Robert O. Pax­ton

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The Or­der of the Day by Éric Vuil­lard, trans­lated from the French by Mark Poliz­zotti. Other Press, 132 pp., $21.95

Éric Vuil­lard won the 2017 Gon­court Prize, France’s most pres­ti­gious literary honor, for his book L’Or­dre du jour. Its 132 small pages form very likely the slen­der­est vol­ume ever awarded the prize since it was es­tab­lished in 1903. The book’s odd­i­ties do not end with brevity. The Gon­court Prize is usu­ally awarded for fic­tion, but L’Or­dre du jour, re­cently pub­lished in an English trans­la­tion un­der the ti­tle The Or­der of the Day, comes closer to non­fic­tion. The au­thor calls it a récit, a term with no ex­act English equiv­a­lent that means a nar­ra­tive, not nec­es­sar­ily au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, in which we are al­ways aware of the pres­ence of an in­ter­ven­ing nar­ra­tor. The Or­der of the Day presents in minute de­tail two seem­ingly sep­a­rate events in the early his­tory of Nazi Ger­many. The first is a pri­vate meet­ing of twenty-four Ger­man in­dus­tri­al­ists and bankers with Hitler on Fe­bru­ary 20, 1933, just three weeks after the Nazi leader had be­come chan­cel­lor of Ger­many. Her­mann Go­er­ing ex­plains to the as­sem­bled men that the Nazi Party needs funds to pre­pare for forth­com­ing par­lia­men­tary elec­tions that will set­tle defini­tively Ger­many’s so­cial con­flicts. He prom­ises that they will be the last elec­tions in Ger­many for many years, per­haps a cen­tury. Then Hitler comes in and ha­rangues his vis­i­tors with an ac­count of his world­view and his in­ten­tion to rid Ger­many of com­mu­nism. Ad­dress­ing their con­cern about ru­mors of un­ortho­dox eco­nomic ideas among his as­so­ciates, he re­as­sures them that he will up­hold the rights of prop­erty and en­ter­prise. When he fin­ishes, the men open their check­books.

The sec­ond event, more com­plex and re­counted at much greater length, is Hitler’s oc­cu­pa­tion of Aus­tria in early 1938. The process be­gins on Fe­bru­ary 12 at Hitler’s alpine chalet, where the Aus­trian chan­cel­lor Kurt von Schuschnigg has been sum­moned only to un­dergo a no­to­ri­ous bul­ly­ing from the Führer. The brow­beaten Schuschnigg agrees to a num­ber of steps that put Aus­trian Nazis in con­trol of his coun­try, but when he pushes back with the an­nounce­ment of a na­tional plebiscite to af­firm its in­de­pen­dence, Ger­man mil­i­tary units en­ter Aus­tria on March 12. The mat­ter ends with Hitler’s dec­la­ra­tion of An­schluss—union of the two coun­tries—be­fore a deliri­ous crowd in Vi­enna on March 15.

Over the course of eight ear­lier books Éric Vuil­lard has de­vel­oped a per­sonal style of his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive. The Actes Sud pub­lish­ing house brought out four of these réc­its in rapid suc­ces­sion be­tween 2012 and 2016. Each one re­counts in close fo­cus cru­cial but dis­parate mo­ments, mostly within some ma­jor his­tor­i­cal episode, with rel­a­tively lit­tle at­ten­tion to the larger cir­cum­stances. La Bataille d’Oc­ci­dent (2012) ex­am­ines the ori­gins and the open­ing cam­paign of World War I, turn­ing abruptly at the end to the at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion in 1915 of the fi­nancier J. P. Mor­gan Jr. Congo (2012) re­counts the Congress of Ber­lin in 1884, which ap­por­tioned spheres of in­flu­ence in Africa among the great Euro­pean pow­ers, and then gives some ex­am­ples of Euro­peans en­rich­ing them­selves in the Congo at the ex­pense of the in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion.

