Tuesday, December 8, 2009

French Pacifism and German National Socialism

A significant number of Germans believed they had not lost the First World War.  France on the other hand never believed they had won. Oh yes, they recognized that technically they were on the winning side, but they had a greater percentage of casualties than any other participant.
Whenever I think about French pacifism prior to World War Two, I think surely they must have learned from that dreadful mistake, but have they truly?  Many of them may even after the war have thought they made the right choice by capitulating to the Germans – better fascistic than dead, but by then they were keeping that opinion to themselves.
Eugen WeberThe Hollow Years, France in the 1930s describes their pacifism:  “As War Minister Andre Maginot told the U.S. Ambassador, the French had a horror of war: ‘There is probably no other nation in Europe that [is] less warlike.’  Events would show that Maginot spoke true . . .
“. . . Annie Kriegel has attributed the indecisiveness and apparent spinelessness of her compatriots to ‘a sort of national exhaustion’: no time to recover from the trauma of 1914-1918.  After exhaustive study of anciens combattants Antoine Prost agrees.  Among the veterans he writes, ‘the war had left a great weariness, an immense lassitude.  They have been worn down,’  Contemporary evidence bears them out.  Gaston Cusin, a student doing his military service as an officer in the 1920s, remembers only veterans ‘who were tired and wanted only to relax and rest.’  Edouard Herriot, then prime minister, drew the evident conclusion: ‘A country like ours can’t always be asked to stretch its will to the point where . . . it might break. . . .  It needs a rest.’ . . . The recent sacrifice of 1,400,000 men, remembered, made all hearts waver.
“Perhaps not all.  Nor would anyone claim that all had lost their spirit.  But enough.  There were patriots in France, and they were many, but somehow patriotism was dead.  Its demise was not immediately evident, but it had died in the trenches , on the Marne, at Verdun.  Patriotism now spoke of pacifism, expressed reluctance to fight – first for others, then for France as well . . .”
“. . . The word pacifism and its derivative pacifist had been invented in the 1890s by a Frenchman, then officially adopted by the Universal Peace Congress held in Glasgow in 1901.  The notion that abolition of war is not just desirable but possible had not filtered far beyond the organized Left until the years following 1914.  But slaughter and suffering persuaded many that anything would be better than the bloodletting they had witnessed. . . .”
“. . . Abellio – born in 1907 and thus too young for the First War – remembers that ‘the war, its massacres, its scandals, had ruined a certain sentimental idea of the fatherland.  No one today can realize the virulence of our hatreds and our rejections; we looked on patriotism as absolute evil.”
“. . . Peace had to be kept at any price, even at the price of apparent cowardice.” 
“. . . Roger Martin du Gard . . . the novelist, writing to a friend: ‘Anything rather than war!  Anything! . . . even Fascism in Spain . . . even Fascism in France: Nothing, no trial, no servitude can be compared to war: Anything, Hitler rather than war!’  And then, in 1937 [Martin du Gard] won the Nobel Prize for Literature.”
COMMENT:  Pacifism is an unnatural passion – akin to cowardice.  In anthropological terms it would not for most tribes be an effective “survival strategy.”  Young men always have to be willing to defend the tribe, that is always until we enabled or permitted or allowed pacifism to be taught:  “Who says you have to defend the tribe,” they ask?  “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.”  Yes, we discovered, it is possible to produce a generation of young men unwilling to defend their tribe.  And in France’s case that may have been a good survival strategy.  It wouldn’t have been good for Russia, but the French, many of them, believed they understood the Germans, and believed they’d be okay. The French, many of them, believed that “Hitler rather than war,” would not mean their destruction.   Oh some would be killed, the Jews and the Communists but ordinary Frenchmen would survive.
            But did they?  The French were thoroughly bewildered by the end of World War II.  Many treated the victorious British and Americans as mere replacements for the Germans – new “occupiers.”   There was a price paid for their pacifism and cowardice.  If they weren’t willing to defend their tribe, then what good were they? 
            Humanists might argue that we have no essence and that we can choose to behave pacifistically and cowardly if we like, but is that true?  Heidegger would say that to be authentic we have to relate properly to our traditions.  The tradition of the French is not one of cowardice and pacifism.  Throughout the Middle Ages the Franks were known as the most courageous and warlike of the European Tribes.  One of the Popes took the occasion of a crusade to send the trouble-making Franks off to cause trouble elsewhere.  And of course during the time of Napoleon, the French were surely the most warlike people in Europe.  So is it really sufficient to raise up a generation to hate war?  Is that all it takes to turn a warlike people into a nation of pacifists?  The evidence of what became of the French during the Vichy period and shortly thereafter wouldn’t support that view. 
Collaborators were punished, that is, the most egregious of them were.  And while there was no program to root out all the collaborators, no one was congratulating himself or his fellow Frenchmen for having saved themselves by a clever capitulation to and later collaboration with Fascist Germany.  They went into World War II convinced pacifists, but came out ashamed of themselves.  Or if not overtly ashamed then hiding it in some way -- false claims of having helped the French Resistance, for example. 
Heidegger said something along the lines of “whenever the French do philosophy, they think in German.”  When he thought of Germany being the spiritual leader of Europe, he thought Germany was the more spiritually and culturally advanced than any other European nation.  While France was not as sophisticated philosophically, at least they knew the right direction to look.  France would look to Germany and other nations, many former members of the Holy Roman Empire would as well.  France would have been perfectly safe if Heidegger had been allowed to run German National Socialism – and even without Heidegger, they came off better than many other nations, until the end when the British and the Americans bombed the heck out of them.

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