The Price of Defeat
WHAT does it mean to be a Frenchman? Up to less than a year ago, I should not have thought of asking myself that question any more than why I had been born with two arms and two legs.
I had been born in France, educated in France. I had lived there most of my life. I had traveled about and knew the physical aspect of my country well. I liked the diversity of France, its various provinces and its changing climate. Whenever I came back after a trip abroad, I was overcome by a sense of recognition: the air, the light, the fields, the trees, the cities and villages, gave me the same impression of intimate familiarity as looking at my own face in a mirror. I did not say to myself, ‘This is France and I am French,’ because one does not formulate the obvious. But somehow or other the mere sight of a church spire, or a road bordered with poplars, the taste of bread, the infinite complexity of familiar perceptions, reasserted the subconscious ties that, since birth, had identified me with this particular spot on the planet.
I knew the French, too, those living at the same moment as myself and the uncountable millions who, through the ages, had lived and suffered and worked and died to make us what we were: a people that had done great things, produced great men, and could still do great things and take credit for its share in the making of civilization.
I knew our faults, too, and could be annoyed by them. I liked to read Stendhal, who sincerely thought he disliked the French because he said they were ‘vain and vivacious’ — he who was himself supremely vivacious and vain.
I do not know whether I was patriotic. I do not even know whether I was a ‘good Frenchman.’ I had never asked myself those questions. During the first thirty years of my life I was more interested in literature, music, and art than in politics. But when politics — in the broadest sense of the term — became my main preoccupation, as it is that of most men now, it did not occur to me that those who had opinions different from my own were less ‘good Frenchmen’ than those who thought the way I did. It always seemed to me that one of the greatest advantages of being French was precisely the freedom to disagree with others.
Altogether, and as far as I can remember what I felt on such a subject only a few months ago, I had never experienced any conflict between the consciousness of my own existence as a human being and the accidental fact that I had been born French. France, it seemed to me, stood for certain values that were universal enough, human enough, broad enough to endure and transcend many wars, many revolutions, and the special talent of the French people to dissent and quarrel among themselves.
I never thought that France could be destroyed. I do not believe it now, but in making this assertion today I must qualify it. Firstly, I do not know by what means or through what metempsychosis France will manifest itself again as a living spirit; secondly, I do not know whether this rebirth will take place in my lifetime, or in thirty, fifty, or a hundred years; finally, if it takes place in a not too distant future, I am not sure that I shall be able to recognize the symptoms of this rebirth or understand it. There may be many abortive or spurious attempts to remake France. I am not sure that I shall not fall into many traps or be led into many blind alleys.
Naturally if this happens to me alone, and to a few others, it does not matter much, except to ourselves. But the trouble is that it may happen to all of us, to the forty million Frenchmen who are in France struggling in the obscurity of despair, misery, and confusion.
France has lost everything; and those who for various reasons are trying to prove to themselves and to others that this is not an absolute defeat, in which each Frenchman and the nation itself as a living entity have been wounded, perhaps mortally, are refusing to face their own conscience. When I say that France has lost everything and may be mortally wounded, I am speaking for the men of my generation. I quite realize that for those who are young there is a new life ahead, and that they may be able to build among our ruins. But these ruins are there today. They are our reality.
Often, in the newspapers, I look at the new map of France, cut by that terrible scar, the line of demarcation bet ween occupied and non-occupied France. A map is an abstraction, but this line assumes a kind of transcendental reality because it is the expression of mutilation. Unlike frontier lines, it has the arbitrariness of the conquerors’ will. It is there today, but it can be changed tomorrow. It cuts across rivers and roads and railroad lines. On account of it there can be no circulation in the body of France. And the mutilation affects not only the material life of the people, but their moral and psychological relationship. Families are separated by it. If there were any possibility of a reunification of France, this line would prevent it. Those who live north of it and those who live south are isolated from one another as effectively as by a high-voltage wire. It is the symbol of this peculiar form of Nazi cruelty, which is always tainted with a good dose of sadism. This line has divided France into two concentration camps. The only difference is that in one of them the German rule is direct, while in the other the French are allowed the illusion of being their own guardians.
