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The European Revolution of Drieu La Rochelle

3,657 words

“The time for petty politics is over: the very next century will bring the fight for the dominion of the earth—the compulsion to large-scale politics.”

—Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §208

On the night of March 15, 1945, while in hiding from the new American-installed regime in Paris, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle swallowed a fatal dose of gardenal.

The suicide of this brilliant Norman writer, who chose death to defeat, did little to taint his subsequent reputation.

As the historian Pierre Nora writes in the preface to Drieu’s Journal 1939–1945 (1992): “For the postwar generation [he’s become] . . . a romantic hero of Nietzschean proportions, a legendary non-conformist, a fascist without blood on his hands, an intellectual who paid the highest price for pursuing his convictions to their bitter end. His personage is of mythic stature.”[1]

Mythic stature, perhaps—but it’s Drieu the revolutionary martyr, in defying right and left-wing convention for the sake of Europe’s destiny, who, undoubtedly, still speaks to us.

Indeed, few writer of his age grappled with Europe’s dilemmas quite as intensely and lucidly. In his semi-autobiographical novel Gilles (1939),[2] he wrote that man exists only in struggle: “No thought, no sentiment is real if not tested by the proof of death.”

The revolutionary Europeanism of his thought continues to affect us, it seems, not simply because its concerns still haunt our world, but also because its uncompromising “proof of death” lends it a certain timelessness.

***

Frenchmen of Drieu’s generation—“the generation of 1914”—were tormented by a sense that their world was dying and a new, not necessarily better one was struggling to be born. In “questioning the foundation of everything,” the spiritual crisis set off by the Great War would cast its spell over the entire interwar era (191839).

The theme of the returning soldier who finds himself homeless in his own homeland, as he discovers that the nation he fought for is no longer the one he formerly knew, is one that runs through all Drieu’s works. This theme was particularly resonant in France, which even before the war was beset by feelings of decay and decline.

Given that she had been the cradle of both medieval and modern civilization, France had long dominated Europe, not just in thought, taste, and the legitimizing models she provided for other European polities, but militarily and demographically. Then, in the last third of the 19th century, German unification, combined with the high population and industrial growth it spurred, brought French hegemony to an abrupt and humiliating end.

This was made painfully obvious during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and even more so during the First World War, when she was able to “defeat” the Germans (who “my people, alone, had tread on with ease for centuries”) only in alliance with all the other world powers.

In his first political work, Mesure de France (1922),[3] Drieu confronted the “decadence” that seemed responsible for the corruption of the French spirit, broaching an issue that would animate all his subsequent work.

Indifferent to the fact that they were no longer the same conquering people they had been in 1800, he accused his countrymen, particularly their elites, of having succumbed to the devitalizing forms that come with modern life.

“Everywhere I look,” he observed, “I see hapless people who have lost all sense of things—all sense of what sex or politics is—of what a leader, a man, art, or religion is.”

France’s decline, he thought, was not simply the result of modern capitalism (as the left held) or of democracy (as it was for the right), but of a profound disorder in the nation’s life, evident in its dysgenic demographics. The nation’s population had grown hardly at all in the 19th century, while the German population grew to almost twice its size.

To Drieu an infertile population was sign of a waning vitality—and all that went with it, such as the fear of risk, the demotion of virile values, a fixation on comfort and security, a demobilizing self-centeredness.

The consequence was inevitably life-threatening: “The man,” he wrote, “who badly cultivates his domain and leaves his wife sterile is vulnerable to neighbors coveting his possessions.”

But more than disarming France in a world of coveting neighbors, the decadence sapping her life-force was seeping into various facets of her national existence, undermining her power, autonomy, and even the ability to think through the problems besetting her. The onset of mass immigration in the Twenties seemed just the latest, most threatening expression of this decrepitude.

France’s fate, Drieu believed, would be that of Europe as a whole, for the 20th century had rendered not just the old civilizational forms, but the Westphalian state system obsolete, ushering in an age of continental empires that had diminished the significance and sovereignty of the nation-state.

