Category Archives: Reflections on Biography

Two Biographers of François Mitterrand: Pierre Péan and Jean Lacouture

Joanny Moulin

Two Biographers of François Mitterrand:
Pierre Péan and Jean Lacouture



President François Mitterrand was a complex and controversial figure, from a historical as well as from a political and psychological point of view, and his is a typical and spectacular case of biography intervening in the public political debate, not directly, but by impacting historiography in the making. It may be interesting to propose a study in comparative biography, not in the sense of comparing two presidents à la Plutarch, in the style of Parallel Lives, or à la Suetonius, in imitation of the Lives of the Twelve Caesars, but in the sense of comparing the works of two or more biographers on the same subject, as in comparative literature we compare the works of other authors. Such a proposal contains an implicit methodological take: that biography is, if not perhaps unquestionably a literary genre, a least a form of ‘literature’ (with a small ‘l’), and undeniably a mode of writing; and biographers, whether they are journalists, historians, academics from various disciplines, are writers: they are men and women of letters – gens de lettres – , and as such it is there role and legitimate ambition to enter public debates and exert an influence of their own on public opinion.

Among the numerous biographies of François Mitterrand, it is particularly rewarding to focus on two of his best-known biographers: Pierre Péan, for his 1994 biography Une jeunesse française : François Mitterrand 1934–1947, and Jean Lacouture, for his Mitterrand. Une Histoire de Français, of which the two volumes were published together in 1998. The dates are significant, at least for readers familiar with French political life, bearing in mind that François Mitterrand, the 21st President of the French Republic (4th President of the Fifth Republic, was in office for two seven-year mandates, from 1981 to 1988, and from 1988 to 1995. The post-presidency was very short, since François Mitterrand died in January 1996, some six months after the end of his second term in office, at the age of 79 (he was born in October 1916). Pierre Péan’s biography came out while President Mitterrand was still in office, whereas Jean Lacouture withheld publication of his biography to publish the two volumes together, two years after his subject’s death.

Both Péan and Lacouture were journalists, both had the opportunity to interview François Mitterrand, although neither the one nor the other was what we call an ‘authorized’ biographer: they both declared that Mitterrand had exercised no veto on their writing, and in many instances they demonstrated that he had expressed opinions that were hard to reconcile with the truth. In the latter case, amply illustrated in both these biographies, a ‘space of possibles’ opens up, that is the space biography explores, especially biographies of relatively recent presidents that have to grapple with the political discourses, propaganda, and mythologies that are still very much alive, and as yet undeconstructed.

Both Péan and Lacouture declare a degree of sympathy with, and perhaps of partiality for President Mitterrand, probably for different reasons. Péan said he voted for Mitterrand, but that he was neither a staunch supporter, nor a detractor like those who eventually turned against their former idol: ‘Je ne suis pas un “déçu du socialisme”, puisque je ne suis pas socialiste’ (9). As for Lacouture, he was very much posing as an ‘homme de gauche’, making much of having gravitated in one of the many ‘cercles’ of friends and acquaintances, which Mitterrand cultivated to the point of making it both his trademark and his political method of power-building.

Whereas Péan wrote a biography that is a brilliant example of investigative journalism, Lacouture is quietly contributing to the construction of the mythic figure of François Mitterrand. Having followed the president for years, although at a greater distance than James Boswell did Samuel Johnson, he produced a monumental, ‘cradle-to-grave’, ‘warts-and-all’ portrait. For certainly he does not fight shy of depicting the defects of the character, but in the last resort his readers are left with the very strong feeling that, on the whole, these defects – which he had rather call ‘ambiguities’ – are dwelt upon with a view to producing a ‘reality effect’, bringing in an added veracity value to a portrayal that, when all is told, is hagiographic. Mitterrand is clearly one of Lacouture’s heroes, and this biography comes at the end of a series of presidential biographies: Ho Chi Minh (1967), Nasser (1971), and on the French presidents Léon Blum (1977), Pierre Mendès France (1981), de Gaulle in three volumes (1984 to 1986), and Mitterrand (1998). De Gaulle is the odd one out in this sequence of socialist leaders, but the founder of the Fifth Republic is the heroic presidential figure par excellence, even and perhaps especially for someone like Mitterrand, who would later incriminate him so drastically in Le coup d’État permanent (1964), and who defines himself as de Gaulle’s radical antagonist. One of Lacouture’s most conspicuous theses is that this apparent rivalry is in fact the mask of an Oedipal relationship: a narrative strategy that consists in using the validating authority of the Freudian myth to present Mitterrand as the ‘self-proclaimed “gentle dauphin”’ (I, 110), that is to say the symbolic heir of the General, if not his political and spiritual heir. That is far-fetched, to say the least. In moments like this, Lacouture waxes lyrical, and empathizes with his subject to the point of putting imaginary speeches in his mouth.

This kind of empathizing – which is probably one of his capital stylistic sins – is very much Lacouture’s signature as a biographer, who does not try to disguise his partiality to his subject, thus giving the impression that he is a fan biographer writing primarily for fan readers. To this must be added a strong redolence of gossip, as Lacouture uses, and abuses, lengthy, anecdotal quotations from testimonies by political celebrities. That is apparently the major reason why volume 2, devoted to the 14 years in office and the six-month post-presidency, is some two hundred pages longer than Volume 1, covering the 61 years of Mitterrand before he finally became President.

On the contrary, Pierre Péan’s Une jeunesse française : François Mitterrand 1934–1947 is a partial biography in the sense that it deals only with some thirteen years in the life of Mitterrand, long before he became President of the Republic. It is not partial in that sense that Lacouture’s biography is: on the contrary, Péan takes the stance of the impartial journalist enquiring to discover the truth, even though at the same time he is manifestly out to write a bestseller. Two photographs on the cover show a very recognizable young François Mitterrand in conversation with Marshal Philippe Pétain in 1942, and disguised with a fake moustache as Morland – one of the several war names under which he was known in the Résistance. Except perhaps on one or two important points, Péan’s biography was disclosing no new piece of information. More exactly, it was bringing back into the limelight aspects of the historical character of François Mitterrand that the political figure of the socialist President had done its best to attenuate. The picture of Mitterrand with Pétain, and his sleuth-like mug shot with the postiche moustache produced a scandal-press effect, which did much for the popular success of a book that forced President Mitterrand to explain himself publicly on his activities under the Nazi-aligned Vichy regime, a commitment so far from marginal that he was awarded the Order of the Gallic Francisque.

