Although history might seem a concrete science about events and their chronological order of occurrence, it is far from giving concrete answers and explanation of the reasons for those events to happen and their socio-cultural dimension of occurrence. Usually, historians explain events in terms of political reasons or military necessity or state interest, forgetting that those events were carried out by simple people that belonged to their specific socio-economic and cultural communities. Those people embodied their epoch and opportunity to choose their destiny. The main reason why Eugen Weber wrote this book was that he wanted to outline another dimension for French military defeat in 1940. That dimension was a human fear of another bloody war and overwhelming mood of decadence. Weber wrote this book aiming to show that the defeat of 1940 was rooted in 1914, since, for the French, the Great War was connected with death and not with political victory3.
Concerning Weber’s argumentations and evidences of decadence of French society, he was quite detailed and systematic in his statements. He did not just describe that the reason of defeat was the spirit of decadence and hopelessness in French society, he described it on the complicated socio-economic and political background. In this context, he mentioned that one of the reasons for failure were human losses of the WW I. He proved this statement by exact figures of 1.5 million dead soldiers and 3 millions wounded in between 1914-1918, which resulted in fact that 1.5 million of children were never conceived and the future war was lacking around 4-5 millions of soldiers8. Political and economic aspects were outlined on the examples of the Great Depression and reparations retrieval failure and constant political feuds inside the country. Weber wrote “their [governors’] time and energy drained in endless jockeying and parliamentary maneuvers, political figures found less opportunity to address issues that clamored for attention”9. In this context, he proved his statement with various speeches and political attempts to influence population through media.
The biggest strength of the book is Weber’s ability to describe people’s mood through various facts and documents referring to the time. He did not only presume that society was depressed he showed it in every possible aspect of socio-cultural life. For instance, through description of broadcast technology spread, he showed that people were more likely to entertain than to work on improvement of the everyday life10. When politicians and Church tried to use new media for their ideological influence, population was choosing other ways of entertainment like cinema. Weber concludes that decadence of French society was seen not only in supremacy of entertainment over realism, but also in type of entertainment popular at that time. He argued that radio and sound movies had contributed to collapse of borders between classic elitist forms of literature/arts and low, mass-popular forms rooted in tradition and rituals11. This decadence of elite morality and good taste was showing the growing development of depression and despair in society; that is why the most popular reading was illustrated journal Detective, example of an entertainment than a serious newspaper12.
Irrespective of huge work Weber had done in order to write his book and represent numerous primary resources and material evidences of his suggestions, some historians might be quite critical of his work and would have challenged his professional skills and even the right to write on the topic. In this case, it should be mentioned that Weber was well-qualified to write on the topic. First of all, he was not nationally connected to France, so he could assess data critically and sometimes even cruelly, but without any hint of national restrictions, which were often characteristic for French historians13. Secondly, he had studied the field of French history for decades; he wrote other books on French history, nationalist movement’s development and socio-cultural transformations. Thirdly, his overview was wide mainly because, he was in military service in various countries, but he was historian by profession and education. Finally, he was a recognized specialist in French history already because he was awarded the French National Order for Academic Merits in 197714. That is why he was well-qualified for writing this book.
The main controversy of this book is not because it outlined the new dimension of French defeat in 1940, but the way it was described. Weber was much criticized for harshness of his criticism and pessimism of narration. Thus, the main controversy was Weber’s objectivity concerning politicians and militaries, whom he blamed for everything, but did not explain entirely why15. Another arguable issue is his suggestions that the French had missed their chance to stop Germans in 1936 and 1938, meaning the events of remilitarization of Rheine and Munich conspiracy16. In this context, Weber does not write how the French were supposed to stop Germans at that time. Announcing war without direct prerequisites does not seem like a just option.
Concerning the style of the book, it is specific and takes time to get used to it. At first, the totality of data and empirical examples was confusing and disorienting, meaning that much of author’s analysis seemed to be missing. On the other hand, in further process of reading, I have acknowledged that my interest was growing and I started to pay more attention to the details and author’s small, ironic notes, which were telling more than numerous passages could have done instead. Thus, Weber was overloading readers with data in order to make them think and analyze the data on their own. Overall, the book is worth of reading, especially for the people interested in the topic. I think it would benefit even more to those who had read classical historical works on the subject. They will have an opportunity to deepen their knowledge and assess the book critically.
Sarti, Odile. Review of Weber, Eugen, The Hollow Years France in the 1930’s. H-France, H-
Net Reviews, April 1996. http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=353.
Weber, Eugen. The Hollow Years France in the 1930’s.New York: W.W. Norton &
Ungar, Steven. Review of Weber, Eugen, The Hollow Years France in the 1930’s. South
Central Review 13, no.4 (1996): 66-68.