From Revolutionaries to Citizens: Antimilitarism in France, 1870-1914

From Revolutionaries to Citizens: Antimilitarism in France, 1870-1914

by Paul B. Miller


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From Revolutionaries to Citizens is the first comprehensive account of the most important antiwar campaign prior to World War I: the antimilitarism of the French Left. Covering the views and actions of socialists, trade unionists, and anarchists from the time of France’s defeat by Prussia in 1870 to the outbreak of hostilities with Germany in 1914, Paul B. Miller tackles a fundamental question of prewar historiography: how did the most antimilitarist culture and society in Europe come to accept and even support war in 1914?

Although more general accounts of the Left’s “failure” to halt international war in August 1914 focus on its lack of unity or the decline of trade unionism, Miller contends that these explanations barely scratch the surface when it comes to interpreting the Left’s overwhelming acceptance of the war. By embedding his cultural analysis of antimilitarist propaganda into the larger political and diplomatic history of prewar Europe, he reveals the Left’s seemingly sudden transformation “from revolutionaries to citizens” as less a failure of resolve than a confession of commonality with the broader ideals of republican France. Examining sources ranging from police files and court records to German and British foreign office memos, Miller emphasizes the success of antimilitarism as a rallying cry against social and political inequities on behalf of ordinary citizens. Despite their keen awareness of the bloodletting that awaited Europe, he claims, antimilitarists ultimately accepted the war with Germany for the same reason they had pursued their own struggle within France: to address injustices and defend the rights of citizens in a democratic society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822327660
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/04/2002
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Paul B. Miller is Assistant Professor of History at Western Maryland College.

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Antimilitarism in France, 1870-1914


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ISBN: 978-0-8223-2766-0

Chapter One


The Roots of Antimilitarism in the Third Republic

* * *

From the beginning of the French Third Republic in September 1870, anti-militarists were an embattled group. The complete capitulation of the imperial armies in the Franco-Prussian War, the "rape" of Alsace-Lorraine, and the near destruction of the revolutionary working classes in the suppression of the Commune were events hardly conducive to a popular upsurge of antimilitarist activity. If France harbored any victors in 1870-71, they were nationalists who, regardless of political affiliation, were dedicated to rebuilding the army's strength and prestige and to restoring the eclipsed grandeur of France. For those who had worked to undermine military power during the Second Empire, the events surrounding the establishment of the Republic were, ironically, a resounding defeat.

History, moreover, conspired to ensure antimilitarists a long struggle to regain ascendancy. The Napoleonic era at the beginning of the century had created an indelible link between the greatness of France and the glory of her army, and many still cherished the heroic stories passeddown by relatives. In The Debacle, Émile Zola's novel of the Franco-Prussian War, the soldier Maurice Levasseur grows up on the "Homeric narratives of battle" his grandfather endlessly retold to hallow his years in the grande armée. The quickness and completeness of the defeat two generations later was incompatible with this historical image of France; an image built largely around her army.

Yet in contrast with the downfall of Napoleon III and the foundation of the Third Republic, Waterloo had been a propitious event for aspiring anti-militarists. European civilians had had enough of two decades of warfare; the spread of liberal doctrines from the French Revolution created a favorable climate for prevailing antiwar sentiments; and France, after a quarter century of revolution and war, remained highly unstable both politically and militarily. From Burgundy to Brittany and Picardy to Provence, war had invaded virtually every French home. Approximately one-fourth of eligible males were mobilized, and like the "Conscript from Languedoc" in the popular 1810 song, many went reluctantly, not expecting to return alive to their towns and villages. Historians estimate that almost a million men-a quarter of those born in the appropriate age cohort-never did. If there ever were a time in European history that popular opinion was on the side of peace, this was it. "It is indeed from the end of the Napoleonic Wars," writes military historian Michael Howard, "that one can date the beginning of what was to become known as the 'Peace Movement.'"

By the term "peace movement" Howard is, of course, referring to the liberal, middle-class variety defined earlier. In the first half of the nineteenth century, before Marx's crystallization of socialist theory and the mass unionization of workers, organized objections to war derived primarily from issues such as free trade and Christian morality. Consequently, most antiwar exponents came from the commercial middle classes and religious groups such as the Society of Friends, or Quakers. One year after Waterloo, the first peace society-the Society for the Promotion of Permanent and Universal Peace-was founded in London. In 1821, reform-minded aristocrats and bourgeoisie, many of whom were Protestant, created the Société de la Morale Chrétienne in Paris. Although not exclusively a peace organization, it aimed "to diminish the causes of intestine discords and foreign wars by opposing party hatred and the prejudices of an extravagant and blind patriotism." By 1844, the Saint-Simonienne Eugénie Niboyet had launched La Paix des Deux Mondes, the first newspaper on the continent expressly devoted to peace issues.