The dates of the chosen period are significant too: 1934 is the year when young François Mitterrand arrived in Paris, at the age of 18, to study law and political science, a few months after the 6 February 1934 crisis, when far-right leagues attempted to seize the National Assembly. The young bourgeois Catholic from Jarnac, a small provincial town in the South-West of France, was a member of the Volontaires Nationaux, the organisation of Colonel François de la Roque, the leader of the right-wing league of the Croix de Feu, in fact the most moderate of the leagues, who turned out to have contributed to the failure of the February 1934 coup. However, one year later, in February 1935, young François Mitterrand, still an active militant of the National Volunteers, and already a charismatic students’ leader, was photographed in a demonstration ‘against the metic invasion’ – ‘contre l’invasion métèque’… At the other end of the period selected by Pierre Péan, 1947 is the year when François Mitterrand, at the age of 31, became Minister of Veterans and War Victims in Robert Schuman’s cabinet under socialist President Vincent Auriol (leader of the SFIO – French Section of the Workers’ International). How the young 1934 Croix de Feu agitator with strong ideological sympathies for the far-right metamorphosed himself into a minister in a socialist government, who would later become the figurehead of socialism à la française: such is the mystery that Pierre Péan attempts to unravel in his partial biography. Yet Péan leaves his readers with the enigma of a profound ambiguity of the iconic socialist president at the end of his second mandate

By focussing on these problematic years in the life of Mitterrand, Péan paradoxically challenged the myth of Mitterrand and confirmed it at the same time. In these now remote and generally forgotten chapters of his personal history, he had played a role that was, on the one hand, apparently poles apart from that of his presidential destiny, yet, on the other hand, so consistent with the darker, manoeuvring side of a man who had then come to be called ‘le Florentin’, in reference to Machiavel, for his boundless political cunning. The strong effect produced be Péan’s biography rested on this powerful contrast, yet the biographer did his job with professional seriousness, investigating the facts in considerable depth, and seemed to leave the readers to judge for themselves in the end. Péan roughly follows the chronological order, while interrupting his narrative on five occasions with a series or recurring chapters entitled ‘Bagages’ – meaning something like ‘Impedimenta’ – where he goes to great lengths to describe his family relationships with right-wing milieus and personalities, that is part of what the biographer calls Mitterrand’s ‘ideological luggage’ – his ‘barda idéologique’ (479). In these ‘Bagages’ or ‘Impedimenta’ the readers learn, for instance, that François’s brother, Robert Mitterrand, was the brother-in-law of Eugène Deloncle, who in 1935 founded the fascist-leaning, anti-communist Comité secret d’action révolutionnaire, commonly known as La Cagoule.

François Mitterrand had been a prisoner in Germany from June 1940 till December 1941, when after two failed attempts he finally escaped from Stalag 9A.  He then joined the Vichy government, and, with the help of his family connections according to Péan, became a middle-rank civil servant taking care of the returning French POWs, which were potentially a fighting force for the resistance of the interior. François Mitterrand’s brave commitment in the Résistance is beyond doubt. What remains problematic for many is that he should have chosen to do so from within the Vichy Establishment, instead of joining the Free French in London or Algiers. That was conveniently explained out by a rumour, extent during World War II in occupied France, but which never held water, according to which Pétain and de Gaulle were conniving with one another in one and the same ruse, de Gaulle organizing the military action while Pétain was only pretending to play Hitler’s game to alleviate the sufferings of the French people – the so-called theory of the shield and the sword (‘l’épée et le bouclier’).

With the deficit of hindsight, as a ‘Vichy resistant’ Mitterrand was bound to give the impression that he was biding his time while remaining in a winner-winner position whatever the issue of the war. Besides, he made dubious friends in Vichy, and he would later be blamed for remaining faithful to them to the end. Chief among these, collaborationist René Bousquet, who was sentenced to five years of indignité nationale after the war, then saw his sentence reduced for having also aided the resistance, went into business, returned to politics in the 1970s, and was among President Mitterrand’s ‘visiteurs du soir’ and close relations for years after his election in 1981, until in 1989 he was accused of crimes against humanity, indicted by the French Ministry of Justice in 1991 for his responsibility in the 1942 Vel d’Hiv Roundup, which was the prelude to thousands of Jewish men, women, and children being sent to extermination in death camps. Bousquet never went to trial, for he was shot dead in his Paris flat in 1993. ‘I saw him with pleasure,’ said President Mitterrand to Pierre Péan. ‘He had nothing to do with what people say about him.’ The ultimate truth about René Bousquet and François Mitterrand’s relationship with him is still open to question. To Pierre Péan goes the merit of having honestly documented this aspect, among many others, of Mitterrand’s action in Vichy.

Compared to Lacouture’s biography, Péan’s has the reverse effect of positioning Mitterrand on the side of Vichy and therefore against de Gaulle from the start. Lacouture claims that Mitterrand had ‘missed’ de Gaulle because as he was a prisoner he had not received the mystical shock of the Appeal of 18 June 1940. Not so Péan, who represents Mitterrand as a radical opponent. Mitterrand happened a rival of Michel Caillau, the General’s nephew, for the organization of a network of the returning POWs in occupied France. When Mitterrand made the move to fly to London, and from thence to Algiers where he also met General de Gaulle in December 1943, Péan argues that it was to meet General Giraud, who was President Roosevelt’s choice against de Gaulle, in the vain hope of reconciling the Resistance and the Free French with Vichy. Mitterrand, aka Morand, aka Monier, rightly considered as a Giraudiste, was detained much longer than necessary by the Gaullists in Algiers, then in London, and in both cases he finally broke free with the help of Giraud’s networks.

Although on the whole Péan’s biography is certainly much more impartial than Lacouture’s, it is probable that the latter carries the greatest authority in the end, although Lacouture never really contradicts Péan’s, but on the contrary he has only compliments for the seriousness and accuracy of his work. Hypothetically, that is because Lacouture’s is a biography ‘from the cradle to the grave’, relating the whole life, instead of just an aspect of his personality or a short period of his life. Although the readers do sense that Lacouture is partial to his subject – and indeed most of them probably like his biography better because of this. The Vichy youth years become only a detail: it is conceded that they are a mistake, it is a ‘wart’ that only makes the hero more human, and reinforces the readers’ sympathy. On the whole, it is in fact a denial, or a quiet refutation, of what Péan had begun to demonstrate: that Mitterrand’s Vichy years, far from being a youthful error, may very well give the key to his dissimulative personality, and that in fact there may be no solution of continuity between the Mitterrand of the 1940s and the Mitterrand of the 1980s.

