The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe (2006)

‘What a fate! To be handed over to writers’ –
Edgar Degas on reading a biography of his friend Édouard Manet

Well, they’re not very private now – the ‘private lives of the Impressionists’, their friends, relatives, spouses and lovers, are nowadays the stuff of a multi-million dollar industry in books, biographies, catalogues and conferences.

Roe’s group biography of the Impressionists is an easy-going, highly enjoyable romp through the lives of the group of “artistic rebels who changed the face of western art” etc etc.

History Some of her historical background is a bit shaky (she says France beat Russia in 1854 whereas the Crimean War to which she’s presumably referring, ended only in 1856; she claims Napoleon Bonaparte ‘threw out the republicans and restored the empire’ in 1830, whereas Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821; it was his nephew, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who restored the Empire, and not until 1852; she scoots through the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune of 1870-71, strewing shaky generalisations along the way).

Gossip Disconcerting though these errors are, they needn’t worry us too much. The heart of the book is a really absorbing, gossipy account of how much in each others’ pockets Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and the rest lived and worked. The Salon system of the 1860s, the developing art market of the 1870s, the role of Durand-Ruel in sponsoring and buying up their works, the art schools they attended, the apartments they rented, their wives and children, the affairs and lovers – it’s all here in fascinating detail.

Roe gives a good account of the organisation and build-up to the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. I had no idea that they set up a joint stock company, signed legally binding contracts, agreeing to share the profits and so on, naming themselves ‘the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc’. Thirty artists displayed 165 works at the photographer Nadar’s former studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines.

Roe gives an entertaining summary of the contemptuous reviews the show received, helping you to understand the objections of contemporaries who genuinely didn’t understand what these impudent daubers were trying to do. It was the scathing review by Louis Leroy in the satirical magazine Le Charivari that did the damage, and helped publicise the word and the idea that the group were ‘impressionists’ a term they themselves didn’t use in the early years.

Roe’s brisk journalistic approach to the scandal caused is, like the rest of the book, hugely enjoyable to read.

After retiring to lick their wounds, the group came back in March the next year (1875) with the idea of holding an auction at the Hôtel Drouot auction rooms, but this turned out even worse. Primed to ridicule, the crowd mostly jeered and catcalled as the paintings were displayed, some deliberately upside down. When the first of Berthe Morisot’s paintings was held up someone yelled out ‘Whore’, and Pissarro strode through the crowd and punched the man in the face. Worse was the ferocious review of the show written by the hottest art critic in town, the German Albert Wolff, an odd figure, with the habit of wearing a corset and make-up and mincing through Paris’s fashionable hotels. Roe quotes it at maginficently malicious length:

The impression the impressionists create is that of a cat walking across the keys of a piano, or a monkey with a box of paints. (Critic Albert Wolff, writing in Figaro, quoted page 141)

Artists and issues

Monet tried to kill himself by jumping in the Seine in 1868. This was a rare moment of weakness in a man who was the most successful of the Impressionists partly because he was the most determined and money-minded. That said I was genuinely shocked by the poverty Monet endured in the later 1870s, living in misery with his long-suffering wife Camille and a brood of demanding children, making repeated trips to Paris where nobody would buy his work and firing off hundreds of begging letters to friends, possible patrons or collectors. A big section late in the book is devoted to Monet’s extreme suffering which climaxed with the lingering illness and death of his poor wife, Camille (1879).

One of his most promising patrons was the millionaire department store magnate, Ernest Hoschedé, and a major strand in the book is how Hoschedé managed to fritter away the vast fortune he inherited, eventually going bankrupt and moving, along with his wife and children, into Monet’s troubled household in 1877. What a scene it must have made! And no one expected that, after Camille passed away, his wife, Alice Hoschedé, would fall in love with Monet, it taking all parties several years to realise what was happening, and causing Hoschedé much heartbreak when his wife finally chose to stay and live with Monet. Ernest died in 1891 whereupon Alice finally married Monet (in 1892).

Manet was a natural aristocrat, charming everyone who met him, happy to socialise and support the gang but reluctant to exhibit with them because he never gave up his ambition of Salon success and official recognition. Roe brings out his obsession with the tall, ravishing Berthe Morisot who he painted numerous times, despite the objections of his wife, Suzanne; and of Berthe’s willingness to be painted, sometimes in seductive poses, even after she was married to Manet’s brother, Eugène. Older than the others and although he never exhibited in any of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, he was in an important sense, the central figure against which they all compared themselves with, who held together the complex and changing matrix of friendships, quarrels and debts. When he died after an agonising illness, in 1883, it signalled the beginning of the end of the group.

Berthe Morisot’s life is thoroughly covered, her relationships with her demanding mother and two happy sisters. In this account she is permanently depressed by her lack of success and failure to find a husband (until 1874).

Everyone suspected surly unsociable Paul Cézanne (he of the ‘blunt manner and old, blue, paint-smattered smock’, p.144) and most of the gang didn’t want to include him in the first show. He was a problematic figure (‘a thorn in their side’)- something which certainly comes over from the big exhibition of Cézanne Portraits which I’ve just visited.

Degas I was continually surprised all the way through at the energy and commitment of Degas, who made most of the exhibitions happen, even when he violently disagreed with some of his colleagues. And surprised to learn about his five-month-long trip to New Orleans in 1872, to visit wealthy members of the de Gas family who had emigrated and now ran very successful cotton and banking businesses. He was overwhelmed by the quality of the light, the brightness of all the colours, and especially the wonderful outlines and movements of the black people he saw.

Feminism In the light of reading Whitney Chadwick’s fiercely feminist book Women, Art and Society, I read Private Lives of the Impressionists alert to the exploitation of women a) in the paintings as passive subjects of the male gaze and b) as artists being repressed by men. In relation to a) it’s hard not to think that, although they were men very frequently painting women, it is not done with an exploitative eye: a lot of the women painted come over as strong and independent, and the Impressionist world, taken as a whole, is one of sensitive ‘feminine’ values, from Degas’ ballerinas to the working girls dancing in Renoir to Monet’s countless depictions of his female menageries in beautiful gardens. You only have to compare it with the sternly aristocratic or history or classical subjects of contemporary Salon art to see the huge difference.

Anyway, apart from a handful of nudes (mostly by Manet, a few by Renoir) the Impressionists aren’t really about naked people, male or female (all Degas’ women bathing and washing are really about composition, design and colour: there’s nothing remotely titillating about them). Roe spends a couple of pages detailing the series of portraits Manet did of Morisot, with whom he was obsessed, which show her as fully clothed, deploying an imperious gaze. She is nobody’s victim. (That said, these works tend to confirm my impression that Manet is quite a poor painter – of faces, anyway.)

Or:

In terms of the latter – their relationship with women artists – it’s a relief to read about Degas going out of his way to make sure Berthe Morisot, and later on Mary Cassatt, were included in the group shows, giving them the opportunity to hang their own works. Cassatt and Morisot played an important role in funding the later group exhibitions. In other words, the key Impressionists actively encouraged the women painters among them, and leaped to their defence when they were criticised in person or in print.

Bosoms In a strikingly unfeminist way, Roe shows a persistent interest in bare bosoms and uncovered female flesh. She is good at spotting the frissons of titillation in Belle Époque France, the way crowds flocked to the seaside not only to try the new-fangled idea of taking a dip in the sea, but in the hope of seeing the bare ankles and calves (!) of the brave women wearing the new-fangled bathing suits p.134). The boobs thing came to my attention on pages 142-3.

Marguerite [Charpentier] was young, accomplished and clever; wealthy and popular she was the envy of many. She was physically striking with dark, heavy looks and a buxom figure…. (p.142)

[The socialist politician] Gambetta [was] now the idol of Parisian society, for whom every lady in the place lowered her décolleté… (p.142)

[Renoir] enjoyed the Charpentiers’ fine apartments, with their lavish interiors, elaborate refreshments and luxuriously dressed women… (p.142)

The eighteen-year-old actress Jeanne Samaray… was a vivacious redhead,very actressy, with huge dark eyes, a small, retroussé nose, pale, luminous skin, a wide mouth and perfect pearly teeth. She wore tailored outfits that showed off her tiny waist and ample bust… (p.143)

This focus on boobs is pleasant enough to a heterosexual man but I’m not sure what the sisterhood would say.

Fashion and clothes But then the whole book is like this, chattily interested in clothes and hats and crinolines and bathing costumes and flashing eyes and exposed flesh, giving a good sense of the visual and social world the artists lived in, along with plenty of goss about who they fancied and why.

There’s lots of fascinating social history, the building of the new Paris designed around Baron Hausmann’s broad boulevards and imposing apartment blocks(which seemed to drag on for decades), the special atmosphere around Montmartre, still semi-rural and inhabited by poor workers whose dances and entertainments Renoir loved to paint, especially the young women workers or grisettes.

Poverty Throughout the text runs the persistent thread of the artists’ money troubles, troubles with their traditional parents, more money troubles, worries about professional success, and all the ways they tried to curry favour with the powers-that-were, repeated rejections by the Salon, ridicule from the critics. Probably the grimmest account of poverty is the long-running struggle of poor Monet (described above) although Pissarro’s woes are also chronicled, managing to father seven children on his miserably long-suffering wife, Julie Vellay, a vineyard grower’s daughter and his mother’s maid who he had married in 1871. We read her pitiful letters complaining about struggling to feed all the mouths on the next to nothing Pissarro provided with his pitifully low sales.

And Sisley (who we don’t hear so much about) was in a similar plight. (Sisley seems to be the great loser of the gang, dying in abject poverty in 1899, yet reading these last few books has made me come to appreciate his quiet persistence with the core Impressionist vision, especially his wonderful snowscapes – Snow Effect at Argenteuil, 1874.)

It really helped that they were a gang, supporting and encouraging each other when they were down. Cézanne in particular needed lots of bucking up and there’s a fascinating little section recounting the advice the older man, Pissarro, gave him about painting the forms he sees, and creating them through colour alone, rather than trying to draw a realistic document of the world (p.124).

There are quite a few places where Roe briefly but effectively details the discussions about painting technique which the gang swapped and developed, and gives quick thumbnail portraits of their differing styles and visions.

In relationship terms, Cézanne was another who bucked society’s supposedly strict bourgeois norms, when he took the artist’s model, Marie-Hortense Fiquet, as his mistress in 1869. Because Cézanne’s father was a very well-off banker, Cézanne felt obliged to conceal his relationship with Hortense from his parents, for nearly 15 years, even after she had borne his son, Paul. The book chronicles the many (often ludicrous) subterfuges Cézanne resorted to, the lies and deceptions which blighted all their lives, until he finally married her in 1886 although, by that stage, he (with characteristic blunt honesty) announced that he no longer had feelings for her, and they lived the remainder of their married lives apart.

Patrons and collectors It’s fascinating to read in detail about the lives and personalities, the backgrounds, marriages and fortunes of the earliest collectors. Some of them were very rich indeed, and ‘got’ the new vision the gang were trying to create, embody and promote. Central was the gallery owner, exhibition organiser, funder and patron Paul Durand-Ruel, important enough to have an entire National Gallery exhibition devoted to him a few years ago – Inventing Impressionism.

But there were also Georges Charpentier, whose wife Renoir painted, Victor Chocquet, who also commissioned portraits from Renoir, and the ill-fated Ernest Hoschedé, mentioned above. Cézanne’s friend, Père Tanguy, supplied paints and canvasses on credit, accepting paintings in return. It’s a surprise to learn that one of the most reliable providers of cash to the perpetually strapped Monet, Pissarro and Sisley was Gustave Caillebotte, himself a painter of admirably realistic works done with a distinctive narrow perspective, but who also had the money to make endless loans to his colleagues, and to fund and organise the exhibitions. At one stage he was paying Monet’s rent, paying for his selling trips up to Paris, subsidising Pissarro, and organising and funding the firth exhibition, alongside helping to set up the (short-lived) art magazine Le jour et la nuit.

Stories

So it’s a hugely enjoyable romp through the social history, the art history and the personal histories of these great painters, their families and patrons, studed with good anecdotes.

Renoir approved of Degas’ pastels of ballet dancers and himself loved going to the Paris Opera, but mainly to stare at the audience, drinking in all the human types and faces and clothes. He was extremely put out when the new fashion came in of dimming the houselights to force people to look at the stage (p.122).

When Wolff savaged the second Impressionist exhibition even more fiercely than the Hotel Drouot auction, he wrote some extra hard words about Morisot, with the result that her new husband, Eugène, challenged Wolff to a duel (p.155).

Or the time Manet came to visit Monet in the house he rented for several years in Argenteuil, set up his easel and painted the family at ease, Monet pottering round with a watering can while his wife, Camille, lay on the lawn.

During the afternoon Renoir turned up – having walked along the river from his family’s house at nearby Louveciennes – set up his easel, and began painting the same scene.

Manet leaned over to Monet. ‘Who’s your friend?’ he joked; ‘Tell him to give it up, he’s got no talent.’ (p.132)

Maps I particularly liked the map of the the territory just to the west of Paris where the River Seine performs some extreme loops along which lie the villages where they rented houses and painted their wives, each other, river life and boats and scenes. This book converted the names which crop up in the titles of so many paintings – Chatou, Bougival, Argenteuil, Louveciennes, Marly, Gennevilliers, Pointoise – into real locations, roads and houses and gardens and views, where Manet and Monet and Renoir and Sisley and Pissarro lived and worked. Finding them on the map whetted my appetite to go and visit them – except I imagine you wouldn’t be able to move for coachloads of tourists all having lunch at the Restaurant Renoir and staying the night at the Hotel Monet.

The same goes for addresses in Paris. Roe religiously records the addresses of all the artists’ many apartments and studios, as well as the exhibition rooms, auction houses, and grand homes of their sponsors, locating them not only geographically, but giving evocative descriptions of their layout, size and atmosphere and their relationship with the ever-changing streetmap of Hausmann’s Paris. I dug out an old map of Paris and began recording all the locations with little green decals my daughter has, but the area around Montmartre quickly became so infested it was impossible to make out individual locations. Very handy if you ever wanted to go on a really thorough voyage of discovery of ‘the Paris of the Impressionists’.

Roe rounds off her account with the 1886 exhibition of Impressionists put on in New York by the ever-enterprising Durand-Ruel and his son, at which 300 or so paintings by almost the entire group (with the notable exception of Cézanne) drew a very different response from the jeers and catcalls of the Paris crowds and critics of 12 years earlier. They were greeted with respect and even excitement. American collectors began buying them up and the show marks the start of the increasing involvement of American money in funding and buying up European art which was to dominate the 20th century (and arguably continues to this day). Durand-Ruel sold $18,000 of pictures. In 1888 he set up a permanent gallery and salesroom in New York.

It marks the commercial success of the group but also the point where, with Manet dead and the eighth and final group exhibition held, the unity of the gang dissolved and the survivors began going their very different ways, Monet continuing to become a god among painters of light and colour, Renoir never recapturing the dappled happiness of the Montmartre years, Degas perfecting his technique of pastel drawing, Cézanne and Gauguin going on to develop entirely new, post-impressionistic styles.

Roe gives a thorough description of the New York exhibition, naming half a dozen paintings by each of the main painters, and looking them up, one by one, on Google images provides a really useful overview of the diversity, range and achievement of this astonishing group of artists. And includes one of my favourite Impressionist works, Pissarro’s early Hoar frost.

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Conclusion

In many ways, books are the best kind of tourism. This book is a great piece of travel writing, taking you not only to the streets and suburbs of 19th century Paris, but back in time to a simpler, far more relaxed and easy-going age, and surely that is the key to the Impressionists’ success. They thought of themselves – and many of their critics agreed – as painting the – often pretty rough and lowlife – reality of contemporary France.

But to everyone who came afterwards, their images – contrary to the sometimes harrowing personal circumstances they were created in – amount to a glorious evocation of a bright, light age of innocence.


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Impressionists by Antonia Cunningham (2001)

This is a small (4½” x 6″) but dense (256 high-gloss pages), handily pocket-sized little overview of the Impressionist movement.

The ten-page introduction  by Karen Hurrell is marred by some spectacular errors. In the second paragraph she tells us that Paris was ‘in the throes of the belle epoque‘ when the 19-year-old Monet arrived in town in 1859 – whereas the Belle Époque period is generally dated 1871 to 1914. She tells us that Napoleon Bonaparte had commissioned the extensive redesign of the city – when she means Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the great man’s nephew and heir, more commonly known as Napoleon III, who reigned as Emperor of the French from 1852 to 1870.

Thus cautioned to take any other facts in the introduction or the picture captions with a touch of scepticism, nonetheless we learn some basic background facts about the Impressionists:

  • Monet was inspired by the French landscape painter Eugène Boudin (1824-98)
  • Success in the art world was defined as acceptance of your work into the biannual exhibition of the Paris Salon
  • Reputable artists were expected to train at the Académie des Beaux-Arts which was dominated by the classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), who insisted on training in draughtsmanship, copying the Old Masters, using a clear defined line.
  • Edgar Degas (1834-1917) enrolled in the Beaux-Arts as did Pissarro.
  • Monet attended the Académie Suisse where he met Pissarro, then entered the studio of Charles Gleyre: here he met Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Alfred Sisley (1839-99) and Frédéric Bazille (1841-70).
  • Older than the others and really from a different generation was their inspiration, Édouard Manet (1832-83). He sought academic success in the traditional style, attaining Salon success in 1861.
  • In 1863 the Salon refused so many contemporary painters that Napoleon III was asked to create a separate show for them, the Salon des Refusés. Manet stole the show with his The lunch on the grass showing a naked woman in the company of two fully dressed contemporary men.
  • The 1865 Salon show included works by Degas, Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Berthe Morisot (1841-95).
  • From 1866 Manet began to frequent the Café Guerbois, and was soon joined by Renoir, Sisley, Caillebotte and Monet, with Degas, Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Pissarro also dropping by, when in town. They became known as the Batignolles Group after the area of Paris the cafe was in.
  • Paris life of all kinds was disrupted by the catastrophic Franco-Prussian War and then the disastrous rising of communists during the Paris Commune, which was only put down by the official government with great bloodshed and destruction (July 1870-May 1871). All the artists who could afford to fled the city, many to England and London – an event which was the basis of the Tate Britain exhibition, Impressionists in London.
  • From April to May 1874 this group held an independent art exhibition in the gallery of the photographer Nadar. The critic Louis Leroy took exception to Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise (1872), satirising the group’s focus on capturing fleeting impressions of light instead of painting what was there, but the name was taken up by more sympathetic critics and soon became a catch-phrase the artists found themselves lumbered with.
  • It’s interesting to note that Degas was a driving force behind this and the subsequent Impressionist shows, single-handedly persuading artists to take part. He himself was not really an impressionist, much of his subject matter, for example, being indoors instead of painting out of doors, en plein air, as Impressionist doctrine demanded. Similarly, whereas the other experimented with creating form through colour i.e. using colour alone to suggest shape and form, Degas was to the end of his life a believer in extremely strong, clear, defining lines to create shape and form and texture.
  • In 1876 the group exhibited again, at the gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel. The role played by Durand-Ruel in sponsoring and financing the Impressionists was chronicled in the national Gallery exhibition, Inventing Impressionism.
  • There were eight Impressionist exhibitions in total: in 1874, 1876, 1877, 1879, 1880, 1881, 1882, 1886. The eight Impressionist exhibitions

From this point on we begin to follow the differing fortunes and styles of the group. Monet developed his mature style in the first half of the 1870s, letting go of any attempt to document reality, instead developing ‘a new vocabulary of painting’ in blobs and dashes of often unmixed primary colours in order to capture the essence of the scene. In 1880 Monet organised a solo show and submitted two works to the Salon. Degas called him a sell-out, but he was trying to distance himself from the group.

Renoir developed a unique style of portraying the gaiety of contemporary Parisian life in realistic depictions of people dancing and drinking at outdoor cafés, with broad smiles, the whole scene dappled with light. He was to become the most financially successful of the group and you can see why: his uplifting works are popular to this day. In the 1880s he took to nudes and portraits rather than landscapes. He was always interested in people.

Degas resisted being called an Impressionist – he painted mostly indoor scenes and never abandoned his hard outlines – but certainly was influenced by the Impressionist emphasis on the effect of light captured in loose brushstrokes. During the 1870s he began to produce the hundreds of oil paintings and pastels of ballet dancers which were to be a key subject.

