Under the Spell of European Mysticism
The French Historian Dominique Venner on the hopes and illusions of “Collaboration”
In France dealings with the recent past are marked, for the most part, by fanatical sectarianism or heedless nonchalance. In each case the analysis is merely fragmentary, without any recognisable pursuit of coherence. It redounds to the honour of the publisher and historian Dominique Venner that he is finally making an effort to give a general and balanced introduction. Venner’s works draw a new interpretation of the modern age and a comprehensive and detailed picture of Europe. In this respect, his oeuvre exhibits and affinity with that of Ernst Nolte’s. What in the end led to the “The History of Collaboration” began with a “History of German Fascism, 1918-1934” and took its course from “The Whites and Reds: History of the Russian Civil War, 1917-1921” and “A Critical History of Resistance”. As such Venner took on a theme that still represents a sore point of the French national identity. The polemics about the past of Francois Mitterand give an equally eloquent testimony as the alleged revelations about the writer and linguist Roparz Hemon. Finnaly it is about lasting experiences such as the French defeat in June 1940, the relationship between France and Germany, and above all the civil war, which the French fought amongst themselves. Venner avoids partisanship and shines in his abilty for clear syntheses. Of inestimable value for a serious study of this period are the three indices of his newest work, divided into party, publications and people.
Why and in what manner did the “collaboration” come into being? What roll did the will of Marshal Philippe Petain play?
Venner: Everything began with the devastating defeat of June 1940. France had been unable to recover from the terrible bloodletting of the First World War, which was far worse here than in Germany, where the birth-rate was higher. In addition, the majority of France was against a new war in tow with England. One could see no justification for it whatsoever and was convinced that such a war would be of no value to France. In this hopeless situation the French politicians turned to the old and highly respected Marshal Petain – who was 84 at the time – and transferred to him power over everything. The old chief promised the French that he’d stand on their side in order to ease their suffereings. His foreign policy touched on two basic considerations. For one, he was convinced that France needed peace in order to recover. As such, he would refuse to go to war again, no matter whom it was against. Secondly, he wanted to protect his country as much as possible from the impact of defeat. From his point of view, collaboration was the most appropriate way to achieve this goal. However this idea was taken completely differently in public by his supporters and opposition alike.
Part of your work is dedicated to the reconstruction of the Franco-German relationship. Why does this seem to be so significant for you?
Venner: It’s bizarre, that this aspect in the study of this period is normally ignored. The defeat of 1940 had put occupied France completely under the sovereignty of the Reich. Here it concerns one of the most important episodes in the history of Franco-German relations; an episode which was difficult, oft marked by brutality, but also, sometimes, by a real desire for reconciliation on both sides, despite the adverse conditions.Take, for example, the Rheinlander Otto Abetz, the German ambassador in Paris. Naturally he obeyed the orders of his government, but also made an effort out of friendship to reduce their effects.
You especially emphasise the roll and person of Jacques Benoist-Méchin. How did his engagement come about?
Venner: Jacques Benoist-Méchin was an intellectual who longed to become active. He was aware that the time in which he lived offered him the unique chance to realise this potential, which he sensed within himself. Unlike most “collaborators” he knew Germany. He spoke German so fluently that he translated Fritz von Unruh’s “Opfergang” into French. The “History of the German Army” which he assembled is still viewed as a standard work on the time 1918-1939. At the beginning of 1941 he was appointed to the post of “Secretary of State for Franco-German Relations” under the control of Admiral Darlans. He was convinced that Germany’s victory would endure. What differentiated him from Marshal Petain and many others was that he hereby wished for such a development, because he was of the opinion that an enduring German victory would give the peoples of Europe the possibility of self-liberation from Anglo-Saxon domination. Benoist-Méchin felt such a revolution was overdue. He designed a political project that was as ambitious as it was illusory. He wanted France to get itself into a war against England in the Mediterranean and Africa. This would be the only way to lead his country out of defeat and demand that Germany treat France as a partner. Beyond that, this policy would make possible a strategic victory over England, which would have been sufficient to influence the outcome of the conflict. Basically his position corresponds with that of General de Gaulle’s; only that they were diametrically opposed. His efforts though brought no success. His great idea squared neither with the views of Marshal Petain nor those of Hitler, who would never have allowed France to liberate itself from its vanquished position.
French proponents of the “collaboration” always complained about the European dimension. Was there any corresponding German answer?
Venner: From June 1941 when the war in the west (sic [ed. Sure it should be east]) began, there was a kind of mysticism of “New Europe” in German propaganda. This was certainly embraced in the circles of the “collaboration”. Many Germans also believed in it, above all the young and soldiers of the front. But the powers in the Reich, led by Hitler, remained “pan-germanic Jacobins”. They had absolutely no European vision higher than a conquered Europe.
You refer to numerous leftists who made themselves friends of the “collaboration”. How do you explain that such a position is nowadays blamed exclusively and indiscriminately on the right?
Venner: Before the war the left was pacifist. Partly they fell under the spell of fascism and felt that the socialist element of National Socialism spoke to them. The three most important politicians of the “collaboration” had been among to the most brilliant hope bearers of the left: Marcel Déat of the Socialists, Jacques Doriot of the Communists and Gaston Bergery of the Radicals. Socialists of various origins constituted the most important party of the “collaboration”. This let the Communists disappear from the nation’s memory as if by magic after the bloody 1943/ 44 civil war of Frenchman versus Frenchman ended. Instead they concerned themselves with the establishment of the fiction that every leftist, who had participated in the “collaboration”, had become a rightist.
You speak explicitly of civil war. Ernst Nolte uses the same concept, but in relation to Europe. Do you see any convergence between your position and Nolte’s?
Venner: I feel nothing but admiration for Ernst Nolte and his work. We recently met in Paris to debate his book. Nolte’s central thesis states that Europe experienced a civil war between 1917 and 1945, in which National Socialism is to be seen as an extreme answer to Bolshevism, and Auschwitz as a consequence and imitation of the Gulag. This thesis uses solid arguments. I’d like note the following observations: I think that National Socialism and Fascism cannot, in their essence, be reduced to a mere reaction to Bolshevism. In my opinion these movements were a brutal reply of the young, fire-baptised generation of the First World War to the problematic modernisation of Europe in the twenties. Despite all the missteps, this response in Europe was bound up with great hopes. My second remark aims at the reduction of the period from 1917 to 1945 to a civil war. It wasn’t a purely European conflict. 1917 was indubitably the year of the Bolshevik revolution, but it was also the year in which American involvement in the destiny of Europe began. I don’t think one can ignore this dimension, because its effects are felt today.