The same can be said of at least two other problematic aspects of President Mitterrand’s life: (1) his bigamy, or the fact that he had a secret double life wife Madame Anne Pingeot, with whom he had a daughter, Mazarine Pingeot, and (2) his cancer, or the fact that he learned he had prostate cancer with bone metastases only a few months after his first presidential election in 1981, and that his doctors gave him only two or three years to live, predicting to him that he would not live to the end of his term in office. So that throughout his fourteen years in office the President was a doomed man, living in severe physical pain regularly alleviated by injections of morphine, who was also accommodating his second family in a Paris building belonging to the State in Quai Branly, then in a residence of the French Republic in Souzy-la-Briche, under the supervision of special policemen whose job it was to guard the two women as well as the secret of their existence.

Lacouture chooses to reveal these two facts at the same time, in the middle of the second volume, under the pretext that Anne Pingeot was the only one to know about the cancer. The story has then reached 1986, the year of the socialists defeat in the legislative elections that brought about the first ‘cohabitation’: the inauguration of political configuration where a right-wing prime minister acts under a left-wing president. Why 1986? There is no logical reason. The President’s fatal cancer became public knowledge only in 1992, the existence of Mazarine Pingeot in 1994. François Mitterrand’s affair with Anne Pingeot began in 1965, the year of his first presidential campaign when he ran against de Gaulle and imposed himself as the most promising left-wing leader, and Mazarine was born in 1974, another presidential election year, when Mitterrand ran and lost against Giscard d’Estaing. The biographer’s empathy with the character, which is supposed to be Lacouture’s trademark, demanded that these facts be narrated at the moment when they happened in the life of the hero; then the narrative of his life would have been very different: the readers would thus have been placed in a position to infer what the mental states of the President may have been like. Instead of that, Lacouture writes the history of Mitterrand’s life from the outside, as it appeared to be, year in, year out, to observers to whom large parts of the picture were intentionally concealed. Like his subject, Lacoutre chose to purposefully withhold from his readers part of the knowledge he did have, while time and again he indulged in supposedly imagining, viva voce, what his hero may have thought, as if these withheld facts did not exist. What can be the reason for that? A form of partiality: Lacouture empathizes with the myth, not with the historical character; in other words, he refuses to deconstruct the mythical political icon, of which his biography is ritually celebrating the cult. Whereas Péan’s biography raised questions and honestly investigated to provide his readers with elements of answer, Lacouture deliberately refuses to really take into account facts that were public knowledge by the time he wrote and published his text; it is not as if he did not know, but he pretends not to know, for reasons that, whether consciously or unconsciously, may well be demagogic. Both are instances of biography ‘correcting’ history, but Pierre Péan is modestly offering to correct the myth with facts, whereas Jean Lacouture sidetracks historical facts with a flourished style, the better to reassert the legend.

Works Cited


Lacouture, Jean. Mitterrand. Une Histoire de Français. Vol. 1. Les risques de l’escalade. Paris : Seuil, 1998.

Lacouture, Jean. Mitterrand. Une Histoire de Français. Vol. 2. Les vertiges du sommet. Paris : Seuil, 1998.

Mitterrand, François. Le coup d’État permanent. Paris : Plon, 1964.

Péan, Pierre. Une jeunesse française : François Mitterrand 1934-1947. Paris : Fayard, 1994.

Joanny Moulin, Aix Marseille univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence

Membre senior de l’Institut Universitaire de France

World War I as a Chapter in the Life of Georges Clemenceau

Joanny Moulin

World War I as a Chapter
in the Life of Georges Clemenceau


What is the point coming to Washington to speak about another George – Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929)? In other words, if I were to undertake to write a biography of Georges Clemenceau for American readers today, what would be the best writing strategy? For I take it as an axiom that you do not write the same biography for different readerships, and that in biography even more than in other literary genres, both the choice of topics and the way you handle them are strongly conditioned by the national community your readers belong to. Maybe I am prejudiced in holding this opinion that if I wrote a biography for the French, I would have a very small chance of seeing it one day translated and successfully published in America. There are many good reasons for this. However, my prejudice goes so far as to think that the reverse is not true: if I wrote a biography for American readers it would quickly be published in France as well, and further than that it would be likely to reach an international readership. There are powerful reasons for this too.

To return to my initial question: Why and how should I write a biography of Clemenceau for American readers? To misquote the famous words of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles E. Stanton on the grave of La Fayette on July 4, 1917, I would quip that it’s a case of ‘Washington, nous voilà !’. What I mean by this – and this would be my take as a biographer – is that Clemenceau remains for us the man who won the Great War – the French still call him ‘le Père la Victoire’ (‘Father Victory’), and as such he is with de Gaulle and very few others one of our closest equivalents to the Founding Fathers. Clemenceau the Republican is literally an embodiment of the Republic, and I would further argue that he is the most American of our Great Men. That is, if you are willing to forget for one moment that he was a God dammed atheist. Clemenceau used to say: ‘What I am interested in is the life of men who have failed, because it is the sign that they have tried to surpass themselves.’ What does it mean, ‘the most American of our Great Men’? Let Clemenceau answer this question himself once again: ‘It is to the Vendean character that I owe the best of my qualities. The courage, the headstrong obstinacy, the fighting spirit.’

It is not always remembered that Clemenceau was one of the very few politicians of the Third Republic who was perfectly fluent in English, because he had lived in the United States for four years, from 1865 to 1869. He had come to New York City as a political refugee of sorts, when the agents of Napoleon III began to crack down on dissidents, and he would probably have stayed in America if his father had not compelled him to return. He tried to settle as a medical doctor, but really made a living as a journalist for Le Temps, that regularly published his ‘Letters from America’, reporting on American political life in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. He also taught French at the home of Calvin Rood Great Barrington, Mass. then at a private girls’ school in Stamford, Connecticut, and married one of his pupils, Mary Plummer, who was the mother of his three children. This was not a successful marriage, and it ended by a contentious divorce in 1891. Comparatively little attention has been given to the influence of his American years on Clemenceau’s character.