The American artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) saw a Degas in a dealer’s window and realised these were her people. She lightened her palette, adopted the modern attitude towards light and exhibited at the successive Impressionist exhibitions.

Sisley became dependent on Durand-Ruel. When the latter fell on hard times, Sisley and his family led a tough, hard-up, peripatetic life. Arguably he is the only one who never developed but carried on working in the same, pure Impressionist way.

Pissarro and Cézanne became firm friends, painting the same scenes side by side.

Even at the time commentators could see the difference with Cézanne applying paint in broad, heavy brushstrokes, and becoming ever more interested, less by light than by the geometric forms buried in nature, increasingly seeing the world as made of blocks and chunks and rectangles and rhomboids of pure colour – paving the way for Cubism and much modern art. His style diverged from the group just as Impressionism was becoming more accepted, by critics and public. He resigned from the group in 1887.

Neo-impressionism is the name given to the post-impressionist work of Georges Seurat (1859-91), Paul Signac (1863-1935) and their followers who used contemporary optical theory to try to take Impressionism to the next level. Seurat developed a theory called Divisionism (which he called chromoluminarism) the notion of creating a painting not from fluid brush strokes but from thousands of individual dots of colour. Seurat used contemporary colour theory and detailed colour wheels to work out how to place dots of contrasting colour next to each other in order to create the maximum clarity and luminosity. The better-known technique of pointillism refers just to the use of dots to build up a picture, without the accompanying theory dictating how the dots should be of carefully contrasting colours.


There follow 120 very small, full colour reproductions of key paintings by the main members of the movement (and some more peripheral figures). Each picture is on the right hand page, with text about the title, date, painter and a one-page analysis on the page opposite. Supremely practical and useful to flick through. Here’s a list of the painters and the one or two most striking things I learned:

  • Eugène Boudin (1) The landscape painter Monet credited with inspiring him to paint landscapes.
  • Manet (15) I love Manet for his striking use of black, for his use of varying shades of white but he is not a totally convincing painter. His two or three masterpieces are exceptions. I struggle with the perspective or placing of figures in Dejeuner sur l’herbe, particularly the woman in the lake who seems bigger and closer than the figures in the foreground and is a giant compared to the rowing boat, and the way the lake water is tilting over to the left. He was awful at painting faces – Inside the cafe, Blonde woman with bare breasts. The body of the Olympia is sensational but her badly modelled head looks stuck on. In 1874 he began experimenting with the Impressionists’ technique i.e. lighter tones and out of doors, not that convincingly (The barge).
  • Frederic Bazille (2) studied with Monet, Renoir and Sisley but on this showing never quit a highly realistic style – Family reunion.
  • Monet (16) without a doubt the god of the movement and the core practitioner of Impressionism, produced hundreds of masterpieces while slowly fascinatingly changing and evolving his technique. The big surprise was an early work, Women in the garden (1867) which shows what a staggeringly good realistic artist he could have been: look at the detail on the dresses! Of all the impressionist works here I was most struck by the modest brilliance of the water and reflections in The bridge at Argenteuil (1874).
  • Alfred Sisley (6) was the English Impressionist. Always hard up, he persisted in the core Impressionist style. I was struck by Misty morning (1874) and Snow at Louveciennes (1878).
  • Camille Pissarro (14) Ten years older than Monet, he quickly took to the Impressionist style (an open-mindedness which led him, in the 1880s, to adopt Seurat’s new invention of pointillism). Pissarro is the only one of the group who exhibited at all 8 Impressionist exhibitions. I was bowled over by Hoar frost (1873). I too have walked muddy country lanes in winter where the ridges of churned up mud are coated with frost and the puddles are iced over, while a weak bright winter sun illuminates the landscape.
  • Renoir (15) Everyone knows the depictions of happy Parisians dancing at outdoor cafés under a dappled summer light. Set next to the landscapes of Monet, Sisley and Pissarro you can see straightaway that Renoir was fascinated by the human figure and was an enthusiastic portrayer of faces. I like Dance in the country (1883) for the extremely strong depiction of the man, an amazing depiction of all the shades of black to be found in a man’s black suit and shoes. I was startled to learn that, in the mid-1880s, dissatisfied with Impressionism, he took trips abroad and returned from Italy determined to paint in a more austere classical style. The plait (1884) anticipates 20th century neo-classicism, and is not at all what you associate with Renoir.
  • Armand Guillaumin (2) from a working class background, he met the others at art school, exhibited in the Salon des Refusés show, but never had a large output.
  • Edgar Degas (17) Having visited and revisited the Degas exhibition at the National Gallery, I am convinced Degas was a god of draughtsmanship. It’s interesting that he lobbied hard for the Impressionists and organised the critical first exhibition, but always denied he was one. Skipping over the obvious masterpieces I was struck by the faces, especially the far left face, of The orchestra at the opera (1868). It shows his characteristic bunching up of objects. And the quite fabulous Blue dancers (1897).
  • Gustave Caillebotte (3) a naval engineer turned artist. The only link with the Impressionist style I can make out is his frank depiction of contemporary life. But the dabs and rough brushwork, leaving blank canvas, obsession with sunlight and creating form out of colour alone – none of that seems on show here. Street in Paris in the rain (1877). Very striking and distinctive but I’m surprised to find him in the same pages as Sisley or Pissarro.
  • Berthe Morisot (6) on the evidence here, painted lots of women in quiet domestic poses. Young girl at the ball (1875)
  • Mary Cassatt (5) More scenes of quiet domestic life, some of which eerily prefigure the same kind of rather bland domestic style of the early 20th century. Young mother sewing (1900)
  • Paul Cézanne (16) Yesterday I visited the exhibition of Cézanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, so those 50 or so portraits are ringing in my memory, along with knowledge of how he painted subjects in series, the style he developed of painting in kinds of blocks or slabs of colours, which bring out the geometric implications of his subjects, and his playing with perspective i.e. the three or four components of even a simple portrait will be depicted as if from different points of view, subtly upsetting the composition – The smoker (1890). Among the brown portraits and orangey still lifes, a dazzling riot of green stood out – Bridge over the pond (1896) though it, too, is made out of his characteristic blocks of (generally) diagonal brushstrokes, clustered into groups which suggest blocks or ‘chunks’, giving all his mature works that odd ‘monumental’ look, almost as if they’ve been sculpted out of colour more than painted smoothly.
  • Seurat (2) 19 years younger than Monet (born in 1859 to Monet’s 1840), Seurat was not an Impressionist, but exhibited with them in 1886. His highly intellectual theory of Divisionism divided the group, causing big arguments. Seurat produced some highly distinctive and classic images before dying tragically young, aged 31.

This is a very handy survey, a useful overview of 120 works which remind the reader a) how varied the Impressionists were b) who were the core flag-wavers (Monet, Sisley, Pissarro) c) who were the outriders (Manet, Degas) and above all, d) what scores and scores of wonderful, enduring masterpieces they created.


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A Closer Look: Colour by David Bomford and Ashok Roy (2009)

This is another superbly informative, crisply written and lavishly illustrated little book in The National Gallery’s A Closer Look series. To quote the blurb:

A Closer Look: Colour explores how painters apply colour, describes different types of pigments, and outlines optical theories and artists’ treatises. The authors explain the effect on colour of the artist’s chosen medium, such as oil, water or egg tempera, and the dramatic impact of new pigments.’

It ranges far and wide across the National Gallery’s vast collection of 2,300 art works, selecting 80 paintings which illustrate key aspects of colour, medium and design. The quality of the colour reproductions is really stunning – it’s worth having the book almost for these alone and for the brief but penetrating insights into a colour-related aspect of each one.

They include works by Seurat, Holbein the Younger, Corot, Duccio, David, Chardin, Ghirlandaio, Monet and Van Dyck in the first ten pages alone!

Aspects of colour

Colour quite obviously has been used by painters to depict the coloured world we see around us. But it has other functions, too. Maybe the two most obvious but easily overlooked are: to represent depth and create the optical illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface; and to reinforce this by indicating sources of light.

Depth A common indication of depth is recreating the common observation that objects at a distance fade into a blue-ish haze. This is often seen in Renaissance paintings depicting increasingly hazy backdrops behind the various virgins and main figures. This is known as aerial perspective.

Light Sources of light need to be carefully calculated in a realistic painting. The book shows how the effect of light sources is achieved by showing glimmers of white paint on metallic objects or even on duller surfaces like wood. There is a particularly wondrous example in Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and her Sister by Anthony Van Dyck. The authors give a close-up to show how the colour of the yellow dress worn by the main subject is reflected on the bare skin of of the little angel, and even in the catchlight in his right eye, an indication of the depth of thought which goes into his compositions.

Shadows turn out to be an entire subject in themselves. For centuries painters improved their depiction of shadows, at first using grey colours for the shadows of buildings, but quickly realising that the most shadowed things around us are fabrics. Dresses, cloaks all the paraphernalia of costume from the Middle Ages to the turn of the 20th century, involved reams of material which folded in infinite ways, all of them a challenge to the painters’ skill. At the very least, painting a fabric requires not one but three colours: the core colour of the fabric itself, the fabric in shadow, the fabric in highlight, reflecting the light source.

The human eye is not a mechanical reproducer of the world around us. It has physiological quirks and limitations. The book evidences the way that, dazzled by orange sunsets, the human eye might well see evening shadows as violet. Quirks and oddities like this were known to various painters of the past but it was the Impressionists who, as a group, set out to try and capture not what the rational mind knew to be the colour, but the colours as actually perceived by the imperfect eye and misleadable mind.

Emotion In the later 19th century artists across Europe made the discovery that intensity of colour can be used to reflect intensity of emotion. Probably the most popular painter to do this was van Gogh whose intense colours were intended to convey his own personal anguish. This approach went on to become the central technique of the German Expressionist painters (although they aren’t represented in the book, along with all 20th century art, because the National Gallery’s cut-off point is 1900).

Symbolism In earlier centuries, more than its realistic function, colour had an important role in a painting’s symbolism i.e. certain colours are understood to have certain meanings or to be associated with certain people or qualities. The most obvious period is the Renaissance, when the Virgin Mary’s cloak was blue, Mary Magdalene’s cloak was red, St Peter’s cloak was yellow and blue, and so on. From early on this allowed or encouraged Renaissance painters to create compositions designed not only to show a (religious) subject, but to create harmonious visual ‘rhythms’ and ‘assonances’ based on these traditionally understood colour associations.

Pigments and Media

This is dealt with quite thoroughly in another book in the series, Techniques of Painting. There we learn that paint has two components, the binding medium and the pigment. Over the centuries different pigments have been used, mixed into different binding mediums, including egg, egg yolks, oil, painting directly into wet plaster (fresco) and so on.

Painting is done onto supports – onto walls, plaster, or onto boards, metal, canvas or other fabrics. All of these need preparing by stretching (canvas) or smoothing (wood), then applying a ground – or background layer of paint – to soak into the support. Painters of the 14th and 15th centuries used a white ground. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, artists experimented with varying the tone of the ground, which significantly alters the colour of the works painted onto them.

Hardening Binding mediums dry out in two ways: watercolours and synthetic resin paints by simple evaporation. Drying oils such as linseed, walnut or poppy oil harden by chemical reaction with the oxygen in the air. Egg tempera, used extensively in the 14th and 15th century, dries by a combination of both.

This may sound fairly academic but it profoundly affects the whole style and look of a painting. Because tempera dries so quickly (especially in hot, dry Italy) shapes and textures are best built up by short hatched strokes.

This is a detail from the Wilton Diptych (1397) where you can see the way the skin of the Virgin and child and angels has been created by multiple short paint strokes of egg tempera.

Whereas, because oils are slow drying, they allow the artist to merge them into smooth, flowing, continuous transitions of colour. Oil paints = more flowing.

In this detail from Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, you can see how the gold chain has been rendered with a really thick layer of gold paint. Laying on very thick layers of oil paint is called impasto.

In general, oil paint looks darker and richer than paint made using water-based media such as egg tempera, glue or fresco, which appear lighter and brighter.

Age and decay Painting was, then, a highly technical undertaking, requiring the painter to have an excellent knowledge of a wide range of materials and chemical substances. Different media dry and set in different ways. Different pigments hold their colour – or fade – over time. And this fading can reveal the ground painted underneath.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the specific examples it gives of how some pigments have faded or disappeared – sometimes quite drastically – in Old Master paintings.

In Duccio’s The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea, the face and hands of the figures show clearly how the lighter pigments painted in tempera have faded or flaked off allowing the green underpaint to come through. The Virgin was not meant to look green!

Bladders to tubes Pigments had to be ground by hand and mixed in with binders in studios for the medieval and Renaissance period. There are numerous prints showing a Renaissance artist’s studio for what it was, the small-scale manufactory of a craftsman employing a number of assistants and making money by taking on a number of students.

In the 18th century ready-mixed pigments could be transported inside pigs’ bladders. The early 19th century developed the use of glass or metal syringes. But it was in 1841 that an American, John Rand, developed the collapsible metal tube. This marked a breakthrough in the portability of oil paints, allowing artists to paint out of doors for the first time. A generation later a new school arose – the Impressionists – who did just this. Jean Renoir quotes his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste, as saying:

Without paints in tubes there would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionism.

Biographies of colours

Primo Levi wrote a classic collection of short stories based on The Periodic Table of chemical elements. It crossed my mind, reading this book, that something similar could be attempted with the numerous pigments which artists have used down the ages.

This book gives a potted history of the half a dozen key colours. It explains how they were originally produced, how different sources became available over the centuries, and how the 19th century saw an explosion in the chemical industry which led to the development of modern, industrially-manufactured colours.

Blue

  • Prime source of blue was the ultramarine colour extracted from the mineral lapis lazuli, which was mined in one location in Afghanistan and traded to the Mediterranean.
  • A cheaper alternative was azurite, which was mined in Europe but had to be ground coarsely to keep its colour, and is also prone to fade into green, e.g. the sky in Christ taking Leave of his Mother by Albrecht Altdorfer (1520). Many artists painted a basic wash of azurite and then used the much more expensive ultramarine to create more intense highlights.
  • Indigo is a dye extracted from plants. At high intensity it is an inky black-blue, but at a lesser intensity also risks fading.
  • A cheaper alternative was smalt, manufactured by adding cobalt oxide to molten glass, cooling and grinding it to powder. It holds its colour badly and fades to grey.
  • In the early 1700s German manufacturers stumbled across the intense synthetic pigment which became known as Prussian blue (the book gives examples by Gainsborough and Canaletto).
  • Around 1803 cobalt blue was invented.
  • In 1828 an artificial version of ultramarine was created in France

Thus the painters of the 19th century had a much wider range of ‘blues’ to choose from than all their predecessors.

The book does the same for the other major colours, naming and explaining the origin of their main types or sources:

Green

  • Terre verte was used as an underpaint for flesh tones in early Italian paintings
  • malachite
  • verdigris, a copper-based pigment was prone to fade to brown and explains why so many Italian landscapes have the same orangey-brown appearance
  • emerald green (a pigment developed in the 19th century containing copper and arsenic)
  • viridian (a chromium oxide)

Red

  • Vermilion, obtained by pulverising cinnabar, liable to fade to brown as has happened with the coat of Gainsborough’s Dr Ralph Schomberg (1770), which should be bright red.

Yellow

  • Lead-tin yellow in the Renaissance
  • from the 17th century lead-based yellow containing antimony known as Naples yellow
  • from the 1820s new tints of yellow became available based on compounds of chromium of which chrome yellow is the most famous
  • cadmium yellow

White

  • Lead white was used from the earliest times. It forms as a crust on metallic lead exposed to acetic acid from sour wine – highly poisonous
  • only in the twentieth century was it replaced by non-toxic whites based on zinc and later, titanium. Unlike all the pigments named so far, lead white keeps its colour extremely well, hence the bright white ruffs and dresses in paintings even when a lot of the brighter colour has gone.

Black 

  • A large range of black pigments was always available, most based on carbon as found in charcoal, soot and so on. Carbon is very stable and so blacks have tended to remain black.

Summary of colours

  1. Over the past 500 years there has been a large amount of evolution and change in the source of the pigments artists use.
  2. Colour in art is a surprisingly technical subject, which quite quickly requires a serious knowledge of inorganic chemistry and, from the 19th century, is linked to the development of industrial processes.
  3. Sic transit gloria mundi or, more precisely, Sic transit gloria artis. The net effect of seeing so many beautiful paintings in which the original colour has faded – sometimes completely – can’t help but make you sad. We live among the wrecks or decay of thousands of once-gloriously coloured artworks. Given the super-duper state of digital technology I wonder if anywhere there exists a project to restore all these faded glories to how they should look!

Disegno versus colore

Vasari, author of The Lives of the Great Artists (155) posed the question, ‘Which was more important, design or colour?’ As a devotee of Michelangelo, the godfather of design, he was on the side of disegno and relates a conversation with Michelangelo about some paintings by Titian (1488-1576) they had seen where Michelangelo praises Titian’s use of colour but laments his poor composition.

The art history stereotype has it that Renaissance Florence was the home of design, while Venice (where Titian lived and worked) put the emphasis on gorgeous colours. This was because Venice was a European centre for the production of dyes and pigments for a wide range of manufacturing purposes, not least glass and textiles.

In late-17th-century France the argument was fought out in the French Academy between Rubénistes (for colour) and Poussinistes (for drawing). Personally, I am more moved by drawing than colour, and a little more so after reading this book and realising just how catastrophically colour can fade and disappear – but, still, there’s no reason not to love both.

Optical theories

Isaac Newton published his Optics in 1704, announcing the discovery that when white light is projected through a prism it breaks down into primary colours, which can then be turned back into white light. Among its far-ranging investigations, the book contained the first schematic arrangement of colours and their ‘opposites’. It wasn’t until well into the 19th century, however, that colour charts began to proliferate (partly because they were required by expanding industrial manufacture, and the evermore competitive design and coloration of products).

And these colour charts bore out Newton’s insight that complementary colours – colours opposite each other on the circle – accentuate and bring each other out.

Colour Circle by Michel Eugène Chevreul (1839)

Colour Circle by Michel Eugène Chevreul (1839)

Colour circles like this systematised knowledge which had been scattered among various artists and critics over the ages. It can be shown that Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) made systematic use of contrast effects, pairing colour opposites like orange-blue, red-green or yellow-violet, to create stronger visual effects.

On a simplistic level it was the availability of a) new, intense colours, in portable tin tubes, along with b) exciting new theories of colour, which explains the Impressionist movement.

The Impressionists were most interested in trying to capture the changing quality of light, but the corollary of this was a fascination with shadow. Apparently, impressionist painters so regularly (and controversially) paired bright yellow sunlight with the peculiar tinge of violet which is opposite it on the colour charts, that they were accused by contemporary critics of violettomani.

Some examples

The book lists the pigments used to create Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. The intense blue sky is made from ultramarine lapis lazuli, as is Ariadne’s drapery and the flowers at the lower right. The blue-green sea is painted with the cheaper azurite. Vermilion gives Ariadne’s sash its red colour. The Bacchante’s orange drapery was painted with a rare arsenic-containing mineral known as realgar.

Titian was aware of the power of colour contrasts long before the 19th century colour wheels, something he demonstrates by placing Ariadne’s red and blue drapery above the primrose yellow cloth by the knocked-over urn at her feet (painted using lead-tin yellow). The green of the tree leaves and the grassy background are created from malachite over-painted with green resinous glazes. An intense red ‘lake’ is used to give Bacchus’s red cloak its depth.

These coloured ‘lakes’ were an important element in Renaissance painting but I had to supplement the book’s information with other sources.

From this I take it that ‘lakes’ were translucent i.e. you could see the colour beneath, and so were used as glazes, meaning you would lay down a wash of one colour and then paint over potentially numerous ‘lakes’ to add highlights, depths or whatever. This build-up of ‘lake’ glazes allowed the layering of multiple variations of colour and so the intensely sensual depiction of the folds on fabrics, the light and shade of curtains and clothes which is so characteristic of Old Master painting.

The book then applies this detailed analysis of colour pigments to a sequence of other Old Masterpieces by Rubens, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Tiepollo, Canaletto, Monet and Seurat.

