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Zeev Sternhell (1935 – 2020): Historian of Fascism and Pioneer of ‘Red Brown’ Studies.

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La Droite Révolutionnaire - 1885-1914, Les Origines Françaises Du ...

General Boulanger and the original Red-Brown Front.

In Memory of a Great Voice, Zeev Sternhell, 10 April 1935 – 21 June 2020.

France 24,

Israeli historian and political scientist Zeev Sternhell, a peace activist and one of the leading thinkers of the country’s left, has died aged 85, Jerusalem’s Hebrew University said Sunday.

Polish-born Sternhell, head of the university’s political science department, was an outspoken champion of Palestinian rights who strongly criticised Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Hebrew University president Asher Cohen hailed Sternhell, a professor emeritus there who was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for political science in 2008, as “among the most important researchers” to emerge from the institution.

“His innovative political science research, which was translated into many languages, brought a deep change in the academic perception of ideological movements, specifically radical movements,” Cohen said.

Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab-led Joint List in Israel’s parliament, wrote that “during his childhood in Poland, Sternhell experienced the terrible results of fascism, and throughout his life had the courage and strength to research and fight it.

“For decades he was a significant voice for Palestinian human rights and against the occupation in the territories.”

The article continues,

His academic work also delved into the “French roots of fascism” and stirred lively debate and controversy, according to former student Denis Charbit, now a lecturer at the Open University of Israel.

Sternhell was a “very demanding” professor, but also one “attentive” to his best students, Charbit told AFP.

In addition to academic writing and books, he regularly published opinion pieces in Israeli newspapers, most notably Haaretz, many of which were critical of settlers.

On one occasion Sternhell called the settlement movement a “cancer” in Israeli society, and in another instance said a settlement should be attacked with tanks

Sternhell continued his political combat,

After receiving the Israel Prize in 2008, he was wounded the same year by a bomb planted outside his house by a right-wing extremist.

Sternhell himself said the attack was testimony to the “fragility” of Israeli democracy.

In an interview with Haaretz later that year, he warned of the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories and the condition of Israel “not respecting the national rights of others”.

In a 2014 interview with Haaretz, during Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, Sternhell warned that the Jewish state’s democracy was “facing collapse”.

“The Israeli democracy is eroding, and the signs (of emerging fascism) exist,” he said.Tamar Zandberg, of left-wing party Meretz, said Sternhell’s lasting legacy would be his work towards “a strong and not occupying Israeli democracy”.

Communication Minister Yoaz Hendel offered his condolences to the Sternhell family, noting that while he didn’t share many of Sternhell’s opinions, “prominent intellectuals like him, from right and left, are the foundation to our existence as the people of the book”.]

According to Haaretz, Sternhell died as a result of complications following surgery.

He is survived by his wife, two daughters and several grandchildren

Zeev Sternhell was at the centre of not just of Israeli political debate, but amongst the left and anti-fascists, in Europe, above all in France. Awarded a Ph.D. in 1969 from the Institut d’études politiques de Paris,  for his thesis on The Social and Political Ideas of Maurice Barrès, a key figure in the culture and ideology of the nationalist right, he had a great influence had, far wider than academic circles and far beyond the hexagone.

I first came across his books during the mid-1980s in the Bibliothèque municipale  Place Jules Joffrin, 75018 Paris in  The study,  Ni droite ni gauche. L’idéologie fasciste en France, 1983; transl. Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France, has an enduring impact. This was reached many people on the left, as has been testified on hearing of his passing.

Sternehell’s work has found new audiences with the rise of national populism, and the creation of ‘neither right nor left’ red-brown fronts across Europe, from the pro-Brexit alliances in the UK to the defection of many parts of the sovereigntist left in many countries to the nationalist ‘anti-metropolitan elite” right. His account of the literary and polemical figure of the nationalist Maurice Barrès and his appeal to La terre et les Morts (Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français. 1972), the homeland heritage and the living memory of the dead, evokes ideas one can find amongst defenders of the ‘somewhere’ folk who criticise the ‘anywhere’ people.  

In La Droite Révolutionnaire, (First Edition, 1978) Sternhell proposed that late 19th century and pre-Great War France was the cradle of fascist ideology. France was, in Sternhell’s eyes, an ideal field for studying pre-fascism, and, full blown, “neither left nor right” fascist thought. His focus began on General Boulanger’s 1886 campaign, an anti-parliamentarian movement which, following defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870 1871)  of  demanded ‘revenge’ against Germany, – the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France – and a clear out of the ‘cabals’ in the name of the People. His campaign was backed by Monarchists, Bonapartists, Maurice Barrès, some republicans and revolutionaries from the Blanquist tradition, and nationalists.

