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The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940 [Format Kindle]

Frederick Brown

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Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition


Until recent times, the French political imagination was disposed to associate its dogmas and enthusiasms with the symbol of the tree. In 1792, revolutionaries at war with monarchical Europe planted “arbres de la liberté” in towns and villages throughout the country, taking their cue from the American patriots who had rallied for independence at a famous elm near the Boston Common. Among the hundreds that dotted Paris (mostly poplars, which grew quickly and had the further advantage of deriving etymologically from the Latin populus), one was planted within view of the royal palace in a ceremony over which the king himself presided, under duress. It was cut down several years later, not long after Louis XVI had been guillotined, despite the chief judge’s pronouncement at Louis’s trial that “the tree of liberty grows only when watered by the blood of tyrants.” Otherwise, cutting down a liberty tree under the new dispensation was tantamount to profaning the host under the old regime and punished accordingly. When a villager felled one in the Vaucluse, sixty-three neighbors who concealed his identity paid the forfeit, exemplifying Robespierre’s notorious oxymoron, “the despotism of liberty.” They were killed, their houses were burned, and their fields were salted.

As the Revolution understood freedom to be a universal birthright, liberty trees did not require native soil. They grew in land conquered by the Republic beyond the Rhine and, abroad, in the Caribbean colonies, where their proximity to slave markets before the abolition of slavery, in 1794, was noted by one derisive observer.*

Far from preserving the original character of trees planted under revolutionary auspices, Napoleon, who came out of the Revolution, allowed them to survive as “arbres Napoléon” while discouraging cer- emonies that glorified the advent of liberty. They numbered at least sixty thousand when Louis XVIII mounted the throne of a restored monarchy. Seen thenceforth as culpable mementos of a hiatus in the the Bourbon succession, liberty trees were harvested for firewood or furniture.

With the overthrow of Louis-Philippe in 1848 and the establishment of the Second Republic, maypoles reappeared in plantings that sur- passed the exuberance of eighteenth-century celebrations. “The plantings had multiplied a hundredfold,” wrote a chronicler. “They were to be seen at all the markets, squares, quays, gardens, intersections, and even in the courtyards of public institutions, at the Prefecture of Police, at the Opéra, etc. Patriotic songs, religious ceremonies, speeches, music, the national guard, acclamations, flowers, ribbons, the discharge of weapons, the curious crowd made for a lively spectacle.” As Louis XVI had been pressed into service in the early 1790s, so now Victor Hugo, deputy mayor of the 9th arrondissement, presided over the planting of a poplar on the Place des Vosges, where he resided. Priests were invited to water saplings with their silver aspergillums.

Those thousands of well-watered saplings were given no nourishment once the Second Republic was overthrown by the future Napoleon III, in 1851. They withered during the Second Empire, but their right-wing analogue sprang to life several decades later, after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871, not in a material sense but as a trope signifying national and racial authenticity. Of paramount importance was the publication in 1897 of Les Déracinés (The Uprooted), a novel that follows seven young Lorrainers torn from their cultural roots and sent into the world as existential waifs by a teacher of philosophy pledged to Kantian universals. “Alas, Lorraine undertook a great enterprise,” wrote Maurice Barrès, who had made his name not only as a novelist but as a politician militantly championing the would-be dictator General Georges Bou- langer. “She deported a certain number of her sons from Neufchâteau, from Nomeny, from Custines, from Varennes, so that they might rise to a superior ideal. The thought was that by elevating the seven young Lorrainers from their native grounds to France, and even to humanity, they would be brought closer to reason. . . . Did those who directed this emigration realize that they had charge of souls? Did they perceive the dangerous gravity of their act? They couldn’t ‘replant’ the uprooted in congenial earth. Not knowing whether they wanted to make them citizens of humanity or Frenchmen of France, they evicted them from sturdy, age-old homes and let the denless cubs fend for themselves. From their natural order, humble perhaps but social, they blundered into anarchy, into mortal disorder.” The soul, which thrived on neces- sity rather than freedom and owed its consecration to forebears buried in the soil of one’s homeland, could not be transplanted. It was rooted rather than intellectual, organic rather than abstract, collective rather than individual. It was the pith that showed intelligence to be “a very small thing on the surface of ourselves.” It was to Frenchmen what der- elict country churches were in the secular, bourgeois state to la France profonde.

