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The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940 [Kindle Edition]

Frederick Brown
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)

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Book Description

From acclaimed biographer and cultural historian, author of For the Soul of France (“Masterful history” —Henry Kissinger), Zola (“Magnificent” —The New Yorker), and Flaubert (“Impeccable” —James Wood, cover, The New York Times Book Review)—a brilliant reconsideration of the events and the political, social, and religious movements that led to France’s embrace of Fascism and anti-Semitism. Frederick Brown explores the tumultuous forces unleashed in the country by the Dreyfus Affair and its aftermath and examines how the clashing ideologies—the swarm of ’isms—and their blood-soaked political scandals and artistic movements following the horrors of World War I resulted in the country’s era of militant authoritarianism, rioting, violent racism, and nationalistic fervor. We see how these forces overtook the country’s sense of reason, sealing the fate of an entire nation, and led to the fall of France and the rise of the Vichy government.

The Embrace of Unreason picks up where Brown’s previous book, For the Soul of France, left off to tell the story of France in the decades leading up to World War II.

We see through the lives of three writers (Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras, and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle) how the French intelligentsia turned away from the humanistic traditions and rationalistic ideals born out of the Enlightenment in favor of submission to authority that stressed patriotism, militarism, and xenophobia; how French extremists, traumatized by the horrors of the battlefront and exalted by the glories of wartime martyrdom, tried to redeem France’s collective identity, as Hitler’s shadow lengthened over Europe.

The author writes of the Stavisky Affair, named for the notorious swindler whose grandiose Ponzi scheme tarred numerous political figures and fueled the bloody riots of February 1934, with right-wing paramilitary leagues, already suffering from the worldwide effects of the 1929 stock market crash, decrying Stavisky the Jew as the direct descendant of Alfred Dreyfus and an exemplar of the decaying social order . . . We see the Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture that, in June 1935, assembled Europe’s most illustrious literati under the sponsorship of the Soviet Union, whose internal feuds anticipated those recounted by George Orwell in his Spanish Civil War memoir Homage to Catalonia . . .

Here too, pictured as the perfect representation of Europe’s cultural doomsday, is the Paris World’s Fair of 1937, featuring two enormous pavilions, the first built by Nazi Germany, the second by Soviet Russia, each facing the other like duelists on the avenue leading to the Eiffel Tower, symbol of the French Republic. And near them both, a pavilion devoted to “the art of the festival,” in which speakers and displays insisted that Nazi torchlight parades at Nuremberg should serve as a model for France.

Written with historical insight and grasp and made immediate through the use of newspaper articles, journals, and literary works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, The Embrace of Unreason brings to life Europe’s darkest modern years.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Notwithstanding the cultural brilliance of the Belle Epoque, the first half of the twentieth century was, in many ways, disastrous for France. It included the physical and human destruction of the Great War, the failed diplomacy of the interwar years, the rapid military collapse in WWII, and the shame of the Vichy regime. As this superb study reveals, these disasters were directly linked to a political and cultural rot that permeated all levels of French society. On the eve of WWI, France was still racked by unresolved issues carried over from the previous decades. The hatreds engendered by the Dreyfus affair, the conflicts between Catholics and secularists, and the riffs between staunch republicans and monarchists were still fought out in the popular press, literary organs, and sometimes in the streets. On a more fundamental level, Brown describes a retreat from the rationalism of the Enlightenment and an embrace of emotionalism and romantic nostalgia among French elites. This was manifested in an exclusionary nationalism, virulent anti-Semitism, and a general distrust of pluralistic democracy. This is a riveting portrait of a society weakened by internal decay. --Jay Freeman


“Brown [is] the leading English-language chronicler of this appalling but fascinating French story.” —New Republic
“Brilliant. . . . At once social history, cultural history, and a series of biographical sketches, Frederick Brown’s book is both illuminating and a warning. . . . This is terrific history—Brown is an incisive biographer, very good on politics, still better on culture, and anybody who is interested in France . . . should read this book.” —The Daily Beast
“A stimulating portrayal. . . . Brown deftly and economically analyzes [his subjects]. . . . He succeeds as usual in joining accurate scholarship to elegant and often pithy style.” —The New York Review of Books
“[Brown] is a historian who eschews jargon and knows how to make complicated questions clear to the common reader.” —The Wall Street Journal

Product Details

  • File Size: 6225 KB
  • Print Length: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (April 1, 2014)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00FO5Z9HA
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #431,562 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Brilliant Book from Frederick Brown May 5, 2014
Having been impressed by Brown's superb books on Zola and the era of Dreyfus, I found The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940 more proof of just what a gifted author he truly is. This is a simply stunning look at the people, culture, and politics of France between the two world wars and is as well written and engrossing as anything I've read about that time in quite a while. Brown writes in a way that is highly entertaining and very scholarly at the same time. The reader feels they are immersed in the spirit of the era and has actually lived as an informed observer during the years leading to the horror of the Nazi occupation. Insightful, well researched, and profoundly satisfying study for scholars of the period as well as those seeking a better understanding of it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I been waiting for this book June 12, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I have enjoyed The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940. The book covers an important moment in French and, indirectly, European history. It is well-documented and provides rich in information about the 1918-1939 European Truce, a period of recent history which I consider has been largely neglected by historians and sociologists . As a historian Frederick Brown makes an excellent journalistic job. I came close to give five stars to the book, but I think that the author could have provided more deep coverage of the sociological aspects that shaped the epoch. A excellent, and quite enjoyable book, nevertheless,
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars France as a Harbinger June 5, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Political gridlock in the USA? Try France between the wars. Author Brown documents the political follies which should serve as a warning to us Americans.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Here is the story of a great country that prides itself on ideas having run out of ideas. Of the intellectual and moral catastrophe - masquerading as national revival - that preceded the military collapse of France under German invasion in 1940. And of the bitter subversion of French thought after the debacle of the First World War that allowed Marshal Philippe Petain to say that only the heroic surrender of France to Hitler could save the idea of France. But a France that was anti-democratic, anti-Semitic and scornful of heroes - foremost Charles de Gaulle - who believed in continuing the fight for the truer dream of France. This is a bitter and horrifying story, but a must-read book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Is there an extreme Nationalist in the House? July 30, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A thorough, authoritative, review of the banalities of nationalism and demagoguery French style in the torturous period between the wars in Europe. A refreshing and sobering foil to the mass distributed treacly concept of France as an overly romanticized theme park of nostalgia and assorted icons.
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This is an excellent intellectual history showing the evolution of political thought from the strong and resolute to the weak and appeasing over a three-decade span. In particular, Brown shows the influence of the aberrant edges of culture on the evolution of what becomes politically acceptable to think. In short, cultural change has big impacts on expressed political beliefs.
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More About the Author

Frederick Brown is the author of Flaubert, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, and Zola, named an Editor's Choice by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of the year. Brown has twice been the recipient of both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships. He lives in New York City.


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