War, revolution, Dreyfus and an era of religious and political turmoil
Two monuments in Paris are so prominent that they’re hard to miss. One is the Eiffel Tower, of course, the all-iron tour de force of engineering, standing by the Seine amid the city’s spacious and supremely elegant West End. Then to the north, atop Montmartre, there is the Sacré-Cœur: a tall, immaculately white Catholic basilica that looks like a digitized pre-Raphaelite set from “Lord of the Rings.” What most visitors—and in fact most Parisians— don’t realize is that both monuments were designed and their construction begun at about the same time, in the 1870s and 1880s. Even more surprising: The tower and the church were intended as antagonistic national symbols during times of cultural, religious and political conflict that roiled France for decades.
A depiction of members of the Paris Commune in 1871 battling government troops sent to quash their insurrection.
Frederick Brown tells the story of that tumultuous era in “For the Soul of France.” From 1830, the historical moment he starts with, to 1905, his final station, France passed through no less than four different constitutions; three dynasties (the Bourbons, the Orléans and the Bonapartes); two republics; three revolutions (1830, 1848 and 1870); one coup that worked (Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s in 1851) and two that were either merely attempted (in 1877) or fantasized (in 1889); two civil wars (the June crisis in 1848 and the Commune in 1871); one disastrous defeat to a nascent Germany (1870) that led to the momentary occupation of more than one-third of the country; two major financial scandals, in 1873 and 1892, that swept away most upper- and middle-class savings; and, finally, a turn-of-the-century judicial scandal (the Dreyfus Affair) that prompted a far-reaching law in 1905 mandating the separation of church and state.
Mr. Brown does not omit a single episode in this narrative, nor does he stint on the vignettes and human angles that bring the story to life. He is the author of noted biographies of Émile Zola and Gustave Flaubert, and “For the Soul of France” clearly benefits from his long immersion in the lives and works of these two great novelists, who flourished during the era he describes. Mr. Brown’s storytelling is vivacious and fluid, but he also keeps a firm hand on his chronicle, bringing order and perspective to these often chaotic times. (Historian Theodore Zeldin, by contrast, allotted himself five volumes to cover the period 1848-1945 and still ended up concentrating on broad themes and dispensing altogether with chronology.)
Then again, Mr. Brown simplifies his task by operating with a single organizing principle: Most of the turmoil in France during this period stemmed from battles over the restoration of the Catholic Church as France’s main societal institution. Under the ancien régime, the country was deemed the church’s “elder daughter,” and the French king’s legitimacy was derived from being anointed at Reims Cathedral in a ceremony with biblical overtones. The Revolution in the late 18th century negated both royalty and the church. In the early 1800s, Napoleon fused the ancien régime and the Revolution, in both political and religious terms: He founded a new monarchy compatible with civic equality and representative government, and he re-established Catholicism as the national religion even as he made provisions for religious freedom.
Napoleon’s arrangement more or less held firm for several decades, although tensions mounted between the clerical and secular camps. French Catholics generally were not averse to democracy and Enlightenment ideas, so long as the church’s special status was recognized. But with the election in 1848 of Pope Pius IX, a dogmatic theocrat (he decreed papal infallibility in 1869), traditionalists in the church began agitating for a restoration of the ancien régime’s power. In reaction, secular militancy increased.
The two camps failed to reconcile when France itself was threatened by war with (Protestant) Prussia in 1870, but dire events soon followed: defeat, the partial occupation of France by the newly minted German Empire and the short-lived rule of Paris in spring 1871 by the left-wing Commune, followed by the slaughter of the communards by government troops. “Thousands had been given summary justice and brought before execution squads,” Mr. Brown writes. “Blood ran down the gutters, coloring the Seine red.”
