Charting Stalinism's Rise in Post-WWI France
Published: Sunday, February 9, 2014
Updated: Sunday, February 9, 2014 23:02
In a lecture focused on the political changes in Europe following World War I, Andrew Sobanet, chair of the French department, examined the rise of Stalinist thought in France during the early 20th century Thursday.
The lecture, held in the Intercultural Center, was part of the “War to End All Wars” series organized by professors Anna von der Goltz and Peter Pfeiffer.
In his hour-long lecture sponsored by the BMW Center for German and European Studies, Sobanet argued that pacifists in the post-World War I era created fertile ground for the rise of Stalinism in countries such as France. This sentiment is epitomized in the works of arguably the two most prominent active intellectuals in France at the time, Romain Rolland and Henri Barbusse.
“It is through these two figures that we can get a sense of how the First World War factored in the rise of what I call ‘Generation Stalin,’ that is, a large number of French intellectuals and writers who either as members of the French Communist Party or as fellow travelers worked in concert with Soviet-mandated policy to promote – in the West – Stalin, the USSR and international communism in the late 1920s through the mid-1950s,” Sobanet said.
Sobanet argued that although writers like Barbusse espoused pacifist ideas in their works, they contributed to political unrest in that they were not necessarily advocating for non-violence.
“Barbusse’s mode of pacifism – and this is one of the paradoxes of certain types of pacifism – might be anti-war and specifically anti-imperialist war, but it is not necessarily anti-violence,” Sobanet said. “This brand of pacifism came to symbolize the rallying cry for various communist groups that emphasized the ends over the means.”
Sobanet also touched on how writers such as Rolland remained ardent supporters of the USSR as fascist regimes began to take shape in countries like Italy and Germany in the early 1930s, even as the Soviet regime became more and more brutal in its political repression.
“[Rolland] wrote, ‘Whatever the errors, the stupidities and often even the crimes of the Russian Revolution, it represents the greatest, most powerful and most important social movement in modern Europe.’ It was not an entirely new stance for Rolland, who even in the early years of the French Revolution was unable to justify its violence, and the Bolsheviks’ lack of respect for human life,” Sobanet said.
Ultimately, Sobanet centered in on the question of why Rolland and Barbusse, despite the blatant political repression, poor living conditions and authoritarian nature of the Soviet regime, continued to support it as a path for world peace.
“Beyond their published work, it’s very difficult to guess whether there were ulterior motives as to why they remained supportive of the Soviets, other than their stated reasons,” Sobanet said.
Audience members engaged in a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with Sobanet following the lecture, in which audience members shared their opinions on why leaders like Stalin were able to gain popular and ideological support among educated Westerners.
Von der Goltz explained that the “War to End All Wars” lecture series is meant to explore World War I from literary and historical perspectives that give a more comprehensive view.
“Professor Sobonet’s main focus is on France in the context of the First World War, but all these events throughout the semester will look at many different angles of the war’s impact on the world,” von der Goltz said.
Phoebe Wood, events coordinator at the BMW Center, believes that lectures like Sobanet’s provide a gateway to discussions about even bigger historical trends.
"The idea for this event was to highlight professor Sobanet's work as part of this broader dialogue on how World War I affected the political development of Europe in the 20th century," Wood said.