Lessons from the Past: If the Impossible Happened, Can We Let it Happen Again?

by NORMAN SIMMS December 6, 2012

Hands up those who have heard of, let alone read, any of the books by André Suarès.  Nobody? I am not shocked.  Virtually nobody has, and his name hardly appears in the history of literature from the time of Marcel Proust, Romain Roland, Andre Gide, Thomas Mann and so on and on-yet they read him, reviewed his books, had conversations with him, and thought of him as one of their gang.  In other words, in his own time André Suarès was not only well-known but also highly admired, but he has been swallowed up by the controversies of the 1930s and catastrophe of the 1940s and has now been all but forgotten by not only the general public-no surprise as only a few authors pass through the filter of changes in taste and transformations of political ideology-but by the intellectuals who still find his opponents in those old arguments worth reading and writing about.  

Well, André Suarès was a Jew, though he was mostly known by a Spanish-sounding name.  While he was not practicing Jew he never chose to convert; like many other Jewish intellectuals of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, he simply assumed he had assimilated into the modern secular culture of Western Europe.  But history would not let him get away with it.  During the Dreyfus Affair he came out with the Dreyfusards, but at least then he was one of the many French intellectuals who did so, and the fact that he was a Jew only bothered the anti-Semites on the other side.  That Proust was a Jew through hios mother's family meant that he collected petition signatures for Dreyfus, attendiong the courtroom trial of Emile Zola who had raised the ire of the establishment with his J'accuse (I Accuse), and made the case of wrongly-condemned Captain Dreyfus one of the defining historical events of In Search of Lost Time.

In the 1930s things were different, however.  In such a way, I want to suggest, that he is relevant for us today as we face those who tell us our objections to anti-Semitic slanders and threats are due to our own racist rhetoric and that the idea of another Holocaust is impossible.  These nice tolerant and liberal voices tell us we are hysterical warmongers because we shout out the dangers of Iran and Syria, and see the so-called Arab Spring as a fog of deceit in which hides a clash of civlizations and is rattling its sabres ever closer to our front gates-and is already operating as a Fifth Column within the citadel of our cities and universities. 

André Suarès was of Sephardic background, meaning his ancestors had been expelled from Spain in the years when the Inquisition and the Crown sought to force conversions or execute heretics, leaving sometimes only two other choices: either to pretend to accept baptism but live as a Secret Jew or to escape the lands of persecution.  By the time André Suarès-one of several names he adopted fairly late in his life-became famous in the late 1890s and early 1900s he considered himself a Mediterranean man, at the same time as he lived in Paris among many authors we consider the masters of modern French letters.  He wrote travel books (Voyage of a Condottiere), essays on the great thinkers of the West (Pascal. Ibsen Dostoievski), penned literary and art criticism for journals such as the Nouvelle Revue Française, and was considered one of the main writers of the 1920s and 1930s.  But then nationalism in Germany and Italy took a nasty turn and Fascist and National Socialist parties started to threaten the rest of the world.  Unlike his more pacifist and left-leaning fellow-intellectuals, André Suarès sensed a danger that had at its core anti-Semitism.  The Jew hatred he smelt in Hitler's Mein Kampf was far more disgusting even than what had manifested itself in the Dreyfus Affair or was becoming regular fare in many French newspapers and magazines.  The stench from over the Rhine was not an intellectual snobbery, religious bigotry or existential anxiety.  It was out and out calls for destruction of all the Jews in the world-and for the Christian civilization it was held responsible for.  It was nothing less than the acrid smoke from the crematoria.  For this was hatred of a biological variety: to the Nazis, each and every Jew was a bacillus, a disease-carrying threat to the life of the pure and heroic Aryan peoples of Germany. They had to be annihilated, no matter the cost.

In the struggle to bring back Dreyfus from Devil's Island and give him a fair re-trial, Suarès was part of a large group of writers, professionals, and modern Catholics fighting against obscurantism, irrational and regressive ideas in France.  But a generation later in the 1930s when he started calling attention to the Nazi peril and argued that France and other democracies needed to build up their strength and prepare for a war, his old friends began to desert him.  They denounced him as an alarmist, a war-monger and a class-enemy of the working people in Germany and Italy.  Respectable and respected newspapers, magazines and publishing houses he had written for and helped edit over decades suddenly cut him cold: what he was saying was not (to use our own 21st century expression) "politically correct".  The intellectuals of the 1930s believed that war was so obnoxious and unthinkable, it was better not to re-arm or to talk of anything but pacifism, to believe in the worker's paradise taking shape in Soviet Russia, and to dream that Hitler and his mob of fanatical thugs could be reasoned with or at least appeased by more and more concessions. Sound familiar? 

 Once André Suarès was silenced and cast out of polite society, that was it.  Thanks to a few intimate friends and relatives, he managed to survive the Second World War in hiding, yet in late 1945 he was an sick old man, poor and lonely.  His long list of novels, travel-books, criticism and poetry lay under more and more layers of dust.  Today a few titles have been reprinted and a few sympathetic biographies have been published.  Yet for all intents and purposes he has been airbrushed out of European literary history. 

Is that our fate, too? I am speaking of the academics, journalists, novelists, poets, artists and just plain ordinary people who dare to speak out against what is called politically correct.  The outlets for free speech, academic discussion, and public debate are being closed down again.  Can we do anything to stop the madness of rewarding Palestinian terrorists by calling them a state and giving them a seat at the United Nations, where  soon, seated alongside Syria, Sudan, Iran and the other scores of nations that automatically vote against the United States and Israel, they will cry-baby for more money and institutions to support their corrupt economies?    Are our efforts-books, speeches, online journals, conversations with like-minded souls-to come to nought and be flushed down the plug-hole of history?  Are we to see our children continuously taught rubbish and meaningless jargon in primary and high schools and then in universities, while real subjects are tossed out the window? 

Norman Simms is the author of Alfred Dreyfus: Man, Milieu, Mentality and Midrash (Academic Studies Press, 2011).  The second volume in the series, Alfred Dreyfus: In the Context of His Times: Alfred Dreyfus as Lover, Intellectual, Poet and Jew  (also by Academic Studies Press) was published in July 2013; and the third Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus in the Phantasmagoria (Cambridge Scholars Publisher, UK) in September 2013.


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