Conclusion

A Closer Look: Colour makes you appreciate the immense amount of knowledge, science, craft and technique which went into painting each and every one of the National Gallery’s 2,300 artworks (and the depth of scholarship which modern art historians require to analyse and unravel the technical background to each and every painting).

It’s a revelation to read, but also pure joy to be prompted to look, and look again, in closer and closer detail, at so many wonderful paintings.


Related links

Reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

A Closer Look: Techniques of Painting by Jo Kirby (2011)

This is a superbly informative, crisply written and lavishly illustrated little book. It’s one of a series of slender volumes (this one is 93 pages long) in the National Gallery’s A Closer Look series. To quote the blurb:

Techniques of Painting aims to help readers develop a painterly eye by learning to recognize different materials and methods of application and to appreciate how these features contribute to how a painting looks.’

It ranges far and wide to find examples from the National Gallery’s vast collection of over 2,300 paintings. Almost all the 94 illustrations are in good quality colour, with well-chosen close-ups from works both familiar and strange to illustrate precise aspects of the craft of painting. Although there are examples from the gods of later centuries – van Dyck, Rubens, Gainsborough, Lawrence, van Gogh and Monet – the book tends to focus interest on, and encourage a better understanding of, earlier painters, especially of the early Italian Renaissance.

Thus the book’s detailed explanation makes you appreciate the extraordinary skill and craft which went into creating, for example, both the floor carpet and the individual halos – made from gilt which is then elaborately stippled and decorated – in Nardo Di Cione’s Three Saints (1365).

Nardo Di Cione's Three Saints (1365)

Three Saints (1365) by Nardo Di Cione

I learned that:

  • Paint is made of two ingredients, the pigment which gives colour and the binding medium which allows it to be applied with brushes (of various size, shape and density). These latter include egg tempera, oil, flue and gum.
  • Egg tempera was a medium made from eggs or just egg yolk, mixed with pigment. It dries rapidly. It tends to be applied in fine parallel strokes. Most Renaissance painters up till about 1480 used egg tempera.
  • The use of oil as a binding medium was pioneered by painters in northern Europe. It is more versatile. Oil can be built up by repeated layers, creating areas of solid thickly applied colour, or thinned to create sketchy dry strokes.
  • The thing a painting is painted onto is called the support. Until the early sixteenth century, most paintings were painted onto wood panels. For larger panels, multiple planks of wood would be battened together. Canvas began to be used in north Italy, around Venice and Verona, in the early 1500s, and only slowly spread to north Europe. The most popular wood in Italy was poplar, in northern Europe it was oak.
  • Supports are primed for painting. Wood supports were sanded smooth. Sometimes fine canvas or parchment was glued onto it. Then a ‘ground’ for painting was created. A layer of white calcium sulphate, known as gypsum, mixed with animal glue was applied, dried and sanded flat. The Italian for gypsum is ‘gesso’ and this became the generic name for all white grounds. For expensive paintings a coarse gesso was applied and dried before a much finer one, gesso sottile, was applied. A handbook of the time recommends no fewer than eight coats be applied. Part of the reason for this care was that, when gold leaf was applied to earlier Renaissance paintings, any flaw in the surface immediately showed up – hence the need for absolute flatness. As the use of gilt declined, gessos became less perfect. In northern Europe natural chalk was used, in glue solution. On top of the ground a priming layer was applied, to prevent the oil pigment from being absorbed. It was generally oil mixed with light pigments.
  • Canvas, no matter how tightly stretched, is a more coarse surface than prepared board, and also it is springy. These factors encourage a looser handling of the paint. Linen, hemp, silk and wool cloth were all used as supports, as well as canvas. Cotton became available in the nineteenth century. Van Gogh and Gauguin painted a series onto part of a roll of jute cloth which Gauguin bought. To be usable canvas had to be stretched onto a wooden framework called a strainer. Canvas on its own would absorb some of the binding medium, giving the painting a more matt appearance than painting on a wood support. To prevent, this canvas also was primed or prepared, a process called sizing.
  • For both canvas and wood panels, the primer or ground could be any colour – over time, between the Renaissance and the 18th century, the general tendency was for darker grounds to be used. The pre-Raphaelites returned to using bright white grounds and this is one factor in the astonishingly brilliant colouring of their paintings.
  • Copper plate was a fairly popular support for paintings in the 17th century.
  • Paper has always been used for pencil and pen sketches; in the 19th century it became used as the support for watercolours.
  • Fresco is the Italian word for ‘fresh’ and also the name for the technique whereby pigments are mixed with water and applied to lime plaster which has been freshly laid over walls or ceilings. As the plaster dries the pigment binds into it. Some colours reacted badly with lime, namely the blue pigment azurite, which explains why frescos are generally light and creamy in colour. These alkali-resistant pigments could be applied later, after the original fresco work had dried, mixed with egg, in a process called a secco. But they were less bound into the actual plaster and so have tended to flake off and disappear over the centuries. Fresco was popular in hot, dry Italy and not very popular in the damp north of Europe.
The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels (1495) by Quinten Massys

The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels (1495) by Quinten Massys

Taking the painting above as an example, the book shows a close-up of the hem of the Virgin’s cloak to show the extraordinary care and subtlety with which the realistic patchiness of the sheen on the gold lining was achieved, and then highlights the detail of each individual pearl, complete with its own spot of light and shadow cast on the cloth. The closer you look, the more you marvel at the time, patience and skill involved.

Other terms

  • Maestà (Italian for ‘majesty’) – a type of religious subject for a painting, namely a representation of the Madonna and Child in which the Madonna is enthroned in majesty as Queen of Heaven, surrounded by a court of saints and angels. An example is the Maestà painted by Duccio in the cathedral at Siena (1308-1311).
  • Predella – a separate frame of smaller paintings running along the bottom of an altarpiece. In medieval and Renaissance altarpieces, where the main panel consisted of a scene with large static figures, the predella along the bottom usually contains a set of small-scale narrative paintings depicting events from the life of the dedicatee, whether the Life of Christ, the Life of the Virgin or a saint. Typically, three to five small scenes, in a horizontal format. An example is this Altarpiece by Carlo Crivelli. The predella is the name given to the row of four scenes along the bottom, showing episodes from the Passion of Christ.

Related links

Reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

The Resistance by Matthew Cobb (2009)

Timeline

1939
September 3 – France and Britain declare war on Nazi Germany as a result of its invasion of Poland
1940
May 10 – after 9 months of ‘phoney war’, Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and quickly overruns them
June 18 – In the dying days of the Battle of France, General de Gaulle broadcasts from London telling the French to resist Germany
June 22 – The defeatist French government signs an armistice with Germany which establishes German direct rule over northern and western France and leaves southern, ‘unoccupied’ France, to be run by a new French government led by First World War hero, Marshal Pétain. Technically, the unoccupied territory referred to itself simply as the ‘French state’, but the English-speaking world refers to it as ‘Vichy France’ because its government was located in the small spa town of Vichy.

Map of German-occupied and unoccupied France from July 1940 to November 1942

During its 18 month rule the Vichy government slowly instituted Nazi policies, banning Jews, rounding up eligible Frenchmen for enforced labour in Germany and so on.
1942
November -in response to the mounting level of Resistance activities, the Nazis moved to occupy all of France.
1943
January – The Germans lose the Battle of Stalingrad
July – The Allies invade Italy and fight their way up the peninsula
1944
June – D-Day landings in Normandy
August – Paris is liberated


The French Resistance

Books There are over 3,000 books about the Resistance in French, and half a dozen good overall accounts in English, of which this is one of the most recent.

Number of résistants Anyone who resisted was a résistant. In total, in the four years of Germany occupation, from June 1940 to the liberation of Paris in August 1944, some 500,000 people took part in the broadest definition of resistance activities. Around 100,000 were arrested, imprisoned, deported to camps in Germany or executed.

Collaboration and resistance It seems that when Marshal Pétain and members of the Vichy government first used this word, collaboration, to describe their working arrangement with the Germans, it had neutral connotations, it just described a new way of working together. Many French thought the old Marshall was a canny planner who was just waiting for the right moment to turn on the Nazis and kick them out. Only very slowly did ordinary people realise that Pétain had no such plan and was happy to connive in:

  • the collapse of living standards
  • food shortages
  • the mass deportation of young men to work in labour camps
  • the persecution, imprisonment then deporting of the Jews

So ‘resistance’, as a concept, was developed partly as a response to ‘collaboration’ – yin and yang.

De Gaulle The book makes clear that when General de Gaulle escaped to England, he was more or less alone. Certainly, over 100,000 French troops were evacuated from Dunkirk and then billeted in the south of England, but from the higher echelons of the French army de Gaulle was virtually alone. When an army officer called on him to ask for a job he had to bring his own paper to write out the specification. De Gaulle barely had an office, no secretary, a few military assistants.

Nonetheless, de Gaulle’s invincible optimism that France would be liberated persuaded the British government to give him a five-minute slot in the weekly half hour broadcast to France, and this helped identify him with the cause of Free France, which is what he named his movement.

The book then chronicles the very long and very complex series of political manoeuvring among the Allies, de Gaulle’s own camp, among the myriad different resistance groups and among Vichy politicians which slowly led to de Gaulle becoming the most acceptable – or the least unacceptable – figurehead which all the different forces fighting to liberate France could rally round.

 

Varieties of resistance Only slowly, and in scattered pockets all over occupied and unoccupied France, did people from all walks of life decide they had to ‘resist’ the invader, by any means possible. To begin with this took modest forms:

  • schoolchildren marched on patriotic holidays
  • everyone, from kids to old ladies, carved, wrote or made models or hand gestures of ‘V for victory’, for example painting V on the wall or writing it in the dirt on cars
  • after waving the tricolour flag was banned, people wore clothes the same colour as the French flag

Amateur and professional

While dealing with these early outbreaks of spontaneous and ‘popular’ resistance, Cobb also sets the scene for the politics of the Resistance. The broad outline is simple. De Gaulle isolated in London assumed every French citizen would place themselves under his control and would obey military discipline and his orders. The snag was that the Allies had a very uneasy relationship with de Gaulle and his supposed Free French, because he was arrogant, dictatorial and unbending. On the other hand, he did become an icon due to his radio broadcasts and it aided the Allied effort to have a central focus of dissent, even if a difficult one.

Meanwhile, for his part, de Gaulle had little grasp of what was going on in France. Broadly speaking there appear to have been two periods: before Hitler’s invasion of Russia the entire communist party and all its affiliates was under orders from Stalin not to attack the Germans. They were hors du combat from June 1940 till June 1941. During this period small resistance networks bloomed all across France. Some carrying out ad hoc sabotage when a member had the opportunity – cutting telegraph wires, damaging railway lines. Others – in Paris especially – organised underground newspapers, propaganda and morale boosting stunts. All learned from bitter experience how not to set up underground organisations, how not to get caught, how to code messages and arrange secret rendezvous. Newspapers around which organisations clustered included Liberation, Combat, Valmy and Pantagruel.

All these organisations reflected the severe splintering which had characterised French political life before the war (and would continue to do so afterwards). Some were extreme right-wing Catholic monarchists; some liberal, some non-aligned, some socialist and when the communists joined the fray in 1941, it was reflected in the resurgence of their well-written newspaper, L’Humanité.

The engagement of the communists after June 1941 changed the dynamic in numerous ways: most obviously because they were well-organised, motivated and armed, and started carrying out effective assassinations and sabotage straight away. But they also upset the political balance. De Gaulle and the Allies became worried that arming ‘the Resistance’ would mean, in effect, helping the communists prepare for a post-liberation revolution. Certainly, the resistance had to be maintained as a morale-boosting force and military asset, but prevented from turning into an insurrectionary, revolutionary force. This one consideration explains the single greatest issue for the Resistance, and its biggest complaint against the Allies, its persistent shortage of weapons.

The rest of the book details the prolonged and complex negotiations and jockeying between all parties at a high level, a lot of which focuses round De Gaulle’s representative in France, Jean Moulin, expert at setting up committees and organisations. On this political level, the history of the Resistance disappears into a blizzard of organisations and acronyms, continuing as high-level political and diplomatic negotiations for the rest of the war. To give a flavour:

On 23 July 1943 the MUR [Mouvement Unis de la Résistance] and some of the small resistance organisations set up a ‘Central Committee’, which deliberately excluded all the political parties (including the Communists, the FTP [Francs Tireurs et Partisans] and the Front National) and which sought to control all armed action. In response, de Gaulle’s delegate to the northern zone, Claude Serreulles, set up a rival CNR [Conseil National de la Résistance] ‘Bureau’, composed of the Front National, the PCF [Parti Communist Français], the CGT trade union, Ceux de la Résistance, the OCM [Organisation Civil et Militaire] and Libération-Nord, which also claimed control over the maquis and the Secret Army. This was a straightforward power struggle over the leadership of the Resistance, but the contending parties were aligning themselves in unexpected way. The Parisian Gaullists had united with the Communist Party, while the Resistance movements had the support of Colonel Passy’s BCRA [Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action] in the shape of Pierre Brossolette… (p.226)

Much of the book reads like this. There are three densely-printed pages of acronyms at the end of the book.

The maquis

Meanwhile, down on the ground, people were fighting and getting killed. Cobb describes how various resistance groups organised, created structures, cells, passwords, safe houses, dead letter drops and all the rest of the ‘tradecraft’ we read about in John le Carré novels. (It’s slightly strange that no-one has thought of creating a series of Resistance novels; presumably there are lots in French; I’ve never heard of any.)

There was another turning point in February 1943 when, as a consequence of the catastrophic defeat of the German Army at Stalingrad, the Germans decided to force all able-bodied French men into the Service du Travail Obligatoire i.e. being conscripted to work in Germany. Many thousands evaded the call-up by taking to the hills.

This is the origin of the maquis – meaning ‘the bush’ – a word which describes the scrubby landscape of south-eastern France where it these groups became common. They were quite separate from the longer-established urban-based underground newspapers and information-gathering networks although, over the next few years as Cobb shows in detail, they became organised into regional groupings and these themselves came under the umbrella of the national organisations which were being set up.

Reprisals

The Nazis started the occupation fairly relaxed, but responded fiercely to ad hoc assassinations or sabotage, and got slowly, steadily crueller. There was a step change when the communists became active after June 1941 and began to carry out assassinations and attacks on German soldiers. The Nazis had taken hostages and didn’t hesitate to murder them in reprisal. When the military commander of Nantes, Lieutenant-Colonel Karl Hotz was assassinated in October 1941, a handful of French hostages were shot by the local authorities. Then Hitler heard about it and personally ordered a hundred Frenchmen to be executed. That was his rule of thumb: 100 natives shot for every Nazi murdered.

The book is littered with stories of a resistance attack leading to the execution of hostages or just to the rounding up and shooting of men off the street of the nearest village or town. There are some nightmare accounts by people lucky enough to survive mass killings as at the notorious incident at Oradour-sur-Glane where, on 10 June 1944, the entire population of 642 was murdered and the village reduced to ruins by a German Waffen-SS company, allegedly to free an SS officer who was being held prisoner by the Resistance.

This was the most extreme example of cold-blooded brutality, but Cobb’s narrative is full of stories of résistants captured, tortured, deported and executed.

Many were given away by informers: entire networks, sometimes of 1,000 people, could be rolled up, imprisoned and tortured by the betrayal of one person. When two SOE men were arrested carrying uncoded messages in June 1943, it led to the capture of over 1,000 members of the PROSPECT network, the biggest single blow suffered by the Resistance. But Cobb also gives stories of terrible accidents and basic errors in security – carrying uncoded lists of names was a common error. I was struck that it is a basic rule of tradecraft to only wait ten, a maximum of fifteen minutes, at a rendezvous site, then clear off. Cobb gives stories of several high-ranking résistant who ignored this rule and were stopped, questioned, arrested, tortured and tragically revealed their networks.

By page 200 I had already had enough of men and women being arrested, tortured, breaking, giving other names, then being shot or beheaded or sent off to the death camps in the East – but it was only 1943 and there was another year of escalating horror and brutality to go. It becomes painful and terrible to imagine what it must have been like. And to witness so much heroism, God the bravery and dignity with which so many of these very young men and women went to their deaths makes me feel ashamed of the triviality of our modern world.

The Jews

To my mild surprise the book is full of stories of how very pro-Jewish the French were. There are lots of stories of non-Jews in all walks of life doing what they could to help and protect the Jews, as the Nazi regime became more repressive, humiliating and then began rounding up Jews for extermination.

Léon Bronchart was a forty-four-year-old train driver. In October 1941, when he was ordered to drive a train of Jewish deportees from Montauban station, he simply refused. The station master and depot manager argued with him but he refused. He shut down the engine and walked away. Another driver was found, and Bronchart was disciplined and fined. A few months later he was caught in possession of the banned resistance paper, Combat, and sent to do forced labour in Buchenwald camp, where he sabotaged the V-2 rockets he was working on, before being sent to Bergen-Belsen. As a non-Jew, he survived. After the war, Israel awarded him the title ‘A Righteous Among the Nations’. This story made me cry.

Or the account of André Trocmé, the Protestant pastor of Le Chambon, who organised the mass concealment of thousands of young Jews among his flock and in the nearby countryside. He is quoted as saying, ‘We do not know what a Jew is. We only know men.’ Simple principle, but leading to unimaginable bravery.

In July 1942 the Nazis rounded up about 13,000 Jewish men, women and children in Paris. Half of them were kept in a sports stadium for days with no food or water, till they could be loaded into trains and shipped east. Resistance newspapers reprinted accounts of the conditions (which, of course, went unmentioned in the official newspapers) and commented on the horror.

With the latest measures taken against the Jews, we are sinking even lower. Those who have ordered these measures are forever condemned in the eyes of all human and divine justice… We hesitate to use the term bestiality, because a beast does not separate a female from its babies. This is a case of human intelligence entirely in the service of Evil, using all its resources to aid the global triumph of evil, of cruelty, of filth. (quoted page 137)

This is stirring rhetoric against the evil of anti-Semitism, but Cobb also quotes an article in Combat titled ‘The Jews, Our Brothers’, which makes more of a reasoned case for the stupidity, for the incoherence, for the meaninglessness of anti-Semitism.

All those who suffer at the hands of the Germans, be they Jews or not, be they Communists or not, are our brothers… There is no Jewish racial problem, no question of Jewish ‘blood’, for the simple reason that the ‘Jewish race’ is, as all serious ethnologists recognise, as mixed as the ‘French race’ or the ‘German race’… This Jewish community is a constituent component of the French national community, just like all the other religious, cultural or regional communities. (quoted page 137)

Some of the resistance groups came from the right, some from the extreme right-wing of French politics, and included military men, extreme Catholics and conservatives among whom everyday anti-Semitism had been commonplace. Cobb shows how one of the effects of the occupation was to undermine if not eliminate anti-Semitism in the rhetoric of all the Resistance groups.

Nonetheless, in the final analysis, 85 railways convoys left France, carrying 70,000 Jews (10,000 of them children) to the death camps, without any serious effort made to hamper or sabotage them. You can dwell on this fact and ask why the Resistance didn’t do more to stop them (the short answer is that no-one appreciated the scale of the Holocaust until the war was over). And then, to put it in context, a similar number of trains left France carrying some 88,000 résistants and nobody stopped or liberated those, either.

The Resistance could only do what it could do, generally small-scale attacks or sabotage at times and places which best suited its (very) limited means.

Politics by other means

In summary, the Resistance may have played a sporadic role in hurting the Nazi war effort (though not, in the great scale of things, very much) – but more importantly, it was the way French politics continued during the occupation.

You can separate the book into two distinct strands – one is the complex history of numerous groups and networks on the ground, their heroic work to organise, meet, print newspapers and occasionally carry out attacks, some minor, some really significant and daring, like the January 1944 attack on the aircraft propeller factory at Figeac.

The other is the permanent buzz of high-level politics going on ‘behind the scenes’ as all sides fought over their visions for a post-war France. For example, the anti-imperialist Roosevelt envisioned a Europe of free states stripped of their colonial empires. For de Gaulle, on the contrary, regaining control of the empire was a key part of the French war aim, alongside restoring strong, authoritarian government under a strong authoritarian leader such as, ahem, himself.

