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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 6 Journalists and Prisoners: Hervé and the Staff at La Guerre Sociale


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To account for the success of La Guerre Sociale, many observers noted that it was better written than most other feuilles de militants or journaux de combat. Even the French police thought that La Guerre Sociale became a rapid success. Five years after its beginnings police authorities concluded that “the fashion in which its articles were drafted, the resounding trials before the Assizes, and finally just the name Hervé [had brought] numerous readers to the newspaper.”1 One explanation for the paper’s success was its staff, who were generally professional journalists as well as revolutionary activists. Skilled journalists could appeal more easily to popular interests, especially since they also tried to avoid sterile doctrinal disputes. Initially, this may have helped attract diverse revolutionary elements, even if it was unsuccessful in the long run.2

Hervé’s contemporaries did not fail to note the talent and verve found on the pages of La Guerre Sociale. For Jean Grave, “the tone that it used and especially the orders that it distributed made many activists consider it ‘the paper of their dreams.’”3 Even his enemies found things to admire about Hervé’s journalism. A harsh critic like Péguy recognized that he was a great journalist.4 L.-O. Frossard profoundly disagreed with him through all his changes, but he acknowledged Hervé’s ability to create a ruckus in La Guerre Sociale after the turn of the century.

“This weekly, a bit like cheap wine, which respects nothing...

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