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  • Mobilizing Youth: Communists and Catholics in Interwar France
  • Daniel Lee
Mobilizing Youth: Communists and Catholics in Interwar France. By Susan B. Whitney. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009. xii + 318 pp., ill. Hb £74.00. Pb £17.99.

Although the two subjects of this study, Communist and Catholic youth in interwar France, might initially seem worlds apart, this book goes far beyond confined comparisons of these influential categories. Susan Whitney's intention is to chronicle how the strategies of Communist and Catholic youth organizations sought to mobilize working-class youth in an uncertain context of post-First World War society, the Depression, and the fascist threat. Far from blandly outlining the two ideologies and the respective ways in which they sought to mobilize youth, Whitney examines these movements in relation to each other. Given the recent interest in the history of French youth, this ambitious study appears at an important moment, shedding considerable light on the nature of the relationship between ideologically embedded organizations and their youth wings. Influence on working-class youth became an important battleground for the Communist Party and Catholic Action groups, and the message used to entice them constantly shifted according to the tactics used by the opposition. One of the book's best features is the emphasis on the 1920s, with Whitney resisting the temptation to rush towards a case study of the Popular Front and the strikes. Instead, she shows how the movements' dynamics — in particular the relationship with adults — was constantly changing throughout this decade. We are introduced to the leader of the Jeunesse Communiste and former metal-worker Jacques Doriot, whose speeches and articles reveal why the Young Communists considered workers under eighteen to be the most exploited of all groups. Whitney's aim is not to centre the narrative on Doriot, and she rightly gives no indication of his later political transformation. Whitney has evidently spent a sustained period of time researching in France, and strikes a well-executed balance between diligent archival research, memoir, and oral history (from interviews in 1990), which are all lucidly woven into her compelling account. Curiously, she seems unwilling to consider how other ideologies or religious denominations sought to mobilize working-class youth. Recognition of Protestant and Jewish attempts at mobilization would have provided immeasurable context for this otherwise wide-ranging study. A minor criticism is the lack of a bibliography of the secondary literature of which Whitney has made impressive use. The text would have benefited from more meticulous editing, given the repetition of the same anecdotes on more than one occasion. But these quibbles should not detract from what is first-class historical writing. This is a substantial and suggestive contribution to a critical period in French history about which much has already been written. Whitney's emphasis on gender relations within the movements draws attention to hitherto unacknowledged debates from the interwar years. She demonstrates the importance of femininity that the Communists placed on young female workers, encouraging them to apply make-up and forbidding them from selling newspapers on the streets. Similarly, she investigates the participation of young Catholic women during the strikes. In identifying gender relations within the movements as an important gap in the current scholarship, Whitney threatens to transform the expanding literature on youth in twentieth-century France. [End Page 503]

Daniel Lee
St Hugh's College, Oxford


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