Tristesse de la terre (2014) deals with the Wild West cir­cus of Buf­falo Bill Cody and the ap­pear­ance in it of Sit­ting Bull, an oc­ca­sion for com­ment on the spo­li­a­tion of Na­tive Amer­i­cans but end­ing with a cu­ri­ous vi­gnette of Wil­son Bent­ley, the Ver­mont farm boy who first pho­tographed snowflakes and found that no two were alike. Vuil­lard has a good eye for is­sues such as war, em­pire, the fate of col­o­nized peo­ples, and the gulf be­tween per­cep­tion and re­al­ity. Vuil­lard’s tech­nique works best in 14 juil­let (2016), an ac­count of the cap­ture of the Bastille by a Parisian crowd at the on­set of the French Rev­o­lu­tion. By way of deeper ex­pla­na­tion Vuil­lard of­fers only the la­conic ob­ser­va­tion that peo­ple were hun­gry. The book works well not only be­cause the ac­tion is highly con­cen­trated but also be­cause for once Vuil­lard is sym­pa­thetic to his char­ac­ters. It ends on a cel­e­bra­tory note with a bl­iz­zard of papers and files thrown out the win­dows of the ran­sacked fortress. Vuil­lard lists the va­ri­eties of forms and re­ports swirling down­ward in a riff that re­calls Ra­belais or early Cé­line. How grat­i­fy­ing it is, he con­cludes, in a more ex­plicit state­ment of per­sonal val­ues than usual, to over­turn ev­ery­thing now and then.

L’Or­dre du jour strikes a darker and more sar­donic note than 14 juil­let. The ti­tle, which means a list of things that need to be done or an agenda, sug­gests that some­one has planned these events, and we may sus­pect that the twen­ty­four rich in­dus­tri­al­ists and bankers had some­thing to do with them.

The re­spon­si­bil­ity of big busi­ness for fas­cism’s com­ing to power has been an in­sis­tent al­le­ga­tion from the first mo­ments of Mus­solini’s suc­cess in Italy in 1920–1922. Al­ready in 1924 the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tional de­fined fas­cism as “the in­stru­ment of the big bour­geoisie for fight­ing the pro­le­tariat, when the le­gal means avail­able to the state have

proved in­suf­fi­cient to sub­due them.”1 This for­mu­la­tion even­tu­ally hard­ened into or­tho­doxy: “Fas­cism is the open, ter­ror­is­tic dic­ta­tor­ship of the most re­ac­tionary, most chau­vin­is­tic, and most im­pe­ri­al­ist el­e­ments of fi­nance cap­i­tal.” In less doc­tri­naire terms, many peo­ple have long as­sumed that even if busi­ness­men did not in­vent Hitler, they were his in­dis­pens­able fi­nanciers. In re­cent years some painstak­ing re­search in busi­ness archives has brought hard ev­i­dence to bear on this con­tro­ver­sial sub­ject.

The rich in­dus­tri­al­ists and bankers whom Hitler shook down in Fe­bru­ary 1933 were, as Vuil­lard notes, no strangers to po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions. The re­cip­i­ents of their sup­port changed that month, how­ever. The late Yale his­to­rian Henry Turner scru­ti­nized busi­ness archives not only to dis­cover whether these fi­nanciers con­trib­uted to the Nazis but also to es­tab­lish the pat­tern of Ger­man firms’ po­lit­i­cal sub­si­dies. He found that Ger­man busi­ness­men con­trib­uted to all their coun­try’s nonMarx­ist par­ties. The Nazis were not, in fact, the largest re­cip­i­ents, for Ger­man busi­ness lead­ers were sus­pi­cious of some of Hitler’s as­so­ciates, such as Got­tfried Feder and the Strasser brothers, who pan­dered to pop­u­lar anger at the wealthy and pro­posed rad­i­cal schemes of eco­nomic re­dis­tri­bu­tion for over­com­ing the Great De­pres­sion. Ger­man busi­ness­men greatly pre­ferred tra­di­tional con­ser­va­tives with more ortho­dox eco­nomic ideas, such as Alfred Hu­gen­berg and Franz von Papen. Only a few, like the in­dus­tri­al­ist Fritz Thyssen, were re­ally en­thu­si­as­tic about Hitler, and then only tem­po­rar­ily. The Nazi Party self-fi­nanced its op­er­a­tions to a con­sid­er­able de­gree by sell­ing books and trin­kets and charg­ing en­trance fees to its enor­mous ral­lies.2 Although the Nazis had not been the first choice of Ger­man busi­ness, the busi­ness­men were to adapt strik­ingly well to the Nazi dic­ta­tor­ship. The con­straints of Hitler’s “five-year plans” for rear­ma­ment obliged them to ac­cept a high de­gree of cen­tral­ized reg­i­men­ta­tion, such as the al­lo­ca­tion of raw ma­te­ri­als, pro­duc­tion quo­tas, and price-fix­ing. But they were more than com­pen­sated for these bur­dens by the de­struc­tion of the Marx­ist par­ties, the So­cial Democrats and Com­mu­nists, that were threat­en­ing to na­tion­al­ize their en­ter­prises; the dis­so­lu­tion of free la­bor unions; and the abo­li­tion of the right to strike. (The Nazis’ dis­man­tling of so­cial­ist par­ties and unions, by the way, demon­strates the ab­sur­dity of some re­cent claims by con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tors that fas­cism came his­tor­i­cally from the left.) The busi­ness­men shifted their strat­egy from one based on in­ter­na­tional trade to one of au­tarky, as Hitler de­manded, and were richly re­warded with fat ar­ma­ments con­tracts. They used slave la­bor dur­ing the war with­out ap­par­ent con­cern. They of­fered no re­sis­tance to Hitler, even in the clos­ing days of the war, when some gen­er­als and high civil ser­vants plot­ted to over­throw him. But Vuil­lard goes into none of this,

