is their one way of escape from humility. What is the essence of imperialism? That the dreary leisure of a Welsh miner on the dole may be illumined by the thought that, in fabulous distant lands, a Tommy can freely be rude to high-class Orientals. A German today will gladly give up comfort and freedom in exchange for the consciousness that Europe listens with a shudder for the tramp of German boots. Power is the most effective brand of hashish; and it is all the more effective when it is not diluted with the stodgy ideal of prosperity or the sophisticated, almost decadent ideal of culture.

It is not impossible for nations, as well as for individuals, to learn that they can be great, happy, and free without owning slaves, serfs, or even retainers. The discovery should come as an immense relief. In “Frau Sorge” and in “Jorn Uhl” we find the same motive: an earnest young man struggles desperately to save the old homestead; he is attacked on every side, hampered or betrayed by a shiftless family. The farm finally goes up in flames; and the young man, the goal of his whole life destroyed, breathes at last a freer air. What a joy it is to cast down the strains, the treacheries, the fears that attend power, the hypocrisies and brutalities of the Superman’s Burden, and devote oneself to honest work and simple pleasure!


Can France learn the lesson, and act upon the more enlightened view? There is no reason why she should not. Although the French have fought through all the generations of their long history, they are not, as once the Turks were reputed to be, a nation of fighters. It may seem strange to assert that the Swiss, not so long ago, were the most warlike people in Europe. Fighting was one of their national industries, before they discovered the more profitable trade of hotel-keeping. They hired themselves to the highest bidder, and, honest merchants of death, killed or were killed without flinching, for a very modest pay. There is nothing in France that corresponds to the Irish love of a good scrap. If there were such a thing as “fighting blood,” it would be found in Scandinavian rather than in French veins. Only a millennium ago, the Norse had a religion of battle, which Baldur von Schirach would fain restore. It is not French to go berserk. Ragnar Lodbrok died with fierce heroic laughter on his lips, a true Viking; the French Crusaders jested, Napoleon’s veterans grumbled, and the French poilu always remained a civilian in uniform.

Except for a decade under Napoleon, France never was “an army controlling a nation,” like old Prussia and Japan. It looks as though “greatness” of a military nature has been repeatedly thrust upon her reluctant shoulders by a series of accidents. Smilingly, reverently, but firmly, Joinville chided the Holy King for embarking on his second crusade. Joan of Arc was the heroine of liberation, not of conquest. Henry IV was loved for restoring peace. Richelieu, the French Bismarck, was the reverse of popular among his contemporaries. Boileau, French common sense incarnate, rebuked with surprising boldness the ambition of Louis XIV. Playing Cineas to his Pyrrhus, “very sensible adviser to a very imprudent king,” he asked: “Why not have a good time right here in Epirus, without first conquering the whole world?” No one could be more bitterly satirical about military glory than was Voltaire, unless it be Anatole France. Napoleon became First Consul because it was hoped he would end the war. Chained to his glory, the French shrugged their shoulders in weariness when the guns of the Invalides boomed out the news of a fresh victory. Beranger sang the praises of Napoleon when the mischief-maker was safely dead and had become mere literature. But when the Emperor was on the throne, the poet wrote “The King of Yvetot,” about an easy-going potentate, “living very well without glory,” and preferring a comfortable cotton nightcap to any crown. Louis-Napoleon had to promise, “The Empire spells, not War, but Peace,” before he could grab the scepter. Thiers became President of the Republic because he had opposed the war, and, frankly “defeatist,” had urged the earliest possible peace. It took Gambetta ten years to recover the popularity which he had forfeited by wanting to fight to the bitter end. The French today laud him for having “saved the honor of the country,” but his contemporaries called him “a raving lunatic.”

Ignoring Jaures and Briand, we are tempted to see in Clemenceau a symbol of France’s fierce pugnacity, of her tigerish vindictiveness, of her ruthless desire to rule. We remember only the Clemenceau who had but one thought, “Je fais la guerre,” two years in a life of nine decades, in a political career of exactly half a century. The young Radical doctor, under the Empire, was an anti-militarist; under the Republic, against Ferry, he was an anti-colonialist. He fought Boulanger when the blond-bearded general on a black charger seemed to incarnate the spirit of national glory. He fought the army again at the time of the Dreyfus case. It was militarism that he resisted—with its own weapons— under the name of Prussian hegemony. He is accused of treating Germany at Versailles as Rome had treated Carthage; his nationalist enemies accuse him, with much better cause, of betraying the interests of France. He gave up far too easily the two essential conditions of French predominance in Europe: the disruption of Bismarckian unity and perpetual military control of the Rhineland.

