The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Book Review: Mitterrand's last breath of vanity

Politics and literature were the passions of Mitterrand’s life. Though he had written many books, and as a world leader had much to write about, the 200 days he had left to live upon leaving office in 1995 were not enough to produce anything like Churchill, de Gaulle or even Bush I or Giscard d’Estaing. What we have is a little book, Of Germany, of France, which attempts to frame what is perhaps his most important legacy: Franco-German reconciliation and European integration.

At the heart of the book is his policy towards German reunification. Here he omits much and lies a little. His own reticence becomes sideshow to Gisard and Thatcher’s outright opposition to unification. He glosses over the rather serious crisis between Bonn and Paris in late 1989, essentially on the differing paces of German and European unifications, which led him to have a meeting with the German foreign minister in which he luridly described the resurrection of the “Europe of 1913”. He says that meeting Thatcher on the 20th of January, she drew a “portrait” of a German-dominated Europe. The record shows that that is precisely what he did.

"I should like to stress that the root of evil in Germany is Prussia."

So lies flow from Mitterrand’s mouth like the Rhine through Charlemagne’s legacy. The book remains useful and pleasant. He is lyrical. It is an ode to Mikhail Gorbachev. Was he a failure? “Yes, if we think in terms of power, no, if we think in terms of History. Because everything began in Moscow.” More so, the book is an ode to Prussia. Yes, the militaristic northern Kingdom that united that German nation and was destroyed by the allies after WW2. He laments the destiny of Prussia as a victim of Hitler’s war, he disagrees with Churchill’s judgment that “I should like to stress that the root of evil in Germany is Prussia.” Mitterrand says “He was mistaken, while knowing it. It would have been better to recognize that the destruction of Prussia struck the German nation on its head and by dividing Germany of the sort her neighbors achieved a long sought after goal.”

"The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step."

Instead, he waxes lyrical about Prussia as an early constitutional state and Frederick the Great as an enlightened despot. He quotes a Prussian officer who was involved in the 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler, the day it failed and he was killed for it: “None of us can complain about our lot… the value of a man is measured by his capacity to sacrifice his life for his ideals. Never forget that you have been raised on Prussian soil… This carries a great obligation: to serve the truth, to accomplish one’s duty to the end. Never will we be able to separate the notion of liberty but from true prussianism…” Mitterrand’s requiem: “That was the soul of Prussia before Stalin suffocated it.” A mixture of fear of Germany and love of Prussia. It is all true but terribly anachronistic. Prussia had long since died, annihilated by Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianisms into a economically dysfunctional and socially traumatized caricature of the police state. Yet Mitterrand could still tell an East German leader in 1989 that he was convinced that “Prussia would reappear in her true dimension, one of the richest reservoirs of men and means of Germany and of Europe.”

In all this poetry we find revealing or shocking little phrases. Clearly showing what his preference would have been for the events of 1989-1990, he was “not insensitive” to Giscard’s argument for European federation as a prerequisite to German unity, but that “I had to deal with History as it was being made, not as it might be dreamed.” There’s also an astounding bitterness when he writes that German critics of his foreign policy are “probably the expression of a grudge for having paid heavily the price of Nazism and who did not forgive the vanquished of 1940 for being among the victors of 1945.” And while in interviews he constantly asserted that, because of ‘Europe’, he was not afraid of the 80 million inhabitants of united Germany, he still writes that unification was a “challenge” to France, the answer to which, among other things was “to encourage our demographic growth, already more promising than that of Germany.”

Ultimately, the work screams “Legacy!” It is a “last breath of vanity.” Mitterrand incarnated at one time or another almost everything: Catholic, agnostic, conservative, socialist, Vichyite, resister, parliamentarian, republican monarch… But he wants to be remembered for Europe above all. “But if Europe does not have an answer to everything, her entering center-stage, after three quarters of a century of subjugation, sometimes of humiliation, restored to our countries and first of all of those of the Community the chance to make History instead of suffering it… But if we call vanity my European will, I accept that.”

Threats to 'Europe': "imperial ambitions" and "the epic illusion of glory in solitude".

For Mitterrand “dreams of the predestination of Germany and France, that geography and their old rivalry choose to give the signal. I work towards it too. If they have kept in them the best of what I do not hesitate in calling their instinct of greatness, they will understand that it is a project worthy of them.” This project? Europe. A Europe threatened by the temptations France’s “epic illusion of glory in solitude” and Germany’s “imperial ambitions, those of the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs.” Concluding darkly that “the great powers of the rest of the world will attempt to ruin the coming of a new order which is not theirs.” We can be optimistic, France's Gaullist adventure outside of NATO has been (over so slowly) coming to an end since the 1990s, Germany has remained (minus its policy towards the collapse of Yugoslavia) a model of the civilian state and member of the community of nations.

What we have here is more poetry than history. The book also includes one other chapter, foreign reactions to his election in 1981, and the editor says Mitterrand was working on including the Gulf and Yugoslav Wars. It is a shame he was not given enough life to give a whole account, really a self-portrait, of his years as president.


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