The man who was France
- At the Heart of a Tiger: Clemenceau and His World 1841-1929 by Gregor Dallas
Macmillan, 672 pp, £25.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 333 49788 0
Clemenceau was an archetype; he even looked like the Third Republic. He wore, in Keynes’s words of 1919, ‘a square-tailed coat of very good, thick broadcloth, and on his hands, which were never uncovered, grey suede gloves’. For Churchill, who much admired his French counterpart, Clemenceau was ‘as much as a single human being, miraculously magnified, can ever be, a nation; he was France.’ And so he was, but the trouble is the Tiger was also dead-set against many features of modern life, from political parties and feminism to trade unions and telephones. An archnationalist and – in the end – an unwitting belliciste, he was the evil genius behind the destructive peace of 1919. It is too bad that Gregor Dallas in his long biography has so little to say about these matters. For him, Clemenceau was ‘the man who led them’ – the ordinary soldiers of the First World War – ‘and their allies’ (who does Dallas have in mind?) ‘to victory in 1918. And a victory it certainly was.’ No it wasn’t: 1914-18 was a disaster all around, and so was Clemenceau’s handiwork – the Versailles Treaty of 1919. The break-up of the central empires which it ratified brought us Hitler; the Russians’ share was Lenin; and the legacy of the Ottomans is still being fought over, from Iraq and Palestine in the Middle East to Sarajevo today and Kosovo tomorrow.
Vol. 15 No. 22 · 18 November 1993
Patrice Higonnet has obviously not read my At the Heart of a Tiger: Clemenceau and His World (LRB, 21 October). Instead, he writes his own essay on Clemenceau, dipping into some very old textbooks and repeating phrases from the socialist canon of the Twenties and Thirties. Here is one example. Professor Higonnet pulls out the chestnut about Clemenceau telling ‘some strikers’ in 1906: ‘You are behind a barricade, I am before it. Your way of action is disorder. My duty is to make order.’ This is old syndicalist propaganda. In my book you will find what Clemenceau actually told Victor Griffuelhes, Emile Pouget and Alphonse Merrheim in April 1906: ‘My role is not to ignore the existence of the Confédération générale du travail on which I have an opinion different from that of all my colleagues and which I keep to myself [he had insisted, against his government colleagues, that the organisation not be outlawed] … I cannot ignore either that there is going to be a First of May and my role as minister of the interior is to take the measures susceptible to the assurance of order. We are not on the same side of the barricade. I have to fulfil my functions as member of the government.’ These words are reported by Victor Griffuelhes himself. ‘At no moment,’ said Griffuelhes, ‘did the minister declare that he was before the barricade, nor that he treated us as an element of disorder. That would have been a language little inspired by the circumstances.’ In what other way could a Minister of the Interior have rationally responded to an organisation which actively sought civil war?
Nowhere can I find any documentation supporting the other old chestnut that Clemenceau ‘jokingly referred to himself as “le premier flic de France” ’. Somehow, this just doesn’t sound like Clemenceau. He was not actually a man of hatreds – many of his opponents were.
Professor Higonnet is in search of the ‘working class’. I showed you their cellars, I took you down their mines, I even shared a few moments in the trenches – I walked you around Verdun, I took you along the Chemin des Dames. I brought the crowd to the fore, the Paris crowd, the crowds of Ferfay, Merles, Bruay and Ostricourt (Higonnet doesn’t even know where they are), the silent, terrified lines of men at Coincy, Hartennes, Montdidier and Bar-le-Duc (if you are tied to Massachusetts, then look on a map); Professor Higonnet could see nothing. Professor Higonnet requires footnotes to guide him.
In 1914, under no provocation, France was invaded by seven massive German armies. What could the French do but fight back? They held out for four years. 1918 wasn’t a victory? Shame on anyone who denies it. Professor Higonnet speaks of Clemenceau as ‘the evil genius behind the destructive peace of 1919’. Presumably Professor Higonnet prefers 1945, when Germany was destroyed, occupied and eventually divided in two. There was no treaty at all.
I must emphasise that I feel no anger or bitterness when I read essays like those of Professor Higonnet. Rather, that a man of such apparent learning – and we both began our careers with the study of peasants – can write such stupidities saddens me profoundly. But then, we have come to expect this ignorant, dogmatic type of demagogy from places like Harvard: arrogance, blindness through theory, laziness, narrowness, superiority through money and rank; guaranteed salary for life, guaranteed medical care for life, guaranteed housing, huge retirement benefits, connections with every useless publisher in the world, ‘social conscience’. Shame on it.
Vol. 15 No. 23 · 2 December 1993
In a response to my review of his biography of Georges Clemenceau, Gregor Dallas (Letters, 18 November) writes: ‘Nowhere can I find any documentation supporting the other old chestnut that Clemenceau “jokingly referred to himself as ‘le premier flic de France’ ”. Somehow,’ he goes on, ‘this just doesn’t sound like Clemenceau. He was not actually a man of hatreds – many of his opponents were.’ The text Mr Dallas needs is in Le Temps for 3 December 1906. As reported in this newspaper, basic reading for all researchers in the field, here is what Clemenceau said in a speech to the Paris polite: ‘Ici, nous sommes tous de la police, et j’en suis le premier agent. [Rires.] Si j’osais employer un mot d’argot, j’ajoulerais que nous sommes une réunion de flics [hilarité générale].’
Mr Dallas is wrong to conclude from the sparsity of my references to his book that I did not read it. It’s because I read this conceptually naive work carefully that I tolerantly chose not to refer to it more often than I did. What was to be said of a six-hundred-page life of a man whose bust was made by Rodin and which mentions this fact in passing and in but a single line; which never mentions Maynard Keynes, the author of perhaps the most famous and insightful essay ever written on Clemenceau; where the narrative account of Clemenceau’s politics proceeds from 1909 to 1914 in a single paragraph? (In these years, Clemenceau met Edward VII, travelled to Argentina, underwent a prostate operation, founded a newspaper and overthrew not just Caillaux’s but Briand’s fourth cabinet as well.) As his letter reminds us, Mr Dallas’s favoured method of research is to go to places where Clemenceau also went (the trenches, the Orangerie, the bocage) in order to free associate: ‘I think you have it; you begin to see and hear it all now. Yes.’ Or: ‘Darkness, colour,’ he writes of Monet’s Nymphéas. ‘That’s Clemenceau’s idea of peace … Sit there, for an hour, alone in silence, on an early Monday morning … The air-conditioning quietly hums.’ ‘Few historians,’ he warns us, ‘have understood this.’ His book, like his letter, is a poor and silly thing.
Unable sensibly to defend his work, Mr Dallas chooses instead to attack the reviewer and the institution where he teaches. Despite Harvard’s many and often oppressive defects, I prefer to think of this privileged university as an extraordinary community of gifted students and serious, able, conscientious scholars, ordinarily conversant with the customs of the republic of letters, invariably well informed in their field of research, and generally endowed with a modicum of manners and good sense.