Much has been written on his contacts with English Radicals, his admiration for John Stuart Mill, his friendship with Admiral Frederick Maxse, his correspondence with Henry Hyndman, etc. But the mark that America left on him remains to be appreciated: it taught him the effectiveness of political pragmatism, documented his criticism of the institutions of the French Republic where the President shares power with the Prime Minister, and it certainly taught him crucial lessons in lobbying, political campaigning, and the impact of the press on public opinion. Most certainly it reinforced his self-confidence, by convincing him that his natural buoyancy, upfront outspokenness, undaunted stamina in the face of adversity, unswerving fidelity to one’s ideals against all odds, were determining political assets in the quagmire of European intrigues. In spite of the well-known disagreements between George Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson over the Treaty of Versailles, deep down the two men had in fact much in common.

Be it as it may, Clemenceau’s admiration for the ancient Greeks, the fact that he himself wrote a biography of Demosthenes (1926), should encourage us not to forget Plutarch, whose main virtue as a biographer is the concentration on illuminating details rather than extended narrative. Plutarch’s main defect for us is perhaps the suppression of uncomfortable facts to maintain nobility of character. We don’t want another hagiography of Clemenceau. His disgraceful attitude toward his wife Mary Plummer, for instance, brings nothing to his credit. However, it does reveal the ruthlessness of his character. Clemenceau was nicknamed ‘le Tigre’ (‘the Tiger’), and he didn’t like it, saying: ‘All jaws and no brain. That’s nothing like me.’ But it did reflect his killer mentality: a very unpleasant, but very effective defect.

The reason why details like the American episode in his life are scarcely brought into focus is that they are easily drowned in a mass of historical facts, as most biographers of Clemenceau find it very difficult to resist the temptation of cramming in a history of France from the Revolution of 1848 to the outcome of World War I. How his father Benjamin was a Republican leader of underground networks in 1848, who got arrested and exiled in Belgium after the coup of 1851. How Georges went to prison himself in 1862 for similar reasons, because ‘When one has the honour to be alive, one speaks out!’ England. The USA. His action during the siege of Paris in 1870 as mayor of Montmartre. His struggle for the emancipation of the transported leaders of the Commune. His many electoral mandates in Paris and the Var. His opposition to Ferry’s colonial policy. His involvement with General Boulanger. The many ministers that became famous for tripping. The Whole of the Dreyfus Affair and how he gave its title to Zola’s ‘J’accuse !’ The Schnaebelé affair. His opposition to Jaurès and the socialists of SFIO. The Panama Affair that caused his political downfall. His friendship with impressionist painter Monet. His first mandate as Prime Minister from 1906 to 1909. His travels abroad. His career as a journalist. His friends and mistresses. You finally come to the really interesting bit – from his return to power on November 16, 1917, to the Armistice on November 11, 1918 – in the last chapter but one or two.

Would we remember Leonidas if it were not for the Battle of Thermopylae? If it had not been for his action in the last, decisive year of the Great War, Clemenceau would have remained only one among the numerous 87 successive ‘Présidents du Conseil’ (Prime Minister) of the Third Republic (56 before 1917, 31 after), drowned in the roll call on along with the Ferrys, Freycinets, Fallièreses, Brissons, Loubets, Combeses, Sarriens, Painlevés and other Poincarés, with whom he ceaselessly fought duels in words or deeds. But who would buy a biography of Émile Combes, except perhaps if it were a comical ‘parallel lives’ with that of François Hollande? Neither is Clemenceau’s life story really interesting after the Armistice of 1918. As his posthumous enemy Marshal Foch rightly said: he won the war, but lost the peace. What we really want to read about is how it came to pass that Clemenceau rose to power in November 1917, and how his action as head of state contributed to the final victory one year later.

Clemenceau was called upon by President Poincaré to form a government on November 15, 1917, one week after the October Revolution in Russia (November 7th). The United States had entered the war against the continental powers since April 1917, but the American troops had not yet arrived. In April, General Nivelle had launched the great French offensive of the Second Battle of the Aisne (‘Chemin des Dames’), but failed to achieve the expected victory, and the battle dragged on well into October. There were many mutinies in the French ranks, occasioned by the failure of the Nivelle Offensive and its many casualties, and no doubt encouraged by news of the imminent revolution in Russia, and the arguments of the socialists of the SFIO in favour of immediate peace on the borderlines of 1914. At the same time, Ludendorff had successfully inaugurated in Caporetto, on the Italian front, a new strategy based on surprise effect, in an effort to achieve victory before the arrival of the American reinforcements. In secret diplomatic moves, former premier Joseph Caillaux and Prime Minister Aristide Briand were negotiating a ‘blank peace’, with no annexation of territory. Conscious that the French people would never accept a peace that left Alsace and Lorraine to Germany, they lured themselves to believe that the Germans could swap the ‘lost provinces’ for compensations in Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, Briand remained feckless, his Minister of the Interior Louis Malvy not even daring to crack down on the traitors of ‘Carnet B’: a list of personalities notoriously in German pay, like businessman Paul Bolo (‘Bolo Pacha’), the dancer Mata Hari, or Émile-Joseph Duval, administrator of the anarchist paper Le Bonnet Rouge. Clemenceau kept storming against the government on a daily basis in the pages of L’homme libre, the newspaper he had founded in 1913, clamouring that the French were ‘Neither governed no defended!’ He was speaking up in particular against censorship and for the freedom of the press, insisting that it was crucial that the French people should be well informed, and that the government should stop treating them like minors. L’homme libre was banned by Malvy in September 1914, reappeared the next day as L’homme enchaîné that was immediately banned in its turn. Clemenceau went on writing directly to the members of Parliament.