Germany may have outgrown France, but she would never achieve hegemony over the continent. Not only would other European states continue to form coalitions against her, her demographic and economic weigh was significant only in respect to Europe’s small nations. As such, Germany would eventually succumb to the same decline as France—a decline that would affect not merely her viability in the international arena, but her ability to master the domestic imperatives of modern life.

As long as Europe remained politically fractured, it risked, then, not just another fratricidal mutation, like that of 1914–1918, but domination by the continental powers of American capitalism and Russian communism (not to mention those of the Chinese and Indian empires he foresaw for the 21st century).

France, he reckoned, was destined to become either an “Ireland” in perpetual struggle against alien empires—or else a participating member of a European imperium whose peace and order would govern the world.

France, Germany, and the other European nations, in other words, would survive the era of continental empires, with their economies of scale and “tyranny of numbers,” only by federating.

Federation, however, did not mean national liquidation. Unlike the present European Commission, disconnected from Europe’s distinct bioculture, Drieu’s notion of federation was not about subordinating the continent’s peoples to the primacy of market principles.

His concern was Europe’s rebirth, not the economic destruction of its ethnonations. Influenced in his youth by such anti-liberal nationalists as Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras, and Jacques Bainville, each of whom helped initiate him into “the cult of France,” his affection for “Marianne,” whom he loved “like a beautiful woman he might meet in the street at night,” was unwavering.

But at the same time he saw that nationalism, “this 19th-century ideology,” had reached a historic impasse—both in terms of its self-destructive rivalries and of the limitations it was beginning to impose on the European spirit.

“All nationalisms,” he wrote in 1928, “that make the homeland an end rather than a beginning were rejecting the very energies and creativity born of the homeland.” For the author of L’Europe contre les Patries (1931),[4] nationalism in the continental age had become a résidu subversive both of Europe and the nation itself.

Not France, but Europe as a spiritual community of nations would henceforth claim his allegiance: “France must die as a political entity . . . for her to achieve her true spiritual place.”

The federation he envisaged would draw on local identities and historic institutions in the tradition of Montesquieu’s “community of nations”—uniting Europeans on the basis of the Greco-Roman and Latin Christian legacies they shared, on the mutual reciprocating borrowings that marked their histories, and on the institutional heritage of the jus publicum europaeum.

For one French New Rightist (A. Guyot-Jeannin), Drieu’s Europe was not the bloodless superstate of the bureaucrats, bankers, and merchants, but “a spiritual, cultural, communitarian, and enrooted Europe”—protective of its rich and varied ethnonations and true to its protean spiritual forms.

It was not, as such, to be a “union” open to all the world and destructive of its specific identity—but instead an enlarged Switzerland jealous of its different national families. The nation, even if it lacked viability in a world of continental powers, remained for him a vital cadre, for language, heritage, and place are intimate parts of the individual’s identity.

Given, though, that Europe after 1918 was situated between two hostile extra-European empires, its division into twenty-six sovereign states—none of which had the capacity to dominate the others or “represent itself with dignity in the disproportional competition of the continental empires”—put her at a distinct disadvantage against her rivals, preventing her from assuming the political position, not to mention the spiritual perspective, necessary for surmounting the challenges facing her.

“Only in federation can we revive Europe’s defunct soul and take up the thread of 13th-century Christian Europe or that of the aristocratic and intellectual 18th century . . . This is not a cosmopolitan dream but a pressing necessity, a question of life and death. Europe will federate—or else devour herself or be devoured.”

To this end, European nations were henceforth obliged to alter their relations with one another.

“Born of Europe, they must return to Europe.”

Since the dissolution of Charlemagne’s empire, Europeans had embarked on a millennium-long movement of differentiation, separating and distinguishing themselves from one another “as if it were a matter of quarantine.” With the onset of the First World War, however, the creative phase of this movement reached a point of diminishing returns.

Though Europe could not be Europe without her nations and would die without them, Drieu held that the viability of the nation would henceforth depend on Europe.

