Backing into world war

The Hollow Years
September 22, 1995

In a lengthy implicit comparison of Athens (Germany) with Sparta (France), which he first subverts by melding Sparta/ Athens as France and finally deserts, Eugen Weber gives a clue to his long perspective and his readiness to venture on to often shaky limbs. If, as he truistically asserts, "people seldom learn from history", what is the point of history books? To entertain? To illuminate the past suggestively (as Simon Schama tries) more by the methods of fictional narrative? Yet Weber quotes chapter and verse; his book is a cento. The most literate of historians, his knowledge of French culture (films, literature, but also sports and fashions) fills out the drier economic stretches.

"In rueful retrospect, the 1920s were l'apres-guerre, lively and optimistic. The 1930s are distinctly l'avant-guerre, increasingly morose and ill at ease." Weber would like to promote an existentialist view of humankind as active subjects. "Actors who write and rewrite the script while moving from one decision to the next, or failing to decide, resign the script to others." It is the second eventuality that predominates in his record.

His style is animatedly cliched. "Some friction between socioeconomic groups is (like this sentence) commonplace." The odd mixed metaphor varies the tone (re the stock market: "The bears growled that horns should be drawn in, belts tightened"). He has, however, a knack for convincing apothegms: "France was not an underdeveloped country, but a developed one in an advanced state of decay." He works to balance public and private factors, material and less tangible ones. Not only mentalites but also, to truly coin a phrase, corporealites. Presenting telling demographic figures for the French dead in the 1914-18 war, and making an educated guess at the never conceived, Weber focuses on the baby slump as the source of many of the nation's problems; in 1935-39, more deaths than births. The large number of veterans, many mutilated, and the still devastated war areas help to explain the continuous trauma of the war.

Governments welshed on the value of bonds. When not actually corrupt, French bureaucracy was often anachronistic, for example continuing in some areas to refer to "la taille", the poll tax abolished with the ancien regime. "Not enterprise but restriction was the answer to economic problems. The spirit of Thomas Malthus ruled over the land." The French, at every social level, sound generally so thoroughly charmless (personal hygiene being only the most pungent of their failings) that we might wonder why Weber has spent much of his life devotedly chronicling their affairs.

Is history heartening or depressing when it keeps reminding us, as Weber does here, that people have seen, done, thought and felt it all before? In the 1930s, French parents fretted over the bad effect of films on children, and US films on the economy ("Hollywood Vampire"), the same old microbe in the body domestic. Yet internal foes such as alcoholism were favoured, so that surplus wine was offered to the Salvation Army. The condition of women (contraception, abortion, suffrage) made pitifully snail-like progress; and neither the Communist Party nor the Popular Front made serious efforts to promote equality. Immigrants (France topped world tables in the 1930s) were damned if they assimilated, damned if they did not. Dichotomies reigned. In Caen, "Right and Left even frequented different brothels." Despite appearances (competing fascistic gangs), however, fascism never got a strong foothold in France. "Soldiers who would not march in step for national parades were just as reluctant do it in a league."

Weber's refrain is the French voters' contempt for their elected representatives; for (if you were not a recipient) government patronage; or for the largely venal press and the feeble radio. He notes the very tentative turn away in French schools from instruction to education. Even so, the learned ignorance of so many French decision-makers had been taught in those schools. "Economists, like philosophers, were strong on principles, ignorant of process, weak on practice." The church suffered comparable confusions and internecine strife to any other sector of society, though the 1930s did see the start at least of the worker-priest movement.

Just before 1939, officer cadets were still wearing spurs. Weber is excellent on the war psychosis, paralysing in its effect, the defeatism that scooped defeat. Unafraid to pass judgement on his beloved France, Weber wittily remarks that flogged dead horses there have "a way of remaining very much alive''. In spite of tank superiority, the French army, and much of the population, backed into the 1939 war.

Walter Redfern is professor of French, University of Reading.

The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s

Author - Eugen Weber
ISBN - 1 85619 564 3
Publisher - Sinclair-Stevens
Price - £20.00
Pages - 352

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