While Roosevelt detested de Gaulle, he realised that at least he wasn’t a communist. For he, Churchill and de Gaulle shared a common fear that the Resistance would become a united military force strong enough so that, come the liberation – in whatever form – it would provide the vanguard for a Russian-style revolution.

And this is what some communists hoped for. But Socialist résistants, on the contrary, wanted something like a restoration of the 1936 Popular Front government. While a lot of people on the ground in France simply wanted a restoration of democratic politics – or had no political views at all – or were at the opposite extreme, arch right-wing Catholics who detested communists, socialists and liberals alike.

So a major strand of the book is detailing the incessant manoeuvring which went on all the time between all these different players, in light of the changing fortunes of war (e.g. June 1941 German invasion of Russia; December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and resultant entry of the USA into the war; January 1943 Germans lose the battle of Stalingrad; July 1943 the Allies take Sicily and Mussolini is sacked and imprisoned).

This manoeuvring carried right on up to the liberation of Paris in August 1944, and then swiftly became the ‘business as usual’ of French politics – which meant the dizzying turnaround of half-baked administrations which drove de Gaulle so mad with frustration that he resigned as head of the provisional government in 1946.

But America’s main war aim re. France was achieved. The Resistance did not become the kernel of a revolutionary army. There was no communist revolution in France. The communist party remained a very powerful presence for the rest of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, but it had been ordered during these crucial years not to foment revolution, not to frighten the Allies which Stalin needed to keep as friends, not to abuse its power. In fact, when Corsica was liberated in September 1943, the communist participants went out of their way to work in partnership with and submit themselves to the authority of the Free French forces.

de Gaulle part two

It is hilarious to read how much Roosevelt hated de Gaulle for his arrogance and hauteur – he couldn’t bear to be in the same room as the tall Frenchman. Even after the Free French located their new government in Algiers (after it had been liberated from the Germans by the Americans) Roosevelt still refused to consult it, and de Gaulle was never invited to the meetings of the Big Three – Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin.

It is a very striking fact that the Allies didn’t bother to tell de Gaulle the date of the D-Day landings until two days beforehand, on 4 June. All senior Allied officials and military leaders knew this weeks before de Gaulle; even the Resistance leaders had been told a week earlier. It cannot be over-emphasised how much Roosevelt et al disliked him.

And yet, the final pages of Cobb’s book show how, despite everything, de Gaulle’s rigidity and hauteur paid off. Once Paris was liberated, once he had walked down the Champs d’Elysees at the head of triumphal French troops (rustled up for the occasion), once he had announced that he was running the government, no other individual had the same a) contacts with the Allied leaders b) reputation among the general population, thanks to all those radio broadcasts. By definition, most of the Resistance leaders had worked anonymously, or under pseudonyms, whereas de Gaulle broadcast under his own name.

Which just goes to show that nations need, in the sense of wish for, desire, want to obey, one clear identified leader – even if he is a supercilious wanker. By the time I got to the last chapter I wasn’t at all surprised to read that in his speeches on the day of Paris’s liberation, de Gaulle made no mention of the Resistance, none at all; didn’t mention them, didn’t thank them (p.268). And that ten years later, in his memoirs, he hardly referred to this entire, huge, multi-headed organisation with its hundreds of thousands of brave men and women, who ran terrible risks and so many of whom paid for it with torture, slave labour and execution. Instead, all de Gaulle’s praise went to his little staff of ‘Free French’ colleagues in London or Algiers, but most of all to his mystical invocation of La France itself.

Then again, de Gaulle did have a grasp of the global situation. In order to earn respect from the Allies, in order to restore France as a world power, he vitally needed the French to take part in the conquest of Nazi Germany. Which is why, within three days of the liberation of Paris, de Gaulle called for the winding up of the two main Resistance organisations, the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieure and the Comité d’Action Militaire, and for all résistants to be absorbed into the Free french army. This was called l’amalgame and by November over 200,000 former résistants were fighting in the French Army which entered Germany.

What if…?

Obviously the book’s overt purpose is to provide a narrative history of ‘the resistance’. The main learning from it is how scattered and multi-headed this entity was, and how acts of resistance could range from schoolkids drawing a V for victory on a wall to complex plans to smuggle German military plans to England.

But all the way through, as I read of the outrageous courage and heroism of so many men and women, I was creating a secondary book in my mind, a ghost book, wondering – what would happen now?

How would I respond if, say, the Russians invaded England and created a dictatorial state (as they do in Kingsley Amis’s counter-factual novel, Russian Hide and Seek)? How would we all respond? Who would take a job with the regime, hoping to work improvements inside? Who would sell out, pure and simple? Who would go underground committing sporadic acts of sabotage or terrorism? Would I have the courage to refuse to drive the trainload of Jews like Léon Bronchart? What if… what then… how would…?

The fate of empires

Finally, it made me wonder about the French and British empires.

Again and again, de Gaulle and other French leaders are quoted as wanting to restore the gloire and the grandeur and the prestige of France. I have recently read several histories of the wars for independence from France fought by the Vietnamese (1945 to 1954) and the Algerians (1954 to 1962), bitterly contested, bloody, brutal wars which repeatedly jeopardised the French state itself.

So what I wonder is this:

Did France’s losing the war, being occupied and humiliated for four years, harden its patriotism, making all sectors of the political spectrum absolutely adamant that part of France’s core identity was its glorious empire and its famous mission civilatrice (France’s self-appointed mission to bring its glorious civilisation to the poor benighted peoples of Africa and south-east Asia)?

Did losing the war – and four years of resistance – make it harder for France to give up its empire? Hence the absolute debacles in Vietnam and Algeria?

And is it valid to compare and contrast France’s attitude to its empire with that of Britain, which wasn’t invaded or occupied, which fought off the attacker, which significantly helped win the final victory and so – to some extent – forged a national identity based on its own courage and pluck? Did this give the British a relatively secure, a psychologically confident, position which made it easier for the Brits to relinquish their empire?

In 1947 Britain gave away the jewel in the crown of its empire, India. In 1947 in Vietnam, the French had just launched a bloody attack on the port city of Haiphong, which hardened and spread anti-imperialist sentiment. Can the diverse approaches taken to their respective empires by the French and British governments be traced to their very different national experiences of the Second World War?

Le chant des partisans


Related links

Vietnam

Algeria

Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum (2012)

‘Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to the face of imperialist warmongers.’
(Stalinist slogan quoted on page 426)

The full title is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and that’s what the book narrates in grim detail. Applebaum is already well known for her magisterial account of the Soviet network of prison camps or ‘gulags’. This account of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe builds on her expertise, and benefits from the opening up of archives in both the Soviet Union and the countries which it subjugated.

There were eight countries in ‘the Eastern Bloc’ (if you accept that the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were simply swallowed whole by Russia and ceased to exist as separate entities): East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania. Applebaum’s account focuses in detail on just three – East Germany, Poland and Hungary. I was a little disappointed by this, as I feel I’ve read lots of books and seen plenty of movies about East Germany whereas I know next to nothing about Bulgaria or Romania. But she’s right to say these three provide a selection of types of country which demonstrate the way different histories and experiences were subjected to the same murderous Soviet approach.

Each of the chapters then takes a topic or aspect of the crushing of Eastern Europe and describes its application in each of the three chosen countries:

Zero Hour

Paints the devastation of a continent after the war. Her account supplements Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. We’ve all seen photos of the ruined cities. It’s the scale of human displacement which is difficult to grasp. Between 1939 and 1943 some 30 million Europeans were dispersed, transplanted or deported. Between 1943 and 1948 a further 20 million were moved (p.11) Levels of theft, looting, violence and murder were orders of magnitude greater than they had been before the war. In many places civil society had completely collapsed.

Victors

The path of the Red Army across Eastern Europe was marked by wanton destruction and mass rape, especially once they’d crossed into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of German women were gang-raped, many then murdered. Alongside individual acts of looting, the Soviet apparatus systematically denuded European countries of their industrial infrastructure. Tens of thousand of factories, trains and railway line, were ripped up and shipped back to Russia. They packed up Leipzig Zoo and sent it East.

Communists

Applebaum profiles the men who were to become the leaders of communist Poland, Hungary and East Germany – Boleslaw Bierut, Matyas Rakkosi and Walter Ulbricht, respectively. They were uniformly from poor backgrounds and badly educated.

Ulbricht was the son of a poor tailor who left school early to work as a cabinet maker before being drafted into the Army. In 1918 he was galvanised when he discovered communist texts which explained the world in simple terms and he never lost his faith. Like the other leaders, he benefited from the way the between-the-wars communist parties, as Stalin’s influence grew, purged many of their brightest and best members. Only the less bright, the more dogged, the more unquestioningly devoted, remained. (Of the thirty-seven original members of the Polish Communist Party’s central committee, no fewer than 30 were arrested in Moscow and shot or sent to labour camps.) This explains the poor intellectual calibre of the leaders of the communist bloc; the clever ones had been liquidated.

Moreover, these ‘leaders’ implemented a social, political and policing model straight from the Soviet template. They all copied the Soviet hierarchy of Politburo, Central Committee, regional committees, and local party cells. In all the countries, regardless of local political or economic conditions, they tried to apply the same political and economic straitjacket.

Because all were ‘Moscow communists’. This meant that during the troubled years of the 1930s and the war, they had all fled to Russia where they were soundly indoctrinated in the One True Way by the Comintern. The Soviets were deeply suspicious of any communists who’d spent any time anywhere else, especially any who had been based in the West. Once the communist regimes were in place, many of these non-Moscow communists were themselves arrested and sent to prison or labour camps – just in case they had divisive or alternative views. About anything. Only the most faithful of the faithful were allowed to take power.

Applebaum points out that, quite apart from notions of social justice or ideological convictions, membership of this small, élite band held two kinds of more tangible rewards: psychologically, it made you feel part of a chosen elite; and in practical terms, both in Moscow and back in their home countries, they lived an elite lifestyle, able to shop at party shops, stay in party hotels, relax in party dachas and send their children to party schools.

Policemen

The most obvious area where the European communist parties simply copied Soviet model was in the creation of their own versions of the Soviet secret police, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or NKVD).

Applebaum portrays the chillingly efficient way that communist secret police apparatuses, which had been preparing and training for years, were flown in ready-made as each Eastern country was ‘liberated’ by the Red Army, to become the Polish UB, the Hungarian AVO, the East German Stasi.

For a few years most of the liberated countries were allowed to have a facade of democratic politics, with a number of political parties and even free elections. This was because the Soviets knew from experience that democratic politics is a sham: real power lies in the secret police and the prisons. Given complete control of these instruments the political system can be seized overnight simply by arresting everyone.

Applebaum shows how the secret police mentality had been shaped by intense ideological training in the USSR to believe that everyone not in the communist party was a potential enemy spy or saboteur, who consequently had no rights. Anyone could be arrested and she shows how, in the early months of Hungary’s liberation, the new security police was under instructions to deliver fixed quotas of ‘traitors’ and so quite literally arrested anyone they could find in the streets, including children.

And often, of course, even people inside the communist party turned out to be traitors. Absolutely everyone had to be watched, and as far as possible, everyone had to be made a collaborator of the secret police. Hence the extraordinary size and depth of the Stasi’s files when they were revealed to the public in 1990, and the dismaying discovery that a huge percentage of the population routinely reported on their neighbours, friends, and even wives and partners.

Violence

The Comintern knew exactly what they were doing. The liberated countries were to be slowly strangled. Other parties could be included in initial elections and be given various government departments – but the communists always and everywhere controlled the ministries of the Interior, of Defence and the secret police – i.e. all the mechanisms of violence. From the word go they ruled through arrests, beatings, executions and labour camps.

Between January and April 1945 the NKVD arrested 215,540 people in Poland. Most were in fact ethnic Germans who were deported to Germany. The 40,000 Poles were all sent to prison camps in Russia, where some 5,000 died. Between 1945 and 1953 some 150,000 people were incarcerated in NKVD camps in Eastern Germany. A third died due to appalling conditions. There was no heating, no medicines, no doctors, often no food. After the ‘liberation’ of 1945 between 140,000 and 200,000 Hungarians were deported to Russian labour camps.

The arbitrariness of many of these arrests, combined with the careful targeting of specific voices of dissent, worked exactly as the Soviets intended – terrifying entire populations into silence and acquiescence.

It is particularly chilling to learn that, such was the need of the new communist regimes for prison camps, that wherever possible they started reusing the Nazi death camps. Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and even Auschwitz, became prison camps for the ever-multiplying categories of traitors, spies and saboteurs which the communists quickly detected everywhere.

Ethnic Cleaning

The years after the Second World War were marked by the truly epic relocation of peoples. The largest group were Germans, with over 12 million Germans being expelled from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other East European countries. Admittedly this was partly because many had moved to those countries during the war, as part of Nazi settlement plans, and also because the borders of Poland were drastically moved westwards by Stalin, effectively engulfing a large part of East Germany. But ethnic groups who now found themselves in the ‘wrong’ country were kicked out of all the EE nations. Applebaum’s account of the savage civil war between Ukrainians and Poles in south-east Poland is particularly shocking.

She also explains that anti-Semitism, although part of the hated Nazi ideology, was always liable to be revived in Eastern Europe. Many of the communist leaders were self-conscious about either being Jews themselves or that the party contained lots of Jews and tried at various points to recruit more Volkisch members. The whole issue was revived in the last 1940s as Stalin himself became clinically paranoid about Jews and in particular Jewish doctors, who he thought were trying to poison him, which led to many Jews being rounded up in the purges and arrests of 1949.

As usual, Applebaum conveys the infamy of all of this by telling the heart-breaking stories of individuals caught up in the madness. While all the nations of Eastern Europe set about ethnically cleansing themselves, expelling non-local-speaking languages back to their new ‘homelands’ – Czechs being kicked out of Hungary, Poles kicked out of Ukraine, Germans kicked out of Poland and so on – all these peoples could at least travel to a nominal home country. So this vast panorama of ethnic cleansing adds a kind of fateful inevitability to the increasingly urgent efforts made by Jews all across the East, and in Russia, to travel to their homeland, the newly-founded state of Israel.

Youth

I didn’t know that the Boy Scouts movement was as widespread and popular in Eastern Europe as Applebaum shows. It is just one of the many independent organisations which the communist parties all across the East slowly strangled and co-opted into official party organisations. For example in July 1946 the communist Interior Minister of Hungary, László Rajk, banned over 1,500 organisations.

Why? In the introduction Applebaum has several pages discussing the nature of totalitarianism, invoking the quote associated with Mussolini, that it can be summarised –

All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

This chapter shows what nothing outside the state means in practice and it really is terrifying. Absolutely everything which we refer to nowadays as civil society – all charities, church groups, youth groups, hobbies and associations – every single way in which people got together had to be either banned or subject to communist control.

The relentless horror of this was brought home by the story of the 17-year-old Polish girl from Lublin who invited members of her old scouts group to get together to form a discussion group. She and seven friends were arrested and sentenced to between two and five years in prison. Nobody was allowed to associate together in any way lest even the slightest form of association create the germ of oppositional politics.

Applebaum points out that the focus on youth movements reflected Soviet and Marxist belief that human beings are blank sheets to be moulded and created at will, in this case to produce a new species, Homo sovieticus.

This is the background to Stalin’s expression that writers and artists should be ‘engineers of the human soul’, the human soul being something which can literally be redesigned and rebuilt to suit the needs of the proletarian revolution. Hence also Stalin’s rejection of modern genetics – because it appears to assert the profoundly fixed basis of human nature – and his promotion of the crackpot Lamarckism of Russian geneticist Lysenko, an apparently academic dispute which in fact had catastrophic consequences when it was applied to Soviet agriculture.

My ears pricked up when Applebaum points out that this view of human nature was prevalent in left-wing circles across Europe, because I have just been reading about Jean-Paul Sartre whose fundamental position is our utter freedom to create and shape ourselves. This contrasts sharply with his ‘frenemy’, Albert Camus’s position, that there is a human nature, its core element being revolt against our condition, against destiny and fate.

Which made me reflect that this is one axis along which to draw the divide between fundamentally left wing and right wing mentalities: on one side the belief that human beings can be changed and improved; on the other the knowledge that human nature is fixed, fallen and must be policed.

Radio

Newspapers were important and had to be controlled, but the easy way to do that was ration or cut off the supply of paper. Radio, however, was a potentially universal disrupting factor, and this explains why the political apparats parachuted in from Moscow already had training in how to use the radio for propaganda purposes. In many cases the Red Army was told not to damage the radio buildings of the enemy, notably the big radio studios on the outskirts of Berlin, virtually the only building left standing, as the Red Army was under strict orders to seize it intact, so that communist propaganda broadcasts could begin even during the last days of the war.

But – in line with the communist clampdown on absolutely every aspect of private life – woe betide anyone who had an unauthorised radio. In October 1944, Bolesław Bierut who would become the president of communist Poland, declared that anyone who owned a radio without a licence would be sentenced to death.

Politics

Detailed account of the way the communist regimes inched their way to power. At first they allowed other parties to exist, organise and publicise but the plan was always to persuade and then bully them into coalitions, where they could be controlled and then strangled.

It is striking to learn that in all the liberated nations the communist parties expected to win free and fair elections. They thought the populations would naturally be grateful to the Red Army for liberating them from the Nazis, and – indoctrinated with Soviet ideology – they also believed the working class would awaken to its historical destiny and realise the future was communist. But it didn’t.

Typical was the Hungarian General Election of November 1945, which was won by the Smallholders Party with 57%, followed by the Socialist Party with 17.4% and the Communist Party with 16.9%. The Soviet commander in Hungary, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, refused to allow the Smallholders to form a government. Instead Voroshilov established a coalition government with the communists holding all the key posts while the communists set to work to undermine and eventually abolish the Smallholders Party. In February 1946 its General Secretary, Béla Kovács, was arrested, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia for the usual trumped-up charges of treachery and counter-revolutionary activity i.e. anything which in any way could remotely damage communist domination (p.224).

In all the EE countries the same thing happened: the communists were beaten into third place in the only free elections they ever held, promptly cancelled any further elections, and set about intimidating their opponents. Opposition meetings were broken up, newspapers banned or prevented from printing, leaders were threatened and, in some cases, arrested, tried and executed. In Bulgaria the leader of the Agrarian Party, Nikola Petkov, was arrested, tried and executed in the summer of 1947 (p.219). Many of them fled their countries.

The hoped-for democratic gaining of power turned into violent coups.

Economics

The most notable thing about communist economics is that they don’t work. This chapter deals with land and business. Land reform was popular across the East after the war, partly in response to the amazing inequities of landholding, much of which dated back centuries. Still there was surprising resistance to wholesale land redistribution and it was carried out with characteristic inefficiency and inequity and, to the communists’ dismay, even after being given land, most peasants refused to vote for the communists, but preferred the parties set up precisely to represent peasants and small landholders. Until they were abolished.

As to ‘the market’ communists had been taught to abolish it and crack down wherever it appeared. This meant banning privately owned businesses and shops. In Poland between 1947 and 1949 the number of private trading and distribution firms was cut by half (p.248). But the communist apparatus was not able to fill the gap. The result was predictable: a vast increase in the black market and a general shortage of goods. These were to characterise all the communist economies, including the mother economy of the USSR, for the rest of their existence.

What the 45 year experiment showed is that central planning a) is not as responsive to consumer wishes as a free market b) because its monolithic nationalised industries and departments are top-heavy, bureaucratic, slow and inefficient and c) manned by the dimmest, most conformists sections of society. She explains how the cult of ‘shock workers’, i.e. super workers who heroically over-delivered on their quotas (the most famous example being the Russian coal miner and Hero of Socialist Labour, Alexey Stakhanov) paradoxically undermined efficiency, because so many workers were incentivised to copy their examples that quality across all products plummeted.

Pricing is also related to quality. If the factory can only charge one price whether its goods are designed by a team of top designers and engineers, or are the most basic product imaginable, it will opt for the basic model.

The result: empty shops and furtive bargaining down back streets, the permanent shortages and crap quality of all the so-called consumer goods produced in the USSR and all its European satellites. And the typically bleak Soviet jokes:

What is the definition of Socialist Amnesia?
Standing outside a bread shop with an empty bag, not knowing whether you’re in the queue or have just been served.