A part of the early French socialist movement  saw in the movement a protest against (as Sternhell put it) ” les grands seigneurs de la finance.” Some saw in Boulangism a patriotic reaction against Parliamentary and social elites,  that they could turn towards the left. Anti-Jewish sentiment, organised anti-semitism, appeared, leading to the creation of the Ligue antisémitique de France in 1889. Others from the socialist movement considered that the left should stand firm behind republican democracy and reject Boulanger: Le Bilan Boulanger. 1888 (M. Lissagaray)

In Ni droite ni gauche: l’idéologie fasciste en France (First Edition, 1983), Sternhell  turned to the 20th century.  In the years preceding the Second World War these movements drew together calls to “workers of all classes” against banking “hyper” capitalism, drew on the romance of the nation, and opposition to the liberalism of the Enlightenment and the elites of the Third Republic. This, he argued,  indicated that fascism originated and continued to operate as a synthesis of socialist ideas and nationalism.

The book surveyed anti-parliamentarian nationalism (the ‘ligues’), “planiste” sections of French social democracy (Marcel Déat), the Monarchist and anti-Semite Action française, the mass parties of the later 1930s, the Parti Social français (PSF), the Parti Populaire français (PPF) of the renegade Communist Jacques Doriot, and a mixed bag of admirers of National Socialism and Mussolini. 

Last year Sternhell edited and contributed to an important study of pre-war French far right movements, L’Histoire refoulée. La Rocque, les Croix de feu, et le fascisme français. Sous la direction de Zeev Sternhell. 2019.

In 2006 Sternhell published a study of anti-Enlightenment thought, Les anti-Lumières: Une tradition du XVIIIᵉ siècle à la guerre froide. Edmund Burke and Thomas Caryle took their place alongside Herder and Charles Maurras as those defend the “moral capital” of tradition against what Frank Feurdi, from the Red-Brown sie Spiked calls “the counter-culture establishment”. (The birth of the culture wars.  This century-long conflict is born of the Western elites’ loss of cultural and moral authority. Spiked 19.6.20).

Sternhell, by contrast, defended neither cultural nor moral authority nor tradition.

His work was offers us landmark historical studies and a brilliant exercise of the “critical tradition” of the Enlightenment.

As he wrote, “Aucun ordre établi  n’est légitime du seul fait qu’il existe. La justice et le bonheur sont des objectifs valables et légitimes…l’homme est capable d’aller en avant, a condition qu’il fasse appeal a la raison.” (Les anti-Lumières: Page 796).

“No established order is legitimate by the mere fact that it exists. Justice and happiness  valid and legitimate objectives …humanity  is able to progress, on condition that we use our capacity to reason.

Let that be Sternhell’s epitaph.

 

Written by Andrew Coates

June 22, 2020 at 11:22 am

L’Histoire refoulée. La Rocque, les Croix de feu, et le fascisme français. Sous la direction de Zeev Sternhell. Review: Fascisme à la française?

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L’Histoire refoulée. La Rocque, les Croix de feu, et le fascisme français. Sous la direction de Zeev Sternhell. Les Éditions du Cerf.

Zeev Sternhell is a reference point amongst historians of Fascism. L’Histoire refoulée focuses on the Croix de Feu (CDF, a movement, originally largely of Great War veterans, led by Colonel François de la Rocque. In 1936, after anti-parliamentary street violence led to the dissolution of the “leagues”, they became the Parti sociale français (PSF) with membership of around three quarters of a million. Opinion has been divided about how far La Rocque’s troops were properly fascist, with some dismissing them as nationalist “boy scouts”. The contributions by Sternhell, “Anglo-Saxons” Caroline Campbell, Kevin Passmore and Chris Milligan with Laurent Kestel and Didier Leschi and Samuel Kalman aim to show that during the 1930s important parts of French society were tempted by “les aventures fascists” and that the CDF/PSF was not a “mass party of the right” but infected with fascist ideas.