It is superfluous to talk about the disruption of life in France. Newspapers and travelers have given many detailed accounts of it. What is remarkable is the rapidity with which the conditions of existence have been lowered in a country the chief characteristics of which were abundance, ease, and refinement. I know that there is a school of thought in France — and Marshal Pétain seems to belong to it — which believes that one of the causes of France’s disaster was the softness engendered by a too easy life. It may have been improvident to prefer butter to guns, but I still believe that it was not a sin. What France has always tried to do — and with a good deal of success — was to offer to each man as complete a life as possible. The standard of living was not as high as in America if measured statistically, but from the point of view of all-round quality it probably was superior to that of any other country. At least the outside world seemed to think so, and France was admired for it.
This peculiar quality of French life is now a thing of the past. To assume that the present sufferings and privations will facilitate the rebirth of a new spirit may be true. But to believe, as so many Frenchmen seem to believe, that we are going through a deserved expiation seems to me an error of judgment born of an excess of despair. It is equivalent to saying that the French are being punished for having been too civilized.
And if this is the case it is tantamount to admitting the Nazi doctrine that there is no other rule in the world than force, that brutality is healthy, and that there is no other aim but efficiency for the sake of efficiency and the organization of the machine-state.
Unfortunately, it would appear that many Frenchmen — even among the best — have been so overcome by the crushing effect of the German war machine that it has become impossible for them to think in any other terms than those of material effectiveness. The unquestionable superiority of the Germans in war material, and especially their ability to use it effectively, have forced most Frenchmen into a rationalization of their defeat which has the precision of a mathematical demonstration. With all the power of French logic — the most dangerous of all intellectual processes when used rigorously and exclusively — they have established a series of ‘realistic formulas’ to explain the unavoidability of the course they have taken up to now and to calculate whatever they may do in the future.
It is not my purpose to explain why France collapsed, nor to pin the blame on any one man or group or system of thought. This has been done by others more qualified than I, and I have no ambition to add my personal view to that of those who were in France and experienced the cataclysmic ordeal of May and June, 1940.
Besides, although I am French, I was here in America when all this happened and my point of view must necessarily be affected by the influences around me — that is, by the American frame of references in which I live.
But I cannot help thinking. In fact, like so many of my compatriots, I have tried for several months to arrive at certain conclusions and to solve, with as much conscientiousness as I could, some of the problems that the defeat of France presents not only to the French but to those other men who, like the Americans, refuse to abdicate all free judgment. I know, of course, the tremendous and quasi-miraculous advantage I have in being in America, where I can think, talk, and write freely. But I know too that whatever I may think is invalid from the point of view of my compatriots who are in France, for the simple reason that I enjoy the most insolent of all luxuries, freedom, while they have lost it.
And so, certain conclusions or opinions which I have reached have no other value than that attached to any individual judgment emanating from a man who happens to be French but who has no means of knowing whether what he thinks or feels corresponds at all to what is thought or felt in that precarious and tormented place on the map called France.
The fundamental factors in the present situation of France seem to me to be the following: —
1. The initial mistake made at Bordeaux in asking an armistice on the presumption that, France being defeated, England could not hold out more than a few weeks.
2. The inextricable difficulties caused by this initial mistake in calculation, resulting in an unpredictable policy on the part of the Government of Vichy and in an insoluble mental conflict between those who have regained hope in a British victory, but consider it still too ‘miraculous’ to be counted on, and the so-called ‘realists’ who believe that the defeat can only be repaired by coöperating with the conqueror.
3. The de facto growing hostility towards the Germans in the mass of the population.
4. The permanent fluidity of a situation in which the French are trying to invent their own particular solution while in reality the conflict embraces the world and tends to widen constantly in such a way that no future order is even thinkable at this stage of the conflict.
Concerning the first point, that England could not survive the military defeat of France by more than a few weeks, I have not heard a single Frenchman dispute the fact that this conviction was the final argument which prevailed at Bordeaux when it was decided that France should ask for an armistice and that the government — after long debates — should stay in France. The story of how M. Laval persuaded M. Lebrun, the President of the Republic, to abandon his plan of going to Africa has been told in an account authorized by the Vichy Government. General Weygand seems to have been the first to recommend an armistice after the failure of the resistance on the Somme. Marshal Péetain and many others rapidly came to the same conclusion.
As a proof of the general belief in the inability of England to withstand alone the German onslaught, the following incident is illuminating: —
When the French armistice delegation was debating the terms of this armistice at Compiègne, the clause by which the French pledged themselves not to continue giving help to the British came up for discussion. ‘Isn’t this clause superfluous,’ said one of the French delegates,
‘ in view of the fact that the British will be out of the war very soon anyway?’ To which General Keitel answered that he certainly hoped his French colleague was right, but that the Germans could not take such a chance.
