“We must do everything to avoid war” said the President of the French Republic on his return from Moscow. He is entirely right and dialogue must be given priority, but also with special vigilance.
History does not repeat itself, but it must be remembered. In reverse chronological order of that of Czechoslovakia in the past, we had the Anschluss in the Crimea before the Sudeten irredentism in the Donbass. Any military operation, of whatever magnitude, would have considerable implications because it would be the preferred tool chosen by a power in 21st century Europe, to build a new security architecture other than through collective effort or renewed relations between states or Alliances.
Edouard Daladier, the “Vaucluse Bull”, who was celebrated at Le Bourget airport on his return from Munich in September 1938, knew unlike the crowd that carried him in triumph that he had not saved peace, but that he had bought time to rearm and prepare France for an inevitable war. This is what he did and led historian Marc Bloch to describe the collapse of France in 1940 as a « strange defeat » not caused by the lack of equipment. Today it is a question of gaining time to build, in rationality, a lasting peace transcending outdated division of blocs.
History can be a novel and The Ghost of Munich by Georges-Marc Benamou is a remarkable example. He paints a portrait of an incredible truth of the former Head of Government of the Third Republic, living old and recluse, during the summer months, in a small hut on the island of Barthelasse in the meanders of the Rhone, opposite Avignon. But let’s stay in the historical reality, which sometimes goes beyond fiction, with a direct testimony on Edouard Daladier. Approximately at the same time he was appearing in the book, I saw him and his family because we had become neighbours in the city. He had then abandoned the hut often flooded by winter floods to get closer to the Popes Palace.
Georges-Marc Benamou aptly writes that Daladier, the only survivor of the negotiators of 30 September 1938 in Munich with Alexis Léger, the former Secretary General of the Quai d’Orsay – better known as Saint-John Perse, Nobel Prize in literature – was always secluded in silence. So much so that the French people no longer believed that he was still alive.
Indeed, I knew a man most often silent and prostrate but who seemed to retain a powerful inner energy. Was it stimulated by thoughts that incessantly re-emerged the great moments and jolts at the centre of which this famous, controversial and then almost forgotten figure of the Third Republic had found himself?: the Radical Socialist Party and the competition with Edouard Herriot since the student years in Lyon; the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior during the troubles of February 6, 1934; the animation of the Popular Front in 1936; the Council Presidency and the Ministry of War; Munich; the trial of Riom; deportation until the liberation of France.
Edouard Daladier came from a modest background. The son of a baker from Carpentras, the capital of Comtat Venaissin, our families had crossed paths through my paternal grandfather who lived in the same city for a time. Daladier, defeated in the elections when General de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, had then relinquished all his mandates, in particular that of Deputy Mayor of Avignon, and he had retired from political life.
A widower in 1932, he had married a former student preparing for Normale-Sup in a Lycée in the South of the country. As a student of history like Herriot, he would contribute to the Third Republic being sometimes called the « Republic of Professors ». His wife was a charming, impressive, well-educated woman with whom my mother had a close-to-family relationship. For my part, as I was about to embark on the adventure of higher education, I benefited from her generous advice and remarkable conversation during exchanges that were also letter-writing and extended well beyond the disappearance of the former President in the autumn of 1969. By chance, I was then a student at the Centre d’études juridiques françaises of the University of the Saarland, a former territory of Franco-German discord, headed by Professor Charles Zorgbibe, who remains for me a master.
Daladier was more talkative than her husband, including the controversy over Munich, the end of the Third Republic and the Vichy regime. Her stories were full of anecdotes, for example that she used to cycle to Riom Prison – where the trial of the same name took place – where Edouard Daladier was imprisoned with other prominent political and military officials of the Third Republic, including Léon Blum. She hid in her socks Churchill’s speeches, which she had transcribed. She never spoke of General de Gaulle. It was as if the mental world of radical-socialists had stopped in 1940, as if apart the British partner there had not been, within the national community, forces eager to restore honour, to continue war and contribute to final victory. This vision could be explained by the collapse of the country in 1940, which had made all prospect disappear, and also perhaps by a certain mental confinement to which the captivity and then deportation of her husband had led her.
The universe of the Daladiers remained that of the Third, even of the Fourth Republic, and that of the radical-socialists. In the 1970s, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber (JJSS), whose political career was short-lived and crashed in Bordeaux in a political contest against Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas, considered taking the lead of the Radical Party to support his ambitions. He visited Edouard Daladier at his Parisian home, according to what was reported to me, to take advice and to be knighted in some way. Did JJSS too share the view that the weight of the apparatus outweighed popular sovereignty. Gaullism could only be, in this spirit, a parenthesis and it had to be fought.
