The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
8.4 (Fall 2008)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Messages to the French
The Six Radio Broadcasts of Jules Romains to His Countrymen in Occupied France from 1940 to 1941
Translated by John R. Harris
I have taken as my text a stapled paperback edition of these transcripts published in 1941 by Éditions de la Maison Française, a house founded specifically to serve the needs of Frenchmen in exile. (Its address is given as 610 Fifth Avenue , New York , N. Y.) The title of this little book is Messages aux Français, and a brief introduction after the title page reads (in translation) as follows: “In this brochure are reunited six appeals to the French people broadcast from New York by radio between the beginning of August, 1940, and the end of May, 1941. Four of these appeals were transmitted to France by BBC relay, the remaining two on short wave by Station WRUL, Boston .”
Jules Romains (actually a penname—but the author clung to it throughout his professional and public life) is now little more than a footnote in the academic’s encyclopedia of –isms and –ivities for the twentieth century. No doubt, he carried farther the theory of “unanimism” than any other creator of his time. His immense sequence of novels, Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté, comprised twenty-seven discrete works whose setting spans World War I along with the years immediately preceding and following it. The characters of these novels are somewhat recurrent—yet their lives, taken collectively, do not define any clear beginning, middle, and end (in contrast to the series of novels by Romains’s good friend Roger Martin du Gard titled Les Thibault, which covers approximately the same years). The resulting human arabesque, wherein lives constantly pass each other at various phases of rise and fall, is indeed the essence of the unanimist vision. Only by viewing the human collective do we derive a sense of an epoch’s atmosphere and savor. Romains, it must be stressed, was not disdainful of individual rights or dismissive of the intensity of which personal experience is capable. On the contrary, many of the characters in Les Hommes are deeply introspective, and Romains was sometimes criticized as an artist for following their meditations too lengthily and profoundly.
The important point here, however, is this: Romains did not polarize the individual and the social, the spiritual and the worldly: stunningly astute as he was, he seems nevertheless to have been temperamentally immune to sensing any insoluble or climactic friction between these two facets of our existence (however one may define them). The most sociable of beings, he met and conversed with, at one time or another, Bergson, Einstein, Freud, Debussy, Gandhi, Picasso, and James Joyce (to name but a few of the worthies who appear in his Amitiés et Rencontres). Perhaps no man ever circulated more easily among his fellows or derived more profit from contact with them. A thorough optimism grew from this confidence (I am tempted to say “faith”) in the coherence operative between the soul’s most secret devices and desires and society’s steadily evolving institutions. Romains believed in individual freedom because he was convinced that society would respond to sincere personal endeavor. The world, he thought, would gradually grow more humane, subtle, and just even as the clear progress of science-based technology solved such age-old problems as disease and the brutal, box-like residential provisions for workers in large settlements. Man would progress through men, though perhaps no individual man or woman would appreciate the nature or direction of this progress as it was in motion.
In short, we find in Romains’s unanism a fully honest and well-deliberated version of what may be called classical liberalism. The Declaration of the Rights of Man (like the American Declaration of Independence) expresses vital truths not because it permits individuals to practice harmless eccentricity unmolested, but because it allows individuals the latitude to weave and spin in search of what will become, at last, a more perfect social being. To be sure, certain individuals are hopelessly damaged agents in this grand pageant. The serial killer Quinette in Les Hommes demarcates a chasm beyond one of civilization’s necessary boundaries. Yet in that capacity, he also contributes to a successful definition of the civilized (and perhaps in the further capacity, too, of providing a Zola-like case study of urban existence that has jumped the track). There is most certainly a globalism implicit here, just as the cosmopolites whose example Aristotle extolled to Alexander has common humanity at his righteous core. Romains’s love of France, therefore, is very plainly a love of the high ideals which have evolved throughout her lively historical struggle; and those ideals, paradoxically (but not contradictorily), will tend to erase one’s French or English or Chinese identity by annexing one more narrowly to the family of human beings.
That fascism should be antithetical to such a vision hardly needs explaining. The fascist scornfully dismisses the vast, epic labor of time through reason, experiment, discussion, and creation to produce a more rewarding earthly existence, substituting an arbitrary creed enforced by blunt threats. Nationality to the fascist is based upon accidents of birth—upon one’s genetic make-up and the location of one’s family. Admission into this wholly circumstantial circle of the elect bestows special privileges: rights and privileges do not flow logically from a just social and political structure which has flourished to date in some climates more than others. There is no gift, then, which the fascist has to offer those parts of the world trampled under his imperial ambitions, unless it is mere survival: his message contains not a line—not a word—about universal human freedoms.
And yet, if Jules Romains has virtually disappeared from university programs in French literature after being perhaps the most visible and celebrated of French authors in 1950, it must be in large measure because he has been identified with “fascist ethnocentrism”. This is an inane charge which truly indicts the indictment’s authors—but it is symptomatic of the disease at the heart of the West’s collapse. Indeed, I have translated Romains’s broadcasts in the wake of the Nazi invasion of his beloved homeland with a certain sense of urgency, not because I think we risk forgetting the facts behind those momentous events (though we surely do), but because no small set of texts could better illustrate how out-of-step contemporary intellectuals are—especially in the academy—with the principles of classical liberalism. They have indeed “vomited” those principles, as the French would say. Where Romains believes in exporting basic freedoms to other cultures tardy in developing them, today’s liberal sees only paternalism and “cultural imperialism”. Where Romains believes in maximally responsive democracy as a means of arbitrating the marketplace of ideas, today’s liberal (suddenly turning a blind eye to paternalism) prefers the leadership of the enlightened few. Where Romains believes in something called “honor”—a sacred duty, let us say, to sacrifice oneself unto death itself rather than endure the public perception that one has broken a promise—today’s liberal can only find metaphysical folderol in such formulas, and will tolerate no end of fractured promises in the give-and-take of living here and now (which is his all-and-only).
Allow me to conclude these remarks by clarifying that I do not myself accept every angle of Romains’s perspective as our best look at the truth. Exporting values proves to be a tricky business, especially when the package is not received in an entirely voluntary manner (as it is not in a colonial setting—and recall that the “white man’s burden” is a classical liberal notion in its sense of missionary duty, quite lacking in the paleo-conservative’s esteem for quiet isolation). No less treacherous, to my mind, is Romains’s footing when he decries the Nazi collaborators of his homeland for choosing to abrogate their own freedom. Fascism enjoyed considerable popular support in France as well as in Germany and Italy . Many Frenchmen thought their countrymen “soft” and in need of a strong, harsh dose of “discipline”. Romains’s condemning the government of Occupied France, then, for violating basic freedoms means little more that he disagreed politically with other Frenchmen unless certain rights are inalienable to all men; and in that case, France’s glorious history of nursing these rights to maturity—to which he gives much fanfare—is beside the point, and even a distraction from the point. A fundamental moral right precedes, and preempts, the verdict of any plebiscite on that right. Justice and injustice are based upon ideas inherent in reason, not derived from a grand process of social evolution or identified by popular vote.
