Not so crazy years

1922-1929 The Roaring Twenties?

by Jean-Yves Le Naour

Perrin, 416 pages, €25

How can the wounds of the First World War be cauterized if not by an exuberance nourished by frantic rhythms? The victory of life over death was supposed to remove the memory of mass graves. These joyous spasms shook the United States (Roaring Twenties), Great Britain (happy twenties), Germany (Goldene Zwanziger), a country whose territories were spared by a war that was fought mainly on French soil. A joyful veneer and a form of dizziness – rather urban and socially marked – which masked so much bereavement, misery, drama, wounds, trauma, fields of ruins in post-war mythology…

All that joyous excitement, of course, existed. But it does not sum up the period. Jean-Yves Le Naour hits hard with this error of perspective which covers the period from the Great War to the Great Depression. Between a layer of illusions and the weight of reality, the tension is palpable in France. Psychological tension, first: “The French would like to forget, but they suffer from remembering too much”. Then diplomatic: “They would like to turn the page but they have a hostile Germania as a neighbor which does not digest its defeat”who knows how to rely on “the indifference of the American penniless” and on the“systematic opposition from England”.

Economic, that’s for sure: Indebted France spends its time ” give a hand “. And political tension, finally: in an attempt to manage the financial and monetary issues that beset it, France “points the finger in the way of irresponsible technocratism”.

This other reading of the Roaring Twenties proposed by the historian Jean-Yves Le Naour, richly documented, is fascinating. The story unfolds between the key moments of the period and its central subjects in the eyes of France, which are German security and reparations. It is completed by portraits in action of the great actors of this story: Poincaré, Briand, Stresemann, Herriot…

If France bears its share of ambiguity between its “displayed intransigence and practiced accommodation”it first suffered that of its allies, British and American, of their business circles or that, permanent, of the vanquished: Germany and its “Bad will if not bad faith”. Ambiguity will dominate the decade and its great hopes, until 1929, the year when the world seems to have finally regained stability, with Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann at the head of each diplomacy. They don’t look alike. Neither psychologically nor physically. What brings them together, under a varnish of pacifism or of the European idea, is the dressing of their fundamental project.

Briand the idealist wants to tie the hands of Germany, and Stresemann the reapolitiker wants the sovereignty of his country. Peace is, in his eyes, a means of reaching this goal, whereas for Briand, it is a goal to be reached at the cost of certain abandonments, notes the diplomat Jacques Seydoux as early as 1927. In the end, it is a question of “file the teeth of the first cousin” in the name of French security. The disciples of Cardinal de Retz, numerous in politics, think that one can only get out of ambiguity at his expense. A rereading of the diplomacy of the Roaring Twenties can lead to other conclusions a few years later in the face of new dangers.


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