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The Tiger

ISSUE:  Summer 1930

In the Evening of My Thought. By Georges Clemenceau, 2 vols. Boston; Houghton Mifflin. $12.50 Grandeur and Misery of Victory. By Georges Clemenceau. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $5.00. Georges Clemenceau. By Jean Martet. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $5.00. The Tiger: Georges Clemenceau. By George Adam. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, $3.50.

This spring has certainly been a Clemenceau season—which may explain why the elements have been so stormy. On my desk rest five volumes by or about the French statesman. Three of them are actually by him, and comprise his Credo and Apologia pro Vita Sua. The fourth is a Boswellian collection of reminiscences and thinkings aloud, dutifully steered and recorded by Jean Martct, who for a time was Clemenceau’s secretary and held the old man’s confidence right to the end. The fifth is a biography by George Adam, who for many years served as Paris correspondent of the London Times. Owing to some apparent oversight there is no study by Ludwig. That is a pity, for as one watches the violent unfolding of Clemenceau’s character, with its fierce hatreds, its ruthless-ness, its reserves of energy in opposition, in office, and in the long twilight of political exile, one needs an exponent of the new biography or the once-new psychology to explain this human cyclone.

What a record Clemenceau had! Born in 1841, and meeting as a child men who could tell him about 1793; living through 1848 and the triumph of Louis Napoleon, and watching the arrest of his father on a charge of conspiracy against the Empire; studying medicine and coming to America in the days of the Civil War to see how democracy worked, teach French and riding to New England schoolgirls, and marry a daughter of Springfield, Massachusetts; returning to France, to live through the Franco-Prussian war and serve as Mayor of Montmartre during the storm of the Paris Commune: stepping definitely into those twin occupations, journalism and politics, and into fifty years of perpetual fighting over Boulanger, the Panama Canal, Dreyfus, clericalism, syndicalism, and the score of other scandals that filled the witches’ cauldron of French politics and provided themes for Anatole France. But the sting of his pen and tongue made him far more disliked than loved. He had few friends; in fact, he seems to have reached the conclusion that it was unwise to like folk or win friends. “If you ever want to take up politics as a career,” he warned Martet, “and want to get anywhere, don’t worry yourself with questions of liking. Keep yourself always in readiness to break with your friends. Otherwise you will be lost, lost. You will never be able to carry through what you have decided to do. In politics it is your friends who hold you back.”

Such a creed has loneliness as its heaven (or hell); and, after all, the joy of bringing down cabinet after cabinet, of being a perpetual thorn in the side of ministries, of being always “agin the government,” suggests a rather queer conception of public service. Hence, although Clemenceau was Prime Minister once, from 1906 to 1909, his strong will, his inability to brook opposition or to tolerate the mediocrity of his colleagues, and his violent temper brought his downfall at the age of sixty-eight. In the eyes of most people he now seemed “done for”; perhaps he would linger on for a little while as the stormy petrel, the Warwick of the Republic, and the editor of that eternally grumbling paper L’Homme Libre. But power, importance, would never be his. But for the outbreak of the war Clemenceau might have gone down even in French history as a very minor bad-tempered and unpleasant politician, who was ever attacking those who shouldered the burden of office but made a sorry mess of things on the one occasion when he accepted that burden. Every, country has such men; perpetual critics, never willing to grant the administration a morsel of credit, fighting sometimes for worthwhile causes, but often wielding their shillelaghs just for the joy of the game and the sublimation of a pugnacious libido. And, of course, Clemenceau was in the Senate.

We need not recall here how the war eventually thrust Clemenceau into power. For the first three years of that conflict he was still the critic, exposing the inadequacies of the army medical service, attacking the censorship, and damning the general conduct of the war. Of his patriotism we can of course entertain no doubt; no one ever loved France more than he did, and after the Panther crisis he had been centering his attacks chiefly on the lack of preparedness for an inevitable war with Germany. Now he went as far as the censor would let him in exposing the muddles of the industrial mobilisation of the country, of the Salonika expedition, of allied diplomacy, of the failure to deal with defeatism; he attacked the muzzling of the press, the half-truths of the official despatches and communiques, the ignoring of parliament by the administration, the use of martial law, and all the other irruptions of despotism.

