Eugen Weber's new book, "The Hollow Years," is a pitiless account of France in the 1930s, a decade that, if it is anything but glorious, has nevertheless something inescapably fascinating about it. It offers a painful case study of a society bringing itself almost willingly under a spell. But, however depressing, this story suggests that in France even the most Dostoevskyan tragedies can be made into farcical Offenbachian operettas.
The only redeeming episode in these "Hollow Years," for example, is the Popular Front government's implementation of paid vacations. (The government's only successful division, Weber claims, was "Le Ministere des Loisirs," an expression which, with a particularly American condescension--Weber is Romanian--he translates as the Ministry of Idleness.)
That was in 1936. The French would have fared far better had they spent time thinking about Hitler and Nazi expansionism rather than about holidays. Roger Caillois, a young sociologist at the time, was struck by the lethal untimeliness of such a concern. In one of the lectures he gave at the College of Sociology, he wondered what could be happening to a civilization whose bottom line, even on the eve of war in 1939, was a refusal to mandate an expansion of working hours in plants that were involved in the national defense. (By the way, the word vacation comes, as one knows, from vacuum : it refers to a kind of hollow time, a time of committed demobilization.)
True, glory and great leaders are no longer the stuff of historians. Following the trend initiated in the '30s by the Annales school, to which Eugene Weber pays due homage, historical narration emphasizes contexts, replacing individuals with common men, events with daily life, proper names with statistics. However, the absence of great men in "The Hollow Years" is not merely the result of a methodological choice. Did France suffer from having no Hitler, no Lenin or Stalin, no F.D.R., not even a Mussolini or a Franco? She clearly, at times, felt that way. The title of Weber's book refers, among others, to a dramatic emptiness of the seats of power.
It also refers to other vacant zones. 140,000 soldiers had died, leaving an equal number of empty (or half-empty) beds. France had broken the world record in widows. Moreover, the war effort had been fed by foreign (mostly American) loans whose repayment would mortgage the coming decades, adding a financial vacuum to the demographic one. France thus became dependent on America for money, and on immigration for manpower. Having been fought, mostly, on French territory, war also caused immense civil destruction. France was exhausted by a victory that was beyond her means. Hence the impatience of the annees folles (crazy years): no sooner was the Versailles treaty drafted, than the French rushed to celebrate the end of war, not waiting to hear that an accounting error had been made. They never totally believed in their victory--and they were right not to. The years that were to end with a phony war started with a phony peace.
In a deeper sense, hollowness refers to a lack of direction, a sense of purposelessness. Psychiatrists describe moments where one loses a sense of time. The past, it seems, is still to come, while the future has the discouraging flavor of deja vu. So, while the reader of "The Hollow Years" is offered a picturesque mix of anecdotes and statistics, one senses, crawling, looming behind, the menacing presence of war. It is everywhere, like the figure in the carpet. But is it behind or in front? More and more, that became the French people's question. They didn't know which way things were moving. Were they moving away from or ahead, toward war? Was war receding or approaching? No wonder so many artists of the time were inspired by the theme of the labyrinth, and the legendary figures associated with it, Theseus and the Minotaur.
This feeling of a lack of direction was reflected in the way they named their time. For what followed war was not peace but post-war, l'apres-guerre, which lasted 10 years. And, when the decade closed, 1930 was celebrated as the end of the postwar, "la fin de l'apres-guerre." After war and postwar thus came post-postwar, which, typically, was a way of saying war without saying it. Some French people might still have thought that they had won the war, none would claim they had won the peace. In fact, by the mid-30s, almost everyone had discovered the period's real name, entre-deux-guerres. Like a river in the desert's sands, war had gone underground. The hollow years were just a creepy intermission.
Eugen Weber draws a parallel between the events of 1939 and those of 1870, an analogy that allows him to use Emile Zola's novel about the Franco-Prussian war, "La Debacle," as a refrain in his story of the Third Republic's twilight. But the gay Paris of the Second Empire was not obsessed by the war that was to put an end to it. Offenbach did not write, as did a famous employee of the French Foreign Ministry, Jean Giraudoux, "The Trojan War Will Not Take Place." "The Hollow Years" is thus a study of "mentality" that brings to the fore the paradoxical coexistence in French minds of two statements that should have excluded each other: War is unavoidable (especially after Hitler's rise to power); there will always be a way to avoid it. Convinced as the French were (and justly so, but who cared?) that they deserved peace, they were committed to pretending that what they knew was not true.
No wonder Sartre was, at this point, constructing his concept of bad faith. How did they accommodate these two propositions? During the decade, France's mass psychology rested on an acrobatic system of self-delusion. The concluding chapter of "The Hollow Years" is entitled "The War Nobody Wanted." There is something miraculous in the way the French managed to keep believing until the very last moment that, indeed, nobody, Hitler included, wanted war. For the death instinct can manifest itself equally through war and through a refusal of war. In any case, and this is Weber's point, it is not enough not to want war for it not to occur. Even worse, pacifism is a clear invitation to war when your next-door neighbor is anything but pacifist himself.
Among the misperceptions generated by this desperate longing for peace, the most spectacular is probably the denial of Nazi aggressiveness. The success of Erich Maria Remarque's pacifist novel "All Quiet on the Western Front," one of the best sellers of the time, was a reassuring screen that allowed its readers to ignore a rather different sort of German voice: "Mein Kampf." With the Munich crisis, wishful thinking reached a hallucinatory level. The novelist Jean Giono, for example a militant pacifist, claimed that Hitler had renounced attacking Czechoslovakia not because of the military power of the democracies (a point nobody would hesitate to grant), but because of the street demonstrations staged at home by German peace-loving people singing "La Marseillaise." Alexandre Kojeve, soon to be a major player in shaping European policies, claimed that, thanks to the Munich deal, Europe had settled down, once and for all, for an eternal peace.
As for Robert Aron, the ideologue of L'ordre nouveau , the events reinforced his assuaging Hitler. They should bend over backward, Aron argued, to convince Hitler that he is wrong to be afraid of them, sending the clearest possible message that they in no way constitute a threat for him. Aron also opposed those who justified France's humiliation at Munich on the basis that it had prevented a war. No, he replied, it didn't prevent anything. Munich was a war, but wars today are won without being fought. War has entered the world of the immaterial, of the conceptual. Such delusions were feeding on the deep consensus that no war was worth fighting, and especially not the one that was waiting at the gate.
A common explanation of the tragic hollowness of French politics during the decade is France's two conflicting policies vis-a-vis Germany and war reparations, that of Poincare, intransigently nationalist, punishing, and definitively past-oriented, and that of Briand, more European, constructive, and future-oriented. Eugen Weber's picture suggests that the real number was not two but zero. The French political project of the decade seems to have been a systematic and radical vacating of the seat of decision. The slightest mark of authority in a government, immediately denounced as fascism, resulted in an automatic fall.
This perverse and collective fascination with political impotence allows Weber to condemn. Between heroism and laziness, the difference is sometimes minimal. For history is not fate: Men and women are not objects, they are responsible subjects. "The Hollow Years" is an indictment of a society that let history be imposed on it as a fate.