France between the wars

I can remember Britain in the 1950s, or at least the parts of it that I knew. I can wind the tape forward until now, and – for all the things that are different – I can see the similarities too. Less easily, I can do the same thing with France, first visited in 1959.  

But the tapes will wind back only as far as my earliest memories. I cannot wind them to the 1930s, say. A difference of only 20 years, but they contained the war, and I cannot be sure how great or how small the changes in those two decades may have been. So I have to rely on books and, for this piece, on a magnificent book by Eugen Weber called The Hollow Years.

This is the first of four blogs that, in the countdown to Brexit, will attempt to piece together the mosaic of European history over the last century, and to examine how we have reached the present. The first two blogs deal with France, because I know it better than any country apart from my own. An equivalent story, although by no means the same, could be told for each western European country.

Superficially there were similarities between Britain and France between the wars: a reluctance to face the reality of Hitler; widespread pacifist sentiment; a failure to rearm in time; a pervasive sense of ennui and decline. Yet there were vast differences too, both physical and psychological. Britain was recognisably a modern nation, not in eager embrace of the future like America, but at least contemporary in outlook. France was not.

The inter-war years were a time of mass movements, of the agglomeration of people and ideals. Germany offered the mass fantasy of fascism. Russia offered the mass illusion of communism. America offered mass production and mass consumption. All three models of the future were on offer to France. All three found some takers, especially communism. But in the end France didn’t want any of them. She wanted life on a small scale. She wanted life on a human scale. She wanted life as it was.

France scorned the industrial techniques that would make production efficient and prices cheaper. They were very un-French. When French department stores saw the success of American discount stores and copied them, they were an overnight success. The Chamber of Deputies voted their abolition. France was not even a single market. Each municipality funded itself through tolls on goods that passed through its boundaries. There were customs gates at the entrance to each town.

Les grands écoles taught facts by rote, and they taught theories. The practical application of economics was not taught, nor of engineering. In the 1937 army allocations, the budget for horse fodder was four times greater than the budget for petrol. In 1939, the General Staff had no radio transmitters. (They were belatedly introduced. Some attributed the 1940 defeat to the substitution of electronic communications for carrier pigeons.)

In 1930, parades and demonstrations of the German right were suppressed in newsreels shown in French movie houses. The French translation of Mein Kampf was ordered to be destroyed by a Paris court, so no one could read it. Modern psychology knocked at the door but was not admitted. The President of the French Psychoanalytical Society declared that psychoanalysis was not yet adapted to the exploration of the French mind. In the arts, it seemed appropriate that surrealism should have dominated the 1930s.

Still, there was always alcohol to preserve the illusion. In France there was one drinking establishment per 81 men (in Britain, per 425). Nearly half of all Frenchmen drank more than a litre of wine daily. The average adult consumption was 250 litres of wine a year. Beer and spirits were on top.

And then there was the pacifism.

We have a partial view of war in Britain. Our last home match against foreign opposition was in 1066. Since then, despite an extensive fixture list, we have stuck to away games. To us, war does not mean building a defensive line across the Weald, mounting the defence of Tunbridge Wells, or fighting a rear-guard action towards Orpington. It means going to someone else’s country and fighting there.

It means the same to Americans; that is perhaps why we so often agree with them about wars and disagree with other European nations. When the Oxford Union passed its motion in 1933 not to fight for king and country, the undergraduates were declining to return to Flanders to be butchered. They would not have declined to pick up arms had they found General Guderian advancing up the A40. That thought would probably not have occurred to them.

France did not have the luxury of that distinction. The threat of aggression from another country meant the threat of war on her own soil, or at the very least on her own borders. And because war meant such different things to the two countries, so did peace and pacifism. In Britain, pacifism meant a refusal to fight someone else. In France, it came to mean a reluctance to defend oneself.

Here are some contemporary French expressions of that: ‘I prefer being a living German to being a dead Frenchman.’ ‘A defeat without war is preferable to a victorious war.’ ‘Rather servitude than war.’ ‘War in Europe is certain disaster. German hegemony may not be one.’ A Jewish Radical declared her preference for German domination rather than war even if it should mean ‘certain laws of exclusion against communists and Jews’.

Communists were naturally opposed to a war, a capitalist war as they saw it, when the real conflict was the class war. The Nazi-Soviet pact was later to give most of them a convenient reason to sustain this view. But the right was equally opposed: it admired Hitler; why fight him when communism was the real enemy? The extremes would cheerfully have fought each other (and at times did), but neither wanted to fight Hitler. The overwhelming mass of Frenchmen and women did not want to fight anyone.

There was a fatigue in the country, surely attributable to the siege of Verdun, more than to any other single event. Many, if not most, young Frenchmen served at Verdun. When the war ended, there was no town, no community in the country which did not bear its scars. Look at the war memorials today. A French officer wrote in 1916: ‘This war has marked us for generations. It has left its imprint upon our souls. All those inflamed nights of Verdun we shall rediscover one day in the eyes of our children.’

The French army was not defeated by the Germans in 1940; it was routed. There were tales of heroism, but they were few. Officers deserted their men and fled. Men threatened to shoot their officers if they fought. At Vierzon, an officer who tried to defend the town was killed by its citizens, who wished to prevent its destruction. When the French army abandoned Paris to the Nazis, the physical and moral capitulation of France was complete.

It was time to turn to France’s one authentic national hero. It was time for Philippe Pétain. He was 84 years old.