From acclaimed biographer and cultural historian, author of For the Soul of France (“Masterful history” —Henry Kissinger), Zola (“Magnificent” —The New Yorker), and Flaubert (“Impeccable” —James Wood, cover, The New York Times Book Review)—a brilliant reconsideration of the events and the political, social, and religious movements that led to France’s embrace of Fascism and anti-Semitism. Frederick Brown explores the tumultuous forces unleashed in the country by the Dreyfus Affair and its aftermath and examines how the clashing ideologies—the swarm of ’isms—and their blood-soaked political scandals and artistic movements following the horrors of World War I resulted in the country’s era of militant authoritarianism, rioting, violent racism, and nationalistic fervor. We see how these forces overtook the country’s sense of reason, sealing the fate of an entire nation, and led to the fall of France and the rise of the Vichy government.
The Embrace of Unreason picks up where Brown’s previous book, For the Soul of France, left off to tell the story of France in the decades leading up to World War II.
We see through the lives of three writers (Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras, and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle) how the French intelligentsia turned away from the humanistic traditions and rationalistic ideals born out of the Enlightenment in favor of submission to authority that stressed patriotism, militarism, and xenophobia; how French extremists, traumatized by the horrors of the battlefront and exalted by the glories of wartime martyrdom, tried to redeem France’s collective identity, as Hitler’s shadow lengthened over Europe.
The author writes of the Stavisky Affair, named for the notorious swindler whose grandiose Ponzi scheme tarred numerous political figures and fueled the bloody riots of February 1934, with right-wing paramilitary leagues, already suffering from the worldwide effects of the 1929 stock market crash, decrying Stavisky the Jew as the direct descendant of Alfred Dreyfus and an exemplar of the decaying social order . . . We see the Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture that, in June 1935, assembled Europe’s most illustrious literati under the sponsorship of the Soviet Union, whose internal feuds anticipated those recounted by George Orwell in his Spanish Civil War memoir Homage to Catalonia . . .
Here too, pictured as the perfect representation of Europe’s cultural doomsday, is the Paris World’s Fair of 1937, featuring two enormous pavilions, the first built by Nazi Germany, the second by Soviet Russia, each facing the other like duelists on the avenue leading to the Eiffel Tower, symbol of the French Republic. And near them both, a pavilion devoted to “the art of the festival,” in which speakers and displays insisted that Nazi torchlight parades at Nuremberg should serve as a model for France.
Written with historical insight and grasp and made immediate through the use of newspaper articles, journals, and literary works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, The Embrace of Unreason brings to life Europe’s darkest modern years.
After the 1870 concession of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany and the attendant drop in national morale, France began another political, societal, and artistic descent into instability. Brown (Zola) relies on lengthy biographical narratives of bloodthirsty socialist and nationalist Maurice Barres, fervent nationalist and royalist Charles Maurras, and other writer-activists to flesh out the larger story behind major 20th century French movements, resulting in mostly stand-alone sections best for readers already familiar with the key figures. Throughout, the fallout from the Dreyfus Affair and related anti-Semitism permeates the political sections even as many deplored the government's public mishandling of the young man erroneously thrust into the center of the treason-based scandal. Simultaneously, widely divergent groups co-opted the quest for Joan of Arc's canonization in the heat of thickening nationalist sentiment. Brown further illustrates the collective descent, as political murderers walked free and artists gleefully created prank-filled Dada pieces and Surrealist art. Brown's version of France makes its occupation by longtime adversary and National Socialist Germany a nearly foregone conclusion. 51 illus.