He thus exhorted his contemporaries to become like Nietzsche’s “good Europeans”—“the overly obligated heirs of thousands of years of the European spirit.” Just as they had overcame their religious differences in the 17th century, so too they needed now to demote the primacy of their barricading national identities, if they were to survive the 20th century.

This made it imperative that they throw off the “petty nationalist politics” and rigid statist forms, which promised to relegate them and the rest of Europe to the lower rungs of the coming world order.

Drieu acknowledged that Europe was something of a “myth,” but it was nevertheless one whose historical-civilizational resonance still had the power to evoke those forces that might challenge the reigning decadence.

His vision of federation, this Europe des patries, sought in this vein to revive of the spirit specific to Europe’s unique and incomparable life forms—not to dissolve it in an ultra-liberal world market.

The idea of European federation was by no means distinct to Drieu.

Pierre Drieu la Rochelle

Following the armistice of 1918, Europeans of almost every class and nation realized that another war born of nationalist rivalry would destroy the continent. In the 1920s, the “European idea” took various forms: the Treaties of Locarno, Briandism, the pan-Europeanism of Coudenhove-Kalergi, etc.

Drieu shared none of the pacifist, humanitarian, or democratic principles motivating unity in this period (principles whose liberal premises he saw as offshoots of European decadence), but he did look to the movements they had set in motion as possible instruments for forging a United States of Europe.

In Genève ou Moscou (1928),[5] he even entertained the hope that the more advanced sectors of European capitalism, having outgrown the national market, would use the League of Nations to foster first economic, then political unity.

His hope for such reforms did not, however, outlive the first postwar decade, which culminated in the greatest economic crises of modern history.

Frustrated by the immobility of the left/right parties in face of the crisis, he began in the early Thirties looking for a revolutionary alternative to regenerate France and Europe.

In the violent anti-government street demonstrations that shook the Third French Republic in February 1934—as anti-liberal rightists (mainly veterans organized in far-right Ligues) and anti-liberal leftists (Communists) stared down the armed forces of the state, demonstrating that something of France’s ancient virile traditions still lived in the hearts of his countrymen—Drieu thought he had at last found this revolutionary alternative in what he called Socialisme fasciste (1934).[6]

The fascism he embraced in this work wasn’t quite orthodox, just as his interest in it was more existential than political.

Rather than its petty-bourgeois, anti-Communist, and state-fixated nationalism, it was fascism’s instinctive opposition to the established liberal order, its emphasis on youth, health, leadership, rebellion, and virile actions, and especially its Nietzschean will to live dangerously that attracted him.

Similarly, he remained critical of the concessions German and Italian fascism had made to what the French called the juste milieu—that is, to the liberal centrism which shuns contentious or radical politics.

Drieu’s fascism (like that of many other fascist intellectuals) stemmed ultimately from his identification with its will to overcome the decadence born of the modern age and, in doing so, to realize a higher spiritual community.

As he wrote in 1938: “To live more intensely and fully is what it means today to be fascist” (which explains, perhaps, why, after six decades, anti-fascism continues to obsess the left).

Drieu’s socialism, opposed as it was to unbridled markets indifferent to social cohesion and spiritual values, had little in common with Marxian socialism, with its Jewish universalism, collectivism, and numbing materialism. Rather, his was the “socialism” Spengler attributed to the Prussians—the “organic” and “authoritarian” socialism that subordinated the economy to the nation and pursued “social” ends privileging the development of the nation’s spirit and vitality. This, he claimed, was a socialism of the heart, not of the stomach. Above all, it was a socialism that was European rather than nationalist.

Drieu’s notion of fascism’s socialist revolution also seemed to hold out the possibility of bringing fascists and Communists together in an anti-liberal alliance that might lead to the formation of an energetic, youthful elite, to re-ignite Europe’s dimming spirit and create a new man whose intrepid vitality would transcend the multitude forms of modern decadence.

His “fascist socialism,” in a word, opposed liberal modernity for the sake of an alternative—archeofuturist—Europe.