(In an interesting aside, Applebaum points out that, once an industry is nationalised, for workers to complain about working conditions or pay, is to protest directly against the state. This gives background to my boyhood in the 1970s which were marked by an endless stream of mass strikes in the nationalised iron, steel, rail, coal and car industries, and makes Mrs Thatcher’s move to privatise them seem not only part of her ideological return to free market capitalism, but also an elementary form of political protection. A government which nationalises an industry makes itself directly vulnerable to criticism by the very people it sets out to help)

High Stalinism

This is a brief summary of the topics discussed in part one of the book. The second part looks at the period between the communists’ full establishment of power, around 1948, and the death of Stalin in 1953 – the era of High Stalinism. It is even more shattering and terrifying than part one and covers topics like the rise of Socialist Realism in art and architecture, the creation of Ideal Communist Cities, and the ongoing crushing of internal dissent, among the opposition but also within the communist parties themselves, with waves of purges and executions.

1948 was a swing year. After four years the communist authorities had for the most part established a stranglehold on political structures and civic society, and yet the economies of the Eastern bloc were visibly failing. To anyone with contact with the West, it was obvious the East was falling behind, and fast. 1948 saw the commencement of the Marshall Plan to give American aid to any European countries who requested it, and the foundation, in May, of the state of Israel. As a result of these events, Stalin:

  • embarked on another round of purges and show trials, designed to create scapegoats for the failings of the communist economy
  • embarked on a round of anti-Semitic purges
  • launched the blockade of Berlin on June 1948, which led to the year-long Berlin Airlift by the Allies

In 1949 China went communist and Russia detonated its first H-bomb. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. It was in incredibly fast-moving environment.

I read books, watch TV documentaries and go to all the main art exhibitions in London and regularly feel overloaded with information and nostalgia about the 1960s – about 60s pop, the 60s social revolution, 60s fashion, design, art and all the rest of fit.

But the more I consume these cultural products, the more I feel they amount to an almost deliberate neglect of the far more important and decisive years after the Second War and on into the grey 1950s when much more of vital historical importance took place, and when the freedom of the West, which we all take for granted, was secured in the face of terrifying opposition.

Conclusions

1. By trying to control every conceivable aspect of society, totalitarian regimes turn every conceivable aspect of society into potential points of revolt. Thus the logic of ever-increasing repression, to crack down on every form of expression. But hence also, eventually, a society completely riddled with cracks and fissures. Which explains what history has in fact shown us – that apparently monolithic totalitarian regimes can disintegrate with surprising speed.

2. At bottom the Soviet and East European communist regimes based their entire legitimacy on the promise of future prosperity and higher living standards which were to be guaranteed by ‘scientific’ Marxism. In this one central aim they failed spectacularly. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 it was plain to the Soviets and to informed citizens of Eastern Europe that the West was pulling away in terms of technology, consumer goods and living standards at amazing speed. It’s not even that totalitarian communism is morally wrong or artistically repressive or psychologically damaging or violent and cruel, although it was all these – it just didn’t work.

All the issues discussed in Applebaum’s text are vividly illustrated where possible by the fate and experiences of named individuals – so many of them individuals, both communist and non-communist, who thought they could change, influence or improve their countries and who, without exception, were arrested, tortured, sent for long sentences to sub-Arctic camps in Russia, or simply executed. So many worthy people, so cruelly snuffed out by such evil scum.

Indeed, for the book she conducted extensive interviews in person with survivors of each of the three regimes, who are named in an appendix, I counted 90 of them, whose stories and quotes thread through the narrative giving a real sense of what it was like to try to live and think under these suffocating regimes. It’s this detail, this working through of exactly how the communists clamped down on every aspect of human life which we consider valuable, which chills the blood.

On the back cover biographer A.N. Wilson comments that this is the best work of modern history he has ever read. It is certainly among the most important. How many thousands of histories, school textbooks, movies and TV documentaries are devoted to the Nazis and ensuring that never again can such a maelstrom of racial hatred and state violence begin to rear its head in any civilised country?

But there are still legal communist parties all over Europe and communist intellectuals who are listened to. My daughter is being taught Marxism in her Sociology A-Level and I know it is still taught on countless Literature and Humanities courses.

In this respect, for showing what life in a communist state really involves, and the slow but steady way all our civic freedoms can be undermined, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a vital and outstanding achievement.


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Camus by Conor Cruise O’Brien (1970)

O’Brien (1917-2008) was Irish and had a long and varied career alternating between politics (Irish Foreign Office, United Nations, MP), journalism (editor-in-chief of the London Observer) and teaching (at universities in Ghana and New York). So he was well-placed to give an all-round assessment of Camus’s role as a novelist, playwright and above all, politically engaged writer and intellectual, 10 years after the Frenchman’s tragic death.

Only when I’d finished it did I understand the blurbs on the back of the book which point out that the entire study is written to a thesis, with a particular political interpretation in mind.

The Arab problem O’Brien starts by briskly outlining Camus’s biography and then gets on with ruffling feathers and questioning received opinion. He quotes a French writer on Camus who claims that all the working class inhabitants of the slum where Camus grew up were happily inter-racial. No, they weren’t says O’Brien; that kind of community is always troubled and there is evidence of outbreaks of unrest throughout Camus’s life.

O’Brien quotes some of Camus’s earliest essays which already make generalisations about Mediterranean Man, invoking images of Greek temples and so on. Absolutely nowhere in these portraits of his homeland does he mention mosques, muezzin, nowhere in any of his fictions is Arabic spoken. (Arabic was, in fact, banned in Algeria’s French-controlled schools.) Just a few pages into his study, O’Brien claims that, regardless of his conscious intentions, throughout his career Camus’s concept of ‘Mediterranean culture’ – by completely erasing Arab culture – served to legitimise French colonialism.

The Outsider (1940) Tough attitude, eh? O’Brien takes it on into his reading of L’Etranger. Here he points out that the account of Mersault’s trial is misleading. a) Mersault’s defence lawyer would have shown that he was defending himself against an Arab who had drawn a knife and had already attacked his friend, Raymond. Chances are a French court would only have charged him with manslaughter and possibly let him off altogether. No way it would have condemned him to death for self-defence against an Arab. b) The entire trial subtly implies that Frenchman and Arab had identical legal and civil rights in French Algeria, but they didn’t.

By gliding over this basic fact, the entire novel softens and conceals the harshness of French rule. This partly explains why the entire second part, devoted to the improbable trial and a schematic encounter with the prison priest, although its central to the plot, is less well remembered than the first half, set in the streets of Algiers, the beach, the desert heat.

O’Brien voices the misgivings I myself had on recently rereading L’Etranger, that the killing of the Arab is not really real. It is for his entire detachment from society that we feel Mersault is convicted – and this mood of rebellious detachment appeals now as it did then to adolescent minds everywhere. But no longer being a troubled adolescent, for me what stood out was the way the Arab has no name, never speaks and goes completely unlamented.

The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) O’Brien suggests this long essay is less a work of philosophy than the soliloquy of an artist meditating on suicide and death. He questions the novelty or viability of Camus’s notion of ‘revolt’, claiming that the post-God stance was the common currency of the time, and that every nation had rebelled against the Nazi occupation. O’Brien says that nonetheless the book had a big imapct on him and  his contemporaries because of its vivid affirmations of life in the face of death and despair.

The Plague (1947) O’Brien says The Plague is a masterpiece but it is not a novel; it is an ‘allegorical sermon’, and quotes Camus who himself referred to it as ‘a tract’.

O’Brien points out its flaws. For a start, Camus was apparently influenced by a recent article of Sartre’s on bourgeois fiction, to drop the notion of an omnipotent narrator. Apparently this explains why there is a fallible ‘Narrator’ who makes a fuss explaining how he has collated other documents, including Tarrou’s diary, to create his text, but this subterfuge is a) not consistently carried through – it ought to have had more newspaper reports or other sources to give it a real documentary feel b) is clumsily undermined when the text reveals at the end that ‘the Narrator’ is none other than Dr Rieux – who has been its central character! Puzzling and unsatisfactory.

But O’Brien goes, once again, for its most striking feature – the complete absence of the Arabs who, of course, made up eight-ninths of the population of Oran, the supposedly Algerian city where the plague breaks out.

O’Brien suggests they have to be erased from the narrative if it wants to be an allegory of the Nazi Occupation of France; for that allegory to work the chosen city must be a purely French city; the presence of Arabs complicates the allegory, in fact would ruin it, because you would have an oppressed population within the oppressed population. But O’Brien speculates that Camus might also have been aware of a more subversive interpretation of his allegory: that it was the French in Algeria who were the plague, the violent conquerors of the free Arabs.

By now O’Brien’s tone is scathing. He refers to the erasure of Arabs from the novel as ‘an artistic final solution to the problem of the Arabs’ – and points out how breath-takingly hypocritical it is that this genocide of the imagination takes place in a book stuffed so full of worthy characters calling for ‘total honesty’ about describing their situation; in a book whose central message is honesty and integrity in the face of the world’s injustice. Ha!

The Rebel (1951) O’Brien concentrates on the political message of The Rebel, specifically its anti-communism, using it as a focus to trace the slowly increasing vehemence of Camus’s anti-communism from the ambivalence of the Resistance days, to his final speeches and essays.

Argument with Sartre (1951) Camus’s attitude to communism was the crux of the break with Sartre when a journalist reviewed The Rebel unfavourably in Sartre’s journal, Les Temps Modernes. O’Brien, surprisingly, takes Sartre’s side by suggesting it needed more integrity to stand up to the immense weight of anti-communist feeling at the time, much of which was stoked up by CIA-funded publications and journalists. Sartre never joined the communist party but for writing in general terms about revolution he was subjected to lots of criticism. Via the same agents of cultural control, Camus found himself being championed as an exponent of liberal democracy and freedom (which he largely was, but with the vulnerabilities O’Brien is pointing out).

Colonialism O’Brien thinks the mounting vehemence of Camus’s hatred of communism and the historical/philosophical arguments he put forward in The Rebel to argue that communist regimes were uniquely, and inevitably, evil and repressive – masked a very bad conscience about the equally inevitable violence and repression of the French Empire, which had started as soon as the World War ended with violent suppression of independence movements in Algeria and Indo-China, to name the two biggest.

Exile and the Kingdom (1957) O’Brien dates these six short stories to just before the Algerian war broke out. Interestingly, O’Brien sees La Femme adultère and Le Renégat as a diptych contrasting heaven and hell. In the first a bored ignored wife has a mystical experience under the stars of the Algerian night sky; the latter is the demented monologue of a Christian missionary to native tribes who has had his tongue ripped out and been reduced to madness.

O’Brien notices how all the stories, even the realistic one about workers at a small workshop in Algiers who go on strike – have a dream-like quality. Everything he wrote, no matter how brutally realistic, was pulled towards a kind of allegorical abstractness.

Actuelles III (Chroniques Algériennes) In 1958 Camus published an entire collection devoted to bringing together all his writings on Algeria, O’Brien is correct to describe them as ‘depressing’. I have just read those of them which Camus selected to be included in his selection of journalism, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (1961). What’s depressing is their growing irrelevance, which is matched by a steady escalation of high-minded sentiment.

O’Brien catches this in a neat formulation, when he describes them as ‘categorical and resonant in tone, equivocal in substance.’ Yes, it’s the categorical style of all Camus’s factual writing which I find so wearing, the sense that every sentence is pointing out important distinctions and subtleties in what are, in actual fact, a depressingly narrow range of ideas – freedom, oppression, death, life, suicide, freedom, death, rebellion, freedom. Round and round like hamsters in a cage.

The Algerian War of Independence broke out with attacks on French military and civilians on 1 November (All Saints Day) 1954. After a year of escalating massacres and political deadlock, in January 1956 Camus went in person to Algeria and held a public meeting at which he presented his one contribution, the idea of a ‘truce for civilians’ which both sides could abide by. (The speech is reprinted in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.) He was barracked by the Europeans and ignored by the Muslims and the meeting broke up in disarray. He wrote numerous articles and interviews, but that was his one and only public intervention. His suggestion sank like a stone. The massacres continued for another six years, spreading to mainland France and leading to the widespread use of torture, before the French eventually conceded defeat and granted Algeria independence on 5 July 1962.

O’Brien is cutting. The Algerian war fatally undermined Camus’s position.

  • In his articles Camus was always careful to balance both sides. This sounds fair but what it really means is that he can’t bring himself to come out and state the fact that the entire disaster is the result of French colonialism, government incompetence, cultural arrogance, and systematic repression (rather like the defeat of France in 1940 – almost like there’s some kind of pattern).
  • Camus consistently ruled out any negotiation with the Front de Libération Nationale (the FLN, the leaders of the Algerian revolt), insisting that: 1. Algeria be restored to peace before 2. discussions with moderate Arab representatives could take place, but 3. Algeria could never be given independence because of its economic and social backwardness. But Camus’s central positions – no negotiation with the FLN, no independence – echoed and in effect supported the main French government policy and the military strategy which, with horrible inevitability, led on to the torture and massacres, and to the rise of the French terrorist organisation, OLS, which would end up trying to assassinate the president and organise a military coup in France. It was a complete dead end.

The volume of essays, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, counterpoints the writings on Algeria and his trip there in 1956, with Camus’s two long pieces about the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet control which took place on October-November of the same year. O’Brien dwells on the way Camus really goes to town on the evil repression of the Hungarian Uprising, and repeats in summary form the argument of The Rebel that communism is somehow uniquely and especially inhumane and violent. Camus tries here (as everywhere in his later writings) to be balance the two sides in the Cold War, to talk about two poles of repression. He goes out of his way to mention that the West, too, practices its oppressions and injustices, but he doesn’t even mention the stupid fiasco of Suez (another great triumph for French strategy and arms) and nowhere gives any sense that Western imperial repression was perceived as just as total and unjust as he thinks communist oppression. He can’t escape his Eurocentric point of view.

For O’Brien, although Camus continued for the last few years of his life with his ‘categorical and resonant’ defences of freedom, in practice he was now a right-wing apologist for the colonialist French government.

The Fall (1956) Camus’s third and final novel began life as a short story for the Exile and the Kingdom  volume. Like many of those stories it has a strong dreamlike quality, what with its fairy tale setting in a foggy, allegorical Amsterdam.

O’Brien brings out the centrality of Christian themes and imagery in this story of a successful society lawyer who loses his confidence, who comes to realise he is a fraud, who undergoes voluntary exile in Amsterdam and can only find release (like the Ancient Mariner) by buttonholing strangers and telling them his strange confession. (Having aligned Camus with the French colonialist government and now emphasising the essentially religious nature of his imaginative vision, for a moment I thought O’Brien might go on to predict that, given another 20 years, Camus might have turned into a crusty, right-wing French chauvinist and Catholic. But no.)

O’Brien says that, in contrast to the short stories of Exile and the Kingdom which are (mostly) hard and unrelenting, The Fall involves a return to irony, pleasure, mystery – the positive and enjoyable qualities of his two earlier novels. He has an interesting reason for this. He speculates it’s because the short stories – especially The Guest – dramatise Camus’s excruciating in the early 1950s, caught between two cultures and two irreconcilable armed camps. Whereas, by the time of The Fall a year or so later, Camus has to some extent reconciled himself to his position as an outsider from both sides.

Thus the Amsterdam of the novel is not only, in thematic terms, the anti-Algeria: foggy and wet to Algeria’s blazing sunshine. Its political significance derives from the narrator of The Fall‘s insistence that it is also like the Limbo of the theologians, neither heaven nor hell, a place outside time, a dream-place where one man sits condemned to tell his story over and again. It is the corner into which Camus has painted himself.

Conclusion

O’Brien heads towards the thundering conclusion that Camus’s political position was flawed and wrong. O’Brien believes that Sartre was right and if Camus had allied himself more equivocally with the Sartre group in criticising Western imperialism, much trouble in both Algeria, and then Vietnam, might have been avoided.

He seriously undermines the idea of Camus as some kind of secular saint, a hero of free speech and humanism. Instead, he sees Camus as the most representative voice of Western consciousness and conscience of his era, not because he was a great liberal, but because he had a crippled, fatal relationship to the colonised Third World.

Trying to do the right thing but according to an entirely Eurocentric set of values, incapable of understanding the rights and demands of the colonial peoples, putting up one impractical idea after another while all the while, in effect, acquiescing in the repressive policies of his government – and finally forced into a humiliating silence – he is the representatively troubled intellectual of the Great Decolonising Era, of the end of the European empires.

This is all brought out much more clearly in the title the book was given in America – Albert Camus of Europe and Africa. It is a grimly tragic view of the man and his stance, but I find it very persuasive, having myself noted the elimination of the Arab presence in his novels, the vehement anti-communism of The Rebel and the surprising presence of Christian themes and ideas throughout his work.

And it isn’t all negative. O’Brien also pays reverence to the strengths of his three flawed but haunting novels and, in particular, his deeply political interpretation of the man and his times lends a new depth and resonance to the short but haunting masterpiece, La Chute.


Credit

Camus (Modern Masters) by Conor Cruise O’Brien was published as part of the Fontana Modern Masters series in 1970. All quotes & references are to the 1976 paperback edition (which cost me 65p).

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Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle for France

The Algerian war of independence

The Rebel by Albert Camus (1951)

The logic of the rebel is to want to serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase the universal falsehood, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness. (p.248)

Camus was already one of the leading writers of his day when he published his long philosophical essay, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, in 1951. Many critics consider it his best and most important book. At 270 pages in this Penguin translation, The Rebel is well over twice the length of his previous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. It is a very long recapitulation of the history of political violence from the French Revolution to Stalin’s show trials, designed to refute arguments for revolutionary violence or state terror, and to affirm positive, humanistic values.

But because it comes out of the French tradition it takes a long time to do all this, in sentences often convoluted with philosophical attitudinising and verbal paradox. It gives a lot more credence and leeway to the exponents of political violence than you’d expect – as the French left-wing tradition generally does.

Above all, it is framed in terms of Camus’s own rather personal ‘philosophy’ or vision or worldview of the Absurd. It attempts – despite what often seem like long detours into the works of Hegel or the meaning of the contemporary novel – to create one continuous logical argument which starts in Camus’s vision of the Absurd and ends with an (admittedly embattled) affirmation of humanism.

The Rebel’s place in Camus’s works

One of the introductions to Camus explains that while still in his twenties, he developed a Grand Plan for his writing career. He would consecutively address major topics or issues of the day – and depict each one via the differing formats of a novel, an essay and a play.

The first topic was his early philosophy of the Absurd, his semi-nihilistic belief in the absurdity of human existence which he developed during the late 1930s. The resulting ‘cycle of the Absurd’, the works which define and explore all its implications, are the essay The Myth of Sisyphus, the play Caligula and the novel The Outsider, all written about 1940.

10 years later, in his introduction to The Rebel, Camus is able to look back and describe The Myth of Sisyphus as being very much a response to its time, which he calls the ‘Age of Negation’. Not being a historian he doesn’t give precise dates but is presumably referring to the period between the wars with its pessimistic and even nihilistic political and philosophical culture – Spengler, Heidegger and so on. For Camus the central question of this period of ‘humiliated thought’ was whether life was worth living at all in a ‘godless universe’, epitomised in the issue of suicide. If there is no God, and life is meaningless, why go on? This is the central subject of the Myth of Sisyphus.

At the start of The Rebel, Camus says that now, in 1951, he and his readers are living in a new era, the post-Second World War era which he describes as ‘the Age of Ideologies’, an era which has seen the uprooting, enslavement and murder of some seventy million human beings, an era of:

slave camps under the flag of freedom, massacres justified by philanthropy or by a taste for the superhuman… (p.12)

Things have moved on from worrying about suicide. Now the central question of the day is whether we – whether anyone – has the right to murder their opponents. Is the widespread culture of political murder at all justified – because it is certainly the political culture of Europe.

Every dawn, masked assassins slip into some cell: murder is the problem today. (p.12)

Why murder?

How does that follow? Why is murder, and specifically political murder, worth writing a 270-page long essay?

Because in 1951 many leading intellectuals of the day, and organised workers’ parties all across Europe, saw the communist party as the only way out of the dead-end of failed capitalism, the only alternative to the bankrupt bourgeois values which had characterised the 1930s and which had been shattered to pieces during the unspeakable catastrophe of the world war.