1Quoted in “Marx­ists,” in Face of Fas­cism: Writ­ing by Marx­ists on Fas­cism from the In­ter­war Pe­riod, edited by David Beetham (Univer­sity of Manch­ester Press, 1983), pp. 152–153.

2See Henry Ashby Turner Jr., Ger­man Big Busi­ness and the Rise of Hitler (Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, 1985). for he is re­ally not in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing this sub­ject in an an­a­lyt­i­cal way.

Vuil­lard’s swarm­ing de­tails are gritty and phys­i­cal. The busi­ness­men in The Or­der of the Day puff and sweat as they as­cend the cer­e­mo­nial stair­case to­ward the cham­ber where they will meet Hitler. We see “twenty-four over­coats in tan, black, brown, or am­ber; twen­ty­four pairs of wool-padded shoul­ders; twenty-four three-piece suits, and the same num­ber of pleated trousers with cuffs.” In 14 juil­let, Vuil­lard de­scribes the de­struc­tion of the Bastille stone by stone and tells us (per­haps draw­ing on po­lice re­ports) how a vic­tim’s corpse looked, “in rough woolen trousers, heavy shoes, a coarse shirt, and an olive wool jacket. He had a large wound in the side, and was miss­ing his right thumb.” In the Aus­trian sec­tion of The Or­der of the Day we fol­low Schuschnigg closely, watch­ing the tops of the pines in an ef­fort to mas­ter his anx­i­ety as his car climbs up to Hitler’s chalet. When Vuil­lard also tells us what par­tic­i­pants in these events were think­ing, he re­sorts in­evitably to fic­tion: “The bor­der lay just ahead, and Schuschnigg was sud­denly seized by ap­pre­hen­sion. He felt as if the truth was just be­yond his grasp.” Un­for­tu­nately we can’t tell which parts of the text are his cre­ations, which rely on pe­riod archives, and which come from mem­oirs writ­ten in af­ter­thought. He has cho­sen his de­tails not for their ex­plica­tive value but for their rev­e­la­tion of hu­man folly. Vuil­lard has done some home­work and his nar­ra­tives are gen­er­ally ac­cu­rate, but he likes to heighten the im­pres­sion of ab­sur­dity. When Ger­man mil­i­tary units en­ter Aus­tria un­der the com­mand of Gen­eral Heinz Gud­e­rian on March 12, 1938, many of the tanks and trucks break down along the high­way be­tween Salzburg and Vi­enna. Vuil­lard en­joys the ironic com­par­i­son be­tween the stalled ve­hi­cles and Gud­e­rian’s fa­mous writ­ings about Blitzkrieg. He claims that the “vast ma­jor­ity of the great Ger­man army” suf­fered hu­mil­i­at­ing break­downs, though Gud­e­rian ad­mit­ted to less than 30 per­cent.3 What­ever the ex­act num­ber, Vuil­lard’s de­light in irony seems to have out­weighed ex­ac­ti­tude.

The most ven­omous por­traits in The Or­der of the Day are not of the Nazi lead­ers—their im­ages are un­al­ter­ably fa­mil­iar—but of Bri­tish ap­peasers like Lord Hal­i­fax, “stand­ing proudly be­hind his lit­tle line of fore­bears, deaf as trom­bones, dumb as buz­zards, and blind as don­keys,” who vis­its Go­er­ing os­ten­si­bly for a bit of fox-hunt­ing but re­ally in or­der to trans­mit the mes­sage that the Bri­tish govern­ment un­der­stands Ger­many’s po­si­tion and would not ob­ject to a few ad­just­ments in the Ver­sailles set­tle­ment of 1919 if they can be made in an or­derly and peace­ful man­ner.

