‘The French have the Great War in their hearts’

In France, the first World War is more important than the second, and still resonates 100 years after it began, according to the country’s leading historian of the conflict

French historian and specialist of contemporary history Jean-Jacques Becker. Photograph: Pierre Andrieu/AFP/Getty Images

French historian and specialist of contemporary history Jean-Jacques Becker. Photograph: Pierre Andrieu/AFP/Getty Images

Sat, May 3, 2014, 01:00

Prof Jean-Jacques Becker, who will turn 86 on May 14th, is the most reknowned French historian of the first World War. These days, he’s in demand. The author of 25 books, Becker has temporarily sacrificed research to participate in dozens of conferences and exhibitions marking the centenary of the 1914-1918 war.

Becker explains the unique place the war occupies in the French psyche. “The Great War is, with the Revolution, the founding event in French history,” he says. “It’s the moment when national feeling peaked, when the nation was in a way completed.”

Becker prefers “Great War” to “first World War.” One can only call it the “first” war because we know in retrospect there would be a second, he explains. And it was a European – not “world” war. Finally, it was the term used at the time. “Very quickly, contemporaries talked about the ‘Great War’,” Becker says. “Because it was war on a scale never seen before.”

The first World War “is more fundamental to French identity than the second World War for a simple reason,” he says. “The French fought in the Great War, whereas they were victims in the second World War. The debacle of the army in 1940, the Vichy government and collaboration with Germany were all very negative aspects of French history.

“Whatever the horrors of the Great War, the French fought it, with courage and resolve. They suffered terrible losses that could not be restored. Consciously or unconsciously, the French have the Great War in their hearts.”

For decades, the war remained omnipresent in France. Becker’s father André, who sold toy trains for the French company Jouets de Paris, was a poilu decorated with the croix de guerre. He never talked about it.

Becker recalls an inspector for the education ministry, a first World War gueule cassée (“broken mug”). “He grew very angry if students smiled when he entered a classroom because he thought they were mocking his disfigured face.”

Before Becker, French historians concentrated on the military and diplomatic aspects of the war. His book, French Opinion and the Beginning of the 1914 War, published in 1977, revolutionised the way wars were studied. Because of Becker, the focus shifted from ambassadors and generals to the lives of civilians and conscripts.

Becker had combed through archives of school teachers’ reports, requested by the ministry of education in 1914, on the mood in their towns. He debunked the myth that French soldiers departed carefree and joyous for the front, with flowers in the barrels of their rifles. “Crowds came to see the regiments off,” he explains. “They cheered and threw flowers. Very few soldiers put flowers in their guns, but the legend was born.”

The soldiers regretted leaving their work and families, and knew they might be killed. “The dominant mood was one of resolve,” Becker says. “They felt they had been attacked by Germany and they were determined to defend their country.”

Becker believes the war started “by accident, because of the chain of events set in motion by the assassination in Sarajevo. Relations between European powers weren’t good, particularly France and Germany. There were tensions, but the situation was improving. I’m not convinced the war would have happened anyway. The fate of the world would have been different . . . The Great War was an enormous caesura in human history.”

Since the 1980s, Becker’s more humanistic approach has revived French interest in the Great War. Stéphane Audoin-Rozeau, one of his former students, and his daughter, Annette Becker, are with Becker the pre-eminent experts in the country. Together, the three planned France’s biggest first World War museum, at Péronne, in the Somme, which opened in 1992.

Becker’s ancestors left Lorraine for Paris after the eastern province was seized by Germany in 1870. When he was a boy, his father would exclaim after dinner: “There’s another meal the Prussians won’t eat,” referring to the 1870 war.

In July 1942, his family fled to Grenoble, in the unoccupied zone, a few days after 13,152 foreign Jews were rounded up at the “Vél d’Hiv” velodrome and deported to Auschwitz.

The Beckers were secular Jews. “We didn’t identify with Jews or the Jewish community. We never practised any aspect of the religion.”

Grenoble was in the Italian-occupied sector of France. After the Italians surrendered, the Germans moved in. “If the war had lasted longer, we probably would not have survived,” he says.

Becker’s sister, the late historian Annie Kriegel, joined the communist resistance; his brother Henri, the Gaullists. After the war, the family became communists, but they grew disillusioned when details of Stalin’s tyranny emerged and Moscow violently repressed the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

Becker never got involved in politics again. “You cannot be a good historian unless you keep a certain distance,” he says.

There will not be another world war, Becker believes, “Because it would be a nuclear war, and it’s hard to imagine a state starting a war knowing that it could destroy mankind.” However, he adds, “There are men crazy enough for incredible things to occur, but I think the danger is so great that it won’t happen. No one imagined what the Great War would be like. Today, everyone knows what nuclear war would mean.”

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