It seems to me, therefore, that the proper alternative to invading brutal military dictatorships around the world and ousting their leaders is precisely to rely upon man’s natural loathing of tyranny and upon the courage which freedom’s metaphysical roots will inspire in him. Had the United States not forced a significant minority of Frenchmen to reject the principle of force by invading Normandy, would today’s France, having shaken off the Nazi yoke after a generation of suffering, not more closely resemble the nation which Romains wanted her to be? Certainly far fewer Jews would have died if anti-Semite regimes had been “paid off” in some fashion (ranging from repeal of trade embargoes to outright payment of ransom, as sometimes happened in Eastern Europe ) for the release of their Jews. Instead, these regimes were induced to proceed with the Holocaust by the internal paranoia and dwindling food supply which are universal products of wartime.
I would contend, sadly and reluctantly, that the France which Romains hoped to save from suicide did indeed destroy itself despite the Allies’ eventual success against fascism. That Romains should have needed to make the kind of pleas we have here suggests irresistibly that the heyday of French culture—of rationalism, moderation, gentle humor, and fair play—had died long before the “phony war” of 1940. The noble vision of classical liberalism had failed. If it is ever to be revived, in my opinion (and the sentiments expressed by Romains cannot leave one in despair of their finding a voice again), then its mission will have to rely less on that impetus of social trend so beloved of the unanimist and more on individual conscience—less on honor (which requires an audience of honorable men) and more on a commitment of transcending faith. Of course, such a distinction may just define the passage from liberalism to a belief system less volatile and more resigned to secular tragedy. ~JRH
I. To the French Living Under the Armistice (2 August, 1940)
Jules Romains is speaking to you. He addresses you from New York. But since his voice would not reach you clearly across the Atlantic, the BBC is relaying his signal.
Do I need to excuse myself for accepting such help? I would hope that the BBC which we listened to last winter with fraternal feeling—you remember, “This is London…” don’t you—would not have become a hostile voice for you. I prefer to say nothing today about the family squabble which separates our two peoples under present circumstances. I will stress only that if this squabble should linger, it would be one of the war’s most lamentable disasters.
Naturally, I concede that England has made mistakes and been clumsy. I don’t feel the least awkwardness in saying so when I have the evidence at hand, because the English are people to whom one can be completely frank. But I will not brush aside the forty years of faithful friendship between our two nations after centuries of honorable rivalry—nor all the dead on the battlefields of 1914 through 1918, at a time when the words, “They shall not pass,” meant something—nor all the efforts since then toward a common goal.1 Responding over so many years and graves to the voice of the great Kipling, I cry from New York, “Hurray for England , who—alone still standing—fights for liberty!”
But it is especially for the joy of speaking to you that I am here. You know my voice: you have often heard it. You know my books. You have confidence in me, because I have never been at anyone’s back and call, and I have always served a single cause: that of orderly peace, of international justice, of human freedoms—and first and foremost of these freedoms, most sacred of them all, the freedom of the spirit.
It is to defend the freedom of the spirit—to save the part of this treasure that has been confided to me—that I left a land very dear yet suddenly threatened by servitude. As International President of the World Federation of Writers, which we often refer to as P. E. N. Clubs, I transferred to New York the seat of this presidency; and it is from New York that I will try to maintain contact with the writers scattered throughout the world—many, alas, following paths of exile or, even worse, held captive in the concentration camps which are sure to endure as one of our time’s most shameful blights. It is from here that we will strive to preserve as many connections as possible and thus to keep alive, throughout this global disaster, the flame of the spirit, quavering as it is in a fierce storm yet still glowing between us and chaos, atrocity, and a pitch-dark night.
We don’t receive much news about you here—or not much, at least, that we would dare to believe. Oh, I realize that everything suddenly got terrible, maddening… difficult, let us say. I can picture myself in the place of those who, without wanting to, accepted the bitter task of hastily putting up beams and stays as the homeland crumbled about them. I like to think that they are doing nothing more than what history will judge to be the least of evils—an inevitability. Certain foreign newspapers tell us that, through a clause in the armistice, France has undertaken to hand over the political and intellectual refugees who had fled to her because they believed in her ideals. I’m sure that these newspapers made some mistake of translation. We hear also that the French government is preparing laws against freedom of thought, against freedom of association, against the Jews, and against who knows what else… and that, the other day, a minister declared that France is severing her ties with everything international. France!
These are surely false or distorted reports. Nevertheless, I’ve lately read the account of an honorable witness who attended the National Assembly of Vichy (a funny name, isn’t it, for a national assembly!). I saw in the account that the Third Republic has been buried in a fashion that isn’t pretty.2 I didn’t notice any orator getting up to proclaim, “It isn’t because we lacked tanks and planes in May 1940 that the ideal for which France has struggled over the centuries has shifted in value. It isn’t even because the central government has been doing its job badly for several years and because a bunch of generals blundered—because the Republic has been blundering in such fashion for seventy years now. It’s not because Mr. Renault’s sheet-iron caved in more readily than Mr. Goering’s that we are going to tear up the Declaration of the Rights of Man.” No one, not even Herriot, cried out, “They were able to defeat us. They are able to crush us. But they will not be able to make us say that we were wrong in wanting to save the freedom and dignity of man, and that others were right in advancing violence and servitude, and the we need only act as they do without delay to wring a pardon from them.”3
I beg the acting leaders of France not to dishonor France. But I also say to everyone: yes, the defeat of France was a dreadful thing—yet we have lifted ourselves up out of defeats almost as dreadful in the past. Amputated territory or wealth is not enough to kill a country. If France renounces herself, however—if she tramples upon her soul, if she spits upon everything that gave her direction throughout history and before the eyes of the world—then it’s finished. France will no longer be anything but a poor vassal of a country, now stroked, now shipped by masters from beyond her borders. Other nations will think of her only as people think of the dead.
Can this happen? I ask you, my friends: Paul Valéry, Gide, Claudel, Mauriac, Roger Martin du Gard… and you, Durtain… and so many others.4 And you, laborers of outlying cities whose fathers offered their lives on so many barricades… they didn’t do this so that France, 150 years after the Revolution, would cease to be a nation of free men. And you, peasant farmers… you didn’t toil to fill up the massive graveyard of Douaumont, when Pétain was commanding at Verdun, so that twenty years later all the work of France since 1789 would seem fit only to be wiped away.5 But I turn especially to you, you thousands and thousands of teachers, my friends who lately gave me so many proofs of your confidence and affection. After all, they won’t be able to kill you all, top put you all in prison. I see you in the near future—this autumn, the new year’s winter—in your little schoolhouses among mountains or plains, your village schools hidden in their thousands in the folds of France s soil like the seeds of times to come. I know that you will not betray us. Even if there were no one left but you, I would not despair.
(Delivered at New York on August 2, 1940. Relayed by the BBC from London, and repeated for several transmissions.)