Many intellectuals and a huge number of the working class joined the communist party and voted communist despite knowing that the revolution it calls for entails violence, suffering and death – in short, for political murder. Political murder is at the core of the communist revolution which so many of Camus’s contemporaries were calling for – so it really was a central and very pressing question: Can political murder ever be justified?

Camus’s answer is ‘No’. He reaches this conclusion through two routes: a purely philosophical argument about the nature of human existence, and via his long historical review which is designed to bring out the nihilism and murderous tendencies of all totalising revolutions, which he opposes to his own person concept of revolt or rebellion.

1. The philosophy of the Absurd validates all human life

To take the philosophical argument first, Camus sets out to make a philosophical case against political murder and for the sanctity of human life. To follow it we have to go back to his reflections on suicide, which he recaps early in The Rebel.

Camus’s notion of ‘the Absurd’ – that the universe is blankly indifferent to our longing for meaning and consolation – logically requires two components: the subjectivity which wishes for meaning, and the universe which is indifferent to it. Like two plus two makes four, both parts must be present for the equation to exist.

1. Now, to commit suicide would be irrational because it would remove part of the Absurd equation.

The final conclusion of absurdist reasoning is, in fact, the repudiation of suicide and the acceptance of the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe. Suicide would mean the end of this encounter, and absurdist reasoning considers that it could not consent to this without negating its own premises.

To say that life is absurd – one must first be alive.

Absurd reasoning thus recognises life, human life, as an irreplaceable component of the Absurd equation. Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd requires human life for it to exist. Human life is an irreducible requirement of Absurdity. You have to fully accept and buy into this premise to follow what comes next.

2. Because the moment it recognises this basic premise, Absurd reasoning also recognises the importance of all human life.

The moment life is recognised as a necessary good, it becomes so for all men…

Absurd reasoning validates all human lives.

3. Then Camus takes a big leap –

Murder and suicide are the same thing; one must accept them both or reject them both. (p.14)

His Absurd philosophy of revolt embraces all life. He is vehemently opposed to nihilistic thought because it not only tempts people to suicide – but by denying the importance of life it simultaneously tempts people to murder. If life has absolutely no meaning, not only suicide is possible, but murder, too.

You can see what he’s trying to do here – build the validation of all human life up from the pit of despair.

Going down into the depths of psychological anguish, into the blackest pit of suicidal misery, Camus grapples with the apparent ‘solution’ of suicide and rejects it – because suicide destroys the premise of the worldview which drove you to suicide in the first place. Committing suicide because of your sense of the Absurd would destroy the Absurd. It would be logically self-contradictory. And by recognising that life, human existence, is a vital component of the philosophy of the Absurd, you recognise that value for everyone – you acknowledge that all human life is vital.

And if you reject suicide – one form of the denial of life – you must also reject its fellow, its partner, its equal in denying the value of life. You must reject any form of murder.

(In the kind of tangential insight with which the book abounds, Camus points out that history provides many examples of the intimate link between suicide and mass murder. The example fresh in everyone’s minds in the post-war era was the way the mass murder of the Nazis culminated in the mass suicide of the Nazi leadership, huddled in their bunker, passing out the cyanide pills. Suicide and murder both stem from a profound negation of all human values. In the German language the connection is more obvious – the word for suicide is Selbstmord, literally meaning ‘self-murder’But Camus’s insight also made me think of all those people in our time who go on a killing spree at their local high school or shopping mall before turning their guns on themselves. Or the men who kill their wives and children and then themselves. Yes, many suicides may be solitary acts, but a certain number do seem to involve the nihilist deciding that they will – that they must – take out as many other people as possible before killing themselves.)

If Camus’s argument is a little hard to follow I think it’s because it is in many places more willed than really argued or thoroughly proved. But by repeating it again and again Camus wants to make it so, and it was only by reading it again and again, in numerous reformulations, that I began to accede to its emotional logic.

To repeat: The entire book is devoted to showing that from the ruins of a post-theological waste land, bereft of God or any transcendental source of moral values, Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd offers a reasoned, logical set of steps to help people affirm the value of their own lives – and then of everyone’s lives – and then to create a morality based on self-knowledge and a realistic assessment of the limits of human freedom and power.

2. A historical review of revolutionary nihilism

This philosophical argument is most clearly spelled out in the book’s first 20 pages (though he then invokes it repeatedly at key points throughout the text).

The next 250 pages are mostly devoted to a historical account designed to show how the revolutionary absolutism which stems from the Enlightenment – by overthrowing God and by claiming no limits to abstract ideas of human freedom, human virtue, human achievement or whatever – unwittingly undermine the practical freedoms of real flesh and blood people in the here and now. Camus goes back to the 18th century to examine the thought of a succession of European writers – thinkers as diverse as Hegel, Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche – having dispensed with God, struggled to identify an alternative source of ‘values’, and to define the nature of man’s freedom.

Camus’s review shows how, for thinker after thinker, this meant freedom from all restraints. But he shows how freedom from all restraints, a purely abstract and total concept of human freedom, tends to lead to freedom from respecting other people’s freedom. Ignoring the autonomy or rights of other people. It ends in tyranny.

Thus the Marquis de Sade takes the theory of personal sexual freedom to the limits and beyond, but discovers that his untamed appetites require an infinite number of men to torture and kill and women to use and destroy.

Similarly, Camus shows how the revolutionary Virtue of Saint-Just, the outspoken apologist for the French Revolutionary Terror, defeats itself. The Jacobins demanded an impossible level of ‘revolutionary’ purity from the people but instead found weakness and treachery everywhere, and was led to an downward spiral of violence, guillotining criminals and counter-revolutionaries by the cartload, in what became known as The Terror, until the people – or at least their political representatives – overthrew the Government of the Virtuous in the name of government of the practical – and the exponents of state execution – Saint-Just, Robespierre and their colleagues – were themselves executed by the unforgiving state they had created.

150 years later the Bolsheviks asserted that the proletariat must be led to freedom by a communist party, stripped of any sentimentality or bourgeois morality, which reserves the right to punish anyone hesitating or questioning its right to rule and lead humanity to its promised utopia. By identifying itself with the unstoppable force of History, the Party claims total control of human reality. Anyone questioning it must, of course, be eliminated.

And so his historical survey shows that:

All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State. 1789 brings Napoleon; 1848, Napoleon III; 1917, Stalin; the Italian disturbances of the twenties, Mussolini; the Weimar Republic, Hitler. (p.146)

The same logic which drives Stalinism, also drove Hitlerism – it is the attempt to place every single individual in a society under the control of one totalising value (History, the proletariat, the Volk, whatever).

The book really lifts off when it gives a long explanation of the preposterous totalising ambitions of the German philosopher Hegel – and then takes this criticism on into a devastating critique of Karl Marx and the Communist Parties he inspired.

This anti-Marx section is full of all sorts of insights and angles – I was particularly struck by the way Camus claims that lots of Marx’s insights were the common currency of his time: the economic analysis of capitalism had already been established by the bourgeois economist Ricardo; the appalling conditions of the industrial proletariat were copied from British Government reports; a blind belief in the power of an ever-improving science and technology to transform humanity was a truism among bourgeois propagandists of his day.

For Camus, Marx’s great failure was his vagueness, his changing opinions, his contradictory statements about the single most important element of his vast political philosophy – just how and when the dictatorship of the proletariat would end and the utopia of the classless society begin.

The lack of any definition on this crucial point in effect gives carte blanche to the communist party which leads the ‘revolution’ to rule forever. Also since – as he shows – almost all revolutionary regimes provoke or are subject to war (the French Revolutionary regime declared war on all the kings f Europe, the Commune of 1870 only occurred because of the Franco-Prussian War, the Russian Revolutionaries called for world revolution), they almost inevitably rule under the embattled conditions of wartime, which justify them in taking the most drastic security measures necessary. Forever.

Camus is echoing George Orwell’s vision of the totalitarian party of the future with its jackboot crushing a human face. Forever.

3. Camus opposes tyrannical revolution with his own idea of limited rebellion

Is there an alternative? Yes. For as the book progresses, in each of the detailed analyses of European thinkers, Camus distinguishes between the post-theological revolution, in the name of some Absolute Value, like Virtue or History or Das Volk, which is always bound to fail and end in repression – and his own, much more personal notion of revolt or rebellion against man’s fate, against the human condition and so on but which – crucially – respects the limits of the humanly possible.

If rebellion could found a philosophy it would be a philosophy of limits, of calculated ignorance, and of risk. (p.253)

Rebellion, by virtue of the way Camus has defined it, must acknowledge its limits and respect the freedom of others. Rebellion cannot give itself to any totalising ideology because it is a permanent tension, a permanent opposition to human fate and destiny, which also opposes all impositions on the human spirit.

Absolute revolution supposes the absolute malleability of human nature and its possible reduction to the condition of a historical force. But rebellion, in man, is the refusal to be treated as an object and to be reduced to simple historical terms. It is the affirmation of a nature common to all men, which eludes the world of power. History, undoubtedly, is one of the limits of man’s experience; in this sense the revolutionaries are right. But man, by rebelling, imposes in his turn a limit to history, and at this limit the promise of a value is born. It is the birth of this value that the Caesarian [i.e. communist] revolution implacably combats today because it presages its final defeat and the obligation to renounce its principles. The fate of the world is not being played out at present, as it seemed it would be, in the struggle between bourgeois production and revolutionary production; their end results will be the same. It is being played out between the forces of rebellion and those of the Caesarian revolution. The triumphant revolution must prove by means of its police, its trials, and its excommunications that there is no such thing as human nature. Humiliated rebellion, by its contradictions, its sufferings, its continuous defeats, and its inexhaustible pride, must give its content of hope and suffering to this nature. (p.216)

There are lots of ways of parsing this fundamental dichotomy (and Camus works through them with fascinating and sometimes bewildering thoroughness).

One key aspect, mentioned in the excerpt above, is that the totalitarians believe there is no such thing as human nature – that human beings are infinitely malleable and so can be turned into Model Workers (which Camus interprets as Unquestioning Slaves). By contrast, Camus asserts that there is such a thing as human nature and that at its core is revolt, revolt against the apparent futility of human destiny, against the apparent meaningless of life in a godless universe, revolt in favour of life.

(You can see how this would have alienated Camus’s ‘frenemy’, Jean-Paul Sartre, whose existentialism is based on exactly the opposite premise – that there is no human nature and that, as a result, everyone is ‘condemned’ to absolute freedom and that we all create ourselves with our free choices. We cannot blame any pre-existing human nature for limiting our decisions: our decisions are ours and ours alone to justify and bear.)

Camus continues that this personal revolt against death translates into the social value of rebellion, rebellion against any one totalising ideology which is imposed on it, and – consistent with its origin in the Absurd – rebellion against death in all its forms. Rebellion into life, if you like.

Another way of thinking about it is to address that old chestnut: Do the ends (a communist utopia in some remote future) justify the means (terrorising society in the here and now)?

As you might expect by now, Camus’s answer is a resolute No. He goes to great lengths in the long sections on Hegel and then Marx to demonstrate that both these German thinkers take the Absolute Value formerly attributed to Christian theology and reassign it to new entities: to the progress of the World Spirit in Hegel, or to Marx’s concept of History conceived of as an unstoppable machine moving through successive stages of social relationships up until the advent of capitalist society which will itself, with unstoppable inevitability, give rise to the revolution, the triumph of the proletariat and the End of History coinciding with Paradise for All.

The mistake of both of them, according to Camus, is to preserve the Totalising and Transcendent Value derived from Christianity and attribute it to utterly abstract, inhuman Ideas. With hideous inevitability, you end up sacrificing real people to an unreal inhuman Idea, an Idea (the end of history) which can never be attained because it isn’t real. This is another way of saying that communist repression would be, potentially, forever, because it is based on working towards an impossible Ideal which will never arrive.

Instead, argues Camus, you must start from a realistic assessment of fragile, limited, actual human nature which – for him – has at its irreducible core, this one notion, this movement, this gesture, this impulse, to revolt, to rebel against death in favour of life, to cling on, to survive, to battle and overcome.

A realistic political programme can only be based on this vision of mediating between countless conflicting wills. (Though he doesn’t say it explicitly, this is obviously a philosophical underpinning for the idea of democracy).

Back to ends and means. Camus very neatly says the question isn’t, ‘Does the end justify the means?’ Given that there is in fact no end – there is no ‘end of history’, no final revolution, no paradise and no utopia – the real question is, ‘Do the means justify the end?’

In other words, you should judge the (purely notional and maybe unattainable) outcomes of a political system by its effects here and now. In which case, the permanent terror state and political murder practiced by all the communist regimes is quite clearly the exact opposite of the freedom, peace, security and justice which they preach. Judged by their means – by the methods they are using, the values they are putting in practice in the here and now – whatever ‘end’ they claim to be holding on for cannot possibly be justified.

When the end is absolute, historically speaking, and when it is believed certain of realization, it is possible to go so far as to sacrifice others. When it is not, only oneself can be sacrificed, in the hazards of a struggle for the common dignity of man. Does the end justify the means? That is possible. But what will justify the end? To that question, which historical thought [communist theory] leaves pending, rebellion [Camus’s philosophy] replies: the means.

Reversing the usual order, Camus says the end itself – if deprived of some kind of supernatural underpinning, if deprived of the German ideological conviction that the end is the guaranteed moment when History comes to an end in the triumph of the World Spirit (Hegel) or the classless society (Marx) – if there is never in fact going to be an end — then all you are left with is the means. And if the means – the entire methodology of political murder and state terrorism – are rotten, then so are the ends.

He doesn’t say this but it occurs to me that the means are the ends, because there are no ends. History will never ‘end’. There will be no classless society or reign of the Just. It’ll just carry on in the same kind of way. Meanwhile, all we have is the means. The means is how we will be judged.

Conclusion of Camus’s argument against political murder

Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd insists on the value of human life. The individual’s revolt against the absurdity of the human condition transfers, on a social level, into men’s general rebellion against nihilistic systems of thought and against the vicious oppression which follows in their train.

History testifies, in fact, to the irreducible human spirit of rebellion throughout the ages.

But where this rebellion has turned into, or been commandeered by, the totalising and nihilistic values of revolution, it always ends in disaster – in war, state terror, torture and mass murder – in repressive regimes worse than the ones the revolutionaries set out to overthrow.

The philosophy of the Absurd – and the act of rebellion – by their very nature are against murder and political murder. They are not only for human life, they logically require human life to exist and to be respected.

Thus, via both his philosophical argument and his long review of European history, Camus hopes to demonstrate that human nature, and human values, will always revolt against the totalising oppression – and political terrorism – entailed by the inhuman absolutism of ideologically-driven ‘revolution’.

Although it begins as an ostensible investigation of the problem of political murder, this is where The Rebel ends up – as an impassioned defense of the fundamental human act of revolt against individual destiny and against social oppression. And this explains and justifies the title – L’Homme révolté.

(It’s a shame the force and power of the phrase L’Homme révolté is not really captured in the English translation of The Rebel. The literal translation of ‘The Revolted Man’ means something quite different. Revolutionary Man is the extreme opposite of what is intended, since the values of ‘revolution’ are portrayed throughout the book as the ultimate betrayal of humanity. Some editions of the book have a sub-title, Man in Revolt, which seems better to me than the nominal title.)

Earning the right

From our Anglo-Saxon point of view, it takes Camus 270 pages to arrive at a version of liberal humanism with a respect for universal human rights which many other people (for example, most Americans) never questioned to begin with.

So where’s the achievement?

Well, what made the book so important in its time was that it started out from absolutely nothing, from a crushing sense of the absurd meaninglessness of life – from the place of profound depression and moral devastation which afflicted many millions of Europeans after the horrors of the Second World War – and also takes account of the very real threat of the communist party, not only in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe but in the West, in Italy and France in particular, imposing its rule by terror and political violence – it starts in a stricken and embattled place which is difficult for British and American readers to really appreciate — and then it claws its way on a long, difficult odyssey upwards, through the long litany of betrayal by European thinkers and revolutionaries, before finally arriving at these hard-won conclusions.

We believe that the truth of this age can be found only by living through the drama of it to the very end. If the epoch has suffered from nihilism, we cannot remain ignorant of nihilism and still achieve the moral code we need. No, everything is not summed up in negation and absurdity. We know this. But we must first posit negation and absurdity because they are what our generation has encountered and what we must take into account. (Resistance, Rebellion and Death, page 59)

The Rebel isn’t complacent. It earns its arrival at a morality of common decency. It has worked its passage.

Thus, although many readers may have fallen asleep during the detailed analyses of de Sade or Dostoyevsky, of the Russian Nihilists or Hegel’s theory of the Master and Slave – if they managed to make it to the end of the book they would be aware that they had been on a long journey across 200 years of nihilistic thought – but a journey of hope, a journey which assured them that common decency can be justified and established in the godless universe of the Absurd, in the post-war rubble, amid the clash of homicidal ideologies.

And so, despite its longueurs and its frequently impenetrable phraseology, The Rebel is a really moving and stirring call to human dignity and morality in a world seemingly hell-bent on destroying both.

Helen’s Exile

It is useful to read alongside The Rebel the essay Helen’s Exile, which is included in the Penguin edition of The Myth of Sisyphus. Written in 1948, Helen’s Exile gives a much pithier version of the central idea of The Rebel but starting from a different place, starting from a consideration of ancient Greek culture.

Camus points out that central to Greek thought was the idea of human limits: the Greek myths and legends are packed with cautionary tales of people who ignore or overstep these human limitations and are savagely punished for their hubris.

It is this self-knowledge of the Greeks, of the necessity of limiting our wishes, our freedoms and our actions in line with the recognised limits of human nature – contrary to the totalising tendency of modern ideologies which assert that human nature is a blank sheet to be written on at will by revolutionary dictators – which Camus thinks we have lost and must regain.

Admission of ignorance, rejection of fanaticism, the limits of the world and of man, the beloved face, and finally beauty – this is where we shall be on the side of the Greeks.


Discussion – a fragile argument

The entire argument, although it ranges widely over European philosophy and art of the last 200 years, is framed within the constraints of Camus’s own peculiar and very narrow theory of the Absurd. The crucial logic, the key explanation, is all dealt with in the first twenty pages or so:

The Absurd point of view logically leads to the rejection of suicide, because suicide negates the Absurd equation. Since suicide and murder are two sides of the same coin, rejection of suicide means rejection of murder. This rejection of suicide/murder is the bedrock of man’s revolt against the Absurd condition of life. And it is not only a NO to the godless universe but implies some kind of positive value in favour of which one is revolting/rebelling. Because as soon as one rebels against the Absurd condition – rejects suicide/murder and chooses life – one affirms the value of all human life.

Thus: Man’s Revolt against suicide/death is an affirmation of all human life everywhere.

And this revolt which is at the core of man’s being can never acquiesce in totalising revolutions which practice political murder in the name of abstract ideologies which claim to be able to erase and rewrite human nature. Human nature will always rebel.

Out of the depths of the Absurd comes an irrefutable affirmation of human life and a vehement rejection of any theory which denies it.

Good. Fine.

But all this is built on the idea that you accept Camus’s highly specific and, in the end, highly personal definitions of ‘the Absurd’ and of ‘Revolt’; and that you can follow the ‘logic’ of the arguments he extracts from them.

a) It’s unlikely that many, if any, of his readers really genuinely accept his very specific premises.
b) Every time I’ve reread and summarised the key passages in the book I’ve been very aware that several steps in the argument are willed rather than convincingly argued.

Possibly that’s why he made the book so long – because he hoped that by reiterating and rephrasing his claims, in the detailed analyses of a succession of great writers and of historical events, he would achieve by sheer repetition what he was uneasily aware was logically very fragile if stated clearly and briefly.

The sheer weight of text, its length, its numerous repetitions, and the repeated rephrasings of his humanist conclusions certainly do make for a stirring and inspiring read.

But beneath all the rhetoric, the philosophical analyses and the literary criticism, the fundamental, founding idea that suicide must be rejected because it negates one half of the Absurd equation (living human + indifferent universe = the Absurd), that murder is the same as suicide and so must similarly be rejected because it is illogical for a believer in the philosophy of the Absurd (and in ‘rebellion’) to abolish a key ground of their beliefs — these form an abstract, academic and very fragile basis on which to base an entire worldview and a complete political morality.