He was particularly well informed on current affairs, as a senator, and a member of the Committee of Foreign Affairs and the Committee of War, both of which he soon became president of. He kept sending reports and reproaches to the government, making frequent visits to commanding officers and ordinary ‘poilus’ on the front. He constantly howled against pacifist, tirelessly affirmed the legitimacy of the control of Parliament over the government and the military commanders, true to his aphorism: ‘War is too serious an affair to be left to military men.’ He was instrumental in the dismissal of General Joffre in 1916, saying: ‘stripes on a cap are not enough to transform an imbecile into a clever man’. About the President of the Republic he said: ‘Poincaré knows nothing except by the blanks his own censorship cuts in the papers.’ Yet Poincaré it was who called him to power on November 15, 1917. Clemenceau had taken great care never to mention it, not to speak of asking for it openly, but he had struggled hard, since 1909 at least, to create the conditions for this to happen. ‘I was never a candidate to anything, he said: it had to come from outside.’

Indeed, at the summer of 1917, public opinion was strongly in favour of Clemenceau. From the beginning of the war, in speeches, reports, and newspaper articles, he had constantly hammered in a die-hard determinacy to fight the bitter end. ‘To die is not enough: we must vanquish!’ He would still be driving the nail in March 1918: ‘Home Affairs: I make war! Foreign Affairs: I make war! I always make war!’ On November 24, 1917, the Tigre would be 76, and he had a long record of dauntless political and physical courage, unswerving fidelity to his professed ideas, and fiercely outspoken independence from everyone else. He was also resurrected, as it were, from at least two political deaths: a fatal media lynching in 1893, and a damaging fall from power in 1909, at the end of 3 years of government during which he had definitely alienated one half of his left-wing supports as Clemenceau the ‘strike breaker’. But this most probably played in his favour, for he had long ago and consistently fallen out with the Marxist socialists. In 1880 already he had declared: ‘I am in favour of the integral development of the individual. And if you ask me what I think of your collective appropriation of the land, etc. I answer categorically: No! no! I am for integral liberty, and I will never consent to enter the convents and the barracks that you intend to prepare for us!’ Resolutely allergic to Bolshevism, there was no way Clemenceau would ever yield to the sirens of socialist pacifism. The internationalist socialists were obviously against him, but they were a minority, and he would find a majority in the Parliament with the ‘social patriots’ and a large part of the right on a ‘Sacred Union’ basis. All the more so because, during his first mandate from 1906 to 1909, Clemenceau had won for himself the other nickname of ‘France’s first cop’ by demonstrating his determination to maintain law and order throughout a severe wave of strikes. As a matter of fact, when he came to power the repression against internationalists and pacifists intensified.

As President of the Council and War minister, Clemenceau ruled the country from the War Ministry, with General Mordacq as chief of military staff. Socialist politicians Caillaux and Malvy, suspected of treasonable contact with the enemy, were arrested. ‘Neither treason nor half-treason: War!’ he said in his inaugural speech in Parliament, but he added: ‘We are under your control. The question of confidence will always be asked.’ Only the socialists voted Nay. Then he immediately undertook to purge the administration of suspect or incompetent civil servants, and to energetically curb all revolts in the armed forces and strikes in factories.  He cracked down on ‘Carnet B’ traitors, and put pressure on the pacifist press as much a possible short of censorship, which he restricted to military and diplomatic affairs. ‘The right to insult the members of the government must remain absolute,’ he said, in reply to articles waging fierce attacks against him.

In the army he dismissed incompetent officers, maintaining Pétain in spite of his poor opinion of him: ‘He has no ideas, he has no heart, he is always sombre in the face of events, hopelessly severe in his judgements on his peers and his subordinates. His military valour is far from exceptional, he has in action a certain timidity, a lack of pluck.’ At the Supreme War Council, working with Lloyd George, Italian premier Orlando and American councillor Edward House, he urged President Wilson to send troops, and manoeuvred to have General Foch nominated commander-in-chief of the allied forces in March 1918. In The Grandeur and Misery of Victory, written in 1929, the year of his death, in reply to Foch’s posthumous Memorial, he would regret that the General did not exert his commandment energetically enough. Manpower being most in need, Clemenceau the anti-colonialism turned to colonial troops against the advice of Pétain, turning to Senegalese representative Blaise Diagne to recruit the ‘black force’ of the 9th Corps under General Mangin. With Orlando he negotiated the employment in French factories of 70,000 Italian immigrants to sustain war production. Regularly, Clemenceau visited the ‘poilus’ on the front, thinking nothing of exposing himself to ‘smell the Boche’ and keep up the spirit of these men for whom he more than once wept in hours of exhaustion.

For all that, in the spring of 1918, Paris was partly deserted by its inhabitants fleeing the bombardment of Big Bertha. In May, when Ludendorff launched the Third Battle of the Aisne at the Chemin des Dames, the situation was so critical that Clemenceau came close to firing Pétain for the second time. In July, at the moment of the Second Battle of the Marne, there were over one million American soldiers fighting in France, and the balance tipped in favour of the Allies. Paradoxically, when Clemenceau decided to sign the armistice without waiting for the total defeat of Germany, it was against the judgement of President Poincaré, to whom he presented his resignation because he had written to him saying that would ‘hamstring our troops’. Paradoxically too, in late 1918 and early 1919 Clemenceau was still making war, but it was in the Black Sea, to support the White Russians against the Bolsheviks.

Before I conclude, I would like to draw attention to a detail barely adumbrated in this miniature sketch of the life Clemenceau: the contrast between his character and that of Philippe Pétain, 15 years his junior, who would cut a very different figure in French history. Seen through the lens of Clemenceau’s life, World War I looks terribly inconclusive, and much rather like a much longer story that only came to an end, perhaps, on VE Day, May 8, 1945. Clemenceau never stopped fighting with all his might till the last days of his life: in 1929, at the age of 87, he was still writing a book to reply to Marshal Foch’s scathing postmortem criticism of his conduct of the war, touching issues that had a crucial incidence on the outbreak of World War II. Foch derisively called him ‘the superman’, and it is true that there is a strong Nietzschean side to Clemenceau, and not just the moustache. But Clemenceau is precisely not a superman. He is interesting rather because his character appears as a knot, a link, a hyphen of sorts between the Founding Fathers of the French Revolution whose cult he was brought up in by his own father Benjamin, and the Republican spirit of our democracies today. Perhaps, as such, his life is worth writing for his defects, that are his best qualities, like Samuel Johnson’s: ‘warts and all’. In November 1918, the French Academy elected both Clemenceau and Foch. Clemenceau never took his seat. Perhaps because this noble institution was founded by the French Monarchy, the rude old Republican Tiger said: ‘Give me forty assholes and I’ll make you an Académie Française’.