II. Two Warnings (11 October, 1940)
From where I am, in New York, I spoke to you a few weeks ago after the armistice. Two and a half months have passed. The news about you has become more rare. Since the first days of August, practically no letter has reached here from the occupied region. A few vague stories have been filtering through the news agencies. Without exception, they are of a nature which makes the heart sink. The other day, I encountered a person who had left Paris around the tenth of September, after having passed two months there. I was informed that the amount of privation is already severe, but that people endure it bravely, and that the population and the local authorities remain dignified, taken as a whole. That doesn’t surprise me. It seems that a few ladies of high position are conducting themselves in a shameful manner to obtain little favors, like gifts of gasoline… and that doesn’t surprise me, either. As for the press that manages to be printed in our capital city, it appears to have attained the ultimate degree of ignominy unless our information is wrong or incomplete. Let the people of Paris note all of this well and take care not to forget it.
From the unoccupied zone, letters continue to reach us—though not without long delays—and also newspapers. The letters are generally written with so little comment on certain points and in such a fearful tone that they magnify one’s anxiety. Are people, then, terrified to this degree? Are the freedoms of France truly in this state? The newspapers, of which I was able to procure a bundle, prevented me from sleeping for an entire night with the weight of sadness and indignation that oppressed me. Oh, yes, I know that our press didn’t always do us much credit morally… but to have arrived so quickly at this point! Do these people understand that the press has never fallen so low since it has existed in France —never, under any regime? And that history will continue to exist, along with the future, and that what they are doing will not be forgotten?
I observed that the most despised man in France, an adventurer who for thirty years had sold himself successively or concurrently to various foreign projects of corruption, and who could only be at liberty at all because of our police force’s sloppiness—one of the most active recruiters of the fifth column—this man, I say, is now dishing out directives and dictating warrants!6 Frenchmen, Frenchmen! I assure you, the rest of us can comprehend a lot of this situation’s complexities from far away, and even excuse many of the goings-on… but not that one, and not others like it. Such soiling of yourselves is pointless. The enemy will not count it in your favor. On the contrary, he will scorn you and mistreat you the more by how much you surrender high office to men whom he himself detests.
I have two warnings, in particular, to transmit to you. They come from everybody of intelligence and sympathetic to France whom I have met here. The first is this. You have launched a vast inquest to find and punish those who are responsible for our misfortunes. If you limit yourself to retribution, based on good and evident reasons, without serving vile political enmities or even viler racial hatreds learned at the enemy’s school—if you pursue only those who poorly conducted the war, so be it. But beware! You are being pushed by the highest acting authority in France to make a declaration that it’s the French government that wanted or readily accepted the war when it could have been avoided. That, my friends, is a lie, and is also an abominable trap. The government of ’39 did everything to avoid war. They tell me that Georges Bonnet now contends that the peace could have been preserved.7 Georges Bonnet, whom I have often defended, is only yielding to fear if he maintains this, and he is dishonoring himself. For he knows well that it isn’t true. We might have been able, in September of ’39, to obtain a delay of several months while losing all our allies. Afterwards, however, we could not have resumed mobilization. Besides, people had had enough by that point. “Let’s finish this once and for all!” they were crying. By 1940, Germany would have attacked a France completely disarmed, demoralized, and abandoned by all—and well the Germans knew it! They would have conquered her in eight days rather than having to spend eight months at it. The whole notion, furthermore, is simply stupid. What the enemy wants is that France should be foolish enough to declare herself guilty by the voice of her highest tribunal, and that she should thus labor to justify in advance the frightful conditions of peace that Germany as yet hesitates to present to her.
Second warning: do not allow yourselves to be stirred up against England. You can deal her the reproaches that she deserves later on. But for now, it is upon her victory and that alone that your safety depends. Everything that you might do to compromise that victory would be done against France herself—and you would lose in the same stroke the friendship and esteem that America has for you. When the day comes to settle accounts once and for all, do not create for yourselves the supreme shame of occupying a seat on the same side of court as the criminals—but a couple of rows farther back.
I don’t know how you view things over there. I’m going to tell you how they view them over here. When I first arrived, informed people were saying, “Too bad! England had only a 30% to come out of this intact!” Today they say, “England has a 70% chance to win the war completely and dictate the peace. But that doesn’t mean that the 30% of chances that remain are for a German victory. Because now, to be victorious, the Germans will have not only to defeat and subjugate first England, then the whole British Empire; they will have to defeat and subjugate all of America—and perhaps even other powers that have not yet pronounced their final word. Therefore, if peace is to be dictated by anybody, it won’t be Germany.”
That’s what they think here, and what is just as well that you should know.
(Delivered at New York on October 11, 1940. Relayed by the BBC from London, and repeated for several transmissions.)
III . To the People in the Area of Nice (8 November, 1940)
On previous occasions, I have spoken to all of France, all of the French. Today I would like to address Nice, in particular—the people of Nice and those who live in its vicinity. They will not be astonished to hear that I am thinking of them. They know what ties I have to Nice. I love their city as if it were my own, and I give you my word that I imagine myself to be as familiar with it as anyone. Some of my favorite memories are attached to the place. I lived there for years and for fragments of years which, if all set end to end, would compose a goodly part of my existence. When I was young, I was a teacher there in the city’s schools. Whenever I would return there, I would manage to cross paths with many of my former students. And I would manage to return often.
My wife adores the area as much as I do. We were still there at the beginning of ’39. We were there in March of this year, this terrible year of 1940. I can see myself in the office of Jean Médecin. I can hear him telling me, in his name and in yours, how touched Nice had been by the book that I had just written about her—how amazed people were that a man who wasn’t born there could have captured the city’s soul, her daily yet profound charm, to the degree that I had. Two days later, we were leaving, my wife and I, with Garino for Falicon, where a luncheon awaited us on Mr. Monifassi’s terrace (the terrace where Antonia and Jallez had danced).8 Médecin, who had not been able to accompany us, had a basket of his own bottled wine carried up there to us, which we drank to his health, to the glory of Nice, and to the victory of France . That afternoon, in the company of the cure of Falicon, we went to pay our respects to that brave centenarian—you know the one—in his little house above the main road, and there we drank one or two more bottles.
These memories now grip me by the heart. What has become of them—Médecin, Garino, Bonifassi, the cure, the old man—and so many other friends, like our humane and courageous police chief Mouchet, the sculptor Seassal who created your beautiful Monument to the Dead, and others, so many others…. At the very least, they must all be very sad, very anxious.
Some very disturbing news is circulating in these parts. You know that I am in New York, and you know why I am here and how long I intend to stay. In America, a free nation, we are rather well informed—perhaps better than you are, alas, on the very affairs that concern you most. We are told that Nice has been mentioned in some obscure negotiations recently—that Nice is to be handed over straightaway to Italy. Such words stick in one’s throat. You must surely have heard whispers of this, however. Perhaps they swore to you that it was all rumor, and I hope it may be no more than that. But they have already sworn to us that so many things were false or would never happen which turned out, nevertheless, to be true and to have happened indeed. On the slope of material and moral capitulation, it’s hard to halt one’s slide.