If the French leaders had foreseen the success of British resistance, several other courses could have been taken, although it is useless to speculate on them now. The Poles, in a much worse situation, fought to the bitter end, and the British were in a pretty desperate position— from the purely ‘realistic’ point of view — when Churchill decided to carry on after the defeat of their ally. But the French generals and most political leaders were sure that the defeat of France meant the end of the war.
The psychological consequences of this mistake in judgment dominated the whole course of events in France after the armistice, and still dominate them today. The men who are in power in Vichy now are not only the heirs of a defeat, — which makes their position difficult enough, — but also the heirs of their own miscalculation. In spite of the fact that the majority of French public opinion is now hoping for a British victory, French leaders are still bound to talk and act as if a German victory were only delayed. Some of them, like M. Laval, are ready to help the Germans in achieving that victory. Others, like Marshal Pétain himself, are too sensitive to public opinion to ignore it completely. They are trying to follow a course of neutrality, comparable to that followed by the Dutch or the Belgians before they were ‘submerged.’ This explains the contradictory impressions emanating from Vichy.
Some of my compatriots believe all this is very clever, very Machiavellian. One must think of France first, they say. A British victory might be better for us, but we cannot count on it. We must be realists. If Hitler wins the war, we must integrate ourselves in the new continental order. It is our only chance of survival.
These views are strangely similar to those of the so-called ‘appeasers’ in America who believe that some sort of compromise could be reached between the United States and Hitler if he dominated the rest of the world.
My own view of such theories is that they fail to take into account the real nature of Naziism. That the American appeasers might be tempted to minimize the peril is perhaps understandable. America is potentially very strong, separated from Europe by three thousand miles of ocean. It is difficult actually to visualize a German army occupying New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago. But the failure of the French leaders (and of many ordinary French citizens) to understand by now what German domination actually means is indeed a curious aberration.
I admit that I cannot fully account for it, and that the attitude of some of my compatriots towards the central problem of the existence of France under German rule is unexplainable to me. I know that there are some men in France who have been so violently opposed to democracy for years that they find compensation for our defeat in the opportunity now offered them to restore France to what they believe is its true destiny. Real fascists, monarchists, and ordinary reactionaries are now united in an effort to obliterate the principles of 1789 and the social gains of one hundred and fifty years. Democracy, parliamentarianism, and liberalism may be good for the Anglo-Saxons who invented them, they say. They are not French. What France has always needed and reverted to is some sort of personal authority in the representation of a king, an emperor, or a triumvirate, like the Directoire of 1795 from which Napoleon Bonaparte finally emerged.
Although I personally share none of these ideas, I concede willingly that they could be debated, as a purely French problem, especially in the atmosphere of anti-democratic reaction due to the fact that the Third Republic lost the war. But unfortunately the conflict in which France, like every other country, is caught far transcends the form of government that should be established in France now or in the future. The real conflict is not between democracy and authoritarianism in France, but between the radical destructiveness of the Nazi domination and the maintenance of some sort of continuity in the evolution of Western civilization. This conflict is world-wide. The elimination of France as a force of resistance to Naziism — however disastrous — and the continuation of the war between England and Germany — however important — are only episodes in this struggle. The real question is whether Naziism, a movement that can only destroy through war and revolution because it is empty of all moral or spiritual content, can finally engulf what remains of the Western world; or whether this Western world of ours has enough vitality and creative genius left to oppose successfully the progress of Eastern nihilism.
The question for France is not whether it has a better chance to survive by ‘ collaborating ‘ with Germany and incorporating itself in the new continental order, or whether it should keep underground contacts with its former ally and continue to cultivate American friendship in case the Anglo-Saxon should defeat Hitler after all. The question is whether France shall remain a factor in Western civilization or whether it shall become a mere slave to the German master-race.
I will say that I do not believe the French will adopt the second alternative if they can help it. I will say too that there is very little they can do in a positive way to free themselves for the moment. The Germans, faithful to their tactics, are exploiting to the full the lowered moral resistance of a nation which has just gone through the greatest defeat and the deepest humiliation of its history. Many Frenchmen of good faith are wondering whether the experiment of a Europe united by Hitler should not be tried, and they blame the British for prolonging a useless struggle and delaying peace. Some Americans think that way too.
