A week on from the Paris Attacks

In the week since the attacks in Paris there have been several articles published by historians that both set the violence in context and analyse the response to it.

I recommend reading:

Dr Caroline Campbell (University of North Dakota), ‘A postcard from Paris’, http://ndquarterly.org/2015/11/19/a-postcard-from-paris-rejecting-the-idea-of-civilizational-crisis-after-the-attacks-of-november-13/

Prof Mark Humphries (Swansea University), ‘The Paris attacks and the abuse of history’, http://gorffennol.swansea.ac.uk/?p=454

Dr Gavin Murray-Miller (Cardiff University), ‘The Paris attacks and France’s Republican tradition’, http://www.historytoday.com/gavin-murray-miller/paris-attacks-and-france%E2%80%99s-republican-tradition

The Paris Terror Attacks

Following the terrible attacks in Paris on 13 November I’ve had a short piece published in The Conversation about the historical context of terror in France.  You can access it here: https://theconversation.com/paris-attacks-france-has-long-been-a-target-of-extreme-terror-factions-50705

I also wrote a couple of pieces in January about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, one for History Today (reprinted below, http://www.historytoday.com/chris-millington/terrorism-france), and another for the French History Network: http://frenchhistorysociety.co.uk/blog/?p=296

Terrorism in France

On 7 January 2015, armed gunmen killed twelve people in an attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in the centre of Paris. French President Francois Hollande immediately condemned the violence as ‘cowardly murder’ and an act of terrorism.

Terrorist violence has a long history in France. The term ‘terrorism’ itself was coined in the wake of the 1789 revolution as a term to describe the government’s bloody campaign against counter-revolutionaries. Only during the late 19th century did the label acquire its modern, more negative connotation. At this time anarchists around the world, inspired by their counterparts in Russia, targeted heads of state, whether presidents or monarchs, during the so-called ‘Decade of Regicide’ between 1892 and 1901. US President William McKinley, assassinated in September 1901, was the most high-profile victim of this spasm of violence.  Civilians were not spared the anarchists’ attacks.  Thus in February 1894, Frenchman Emile Henry tossed a bomb into a plush Parisian restaurant and fled.

As anarchism receded after the First World War a new ideology, fascism, inspired home-grown terrorists in France. In November 1937, the Comité Secret d’Action Révolutionnaire, otherwise known as the Cagoule, was exposed by the French police authorities. The Cagoule had emerged from the extreme right-wing street politics of the decade that had afflicted France as elsewhere in Europe. The Cagoule did not commit indiscriminate attacks against civilians; it assassinated several prominent Italian antifascists who were resident in France in return for arms from Mussolini. Yet its master plan was to overthrow the democratic Third Republic and install a fascist regime in its place.  To achieve this goal, Cagoule activists committed several anonymous bombings, notably in Paris, hoping to spread the fear that the communist party had in fact perpetrated the attacks and that social revolution was imminent. Yet the group failed to convince its friends in the army to take pre-emptive action against the left and the authorities uncovered the plot.        

Since the Liberation in 1944 terrorist violence has continued to plague France. Civil conflict in Algeria during the 1950s spawned the Algerian Front de la libération nationale (FLN). This nationalist movement reacted to repression in the territory with the shooting of French police and government officials and the bombing of civilians.  Pro-imperial European settlers founded the Organisation de l’armée secrète and committed their own atrocities in Algeria before moving their campaign to mainland France following French withdrawal from the colony.   

During the 1970s and 1980s, left-wing radicalism saw groups such as Action Directe commit violent attacks.  Action Directe emerged from the European milieu of anticapitalist terrorism that gave rise to groups in such as the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany and the Brigate Rosse in Italy.  

The spectre of politico-religious terrorism emerge during the 1990s. As Algeria descended into civil war in the early 1990s, the most radical Islamist group, the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) committed attacks on French territory both to provide new momentum for its political campaign and to punish France for its imperial past in the territory. Its actions in the mid-1990s included the hijacking of a plane bound for France on Christmas Day 1994 and the bombing of metro stations in Paris, notably the Saint-Michel station where eight people were killed. France’s confrontation with Islamic-inspired terrorism has continued since the attacks on New York in September 2001 and the country has not escaped the actions of Islamic State: hiker Hervé Gourdel was abducted and murdered in Algeria in September 2014 by a group sympathetic to IS. 