My friends, this would be a dreadful thing if it occurred, devastating and disgraceful. We need not even mention the claim’s justice. Italy’s claim to Nice is enough to make one die of laughter. Nice is a flower that the French Alps have set to blossom in the coast. For centuries, the city has nourished its growth with the descendants of our rugged mountaineers. Nowhere do the hunters on our side of the Alps have better reason to display their boisterous greetings and their cocked berets. When the question was officially posed, Nice gave herself to France —and no gift has ever been more free, more total, or more joyous.9 Speaking, then, only of the deplorable “right” of greater force, we know over here exactly what has happened. Just the other day, once again, I heard the story of some refugees who reached us from your part of the country, still full of gratitude for the hospitality which you had shown them for years—but alas, you could no longer protect them from the Gestapo’s tentacles.10 They said to me, “When Mussolini declared war on you, we saw your soldiers from Nice and Provence fidgeting with anger because they were not allowed to hurl themselves upon that traitor, Italy , who was trying to stab you in the back.” In North Africa, the same thing happened. We had abundant and magnificent troops down there. I visited them in ’39. They would have swarmed over Libya just as your army of the Alps would have swarmed over the Piedmont, liberating in the same blow the Italian people from fascist tyranny—the Italian people that you and I know well and with whom we could so easily have come to an agreement, as you realize better than anyone. The face of the war would thereby have changed all at once.
But there’s the rub… there were some among us who had cast their lot with Italy’s masters, who put up a front of believing their own reassuring lies, who wished to cause no trouble—not even the slightest—to Mussolini at the moment when he was slipping a dagger into France’s back. It’s an appalling story. One day, the whole world will know it. One day, a great reckoning will come. On that day, the traitors must absolutely not be allowed to escape. I would propose that our alpine hunters cordon off an area for executions!
No, my friends of Nice! It is only too possible that Italy is requesting of her German handlers the salary for her dagger in the back—whimpering like a jackal for the German wolves to throw her a bone. The German wolves at least have the virtue of being wolves. And Nice is no bone fit to be tossed to jackals.
Nice, flower of the French Alps, you who have become with Paris the most brilliant city of France since France has bequeathed to you all of its luxuries to adorn your natural charms—city least suited to be a slave, especially the slave of a pauper—protest by every means that you have left. There must surely be a few. Cry at the top of your voice to be left alone—show that you have not yet been completely bound and gagged. If we find thereafter that you protested for nothing and that the alarm was a false one, so much the better! But don’t run the risk of allowing such a crime to be committed against you without having raised a cry with all your might.
If you turn out to have done what was necessary when it was necessary, you will have yet one more source of pride on the day when you see the soldiers of the French Republic, united with their British brethren whom they will have helped to bring the war to a victorious end, descending the Avenue de la Victoire, then marching up the Promenade des Anglais, to incline their flags at last before the Monument of Rouba Capeu.11
(Delivered at New York on November 8,1940. Relayed by the BBC from London, and repeated for several transmissions.)
IV. A Year’s End Meditation (24 December, 1940)
The year 1940 is going to finish in a few days. It is obviously one of those that deserve a retrospective glance. In my opinion—and I don’t think I’m the dupe of an illusion caused by living as these events happen—this has been one of the most disastrous years that humanity has ever known. Other epochs have seen war and the unleashing of a lust for conquest. But you have to go back very far to find a scenario similar to the one we have before our eyes. Because since the end of the Middle Ages, conquerors no doubt did harm to civilization, but they did not presume to haul it into court to defend itself. They attributed their excesses their excesses and their crimes to motives of necessity, but did not for an instant dream of presenting them as exemplary, inviting subjugated nations to model their morality, their law, and their gospel upon them. To these subjugated nations, it was not announced from the start that they would be forever treated as inferior races—or rather, as races thought inferior have been treated for time immemorial: plundered, dragged to foreign shores, thrown into chains, or even methodically slaughtered according to the master’s whim. More generally, since the dawn of modern times, accidents of military history in Europe have never signified the end of her most precious spiritual and moral values, and the sudden annihilation of all previous generations’ labors in the direction of mutual respect, fairness, and benevolence: of humanity, in a word. Whatever happens from now on, 1940 will remain one of the four or five years of history when the world created by man stood in greatest peril.
You will remember how this baleful year began: in the boredom and creeping discomfort of a stagnant war. On our far northern horizon, Finland’s adventure had shed a sort of aurora borealis for several weeks. Norway would offer new opportunities, but we wouldn’t know how to profit from them. The two great Western democracies were waiting for victory to come as a peasant waits for the harvest, telling himself that nature will see to everything, that the harvest is his just desert.12 And, of course, it’s entirely true that victory was their just desert, to consider only their case’s merits and the interests of the human community: a victory as bloodless as possible, as they had dreamed of it—for their dreams of war (to their credit) remained rather pacifist and held aloof from a frenzy for blood. Yet war is first and foremost a test of force. When you must defeat the wicked or the sly or the faithless, it is noble and heroic—but quite dangerous—to disdain all recourse to wickedness or slyness or faithlessness. Alas, today we clearly see that as of January or February, our democracies had lost the great battle of May and June in advance: in part, most certainly, through having lacked in vigilance and internal readiness, but in part also through having detested war and refused its principle of violence.
Since then, the world has been severe in its judgment of us. The world is wrong. It should have been more restrained. It scoffed at all of our warnings and appeals for help at a historical moment when responding to them would have sufficed to avert the catastrophe. The world left to us, and especially to France, the chore of fighting on its behalf another Battle of the Marne, another Battle of Verdun, as it continued to give itself to pastimes and pleasures. Let us speak clearly here in the interest of truth, and because history will say the same thing (for the generations that will have to pay the price for our mistakes will equitably distribute guilt at their leisure). It was convenient—oh, so convenient!—to reserve for Poland and France yet one more time the role of Christ among Western nations, since they seem to be made for it. But the role of Pontius Pilate bestows no glory; neither does that of the Pharisees who stop their ears so as not to hear the cries of the just.
Yet God knows that we tried to sound the alarm! Everyone among us who enjoys any authority has been clamoring among the democracies of Europe and America for four years, “What we ask of you isn’t to help us wage the next war, but to help us prevent that war. And if we’re asking you, it’s for your sake as well as ours; for should this war erupt by some mischance, you will have to wage it sooner or later—trying to avoid it will do you no good.”
The world’s people answered us, “Get out of your own mess!”—and that much we heard even when they were not yet distilling criticism upon our supreme efforts to cut a deal with danger, to soothe the monster, to wear him out with our patience. I will never forget the harsh proposals we heard during the war in Spain , nor the later ones at Munich. For those spectators comfortably seated and protected by solid barriers, we were a bull in the ring with deficient nerve, taking one banderillo after another with too much composure, hesitant to thrust at the red cape. And the audience began to jeer and whistle.
In the middle of this terrible year, France suffered a kind of melting down—a collapse, as people say, fondling the word in their throats as they fondled six months earlier the phrase “phony war”. They have begun to understand that the phony war was no joke.
