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The War Guilt Problem and the Ligue des droits de l'homme, 1914-1944$

Norman Ingram

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198827993

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198827993.001.0001

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When All Is Said and Done …

When All Is Said and Done …

En guise de conclusion

(p.265) 10 When All Is Said and Done …
The War Guilt Problem and the Ligue des droits de l'homme, 1914-1944

Norman Ingram

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This book has been about the decline and fall of a great French republican institution, the Ligue des droits de l’homme (LDH). The LDH was torn apart by the war guilt question over the course of the entire period from 1914 to the fall of France in 1940. This debate was the catalyst for the emergence of a new style of pacifism in France which was hardly like its ‘placid’ interwar British cousin. The war guilt question was also the progenitor of a uniquely French suspicion, first of Russian, and ultimately of Soviet intentions. This led under Vichy to the appearance of collaboration and philo-fascism, but it was more a case of peace becoming an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ for the minority within the LDH.

Keywords:   British pacifism, French pacifism, Romain Rolland, (Soviet) Russia, war guilt, Deutsche Liga für Menschenrechte, decadence thesis, 1940, Article 231

This book is not meant to be a contribution to the huge literature concerning the origins of the Great War. Its goal has been simpler and yet deeper. It has sought to analyse the impact of the war origins debate on an important French cross-party Republican political grouping, the Ligue des droits de l’homme. Equally, it has tried to explain how this debate within the LDH catalysed the emergence of a new style of pacifism in France from about 1930 onwards. It was a pacifism begotten not of the ‘placid’ conditions of its British counterpart, but rather of sustained, vigorous, indeed acrimonious debate on the question of war origins and war guilt. The LDH was the progenitor of this new pacifism; it was the debates within the Ligue which caused the emergence of the new pacifism, not, as usually assumed, Romain Rolland’s 1914 article, ‘Au-dessus de la mêlée’. That said, pacifism did not kill the Ligue des droits de l’homme, but rather it was the war guilt debate that did so. The Ligue was fixated on the war guilt question; the emergence of the new pacifism was merely an ancillary, albeit very important, result of this larger debate. Combined with this was a suspicion of (Soviet) Russian motives as deep in 1939 as it had been in 1914. This antipathy to Russia constitutes one of the elements which explains the slide of some members and erstwhile members of the LDH into support for Vichy during the Second World War. The circle was thus closed, but it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the men and women who moved in this direction did so primarily as a result of anti-Semitism or philo-Nazism. On the contrary, for most of these quintessential non-conformists, their political engagement in 1939 was an expression above all of their attachment to peace and the conviction that the Second World War was the bitter fruit of the First.

The Ligue des droits de l’homme was mortally weakened long before the beginning of the Second World War. The war guilt problem lay at the centre of its concerns for the entire length of the interwar period. During the Great War itself, a minority of men and women took shape that would eventually provoke the schism of the Ligue in 1937. The debate between minority and majority quickly became one about the bona fides of France’s war effort during the Great War and coloured all discussion of French foreign policy and politics thereafter. The tipping point, the point of no return, for the Ligue was the Tours Congress of July 1937 and not the fall of France in the spring of 1940.

(p.266) The initial division within the Ligue, which saw the emergence of the dissident minority during the Great War, had tremendous ramifications for the future as well as tangible political effects at the time. The relationship with Germany was the single most important question for the Ligue des droits de l’homme after 1914. The Ligue’s view of Germany and the German situation was defined, though, if not outright deformed, by its relationship with a very particular kind of German, notably in its links with Hellmut von Gerlach and some members of the Deutsche Liga für Menschenrechte. These people articulated a view of Germany that was at variance with left-wing views within their own country, most notably on the issue of Article 231 and the Versailles Treaty.

The debate on war guilt saturated the LDH’s view of Germany right down to the Second World War. It had real political ramifications. Whether it was the debates on war origins during the Great War itself and the peace conference that ended it, or the discussion of the ramifications of this debate through the 1920s and on into the Second World War—reparations, the Ruhr Occupation, Locarno, disarmament, the Ligue’s reaction to the rise of the Nazis, the view of the Third Reich, the multiple international crises of the 1930s, the slide into war in 1938–39, and the French relationship to (Soviet) Russia—all of these discussions for the Ligue des droits de l’homme were filtered through the haunting memory of the Great War and the deep suspicion that it had been fought by France under false pretences. Robert Gerwarth argues that the Great War did not really end in 1918 but rather continued on in various forms into the early 1920s, at least for the ‘vanquished’.1 There is much to commend this insightful thesis, but in many respects the Great War was never really over for the French—either in 1923 or even during the Second World War. Its lingering after-effects continued to be felt right through the interwar period and on into Vichy.