Catholics took the disastrous events of 1870 and 1871 as an omen that France had strayed too far from its religious roots. “An observant tourist would have found ample evidence to support the view that God seemed happier in France during the early 1870s than He had been for some time,” Mr. Brown says, noting that “many young people took holy orders after the war.” Secularists insisted that France would betray the best of herself if she did not remain loyal to the Enlightenment thinkers who had fathered the Republic, but the die-hard clericals believed that France could be restored only through the divine grace that would be granted if she atoned for her sins.
For a while, it looked as if the ultra-conservatives would win by democratic means: Though they were largely royalists, they won a majority in the National Assembly, which in 1873 authorized the construction of the Sacré-Cœur shrine as a national symbol of repentance. A reactionary regime known as L’Ordre Moral (“The Moral Order”) was introduced. Then things turned sour for the clerical crowd. There were too many pretenders to the French throne, and the most legitimate of them, Count de Chambord, a Bourbon, was out of touch with the country’s mood. He proposed, for instance, to replace the national tricolor flag with the ancien régime’s white one. Perhaps not surprisingly, secular republicans came to power in two successive national elections in 1877. They soon ordered up a riposte to the Sacré-Cœur on the Parisian skyline: a tower designed by engineer Gustave Eiffel that would be a symbol of modernity and progress for the centennial of the 1789 Revolution.
Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), the French army officer whose treason conviction in 1894 stirred a national soul-searching about anti-Semitism.
With the tide of history against them, the clerically minded resorted to outlandish bids for power and influence. A misbegotten coup in 1889 ended before it began when its putative leader, the reactionary French general Georges Boulanger, fled to Belgium. In the mid-1890s, the clericals, hoping to rally the public’s support for the church, launched an anti-Semitic campaign. Mr. Brown ably describes how a genteel theological and social contempt for Judaism was transformed into an unbridled hatred for Jews.
The crusade culminated in what came to be called the Dreyfus Affair. A French military officer named Alfred Dreyfus was convicted in 1894 of treason for passing secrets to Germany, though his only crime was being Jewish in late 19th-century France. The affair dragged on for years, with a retrial, in 1899, thanks largely to Zola’s support for Dreyfus— who was eventually restored as a French officer in 1906. The sorry episode certainly didn’t result in the abandonment of French anti-Semitism, but its clerical proponents—and their broader hope for the restoration of a royalist, anti-Enlightenment, anti-republican France—were discredited.
At times, it is true, one wishes that Mr. Brown had provided a wider comparative context. He might have contrasted the eruptions of reactionary French Catholicism during the 19th century with, for instance, the more progressive politics of Catholics in Belgium, Germany and Italy. And what about the faction within the French church that denounced its antiliberalism and anti-Semitism? Dissidents did exist—and were gradually to dominate French Catholicism in the 20th century. Still, “The Soul of France” offers a great deal of instruction and many narrative pleasures (even for a French reader). After reading it, visitors to the City of Light, and Parisians themselves, may never look at the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Cœur quite the same way again.
Mr. Garfinkel, the president of Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, lives in Paris.
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‘For the Soul of France’
From Chapter 1
France’s internal divisions found a new theater in which to speak when, only days after the proclamation of papal infallibility, war broke out with Germany. Since 1866 Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian prime minister, whose grand design was to forge a German Empire in the heat of war, with Wilhelm of Prussia as its sovereign, had been carefully devising a casus belli against France. History abetted him when the Spanish throne fell vacant. Bismarck persuaded King Wilhelm’s relative Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern to present his candidacy, knowing full well that France could not allow itself to be pinned between two of that family. Leopold subsequently withdrew his bid at Wilhelm’s urging, but his gesture did not mollify France’s foreign minister, the Duc de Gramont, who insisted that Leopold should never again be allowed to come forward. Wilhelm refused, and the matter might have rested there had Bismarck not made the refusal sound contemptuous by mischievously editing a telegram from Wilhelm to Louis- Napoléon. Inflamed by the press, which geneally denounced Prussia’s “slap in the face,” Frenchmen mobbed the streets of Paris. On July 14, 1870, an order to mobilize was issued. Two days later, deputies voted funds for war, with only 10 of 255 in parliament dissenting. The huge crowd outside the Palais Bourbon was jubilant. One witness thought that the scene might have been not much different at the Colosseum in Rome when frenzied spectators climbed the Vestals’ tribune to demand the execution of a gladiator, little realizing that France herself was the doomed combatant.
