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Pacifism and the European Idea: War and Inner Conflict in the Work of Leon Werth

Pacifism and the European Idea: War and Inner Conflict in the Work of Leon Werth

Since the mid~1980s, interest in the First World War – in historiography, literature and film – has grown considerably in Western Europe. It has been sparked by a number of factors, including on the one hand German unification, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the final demise of communism, and on the other the striking symmetry between the violent events that marked the beginning and end of the twentieth century. Sarajevo 1914 – Kosovo 1999: the circle would seem to be complete. In France the international developments caused by the changes in the Eastern bloc coincided with a crisis of an entirely different nature. Over the 1970s and 1980s the French saw the cultural and social edifice that had been built up during the Third Republic collapse like a house of cards. The agricultural reforms of the 1950s and 1960s and the migration of rural youth to the cities led to further depopulation of the countryside. Concepts such as la France profonde, la douce France and la France éternelle suddenly seemed robbed of their content. Concerned, the French began to look back with nostalgia and anxiety on a past that most adults could remember from their childhood, but that was now rapidly disappearing.

In the field of literature this past is examined by postwar authors such as Pierre Bergounioux (b. 1949) and Jean Rouaud (b. 1952, Prix Goncourt 1990). In their novels they look at their families’ history, and in doing so chart the breakdown of the rural and provincial society of la France profonde. Both see this breakdown as having begun with the First World Warl. Their work ties in with a thematic tendency in the historiography of the First World War, which was reinforced by the establishment of the Centre de recherche de l’historial de la Grande Guerre de Peronne in 1989. The centre unites historians studying the cultural aspects of the armed conflict during and after the 1914-18 period. Their approach focuses on the experience of violence on a mass scale, the arguments used to justify this violence and the consequences of the mourning into which the European countries were plunged by the First World War. Other indications of the ’topicality’ of la Grande Guerre are films such as La Vie et rien d’autre (1988) and Capitaine Conan (1995) by Bertrand Tavernier,  the publication of war diaries and other ego-documents and the rediscovery of forgotten authors. In 1997, a carefully annotated edition of the notes and letters written during the First World War by one of the founders of the Annales, Marc Bloch, was published under the title Faits de guerre. The anniversary year of 1998 saw the publication of Paroles de Poilus. Lettres et camets du front (1914-1918), a collection of letters and diaries (Gueno and Laplume 1998). The edition of 300,000 copies equalled the success booked by Henri Barbusse with Le Feu, journal d’une escouade (Prix Goncourt 1916). in the 1990s, the obscure work of the writer and journalist Leon Werth (1878-1955) was largely republished by Viviane Hamy, a small Parisian publishing firm. It received enthusiastic reviews in the dailies and weeklies. In his overview of the intellectual and literary response to the catastrophe of the First World War, John Cruickshank typified the autobiographical Clavel soldat (1919), based on Werth’s experiences in the trenches, as ’the most unswervingly pacifist novel written under the immediate pressure of the events’ (Cruickshank 1982, 104). Cruickshank regarded the anti-war message of this novel as much more uncompromising than that of Barbusse’s Le Feu, widely regarded as the bible of pacifist authors between the wars or also, less kindly, as ’the breviary of defeatism’ (Rieuneau 1974, 77). If we define pacifism very generally as the belief that all wars are wrong and that conflicts should be soived by negotiation, then this belief may be considered as one of the enduring, albeit frail, legacies of the First World War and as a cornerstone of the European idea ever since. In this chapter, the writings of Leon Werth are considered in terms of a window on his time and are drawn upon to illustrate some of the intricacies of pacifism during and after the First World War.

Link: 22605_on_Werth_Montfrans_2002

Citation for published version (APA): van Montfrans, M. (2002). ‘Pacifism and the European Idea: War and Inner Conflict in the Work of Léon Werth’. In M. Spiering, & M. Wintle (editors), Ideas of Europe since 1914, The legacy of the First World War . Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Mac Millan, (p.160-177).