A great deal of this is due, of course, to German propaganda. Hitler must obtain an admission by France that everyone is guilty of the war and responsible for its sufferings except himself. That he has succeeded so well and found so many complacent dupes in France itself will probably baffle the historians of the future. In spite of my realization that it is very difficult for anyone on this side of the Atlantic really to understand the actual conditions of demoralization and confusion that exist in France as well as in the rest of Europe, I cannot help feeling that the position of France in the world would be stronger if its leaders, instead of pretending to adopt the improbable and unrealizable policy of socalled ‘collaboration’ with the Axis, had merely told the truth, which is simple enough and can be summed up in one word: defeat.
How great would be the prestige of France, even in these days of darkness, if through the voice of its leaders it proclaimed its unconquerable faith in the ideals of liberty and justice for which it has fought for the second time in twentyfive years! How inspiring would be our example if our present rulers told the world the real thoughts of the immense majority of the French people — their hope that their sacrifice has not been completely in vain, and that the fortitude with which they bear the terrible oppression of their conquerors may serve as an encouragement to those who are still able to carry on the common fight!
Of course it is often argued that, in view of the very magnitude of the defeat, there was no other course to follow than the one chosen by the Vichy Government. As long as Marshal Pétain makes the Germans respect the terms of the armistice, as he respects them himself, nothing more can be asked or done. The immense prestige the Marshal enjoys in France is not only proof that French unity is being re-created, it is said, but the best protection against further exactions on the part of the conqueror.
History alone can tell whether these arguments are well founded, and whether a government which cannot exist or act except with the consent of the Nazi conqueror is a greater asset to that conqueror or to the forces of resistance which are gathering against him in and out of France.
But granted that the Vichy Government is intent on resisting with all earnestness the efforts of Germany to reduce France to a condition of subordination to the Master Race, and especially to eradicate from the French mind the very ideas which have made France great in the world as a champion of individual liberties and tolerance, it is unfortunate that the men who are leading the destinies of France in these terrible times should take pains to repudiate and discredit this vital part of our national inheritance.
The Third Republic lost the war, and history shows that a régime seldom survives this kind of disaster. But should it follow that more than one hundred and fifty years of French history must thereby be denied? Is it possible to strike out the French Revolution, and the whole effort towards liberalization, enlightenment, and moral justice that made France great during the last century? To denounce now the spiritual values and the principles which France has fought and stood for during nearly two hundred years is to recognize that the Nazis, who deny all values except power and opportunism, are right.
In an article signed by Marshal Pétain and published in the Revue des Deux Mondes on September 15, 1940, the Chief of the French State expresses himself as follows: —
Liberalism, Capitalism, Collectivism, are imported foreign products in France, which France — having found herself — naturally rejects. She understands that she had gone astray in trying to transplant on her soil institutions and methods which were not designed for her soil and her climate. And when she comes to examine the principles which have ensured the victory of her opponents, she has the surprise of recognizing, nearly everywhere, her own property, her purest and most authentic tradition. . . . The NationalSocialist idea of the primacy of work, and of its essential reality in relation to the fiction of monetary signs, we accept all the more readily that it is part of our classical inheritance. ... I could pursue this demonstration; it would lead us, in all directions, to truths that were ours, that we have forgotten, that we could recapture without borrowing them from anybody, and without failing, however, to recognize the merit of those who have known how to turn these truths to better use than ourselves. We could thus see how, without renouncing ourselves in any way, but on the contrary by finding ourselves again, we could coördinate our thoughts and our actions to those that will preside tomorrow over the reorganization of the world.
Therein lies the essence of the uneasiness which so many Frenchmen feel when they consider the plight of their country. They are willing to believe that Marshal Pétain and the men who work with him are good patriots and anxious to save whatever they can of their country. But the philosophy of these men, and their willingness to compromise or collaborate with the Nazis not only in practical matters, but also morally and politically, shakes the confidence of those for whom the name of France cannot be dissociated from such words as Freedom, Tolerance, Individual Liberty. These ‘truths’ are authentically French too, but they are not those which Hitler has borrowed and ‘turned to better use than ourselves.’ They are those he wants to destroy all over the world.