Then in November, 1917, came the call to drop the pen and take up the sword. “I am terribly afraid of it,” he said to Martet. “I would give anything to escape from it! You’ve merely to look at me and see clearly that I’m a goner: seventy-six years old, rotten with diabetes. . . . How do you expect me to pull it off?” Besides, the mess was too awful to contemplate: “My unhappy country frightens me. . . . Parliament bewildered and enslaved, a press preposterous, a public opinion unbalanced, distracted . . . and beyond all that, just words.” Clemenceau could scarcely believe that Poincare, whom he hated and had attacked unceasingly, would send the S O S to him, But it came, and he answered it with scarcely a moment’s hesitation.

That was November 16th, 1917. Within 360 days the fight was finished, the enemy defeated; then came seven months of peace-making, seven months of fighting the critics at home, and in January, 1920, the final exit. Did any man ever crowd so much action into twenty-six months? For Clemenceau was action incarnate; alongside him Lloyd George moved like a snail. He was everywhere at once— dashing off to the front, seeing soldiers, talking to generals, rushing back to make a speech in parliament or attend a committee meeting, slipping over to London, racing back to the front, fighting all the time. Fighting defeatism, fighting inefficiency even in the high ranks, fighting for more troops from England, for the immediate use of the American soldiers regardless of the banner under which they fought, for the establishment of the unified command; fighting parliament when it wanted to flay Foch for the failure at the Chemin des Dames, fighting Foch when he would not order Haig and Pershing about, fighting Poincare when he supported Foch against Clemenceau, and fighting those who talked of peace while war was still going on. A man of one purpose—Victory—but of a hundred tongues and two hundred fists, dealing out orders and blows wherever anything stood in the way.

Ruthless, arrogant, dictatorial, realistic, cynical, he stopped at nothing; as Adam says (p. 181) “In the achievement of (French) salvation, all those fine ideals of social progress, those dreams of regeneration and justice and freedom, which formed the bearable human part of his philosophy, had to be sacrificed to his blood-red vision of life as a series of brief periods of illusion rent by the stark horrors of cataclysmic killings. In office he had to suppress the propagation of gospels he had himself preached; to deliver to justice—and to that military justice against which he had himself so ardently struggled—men who had fought side by side with him for his radical ideas.” Supported chiefly by his old enemies—the Right and the Clericals—he crushed the press, muzzled parliament, “preached fraternity and paraded firing parties,” filled his ministry with nonentities so that his might be a one-man cabinet, and cheered the popular belief in strong government by jailing or shooting real or suspected traitors. Men began to get a glimpse of what the other reign of terror had felt like. He went over the country with a fine-tooth comb to gather every available man into the army, rationed civilians as had never been done before, shut down the pastry shops, and piled taxation on more heavily than ever. He went through the commanding staffs with an X-ray eye and fired the incompetents. He sought no popularity, only victory. But he won both, for the French people at last could feel there was real force in the government, and that the man in the trenches was not being betrayed by the civilians in the capital. And so through the dark days of 1918 he kept the torch alight; in the blackest periods of retreat his upper lip was always stiff, even if England had abandoned nine divisions after the March catastrophe and the American leaders were determined not to approach the line till they could do so as a self-contained unit under the Stars and Stripes.

The Armistice was not however the sign for Clemenceau’s struggles to cease; it was merely the end of the beginning. The German had been overcome, but there were still some of the old Richmonds in the field—Foch and Poincare, and some new ones—Wilson and Lloyd George. And of course there were all those opponents who had been muzzled for a season, but who could now reassert their rights. So the path of the Peace Conference was strewn with difficulties, and outside there were all the problems of transition from war to peace conditions. For a season the “father of victory” could ride on that title to popular favor, and even hope that he might be elected president. But parliament chooses the president in France, and the parliamentarians feared any continuance of the tyranny. Clemenceau would be no “prisoner of the Elysee,” no mere wearer of a silk hat and evening dress clothes. He would want to be dictator, and he knew the tricks of parliament so well that he would be able to get what he wanted. Better get rid of him. So Deschanel was chosen, and Clemenceau passed out, to spend the rest of his life travelling or living among the roses in his fisherman’s cottage in La Vendee.