I have no intention of depicting the French bourgeois as so many bleating Tolstoys and cooing Aldous Huxleys. Unwarlike themselves, they have repeatedly committed their destinies to conquerors. They never had the intellectual and moral courage to eliminate the virus of power and prestige. Richelieu, Louis XIV, and Napoleon were dreaded in their lifetime; but they created legends which many Academicians cherish to the present day. Doudan was right: the French bourgeois wants at the same time to toast his toes by his fireside, and to “bestrew with his corpse all the battlefields of Europe.” Thiers about 1840, Poincare between 1910 and 1920, were Sancho Panza in shining armor. The French bourgeois allowed his best representative, Louis-Philippe, to fall, because a policy of peace at any price was devoid of prestige. The same bourgeois rushed madly into Bismarck’s trap. In mortal fear of drafts, he wants to adorn his cotton nightcap with the plume of Cyrano. Indeed the French bourgeois is so unaccountable as to be almost human.

As the battle line of argument waves back and forth, there is one position I should like to consolidate: if the French bourgeois is not irrevocably committed to peace, he is even less committed to a policy of force and glory at any price. He has already learned as many lessons as his Swedish congener: unfortunately, he still has quite a few to learn. He has discovered, for one thing, that France could exist without the so-called “natural frontier,” the left bank of the Rhine. He will realize after a time what Napoleon III knew nearly a hundred years ago: that a united Germany is not so dangerous a neighbor as a discontented Germany. The distinctive sign of a great power is that it constantly interferes with other people’s affairs: England is a great power, because she could—and would—prevent the Anschluss of Belgium and France, even if Belgium unanimously desired it. The French are fast losing their desire of being “great” in that rather unpleasant sense. Many bourgeois have adopted old Dupin’s motto, “Chacun chez soi, chacun pour soi”: let every one stay at home and mind his own business. Coolidgeism undeflled.


A peaceable people, satisfied with its own heritage: why should not the French, of their own accord, quit the blustering company of the so-called great powers? I can see three or four obstacles, which are not unconquerable, to be sure, but which it would be foolish to minimize.

First of all, resignation rankles and festers unless it be absolutely voluntary. It is dangerous to force a country to be wise. At Versailles the Allies conferred upon Germany the great boon of disarmament, and relieved her of colonial responsibilities ; but, as the benefit was one-sided, the Germans were not duly grateful. It certainly is not for us to force France down. Yet we are apt to do so, with the callousness of ignorance. We seldom realize, for instance, the arrogance of our well-meaning naval policy. We have a perfect right to build “a navy second to none,” provided we do not deny the same right to others. For two centuries and at least until 1905, France was the greatest naval power after England. We are seeking to impose limitations upon her which are absolutely out of keeping with the interests she has to defend. This kind of compulsory demotion is an insult, even if it were not an injury. Neither France nor Germany is ready to stand for it.

Thirst for power is a psychosis: it must be cured by psychological means. Renunciation need not be universal and simultaneous, but it should be so prepared as to be wholly free from humiliation. It is not easy to give up even that which we know to be useless, foolish, and harmful. Because, between 1890 and 1910, France had practically renounced the hope of revanche, the world called her decadent, and she herself felt uneasy. “Too proud to fight” is a noble motto, provided it be wholly sincere. If heroism and folly often wear the same mask, so may wisdom and cowardice.

A country that gives up needs first of all to be reassured —not only about her material interests (that “security” which the French desire, not for themselves alone, but for all nations), but, above all, about the world’s esteem. Ignoring this essential law was the one irreparable mistake of the peace treaties: the Vienna settlement in 1815 in itself was far worse than the Paris Diktat, yet it proved far more acceptable. General Pershing believes that the Allies should have marched on to Berlin and thoroughly humbled German pride; Foch allowed the German armies to return home with flags unfurled. Foch was right, and a little more of that spirit would have saved the world twenty years of distress.

What poisons Europe today is that indignities were gratuitously heaped upon a beaten foe. That the foe, had he been victorious, would have behaved even worse, that he is behaving as badly today, cannot be urged as an excuse. We have failed to learn the old lesson of the velvet glove: the Allies tried to hold Germany with a hand of straw in a gauntlet of steel. Paradoxical as it may sound, we should have bent all our efforts to assuage for Germany the bitterness of defeat, instead of yielding to Lloyd-Georgian vulgarity. France-threatened, abused, but undefeated—is entitled today to the same consideration. If we believe that, even in her own interest, she should step down, we ought to hold out our hand and help her, not push her.

France has honestly tried to eliminate from her blood the curse of the great power, the poison of victory. With Briand, she offered peace on the basis of equality, but Briand was not wholeheartedly supported, Stresemann was too fond of finessieren, and our liberal press did not abate its rabid Gallophobia. Blum again offered co-operation, but he was hampered by desperate home problems, and he represented a party and a race on which Hitler had already declared war. The failure of conciliation leaves but two alternatives : to resist force, or to yield to force.

What then could France do to follow the advice of her American well-wishers? With a strictly defensive policy, behind the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Maginot Line, she might hold back the armies! of Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler, if not their bombing planes. We may think that she should not arm for the protection of her colonial Empire, on the grounds that it is not worth protecting. But, if this be “wisdom,” it is a pretty large dose of wisdom to swallow at one gulp. The members of the Front Populaire are anti-colonists in principle, like Clemenceau, like Bismarck, like Hitler himself until a few years ago. They would be willing to turn the colonies loose, or place them under a collective mandate; they are not willing to hand them over to Nazis and Fascists, with their unbounded “dynamism” and their ferocious race theories. Could France rely upon England’s aid to save her dominions? England, without any perfidy, might have another one of her fits of “realism,” and sell out the French Empire to Germany, as, before 1914, she was ready to sell out the colonies of Portugal, her ancient ally. If France had barely adequate defensive armaments on three fronts and at sea, it would still make her a formidable power in spite of herself.