Upon France’s defeat and capitulation, I have tried, for my part, to reflect with justice and moderation from the start. Today as before, I persist in saying that it was difficult, perhaps impossible, not to capitulate on the principal theater; but that with a little luck and level-headedness, something better could have been made from the whole situation, starting from that moment. I remain persuaded that a Gambetta or a Clemenceau would not have conceded so quickly that to the fatalistic view that all was lost. But we didn’t have another Gambetta or Clemenceau. That was a component of our bad luck. If we wish to continue being fair, let us not forget that for all the world, or very nearly—in France and elsewhere—the defeat of England was only a question of days, or maybe weeks; and that, besides, as France was casting all about her a last appeal, a last desperate look, the only answer was a frightened silence and a few faces that turned away to hide their grief, or maybe their discomfort. Or perhaps this was a version of Peter’s renunciation: “I don’t know the man you’re talking about… I’ve never even met him.”
On the other hand, I will seek no excuse for certain improvised responses—one would like to attribute them to nascent insanity—which France has uttered, or allowed to be uttered, through her own mouthpieces since her defeat, much as if some of her people had profited from her defeat to disfigure and dishonor her. The soiling that she has received from this will not be washed away any time soon. More than two and a half centuries later, the France of Louis XIV has stained herself by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.13 The France which authored the Rights of Man had a more fastidious sense of honor—her people were very exacting about such things. Now we find that villains who had earlier committed betrayals as bad as—or worse than—these of which we speak cannot believe their eyes when they see France going the same way. Like women of shady character who bristle with outrage when a great lady becomes involved in a scandal….
A consolation which we have just now enjoyed is that the man who passed, rightly or wrongly (but I think rightly), for the inspiration and primary agent of these loathsome policies—who, at any rate, arrogantly made himself synonymous with them—has lately been swept from the government. That his successor may not offer much reassurance is entirely possible.14 Yet the fall of the former gives one’s sense of right and wrong some small satisfaction. And if this atmosphere of palace revolutions cloaked in shadows that reaches us all the way over here is not very agreeable to our enduring love of democracy, nor very French—if it smells to us not significantly better than the atmosphere of ministerial tumbles and corridor intrigues which is a cliché for misgovernment—it at least has this merit: it permits us to discern that the new regime’s constitution isn’t as solid as a rock, and that, when the time comes, that regime will have the good taste to dismantle itself discreetly.
Another, more important consolation worth stressing is that this government, for all its faults, has abstained from committing what would have been the capital crime, the irreparable error (since nothing else has yet been irreparable): that is, letting itself be pulled into the war against England. Thanks for that are probably owed to Marshal Pétain… but also to the French people. Their voice was subdued, but it could not be entirely muted. It was able to make its actual masters understand that the people want no part of such dishonorable folly, and that if it were undertaken in their name despite massive resistance, things would turn out badly.
In fact, at the end of 1940, the truly, positively irreparable has not happened at any level. When I recall the nature of our legitimate fears six months ago, this simple assertion already partakes of a declaration of victory. England, which was to be invaded in August—in September at the latest—held the invader at arm’s length so successfully that there was never even the beginning of an invasion. That failing, she was to be besieged and reduced to ruins. At the very least, starved and demoralized amid her rubble, she was to capitulate before winter. To assist her in that decision, the valiant Italy was going to take charge of Egypt in a strategic coup, blockade the Suez Canal, and—to complete the slipping of the Mediterranean into her pocket—occupy Greece and the Greek isles in less time than it takes to say as much.
What actually occurred was a little different. England endured a very harsh siege, but she held fast from the first day on. The only enemies on her soil are either prisoners of war or Fifth Column types in concentration camps. To the blows that she received, she responded with counter-blows just as numerous and powerful. She did not starve: she rationed. Any of us who might be forced to choose would rather have the English ration than the German one.
In Africa, the armies of British subjects—to which we proudly discovered that a French contingent had been joined—swept away the fascist army in a thunderclap. As for Greece, she has excited the astonishment and admiration of the world, and the acclamations which rise around her are multiplied and enlivened by what one might call a grand Homeric laugh. Greece did not content herself with repelling the invader, driving him beyond her famous mountains and hounding him through snowstorms in the valleys of Albania: she turned him into an object of ridicule.
And now? There’s the question of what America will do. I don’t know what to tell you about that. America is well aware of what awaits her in the case of a final defeat for the democracies in this struggle, and her conduct from day to day is dictated by this certainty. What, we may just as well ask, will France do? I would like to imagine that France will soon declare herself clearly—or at least the organized French forces, what there are of them that remain intact and vibrant. It seems to me that history is beckoning us with a very plain and decisive sign. One would have to be blind—to have no sense whatever of expediency or of nobility, either one—to mistake this sign. For it just isn’t conceivable that France would be not be a part of the coming victory for free peoples everywhere, or that she would be content to await that day without helping… is it?
(Delivered at New York on December 24, 1940 . Broadcast by short-wave Radio Station WRUL of Boston, and repeated for several transmissions.)
V. To Teachers and Others Dedicated to Public Instruction (10 January, 1941)
Some of you were probably listening the other day when, from Boston, I sent to France my reflections about the year’s end. Now, from New York, I would like to extend to you my best wishes for the new year—to all of you whom I cannot reach by ordinary means, to members of my family, to my friends, to my colleagues… to those colleagues, at any rate, who have not dishonored our common profession by servility and apostasy. Today, however, I would like to address more specifically those whose vocation is public instruction.
They already know the claim I have upon their attention. I’m the son of a Parisian teacher. Several teachers in provincial and small rural schools are among my closest friends. I myself graduated from the École Normale located on Ulm Street.15 In my youth, I was a teacher for many years. I know, too, that teachers are among my most faithful readers.
All of you, my friends, at every level of the educational field, share a great undertaking. I can define it in a single phrase: to save the guiding purpose for France’s existence. All the great thinkers of our tradition—those whom we have learned to respect and love, those whom no one would have the audacity to blacklist (or so I presume: for you couldn’t blacklist them, in any case, because even if their statues were toppled over and their books burned, we still know their most magnificent writings by heart, and we would recite them secretly among ourselves and would teach them to our students, to our children)… all these great thinkers, I repeat, have stressed to us that France is first and foremost a moral construct. They have insisted that preserving her physical appearance would be a matter of negligible importance if that moral presence which she has gloriously and courageously become for centuries now were to turn unrecognizable and repellent as a result of being disfigured.