Did he hope for quiet and rest, this old man of eighty years? Did he even know what rest was? A trip to the United States in 1922 to defend his country against charges of militarism, a trip to India and to the Eastern Mediterranean, but what else? Two huge volumes giving his views on free will, immortality, God, absolute knowledge, the atom, evolution, civilisation, cosmology, and so on, came from his pen in 1927*; perhaps he wished posterity to think of him as a philosopher-ruler, as a man who had combined statecraft with the study of science, art, history, and schools of thought. But I doubt whether posterity will give much attention to these thousand pages of ramblings over everything in general. It will look on them as the things a tiger wrote while it was having to crouch a longer time than usual before it could spring. For Clemenceau’s last act was a spring, a fierce leap from the rose bushes, and a wild dash at the body of some who were dead and some who still lived.

Clemenceau would have us believe that he wrote “Grandeur and Misery of Victory,” with much reluctance. He declares that he had intended to pass silently into the darkness, but that Foch drove him to speak by allowing Recouly to publish “Le Memorial de Foch” based on conversations with the Marshal. In this volume Foch made so many serious charges and mis-statements that Clemenceau was

*In the Evening of My Thought. (English translation published by Houghton Mifflin in 1929).

forced to break his silence in order to defend himself. “I used to find a strength in silence,” he laments. “Why did not Foch allow me to remain shut away within it?” “I owe him a grudge for not having allowed me to end my days in the modest self-respect of a silence in which I had set my chief inward bliss. I find myself asking whether I shonid not have done better to remain . . . mute.”

Candidly I think this is bluff. If Foch was the only cause of the outburst, why attack others than Foch in the retort? Why dig up the story of Malvy and Caillaux and the other “traitors,” why repeat the well-known criticism of America, why insert a long attack on unrepentant Germany, why bother with six chapters of rather unconvincing stuff about the mutilations of the Versailles treaty, why publish the open letter to Coolidge, and why brand Briand as “the leading light of French defeatism”? It isn’t necessary to attack all the people you dislike because one of them has offended you. Further, Martet’s volume of conversations shows that Clemenceau intended Martet to take a lot of documents which Clemenceau had retained, and use them for some sort of memoir, in which Foch, Poincare, and the rest were to be flogged. So we must conclude that ClemenceaHi’s tears at the breach of silence were Hollywood tears, made of glycerine.

I’m sorry those tears were shed and the book saw the light; for Clemenceau’s reputation suffers seriously thereby„ and I suspect Frenchmen may feel glad that he passed off the stage in 1920. We can grant the force of all he says in reply to Foch. He undoubtedly made Foch, gave him his chance, won for him the unified command, defended him generously after the failure to stem the Germans at the Chemin des Dames, and even condoned rank insubordination on at least one occasion. Yet Foch, who took amazing steps to win Clemenceau’s goodwill while in the climbing stage—as for instance sending him a copy of a Foch bust in 1916—showed no gratitude, but rather the reverse. In the struggle to get the Americans into the line he and Poincare refused to bring pressure to bear on Pershing when Clemenceau demanded it, and boasted in his talks with Recouly that he took absolutely no notice of at least one letter from his political head.

When the armistice came, Foch believed that since he had made the victory he should make the peace, and asked for an official from the French Foreign Office who would help him in discussing questions of peace direct with the Germans. When this was refused him he hammered away insistently at the demand for the Rhine as the French frontier. For a time Poincare and Clemenceau were of the same mind, for this had been a French war aim since 1915, but when it became evident that Lloyd George and Wilson would not agree to the creation of a new Alsace-Lorraine grievance, Clemenceau climbed down and accepted instead the temporary occupation of the area and the Security Pact offered by America and Great Britain. When Foch heard of this agreement he was furious, demanded several hear- ings, and even refused to transmit a telegram from Cle- I menceau telling the German delegation that Versailles was ready to receive it. No wonder Wilson exploded with the I remark, “I will not entrust the American Army to a general who does not obey, his Government,” while Bonar Law commented that a British general who acted in that way would not keep his post for five minutes! In the middle of the discussions Foch gave an interview to the London Daily Mail; when called to account by Clemenceau he denied that he was the author of the interview, yet later on he told Recouly that he had given the interview. He and Poincare quietly encouraged the movement for a Rhineland Republic, and on several occasions communed together behind Clemenceau’s back and in opposition to the agreements being reached by the Big Four. It’s a sorry story and doubtless loses nothing in being told by Clemenceau; but Adam’s discussion of the relations between Tiger and Marshal, though more kind to Foch, gives the same general impression of Foch’s queer conception of discipline and the role of the soldier.

