Unreasonable Book on French history unconvincing

“The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940” by Frederick Brown. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. $28.95

In “The Embrace of Unreason,” Frederick Brown contends that France and the French lost their way in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, succumbing to the siren song of irrational ideologies, philosophies and movements.

His focus is on Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, three writers that he claims exemplified this desertion from the humanism of the Enlightenment.

The collective weight of the dark forces they and France embraced — nationalism, anti-Semitism, the Boulanger Affair, the Dreyfus Affair, the Great War, Surrealism and Fascism — so burdened the democratic regime of the Third Republic that it collapsed before German invasion in 1940.

Here are some counter arguments:

The Boulanger Affair proved that a military adventurer could not overthrow the government.

The Dreyfus Affair proved that a strong majority would reject the anti-Semitism of the military and the Catholic Church to clear the name of Alfred Dreyfus. The Great War proved that France could withstand invasion from larger and more powerful Germany, halt the German advance at the Battle of the Marne, and, with the aid of democratic allies Great Britain and the United States, emerge victorious.

Surrealism was an artistic movement that attracted a tiny following who bickered constantly over its meaning. Election results proved that would-be French Fascists never commanded a large following. What led to French weakness during the 1930s and defeat in 1940 was instead the cost of the Great War — nearly 1.4 million dead and 1.1 million severely wounded, with the casualties heaviest among men in their twenties.

Brown’s presentation of the historical context is sometimes so unclear that I, despite having spent four decades studying and writing about this period, am unsure how much he understands. Aside from the three principal writers, the other figures in the book, political, artistic or literary, are, for the most part, merely two-dimensional.

My own opinion of Barrès is that he was essentially a nationalist and does not deserve Brown’s term “proto-Fascist.” Maurras was an old-fashioned authoritarian monarchist, and Drieu La Rochelle was a fatuous fool best described by a comment from one of his lovers, “his long slender hands ... seemed made to let precious sand flow between the fingers.”

Others may come to different conclusions. Brown is rightly celebrated for previous books on Flaubert, Zola and the Dreyfus Affair. At least for me, this one is unconvincing and unsuccessful.

Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at LSU. His most recent book is “Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War” (2013).