It might be said that France does not need even defensive armaments, for her own territory is not seriously threatened. For the present, at any rate; at any moment, Nice and Corsica might be declared again parts of Italia Irredenta, and the Alsatians might be enrolled among the hundred million Germans whom Hitler has sworn to protect. It is not territorial dismemberment that threatens France: the Spanish tragedy has created a new cause of fear. If Mussolini cannot “tolerate” in Barcelona a regime which refuses to outlaw the Communists, why does he tolerate in Paris a government supported by Thorez, and in alliance with Moscow? He will have to tolerate it so long as there is a French army to enforce tolerance—and not a moment longer. France, Belgium, and Sweden have shown that liberal countries can integrate socialistic thought into their national policy, without proscription, without civil war: but at any moment, France’s neighbors may compel her to disfranchise four million voters out of nine. No loss of a province could be so deep a humiliation as the dictation of a foreigner in home affairs, as a La Rocque, a Tardieu, a Doriot imposed upon Paris by Rome and Berlin. Americans who advise France to renounce, to disarm, might do well to ponder this very real menace. When some Washington worthy said to Jusserand, with the gentle moral superiority we so easily assume, “We have no fortifications on the Canadian border, and we are safe. Why don’t you do the same?”, the wise old diplomat replied longingly: “If only we could swap neighbors !” There is only one way out, and that is collective security, order under the law. When they so decisively defeated Mil-lerand and Poincare in 1924, in rebuke for their Ruhr policy, the French people committed themselves to the collective principle. That Wilsonian ideal, however, was to bring, not peace, but the sword. For collective security means the refusal to alter the status quo except by lawful means, even though the processes of the law should be exasperating in their sluggishness. Those who, in Germany and America, declared Versailles “intolerable,” and placed immediate revision above peace, are responsible for the rise of Hitler. As America turned her back on world organization, as Germany, Japan, and Italy, following suit, proclaimed their faith in the sword, as England exercised to the full her proud privilege of muddling, France was forced into a position of leadership. What was left of the League turned inevitably into a limited alliance. That alliance had two sinister aspects: the “encirclement” of Germany, and French hegemony. But Germany was so encircled only because she menaced seven out of her nine neighbors; and never was hegemony imposed upon a more unwilling leader than France. Every one of her allies was a liability instead of an asset, and she would be well rid of them all, if she could rid herself honorably. Germany had dubbed Poland a Sakon-Staat, a brittle contraption of the vindictive Allies. When Germany at last grew resigned to the resurrection of Poland, it meant for France not humiliation, but relief unspeakable. France no longer had to mount guard on the Vistula; Hitler had done exactly what American liberals so steadily refused to do: he had recognized the famous Corridor. If Yugoslavia can hope to become the friend, not the vassal, of Italy, it will be clear gain all round. If the problem of Czechoslovakia is settled on a permanent, that is to say on a fair, basis, France will gladly lose a “satellite” that is obviously a cause of weakness. Should Germany and Italy return to the League and accept international law without mental reservations, the Franco-Soviet Pact would lapse, the Little Entente would dissolve, French hegemony would vanish, leaving not a wrack behind; and except perhaps for a handful of Richelieu-worshipers, the French would be delighted.

But all such possibilities are overshadowed by the crucial question that faces France today: the question whether the social revolution, now under way everywhere, can be achieved without bloodshed and without loss of liberty. Nationalism is but a blustering fossil: Franco, the Spanish “Traditionalist,” is hurling Moors, Italians, and Germans against his fellow Spaniards. The French conservatives today are far more concerned with their class interests than with the grandeur that was France. They would welcome Mussolini, or a protege of Mussolini, to save them from Leon Blum, just as the French Catholics of the sixteenth century sought the support of Spain against their own king, just as the Absolutists in 1792 urged Austria and Prussia on to Paris. So, through the strangest paradox, it is the Socialists today who are most earnestly bent upon keeping France a great nation; it is they who resent most keenly the insults of foreign dictators. For a strong army, reliable alliances, definite policies, are the best safeguards of French democracy against a French Franco.

France’s concern with world affairs, which makes her a great power, is therefore not a dream to which she clings, but a responsibility she has to face. She no longer desires conquest or predominance; there is not a nation in Europe that has anything to fear from her. But she happens to be, in size, in resources, in organization, the most important of the states threatened by the Dynamic Autocracies. She has common frontiers with two of them. She is exposed, as we are not; she is a more tempting prey than Sweden; she could resist, and even come to the aid of others, as Sweden could not. All this, in spite of the fluctuations of diplomacy, forces her ineluctably into leadership. France cannot abdicate, except in the hands of a World Federation.


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