Didier Leschi and Lauren Kestel refer to Michel Dobry’s claim that there is a consensus that France was “immune” and “allergic” to Fascism (Le mythe de lallergie française au fascisme. 2003). In this view, taken up anew by Sternhell the minimising of the CDF/PSF is a case study in how a 1930s a fascistic movement is downplayed. Present targets include Michel Winock, who questioned this classification, noting that, apart from its backward looking debts to 19th century the Caesarism of Boulangism, has said in his own works, that the “term fascism cannot be applied to all movements supportive of right-leaning authoritarianism, the so-called national right, or the far-right” and that the “Croix-de-Feu and the PSF cannot be called a fascist party unless, of course, we disregard semantic precision altogether.(1)

“Refoulée”, in psychological terms, is to repress, to push back into oneself, to refuse to acknowledge an impulse. The intention of L’Histoire refoulée is to bring out from this collective subconscious the existence of French fascism as an independent political force in the 1930s. It equally contributed to the National Revolution of the Vichy regime and the Collaboration. The importance of this task is highlighted, the authors argue, by the resurgence of a xenophobic extreme right that has reinvented a French nationalist tradition without fully recognising its debts to fascism. .

General readers, many of whom are familiar with the historian of Vichy, Robert O Paxton (La France de Vichy. 1973,  in English, Vichy France : Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944) , will be surprised to learn that the domestic responsibility for the Pétain regime continues to be ignored. Not long ago the polemical historian Éric Zemmour violently attacked the anti-Vichy ‘doxa’ (established opinion), also known as the « révolution paxtonienne », led by “notre bon maître”, the American (nationality underlined) in the best-selling Le Suicide français (2014). The far-right writer became instantly notorious for defending the care shown by Vichy towards Jews of French nationality. His claim that De Gaulle was a child of both the far right and left Catholic patriotism, “un enfant de Maurras et de Péguy” could also be said to be attempt to blur the lines between fascism and French republicanism. L’Histoire consigns Zemmour to a footnote of the Leschi and Kestel Introduction – on his more recent Destin Français (2018).

The Revolutionary Right.

In La Droite Révolutionnaire, (First Edition, 1978) Sternhell proposed that late 19th century and pre-Great War France was the cradle of fascist ideology. France was, in Sternhell’s eyes, an ideal field for studying pre-fascism, and, full blown, “neither left nor right” fascist thought. This developed earliest in the country with “exceptional intellectual quality. Ni droite ni gauche: l’idéologie fasciste en France (First Edition, 1983), surveyed anti-parliamentarian nationalism (the ‘ligues’), “planiste” sections of French social democracy (Marcel Déat), the Monarchist and anti-Semite Action française, the mass parties of the later 1930s, the Parti Social français (PSF), the Parti Populaire français (PPF) of the renegade Communist Jacques Doriot, and a mixed bag of admirers of National Socialism and Mussolini. This indicated that fascism was a synthesis of socialist ideas and nationalism. An earlier work had marked out in the literary and polemical figure of the nationalist Maurice Barrès and his appeal to La terre et les Morts, the homeland heritage and the living memory of the dead. (Maurice Barrès et le nationalisme français. 1972). In the years preceding the Second World War these movements drew together calls to “workers of all classes” against banking “hyper” capitalism, drew on the romance of the nation, and opposition to the liberalism of the Enlightenment and the elites of the Third Republic. (1)

Culturally acute, plunging straight through the confusion reigning in European politics of the 1930s, Sternhell had an immediate and lasting appeal. It did not take long for his thesis to come under attack. The writer of a landmark study of George Sorel (L’illusion du politique.1984) Shlomo Sand was one of the first off the mark. Ni droite ni gauche was the “most completely a-historical than one can possibly imagine. The author never puts things in their context. He gives fascism such a vague definition that you can stick onto it anything whatsoever.” Sand goes into some detail on the faults behind this conception. His summary could equally stand for other critics. In L’illusion du politique the Cercle Proudhon, a key ‘red-brown’ movement for Sternhell in which extreme-right monarchists met syndicalists inspired by Sorels’ revolutionary anti-parliamentarism, was put into its real, marginal, barely noticed, context. Sorel ended his days an enthusiast for the Bolshevik Revolution, not nationalism. (2)

The meat of the argument against Sternhell is that, as a field of observation, France, like Great Britain, was marked by victory in the Great War, and did not know the crisis of regime that afflicted Germany. This has implications for any study of movements born amongst those who fought in the conflict. The Croix de feu, which had nobody with experience of anything resembling the far-right civil war fighters of the German Freikorps nor, as many argue, did its vaunted “dispos” (men ready for action), who wore no uniform but the occasional Trilby hat, resemble anything like the Sturmabteilung (SA). France neither knew the kind of turmoil and use of violence against the left that proceeded Mussolini’s power grab. Threatening a coup, but never united enough with the other major forces of the far right like the Parti Populaire français (PPF) to carry one out, was not the same carrying one out.

The major difficulty is that a broad sweep of far-right ideas, focused on intellectuals in countries where they did not control the state, ignores what for many historians is the crucial aspect of fascism and Nazism. They were  doctrines of regimes with totalitarian power.