France’s experience with terrorism is indicative of the problems encountered by historians. Given the variety of ideologies, beliefs, and tactics employed by violent groups since the 1890s, it is more accurate to speak of terrorisms than terrorism. For, if scholars usually agree on the fact that terrorism seeks publicity for its crimes, they can agree on little else in defining the phenomenon.  A major obstacle to a generic definition of terrorism is that the term is inherently subjective. Consequently, for FLN activists in Algeria during the 1950s, it was the French committed acts of terror against indigenous peoples who simply wanted to liberate their country from foreign rule. ‘Terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ are thus political tools by which states and non-state groups could discredit their opponent. Nevertheless, while terrorism, as is evident from the French experience, is constantly evolving, looking to its past may offer lessons in how terrorist groups emerge, operate, evolve, and eventually recede.   

The Archives de Paris

During the summer I made several trips to the Archives de Paris.  It was the first time that I had visited these archives since 2006 when I first began researching in France.

The Archives de Paris

The Archives de Paris

The archives are located at 18 Bd Sérurier.  They are open between 9.30am and 5pm, Tuesday-Saturday – note that they are closed on Monday.  The building is in the north east of the city in the Lilas area.  When you come out of the metro (Porte des Lilas, line 11), cross over the road and the tramlines and start to walk down the hill.  The archives are on the right, and are clearly signposted (though I managed to walk right past them twice…).

As I walked through the outer gate to the main building I couldn’t help but think of The Walking Dead, given the overgrown path and the seemingly abandoned hut on the right, covered in climbing plants.  I did however notice that there are picnic benches outside – for lunch in the sun – and a family of sheep living in a fenced-off area on the left (part of the Parisian council’s attempts at ‘eco-pâturage’ – or maintaining lawns and grassland with ‘natural’ lawnmowers).

The moutons of the Archives de Paris

The moutons of the Archives de Paris

When you arrive, go to the reception desk; this is where you register for a card.  You’ll need ID with you to do so – my driving licence was suitable.  Once you have your card, the locker room is to the left of the reception desk.  The usual rules apply for what you can and cannot take into the archive (no pens but laptops and cameras are allowed).  The lockers are secured using a combination lock, so there’s no scrabbling about for a 1 Euro piece.  Each time you revisit the archives you much ‘check in’ at the reception desk.

The reading room is upstairs.  Within the reading room, there is an information desk from which you take a seat number.  The inventories are located on the shelves near the window.  When I first arrived at the archives I spoke to staff at the information desk about my research.  The staff were very helpful as I explained that it was my first visit to the Archives de Paris, and that I didn’t know what to do (thinking back, I could have phrased this better; I think it sounded like I didn’t have the first clue about archival research).  One of the staff showed me to the inventories and demonstrated how to order a document at the computers near the information desk.  Once your documents have arrived, they can be retrieved from the guichet much as one would do so at the Archives Nationales.

The reading room at the Archives de Paris

The reading room at the Archives de Paris

The staff at the desk really did go beyond the call of duty when it came to ordering my documents.  It seems that some documents (I’m not sure which ones, so you should ask when you arrive) are stored off-site; they are only retrieved twice a week.  This can present problems if you are a researcher in Paris for a short amount of time.  However, I was told that the staff are used to dealing with foreign researchers on fleeting trips to Paris, and so I was able to make a special request for the documents to be delivered the next day.

As far as I could tell, you have permission to photograph documents (though admittedly I wasn’t consulting any that required special permission – the dreaded dérogation).  In fact, when I asked a member of staff if photography was allowed, he didn’t seem to understand why I was even asking!

Overall, my experience at the Archives de Paris was a good one, save for my usual complaint – no cafe! There is a hot drinks machine in the foyer, with three tables at which you can stand and drink them.  But there is nowhere to buy food (except the bakery on the square opposite the metro) and other than the seating outside, there is nowhere to sit and eat.  But when the sun is out, you could be in worse places than eating with the sheep outside the Archives de Paris.

6 February 1934 as a Wordle

I’ve recently discovered the ‘Wordle’ toy (described this way at wordle.net).  Wordle takes bodies of text and generates ‘word clouds’ from them.  The larger the word in the cloud, the more frequently it appears in the source text.  I’ve been playing around with it while wondering how it could be used for teaching.