Joanny Moulin, Aix Marseille univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence

Membre senior de l’Institut Universitaire de France


by Nigel Hamilton

téléchargementYears ago – many years ago – I wrote a biography of Thomas Mann and his brother Heinrich – also a writer. Both men were the first novelists to leave Germany once Hitler became Chancellor – and neither of them returned to their “Vaterland” during the Third Reich.

Heinrich Mann died in exile in America in 1950; Thomas returned to Europe two years later, but never  lived in Germany again, choosing German-speaking Zurich instead, which he found safer. For although he lectured both in East and West Germany, he found himself the butt there of hate mail and even articles attacking him – for having dared leave Germany in 1933! One particular critic was a novelist who’d stayed, and had gone into “inner emigration,” as he called it, proudly.

I remember, as Mann’s young biographer in my mid-twenties, feeling outraged on my subject’s behalf. God, Mann’s wife was part-Jewish, as was Heinrich’s – how could he have stayed in such circumstances?

Now in my seventies, half a century later, the concept of “inner emigration” has come to haunt me once again.

The election of Donald Trump is not the same as Hitler’s, of course – but there are parallels, and one of them is “inner emigration.” Like millions, I am shocked that a man of unique ignorance, political inexperience and unstable personality could have been elected to the most powerful post on earth – and by the damage he and his chosen appointees, backed by control of both houses of Congress (Gleichschaltung) could do to the world, from a warmer globe to trade war – even war itself! Worse still, the realization that this person represents literally scores of millions who voted for him – and perhaps more millions still, who didn’t vote, but support his views.

In shock I thus find myself, reactively, turning to my current biography of a previous president (FDR), in another time (the 1940s): trying as I do so not to watch or listen to the news, or even read the newspaper more than cursorily. For the post-election news is as alarming as the election campaign was.

Outrages against immigrants in America passing 500 already? Reversing agreements on climate change, international trade…

My heart sinks; it can only get worse – and Mr. Trump has not even been inaugurated!

I feel myself, in other words, going into “inner emigration” – and I wonder if it was like this for Germans in 1933, as Thomas Mann’s critic maintained?

History repeats itself, Marx once wrote, first as tragedy, then as farce. Are we now in the tragedy phase – and if so, how far is there still to go before farce – surreal, bleak but potentially catastrophic farce?

The tragic aspect is our clear awareness, here in America, of what is happening. There is no shortage of commentary or hand-wringing in the press, yet – unlike, say, Russia, where media opposition to the government and president was, and remains, shut down by new laws, intimidation, even plain murder.

But though there is still candid discussion in the media here, there is also a sickening awareness that this is no aberration, no “decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” The result of the U.S. election represents a vast, last-ditch formal affirmation of white bigotry, racism, anti-feminism, anti-intellectualism and gun-toting intolerance – an underbelly of America that was de rigueur in the South until the success of the Civil Rights movement, and is now back with a vengeance: this time, however, across the entire nation, save for the eastern and western seaboard states (in one of which, Massachusetts, I live). As such it can’t be changed or rectified any time soon: it is here to stay for some while. And that is the saddest, most tragic part. It would require a massive cultural re-education program, a national mandatory civics class no less, to return to a more tolerant majority – and no one seriously sees this happening.

In which case, history will have to take its course.

Which brings me back to history – or biography.

“Internal emigration”? Or “Here I Stand” protest – even at the risk of arrest, incarceration, death or deportation, if and when things get worse?

The German population in 1933 supported Hitler and his “Make Germany Great Again” mantra. Those that didn’t co-operate went into “inner emigration,” or were silenced. Or emigrated. Germany became the most dangerous “rogue” nation in the world – with little chance of things getting better, as Hitler attacked and suborned more and more nations that dared oppose him.

Germans for the most part did their loyal duty: involving mass extermination of Jews and those their Fuehrer deemed Untermenschen.

For several years the outlook looked bleak for civilization – until in November 1942, American troops landed in Northwest Africa: the Torch invasion. It succeeded – but there was no indication the Germans would do anything but fight to the death to retain territories they had overrun.

As a result in January, 1943, President Roosevelt – who had tried to keep America out of war until the country was attacked at Pearl Harbor – sadly announced to the world, at a conference in Casablanca, that the Allies would have to pursue a policy of “unconditional surrender” of the Axis Powers. He did so because he recognized nothing short of total defeat would put an end to Hitler’s Nazi movement, which had infected the majority of German people – an infection that could not be cured by negotiated settlement. Goebbels’s declaration of totaler Krieg, several weeks later, confirmed the President’s judgment.

Despite Churchill’s and Stalin’s discomfort with the policy, Roosevelt’s “unconditional surrender” decision was duly carried out by the Allies, ending with unconditional German surrender in May 1945: VE Day.

It was the end of Naziism as a genocidal ideology of the masses. Though neo-Nazi groups surfaced in most western countries over subsequent decades, inspired by the swastika, such groups remained for seventy years fringe associations or parties. The memory of what the Third Reich had done, and what it had cost humanity to end the nightmare, had been too awful for most thinking people.

Are we, in America, guilty of amnesia? Now the presidential election is over, how should a “democratic” writer react? Protest? Inner emigration? Emigration?

A tide of almost exclusively white anti-intellectual populism has swept the nation. Will it drown out – even silence – all protests? Will we have then to wait in “inner emigration” until, inevitably, the mood exhausts itself, as the demography of the United States inexorably changes and the white majority eventually becomes a minority: the very fear that most activates Trump supporters? Or will there be a catastrophe – whether economic, ecological, military, or terrorist – that brings on a global conflagration, in which, finally, the forces of dying white, Aryan supremacy, as in the American Civil War and then World War II, will have to be confronted, and brought to “unconditional surrender,” lest they once again poison our universe?

I don’t know. But I think it important to tell the truth about the past and its people – which, as a biographer, I shall continue to do. Until silenced.

Nigel Hamilton, Ph.D.

Senior Fellow, McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts Boston.

Author, “The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942” and  “Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle With Churchill, 1943” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)


by Nigel Hamilton

 Historians have been skeptical about téléchargementbiography since they invented it. By the same token biographers have been skeptical of historians.