Reception

Although like-minded liberals warmly welcomed this elaborate endorsement of their views, the powerful mouthpieces of the French communist party, as well as many professional philosophers and intellectuals, came down on it like a ton of bricks. This was mostly because the book amounts to a sustained attack on communism and most French intellectuals of the time flirted with or became communists. But they were also able to focus their attacks on the fragility of its ‘philosophising’.

Camus had hoped to create a philosophical argument strong enough to lift Europe out of its despair; but the unrelentingly negative reactions to the book from the French intellectual élite, and their demolition of his philosophical arguments, plunged Camus into a personal depression. He never again tried to write a ‘philosophical’ work.

Only a few years later, in 1954, the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Camus found the well-spring of his creativity – his love for the harsh sensual beauty of his homeland – threatened in a new and unexpected way. The oppressed ‘natives’ of his homeland were enacting his narrative of revolt in a way he had completely missed from his long analysis of the contemporary political scene.

So, while the Paris intellectuals attacked his intellectual shortcomings, the Algerian revolutionaries undermined the basis of his creative vision: Camus was embattled from all sides. In the circumstances it is amazing that he managed to go on writing, creating the foggy allegory of The Fall and then the suite of passionate short stories collected in Exile and the Kingdom, as well as returning to his first love, the theatre, where passion and feeling are more important than clarity or logic.

Thus, amid very difficult political and personal circumstances, Camus did his best to explain and defend human freedom and dignity. It feels like a heroic achievement.

At the very end of The Rebel Camus’s argumentation gives way to the high poetic lyricism, to the sensuous imagery of fierce Mediterranean sunlight and the warm blue sea which are always lurking just beneath the surface of his writing. And to ancient Greece, where men knew the limits of themselves and their societies, and so were genuinely free.

At this meridian of thought, the rebel thus rejects divinity in order to share in the struggles and destiny of all men. We shall choose Ithaca, the faithful land, frugal and audacious thought, lucid action, and the generosity of the man who understands. In the light, the earth remains our first and our last love. Our brothers are breathing under the same sky as we; justice is a living thing. Now is born that strange joy which helps one live and die, and which we shall never again postpone to a later time. On the sorrowing earth it is the unresting thorn, the bitter brew, the harsh wind off the sea, the old and the new dawn. With this joy, through long struggle, we shall remake the soul of our time… (p.270)

(Amusingly, Conor Cruise O’Brien chooses just this quote as an example of ‘Camus’s most lamentable Mediterranean-solar-myth vein’ [Camus: Modern Masters p.56].)


Credit

L’Homme révolté by Albert Camus was published in France in 1951. This translation by Anthony Bower was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1953. All quotes & references are to the 1971 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Edward Said on Albert Camus (1994)

A brief introduction to Edward Said

Edward Said was born in 1935 in Palestine. His father was from Palestine, his mother from Lebanon. They were both Christians, not Muslims, so he was already an outsider in a predominantly Muslim part of the world. Said attended British Anglican schools in Jerusalem and Alexandria, which further detached him from the surrounding Muslim culture and Arab language, before being sent to an elite school in Massachusetts. He went on to earn a BA (1957) at Princeton University, and Master of Arts (1960) and Doctor of Philosophy (1964) in English Literature from Harvard University, before joining Columbia University in 1963 as a member of the English and Comparative Literature faculty.

A privileged private education and a prodigious academic ascent.

At Columbia Said taught the classic 19th and 20th century novels – Jane Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Conrad, Graham Greene. His thesis was on Conrad, the novelist of colonial disillusion and pessimism. He produced several works of straight literary criticism which show awareness of the new intellectual winds blowing in from Paris, an awareness of the theories of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and so on, but all these pale into insignificance before his epoch-making work, Orientalism (1977).

Orientalism examines the little-read works of 19th century ‘orientalists’, men who claimed to be experts on the peoples, the histories, cultures and languages of the Middle East, India and North Africa. The book’s thesis is straightforward – that the writings of all these ‘orientalists’, even the most sophisticated and erudite of them, are soaked in a set of clichés and stereotypes about the native peoples of the places they studied, which helped their European imperialist masters – in most cases Britain or France – to rule them, to dominate them, to subjugate them.

Orientalist discourse portrays ‘the natives’ as lazy, corrupt, decadently sensualist or fanatically religious, as economically or culturally backward – however you cook it, as needing the beneficent intervention and rule of our glorious, civilised, law-bringing empires.

Said reviews the rise and development of ‘orientalism’ as a field of knowledge and shows how riddled it is from top to bottom with offensively racist clichés which allowed the imperialist powers to pursue their aims of control and exploitation with a clear conscience.

Although you can criticise various aspects of the book (and many critics did, very fiercely) there is no denying that it opened minds to a completely new way of seeing European culture – from the outside, as an instrument of domination and control – and that this radical new perspective led quickly to the birth of a new discipline, ‘post-colonial studies’.

The book caused much controversy, especially among contemporary experts on ‘the Orient’ (mostly meaning the Middle East) who felt insulted and undermined. Said defended his thesis in journals and in the media, his TV and radio appearances raising his profile.

His public profile went up further when he began to get involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1967 War onwards, assenting to Israel’s existence but calling for equal recognition of the rights of Palestinians, including the right to their own territory and the right for the large Palestinian diaspora to return home. His ongoing involvement with Palestinian politics, to the extent of becoming a member of the Palestinian National Council, ensured his position as a leading public intellectual, frequently subject to furious criticism.

Anyway, back to his books, Said followed up Orientalism with Culture and Imperialism (1993). This was based on lectures he gave applying the insights of Orientalism to specific authors from the canon of 19th and 20th century literature, including Jane Austen (with her famously casual mention of Caribbean sugar plantations in Mansfield Park), Dickens (the role of Australia as the destination for Mr Micawber at the end of David Copperfield and as the site of Magwitch’s reformation in Great Expectations), Conrad’s florid depictions of colonial despair in his Far Eastern novels and, especially Heart of Darkness.

And there is a chapter about Albert Camus.

Albert Camus

Camus was born in 1913 in Algeria to European parents. His father died when he was small and he grew up in great poverty in a suburb of Algeria, mostly looked after by his strict grandmother while his mother went out to work. He showed intellectual precocity and studied philosophy at Algiers university. There he will have been exposed to the latest European thinking of the early and mid-1930s which was uniformly pessimistic, typified by Spengler’s masterpiece The Decline of the West (1922) and the grim existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger, summed up in Being and Time (1927).

But unlike most writers and philosophers, Camus was a very physical being. He was good looking and fit, played football professionally, swam in the Mediterranean and had many girlfriends.

This dichotomy, between physical activity, sunbathing and swimming – Joyful and happy – and thinking – Negative and troubled – comes across powerfully in his early essays such as Summer in Algiers and underpins a lot of his ‘philosophy’.

In The Myth of Sisyphus (if I understand it correctly) the thinking mind is afflicted by the absurd disconnect between the human wish for order and meaning in the universe and the distressing absence of that order and meaning in the universe as we experience it. The anguish of feeling disconnected, ‘abandoned’ in a ‘godless universe’ is so distressing it leads some people to contemplate suicide, which is the subject of the essay.

But Camus revolts against this option, because it destroys one half of the absurd proposition Man + World. It is an absurd solution to an absurd predicament. Absurd man is saved from despair by his revolt against his situation:

Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.

‘Passion’. Maybe I’m over-simplifying but it seems to me that Camus had to struggle all his life just to allow the joyous physicality of existence to triumph. I feel like I’ve experienced the same kind of struggle between being a bookish depressive appalled by the history of our species, and a guy who likes to go running, swimming, cycling and walking. Maybe lots of bookish people feel the same. Although his terminology and his prose style are often impenetrable, I think it is centrality of this common dichotomy, and Camus’s passionate defence of Life, despite all the arguments to the contrary, which made him so popular in his day and such an enduring figure.

Said on Camus

Pages 204 to 224 of Culture and Imperialism are devoted to a study of Camus. It opens with a brief recap of the way the French Empire expanded exponentially after the French defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War – overseas conquest against technologically backward countries compensating for their humiliating defeat to the all-powerful Germans. This huge expansion (between 1880 and 1895 French colonial territory shot up from 1 to 9 million square kilometers, p.205) was accompanied by an explosion of new writing, not only factual descriptions of the new colonial acquisitions – mainly in Africa – but also expanding and justifying France’s vision of itself as a uniquely privileged exporter of civilisation and culture – what came to be known as its mission civilisatrice.

The essay takes the history of the Algerian town which the French named Bône as an example, a settlement which the French expropriated from the native Algerians and where they recreated French architecture, law and culture. And then Said points out that Camus was born to immigrant European parents in the small settlement of Miondovi, just outside Bône.

Said starts his critique by quoting from Conor Cruise O’Brien’s long essay about Camus, written for the old Modern Masters series back in 1970. O’Brien critiques aspects of Camus’s writings but nonetheless praises Camus for his achievement in depicting ‘Western consciousness’, for being the most representative intellectual of his day, in his troubled quest to establish and preserve humanist values in the unfavourable circumstances of the Cold War.

Said criticises O’Brien, and by implication all other fans of Camus, for precisely this evaluation, claiming that making him a universal representative of the Western intellectual effectively erases the profound and vital Algerian roots of his writings.

Let’s look at the novels in terms of their Algerian setting. Of Camus’ three novels – The Outsider (1942), The Plague (1947), The Fall (1956) – the third one is immediately excluded because it is about a Paris lawyer now living in Amsterdam. It was published two years after the Algerian War of Independence began (November 1954) and so Algeria was no longer available as a neutral backdrop for a fable about human consciousness.

This simple fact already sheds light on the other two novels – it brings out how the Algeria of their setting (Algiers and nearby villages in The Outsider, Algeria’s second city, Oran, in The Plague) is prior to the war of independence. Camus’s Algeria is a blank canvas, a neutral backdrop against which the European heroes act out their allegorical stories.

Only three Arabs appear in The Outsider, none of them are named or speak, and the role of the central one (the brother of an Arab woman who is regularly beaten up by the protagonist’s friend, Raymond, and who seeks to avenge her) is to be shot dead on a sunlit beach by the novel’s anti-hero, Mersault.

It requires little effort for even the casual reader to see that the Arabs are merely the toys or mannequins or wordless puppets which exist solely to provide fodder for the adventure and agonised musings of the central, European figure.

Likewise there are no named Arabs in The Plague. It is a novel entirely about Europeans. The majority of deaths from plague in The Plague must, logically, be the deaths of Arabs, since they made up nine tenths of the population of Algeria and of Oran, the city where the story is set – but there is no sense of this in the novel, no sense, for example, that the Algerians might have had different cultural and religious ceremonies and traditions surrounding their Muslim dead.

To be harsh: in Camus’s two most famous novels, nameless faceless Arabs have to die in order for Europeans to have fancy philosophical reflections.

So you don’t have to be a genius to see that Camus’ reputation as an embodiment of ‘Western consciousness’ can be regarded – when seen through a post-colonial lens – as more of an indictment than a tribute, in that this wonderful ‘Western consciousness’ is in fact the consciousness produced by, and which benefits from, wide-ranging and brutal imperial exploitation.

The accusation is that Camus’s fictions erase the identity, and even the presence, of colonised native people. Seen from this harsh perspective, far from promoting a universal anything, Camus’s fictions – no matter how troubled and questioning they may appear to be – in actual fact, by virtue of their assumptions and subject matter, continue the racist, colonial project of imperial France.

This is despite the fact that Camus himself, when working as a journalist before the war, produced powerful and well-researched reports on the miserable poverty of many Algerians which he regarded as a direct result of imperial exploitation. He may well have done; but in the fictions – which is all that anyone reads – Camus is, despite his best intentions, an accomplice.

Said’s prose style

Said’s aim is admirable, it is a shame that his prose is so wordy and pretentious.

What I want to do is to see Camus’s fiction as an element in France’s methodically constructed political geography of Algeria, which took many generations to complete, the better to see it as providing an arresting account of the political and interpretative contest to represent, inhabit, and possess the territory itself. (p.213)

To resituate L’Etranger in the geographical nexus from which its narrative trajectory emerges is to interpret it as a heightened form of historical experience. (p.224)

Culture and Imperialism is mostly made up of this kind of bombastic grandiloquence which often produces relatively little insight. Said’s prose preens and grandstands. Also, he spends a lot of time promising detailed close readings of the texts which he then often fails to deliver. Both these characteristics quickly become pretty irritating. Nonetheless, just pondering the colonial position of Camus for the time it takes to read these twenty pages, prompts powerful reflections.

My overall conclusion on Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, both of which I’ve read in their entirety – is that the bombastic style routinely fails to deliver the kind of nuanced text-based insight it promises – but that, despite the pretentious literary-critical style, Said’s thorough-going post-colonial approach is a revelation, a real eye-opener, and prompts a complete re-appraisal of everything you thought you knew about the literature of the European imperial powers.

Paralysis

Sometimes Said’s contorted prose style throws up unexpected phrases which strike a chord.

I was struck by Said’s phrase that Camus’s was an ‘incapacitated colonial sensibility’ (p.213). That notion of ‘incapacity’ is fruitful. As I mentioned above, from his earliest essays Camus appears to be stricken, caught, torn between the healthy outdoor joys of the body which are continually ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’ (Hamlet), by the bleak indoor climate of 1930s philosophy and intellectual enquiry to which he was also passionately attached.

It adds an extra dimension to Camus’s essays and novels if we overlay this body-mind dichotomy with the additional idea of a late-imperial guilty conscience. Camus wants simple pleasures – he wants life to be simple – but it isn’t because Algeria is a colonised country, the great majority of its population are downtrodden and exploited. How can you not feel guilty living there and seeing the poor and exploited every day? How can you join in the great European debates about ‘freedom’ and ‘being’ and ‘communism’ and all the rest of it, while you pick your way between the ragged street beggars or avert your gaze from the Arab Quarter, the squalid lanes of the Casbah?

On this reading, the paralysis of his characters – trapped under the pitiless sun like Mersault, or imprisoned inside the quarantined city of Oran – reflects not only the overt issues of exile and rebellion, but also the ideological dead-end of French colonialism, which fully understands its time is up, that it has no future repressing an entire people, but simply can’t conceive the possibility of handing over power to the natives and thus abandoning the hard work of a century of colonising effort. The French colonial mind is trapped, stuck, paralysed, stricken, incapacitated.

The plight of Camus’s fictional characters may well be the plight of stricken 1930s intellectuals – but, seen from Said’s perspective, it is also the plight of last-gasp late-colonialism.

On this reading, absolutely everything Camus wrote is compromised, holed beneath the waterline, by his unwilling, reluctant, and barely acknowledged acquiescence in French imperialism. The recurrent longing for union with the sun, the sea, the desert, is an impossible longing by the writer to be free of French colonial history and commune directly with the Algerian landscape, for a moment forgetting that it is a landscape made safe for Europeans to have great philosophical epiphanies in as a result of 100 years of expropriation, land clearing, and forced resettlement of its original peoples. It is a longing to forget that guilt.

Said analyses a story from Camus’s late collection Exile and the Kingdom to bring out how all but one of these late stories are nostalgic for a simpler, less conflicted world, in that they are about French people seeking ‘to achieve a moment of rest, idyllic detachment, poetic self-realisation’.

These are not stories about existentialist man (and woman). They are stories about late-imperial men and women, seeking a peace and harmony with their colonial setting which is ultimately impossible, an impossible dream.

The literary critic Roland Barthes described Camus’s prose as écriture blanche, which translates as ‘white writing’, but also has overtones of blank or empty writing. Said’s post-colonial perspective helps us see that the tone of The Outsider is not just blank because the lead character is almost psychotically disconnected from society and his own life (the obvious interpretation) – but because the entire narrative blanks out the native population, the colonial setting, France’s imperial presence. What makes the novel so blank and empty is the complete absence of the violent history and oppressive imperial structure in which it operates.

Camus and the Algerian War of Independence

After the war of independence broke in 1954 out Camus found himself in an impossible position. His entire childhood, his identity and that of his poverty-stricken mother and all the friends he had seen around him struggling to survive, were all entirely derived from their setting in Algeria. He couldn’t tear his entire personal and social history out of his identity. And so the great defender of humane liberal values found himself attacking the Algerian freedom fighters and opposing the war for independence. Camus went back to Algeria (from Paris where he’d lived since 1945) and tried to set up a movement for peace, to organise local truces to end the appalling bloodshed on both sides, but these all failed.

It was a war of extremes and Camus’s well-meaning liberalism was a drop in the ocean, a drop of dew which evaporated without trace in the fierce Algerian sun. It is no accident that in his last few years he turned from either political essays or novels back to his first love of the theatre, for the most part writing dramatisations of other people’s novels (winning prizes for his stage adaptations of Faulkner and Dostoyevsky). The blank unpeopled background of Algeria which underpinned his most famous works was no longer available.

Camus’s tragic death in a car crash in 1960 aged just 46 has a poetic justice about it. His identity had been torn apart, his ability to write the nativeless allegories set in his homeland had been removed. As a late-colonial writer, the death of his colonial setting signified his own writerly – and then literal – death.

To summarise in a sentence: whenever you read anyone saying that Camus’s writing in some way addresses ‘the human condition’, Said’s wordy but invaluable contribution is to force you to add that Camus’s writing just as much or more, and whether he wanted it to or not, reflects the late-imperial, colonial condition.


Credit

Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said was published in Britain by Chatto and Windus in 1993. All quotes & references are to the 1994 Vintage paperback edition.

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The Algerian war of independence

To Lose a Battle: France 1940 by Alistair Horne (1969)

General Altmayer, who seemed tired out and thoroughly disheartened, wept silently on his bed. (p.575) [A typical example of the behaviour of senior French militaryfigures during the Battle of France.]

This is the third of Sir Alistair Horne’s trilogy about the three great wars fought between Germany and France, the others being The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-1 and The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. (I have also recently read his classic account of the Algerian War of Independence, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954–1962.)

To Lose A Battle is about the German invasion of France in May 1940, the most perfect example of the Wehrmacht’s new Blitzkrieg strategy that it ever carried out.

It is a long book (680 pages) because Horne starts by giving a several hundred page-long detailed account of the historical, cultural, political and military background leading up to the debacle. Once this is done, part two begins, no fewer than 400 pages devoted to an incredibly detailed account of the Battle of France itself.

(I particularly wanted to read this book for the social background chapters, to provide context for the trilogy of Jean-Paul Sartre novels which I’ve just read and which are set initially in 1938 and then during the self-same Battle of France. Indeed Sartre and his partner Simone de Beauvoir are quoted several times as epitomising the defeatist spirit of pre-war France – which is certainly how The Roads To Freedom read to me.)

Background

French army Most European nations considered the French Army which emerged from the Great War to be the best in Europe. Horne goes to some length to describe and explain the widespread feeling of:

that ineradicable, mystical self-assurance of the invincibility, in extremis, of the French Army. (p.246)

With typical chauvinism the French preferred to downplay the role played by her allies, Britain and, latterly, America, in the Great War and to insist she was the victorious power. Psychologically, this has much truth since France lost more men dead in the war than any other nation (1,315,000, 27% of all French men aged between 18 and 27 were killed), a fact which deeply scarred its psyche, and affected its economy, for a generation.

But this pride/arrogance/over-confidence in France’s armed forces lingered on into the 1930s, well after it had been made redundant by Hitler spending a fortune creating the super-efficient new German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. (Horne describes very thoroughly the military, strategic, financial, technological and all-round ‘revolutionary dynamism of the Wehrmacht’, p.514.)

French politics and society were deeply riven by conflicts: the creation, with encouragement from Lenin’s Comintern, of the French Communist Party in 1920, crystallised the revolutionary forces of the Left. The PCF not only entered into a permanent dispute with the French Socialist party and other less revolutionary left-wing groups, splitting the left into endless squabbling – but also prompted the rise of far-right political parties such as Action Francaise and Croix-de-Feu which helped to splinter political parties of the Right. The extreme position of these parties, along with France’s persistent economic crises, bedevilled French politics for the whole inter-war period.