Settling Accounts.

Many readers of L’Histoire refoulée will have these thoughts in mind as they open its pages. Sternhell pursues the ideological well-springs of fascism, and the ideological confusion of the 1930s, which drew some parts of the left towards the extreme right. ”. At the end of the 19th century France saw two traditions battle it out, the tradition of the Enlightenment faced a “tradition organiciste, antirationaliste, historiciste, nationaliste, antisémite, la tradition de la terre et les morts très proche de la tradition völkish en Allemagne.” (Page 40 – 50) This, he asserts, was the “motor” of Vicky’s National Revolution. The intellectuals prepared people’s minds; it was up to mass movements and the Disaster of the War, to give them life. The PSF’s call for Travail, Famille, Partie, became the motto of Vichy.

Sternhell does not always stay on this abstract plane. He peppers his contributions with revelatory attacks on liberals and moderate left wingers, like the ‘organic intellectual’ of the Radical Party Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier), now known to have written anti-Jewish and pro-German comments in his war-time notebooks, Bertrand de Jouvenel (who launched a successful libel case against Sternhell in the 1980s for suggesting that he had been pro-Hitler), Maurice Duverger, the political scientist, dammed for his favourable writing for the Vichy government. His principal target is the already cited Michel Winock, a specialist in the same area, and author of the indispensable history of the journal Esprit (Esprit, des intellectuels dans la cité 1930 – 1950). 1996). Once a supporter of Sternhell’s early work he is damned not only for refusing to accept that groups like Les Croix de feu were full-blown fascist but also for his tenderness towards the Director of Esprit, Emmanuel Mounier. In a contemptible attack Sternhell lets it suggested that the left Christian personalist and anti-totalitarian was an admirer of Hitler for brief favourable comments on the invasion of the Soviet Union. (Page 83)

The serious nature of these claims is obscured by their anecdotal presentation, which recalls Bernard-Henri Lévy’s catch-all accusations of fascism in L’idéologie française (1981) rather than thorough historical research. This aspect of L’Histoire refoulée has led some to suggest that the book is intended to settle old scores (this review barely scratches the surface) rather than offer new insights into the history of French fascism. The final chapter, Réponse à Michel Winock, which drags up grievances going back decades, does not diminish this impression. (4)

Sternhell should not overshadow L’Histoire refoulée. Laurent Kestrel tackles the issue of the PSF “republican” claims, La Rocque’s prejudices and dislike of freemasons, the presence of anti-Semitism in the movement, and compares it to Doriot’s PPF. Kevin Passmore compares relations with the German regime, always difficult given deep-rooted French nationalist traditions of Germanophobia, and Italy. He notes that he disappointed those who encouraged him to attempt a coup d’État. (Page 211). Carline Campbell explores both the way La Rocque defended the higher civilisation of France and melded it with racial ideas. Perhaps her most interesting pages develop research into the social basis of the CDF/PSF, its policies, and the way it became an astonishing large movement. Chris Millington reminds us of the violence between left and right in 1930s French politics, culminating in the Limoge shootings of 1935.

The quality of these, and other contributions, brings us back to the initial questions. Is this part of French history willingly forgotten? Is this because to talk about La Roque, the most “republican” of the 1930s far right, would be to tarnish the idea that France was “immune” to fascism? This is not just a conceptual dispute about the nature of fascism and French history. Readers of Michel Winock will know that far from denying the long-standing existence of a powerful extreme right in the Hexagon he is one of the foremost historians and opponents of “la tradition contre-révolutionnaire” and its present day “avatars” “national-populisme”. If there is one thing about L’Histoire refoulée that rankles it is an implication that suggests otherwise. (5)

***

  1. Revisiting French fascism, La Rocque and the Croix de Feu. Michel Winock Vingtième Siècle. Revue dhistoire. 2006/2 (No 90)
  2. Page 405. La Droite Révolutionnaire. Zeev Sternhell. Edition de Seuil 1978.
  3. Written in 1983 and cited Page 144. La Fin de l‘intellectuel français? Shlomo Sand La Découverte. 2016.
  4. Une guerre de trente ans  Sonia Combe En attendant Nadeau. Notably on, in her view, the “l’équipe Serge Berstein-Jean-Noël Jeanneney-Michel Winock qui continuait à alimenter le mythe français déconstruit par Sternhell. “
  5. Page 297. Conclusion.Histoire de l’extrême droite en France. Sous La Direction de Michel Winock. Editions du Seuil. 2015 (New Edition) 

Written by Andrew Coates

November 18, 2019 at 1:51 pm