The Wordle in this blog post concerns the crisis of 6 February 1934 (which I’ve written about on this site before).  In my course ‘France in Crisis, 1934-44’, which I teach at Swansea University, UK, students look at the appeals made by the various groups involved in the riot in the days preceding 6 February.  There is much historical debate about the intentions of these groups – did they want to topple democratic regime or just the government? – and in class we try to work out what they wanted from these appeals.

I’ve recently co-authored a book on this riot, with Brian Jenkins, and in the appendix to this book Brian translated 13 appeals into English (the first time this has been done to my mind).  I fed these translations into Wordle – here’s the result (click on the picture for a larger version).

Derived from the calls to demonstrate of the groups involved on 6 February 1934.

Derived from the calls to demonstrate of the groups involved on 6 February 1934.

I plan to use the Wordle in my class in the autumn, asking students to comment on the size of the words and what we might glean from these regarding the intentions of the groups (at least those intentions that they made public in writing).  What strikes me at first glance is the size of the word ‘Government’…. can you spot ‘Republic’?

Podcast now available: Political Violence in Interwar France

On 9 March 2015 I presented a paper at the Institute of Historical Research in London.  The paper is now available as a podcast at this link: http://www.history.ac.uk/podcasts/modern-french-history/political-violence-interwar-france

I’d like to thank the organisers of the Modern French History seminar for inviting me, and making the paper available online.  The PowerPoint presentation may be accessed here: Political Violence in Interwar France.

Here is a summary of the talk, which appears on the website of the French History Network:

‘In comparison to Germany and Italy, France’s interwar years were much less violent, much more peaceful. Indeed, when looking at the number of murders in the 1920s and 1930s in all three countries, France lags far, far behind. According to Serge Berstein, France in the 1930s was democratic: social, economic and political problems were not solved on the street, but in the ballot box.

But does this mean that France was spared from the wave of political violence which was otherwise sweeping through Europe? Chris Millington’s latest research tells a different story of interwar France. He does not wish to exaggerate claims of interwar violence in France – he does, however, want to investigate the various forms of violence which existed at the time, and to situate them within a history of politics. Millington examines violence in interwar France in a number of different settings: on the street; during strikes; police violence; in meeting halls. His paper at the IHR focussed on this last theme: the meeting hall. Indeed, in the 1920s and 1930s, meeting halls were central to public and private political debates, giving opposing political groups the opportunity to gather and discuss pressing concerns and policies. The political meeting – this symbol of democracy – was not void of violence, however. A fantastic collection of photographs of small weapons (blade, knife, stick, knuckle-duster) shows how attendees came armed to these meetings. This was not necessarily to attack opposing groups – indeed, Millington talks a lot about how the theory of ‘defensive’ violence was prominent in political circles – but it does show how physical, violent tensions were bubbling below the democratic surface. Through a series of other examples and references, Millington showed a picture of political violence in interwar France: it was not systematic, organised violence like in other European nations at the time, but it did exist, unpredictable and spontaneous, erupting in various throughout France, not necessarily leading to death but often with the possibility of injury.

Many other fascinating themes and questions were raised: how does this story tie into discussion of masculinity and masculine ideals in interwar France? How does it ties to political violence both before 1918 and after 1938? The works of Eve Rosenhaft and Robert Nye were mentioned more than once. All in all, Millington’s intricate research points to the cracks in the theory of French democratic traditions in the Third Republic, and opens up new discussions about masculinity, violence and politics in the interwar period.’

France and Fascism (?)


Berstein and Winock 2014 book

A few weeks ago, the latest book on French fascism landed on my doormat.  Entitled Fascisme français? La controverse, the book is a collection of essays edited by French historians Serge Berstein and Michel Winock.  It is not the first book to bear this title.  Robert Soucy’s Fascisme français? (the French version of his French Fascism: The Second Wave) appeared in 2004.  Why should two books on French fascism be posing the subject as a question?  Because since the 1980s, historians have disputed the strength and import of French fascist groups during the interwar years.  One school of thought (to which Berstein and Winock belong) holds that fascism was a minority pursuit in interwar France, and it denies that the largest extreme right-wing group at the time, the Croix de Feu (which later became the Parti Social Français) was authentically fascist.  Soucy, on the other hand, was one of the first historians to argue the opposite case – that the Croix de Feu and its successor were large fascist movements.  At stake in the debate is the (apparent) inherent commitment to democracy of the French, and their ‘allergy’ (a term used by Berstein) to fascism.