This brings us to the fraught question of 1940 and Vichy. Does all of the foregoing suggest that France was politically and morally ‘decadent’ in 1940? Were these the ‘hollow years’ in the sense meant by Eugen Weber? What do we make of the indictment of Marc Bloch which for decades has hovered over the debate about the reasons for France’s ‘strange defeat’? The answer is complex. According to Philip Nord, 1940 was above all a military defeat, itself the result of a whole constellation of factors ranging from French bad luck to Guderian’s insubordination and the tactical brilliance of the Manstein Plan. It is a mistake, in his view, to erect an entire superstructure of teleological assumptions based on what happened militarily in 1940, and in this he is surely right.2 Part of the problem with the debate on the 1940 question is that it inevitably gets bogged down in a discussion about when and how the French began to respond to Nazism, which itself is closely (p.267) linked to the hoary debate about French ‘decadence’. As Nord argues, the French were no more or less ‘decadent’ than anybody else in 1939.3

Rarely have historians asked the larger and more important question, namely to what extent France was complicit—admittedly unconsciously and inadvertently so—in the rise of Hitler, which is what necessitated the French arms build-up of the end of the 1930s in the first place. In other words, the question is mal posée. It ought to be ‘why did the Nazi menace exist in the first place?’, rather than ‘why did France not respond to it sooner?’ A criticism of this book might well be that it provides a French answer to a German question, but that is to dodge the issue of the impact of the Great War and the thorny question of war origins on European political developments twenty-five years later at the end of the 1930s.

The Ur question remains and cannot be avoided: it is simply to what extent France (and its Allies) might well have won the Great War, but lost the peace thereafter. The answer to that question is not the usual stock response given by the proponents of the ‘strange defeat’ or ‘decadence’ thesis, but rather simply that the possibility of 1940 was created by France’s inability to imagine the impact of the war guilt debate on European politics. France went to war in 1939 and was defeated in 1940 because the chickens of 1914 had come home to roost. This is in no way to argue that France ought not to have gone to war, allied with Britain, against the bloodthirsty Nazi menace in 1939. Not to have done so would have led ineluctably to a ‘peace of the tombstones’, to use a phrase from the previous war.4 Hitler had to be stopped. It is, however, to suggest that the origins of that menace were at least partially of France’s own making. This was not a function of ‘decadence’ but more the result of the unintended consequence of the way the Great War ended. Without Article 231 there would have been no Second World War. The ‘unspoken assumptions’ of 1914—admittedly somewhat different from James Joll’s—continued to wreak their malignant effect in 1939.

The Ligue des droits de l’homme and the debates within it on the origins of the Great War are thus essential to any understanding of interwar France. The LDH was the locus in quo for the emergence of a new form of pacifism in France, a pacifism whose development was catalysed by the debate on the origins of the war. That debate was pregnant with consequences for the future because it was predicated on the belief that France bore a heavy responsibility for the outbreak of war in August 1914 and that this was largely a result of its military alliance with Imperial Russia. This meant that when French foreign policy began to cast around for a closer relationship with Moscow in the 1930s, the by now genuine pacifists of the Ligue’s minority steadfastly refused to countenance the malignancy of the Russian connection. There was an unrelenting, implacable logic to the minority position. If the Great War had been fought under false pretences, if the Germans were not uniquely responsible for it, if the Franco-Russian alliance shared some of the responsibility (p.268) for its outbreak, then 1.4 million young Frenchmen had died in vain, to say nothing of the millions of combatants from the other belligerent nations. That, in turn, explains the evolution towards pacifism and the increasingly entrenched opinion of the minority which refused to brook the idea of a new crusade against Nazi Germany. Fixated as they were on the sins of the fathers, they could not see that the sons faced a new foe who was to wreak unspeakable horrors on Europe.