Its virtue lent itself to many of the evils of the twentieth century. In novels, essays, and articles, the prolific Barrès did much to shape opinion during the Dreyfus Affair and the war of 1914–1918, expounding the view as eloquently as any of his ideological confrères that diasporic Jews with shallow roots were susceptible of treason, glorifying the brother- hood of men in trenches, consecrating the blood they shed on fields shorn of trees, and generally reviling the Enlightenment. These were not his pieties alone. They became the accepted wisdom of the Right and echoed across the decades, from war to war. In the seventeenth century, Blaise Pascal had observed ironically, “What is truth on one side of the Pyrenees is error on the other.” But in 1940 Marshal Pétain, justifying his pact with Hitler and the invention of a satellite state in the face of de Gaulle’s exhortations from England to resist, assured his compatriots without a trace of irony that the soil on which he stood like a deeply rooted tree vouched for his authority: “The earth does not lie; it will be your refuge.”

Suffice it to say that unreason had its apostles on the Far Left as well as the Far Right after the catastrophe of World War I, in every intellectual community that regarded “salvation” as the supreme goal of the human community. That will be the subject of other chapters.

* Slavery was restored in 1802 by the Consulate, under Napoleon.

Revue de presse

“Brown [is] the leading English-language chronicler of this appalling but fascinating French story.” —New Republic
“Brilliant. . . . At once social history, cultural history, and a series of biographical sketches, Frederick Brown’s book is both illuminating and a warning. . . . This is terrific history—Brown is an incisive biographer, very good on politics, still better on culture, and anybody who is interested in France . . . should read this book.” —The Daily Beast
“A stimulating portrayal. . . . Brown deftly and economically analyzes [his subjects]. . . . He succeeds as usual in joining accurate scholarship to elegant and often pithy style.” —The New York Review of Books
“[Brown] is a historian who eschews jargon and knows how to make complicated questions clear to the common reader.” —The Wall Street Journal

Détails sur le produit

  • Format : Format Kindle
  • Taille du fichier : 9758 KB
  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 368 pages
  • Editeur : Anchor (1 avril 2014)
  • Vendu par : Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ASIN: B00FO5Z9HA
  • Synthèse vocale : Activée
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  • Composition améliorée: Activé
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Amazon.com: 3.8 étoiles sur 5  15 commentaires
4 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Another Brilliant Book from Frederick Brown 6 mai 2014
Par SanFran JT - Publié sur Amazon.com
Having been impressed by Brown's superb books on Zola and the era of Dreyfus, I found The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940 more proof of just what a gifted author he truly is. This is a simply stunning look at the people, culture, and politics of France between the two world wars and is as well written and engrossing as anything I've read about that time in quite a while. Brown writes in a way that is highly entertaining and very scholarly at the same time. The reader feels they are immersed in the spirit of the era and has actually lived as an informed observer during the years leading to the horror of the Nazi occupation. Insightful, well researched, and profoundly satisfying study for scholars of the period as well as those seeking a better understanding of it.
4 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 France as a Harbinger 5 juin 2014
Par David G. Landry - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
Political gridlock in the USA? Try France between the wars. Author Brown documents the political follies which should serve as a warning to us Americans.
3 internautes sur 3 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 I been waiting for this book 12 juin 2014
Par Arturo Dalmau - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
I have enjoyed The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940. The book covers an important moment in French and, indirectly, European history. It is well-documented and provides rich in information about the 1918-1939 European Truce, a period of recent history which I consider has been largely neglected by historians and sociologists . As a historian Frederick Brown makes an excellent journalistic job. I came close to give five stars to the book, but I think that the author could have provided more deep coverage of the sociological aspects that shaped the epoch. A excellent, and quite enjoyable book, nevertheless,
2 internautes sur 2 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Here is the story of a great country that prides itself on ideas having run out ... 27 juillet 2014
Par Steven Hardesty - Publié sur Amazon.com
Here is the story of a great country that prides itself on ideas having run out of ideas. Of the intellectual and moral catastrophe - masquerading as national revival - that preceded the military collapse of France under German invasion in 1940. And of the bitter subversion of French thought after the debacle of the First World War that allowed Marshal Philippe Petain to say that only the heroic surrender of France to Hitler could save the idea of France. But a France that was anti-democratic, anti-Semitic and scornful of heroes - foremost Charles de Gaulle - who believed in continuing the fight for the truer dream of France. This is a bitter and horrifying story, but a must-read book.
2 internautes sur 2 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Missing effects 24 novembre 2014
Par John michael - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
I read this on the strength of Mr. Brown's excellent history of the Dreyfus affair. I was disappointed. There was little synthesis and even less information on the culmination of the french political right/fascist collaboration with the German occupation. There is little detail of the effects of the "embrace of unreason".
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