The attempts of the French Government to save France as a living entity, while at the same time repudiating some of the essential ideas which made France live, result in a series of inconsistencies as difficult to explain to those who, in America and elsewhere, have kept faith in the destiny of France as they are baffling and disquieting to many sincere Frenchmen.
It is not consistent to say that we were completely defeated by the Germans and at the same time that we remain independent. One cannot be half slave and half free.
It is not consistent to say that we are willing to collaborate with the Nazis in the establishment of a new order in Europe when we have before our eyes the examples of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Rumania, and Italy. To assume that Hitler would treat France differently, whatever may be his promises, is tantamount to complicity. It is not possible to accuse the British of having abandoned and betrayed us when, through our capitulation, they are left alone to fight for their very existence. At the time of Munich, some Frenchmen also tried to lay the blame on the Czechs themselves for the disaster that befell them, but the fact remains that France had a treaty with the Czechs and the French leaders of the time broke it.
It is not consistent to tell the Americans that, in the name of our traditional friendship, they should force the English to relax their blockade against us — because it increases our privations — and at the same time not say a word about the terrible looting and depredations of the German army of occupation. France is paying an indemnity equivalent to nearly 3 billion dollars on an annual basis, while the Germans, under the Dawes Plan, never paid over 600 million dollars. If the Government of Vichy wants to attract the attention of the world to the misery of France — and I think it certainly should do so — it should take a leaf out of the German book and remember what capital the Germans made out of Versailles after the war of 1914. France is being made to suffer terribly, and she will probably be made to suffer much more. The Germans of Hitler are responsible for this suffering — no one else.
It is not consistent to praise Marshal Pétain for being more respectful of French public opinion than M. Laval — an opinion which is daily regaining hope in a British victory — while at the same time he reiterates confidence in the policy of ‘collaboration’ with Hitler.
Finally, it is not consistent to try to conciliate the traditional policy of Franco-American friendship and the ambiguous acceptance of the Nazi order in Europe when America has formally notified the world that it would not accept the establishment of that order.
Ever since France signed the armistice on June 22, the dominant impression I have had when I have thought of my own country is that it is constantly receding into the obscurity of physical and moral isolation. The darkness that spreads over all the countries conquered by the Germans now reaches to the shores of the Atlantic. True enough, many Frenchmen come from France and uncensored letters get through from time to time. But even when I see people in whom I have all confidence or receive letters from intimate friends I cannot overcome this sense of inaccessibility that France now gives me. Among the many tragedies caused by our defeat is this profound disruption in the unity of certain values that were fundamentally and characteristically French.
I have said before that I had spent all my life, up to last June, without ever thinking that there could arise a conflict between the fact that I was a French citizen and my freedom to think whatever I pleased as an individual. This gave me no sentiment of patriotic pride, nor any particular personal satisfaction, for the simple reason that I took it for granted, as does an American today.
But now the dilemma is there, not only for me but for all the French, whether they live in France or abroad. Criticism and dissent have not disappeared in France because they cannot, but the fundamental principle which allows dissent and criticism is more than threatened. Families are split in France as they never were split, even at the time of the Dreyfus affair. Those who do not accept blindly the infallibility of Marshal Pétain’s policies are called traitors by his partisans, and those who see in him the Savior of France are traitors in the eyes of those who refuse to trust him. Freedom having disappeared from France, fear has taken its place, fear for one’s own security or for one’s family, fear of being called unpatriotic, fear of being wrong because the normal standards by which right and wrong are judged have been so profoundly shaken.
What does it mean to be French?
Only the question can be formulated today. But there is not one answer.
No doubt the answer is in the making. From the point of view of my own convictions, I do not believe that the policies of the present French leaders and their doubtful attitude towards certain fundamental ideas are very helpful. But on the other hand they may not do much harm because the problems involved so far exceed the immediate preoccupations of the Government that sits in Vichy, limited as it is not only by the German conqueror but by its own instability.
Those problems concern the survival of Western civilization itself, the form of which may change, but not the basic ideas. Those basic ideas are as old as the Greeks. One of them is freedom and respect for the dignity of the individual. That we have mishandled and abused these ideas in France and elsewhere is a fact, but this is not a proof that these ideas are false.
The Nazis may succeed temporarily in breaking down France and in perverting many Frenchmen’s conception of what France stands for in the world, but, barring the alas not impossible eventuality that they may destroy us completely as a nation, I have little doubt that France will again find its identity and its place in the sun.