In 1936 Drieu joined the recently founded Parti Populaire Français of Jacques Doriot, which he thought might serve as an agent for the European revolution.

Arguably the greatest worker-revolutionary produced by the Third International, Doriot was expelled from the French Communist Party in 1934, after which his shift to the revolutionary right opened the way to the formation of a mass fascist party in France (having within months of its founding, recruited 130,000 members).

Doriot, though, would fail Drieu and by late 1938 he reluctantly resigned from the PPF.

The ensuing period would be one of extreme despair for Drieu, for not only had the prospect of a French fascist revolution been squandered, the looming threat of another world war stirred his worst fears.

Following the Battle of France (May–June 1940)—which confirmed his low opinion of France’s parliamentary regime and his belief that its army, in suffering the greatest debacle in the nation’s history, reflected the sclerotic nature of her bourgeois social order—Drieu attempted to make the most of a bad situation by collaborating with the German occupation.

Through collaboration he hoped to create a fascist France able to command the respect of National Socialist Germany and, in the process, to make fascism less nationalist and more European and socialist.

Though a racially-conscious Europeanist whose personal identification was with Celtic-Germanic France and her Nordic heritage, the tall, blue-eyed, fair-haired Drieu was no Germanophile. In fact, he had previously opposed the idea that European unity might be achieved under a single national hegemony. He also disapproved of Hitler’s bloody purge of the NSDAP’s “left wing” (Röhm’s SA), as well as the concessions he made to the Wehrmacht’s “reactionary” General Staff and to Big Business.

Resigning himself to the fact that the French had failed to carry out their own revolution, he was now inclined to think that it needed to be imposed from without.

Just as the Northern states had coerced the South to make the USA, he thought German coercion might lead to a United States of Europe.

In this spirit, he assumed the editorship of France’s most prestigious journal, the Nouvelle Revue française, took up writing weekly articles for Doriot’s Révolution nationale, engaged in various activities designed to give substance to “collaborationist” ideals, and looked to Hitler to unify Europe by carrying out the sort of revolution that had revived Germany after 1933.

The German dictator, he hoped, would become the Augustus of a politically united Europe.

Again he would be disappointed.

By early 1942, more than a year before Stalingrad and Kursk, he realized that Germany was about to lose the war.

Even worse, he came to see that Hitler had not the slightest interest in genuine collaboration or revolution.

Virtually everywhere in German-occupied Europe, “this son of an Austrian customs official” had chosen collaborators from among conservatives and reactionaries, while fascist revolutionaries in France, Belgium, Hungary, Rumania, and elsewhere were either repressed or marginalized. (The innocuous Quisling was merely the exception proving the rule.)

Hitler’s failure to unite Europe and carry out a socialist revolution was, though, more than a disappointment to Drieu: It heralded the coming defeat. As he argued in Révolution nationale (December 1943), Germany would be European or it would not be—and increasingly it appeared as if it would not be.

Drieu’s geopolitical writings between 1941 and 1944 were more penetrating than much of what was then being written about the war in the US and Britain, but his developing criticism of Hitler’s conservative pan-Germanism, and the disastrous effects it was having on the Axis, were largely reserved for his unpublished works (though a few of his critical pieces did get by the censor).

In his posthumously published Récit secret (1951),[7] he confessed outright that “in what I said and wrote [in this period] I refrained from emphasizing the full extent of my contempt for Hitler who was damaging Europe as much as his enemies.”

From these published and unpublished sources, we know that Drieu had abandoned all hope of a European federation under German direction. The Germans, he concluded, were totally unaware of the magnitude of the tasks they faced: In his journal he wrote that he “had seen enough of the Germans to find them as idiotic as the French.”

The Germans’ military strategy was not only misconceived, allowing British and American forces into the Mediterranean, they were devoid of all political sense, treating fellow Europeans as Üntermenschen, failing to carry out those policies in occupied Europe that had rallied the masses to National Socialism in Germany, and substituting military goals for political imperatives (as if the former, pace Clausewitz, were not an offshoot of the latter).