Soucy’s 2004 book

From my point of view, the most welcome aspect of Berstein and Winock’s new book is that it engages to some extent with the English-language literature on the topic.  Jean-Paul Thomas’s chapter on the Croix de Feu/PSF refers to (‘engages with’ would be too strong a term for this short chapter) the recent publications by Samuel Kalman and Sean Kennedy, among others.  Even the acknowledgement that this literature exists is a good sign, even if Thomas is dismissive of it.  For too long it has seemed that English-language scholarship has been ignored by some historians of French fascism.  Indeed, Soucy should feel himself honoured that his work has even been published in translation.  Other historians of French fascism have not been translated – one wonders if they are ever likely to be… 

Anyway, I haven’t yet had chance to read the whole book, and so I’ll reserve my judgement until then.  But the appearance of a new book on fascism gives me the chance to plug a forthcoming publication of my own, co-authored with Brian Jenkins, who has published in this area previously.  Below is the blurb from the Routledge website: 

‘France and Fascism: February 1934 and the Dynamics of Political Crisis is the first English-language book to examine the most significant political event in interwar France: the Paris riots of February 1934. On 6 February 1934, thousands of fascist rioters almost succeeded in bringing down the French democratic regime. The violence prompted the polarisation of French politics as hundreds of thousands of French citizens joined extreme right-wing paramilitary leagues or the left-wing Popular Front coalition. This ‘French civil war’, the first shots of which were fired in February 1934, would come to an end only at the Liberation of France ten years later.9781138860339

The book challenges the assumption that the riots did not pose a serious threat to French democracy by providing a more balanced historical contextualisation of the events. Each chapter follows a distinctive analytical framework, incorporating the latest research in the field on French interwar politics as well as important new investigations into political violence and the dynamics of political crisis.

With a direct focus on the actual processes of the unfolding political crisis and the dynamics of the riots themselves, France and Fascism offers a comprehensive analysis which will be of interest to undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as scholars, in the areas of French history and politics, and fascism and the far right.’

The Charlie Hebdo Attack and Its Aftermath

This text was originally posted on the French History Network.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, leaders around the world condemned the actions of the terrorists. The outrage committed against the cartoonists and journalists of the satirical magazine was framed as a strike at the heart of French democracy and the right to freedom of speech. The response was constructed as a defence of the Republic and its values; millions took part in the #marchrepublicaine rallies of 11 January, a show of unity that brought to mind the antifascist demonstrations of 12 February 1934 and the agreement of the Popular Front on 14 July 1935; members of the National Assembly sang the Marseillaise; the government released a statement in which it paid tribute to the ‘…passion of the millions of citizens who rose up in unity and dignity to reject barbarism, shun fear and affirm the unfailing strength of our national motto [Liberty, Equality and Fraternity]’. France was not alone in condemning the terrorists’ assault on democracy. German Chancellor Angela Merkl spoke of an attack on ‘a core element of democratic culture’, while PM David Cameron reassured the French that the British stood ‘squarely for free speech and democracy’. This language stretched far beyond the borders of Western Europe, and statesmen from countries as diverse as Cambodia and New Zealand spoke out for the preservation of democracy and its inherent liberties. The democratic values of the French Republic thus seemed to be the values of (French/ European/ Western/ Human) civilization itself.

French march against terrorism

French march against terrorism

Terrorism has always been a crime that has struck at the heart of civilization. When anarchists assassinated US President William McKinlay in September 1901, his successor Theodore Roosevelt condemned anarchist terrorism as, ‘…a crime against the whole human race’, arguing that, ‘…all mankind should band against the anarchist. His crime should be made an offense against the law of nations, like piracy and that form of man-stealing known as the slave trade; for it is of far blacker infamy than either.’[3] In November 1937, at a League of Nations conference to examine the issue of terrorism, the Belgian representative described terrorism as, ‘…acts which, by their gravity and contagious nature, are prejudicial not only to the interests of individuals as such or of one or more specific States, but may affect mankind as a whole’. More recently, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Tony Blair claimed that the tactic of the terrorist was to ‘divide humanity in hate’, requiring all its opponents to unite around the idea of ‘liberty.’ The New York atrocities were acts of, ‘barbarism [that would] stand as their shame for all eternity’.

