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From Revolutionary Theater to Reactionary Litanies

Gustave Hervé (1871–1944) at the Extremes of the French Third Republic


Michael B. Loughlin

Gustave Hervé (1871–1944) seemed to have traditional Breton roots and a typical republican education. As a young socialist journalist and professor, he gained notoriety following a 1901 article which appeared to plant the tricolor in a dung pile. When French socialists unified in 1905, the Hervéistes were an influential minority. The antimilitarist movement called Hervéism gradually emerged as a quixotic crusade to unite revolutionaries against war and for socialism. Hervé soon founded a weekly newspaper, La Guerre Sociale. Over the next six years, press campaigns, trials, prison, demonstrations, strikes, and conspiratorial organizations maintained Hervé’s profile and sold newspapers. Ironically, Hervé advertised conspiracies, which suggests revolutionary theater more than practical politics. Among Hervé’s rivals, such theatrics often generated resentment. While Hervé’s movement succeeded as a media experience, his leftist competitors became jealous and skeptical. As revolutionary theater Hervéism might have been entertaining, but the actors and some of the audience often confused revolutionary art with political reality. By 1911 the ingenuous Hervé felt betrayed. His failure to unite revolutionaries began an evolution toward the nation and its traditional Catholic faith. Besides the international situation, one crucial determinant in Hervé’s evolution toward French national socialism sympathetic to fascism involved ongoing rivalries within the French Left. Hervé’s marginal interwar national socialist parties sought to employ patriotism and religion to solve French problems. By 1935 he attempted to draft Pétain to lead an authoritarian republic. Gradually losing hope in Pétain after the fall of France, the aging Hervé put his faith in Christian socialism.
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Chapter 1 “Un Breton de Bretagne Bretonnante”


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The Breton writer Ernest Renan, a former religious student and author of the iconoclastic Vie de Jésus, defined the limits and limitlessness of Breton consciousness in his memoirs in this way. “My race, my family, my native town, the particular milieu where I grew up, closing me off from all bourgeois goals and rendering me absolutely useless for all that did not involve a pure commitment to things of the spirit, made of me an idealist, closed to all the rest.”2 Renan’s insight about the Breton character with its mixture of Celtic and French Catholic cultures became an underlying theme and the point of departure in Michael Roger Scher’s unpublished 1972 account of young Gustave Hervé.3 If Renan’s idealism led his scholastically trained mind, logically but with great difficulty, to doubt the truths of an all embracing Christianity,4 Hervé seemed to slide, as he matured, from the all embracing faith of his childhood to religious agnosticism, if not complete atheism, and a rather eclectic socialism before his infamous rectification after 1910, his gradual shift toward a French national socialism by 1916, and an even more gradual reconversion to Catholicism in the mid-1930s. Certainly, Hervé’s transformations were not without tensions, ambiguity, and apparent contradictions.

Hervé’s career and his Breton roots were described and connected in the Dictionnaire Biographique du Mouvement Ouvrier Français by characterizing him as un Breton de Bretagne bretonnante.5 “If obstinacy and stubbornness are truly ← 27 | 28...

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