But in 1938, this was not yet the case. The Minister of War and President of the Council, functions that both Edouard Daladier held, was active to prepare France for a conflict that seemed inevitable. The Munich Agreement was thus presented by its supporters as a way of gaining time in the face of Hitler, even at the cost of abandoning vulnerable countries in Central Europe with which we were bound by international conventions.
In any case, and it is not a question of rewriting the diplomatic history of the interwar period, Munich remains in many minds a symbol, even a myth, that of ultimate abandonment due to appeasement policy. This is what I had in mind when I went one late afternoon in this summer 69, for reasons I can no longer remember, to the Daladier’s apartment next to ours. To my surprise, the President was alone, sitting in the darkness of his living room. I remember a detail of the decoration of this room where I had the opportunity to return after the disappearance of Édouard Daladier.
It was a panoramic photograph, a sort of sepia-coloured collage, showing Edouard Daladier in the gallery of a political meeting in broad daylight, bringing together a considerable crowd in the antique Orange Theatre. The politician seemed at the height of his political aura. The picture produced an impression of power and glory in this ancient place. The taurine air of the speaker gave off physical strength, the control of the crowd, if not even its domination.
However, as the summer day ended, in a totally unexpected way because I would never have dared to ask him questions that burned my mind, Edouard Daladier began to tell in detail his «special day» in Munich. This is in no way a course in diplomacy and history. As if in a second state, and without anything outside prompting him, he expressed with force details what he had felt that day: the considerable German crowd hallucinated from the airport, a kind of physical pressure exerted on him and Chamberlain, the immaculate uniform of Marshal Goering staying beside the Führer.
He was far from the politician haranguing his followers in the ancient Orange Theatre. From a local demonstration, we had moved to a global affair. History had done its work, age had undoubtedly come accompanied by obsessive questions about the choices of the time and about responsibility. It is as if an entire life, a career yet rich, should be reduced to a single event. Edouard Daladier did not converse with me, who was only a mute listener, even petrified; he did not seek any assent, he was immersed in his monologue which he did not even seem to believe had a therapeutic effect. He then returned to his silence, surmounted by the impressive panoramic, A witness of successes which had not been sufficient to give him the assurance of facing Munich and seemed to be completely out of step with what was learned from his career and even from his existence. A September 1938 day for a lifetime…
When Edouard Daladier died a few months later, Jacques Fauvet, then Director of the Journal Le Monde, wrote an editorial entitled “Defeats”. As if there had not been a declining birth rate in the 1930s in France, the division of the country that the former President had lived on the front line as Minister of the Interior, during the violent actions of the factious trying to storm the National Assembly from the Place de la Concorde, on 6 February, 1934, as if the prevailing pacifism had not been a fault in the face of Nazi Germany and had not annihilated the democracies that should have fought it from «the snake egg», as if the political establishment with ministerial instability and games of political movements had not failed, as if the general staff pf the Army had not been influenced by a doctrine consisting in the belief in the protection of a Maginot line, static by definition but considered unavoidable, while at the same time there was a revolution of armaments in favor of very mobile armored vehicles.
Edouard Daladier and Munich had reminded me on this summer day, not 42 but 69, of the threat to my parents, my country and the world, a project both Promethean and evil. But I had already discovered a few years earlier the « Rhine democracy », in the city of Beethoven, built on the ashes of a collective tragedy that had also been ours.
The historian Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, also one of my masters, described The Year of Munich in his book The Decadence 1932-1939. He pointed out that diplomats, at that time, had collected enough data and information, while governments did not seem to have any control over events.
Resistance or appeasement was the dialectic of the 1930s. The dilemma today would be rather strategy of tension or de-escalation. It will not be enough to understand, as diplomats were able to do, but it will require concrete action, exclusive of politics. The limits will be on both sides: independence of Ukraine and sovereign states on one hand and not belonging to a hostile alliance on the other. The subject is complex but not beyond reach of a rational approach.
The greatest difficulty is the unquantifiable variable of buried or repressed passions. During the Polish crisis of 1980-81, I was stationed in East Berlin, where we had been instructed by Paris to make representations at the request of Paris to warn our country of residence against any repression, undertaken either nationally or within the Warsaw Pact, in order to annihilate the movement initiated by the union Solidarnosc. Our interlocutors invariably told us that their country would never engage in such an operation in Poland because it was also heir to Germany.
The worst sufferings must not make us leave the rational sphere but should instead bring us back to it. Russia, legatee of the Soviet Union, will never console itself with the loss of 20 million inhabitants during the Second World War and its President has created a Immortal Battalion, made up of citizens who now parade on May 9, waving the portrait of their loved ones. It is this immense sacrifice, honoured every year, which must guide Russia towards a Europe which she has also saved at the cost of her annihilation and in which she has her full place.