Gramont, a militant Catholic, may have been animated by hatred of Protestant Prussia. In any case, war had no sooner erupted than it spilled into the realm of religious politics. French pontifical troops garrisoned in Rome, the last enclave of papal power, were immediately pulled from the city to join battle with Germany. As a result nothing impeded the triumphal entry of Victor Emmanuel’s army. Although Gramont declared that France could not lose its honor on the Tiber (by leaving the pope undefended) and preserve it on the Rhine, his well- turned phrase rang hollow, for it quickly became evident that Louis- Napoléon’s army was outnumbered, outgeneraled, and outgunned. On September 1, some six weeks after hostilities began, the emperor, under relentless German shell fire, hoisted a white flag over the river town of Sedan. On September 20 the pope, also under shell fire, hoisted a white flag over the Castel Sant’ Angelo. While Louis- Napoléon was abdicating in the Ardennes, Pius IX was declaring himself a prisoner in the Vatican. To French no less distressed by the fall of Rome than by the prospect of enemy troops besieging Paris, it was the consummation of the pope’s martyrdom. “Let us pray that God hasten the moment when France, delivered from the Prussians, but above all from itself, shall deliver Rome from the Italian slough and restore to degraded humankind a Godgiven benefaction it cannot forsake without perishing,” wrote Louis Veuillot. The “Government of National Defense” formed by republicans on September 4 deepened his gloom.
God was in no rush to deliver France from the foreign enemy or from the enemy within, though it seemed for a moment that Veuillot’s prayers had been answered. There would be far more killing, of French by Germans, and of French by one another.
Having quickly fought through the Vosges mountains and occupied the belt of country between Alsace- Lorraine and the Île-de-France, General Helmuth von Moltke felt certain that his men could safely camp around Paris until the besieged city surrendered to hunger. Neither he nor Bismarck anticipated one of the more valiant second efforts in the history of warfare. On October 7, 1870, Léon Gambetta, a dynamic orator serving as minister of the interior in the Government of National Defense, escaped from Paris by balloon. He joined fellow ministers at Tours, and improvised a whole new army, the Army of the Loire, which proceeded to drive German troops out of Orléans. Alarm spread all along the enemy line. The Loire valley now became a war theater, forcing France’s extramural government to relocate farther south, in Bordeaux.
But victory along the Loire was a small candle in the gathering night. For many, it flickered out on October 27 when a French army trapped inside the fortress- city of Metz surrendered, freeing large German divisions to serve elsewhere. The ill- trained French often acquitted themselves well, but theirs were campaigns of heroic futility. The siege had reduced Parisians to starvation. Krupp cannons kept lofting shells into the capital from miles away, and German forces marched inexorably down the Seine valley. On January 17, 1871, the last army corps patched together under Gambetta’s provincial administration was defeated near Belfort, between the rivers Rhine and Rhône. Over 150,000 Frenchmen had given their lives since July, in what the historian Michael Howard has called the world’s first total war. On January 28, after several weeks of secret shuttling between Paris and Versailles, where Bismarck had established German headquarters, Jules Favre, minister of foreign affairs (one of those ministers who had not escaped from Paris), negotiated an armistice. Its central provision was that France, in free elections, should form a government with which Germany could treat. By then, implacable resistance to the Germans was the position of only isolated groups: notably, working- class Parisians. Most French wanted peace. Gambetta, honoring, à contre coeur, what he acknowledged to be the general will, resigned his ministry. Up north, wagons laden with food entered Paris, which surrendered the perimeter forts.
