Paul Nizan 1936

Bastille Day 1919

Written: July 10, 1936;
Source: Paul Nizan, Intellectuel Communiste. Maspero, Paris, 1967;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2008.

We were living historic days: the Weimar Assembly had ratified the Versailles treaty. In France the mine strike was ending. The Chamber, dominated by the police style of Clemenceau and Mandel, accepted the maintaining of censorship and the state of siege. The winegrowers of the Marne were on strike and M Bertrand de Mun defended Moet and Chandon; in Paris the café waiters were on strike. And this is how we arrived at the Bastille Day of victory.

Strange monuments of wood and fabric, paper bleachers, fire pots, caissons, lamps, pyramids of cannons come from the land of the dead began to decorate the building sites of the Opera, of the Concorde, and the Champs Elysées. Hollow as the breast of the dead, a cardboard cenotaph rose towards the Etoile on wooden casters. Only a few wicked ones chuckled before this Trojan Horse, whose flanks hid only the night. The street lights wore tricolor ties. Golden bands fell from the Obelisk; a girandole from Italy was wrapped around it like a great serpent.

In the evening colored smoke clouds rose, the klieg lights wandered across a sky now free of planes. All of Paris gathered around these night and day preparations. The provinces arrived. In 36 hours Paris had two million new inhabitants.

* * *

The night of the 13th the balls invaded the city. It was like a great respiration, vaster than the breath of November 11, 1918. We were alive, and images of blood, of victory, and of peace composed a world tense and rent by the flashes of eroticism.

Bastille Day arrived. Raymond Lefevre wrote: “Your head spins. In all the cabarets the city sings, the egoism of being alive sings at the top if its voice. But not a one shows a care to let cry in peace those who the war still has in its grip and will never let go of.”

A crowd moved about under the trees. The suburban trains arrived in Paris packed with sleeping children. The sellers of periscopes, the mirror merchants, the ladder renters, the concessionaires of chestnut tree branches trafficked.

* * *

At 7:15 Marshal Foch smoked cigars at the Porte Maillot. The entire west of Paris was a camp. The parade started off; the two marshals waved their blue velvet batons. The people shouted out their love to the foreign armies. After two hours they shouted less and it was precisely the most warlike moments that failed: the passing of Mangin and Ronar’ch. The tanks remained out of service. Coins were thrown at the soldiers of the service d’ordre. Girls climbed piggy-back on the cavalrymen. It was over. The dances began again.

* * *

That morning the police had clubbed the wounded of the Workers’ Federation who had gone to Père Lachaise to pay homage to the Unknown Soldiers. Barbusse spoke in their name; almost alone he raised his voice about these “festivals celebrated with cannon shots and the whole intoxicating apparatus of militarism with the aim of dazzling a people concerning a peace that is neither just nor pure. “

And in fact almost all the French were drunk on the military victory, on heat, on hatred, on drink. The “Madelon” dominated the “Marseillaise.” One didn’t feel proud of this grand mise en scene which wanted to make us forget the dead and a future that was as cruel as the past.

On July 15 Georges Duhamel wrote in L’Humanité: “The time has come to go against what you call the force of circumstances.”