Plutarch, in his life of Alexander the Great, felt impelled to remind readers he was writing “biography not history.” Histories, he pointed out, often told nothing of a “man’s character,” focusing rather on the facts of whether or not he won his battles. In his life of Timoleon, Plutarch rhapsodized on the joy he experienced in writing biography – treating history as a kind of mirror in which he could “adorn my own life by imitating the virtues of the men whose actions I have described. It is as though I could talk with the subjects of my Lives and enjoy their company every day.” Samuel Johnson later echoed that sentiment, but extended it to include both the “virtues and the vices” from which a thoughtful reader might learn.

For six years now, for my own part, I’ve been breaking bread with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not only am I glad to share his company in World War II, but I want others to, for the first time – since no historian has yet managed it. Moreover, in terms of lessons learned, I’m keen to show historians how for the most part they have wholly misunderstood FDR in his role as commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States. Far from being the laid-back, avuncular leader who left his generals to direct the war – as well his ally Winston Churchill – FDR was, I argue, the strategic mastermind and the patient military director or conductor of the Allies’ victory in World War II. As I’m seeking to narrate, he was almost constantly having to overrule his generals. And most importantly of all, he was having almost constantly to put down the strategic insurrections or rebellions of his crucial but junior ally and self-declared “lieutenant,” Winston Spencer Churchill.

Some historians – especially those bought up on Churchill’s self-laudatory six-volume war memoirs, which helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature – are reluctant to accept my somewhat radical biographical reconstruction of the war, and of FDR’s commanding role in its military prosecution. At my doctoral defense last spring, at Groningen University, one professor – a distinguished historian – noted that he, personally, was convinced by the forensic detail and authority of my revisionist approach. He posited that the reason Churchill and his supporters in the history profession had gotten away for so long with such a flawed account of the prime minister’s primacy in the direction of World War II might best be explained by what he called “structural” reasons.

How right he was – and is!

One such wall that the revisionist biographer must scale is patriotic pride. Another is accepted dogma. A third is the personal stake people may have in a given interpretation. A fourth is the lack of evidence to counter myth.  And so on….

All revisionist work must encounter such “structural” defense, or counterreformation, as it might be called – in fact I’m sure it’s little different in other areas of knowledge. A new proposition in science, say, or paleontology, or biology, will rarely be welcomed without fierce opposition – especially where professional reputations are at stake. In history, too. But biography is, I think, on an especially contentious ground, structurally and culturally. Just as Plutarch extolled the pleasures of his subjects’ company, so too do aficionados and supporters of a revered individual – and who feel threatened by revisionism.

In reevaluating Franklin Roosevelt as the true architect and director of military operations in World War II, in other words, I am bound to upset those who are wedded to the notion that it was the U.S. generals, not the U.S. President, who were chiefly responsible for strategy and victory in World II, as well as the many who stand by Winston Churchill’s magisterial account of his own leadership in his 6-volume account, The Second World War – namely the vast, colorful canvas Churchill painted in which it was he, not FDR, who was the strategic military genius behind the winning of WWII. And the first line of the structuralists’ defense of such a hero will always be to attack the factual basis, or evidence being put forward, in the revisionist case.

There are two aspects of this that I would like briefly to examine today. The first relates to what Hans Renders, in his forthcoming collection of essays on modern biography, calls “the biographical turn.”[1]

               Now in the late 1980s and early 1990s it became fashionable to decry the trend among modern biographers to write long, and in great forensic detail. As Lord Skidelsky put it, the “professionalization” of biography, especially among American university-led biographers, was leading to “works of scholarship rather than the imagination.” Janet Malcolm took up this claim in order to defend Ted Hughes, the husband of Sylvia Plath, in her 1994 investigation of biographers seeking to understand Plath, memorably accusing them of using “the apparatus of scholarship” to give “an appearance of bank-like scholarship and solidity, when the biography was nothing but a burglar, a busybody, a voyeur “simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail.” Even thirty years later, long after Hughes had died, Ms. Malcolm was trumpeting his postmortal right to silence, by pointing to the errors in Professor Jonathan Bate’s new biography, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life.

               In seeking to understand the “professionalization” of biography in recent years I’ve argued in my essay “Biography as Corrective” in the Biographical Turn, that far from being an effort to conceal the nefarious motives of burglars and voyeurs, the length and forensic detail a modern biographer feels he or she has to exhibit are professionally necessary to overcome the structuralist walls put up by opponents – the very likes of Ms. Malcolm! Lytton Strachey may have been successful in mocking the myths of his Victorian models in Eminent Victorians, but his amusing, succinct irony, without forensic new research, was ultimately found to be insufficient in a new century of scientific investigation to change people’s minds. Biographers have thus been forced to resort to ever higher levels of scholarship if they are to succeed in correcting historians’ structuralist defense mechanisms.

It was for this reason that, for the second volume of my “FDR at War” trilogy, I was grateful to the Biografie Instituut at Groningen University for offering me the chance to develop and present my manuscript in part for the university’s Ph.D. program, in order to ensure that, with their help, it would pass scholarly muster once the book met the inevitable structuralist defenders of the faith: those reviewers, readers and aficionados who cannot accept that the U.S. generals in World War II were dangerously wrong in 1942 and 1943, or who cannot accept that Winston Churchill was not the strategic genius of World War II that he claimed to be, after president Roosevelt was no longer alive to contest their versions.

The second aspect I would like to consider here is the possible analogy between modern biography and our justice system.

In order to better understand how the serious, revisionist biographer operates today it may be helpful for us to see him or her as a prosecuting attorney. The biographer, in this analogy, assembles a case to present to the jury – i.e. the reader and reviewer. He or she will have to be a master of rhetoric, and of detail. For the structuralist defense will do everything possible to question and discount the evidence the biographer produces – since otherwise, the defense’s client may go to jail!

               Revisionist biography, in other words – especially biography that seeks to correct history – is not only an exercise in good, Ciceronian argument, it must take account of the likely methods that the defenders, or opponents, in the case will employ. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” was the “dream team’s” famous mantra in the famous O.J. Simpson trial (referring to a blood-stained glove) – and it proved enough, together with efforts to question the factual evidence (DNA included) of the prosecuting attorney, Marcia Clark, to free the famous black footballer and broadcaster (though he was later convicted in civil court).

In another post I will look at the interesting way Commander in Chief, the second volume of my FDR trilogy, has fared before the jury since my PhD defense and publication.

