Fear, loathing and other Gallic symbols

Godfrey Hodgson notes joie de vivre was lacking well before the jackboot
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The Independent Culture
The Hollow Years

France in the 1930s

by Eugen Weber

Sinclair Stevenson, pounds 20

Once upon a time, there was a middle-sized European country which had seen better times, whose citizens harked back to past glories and looked to the future with vague dread.

Much seemed to them to have gone wrong. Their industry was falling behind its competitors. Their education seemed obsolete. The financial world, politics, even the Church, were riddled with scandal. Much of the theatre consisted of angry commentary on current themes. The film industry worried about American domination. People blamed the rich, the politicians, foreigners, immigrants - anyone but themselves - for their troubles.

While an innovation, a national lottery, was a popular success, public finance was a shambles. Some of the most admired political thinkers had become negative towards government. What counted in life, for many, perhaps for most, was private. Politics ought to be about protecting the private sphere against the assaults of the State, and especially against its regulations and taxes.

The problems of the nation might have looked clearer if the nation had been more clearly united. Divisions between capital and provinces, town and country, right and left, young and old, and above all between classes, paralysed society, making the healing of the public sphere all but impossible, and driving individuals into isolation, impotence and often despair.

The nation, of course, was France in the 1930s, and virtually every word in the above four paragraphs is a quotation either from Eugen Weber's fine new book on that depressing decade, or from one of the sources he cites in it. Weber, who became known as one of the foremost historians of modern France with his Peasants Into Frenchmen, writes crisply, at times epigrammatically, and is fair-minded, often surprising the reader by putting in evidence that tends to militate against his thesis. His knowledge is encyclopaedic, and he uses a rich palette of sources.

The picture he paints of France in the 1930s is black. France had not begun to recover from the first war. The French dead numbered 1.4 million. Another million were seriously maimed, three million were wounded, and at least another 1.4 million who would otherwise have been born never lived.

The country as Weber describes it was older, more exhausted, demoralised and in some respects decadent. The dead left a gap which was largely filled by immigration. In 1900, there were about a million foreigners in France; by 1931, there were well over three million. France had become the world's leading host of immigrants, passing the US. In Paris, a quarter of those arrested by the police were foreigners, as were many of the most talented and successful. The resulting wave of xenophobia was ugly and stupid, but hardly surprising. In 1900, moreover, there were fewer than 90,000 Jews in France. By 1940, there were about 300,000. That led to a revival of the anti-Semitism partly driven underground by the Dreyfus affair. When the Nazis marched in, plenty of French men and women applauded and took part in the persecution of the Jews.

I have two reservations about the blackness of the picture Weber paints. France fell low in the 1930s, lower in the "strange defeat" of 1940, and lowest in the collaboration, the militia, the deportations of 1942-45. But another France resisted heroically. The vigour and moral energy with which that other France rebuilt after 1944 leaves a suggestion that Weber has drawn his evidence from only one of the two nations into which France was divided in the 1930s.

The second reservation is inspired by comparison not with another time, but with other places. French society was unhappy, unjust and divided in the 1930s. But so were most other societies under the combined impact of war and the Great Depression. Where were things better? In Russia? In Germany? In Italy? In Britain? In the US? French society failed to defend itself in 1940, but it was the victim of a murderous, unjustified assault. One does not usually visit contempt on the victims of muggings, and Weber's tone sometimes verges on contempt.