It was also an era which saw an astonishing turnover of governments, many lasting only a few months, some only days. Between mid-1932 and the outbreak of war in 1939 France had 19 different government with 11 different premiers. Symbolically, on the day Hitler came to power in 1933, France had no government. Seven years later, on the very day Germany invaded, the premier had just resigned and had to be persuaded to return to office to run France.

In this culture of political chaos nothing could be decided. No consistent line was taken in any area, finance, diplomacy or defence. Although the Treaty of Versailles gave France enormous power over German territory as well as a whole new empire in the Middle East, she never had the continuous administrations or strong leaders to set a consistent policy and to use her power effectively. Instead, political France became a nest of vipers, of extreme political factions who hated each other more than their external enemies. By the middle of the 1930s it had become an established saying on the Right that ‘Better Hitler than the Reds’. They really meant this and many people at the highest levels were, in effect, traitors.

The Great War In political terms, all this was obviously due to the legacy of the cataclysmic Great War: the Great War causes Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which causes the creation of violently revolutionary communist parties across Europe, which causes the creation of counter-revolutionary, proto-fascist parties across Europe – and the advent of both these extremes causes new levels of rhetorical, and real, violence against opponents. The process is described in harrowing detail in Robert Gerwarth’s recent book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 (2016).

A generation exterminated But Horne makes a simpler, bleaker point which is that a lot of the educated officer classes who might have provided bourgeois, old-fashioned, consensual and parliament-based political leadership, had been wiped out  in the trenches. Polite parliamentary politics didn’t go out of style; it was killed off. The new generation of leaders were unashamedly proletarian: Mussolini’s father was a blacksmith, Hitler’s father was a customs official, Stalin’s father was a cobbler. Daladier, the French Premier who sold out the Czechs, was the son of a baker; Reynaud, the man who replaced him, was the son of farmers.

Corruption Probably unrelated was the fact that a series of scandals enveloped many senior figures in France’s political elite in the run-up to the war, each case of embezzlement, jobs for the boys, swindles and cynical abuse of power further alienating the population at large. Why fight to help a pack of crooks keep their snouts in the trough?

Losing the war

As to why France lost the war, and so quickly, there is no shortage of reasons.

  • France’s Great War experience for four long bitter years had been entirely of the static defence of trenches. The centrepiece of their war had been the defence of the fortified complex at Verdun. They had no experience of the fluid, fast-moving war which took place in the East where the Germans fought the Russians and ranged over huge areas, or in the Middle East where the British fought the Turks. Building on the idea of static defence, the French High Command became mesmerised by the idea of creating a network of Verdun-like fortifications, buried deep underground with only impervious guns set in concealed hillsides to indicate their presence. This was commissioned in 1930 by a Defence Minister named Maginot and so became known as the Maginot Line.
  • But – as every schoolboy used to know – this line stopped short at the border with Belgium for a number of reasons: no one could decide whether to build it along Belgium’s border with the beastly Hun (thus defending the Belgians) or along the French-Belgium border (thus excluding the Belgians). Ans building just the 87 miles of sophisticated subterranean defences from Switzerland to the Belgian border had cost a fortune and continued to cost a fortune to maintain. So there was incompleteness, uncertainty and delay.
  • Tanks In the Great War the French used their primitive tanks spread thinly across a wide front, where they tended to make short-lived breakthroughs but then run out of petrol and so allow the enemy to regroup before the infantry could catch up. Thus French military thinking rejected the tank in favour of static defences in depth – the Maginot Line – linked by static landlines, phone lines – themselves vulnerable to being damaged.
  • Planes While the Germans built up their Luftwaffe under the ebullient Marshall Goering and with the aid of Germany’s best designers and technicians, the French sank half their military budget into the quite literal black hole of the Maginot Line buried forts.
  • All this contrasted with the Germans who
    • remembered the experience of fast-moving attacks in the East, and learned from it
    • designed superior tanks
    • built more planes, lots more planes
    • developed a theory of air and land attacks co-ordinated by new and better radio communications i.e. not vulnerable to lines being broken.
  • Blitzkrieg Taken together these were the bases of the Blitzkrieg theory, as outlined by Panzer commander and military theorist Heinz Guderian in his revolutionary pamphlet Achtung – Panzer! This was published in 1937 but never translated into French or English and – like Hitler’s Mein Kampf – went unread by the Allies.
  • Camaraderie In a fascinating section Horne brings out another really important element which was the tremendous esprit de corps and camaraderie in the German military. He describes the upbringing of men in Nazi Germany, passing through the Hitler Youth into the army, these boys becoming men had undergone punishing physical fitness regimes followed by demanding training designed to instil obedience and confidence.
    • The result was a generation of superb physical specimens, indeed there is a slightly homoerotic tinge to some of Horne’s descriptions of young German engineers stripped to the waist building pontoon bridges across the River Meuse and on other occasions.
    • The Germans believed in their leaders, in fact they had a fanatical devotion to the Führer and the Fatherland rarely seen in history. They really wanted to fight.
    • And Horne explains how the German army cultivated closeness between officers and men. They shared the same food, sleeping quarters etc, so the men knew and liked and respected their commanders, based on their ability. This contrasted with the French army which kept in place old-fashioned class ideas, officers never socialised with the men and often had bought commissions or had them on the basis of aristocratic family tradition.

French demoralisation

Horne’s book lists a long catalogue of errors and follies on the French side which start at the very top.

Politicians held in contempt Premiers of France came and went through a fast-moving revolving door. These senior politicians jostling for power all hated each other and did whatever was best for their careers. All their civil servants and soldiers followed suit. The population despised them.

Timidity bordering on cowardice Half the French cabinet were ‘doves’, hoping against hope that no war would come, and frightened of doing anything aggressive in case they incurred Hitler’s wrath. Thus although France declared war on Germany in September 1939 ostensibly in order to help Poland which Germany had just invaded, the French army only advanced a few miles into the German Saar land and then stopped. Plenty of foreign observers came to see the French soldiers peacefully camped out on hillsides watching German soldiers bathing in the river. ‘Why don’t you shoot at them?’ asked the American or British journalists. ‘Well, then they’d shoot back,’ replied the puzzled French officers. Commentators were amazed at the lack of French spirit. Meanwhile, Poland was cut in two between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, its people subjected to six years of barbarity.

Old timid leaders The High Command was led by General Gamelin, aged 68. The new French premier, Paul Reynaud,  wanted to sack him for his lack of aggression, but Reynaud needed to keep the former premier, Daladier and his faction in the cabinet to support his new government and Daladier stood by Gamelin and so… Reynaud’s attempts to get rid of Gamelin were blocked.

In fact, on the eve of the war, Horne shows that there was a massive cabinet fight over Gamelin and, discovering that he couldn’t sack him, Reynaud instead resigned. Once again France had no government. That was on 9 May. Germany attacked in the early hours of the next day, whereupon Reynaud was reluctantly persuaded to withdraw his resignation, and reluctantly forced to work with Gamelin – who now knew that his political boss didn’t trust him. What a mess.

No wonder the country at large referred to the national Assembly as ‘the swamp’ and all its politicians as corrupt crooks.

Out of touch Gamelin was not old-fashioned in his approach but criminally out of touch with his forces. He and his staff never visited any of the troops during the long, long period of the Phoney War, between September 1939 when France declared war on Germany and May 1940 when Germany attacked. We now know that Hitler had kept very few forces on his western flank when he invaded Poland in September 1939. If France had attacked in overwhelming force in September 1939 she would have swept aside Germany’s token defences and in all probability pushed on to Berlin and ended the war before it had properly begun. But she didn’t. She didn’t want to risk it, or risk anything.

Timid Gamelin and the rest of the general staff preferred to hunker down behind their impenetrable defence of the Maginot Line and wait for the enemy to come to him. Horne’s book reveals that Hitler actually wanted to attack France as soon as Poland was pacified, in November 1939, but was put off by his generals who were convinced they didn’t have the manpower or tanks – and then by the intervention of winter weather. And then in the spring of 1940 there was the side show of Norway, which Britain tried to help and Germany decisively invaded and occupied.

That takes us through to April, then into May 1940 as the Germans prepared their plan to invade France. This was initially named the Manstein Plan, or to give it its full title – Aufmarschanweisung N°4, Fall Gelb. Horne gives a fascinating account of how the plan went through a large number of iterations as a result of discussions, and arguments among the German General Staff – moving from an initial aim to thrust through Belgium as in the First World War, then the slow growth of a different strategy – an armed thrust through the supposedly ‘impenetrable’ Forest of the Ardennes, south of the Belgian border. This turned out to be a lucky decision as the French had posted their weakest units there, sending the stronger ones north to Belgium where they thought the attack would come. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of France’s best soldiers seeing little or no action until they were cut off and surrounded.

Among all its other virtues To Lose A War is a riveting insight into how a modern army strategy is developed and managed.

No communication Meanwhile, Gamelin’s headquarters in a chateau at Vincennes had no radio communication with his troops. Every day at a set hour despatch riders rode off with the orders of the day to a nearby radio station. Obviously this proved completely useless once the battle started. Quickly the joke went around that Gamelin’s HQ was like ‘a submarine without a periscope’ (p.440).

Terrible French morale There are scores of eye-witness accounts of the surly, unco-operative, insubordinate attitude of the French troops. The widespread strikes of the 1930s, the ubiquity of bolshy socialism and the arrogant aloofness of their officers had created a terrible attitude among the bulk of the French army. Sartre’s novels are ostensibly a fictional embodiment of his existentialist philosophy, but – having just read them – what comes over most powerfully is a portrait of an entire society paralysed by indecision and futility, by lack of focus or direction, by a shabby unhappiness.

And an army reflects its society. The picture of the common soldier given by Horne – working from countless eye-witness accounts of the time – is of men who refuse to salute officers, reluctant to obey orders, keen only to take leave where they could get blind drunk (special sobering-up rooms had to be created in train stations behind the Maginot Line to cope with the epidemic of drunk soldiers returning from leave).

Within days of the German attack (on 10 May 1940), French troops began surrendering in their thousands, laying down their arms and trudging wherever they were told, policed by a only handful of German soldiers. Or gave way to blind panic, inflamed by rumours that they were surrounded – ‘The Panzers are here!’ – and the almost universal cry that they were ‘betrayed’, had been sold out by traitors, by fifth columnists, blaming everyone – except themselves. They just wanted it all to be over. They just wanted to go home.

It is these defeated sheep who are portrayed in Sartre’s novel Iron In The Soul, a novel written from experience as Sartre himself served in a second-line battalion which surrendered and was imprisoned without a fight.

Subjectively, from the inside of his characters, Sartre depicts the defeat as an inexplicable catastrophe in which each man is thrown back on his own resources and must make an existential choice about how to live, about how to act, about who he wants to become.

But from the outside, to us looking at French society and this debacle 70 years later, the novel reads like a complete collapse of national will, a lapse into comfortable nihilism, the utter failure of an entire society.

And in other ways Sartre was very representative of his generation which blamed the British for not fighting harder, blamed the Americans for not coming to their aid, blamed the Soviet Union for signing the Nazi-Soviet pact with Hitler – in fact, the French blamed everyone except themselves. Even when they had been liberated by the British and Americans four years later, they carried on hating us. They couldn’t forgive the British for liberating them. But they reserved their main hatred for the Americans, the key force in their liberation from Nazi rule.

It’s hard to come away from this book without really despising the French.

Quotes which convey the French attitude

For sheer arrogant folly, the Barthou declaration of 17 April 1934 [‘France will henceforth guarantee her security by her own means’] is hard to beat; A.J.P. Taylor remarks: ‘The French had fired the starting pistol for the arms race. Characteristically, they then failed to run it.’ Yet it has its parallel in more recent times, when in 1966 de Gaulle informed the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance that henceforth he felt strong enough to dispense with its benefits. There are moments when one feels that – like the Bourbons, only worse – France has learned nothing and forgotten everything. (p.83)

The British Air Force representatives were driven mad by the reluctance of the French Air Force to take to the air and attack the invading Germans.

By the end of the 10th [May] Air Marshall Barratt’s temper was barely under control, his view of his apparently torpid ally all but unprintable. (p.278)

Counter-attacks on 13 May were repeatedly postponed or cancelled because the Corps or Division in question said it couldn’t make the starting point in time or couldn’t be ready amid a welter of hopeless excuses.

The sluggishness and lack of punch with which these first ripostes were executed characterised almost all the French counter-attacks subsequently carried out at various levels. (p.331)

The battle at Sedan on 14 May was over so quickly there are hardly any records of it.

On the French side , there would be but little time to enter up the regimental diaries; whole pages of the story that day have disappeared forever with the participants. Others are, alas, so shaming to French amour propre that, like the details of the mutinies of 1917, they will probably lie forever hidden from sight in the archives contained in the gloomy dungeons at Vincennes. (p.345)

In attempting to isolate the reasons for the breaking of the Sedan gunners, one comes face to face again with the twenty-four corrosive years separating the poilus of Verdun from the men of Sedan; here is the terrible harvest of those years of mutual mistrust, disunity, despair at the losses of 1914-18, je-m’en-foutisme and defeatism in France. (p.361)

There’s a typical vignette about the 47mm anti-tank gun sent up to Monthermé to face the advancing Panzer tanks, and which was discovered by them, abandoned by its French crew without having fired a single shot. (p.381)

A few days later, as the Panzers break out into northern France, Karl von Stackelberg, travelling with the 6th Panzer Division, is astonished to meet French troops marching towards the Germans in perfect order, having thrown away all their weapons, and politely asking who to surrender to. Eventually this amounted to 20,000 French troops – French soldiers who just gave up without a fight and handed themselves over to the enemy.

‘It was inexplicable. How was it possible, that after this first major battle on French territory, after this victory on the Meuse, this gigantic consequence should follow? How was it possible, these French soldiers with their officers, so completely downcast, so completely demoralised, would allow themselves to go more or less voluntarily into imprisonment?’ (quoted on p.416)

And the French Air Force?

Typical of the feebleness of the French air effort on the 15th [May] was the nocturnal bombing of one Heinkel base by a solitary French aircraft, which dumped its missiles in woods more than a quarter of a mile from the barracks and then headed home. (p.432)

On 16 May Churchill flew to Paris to meet the French leaders and try to put some backbone into them. Horne’s depiction of the scene is hilarious. For all his manifold failings Churchill comes across as the only man in the room, as the various French leaders, civilian and military, flop in their chairs and burst into tears.

Turning back to Gamelin, Churchill asked point-blank: ‘When and where are you going to counter-attack the flanks of the Bulge? From the north or from the south?’ Gamelin’s reply was: “Inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of method” – and then a hopeless shrug of the shoulders.’ There was no argument. Here was the admission of the bankruptcy of a whole generation of French military thought and preparations. (p.459)

Rommel’s lightning attack through North France on 16 May, continuing all through the night, took the French completely by surprise.

One of Rommel’s Panzer commanders recalled simply shouting, loudly and impudently, at the French troop columns to throw away their weapons: ‘Many willingly follow this command, others are surprised, but nowhere is there any sign of resistance.’ (p.478)

Surrendering just by being shouted at! By May 19 the Ninth Army had ceased to exist. As one of Gamelin’s liaison officers recorded;

‘Complete disintegration. Out of 70,000 men and numerous officers, no single unit is commanded, however small… at most 10 per cent of the men have kept their rifles… However… there were no wounded among the thousands of fugitives…’ [No wounded because none of them fought] (quoted on p.518)

A complete shambles. A shameful humiliation. I’ve noted the rage of Britain’s Air chief Barratt at French inability to organise air raids on the long vulnerable Panzer columns. In the final stages of the battle Horne turns his attention to the growing frustration of the British Army’s two leaders, General Edmund Ironside, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and General Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force. When Ironside visits General Billotte, the commander of the French 1st Army Group, he has to literally shake him to rouse him from his defeatist stupor. Later, Ironside wrote in his diary:

‘I begin to despair of the French fighting at all. The great army defeated by a few tanks!…. God help the B.E.F… brought to this state by the French Command.’ (quoted p.573)

It was only on 19 May, as the German Panzers approached the Atlantic coast, that they first encountered British troops for the first time, and found them a different quality from the defeatist French.

At 1300 [on 20 May] they [General Reinhardt’s Panzer Corps] ran into their first British at Mondicourt, who – in the words of the 6th Panzer War Diary – ‘in contrast to the French, cause surprise by their tough way of fighting and are only overcome by a one-hour battle.’ (p.561)

After the Germans had reached the Atlantic coast, cutting off key divisions of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force into a shrinking pocket of territory along the north coast of France, the French placed their hopes on some kind of counter-attack to cut through the ‘Panzer Corridor’.

This ‘counter-attack’ was associated with the new Army Chief Weygand, who by now – in mid-battle – had replaced the discredited Gamelin – but three days were lost in indecisiveness as Weygand insisted on  flying into the ‘pocket’ to get first-hand knowledge of the situation. During these crucial few days the head of the B.E.F., Gort, received no information or instructions whatsoever from the French and, driven to ‘despair’ by French inaction, and in the absence of any other orders, finally realised that he would have to evacuate the B.E.F. (and as many Frenchmen as he could) back to Britain.

This is the background to the famous episode of Dunkirk (Horne doesn’t go into ‘the nine-day epic of Dunkirk’, as he calls it (p.631), being outside the scope of his book). As Churchill, progressively more disillusioned by French defeatism and incapacity, put it:

The whole success of the Weygand plan was dependent on the French taking the initiative, which they showed no signs of doing. (p.604)

So it didn’t happen, and we withdrew as many men and planes as we could from France, in order to defend our island.

French despair

The tendency of the entire French military leadership to shrug their shoulders, collapse onto chairs and burst into tears, their tendency to give way to fathomless despair at almost any setback, sheds really profound light on the hold the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre had over an entire generation of French intellectuals.

‘Boo hoo’ might well sum up the attitude of both French military and cultural leaders.

As the German army, having liquidated the last pockets of resistance in the north, approached Paris, on 11 June Churchill made his fourth and final trip to France, to see the French government which had now fled to the provinces. Weygand was now ‘all defeatism’, claiming he didn’t have enough troops, he didn’t have enough resources etc. He blamed the entire idea of fighting a 1940 war with 1918 forces and equipment, he blamed the Belgians for capitulating, he blamed the British for evacuating at Dunkirk. He blamed everyone else. Churchill’s emissary, General Spears recalls:

The Frenchmen [the French government and senior military] sat with white faces, their eyes on the table. They looked for all the world like prisoners hauled up from some deep dungeon to hear an inevitable verdict. (p.650)

Reading this enormous book, soaking yourself in the political chaos, military mismanagement, je-m’en-foutisme and universal defeatism of the French character, makes you wonder whether, when Sartre describes the futility of human existence, the ‘anguish’ caused by realisation of our complete freedom, the paralysing sense of ‘abandonment’ in a world without God, and the agonising need to make decisions which you find so difficult to take – he is not describing the wretched ineffectiveness of ‘the human condition’ at all. He is solely describing the wretched, spineless French character of his day.

After the meeting [with Churchill], Reynaud was violently reproached for raising the peace issue, by Mandel and the president of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, Jeanneney and Herriot; the latter was in tears. (p.657)

What a shameful disgrace. I never appreciated what a debacle it was until I read this stunning book.


P.S. Don’t believe newspapers

At the start of each of the 12 or so chapters which deal with the actual battle Horne quotes a clutch of newspaper reports from the relevant day, from papers like the New York Herald Tribune, the Sunday Chronicle, the New York Journal, The Times, Le Temps, L’Époque, Havas, the Manchester Guardian and so on.

These reports were generally based on French government accounts, a government which initially was itself hopelessly out of touch with events on the ground, and then put a deliberately optimistic gloss on the situation.

The newspaper reports are, in other words, hopelessly wrong and misleading. As such they become an increasingly ironic chorus to the main action – as the Allied papers give increasingly glowing accounts of the battle, assuring their readers that the German advance has faltered, or the French counter-attack has succeeded or that Allied air forces dominate the skies – while in fact the Germans were breaking through, breaking out and taking territory at record speeds.

As the book progresses, the newspaper reports veer more and more wildly out of kilter with the reality on the ground, and this modest narrative device reminds you for the umpteenth time that you really shouldn’t trust anything you read in the newspapers – particularly in times of crisis or conflict.


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