Early in February, Paris invaded Bordeaux, or so it seemed when journalists, power brokers, actresses, and boulevardiers flocked south, some to observe the newly elected Assembly, others to convalesce. Bordeaux’s population grew hourly, and almost all the deputies arrived before the inaugural session. One who didn’t was Victor Hugo. Hailed en route from Paris by crowds shouting, “Vive Victor Hugo! Vive la République!,” Hugo met even larger crowds in Bordeaux, where, he, Gambetta, and the future prime minister Georges Clemenceau, among others, joined against conservatives eager to buy peace at any price. They were a minority within parliament, but these republican stalwarts found support outside it among Bordelais whose demonstrations became so boisterous that light infantry and horse guards were summoned to patrol the streets. The horse guards closed ranks on February 28, when Adolphe Thiers— elected chief executive ten days earlier with a mandate to negotiate a peace treaty at Versailles— set forth Bismarck’s draconian terms. By evening it was common knowledge that Germany wanted most of Alsace and part of Lorraine. Furthermore, German troops would occupy French territory until France had paid reparations in the amount of five billion francs. On March 1, after hearing eloquent protests, the legislature yielded. “Today a tragic session,” Hugo wrote in his diary. “First the Empire was executed, then, alas, France herself!”
At its penultimate meeting in Bordeaux, the Assembly, led by a conservative majority who feared Paris—where three revolutions had taken place since 1789—voted to reconvene on March 20 at the palace of Versailles.
Governing from Versailles conveyed a political message distasteful to republicans. But of greater immediate consequence was the Assembly’s decision to end two moratoria that had eased the pain of Parisians trapped and unemployed since September 1870: one suspending payment due on promissory notes, the other deferring house rent. The measures restoring their obligations promised further hardship to several hundred thousand inhabitants of an economic wasteland and alienated the capital en masse. Debt- encumbered shopkeepers, idle workers, and artisans whose tools were in hock made common cause against an enemy all the more vengeful for being French. Indeed, the German soldiers camped outside Paris became mere spectators, as hatred of the foreigner turned inward.
The legislature might not have been so obdurate had Paris not previously challenged its authority. After the elections of February 8, republicans in Paris had presumed that the Assembly’s conservative majority— provincial deputies for the most part— were determined to restore throne and altar, and their anger voiced itself through the National Guard, a democratized version of the bourgeois militia founded in 1789. It became a quasi- political organism, and on February 24 delegates from two hundred battalions ratified a proposal to replace the centralized state of France with separate autonomous entities— confederated “collectivities.”
For Thiers, reports of troops breaking ranks all over town brought back memories of February 1848. At that time he had urged Louis-Philippe to leave Paris and recapture it from without, but the king had rejected his advice. This time, God alone stood above him. As soon as he had left the city, he issued general evacuation orders. Forty thousand army regulars were thus marched out of Paris, never to serve again. Up from the provinces came fresh conscripts “uncontaminated” by the capital, and before long one hundred thousand men occupied camps around Versailles. The day of reckoning was imminent, Thiers proclaimed on March 20. Forty- eight hours later, Versailles accepted the role Germany had played several months earlier. It declared Paris under siege once again.
In the city, forsaken ministries were staffed by tyros who somehow improvised essential services. The National Guard’s Central Committee served, perforce, as an alternative government, though its avowed program was to organize elections for a Communal Council, then dissolve itself. Elections took place on March 26 and produced a council with very few moderate members, most of whom resigned straightaway.
This left the high ground to extremists, whose abhorrence of a government that had in their judgment traded honor for peace intensified their visions of a new political and social order. On March 28, in front of City Hall, Paris proclaimed itself a Commune. Newly elected councilors all wore red sashes. They stood under a canopy surmounted by a bust of the Republic, draped in red. A red flag flew overhead. Forming up to music first heard during the 1789 Revolution, National Guard battalions played the “Marseillaise” as people sang and cannon fired salvos.
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