For now, however, let me end by saying this. Revisionist biography – biography that has a moral agenda in contesting received opinion, and seeks to revise the current judgment of an individual in history, whether in the academy or in public – is a serious mission. Like the quality of our justice system as it is practiced, it has serious ramifications for the health of our society.

As proponents of the theory, justification and practice of biography in the modern world, members of the growing Biography Society have a noble purpose. In an age of Twitter, “professionalizing” biography is not a mask for burglary or voyeurism, pace Ms. Malcolm; it is a crucial, integral part of facing the many challenges – and ensuring the longevity – of the genre, today.

 An award-winning historical biographer, Dr Nigel Hamilton is currently a senior fellow at McCormack Graduate School, UMass Boston.
He is the author of:

[1] Hans Renders and Binne de Haan, The Biographical Turn [Routledge, forthcoming]

What Next?

 By Nigel Hamilton

Asked to write something for the 30th anniversary issue of Auto/Biography Studies on the theme “What Next?” I first balked, then wrote something. Was thanked and was then asked gently to get to the point, i.e. where we are going. So reluctantly I added more, looking ahead….

How, though, convey in a few words the rich field that is opening before our very eyes – but to which, as academics, we cannot do justice, since biography is still not accepted as its own interdisciplinary field in the academy?

               I couldn’t – or only summarily.

One of the most promising and exciting areas of biographical study, I predict, though, will be the no-man’s land between biographical fact and fiction – a land that is continually increasing in mass.

I have not seen reliable statistics but I would wager that, over the past dozen years, the number of real-life, named figures in fiction has doubled, at the very least – and is now increasing exponentially. If we include screen (biopics), stage dramas (thesbios), as well as romans à clef, based-on real characters, (parabios) we could be talking revolution. As in Lin-Miranda’s latest play Hamilton which has been sensationally successful on Broadway and – like a boomerang – is now arcing back as a best-selling book.

Creative writing teachers are already fascinated by this shapeshifting, in a world where all kinds of boundaries are easing, even disappearing. But what are we, as students of biography, doing to teach this phenomenon, and the many questions it raises for biography?

What exactly, we ask ourselves, is really going on? Are novelists running out of characters to invent? Or is the public fascination with celebrities – at least in the West – such that novelists and their publishers are retreating, pour mieux sauter: reckoning that the stories biographers relate are stranger or stronger than fiction, and can be exploited in fiction, or dramatization? Are they trading, literally, on the dropping of names the public will recognize, and be curious about such fictionalized, dramatized stories – a first pivot or sales guarantee in their pocket?

               Surely, though, it must go deeper than this?

One avenue of research the Société de Biographie might sponsor or encourage is the interviewing of fiction-writers – asking them directly: why are you choosing to present real people in your fiction so much today? Do you not see a possible danger, in that you may – if you are not a serious biographer – completely misunderstand, or may misconstrue the real life of the individual you portray? How do you think this will impact our culture and society? (For example, Hilary Mantel, in Wolf Hall, her fictional portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the chief of staff to King Henry VIII.) Do you even care, if it allows you to create an artistic masterpiece? (And be paid better, in the process, for having chosen a celebrity.) What exactly causes you to take that risk today?

I am no novelist, so am unwilling to guess. Nevertheless I love reading fiction – especially as an antidote, even escape, from my clinical study of real lives. So I find myself intrigued – unwilling to be too judgmental as a biographer, or biographer trained as an historian. When I read stories or accounts of prominent novels’ backstories in a newspaper – especially where the subjects are, or were, real people – I find myself intrigued.

One such article appeared this week in the New York Times. It was titled (in the print edition) “Childhood Fixation Becomes a Novel,” and its subtitle was “Emma Cline’s Manson Obsession.”

Emma is all of 27. Her debut novel is The Girls. Interviewed by Alexandra Alter, Ms. Cline said she traces her obsession back to the age of 7, when her parents used to drive her past San Quentin State Prison, where Charles Manson is still incarcerated. “That’s Manson’s House,” they’d say.

True to the tide of feminism and postfeminism sweeping our culture these past five decades, Emma was more curious about Manson’s “willing executioners” – his female acolytes – than about the psychopathic cult leader himself. “I felt everyone had heard enough of that story,” she told Ms. Alter. The monster’s “accomplices and devotees seemed like footnotes in his story,” she protested. She had lived in a small, commune-like family herself, with seven siblings – “extremely chaotic and feral,” as she put it. After failing to make much headway as an actress, she went to Columbia University’s MFA creative writing program – and The Girls was the result, garnering a million-dollar advance and screen rights sold on the way.

I, of course, would like to know more about this aspect of invention (and Ms. Cline). Where, though, can I study the business of being a biographer, in the same way as Ms. Cline learned at Columbia to be a novelist? Why are there no similar schools and programs for aspiring biographers, fascinated by truth?

But back to the point: the way true-life stories or potential stories are becoming the go-to dinner for aspiring fiction writers. According to Ms. Alter of the New York Times, Emma Cline’s novel The Girls is “arriving in the middle of a new wave of Manson-themed entertainment” – with Mansons’ Lost Girls, a TV-drama broadcast only last February, and a forthcoming TV series called “Aquarius,” about a fictional detective investigating Manson…. Plus two feature films on Manson already in the works!

Most will rely on the work of real biographers of real people, such as Jeff Gunn’s 2013 Manson – or, in Miranda’s case, Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. How ironic, then, that Ms. Cline’s and Mr. Miranda’s productions will become the stuff of Columbia University MFA dissection, as time goes on – but no-one, in the academy, will be examining such translations in terms of biography and the quest for truth!

Why are we, who are devoted to biography and the study of real lives, not teaching this phenomenon from our standpoint, as guardians of the search for the true stories of our own and of others’ lives in our modern culture (however tough the search for truth)?

Where are colleges and universities in the bid not only to examine popular culture, but to preserve, if possible, certain aspects crucial to our humanity – to truth as opposed to myth (however seductive, interesting or artistic the myth)?

As I ended my short piece for Auto/Biography Studies: “In biography’s house there are many mansions. One day real students will, I hope, be encouraged to enter.”

Nigel Hamilton

Nigel Hamilton is author of Biography: A Brief History (2007), and How To Do Biography: A Primer (2008). Dr. Hamilton is Senior Fellow in the McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts Boston.