In August 1849 European pacifism reached a high point when the Third International Peace Congress met in Paris. Sandwiched between the 1848 revolutions and the counterrevolutionary current that was sweeping toward France from central Europe, the congress profited from the volatile political climate to bring together Alexis de Tocqueville, Victor Hugo, the archbishop of Paris, and the grand rabbi of France. This distinguished group, along with respected business and political leaders, made the congress a huge success, "a rich source of peace movement lore and legend in future decades." By mid-century, European pacifism was confident, growing, and well-supported.

Although much work remains to be done on the pacifist movement, what is important here is how the development of antimilitarism was influenced by this early pacifist current and abetted by the same political and social factors, and yet took a very different attitude and, ultimately, direction. When French authorities permitted pacifists to meet in 1849, one of the conditions was that they avoid talking about current political issues. Yet as the delegates quickly learned, this was nearly impossible in light of their purpose. How does one discuss peace without making reference to contemporary topics, such as the decline of the Ottoman Empire, that could (and did) lead to war?

Throughout the nineteenth century, pacifists organized congresses, published journals such as Charles Lemonnier's Les États-Unis d'Europe, rallied to limit weapons spending, denounced military atrocities in such places as China and South Africa, and, basically, flourished. By 1914 there were 190 peace societies in Europe publishing twenty-three journals in ten different languages. In France in 1909, even the traditionally nationalist Catholics had a Ligue des Catholiques pour la Paix, with several hundred members and international ties. Yet the conservative approach to contemporary issues imposed on pacifists in 1849 still guided their outlook. Pacifists were, for all intents and purposes, mainstream. Right up until August 1914 they remained intensely optimistic that one day European leaders would realize the futility of war and heed the call of Lay Down Your Arms!, the best-selling pacifist novel of the period.

As pacifists attracted notice with their theoretical and philosophical ideas about the value of peace and the senselessness of war, antimilitarists did so by attacking the source of conflict itself. From the fall of Napoleon I to Napoleon III, a liberal and later socialist current of antimilitarism sought to discredit military careers and devalue the army's role in French social and political culture. De Tocqueville was outspoken in his disgust with "military tyranny," and Benjamin Constant accused the army of demeaning a noble and just people to something barely distinguishable from barbarians. The nation, he predicted, "will set itself backwards in the midst of [military] victories."

Napoleon's victories did not come cheaply, and the reality of defeat pointed out many of the failures of organizing social and political life around a strong army. Before long, the same conditions that gave rise to a peace movement had fostered an antimilitarist current. The two antiwar efforts remained closely related until the later decades of the century and the surge of leftist antimilitarism that constitutes the main subject of this book. But in the mid-nineteenth century, a definite shift took place when, as one scholar put it, "behind war, one began to see the army."

The establishment of the Second Empire by means of military force and election fraud was not immediately auspicious for antimilitarists, but the resentment it bred boosted their cause considerably. When Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte's coup of December 2, 1851, turned the Second Republic into an authoritarian regime in all but name, his enemies on the Left, both in Paris and the provinces, did not submit easily-almost seventy thousand took up arms. The government handily defeated the rebels, but the brutal suppression and often exile of the démoc-socs ("democratic-socialists") encouraged the kind of dissent that manifests itself in more insidious ways: by the 1860s antimilitarism was gaining ground.

The change perhaps signaled itself foremost with the reappearance of debates over national militias versus professional armies, debates that had been fixtures of the Restoration and Second Republic with regard to the national guard. Now the "problem of permanent armies" was discussed at the First International congress of 1866 and again in 1868. In 1869, the republican politician Léon Gambetta advanced the Belleville program to eliminate professional armies as a "cause of ruin for the nation's finances and business [and a] source of hatred between peoples and of distrust at home." By the outbreak of the war with Prussia, antimilitarists had achieved a certain presence and power in French political life.

That war and the events that followed, however, soon turned these anti-militarist insiders into outsiders and even exiles of their own political culture. When Paris refused the harsh terms of surrender agreed to by Adolphe Thiers's "Goverment of National Defense," a coalition of revolutionary socialists and trade unionists led the resistance that in March 1871 became the famous Paris Commune. Nearly half of the Commune's leaders had previously been involved in a labor organization; nearly all looked to the revolutionary wars of the 1790s for inspiration. Indeed little had changed since then in terms of the Left's intense patriotism. And although it is true that many saw the Commune as an opportunity to bring about important, even revolutionary, reform, the point is that its origins lay in resistance to the dishonorable peace made by the newly elected government. Now socialist as well as republican, it was still the Left that took up arms to defend the patrie, while the Right appeased her enemies. In the difficult years that followed the bloody suppression of the Commune and the disorganization of the workers' movement, the task of reviving national prestige went hand-in-hand with the need for a strong military. Cries for revanche-revenge-were to drown out those of à bas la guerre-down with war!

