- Fighting for France: Violence in Interwar French Politics by Chris Millington
In this stimulating book, Chris Millington undertakes a welcome re-examination of the nature of political violence in the 1930s, the most troubled decade of the French Third Republic. He points out that while around a hundred people were killed in violent incidents in France involving political groups during the whole interwar period, in Germany [End Page 488] 105 victims died during the months of June and July 1932 alone. Levels of violence in France seem, therefore, to have been relatively low. This, argues Millington, would appear to bear out interpretations offered by French historians, such as Serge Berstein, that one of the reasons why France managed to avert a full-blown turn to fascism was that pacific, Republican, political culture was deeply enough ingrained to render France ‘allergic’ to such a turn. Of course, there were outbreaks of violence (for example, the 6 February 1934 riots and their aftermath, and shootings by police in Clichy in 1937), and there was plenty of violent political discourse, but the latter amounted, for the Berstein school, to ‘simulated confrontation’ (p. xvi). However, the fact that deaths were not so numerous in France does not mean that the conduct of French interwar politics was less malign than elsewhere. This is where the interest and originality of Millington’s study reside. Noting that there have been no extensive empirical researches into political violence to support Berstein’s and others’ interpretations, Millington turns to the voluminous French archival record to compose a more nuanced picture. All kinds of evidence, including police investigations and press reports, show that violence was indeed routinely resorted to, before, during, and after myriad political meetings, or demonstrations, up and down the country, throughout the whole interwar period. Thus, as Millington puts it, ‘it is the very regularity of minor violent confrontation that ensures its penetration into broader political culture’ (p. xvii). By examining a wide range of violent incidents and reviewing them in their immediate context, and by taking account of ‘the manner in which antagonists and observers perceived, experienced and reacted to [their] outbreak’ (p. xxi), a clearer, more detailed, and non-teleological understanding of political violence emerges. The focus is sharpened in relation to sites of violence, be it the street, the meeting hall, the factory. And beyond that, the importance and meanings of symbolic violence are emphasized, mobilizing notions of masculinity: ‘antagonists and witnesses experienced and interpreted threat, intimidation and symbolic confrontation as no less a form of violence than actual bodily harm’ (p. xxi). Indissociable from all this is a survey provided of the multifarious groups present, from the long-established Camelots du roi of the Action française, to newer organizations, such as Colonel de La Rocque’s Croix de Feu, the veterans’ organization; nor does Millington neglect the nature and motivations of the ‘Brutes and Bludgeoners’ (Chapter 4), and the various police formations. This book is essential for gaining a newly refreshed understanding of interwar French political violence, in all its nuances and meanings.