To those of us entrusted with the tradition, it isn’t difficult to specify what would be necessary to disfigure—indeed, to destroy—France’s moral persona. France would cease to be herself on the day when she no longer held the spirit in sacred respect; when she no longer considered the free judgments of reason to be superior to various unstable combinations of power; when she no longer revered the common humanity in every person, the sense of a metaphysical equality extended to all men because imagination, reason, and soul are universally present in them; when, for example, she would ratify or accept as legitimate the insane measures, worthy only of barbaric eras, which have classed among society’s trespassers and vagrants the great Bergson—the rest of the world is wearing black to mourn his treatment—as well as the Jews of southern France who have lived in Gaul since Roman times, are Gauls themselves, and who could sneer as Frenchmen of ancient stock (they are Jews only as a man from Auvergne is an Auvergnat) at many of our recently imported drifters if they wished to take their bearings on something besides the Declaration of the Rights of Man.16
France would lose its moral persona on the day when she accepted—other than as a provisional expedient—the replacement of consensual authority openly discussed, the free emanation of a sovereign people, by a power of hard fact drawing its rules and right to control from nowhere but itself, naturally subject to all sorts of change and to all the caprices of the autocrats from whom it flowed. She would lose her moral persona—she would disfigure herself in a way that the future could never repair—on the day when, during the enormous struggle that pits the world’s free peoples, all its various democracies, against hordes of fanatics and enslaved peoples and wretches driven by the whip, she should choose, even indirectly—what an incredible notion! We’re speaking of France!—to align herself with the tyrants and the slave-drivers to ensure the defeat of the free peoples, to ensure the defeat of liberty across the face of the earth.
Can one, without blushing, question even for an instant where his proper place is—the place that awaits him to step up and fill it?
I have said all the democracies of the world. Precisely. You must be aware that this is no longer an oratorical formula. Right now, at the dawn of 1941, all the democracies of the world are involved in these events. I hope that you have managed to hear President Roosevelt’s admirable affirmations before Congress and the American people. They have a trenchant clarity. The tyrants have been put on notice. In order to consider their undertaking completed, they will have to go beyond infiltrating, confiscating, invading, conquering, and grinding down places like Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France. They will have to go beyond disembarking in English and crushing English resistance on the spot, or even crushing it in the four corners of the world where the British Empire reaches. They will have to conquer and crush all of America. America will not make peace with tyrants. Never. And as of this moment, the United States is a gigantic arsenal where millions of men are working and millions of machines humming and pounding away in order to produce victory for free peoples and a final defeat for tyrants.
Teachers—you who, better than anyone, can ensure the elementary constancy and the vastly spread continuity of France ’s moral persona—this is what you should be pondering within yourselves with all your force, what you should be arguing by implication (if only, perhaps, by subtle allusion) as you refer to great texts and noble examples. For virtue has a kind of silent radiance which will enlighten specific events.
Finally, allow me to repeat to you, teachers of France, a few of the verses which I dedicated to you when concluding The White Man in 1936, as I sought to represent some of the supreme challenges where you would have a major role to play:
A new school rises from the mountainside.
The wind is keen—the blue sky’s steely scythe.
The children-scholars warm their bloated hands.
Now strike a fire that makes young minds expand.
Tell them: “No force can stand against the truth,
Shrill crazes melt away like ice at noon ;
To chase the fallen angels back to jail,
One only needs the compass, harp, and scales.
“What victory does fury have in time?
Or now or later, life at last must rhyme.
This cold slope must not mesmerize your soul:
Paris and New York have something, too, of home.”
Teachers—schoolmasters in our fathers’ use—
The West has trusted you to guard its jewels;
And you, Cosmopolis of Socrates,
These are the soldiers who will keep you free.17
(Delivered at New York on January 10, 1941. Relayed by the BBC from London, and repeated for several transmissions.)
VI. An Indictment of the Ultimate Folly (23 May, 1941)
My fellow Frenchmen…
I am not addressing you today without a deep sense of moral responsibility. I’ve always held in horror the kind of person who, in peacetime, stirs up others to fight wars that he himself will not be embroiled in, or who, in wartime, recommends heroism to the combatants while he sits comfortably at his fireside. I know very well that all of you are suffering in various degrees and in various ways wherever you may be—in the occupied zone, in the so-called free zone, in the colonies, in Great Britain, and in actual combat zones (for those of you who continue the struggle beside the English). Some of you live under the pall of regular bombardments. Almost all of you who live in large cities have made the acquaintance of privation and malnourishment; you look around and see those dearest to you wasting away—perhaps children who are not growing as they should, sick family members who cannot mend or are getting worse because of lacking medication. It’s unlikely that we over here are enduring anything on that scale. I am not the one, then, who is going to lecture you that with the aid of strong moral character, privations count for nothing. It’s too easy to say that when one wants for no necessity oneself… and, besides, it’s simply not true. The elementary anguish of every French housewife who asks herself from dawn till dusk, “How am I going to find what I need for the next meal, and for tomorrow’s, and for the day-after-tomorrow’s?” (for you absolutely have to think ahead of time, calculate, and devise a plan in order to make the hours profitable that long searches and long waits require)—just that much, I say, is very depressing. It’s a continual drain on one’s morale and one’s dignity.
I could get away with saying, no doubt, that I feel that other kind of suffering—of the spirit, the heart, the soul—as much as you do. You would probably believe me. But even there, an important difference exists. In addition to the massive grief and humiliation common to all of us French, you in the occupied zone must absorb nervous shocks every day, if not every hour. You cannot escape with a general reflection upon the defeat and enslavement of France: you live their consequences at every turn of the road. Despite your efforts to avoid them, your eyes fall upon posters, public announcements, flags—even rude shadows and silhouettes—wherever you look. You are not allowed to forget for an instant. And I don’t wish to be either cruel or unjust… but I know full well that even in the free zone, signs of our disaster and servitude sufficient to create an obsession are not spared to the casual eye, although they are more veiled and indirect.
I want to stress something else to you, as well—or rather, to recall it to you, for you are not ignorant of it. I have never permitted myself to judge the events of June 1940 with superficiality or superiority. I could readily conclude that certain people responsible for those days were lacking in cool-headedness or daring or imagination… but I always took stock of the incredible situation they were facing—of the sudden collapse, the liquefaction, of everything around them amid which they had to improvise a plan to save the nation, or what they thought might be such a plan. I never had any inclination to believe in a betrayal. I had conceived an admiration and respect for Marshal Pétain quite some time earlier (as he himself can hardly deny). I well remember—because I am proud of the fact—that in May and June of 1940, the name of Pétain was received in America with a confidence, an entirely favorable prejudice, partly because the reputation of that humane and lucid general-in-chief, Pétain of Verdun, had just been revived to American eyes after more than twenty years when my novel Verdun appeared here in translation, just at the year’s beginning. Hundreds of thousands of Americans had just finished reading it. How many times throughout this winter, when the news from France was stirring worry and anguish in me—for instance, when loathsome internal measures that violated our ideals were reported or when a disturbing number of stories spoke of France’s collaborating with her conqueror—did I open a magazine to find a photo of Pétain! And I would stare at this image, as if to question it. I would say to myself, “These courageous features, these eyes so riveted, luminous, and full of good will—so French, in a word… we have all had a grandfather or a great uncle who had that look. Yes, he’s a grandfather, in the same sense as they called General Joffre ‘Grandpa Joffre’. It isn’t possible that such a man would ever do, or even allow to be done, anything downright evil—that he would betray, or allow to be betrayed, the critical interests and the honor of France. He might be mistaken on certain points, he might be surrounded by bad men and be badly advised. He might think necessary or expedient certain deplorable attitudes adopted from the enemy, or certain compromises with the enemy that are almost surely dangerous, guileful tricks. But he still has his moral bearings. He will not abandon what is essential. Deep down, like us, he yearns for England’s victory and the total liberation of our country. He will know how to avoid the ultimate folly, the ultimate disgrace.”