Driven into hiding by the events surrounding the Franco-Prussian War, what were the ideological roots and political, social, and economic causes of the reemergence of antimilitarism by the century's end? The Republic played its part through liberalization and amnesty in the 1880s, enabling workers' organizations to begin reconstituting themselves. When in 1886 a patriotic wave swept the nation in favor of a coup d'état by the popular war minister General Boulanger, the army's singular threat to the Republic became apparent to all parties and political groups, as France narrowly escaped military rule. But what returned antimilitarist ideas to the fore were changes to the military itself. With a Right-Left consensus that rebuilding the army was crucial to the national recovery, the National Assembly wasted little time in passing a military service law (1872) that mandated universal male conscription for five years. Republican in principle, the law was not entirely free of loopholes through which wealthy young men planning careers in the liberal professions could leave after a year's service. But this unfairness, which was smoothed out over the years and eliminated altogether with the three-year law of 1889, does not overshadow the impact of 1872: for the first time since the heady days of the Revolution, military service was shared by all classes-"the army took its place in the familiar panorama of French life."

For antimilitarists the law's effect was neither immediate nor absolute, for the Dreyfus Affair would show just how difficult it was to tarnish the army in the midst of its crucial recovery. Yet there can be no doubt that the honor ascribed to military life that surged after the war received its first challenge in the late 1880s, just as General Boulanger's star began to fade. Universal conscription had opened doors to a new and intriguing world for thousands of educated and cultivated young Frenchmen. What many of them found behind these doors, however, quickly turned their naïve idealism and unbiased admiration for the military into fear, loathing, and even disrespect. It was the stuff of novels, and it is not surprising that the first "phase" of the antimilitarist renaissance was a literary one.

Literary Antimilitarism

The publication of Abel Hermant's Le Cavalier Miserey in 1887 marked the onset of a stream of scathing eyewitness accounts of military life. Hermant, a young, urbane sophisticate frustrated with the teaching profession and disillusioned by his year in the 21st Regiment of chasseurs (riflemen), set out "to apply an artist's vision and the methods of a roman d'analyse [psychological novel] to the study of the nature of the soldier." The outcome is a detailed and rather disturbing description of the gradual moral and social degradation of the title character Miserey, a young conscript. Well-intentioned if not optimistic as a recruit, Miserey experiences a series of setbacks and humiliations that, while hastening his decline, constitute a devastating critique of military life. The novel's message is clear and the writing powerful: the tragedy of Miserey could be that of any soldier, as the real tragedy lies within military culture itself.

The theme of Hermant's novel-the immorality of military life and its pernicious effect on the soldier-is typical of the antimilitarist literature of the late nineteenth century. In Henri Fèvre's Au Port d'armes (To Bear Arms, 1887), the hero, also a young conscript but this time unable to contain his frustration, shoots at his commanding officer! His military career ends as a murderer executed by firing squad. Two years later, Lucien Descaves describes in his novel Sous-os (Noncommissioned Officers, 1889) how personal, moral abasement can lead to success in the army. As the soldier Favières accrues ranks he also acquires "all the cunning of intimidation, of responsibilities eluded and shifted, and the cynicism that constitutes fraud.... One might say he traces the order of his promotions to the degrees of infamy to which he has descended."

In Un An de caserne (A Year in the Barracks, 1901), one of the later but most representative works of the genre, Louis Lamarque recounts his experience as a sensitive and cultivated Parisian who is forced to spend a precious year living among men he openly paints as boorish and inferior. "This military service is rather distressing," he writes, "because the men one finds here are naturally bad and, what's more, they are idiotic." Ironically, the author's sole consolation is that the year gives him a heightened appreciation for life itself, particularly the charmed one of theaters and "floodlit cafés" that he led in Paris. But these thoughts are hardly compensation for this privileged youth, whose story reads like an extended lament on the ignorance of his fellow soldiers, the prison-like setting of the barracks, the disgusting and pointless work, and his growing isolation from home. "It is absurd," Lamarque haughtily submits, "to try to sustain a horse in the middle of wolves."

Fortunately for this rich, pitiable bourgeois, there is an escape. Lamarque is able to buy leisure by paying another soldier to clean his boots and weapons, care for his horses, and keep his things tidy. Then for four hours every evening he retreats to a rented room in the city to "read, write, rest, be alone, finally to collect myself, to rediscover myself and to continue to live my inner life a little." This is, quite obviously, not the lifestyle of the average conscript. Of all the romans militaires that I know of, in fact, Un An de caserne relies on the most pronounced element of snobisme to deliver its critique. Yet the author's origins and biases should not wholly overshadow the significance of the work. Lamarque, as with all the writers examined above, did not write for the masses. His privileged readers got a firsthand look at their own sensibilities through someone who was independent and insightful enough to understand them. This may not have stirred a revolt inside the barracks, but it did cause many young men to think twice about their future in the army.


Excerpted from FROM REVOLUTIONARIES TO CITIZENS by PAUL B. MILLER Copyright © 2002 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: “The Revolution That’s Coming”

1. Origins of War: The Roots of Antimilitarism in the Third Republic

2. Antimilitarist Armies: Structures and Strategies

3. Enemies and Allies

4. Antimilitarist Militants: The Question of Commitment

5. Glory to the 17th!

6. Antimilitarist Wars I: The Battle Within

7. Antimilitarist Wars II: The Battle Without

Epilogue: En Avant!




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