In 2009, France celebrated the 150th anniversary of Jean Jaurès, one of the major figures of French socialism and a founder of the French socialist party, who was assassinated in Paris on July 31, 1914 by the aptly named Raoul Villain. Jaurès was famous for his steadfast pacifism and his fierce opposition to World War I, one of the bloodiest wars in history. Jaurès also founded L'Humanité, a French daily that since the 1920's has been associated with the French Communist Party. In fact, Jaurès was gunned down at le Café du Croissant (Rue Montmarte), where he stopped after leaving the offices of the newspaper. The man who killed him was a militant nationalist; the nationalists wanted war. Jaurès rightly saw the rise of nationalisms as fueling the clash between the superpowers and the clash between the superpowers as being based on economic rivalries. The last ten years of his life were spent opposing the war that came anyway.
I've been thinking about World War I a lot lately, having just finished reading Le temps retrouvé, which is the final tome in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. Much of this volume concerns the transformation of Paris during the war and the way in which the war is another "turn of the kaleidescope" around which the various individuals Proust's narrator observes over the years define and reveal themselves. For the dreadful Mme. Verdurin, the worst thing about the war is that it disrupts her daily supply of croissants, until she gets her friend, Dr Cottard, to write her a prescription for them as a cure for her migraines. Proust does not specifically mention Jaurès, but he discusses the dangers and ultimate absurdity of nationalism at great length. What is the difference, he wonders, between the bravery of a French soldier killed in battle, and that of a German soldier? Both are celebrated as war heroes at home, both are worshipped out of the same sense of nationalistic fervor.
L'Affaire Dreyfus, another Proustian turn of the kaleidescope, is also central to the political rise of Jaurès. Initially convinced that Dreyfus was guilty as charged, Jaurès changed his mind after reading Zola's J'accuse and became a militant dreyfusard. He saw Dreyfus as a victim of the military caste and he saw the military caste as the armed guards of capitalism and hence the enemy of the proletariat.
Yesterday I came across a speech Jaurès gave on July 30, 1903 at his old high school (le lycée d'Albi), where he had also been a teacher. More than a hundred years ago, here's what Jaurès said:
L’humanité est maudite, si pour faire preuve de courage elle est condamnée à tuer éternellement. Le courage, aujourd’hui, ce n’est pas de maintenir sur le monde la sombre nuée de la Guerre , nuée terrible, mais dormante, dont on peut toujours se flatter qu’elle va éclater sur d’autres. Le courage, ce n’est pas de laisser aux mains de la force la solution des conflits que la raison peut résoudre: car le courage est l’exaltation de l’homme , et ceci en est l’abdication ...
Basically, Jaurès says that humanity is cursed if eternal slaughter is its way of demonstrating courage. Courage is not about keeping the dark cloud of war -- terrible but dormant -- hanging over the world, constantly flattering ourselves into believing it will burst on others. Courage is not about letting those with weapons solve conflicts that can be resolved through reason: because courage is the exaltation of humanity and this is its abdication.
And that's why they killed Jaurès on July 31, 1914, three days before the beginning of the hostilities and subsequent carnage known as World War I.
And what of Villain, the man who killed Jaurès? He was acquitted in 1918, in a climate of fervent nationalism. Villain then exiled himself, leaving France for Spain, where he was executed by Spanish anarchists in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War.