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Who Killed Democracy in France?

ISSUE:  Winter 1941

I Saw France Fall: Will She Rise Again? By Rene de Chambrun. New York: William Morrow and Company. $2.50. Tragedie en France. By Andre Maurois. New York: Editions de la Maison Franchise, Inc. $1.50. Tragedy in France. By Andre Maurois. Translated by Denver Lindley. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.00. Sept mysteres du dcstin de I’Europe. By Jules Romains. New York: Editions de la Maison Franchise, Inc. $1.50. Seven Mysteries of Europe. By Jules Romains. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. Europe in the Spring. By Clare Boothe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. Suicide of a Democracy. By Heinz Pol. Translated by Heinz and Ruth Nor-den. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock. $2.50. J’accuse: The Men Who Betrayed France. By Andre” Simone. Introduction by Carleton Beals. New York: The Dial Press. $2.50. France under the Republic: The Development of Modern France (1870-1939). By D. W. Brogan. New York: Harper and Frothers. $5.00. Chronology of Failure: The Last Days of the French Re public. By Hamilton Fish Armstrong. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.50.

Astory is told of the furious irritation of an English lady who encountered an example of what, in so far as generalizations about nations can be valid, is undoubtedly a salient characteristic of the French. The lady was driving her car after dark along the roads of provincial France. She had failed to notice that one of her lights had gone out. As she passed through a village, an officer of the law stopped her. His address to her was substantially this: Madame has manifestly turned off one of her lights in the desire, wholly commendable in principle, of economizing electric current; but unfortunately, in acting thus, Madame has violated police regulations; and duty requires that Madame be apprehended.

Perhaps the favorite generalization of the French about themselves is that they are above all a logical people. However that may be, their ratiocination frequently takes the form which the English lady of the story found so infuriating. The reasoning, that is to say, is eminently valid. The conclusion is a specific observed fact. It is deduced from a general proposition which would adequately explain the fact but which fails to do so simply because it is itself in fact incorrect.

Addiction to this kind of rational procedure is closely connected with certain characteristics which, in so far as a national trait is reflected, are of no little interest and importance. Hypotheses tend seldom to be re-examined. To paraphrase the late Justice Holmes’s “inarticulate major premise,” the tendency is to employ the over-articulate major premise. Expression tends to become an end in itself.

An attitude characterized by an unquestioning assumption of possession of the truth may readily be imagined to be connected closely with the tragic downfall of France. For example, the French army was frequently asserted to be the finest army in the world. The tragedy was that frequent repetition played an important part in causing a major premise to cease to be true in fact. Assumption of superiority resulted in a false sense of security, which proved to be fatal. This attitude, which is a particular aspect of a general trait, has recently come to be called “the Maginot mentality.”

An attitude characterized by addiction to the unexamined hypothesis or the over-articulate major premise may cut in more than one direction. The attitude may not only play its part as a cause of disaster; it may likewise color a point of view towards the disaster which has occurred, and towards the causes of it as well. In this second respect, such accounts of the end of the French Third Republic as take for their starting points certain largely, if not wholly, unexamined assumptions obviously suffer from the same shortcomings as the attitude itself.

If ever an historical event demanded piercing beyond easy generalizations, the downfall of France is such an event. Certainly, if democracy in general and American democracy in particular are to profit from the tragic calamity, help can be expected only from the most penetrating investigations and the most thoroughgoing analysis. For this reason, typical French accounts are, from the nature of the case, scarcely likely to be valuable. At all events, this, it seems not unfair to say, is true of books like Ren6 de Chambrun’s “I Saw France Fall,” Andre Maurois’s “Tragedy in France,” and Jules Romains’s “Seven Mysteries of Europe.” It is also true in large measure of Clare Boothe’s “Europe in the Spring”; for, in that part of the book devoted to France, the principal views of the author clearly are derived from what she was told by a certain kind of Frenchman.

Didactic exposition which, while resting on unsound principles, is carefully elaborated, neatly phrased, clearly expressed, and cogently reasoned, is something with which it is exceedingly difficult to come to grips. Clash of ideas is next to impossible. Almost insuperable difficulty attaches to the effort to single out issues to be joined. Helplessness, like that of the English lady in the story, is likely to lead to the temptation to dismiss the whole business as being simply absurd. If it would be going too far to suggest that the books of Rene de Chambrun, Andre Maurois, Jules Romains, and Clare Boothe are absurd, the serious reader will find their contributions to a fundamental explanation of the downfall of France almost worthless, if not worse. This is not to say that the books are without literary merit. On the contrary, they are, in this respect, for the most part worthy of the several reputations of the individual authors. Moreover, purely descriptive and narrative portions, based on personal experiences of the writers, are full of intrinsic interest. Some passages are genuinely moving. If excursions into the realm of causes presented temptations too strong to be eschewed, it is a pity that this was so.

Rene de Chambrun and Andre Maurois both saw service as officers in the French army in the period just before its disastrous defeat by the Germans. The former, after serving as a line officer in the Maginot Line, was detached and despatched as liaison officer to the British before the full force of the German attack was launched. Andre Maurois was assigned to similar duties soon after the outbreak of war.

He thus returned to the kind of service which, during the Great War, inspired his charming books on Colonel (later General) Bramble. Both these French officers took part in the ill-fated advance into Belgium, and in the retreat that became necessary. Both witnessed the chaotic conditions in which refugees played so tragic a part. Both made narrow escapes to England and ultimately to the United States. Jules Romains’s principal activities were of a confidential diplomatic character. They brought him into contact with some of the principal actors in the European drama. Clare Boothe, early in 1940, took a trip to Europe to “see about the war,” as she says; and she stayed during the months of March, April, and May. Most of her time was spent in France, where a visit to the Maginot Line was arranged for her through the personal intervention of General Gamelin.

