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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 13 Les Jeunes Gardes Révolutionnaires (J.G.R.) and Le Service de Sûreté Révolutionnaire (S.S.R.)


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It is hard to dismiss Hervé’s own assessment that the railway strike of 1910 was a critical turning point in his retournement and gradual backing away from Insurrectionalism. In 1935 he told Breton journalist Charles Chassé that his political disenchantment could be associated with the “painful feeling” churning in him upon hearing the trains running again while he was in his cell at La Santé in mid-October 1910. In fact, there were other indications that Hervé was increasingly troubled even before the railway strike. Socialist rejection of his ideas was ongoing, and increasingly he experienced the limits of his influence even within the centers of his support. Increasing jealousy and hostility by anarchists and syndicalists also seemed to demonstrate that the Hervéist goal of revolutionary unity was unfeasible. Despite some occasional evidence to the contrary, the German Social Democrats showed no signs of being ready, much less eager, to oppose a mobilization order with a military strike and insurrection. There was little evidence for the existence of an international Hervéism. If all this were true, what could explain the plethora of insurrection formations and activities from 1910 to 1912 which made that era the very peak of Hervéist insurrectional display?

The weak response to Hervé’s ideas of militarisme révolutionnaire in early 1911 did not initially cause Hervé to curtail his expressions of hope in the possibility of revolution. If he had lost faith in the revolutionary leadership of established...

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