Hitler, he came to see, was too much a 19th-century nationalist—oblivious to the changes wrought in the world since 1914 and to the dangers it now posed to Europe’s existence—to rise to the challenges of 20th-century Europe.

More conservative than revolutionary, German fascism, Drieu surmised, was “dying of timidity.”

***

Increasingly alienated from the occupiers and obsessed with Europe’s impending doom, Drieu refused to break with the Collaboration, just as he refused to seek refuge in Switzerland or elsewhere, once the possibility presented itself after 1943. He felt this was a matter of honor.

Most interesting in Drieu’s wartime Europeanism was his growing admiration of Stalinist Russia, whose military valor and will to power were proving superior to that of the Germans.

Drieu had long had an ambivalent relationship to Communism. He dismissed Marxism as a facile ideology whose simplifications may have beguiled the masses, but were an offense to the critical spirit, just as he thought its “cult of production” was the verso of bourgeois materialism.

And like European New Rightists today, he believed real revolutions were born of a radical transformation of values, not of the social-economic changes Marxists advocated. This is why Nietzsche for him was the sole revolutionary of the modern age.

In line with Rome and Berlin, Moscow had achieved more, he claimed, in abiding Nietzschean principles than those of the Jewish Rheinlander.

At the same time, Drieu realized that a vigorous, courageous anti-bourgeois spirit akin to the fascist spirit existed within Communist ranks, constituting another possible alternative to European decadence.

Accordingly, the Russians’ “National Communism” was not for him the Jewish bugbear that some American and European conservatives made of it, but rather a force of Slavic self-assertion.

With fascism’s impending defeat, the Soviet autocracy, he saw, would soon stand alone against the plutocratic democracies representing the vanguard of modern decadence.

Because the Anglo-Americans were inferior in fighting capacity to the Russians, Drieu mistakenly overestimated the latter’s potential, thinking the Red Army might conquer the whole of Europe—bringing about European unity under the hammer and sickle.

In any case, he preferred a Russian-dominated Europe to an American one, for the latter (as un résidu de bagnards évadé, de transfuge de tout, de planqués . . . [qui] passé directement de la barbarie à la décadence) was neither a race nor a culture, but a crowd of métisses resentful of the European spirit.

***

Alas, sometime in late 1944, Drieu’s European Revolution, the red thread weaving through all his adult engagements, broke.

The capitalist, fascist, and communist forces to which he successively looked had each failed to establish an alternative to the prevailing decadence.

It hardly needs adding that the European Union of today is but a caricature of what he sought.

That the prospects of French and European life have gotten progressively worse since his death and that Europe now risks becoming an Afro-Asian colony testifies, arguably, to the credibility of his continental vision—and to the imperative still of carrying out a revolution to liberate Europe from the corruption, stagnation, and de-virilization”—from the “decadence”—thwarting Europe’s unique life forms.

Notes

[1] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Journal 1939–1945, ed. Julien Hervier (Paris: Gallimard, 1992)–Ed.

[2] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Gilles (Paris: Gallimard, 1939)–Ed.

[3] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Mesure de France (Paris: Grasset, 1922)–Ed.

[4] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, L’Europe contre les Patries (Paris: Gallimard, 1931)–Ed.

[5] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Genève ou Moscou (Paris: Gallimard, 1928)–Ed.

[6] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Socialisme fasciste (Paris: Gallimard, 1934)–Ed.

[7] Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Récit secret, Journal 1944-1945,  Exorde (Paris: Gallimard, 1951)–Ed.

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2 Comments

  1. Greg Palino
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this piece. All too often people such as Drieu La Rochelle are all but unknown to those (more or less) carrying the torch of European Re-birth these days. Drieu was a very interesting person.

  2. Michael O'Meara
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    I should add that the endnotes are Greg’s, put there for the convenience of the reader.

    The piece was written several years ago — and for a format that didn’t allow notes.

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