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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 19 De-population and De-Christianization


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Although Hervé’s transformation is often considered to have been rather striking, it was, in fact, far more gradual than is generally assumed. In 1936, he admitted that his shifts on the issues of population and religion were far from sudden. After losing his faith at age ten, he became a self-confessed atheist (or free-thinker) for the next thirty years. Throughout most of the era before World War I, he accepted the Republic, the mystique of socialism, and its anticlericalism, yet he later claimed that he continued to admire Christ, the apostles, and various saints. That situation lasted until January 1914 when a magistrate among his friends gave him several books on French depopulation which tied demographic decline to poor social legislation. Such an explanation seemed fairly weak to Hervé: there had to be more to it than that. From May 1914 he began a series of articles in La Guerre Sociale on the topic, reserving his pro-Christian views until the end for fear of offending his socialist readers. The war intervened to delay his conclusion which would have stressed religious and anticlerical factors involved in depopulation.1 It was surely the war that provided the greatest impetus for Hervé’s growing stress on religion which played an increasingly instrumental role for the former Sans Patrie as a support for the Union Sacrée, a consolation for those facing death, and eventually a link to his own roots. Hervé’s failure to unite the Left against war, his...

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