Less than three weeks ago, I was trying to explain Pétain to my friends here—declaring all the while that, in my opinion, his policies had already let several opportunities slip away that could not be recovered, and that they now ran the risk of ending in utter ruin. I was being very critical of his political judgment, in other words. Yet I wanted to suggest without too great a show of naiveté how this brave old man had sacrificed much of himself—of his glory—to draw his country out of the fire, sparing it further destruction, agony, and collapse by concluding the war’s lingering endgame and creating a peace treaty with conditions as mild as possible. He had pulled this off, I was convinced, without doing any absolutely irreparable damage or incurring any absolutely irreparable dishonor.
And now, my French brothers around the world… tell me: what are we supposed to think? I assume that you’ve heard the news, and that you don’t need me to tell you what the situation is or to judge it for you. Nor do you need any advice—for most of you plainly can do nothing, or almost nothing. In the era of tanks and planes, the opinion of ninety-five percent of a country’s population doesn’t count for much. The conscience of an entire people has never been so easy to grind under the heel with contempt and impunity. That’s one of the most frightening costs we pay for technological progress. Yet all the same, it will do us good to speak together, to extend our hands to each other from afar, and then… who knows?
Why not just call the situation bluntly by its name? Barring a miracle, you will soon be at war with England. Already, on several fronts, France is committing acts of hostility against England, making things difficult for her, procuring facilities and resources for her enemies, working for her defeat—for the defeat of the people who are fighting for the liberty of everyone—and we are advised that this is only the beginning. Such words make one’s tongue burn, like filthy obscenities. Yet they have to be said, because this is all true, and the only tiny, miraculous chance we have of stopping such a national disgrace—such an international crime—is to say them.
You who fight against England and against all the free peoples whose governments have not yet capitulated and have sought refuge under the British wing—you, tomorrow, will be the enemies of America. France, the enemy of America: the France of La Fayette, of the Argonne in 1918!18 The same America as has been our friend for more than 150 years! From whom no war has ever separated us! When we have been involved in a fight, the two of us, it was always side by side against a common adversary. Now you must imagine a future where America will be obliged to fight against us to save the liberty of the world. Of course, she will be forced to use against France the enormous power that she is in the process of mobilizing, and that she will deploy for maximum effect until the final victory: the 5,000 bombers per month that she will construct in 1942, the 10,000 per month that she will construct in 1943….
As I say these words, I have the feeling that I have died and then opened my eyes upon a hell where lunatics reign, and where sulfurous emanations fill your head with outrageous nightmares. I beseech you, my French brothers, transport yourselves back in thought for five years, two years, or even one year. Picture someone’s saying to you back then, “On May 23, 19 41 , you will be on the verge of severing all relations with America because you will be committed to the hilt in advancing Hitler’s victory, and because America will choose to resist that victory.” Why, you would have lunged for the throat of any man who had uttered such words! Or perhaps you would simply have sent him out the door with a boot to his backside, like a crazy, offensive babbler. Naturally, I don’t need to convince you that anyone who had predicted the defeat of May/June 1940 at that same time would also have been ill received—but the dire forecast would have had nothing grotesque about it, unlike the babbler’s raving. There is no equivalence between a misfortune and a heinous crime. One can prophesy to a rich man that he will lose all his money in two years, and he will be affected by the words—probably irritated by them. But you can easily see that it wouldn’t be at all the same thing as telling him, “In two years, you will join a band of professional murderers, and one evening you will be found with them in the house of your family, masked and in the act of slitting your own parents’ throats.” Every people has known, at one historical moment or another, some sort of terrible setback. Yet only a few ended up dishonoring themselves—and even fewer plunged a dagger in the back of close cousin and brave comrade who was in the process of defending them.
Shall it be said, my French brethren, that we will live to see such a thing with our own eyes—the greatest dishonor that France has known, the greatest crime committed in France’s name, in all her thousand years of history as a nation? For that’s exactly where we stand now. No crime could be greater or farther beyond atonement. To betray at the same time one’s allies, one’s ideals, one’s duty to dependents, one’s traditions, one’s ancestors, one’s hard-fought revolutions and wars in pursuit of a better world… “Ye soldiers of Year Two, what wars ye fought, what epics ye made!” sang Hugo, our Hugo, whose verses you have known since grade school.19 Even the little black scholars I visited not long ago in the heart of the Sudan —they knew these lines, too! What indignation would be Papa Hugo’s now!20 What titanic wrath would he make crackle over the head of those who, if they do not stop—if they are not stopped—will bring down ten centuries of glorious achievement and sacrifice….
They are bringing us down, my friends—all of us, France herself—and along with France, all that she has ever represented of worth, of faith, and of promise to the world. Last week, the first item of several very worrisome news reports arrived here: specifically, the extraordinary allocution of Marshal Pétain, who in substance said these words to the French people. “Don’t concern yourselves about anything. Don’t bother your heads with anything. Let those of us in power make all the decisions. And if you should chance to wake up tomorrow and find your wife lying with her throat cut by an executive order or your daughter transported to a house of prostitution, rest assured that there will be reasons for it all which don’t concern you. Just keep on maintaining a positive outlook without getting involved in these matters.” On the very day when this astonishing text was published, I was approached at a certain spot in New York by Count Sforza, that brilliant Italian political mind who is now an exile. He was quite pale, almost trembling (a man usually in complete control of himself). He cried out as he seized my hands, “My dear friend! Do you realize the enormity of what is happening? Were you aware that a nation can die—that it can commit suicide?”
Today is my moment, then, to call out to all the world, “Help—France needs your help! Stop them from killing her! Stop her from killing herself!” I will even aim an appeal at the marshal: “No, please… not you! If you are being held prisoner, if you truly see no way out any longer, thanks to your not having taken one while there was yet time, then you are still obligated to live up to the soldier’s code of honor. If the commandant of Fort de Vaux or of Fort de Douaumont, at the moment of surrender, had been heard by the enemy to say, ‘It isn’t enough for us to lay down our arms before you. Leave us our artillery, so that we may order it turned to fire upon the French lines for you…” just imagine that one of our generals incredibly put that order into execution. Would you have considered him justified because a superior power was looking over his shoulder?”
No one is forced to be a leader. When one is a leader, however, one always has a final option. There isn’t any power on earth that can prevent that leader from declaring, “This will not happen on my watch—not while I’m alive.” Of such valor, there exists a noble tradition going back to antiquity, and also many examples.21
(Delivered at New York on May 23, 1941. Broadcast by short-wave Radio Station WRUL of Boston.)
