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The Last Time They Saw France

ISSUE:  Winter 1942

The Devil in Prance. By Lion Feuchtwanger. The Viking Press. $2.75. Scum of the Earth. By Arthur Koestler. The Macmillan Company. $2.50. A Thousand Shall Pall. By Hans Habe. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. Strictly Personal. By W. Somerset Maugham. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50.

It is significant that the most revealing of the books dealing with the fall of France were not written by Frenchmen. This is no mere accident; neither does it imply any criticism of those of the French elite who succeeded in escaping from the France of today. In fact, most of them continue to play a part in the struggle against Hitler: they are either members of de Gaulle’s army, or else they are organizers and propagandists. Others who have reached safety were forced to leave their families behind and must therefore remain silent, And some were so deeply affected by the impact of what happened to their country that they are unable to speak. The non-Frenchmen who record their experiences in France have the advantage of being less personally involved. Their reports and analyses make up a composite picture which certainly reflects the truth. On the other hand, there is no doubt that some day some great French writer will recreate in a monumental work the collapse of his country in all its tragic immensity.

Books which deal with the defeat of a country and its people—especially if the event is of such immediacy as the fall of France—do not provide pleasant reading matter. In the case of the books reviewed here, our impressions culminate in feelings of almost passionate intensity: while we are reading, we become embittered, horrified, hopeless. This, too, is understandable, Most people, after some years of living in France, no matter where they came from, soon discovered the old truth that everybody has two homelands, his own and France. But even the majority of those who have never put their foot on French soil are so deeply inspired by French culture, art, philosophy, and inventive genius that they feel something akin to a personal love for France. But this should not prevent us from studying the events of the recent past with a cool head: errors and weaknesses can be avoided only when they are revealed and traced back to their sources. Those who want to help France must get to know the terrifying dimensions of the abyss into which she has fallen. And most important of all, they must know why it could happen.

These books about France, all written by non-Frenchmen, are valuable contributions, and their high literary level makes up for the unpleasantness of their subject. They are not mere records of personal experiences. The authors are not merely soldiers or observers, but men who with a few words or in a brief dialogue are capable of conveying the poignantly dramatic content of a situation. All their statements and observations are, therefore, more than products of the moment. These books will retain their human value in the distant time when the collapse of France will have become history. Two of the authors are Hungarians by birth; one of them is a German, and the fourth an Englishman. All four have lived in France for many years and might never have seriously thought of leaving that country. It was not so much the war as it was the color of their passports, together with a number of other official documents, that forced them to leave—when they could. To possess a certain piece of paper adorned with a certain stamp (forged, if necessary), at a certain moment—upon this circumstance have depended the lives of hundreds of thousands in Europe since this war started.

In “The Devil in France,” Lion Feuchtwanger, who is just as much hated by the Hitler regime as he is admired outside of the realm of the Gestapo, describes his life in a French concentration camp. He has refrained from giving details of his escape for the sake of those who helped him get away. His reflections circle mostly around his own personal adventures. This is only too understandable: it is rather unusual, to say the least, for a world-famous author and no less famous opponent of Hitler to be imprisoned in a country at war with Germany, under the suspicion of being a potential Fifth Columnist. It speaks well for Feuchtwanger that he accepts this fact, absurd as it is, without pathos and that he attributes his treatment and that of his fellow-prisoners mainly to the indifference of the French authorities, to that notorious Je m’en foutisme which no doubt was one of the causes of the moral collapse of the Third Republic. Feuchtwanger was comparatively lucky: he was living in the south of France when the war broke out, and consequently the concentration camp to which he was sent was reasonably decent. He was surrounded by many friends and admirers who sought to help him and have him released. Yet what he had to witness and what happened to him and the other inmates was still bad enough to frighten any reader.

However, the devil in France described by Feuchtwanger is only a tame offspring of that giant monster who races through the pages of Arthur Koestler’s “Scum of the Earth.” Here we reach the inferno. Koestler’s novel, “Darkness at Noon,” which he finished in France, was one of the most stirring and at the same time one of the wisest “settling of accounts” written in our time. “Scum of the Earth” is equally outstanding for its political analysis and its literary merits.

Feuchtwanger was a quiet, contemplative, almost passive observer of the situation into which he was driven. Koestler, twenty years younger, has been familiar with prisons and all that goes with them since the time when he was a correspondent during the Spanish War. Most of his book is written as though he were now mildly amused, but his comments are full of biting sarcasm. There are moments when he uses pathos because he realizes that there is no other way to describe the unfathomable depths of misery and suffering which he saw. Koestler was taken to the most abominable of all French concentration camps, to Le Vernet, near the Spanish frontier, from which, except for one or two, there was no release. Today in Le Vernet there are hundreds of human wrecks slowly perishing under the watchful eye of the Gestapo from Vichy and Berlin. In Le Vernet was and still is the scum of the earth: men from all parts of Europe who had fought Hitlerism and Fascism all their lives, and who happened to be in France when the war broke out. Some of them, the Communists, had been doubly betrayed: first by Moscow which had abandoned Spain while they were fighting there and then made a pact with Hitler; and second by France, which put them behind barbed wire.

According to Koestler, France’s Je m’en foutisme affected much more than her treatment of aliens. It had become a political factor: “France no longer wanted to save the peace, but to be left in peace.” And this passivity turned into active sabotage. This became utterly clear at the front when the French army put up no resistance to the German invasion because it did not have the means to do so. The collapse at the front is described by the Hungarian Hans Habe in his excellent book, “A Thousand Shall Fall.” Unlike his compatriot, Habe was not thrown into a camp when he volunteered for the French army, but was accepted: it so happened that he had not yet been denounced and, besides, he was young.

Habe belonged to a regiment which was composed exclusively of foreign volunteers. Their military training had been ludicrously insufficient, their equipment consisted of obsolete rifles, their “reserve stocks” dated back to the time of the first World War. In scenes whose literary brilliancy is equaled only by the author’s journalistic understanding of the political and psychological background, he describes the experiences of this group of foreigners who were, so to speak, condemned to death. Without proper cover they were ordered to the front. When matters got serious, most of the officers deserted; French airplanes remained invisible; the artillery disappeared over night. What had the French General Staff done with the countless billions sacrificed for France’s rearmament? From Habe’s account it becomes unmistakably clear that even if soldiers and officers had wanted to fight, they could not have done so: this was the other and much more tragic side of the Je m’en foutisme.

What other causes were there? W. Somerset Maugham, who had also lived in France and as an ex-Ally had to leave it somewhat hastily (which unfortunately did not prevent him from making some rather foolish comments on the refugee problem), gives a brief summary of these causes in “Strictly Personal.” They represent the quintessence of what Feuchtwanger, Koestler, and Habe also emphasize: the wealthy class in France preferred a Hitler victory to “Bolshevism.” By “Bolshevism” they meant every kind of social reform. The French officers corps was utterly corrupt and had “a cynical contempt for honor.” And where were the tanks which had been built? “There is only one plausible answer,” says Maugham; “large numbers were kept in the vicinity of the big factories, to crush the workers if they should attempt to revolt.”

These are the facts. We must face them in order to understand that the reconstruction of France will not be a simple matter. It is not enough to organize the Free French movement, although it is of great importance to rid France of Hitler’s army, What we must remember is that small but immensely powerful and wealthy groups, openly sponsored by Vichy and Berlin, are engaged in treason and sabotage, selling out their country for their own interests. France’s liberation will not be complete unless an interior revolution, as uncompromisingly radical as the one of 1789, can sweep the country. Already there are signs that France is taking steps to prepare herself for this coming task.


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