Some com­ments about The Or­der of the Day have sug­gested that this book ex­plains how Hitler reached power. That is mis­taken. It opens with Hitler al­ready in­stalled as chan­cel­lor of Ger­many. If one is look­ing for an anal­y­sis

3

Gen­eral Heinz Gud­e­rian, Panzer Leader: Gen­eral Heinz Gud­e­rian, trans­lated by Con­stan­tine Fitzgib­bon, with an in­tro­duc­tion by Ken­neth Mack­sey and a fore­word by Cap­tain B.H. Lid­dell Hart (Da Capo, 2002), p. 53. of how the for­mer cor­po­ral be­came chan­cel­lor, there are mas­ter­ful syn­the­ses of con­tem­po­rary schol­ar­ship such as Richard J. Evans’s The Com­ing of the Third Re­ich.4

Vuil­lard’s way in his réc­its of pil­ing on dis­parate de­tails may seem life-like, but it doesn’t amount to an ex­pla­na­tion. The best his­to­ri­ans may well wish to avoid crude lin­ear causal­ity, but they an­a­lyze how peo­ple make choices among op­tions that are mul­ti­ple but lim­ited in his­tor­i­cally pre­cise ways. Vuil­lard doesn’t ac­tu­ally show us the busi­ness­men de­cid­ing things, but when they reap­pear at the book’s end after the war, richer and more hon­ored than ever, it is no doubt they who have drafted and car­ried out the agenda, the or­der of the day.

Vuil­lard ad­dresses his feel­ings about his­tory more ex­plic­itly here than in the ear­lier réc­its. “His­tory as spec­ta­cle” is what he of­fers. Late in the book he di­gresses yet again to present Gün­ther Stern, bet­ter known as Gün­ther An­ders, a philoso­pher and the first hus­band of Han­nah Arendt (Vuil­lard tells us none of this), whose first job as a refugee in the United States was with Hol­ly­wood Cus­tom Palace, a cos­tume rental agency that al­ready had Nazi uni­forms and in­signia in stock in the early 1940s. The Hol­ly­wood en­ter­tain­ment ma­chine, Vuil­lard sug­gests, had used the Nazi regime to make prof­its for it­self, and films that have “show[n] us this his­tory, shape[d] our in­ti­mate knowl­edge of it.” We are back to rep­re­sen­ta­tions and re­al­ity: “We can never know.” Vuil­lard claims that the writer’s task is to “lift the hideous rags of His­tory” and re­veal the deals and bluffs and scams be­neath.

Vuil­lard’s prose—mus­cu­lar, con­crete, richly in­ven­tive, ironic, sar­donic, opin­ion­ated—is no doubt the fea­ture of The Or­der of the Day that most ap­pealed to the Gon­court jury. Vuil­lard is ex­pert at black hu­mor, as in his ac­count of the ex­cru­ci­at­ing farewell lunch in Lon­don for Ger­man am­bas­sador Ribben­trop, who is re­turn­ing to Ber­lin to be­come for­eign min­is­ter. Mid­way through lunch, Prime Min­is­ter Cham­ber­lain is handed a note in­form­ing him that Ger­man troops are en­ter­ing Aus­tria. Ribben­trop surely knows, but he pro­longs the mun­dan­i­ties while Cham­ber­lain strug­gles to keep up a po­lite front. As Vuil­lard ex­plains his method, “When hu­mor tips into such dark­ness, it speaks the truth.” But while this episode makes clever fun of Bri­tish man­ners, it does not re­ally help ex­plain why the Bri­tish failed to con­tain Hitler in 1938.

The ten Gon­court ju­rors, who name their own re­place­ments, have not suc­ceeded bet­ter than other prize ju­rors in iden­ti­fy­ing the mas­ter au­thors of their time. Mar­cel Proust—who won the prize for the sec­ond vol­ume of À la recherche du temps perdu in 1919—is the only gi­ant among the win­ners. Only a few oth­ers, such as An­dré Mal­raux (1933), Si­mone de Beau­voir (1954), Pa­trick Mo­di­ano (1978), Mar­guerite Duras (1984), and Michel Houelle­becq (2010), rise above a pro­ces­sion of largely for­got­ten names. Many ma­jor twen­ti­eth­cen­tury French au­thors—An­dré Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Al­bert Ca­mus, Cé­line, Co­lette—never re­ceived the Gon­court. Will Éric Vuil­lard be among the win­ners who are long re­mem­bered? There is rea­son to doubt it.

4Pen­guin, 2004.

Éric Vuil­lard, New York City, Oc­to­ber 2018; pho­to­graph by Dominique Nabokov

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