Between the Wars

‘The Embrace of Unreason’: How France Lost It All Between the Wars

A victor splintered and embittered, careening into the Third Reich. In The Embrace of Unreason, Frederick Brown weaves a warning for America from the story of the divided French.

It is hard to predict how much attention will be paid to the fact that this year will be the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. No event has ever shaken the world more severely, or had such far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. Indeed, we still live in its gigantic shadow, wrestling with problems that were left unsolved and are still not answered today, among them the tangled ethnic and religious hatreds in the Balkans and the failure to deal with the Ottoman Empire’s possessions in the Middle East in a way that satisfied either their inhabitants or the “great powers.”

I am particularly susceptible to accounts of that war and its consequences, perhaps because my father and my Uncle Zoltan fought in it, in the Austro-Hungarian Army, while my maternal grandfather fought on the other side, in the British Army. When my elders mentioned “The War,” they invariably meant that of 1914-1918, even after 1939, for the Second World War was merely the continuation of the first, “an armistice of 20 years,” as Marshal Foch had accurately predicted at the Versailles Peace Conference, with some changes of side.

No country on the Allied side—except Russia, which plunged into revolution, civil war, and enforced isolation in the wake of its astronomical losses in battle—suffered more than France, which had almost 1.4 million battlefield deaths between 1914 and 1918 in a nation of 40 million people. In 1918, Germany suffered the ghastly consequences of defeat; France suffered those of victory, the price of which was to divide and embitter French politics and culture, and lead to its defeat in 1940.

It is that phenomenon that Frederick Brown explores in his brilliant new book, The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940. France had already been the victim of cultural clashes prior to the war that polarized the country as sharply as did our own civil war—between left and right, monarchists (both those who yearned for the ancienne régime and those who favored the Bonapartists), between those who believed in the innocence of Captain Dreyfus and those who believed in his guilt, between Catholics and non-believers, between those who wanted a bigger French army with which to confront Germany and those who feared the French army as a reactionary force in French politics, between Boulangists and anti-Boulangists…

France was in fact not so much divided as shattered, splintered, into warring groups. The devastating cost, destruction, and bloodletting of World War I plunged it into two decades of political bickering, cultural revolution, and social chaos that was at once creative—the whole structure of modernism in the arts emerged from it—and destructive, since it produced a country that had by and large lost its confidence in itself as a great power. It was badly divided as it faced the growing reality of a brutal, hostile, and evil Nazi government on the other side of the Rhine, one determined to reverse the outcome of World War I, and led by a man whose policy he himself described best as Weltmacht oder Niedergang, “world power or total destruction.” The French, with a few exceptions, among them Charles de Gaulle, no longer had aspirations to world power, and were united in their unwillingness to face total destruction. For France, despite everything, remained “douce France,” in the words of Charles Trenet’s song. Paris was the world’s capital, France the source of everything the world desired: food, fashion, wine, glamour, artistic achievement, a way of life that was envied throughout the world. The notion of destroying it was unthinkable.

The first thing anybody must do who sets out to read Frederick Brown’s splendid book is to sweep from his or her mind the mean-spirited opinion of France that has crept into American culture and politics, a contagion which is shared with the United Kingdom, and comes mostly from a blend of envy and a resentment against the intellectual arrogance, self-righteousness, and fiercely independent mind-set of the French themselves. The French consider themselves the guardians of the world’s culture, and do not bother to hide the fact, which is annoying, but Paris is still where good Americans want to go when they die—and Brits, Russians, and Chinese as well, these days. Frenchwomen may not be more beautiful than women elsewhere, but they are almost invariably better dressed and more graceful; Frenchmen may be enraging, but they have good manners; French food may be beating a strategic retreat before Chinese and Asian food, but you can still eat better in France than anywhere else, and drink better wine, and enjoy a society in which pleasure does not produce guilt or apologies, and never has. There are no French Puritans. General de Gaulle himself complained that it was impossible to govern a country that has “246 different kinds of cheese,” but he did not propose to reduce their number.

It is against this background, which was even truer between the wars than it is now, that Brown describes the political and artistic ferment of France. The first part of the book describes the coming of war and its grim reality with an élan I have not read since Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, although he is more interested in culture than in tactics. It is impossible not to be moved to tears by the step-by-step progression of European statesmen toward a war the dimensions and length of which they cannot imagine, and Brown does this well. His method, throughout the book, is biographical, not historical.

His first chapter, on the coming of war, centers on Jean Jaurès, the French left-wing politician whose murder on the eve of war set the tone for the “unreason” that was to engulf France. His second and third form a marvelous account of Maurice Barrès and the doomed General Boulanger, the original “man on the white horse,” which brilliantly describes the French right before and during the war; the fourth is the story—and a fascinating way of looking at the French cultural wars—of the dispute over the ownership of the martyred Joan of Arc and whether she belonged, as it were, to the state or the church.

One by one he deals with each of the major figures who dominated French political thinking up to and during the war, and weaves together a brilliant combination of people and events, showing how the difference between those who celebrated the French Revolution of 1789 and those who regretted it, undermining in a hundred different ways the cohesion of French society, continued even under the extreme circumstances of war, diminished by exhaustion and death on a huge scale, only to reignite, more fiercely than ever, after the war was won.

The second part of his book is better yet—the period of Dada, the Surrealists, of the Front Populaire and the Stavisky Affair, the years when France, at the summit of its appeal to foreigners and still basking in the glory of victory, carried its extremes in culture and politics to the breaking point, ending in the final, ignominious rise to symbolic power of the aged and senile victor of Verdun, Marshal Petain, behind whom a tattered legion of right-wingers, anti-Dreyfusists and monarchists attempted to form a government dedicated to their view of France, under the protection of the victorious Third Reich.

This is terrific history—Brown is an incisive biographer, very good on politics, still better on culture, and anybody who is interested in France, or finds its politics difficult to understand, should read this book. What’s more, he is a good storyteller, and each piece of the book is woven subtly into the whole: “Tout comprendre, cest tout pardoner,” might be his motto. The idiosyncrasies of the French make sense, in Brown’s hands, as he shows how the cultural divides animated, embittered, and in the end weakened France, without, however, ever endangering French belief in their own superiority. It remains the country where arguments are pursued for the pleasure of arguing, where intellectual elitism is respected (and rewarded), and where extreme opinions are treated with a shrug of the shoulders, provided they are well expressed.

It is a very good book to read in the year that commemorates the 100th anniversary of “the war to end wars,” and when our own country is stumbling on in the path once taken by the French—snarling and snarled politics, a disinclination to play the role of a great power, with a vocal minority that wants to go backward instead of forward, and could argue passionately in favor of the Earth being flat if given a chance. If nothing else were to recommend it, The Embrace of Unreason would be a good book to read for an example of how quickly a great (and victorious) power can be reduced to marginal status by its refusal to face reality. At once social history, cultural history, and a series of biographical sketches, Frederick Brown’s book is both illuminating and a warning, and explains more about modern France and how it was formed than any other book of its short length and enviable readability.