Here, then, are four eye-witness accounts. As such, they are historical documents; and as records of personal experiences and impressions, they are stirring human documents. But all four authors explicitly desire to contribute to help America avoid the fate of France; and it is in this that they seem to fall far short of the mark. This is not to say that no value attaches to pointing out that the French did not take the approach of war seriously enough, that the French were the victims of propaganda, that the French found a defensive attitude a bad state of mind in which to fight a modern war, that the French had pitiably too few airplanes, and so on—and that America should avoid these mistakes. What is of the utmost importance for Americans to understand and what is exceedingly difficult for the mass of decent Americans to believe is the astounding fact that certain respectable, influential, and materially powerful persons in France preferred to see their country conquered and ruled by Hitler rather than governed under a system of political democracy. The full and many-sided significance of that shameful fact is what should be explained to Americans as forcefully and as repeatedly as possible. The four writers under discussion give no help in this. At most there is cursory reference to political dissension, which of course exists in all free countries. There is, for the greater part, no hint of the acceptance of Fascism by powerful minorities. There are a few anti-Communist statements; there may be a passing rebuke for sit-down strikes; there is repetition of the demonstrably false account that has come to be widely accepted of the effects of the forty-hour week on production; but no mention is made of the de Wandels, of the Bank of France, of clericalism, of the Croix de Feu, of the Cagou-lards, or of many other topics of the highest moment. There is even praise of Bonnet by Jules Romains, who is his personal friend, and of Laval by Rene de Chambrun, who is his son-in-law I

The reader who turns to Heinz Pol’s “Suicide of a Democracy,” which has a strong claim to being considered the best book which has yet appeared concerning the French disaster, might well wonder whether he is not hearing of an entirely different set of circumstances. The manifold activities of powerful anti-democratic elements, far from being ignored or passed lightly by in this account, are brought forward into their true perspective as fundamental causes of profound disunity. Pol, a German refugee who has lived much in France, manifestly possesses a profound understanding of modern France which he must have gained because he refused to accept without examination all the conventional accounts he encountered, and therefore pushed his investigations to the cultural, political, and economic roots of the country.

Only the outstanding distinction of Pol’s book causes “J’accuse,” by a writer employing as a pseudonym Andre Simone, to suffer by comparison. Simone, manifestly a newspaper man of leftist sympathies, not only displays, as is natural, an intimate acquaintance with French politics; he gives evidence of possessing genuine insight. At all events, though a Frenchman, he avoids unexamined and over-articulate major premises—possibly because he has written in a “white heat of anger.”

Even such penetrating contemporary accounts of the French disaster as those of Pol and Simone cannot be expected to bring genuine understanding of the present fate of France, It is not mere antiquarianism to suggest that full understanding can result only from some knowledge of French history, of history since the French Revolution, and more especially, of the history of the Third Republic. For example, as Andre Siegfried some years ago explained to us, acceptance of the French Revolution is “the essential line of demarcation” between Right and Left in France. Thus, when Catholic reactionaries “rallied” to the Third Republic in the 1890’s, Leon Bourgeois put to them the famous question: “You have accepted the Republic; do you accept the Revolution?” The stubborn and persistent refusal of the Right to accept republicanism and political democracy, an irreconcilability which manifested itself in the traitorous activities of Fascist elements with high connections in the years preceding the collapse of France, should be placed in the perspective of the whole life of the Third Republic. This duty has now become a unique privilege as well, for the best work in any language on the Third Republic has recently appeared. It is D. W. Brogan’s “France under the Republic.” This solid, seven-hundred-page book represents British scholarship at its highest and best. It displays an intimate knowledge of France and an impartial sympathy concerning even the most bitterly controversial issues that render the writing of such a book little short of a miracle. It is a fortunate reader who has yet to read it for the first time.

The account in Brogan’s book comes down only to 1939. The record of subsequent events, which ought frequently to be reviewed for purposes of perspective, is carefully but dramatically set out by Hamilton Fish Armstrong in his “Chronology of Failure.” It is an absorbing day-by-day account of “The Last Days of the French Republic,” to which are added two short chapters of distinguished commentary—one which succinctly but penetratingly suggests the principal reasons why France fell, and one which even more briefly points out “the lessons for us.”

Friends of democracy, in reflecting on the defeat of France, ought not to forget that unsuccessful military resistance is not a necessarily accurate measure of the vitality of democracy or of any one of its political regimes. The resistance of Britain will be just cause of admiration throughout the ages; and yet we can now see that if Britain had been quickly defeated, as she well might have been under slightly different material conditions, this would not have proved anything derogatory of the British people or of English parliamentary democracy, The tragedy of France is not so much that she fell as how she fell. Such power as is now possessed in that unhappy country other than by the Germans is possessed by men or by the agents of men who, in refusing to accept the French Revolution, have refused to accept the democratic Republic; by men who had no scruples about aiding the forces of evil against their own country, and who have accepted and are employing the support of a victorious enemy in order to further their own interests and to do away with their country’s democracy through the establishment of undemocratic institutions modeled on those of their conquerors. These are the Men of Vichy. Justice seems less to call for blame of the friends of democracy in France, however inept, than to cry out for righteous indignation, in times when this moral virtue tends to become old-fashioned, at the shameless attitude displayed by the enemies of democracy.


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