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The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940

The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940

by Frederick Brown

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From acclaimed biographer and cultural historian, author of For the Soul of France (“Masterful history” —Henry Kissinger), Zola (“Magnificent” —The New Yorker), and Flaubert (“Impeccable” —James Wood, cover, The New York Times Book Review)—a brilliant reconsideration of the


From acclaimed biographer and cultural historian, author of For the Soul of France (“Masterful history” —Henry Kissinger), Zola (“Magnificent” —The New Yorker), and Flaubert (“Impeccable” —James Wood, cover, The New York Times Book Review)—a brilliant reconsideration of the events and the political, social, and religious movements that led to France’s embrace of Fascism and anti-Semitism. Frederick Brown explores the tumultuous forces unleashed in the country by the Dreyfus Affair and its aftermath and examines how the clashing ideologies—the swarm of ’isms—and their blood-soaked political scandals and artistic movements following the horrors of World War I resulted in the country’s era of militant authoritarianism, rioting, violent racism, and nationalistic fervor. We see how these forces overtook the country’s sense of reason, sealing the fate of an entire nation, and led to the fall of France and the rise of the Vichy government.

The Embrace of Unreason picks up where Brown’s previous book, For the Soul of France, left off to tell the story of France in the decades leading up to World War II.

We see through the lives of three writers (Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras, and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle) how the French intelligentsia turned away from the humanistic traditions and rationalistic ideals born out of the Enlightenment in favor of submission to authority that stressed patriotism, militarism, and xenophobia; how French extremists, traumatized by the horrors of the battlefront and exalted by the glories of wartime martyrdom, tried to redeem France’s collective identity, as Hitler’s shadow lengthened over Europe.

The author writes of the Stavisky Affair, named for the notorious swindler whose grandiose Ponzi scheme tarred numerous political figures and fueled the bloody riots of February 1934, with right-wing paramilitary leagues, already suffering from the worldwide effects of the 1929 stock market crash, decrying Stavisky the Jew as the direct descendant of Alfred Dreyfus and an exemplar of the decaying social order . . . We see the Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture that, in June 1935, assembled Europe’s most illustrious literati under the sponsorship of the Soviet Union, whose internal feuds anticipated those recounted by George Orwell in his Spanish Civil War memoir Homage to Catalonia . . .

Here too, pictured as the perfect representation of Europe’s cultural doomsday, is the Paris World’s Fair of 1937, featuring two enormous pavilions, the first built by Nazi Germany, the second by Soviet Russia, each facing the other like duelists on the avenue leading to the Eiffel Tower, symbol of the French Republic. And near them both, a pavilion devoted to “the art of the festival,” in which speakers and displays insisted that Nazi torchlight parades at Nuremberg should serve as a model for France.

Written with historical insight and grasp and made immediate through the use of newspaper articles, journals, and literary works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, The Embrace of Unreason brings to life Europe’s darkest modern years.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Ah, France, home of the Enlightenment, where art, reason, and humanist tradition reign. In fact, distinguished cultural historian Brown shows how these ideals collapsed in the wake of World War I, replaced by xenophobia, militarism, and authoritarian belief.
Publishers Weekly
After the 1870 concession of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany and the attendant drop in national morale, France began another political, societal, and artistic descent into instability. Brown (Zola) relies on lengthy biographical narratives of bloodthirsty socialist and nationalist Maurice Barres, fervent nationalist and royalist Charles Maurras, and other writer-activists to flesh out the larger story behind major 20th century French movements, resulting in mostly stand-alone sections best for readers already familiar with the key figures. Throughout, the fallout from the Dreyfus Affair and related anti-Semitism permeates the political sections even as many deplored the government’s public mishandling of the young man erroneously thrust into the center of the treason-based scandal. Simultaneously, widely divergent groups co-opted the quest for Joan of Arc’s canonization in the heat of thickening nationalist sentiment. Brown further illustrates the collective descent, as political murderers walked free and artists gleefully created prank-filled Dada pieces and Surrealist art. Brown’s version of France makes its occupation by longtime adversary and National Socialist Germany a nearly foregone conclusion. 51 illus. Agent: Georges Borchardt. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Frederick Brown’s
            “Frederick Brown, accomplished literary biographer, has emerged as the leading English-language chronicler of this appalling but fascinating French story. . .Brilliant.”
                                                            -David A. Bell, New Republic
“Brilliant...Splendid... This is terrific history.  Brown is an incisive biographer, very good on politics, still better on culture, and anybody who is interested in France, or finds its politics difficult to understand, should read this book. What’s more, he is a good storyteller, and each piece of the book is woven subtly into the whole. The idiosyncrasies of the French make sense, in Brown’s hands, as he shows how the cultural divides animated, embittered, and in the end weakened France, without, however, ever endangering French belief in their own superiority... At once social history, cultural history, and a series of biographical sketches, Frederick Brown’s book is both illuminating and a warning, and explains more about modern France and how it was formed than any other book of its short length and enviable readability.”
                                                            -Michael Korda, The Daily Beast
“Brown is an accomplished and accessible cultural historian.  His eye for the telling anecdote and colorful detail and seeming allergy to academic jargon make him an amiable and trustworthy guide to the dark side of the French psyche…The Embrace of Unreason is a lively and compelling work of cultural history.  Readers will be grateful for Brown’s sure-handed navigation through the thickets of French intellectual reaction…his fluent style and grasp of the period make it a pleasure to explore this unsettling terrain in his company.”
                                                            -Arthur Goldhammer, Bookforum
            “The author of Zola and Flaubert once again demonstrates his profound knowledge of French history, its people and their psyche…Francophiles will love this book…Read this illuminating book to see frightening similarities to the early years of the 21st century.  The lies, innuendo, invented evidence and baseless arguments are all too familiar.”
“A riveting portrait of a society weakened by internal decay.”
                                                -Booklist (Starred Review)

Kirkus Reviews
The author of Zola (1995) and Flaubert (2006) once again demonstrates his profound knowledge of French history, its people and their psyche. Brown's Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus (2010) showed France's struggle from the revolution into the Third Republic. Here, the author digs even deeper in the fight for minds beginning with the effects of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. The rise of xenophobia after the loss of Alsace-Lorraine was as much an indication of anti-Semitism as anything else. The Third Republic, with its revolving door of ministers, only exacerbated the rise of extremists. Maurice Barrès, a dedicated Boulangist, was radicalized by the Panama Canal Company scandal and the Dreyfus Affair, and he blamed the Jewish syndicate. Together with Charles Maurras, he founded Action Française, a monarchist newspaper that attempted to destroy every political adversary with slander campaigns. As editor in chief, Léon Daudet completed the unholy trinity devoted to yellow journalism, using fear as the weapon of choice. His youth organization, the Camelots du Roi, was only one of the militant leagues that turned demonstrations into blood baths. The onset of World War I further fed the young intellectuals' fears and obsessions, and Joan of Arc became their symbol of patriotism. Men like Pierre Drieu, who marched to war with the works of Nietzsche in his knapsack, and André Breton led the surrealists in their quest for the annihilation of being. Brown explores all the great and complicated minds of this period, including socialists, communists, fascists, royalists and radicals. Francophiles will love this book, but the roiling currents of philosophical and political ideas may daunt some readers. Read this illuminating book to see frightening similarities to the early years of the 21st century. The lies, innuendo, invented evidence and baseless arguments are all too familiar.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Author

FREDERICK BROWN is the author of several award-winning books, including For the Soul of France; Flaubert, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; and Zola, one of The New York Times best books of the year. Brown has twice been the recipient of both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships. He lives in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

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