4428665_000-par8068097-new_545x460_autocrop The point is that the threat from terrorism has long been framed as an existential one. The history of terrorism shows that past societies have always conceived of their terrorism as the worst terrorism. Of course, today’s terrorists seem to have much greater means of destruction at their disposal than their forebears; late nineteenth-century anarchists could not have killed in numbers on a par with 9/11. Yet terrorists have always taken advantage of new technologies in their societies and the bomb-throwing anarchist of the 1890s seemed no less terrifying to contemporaries than today’s suicide bomber. Furthermore, despite the idea that terrorists are bound one day to employ Weapons of Mass Destruction (a belief nurtured by TV series such as 24), the Charlie Hebdo attacks remind us that terrorists still use firearms to commit their crimes.705567-une-personne-brandit-un-stylo-en-hommage-aux-victimes-de-l-attaque-de-charlie-hebdo-lors-d-un-rassem

Some may object that, despite the comparisons drawn with past instances of terror, the radical Islamic terrorist is more callous and more fanatical than previous militants. After all, anarchists could allow themselves to be arrested rather than die in a pathetic blaze of glory fighting with police. Yet the anarchist desired arrest, all the better to put the State on trial during his or her prosecution. In any case, research by Martha Crenshaw and Donatella della Porta has shown that underground terrorist organizations, whatever their political or religious bias, conceive of themselves as an ‘elite’ with a ‘higher consciousness’ in which activists are ‘heroes’ of their cause. Today’s religious zealot is no more or less committed than yesterday’s anarchist, fascist, communist, anti-colonialist….etc.

The history of terrorism demonstrates that the challenges posed by terrorism are not unique to our society. Historians should be able to make this case without being accused of relativizing the modern terrorist threat. Whatever our personal politics or point of view, it is our job to investigate why and how people acted in the past without making a moral judgement. Knowledge of the history of terrorism offers the chance to learn about how past societies dealt with the threat, and perhaps apply those lessons to today.

The Great War and Cardiff: A French Connection

Opened in 1859, Cathays Cemetery in Cardiff is the third largest municipal cemetery in Britain.  I used to live opposite the cemetery – not as creepy as you might think – and now and then I have the opportunity to walk through it.  Last year I noticed a memorial in the graveyard (my eye was attracted by the tricolour).

Commemorative stone, Cathays Cemetery, Cardiff

Commemorative stone, Cathays Cemetery, Cardiff

The simple plaque remembers the French sailors who died for their country during the Great War.  This was not the first connection to the history of France that I had stumbled upon in Cardiff; a plaque on Park Place in the town centre commemorates the contribution of the local Franco-British society to the war effort during 1939-1945.  Still, it seemed odd that a stone should be laid in Cardiff to French sailors of the Great War.

Last month, I discovered the reason behind the placing of the plaque: there are about 20 graves of French sailors in Cathays Cemetery.  According to John Farnhill of the Friends of Cathays Cemetery (http://www.friendsofcathayscemetery.co.uk), each grave lists the name of the sailor and his ship, as well as the date of death.  The graves are maintained on behalf of France by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  The information that John has found shows that one sailor (Julien Marie Le Mituard) died in 1919 in Cardiff docks when his boat capsized, while several others died of ‘flu.  It’s likely that illness and injury accounted for the deaths of the other sailors too.

I have posted here photos of several graves that I have found in the cemetery. We’re more used to seeing such white crosses in the huge cemeteries of northern France; the graves in Cardiff are evidence of an unexpected international dimension to the war.  I wonder if the families ever visited the graveside of these men.

Jean Leaustic - 'St Thomas' - 3 May 1916

Jean Leaustic – ‘St Thomas’ – 3 May 1916

Pierre Gouzer - 'Constance' - 15 November 1914

Pierre Gouzer – ‘Constance’ – 15 November 1914

Celestin Buttez - 'Ville de Dunkerque' - 23 March 1915

Celestin Buttez – ‘Ville de Dunkerque’ – 23 March 1915