1 These words signified the collaborative determination of Allied troops during The Great War to halt the German advance at the Maginot Line. return
2 The French Third Republic was inauspiciously established upon the ruins of Napoleon III ’s reign after the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. It had many detractors and suffered from the kinds of tension which plunged Spain into a civil war; yet it enjoyed a certain respect—as Romains shows for it here—as a basically democratic construct tending toward freedom and fairness. return
3 Edouard Herriot served three times as France ’s prime minister from 1924 to 1932, and occupied numerous other political offices. In Romains’s opinion, he was among the most eloquent Frenchmen of his generation. return
4 All of the names listed here are authors like Romains and, as well, personal acquaintances of his. Luc Durtain (much the most obscure of the group) published a novel in 1939, La Guerre n’existe pas, of which I know nothing other than that it ostensibly addressed World War I. The novel may have created resonances with Europe ’s present state which caused Romains to single out Durtain (who would not, by the way, publish another significant work in his remaining twenty years of life). return
5 The village of Douaumont, where a fort had been constructed in 1885 because of the position’s strategic advantages, was leveled in the Battle of Verdun as both sides struggled for its possession. Today an ossuary occupies the site, where thousands upon thousands of unidentified dead are honored. return
6 I have not succeeded in identifying the figure to whom Romains refers here. The metaphor of the fifth column apparently originated in the Spanish Civil War, and became much used of political events in the thirties and thereafter. In general, a fifth column is a small but troublesome faction within its adversary’s ranks (perhaps lodged there by legal citizenship) which makes common cause with a much more powerful group beyond the state’s pale.
7 Bonnet was a leading figure in France’s Radical-Socialist Party, and consistently criticized the chain of alliances and costly military build-up with which his opponents in the government countered Hitler’s acts of aggression. His criticism was based, he argued, on a pragmatic view of France ’s capabilities rather than on a sympathy with Nazism. return
8 I have no information about the Garino referred to here. Antonia and Jallez are two characters in La Douceur de la Vie, the eighteenth novel in Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté. return
9 Nice was ceded to France by Sardinia in recognition of Napoleon III ’s support during the Second Italian War of Independence (against Austria). While there is certainly irony in the city’s becoming officially French as the result of a successful crackdown by Germanic autocrats, Romains is quite correct that a local plebiscite took place which overwhelmingly endorsed the transfer. About 25,000 citizens participated. return
10 Evidently Jewish refugees from Central Europe. The reference to the Gestapo and—in the ensuing quotation—to the French people as “you” can lead to no other conclusion. return
11 This is my text’s spelling of a place name I find elsewhere as “Rauba Capeu”. In either case, the name seems to compress an Italian rendition of the Latin ruba capella, “red goat”—which ancient and unlikely designation, in turn, must have referred to the appearance of a ragged promontory. If Romains is here straying beyond merely dropping colorful local names, I believe he is attempting something symbolic in the following vein. The triumphal procession first reaffirms the bond between Europe’s two great democracies, France and England; then it renews contact with the local Italian elements whom Romains refuses to link with Mussolini—and beyond this, it may hint at the classical ideal (through a Latin echo) animating the soul of Europe’s humane historical mission. return
12 It grows increasingly clear as this passage proceeds that Romains is referring to England and France. Fighting had already broken out in northern Europe , involving the Balkan countries in a complex chain of events wherein the Soviet Union (Germany’s temporary ally) secured Finland and Germany the Scandinavian nations. At this point, the two flagship democracies were still officially resisting fascism by diplomatic means and by aid to the invaded lands of northern Europe. return
13 Issued in 1596 by Henri IV, the Edict of Nantes declared, in essence, that the legal and political freedoms of French citizens could not be abridged or canceled on the basis of religious beliefs. Of course, the revocation to which Romains refers has to do with the Nazi targeting of Jews. return
14 In its only footnote, the original text remarks that this is a reference to Flandin (Pierre Étienne). As little as Romains seems to expect of him, Flandin—who was essentially Pétain’s second-in-command—proved too independent for German taste and was replaced at the invaders’ insistence. return
15 A normalien received great respect in the France of Romains’s day. These schools were far from being “normal” in that their course of study was quite rigorous. Upon them fell the high duty of training teachers, who were expected to emerge well versed in several content areas rather than floating in airy “education theory”, as in the United States today. return
16 Henri Bergson, of course, was the pioneer biologist/philosopher who hypothesized—somewhat in opposition to Darwin —that evolution has been driven forward by an élan vital seeking to recover its primitive freedom in more complex organisms. Romains had met Bergson and was not particularly taken with his manner; but his indignation that someone who had contributed so much to the major intellectual debates of his day should be badgered and exiled due to racial prejudice veritably leaps off the page. No sentence in all six broadcasts is as long as this one—and in French as in ancient Roman prose composition, long sentences are generally a sign of strong emotion. return
17 I have translated Romains’s homme blanc as “the West” because, frankly, that is what he means: i.e., his distinction is not racial but geographical, not grounded in a belief that genetic identity dictates human quality (what a charge to level at an inveterate enemy of fascism!) but in a belief that Europe happens to have found the best formula for unlocking the humanity of our species. If anything, Romains espouses the progressive liberalism of Kipling (for whom he expressed his admiration at the beginning of his first broadcast) which views Western culture as endowed with a sacred mission to spread its gospel of freedom. There is also a strong “globalist” note in these verses, especially, which would better qualify Romains for the Left-of-center in current politics than for the Right… but his mere defense of Western culture seems to trump all else in arguing for his exile from the Fashionable Left. return
18 The Axis powers had heavily fortified the Argonne Forest, but in September and October of 1918, Allied forces—most of them American—were able to force a German withdrawal in an offensive that lead directly to the end of World War I. Hence Romains is citing one of the most glorious collaborations of the United States and France in history. return
19 Though revolutionary zeal had inspired certain intellectuals to christen 1789 as the new beginning of history, the Year Two in Hugo’s poem is probably 1802 (such a turn of phrase for the century’s first decade was common throughout Europe at that time and not in the least unique to France ). Napoleon had recently won the Battle of Marengo, secured his gains in Italy, and leveraged Britain to an uneasy truce; so one could say that this was his army’s finest hour—which is precisely what Hugo is saying, I think, in view of the emphasis on the soldiers rather than their general. Romains, by the way, is often compared to Hugo due to his visionary, idealistic optimism and to the epic scope of Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté. return
20 Yet again, one can identify the note of paternal colonialism that has rendered Romains persona non grata among today’s intellectual elite. If one gauges the sentiment behind the words, however, he is indeed extending the innate love of liberty and the innate right to it far beyond Europe’s customs and its dominant race—a gesture which clearly works against racism and colonial imperium. Only a simple mind or a pugnacious intent could fail to see the inclusive humanity in these words. (How many of our intelligentsia, for that matter, have visited the Sudan under any pretext?) return
21 Romains refers somewhat loosely to the Stoic tradition, which bestows a moral endorsement upon suicide when one is thereby spared the commission of an immoral act. The leap from the context of personal conduct to that of directing the affairs of an entire state is a logical enough. In short, Romains advises Pétain to commit suicide if he is truly backed into a political corner. return
John Harris is founder and president of The Center for Literate Values. He is also Visiting Professor of English at the University of Texas at Tyler.