But if there is mud on Foch’s tunic, how do Clemenceau’s grey gloves come out of his public laundering of the events of ten years? Not very well, for the rest of the book is a tiresome reiteration of the thesis that everything done and everybody in power since January, 1920, have been bad, weak (if not worse), and that the treaty has thereby been mutilated in shameful fashion. The first mutilation came from the American refusal to sign the treaty and even to consider the Guarantee Pact, and on this whole topic Clemenceau does prompt us to a little soul-searching. Next came the financial mutilations through the scaling down of the reparations payments; after that Locarno; then the apathy of the allies while Germany began to arm again when France was disarming. Then there were muddles concerning the strengthening of the French frontiers, and finally a wave of defeatism which threw away bit by bit the benefits and compensations that victory had won. In short the victors have gone to sleep, have allowed the vanquished to escape just punishment, to begin that furtive or open defiance of the treaty, and to start that preparation for revenge which makes another Franco-German war inevitable as soon as Germany feels strong enough. For of course all this rests on two theses: first, that the treaty was capable of enforcement in its entirety, and, second, that Germany, is still the barbarous nation of disciples of Treitschke and Bernhardi that we said she was during the war, a wild ravenous beast, unchanged, unchangeable, and solely responsible for the war.

To such an attitude one can only ask a few questions. Has Clemenceau read anything on the origin of the war? What would he have done to keep the treaty intact had he remained in power? What could he have done differently I to extract reparations, for instance? Would he have refused to face the economic realities, or gone into the Ruhr, or what? Doesn’t he realise that the treaty has worked fairly well where it was constructive, and broken down only where it tried to impose fantastic punishments or continue into peacetime the enmities of war days? Are not Locarno, the League, the Kellogg Pact, and the other efforts to foster European unity worth making, in place of the fatalistic acceptance of the creed that nothing can be changed either materially or spiritually?

To such questions one will search in vain for answers or clues from Clemenceau’s lips. Instead one gets outbursts that remind one of Carlyle, or which make one feel that the most jingoistic German writers have in Clemenceau their most distinguished disciple. For the rest it is hopeless cynical stuff. Listen! “The great mistake made by the French governments since 1920 is to have dandled our people from concession to concession without making them understand, first of all, that a nation with a past like ours could not accept peace at any price—that is to say at the cost of compromising their honour; secondly, that with neighbours like the Germans this peace could only be ensured by making the necessary sacrifices. Those means are the same since the world began and can be summed up in the words ‘Be strong’ ” (p. 354). Or again, “Peace or war, we are in the midst of a relentless struggle for power. Woe to the weak! Turn your back on the purveyors of soothing syrup!” and on the strains of the “Geneva guitar” twanged by a “maid-of-all-work League of Nations.”

Is that so, wise man of France? Is that all the past of your nation has taught you, a past in which wars mostly of your making since the days of Louis XIV have led mostly to your defeat? You were on the winning side this time, but if France is slipping back into the apathy you deplore you may not be next time, if there is to be a next time—and of that you are sure. And if your creed prevails with that of Treitschke—we’d all forgotten about that old stalking-horse till you dragged him out of his stable again—you will prove a true prophet. But there are other men and other creeds worthy of trial, and they happen to live in many lands. Let’s give them a chance. They may fail us, and we shall then have to hunt for another tiger. But there is another kind of tiger-hunt, from which fortunately you are now safe. Lucky man!


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