The Road to Vichy: Yves R. Simon’s Lonely Fight Against Fascism

An expert on the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas who became known as the Philosopher of the Fighting French, Yves Simon brought a distinctive point of view to the defeat and occupation of his country. After considering the factors in his background which helped shape it, we shall turn to the originality of the perspective itself.

“Remember,” Yves Simon wrote Jacques Maritain a few weeks after composing The Road to Vichy in 1941, “I am the only sansculotte who, since 1922, has tied himself to you and your philosophy—despite your affinity for the Action Francaise and those horrible characters who would come to shake your hand at the end of your lectures at the Institut Catholique.” And in fact, Simon, born in Cherbourg in 1903, had been unusual among the early intellectual disciples of Maritain in his democratic instincts and his admiration for the French Revolution; most of the students of the great philosopher in those days were convinced that the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas nurtured the “new Right” authoritarian politics of Charles Maurras and the Action Francaise. Maritain confessed to Simon in 1941 that he had in “one of the greatest errors of my life,” for which he had “paid dearly,” “believed for a time in a parallelism of action between the people of the A.F. and the Thomist renaissance.” Simon, who also had ties with the Christian Democrats of the Jeune Republique, as he tells us here, complemented his own study of St. Thomas by reading in the anarchism of Proudhon.

After completing degrees at the Sorbonne and at the Institut Catholique in Paris in 1930, Simon began an eight-year stint as professor in the Catholic University of Lille. In 1934 he obtained his doctorate from the Institut Catholique, where he lectured part-time, for his doctoral dissertation entitled Introduction a l’Ontologie du Connaitre. It was immediately published in the philosophical series directed by Maritain and soon ranked as a classic of contemporary Thomism, alongside those of Maritain and Etienne Gilson. That study, with his subsequent work on moral judgment, Critique de la Connaissance Morale, gained him recognition as one of Maritain’s brightest pupils and a gifted moral and political philosopher in his own right.

In 1935 Simon entered French political discourse with a carefully reasoned attack upon the pious justifications for Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. Several prominent Catholics including Msgr. Baudrillart, rector of the Institut Catholique, had signed a manifesto, composed by Maurrasian Henri Massis, depicting the aggression as in the interests of Western Christian civilization. Simon’s La Campagne d’Ethiopie et la Pensee Politique Francaise, vigorously refuted the sophistical justification, but he soon met the pressures exerted by powerful elements in the French Catholic establishment against militant antifascists and recognized their dissimulated sympathy for international fascism.

By early 1938 Yves Simon had become convinced that France was rotten with treacherous support for Hitler’s global strategy and her Republic government paralyzed by an orchestrated threat of civil war. If he were living in Paris, he confided to Maritain, he would like the revolutionaries of old, fight for radical measures to defend the Republic, “le Salut public,” against the enemies of democracy. But in April he received an offer to become visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame in the United States. He had been recommended by the distinguished medievalist Etienne Gilson, and by Waldemar Gurian, a militantly antifascist Jewish convert to Catholicism close to Maritain who had fled Europe to that Indiana university the previous fall. Simon, in his growing disillusionment with his countrymen, particularly with the Catholic intelligentsia, accepted the American offer.

A leading “progressive” Catholic publication, on which Simon pinned a good deal of hope, was Sept, the organ of an avant-garde of the French Dominicans. But in August 1937 that flourishing review had ceased publication “for financial reasons”—in which Catholic hierarchy resentment against antifranquism certainly figured. Simon then was a co-founder of a new review, under lay direction and with the title Temps Present, to pick up where Sept had left off—notably by attacking the notion that support for Franco represented the only possible “Catholic position” on Spain.

By June 1938 Simon noted a moral degeneration in the European Catholic hierarchy: Cardinal Goma’s perfidious speech in Budapest was only comparable to the earlier pro-Nazi remarks of Cardinal Innitzer in Austria. The church, he told Maritain, was full of contemptible “heretical schismatics, apostates,” “in-house corrupters.” He proposed that Temps Present advocate a compromise position on Spain which would allow Catholics to disassociate themselves from Franco’s party. Simon knew that there were waverers at the review—the prominent essayist and church historian Henri Daniel-Rops prominent among them—but he still urged Maritain to compose a “decisive” essay over against the Catholics marching lockstep in that anticommunist “totalitarian clericalism” which the Franquist side promoted. In response to Maritain’s warning that the staff of Temps Present might well disappoint him, Simon argued for radically purging the review of the prevailing “negligences, vulgarities, and stupidities.”

After the Munich agreements in the fall of 1938, Simon, even more pessimistic about France, decided to remain in the United States. Maritain, now also in America, fought for an alternative to the overwhelming American Catholic support for Franco, but found only the radical Catholic pacifist Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker enthusiastic about reprinting and distributing his articles on the subject. In fact Maritain encountered a “paroxysm of hatred” from important Catholics over his position on Spain, a hatred fueled by clerical resentment over a layman influencing Catholic opinion. Maritain and Simon, for their part, made plans to translate Dorothy Day and spread knowledge of her heroic role in the American church, and of that uncompromising antifascism which made her so very isolated in the Catholic world of the 1930s.

By early 1939, Yves Simon’s gloomiest prognostications seemed confirmed. He saw a “domestic treason party” which would undermine his country in case of war. The “homogeneisation,” or the “pacific Nazification,” of the country was a real possibility now that there was the disquieting sign of the return of Petain to prominence. France had lost her moral sense, her “moeurs” in Proudhon’s phrase, and needed a Clemenceau or a Danton to deal with the anti-Semites. When the right-wing writer Thierry Maulnier wrote the terrible formula, “The defeat of France would be only the defeat of France; the victory of France would be the defeat of civilization,” an appalled Simon thought that Maulnier had openly said what many others felt. By April 1939 he had already concluded that there were already too many Maulniers in France for a Clemenceau to settle the matter with a few executions.

Simon remained particularly concerned by the Catholic Church’s relationship with international fascism, remarking disquieting signs—particularly in Spanish policy—after the election of Cardinal Pacelli as Pius XII on 2 March 1939. Not long afterwards he was discouraged from attempting to help Alfred Mendizabal, a distinguished Spanish contributor to Sept (and law professor at the University of Oviedo who had been a regular proponent of mediation efforts), because Father O’Hara, Notre Dame’s president, had become so influenced by franquist propaganda. Simon shared Maritain’s disquiet about the “suspicious” attitudes of influential French priests such as Father Lallement or the leading Dominican Thomist theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange and about men like Gabriel Marcel preventing anti-Franco positions from appearing in Temps Present. Simon was shocked in May 1939 to find Temps Present discretely approving the notoriously appeasing article by the “neo-socialist” Marcel Deat (who had wondered if any young Frenchmen would want to “Die for Danzig?”) and decided to secede from that “too moderate and indecisive” organ.

Behind all of this hovered the issue of the attitude of the Vatican. Gurian warned Simon that, as cardinal, Pacelli had been weak and outmaneuvered in negotiating with Von Papen and the Nazis. Simon found that the papacy’s new stress on “Christian unity” effectively pushed Catholics to support the strategies of France’s enemies. By late summer, Pius XII’s lifting of the condemnation of the Action Francaise made Simon fear a total reversal of the anti-fascist policies of Pius XI. “Very sincerely,” he wrote Maritain, “I would have loved to cherish the Holy Church in the person of an Alexandre VI, simoniac, debauche, incestuous, and murderer. A more subtle trial is reserved for us. It seems we are witnessing a treason of unimaginable consequences, perpetuated by a Pope of great holiness.”

Maritain saw the Pope’s rehabilitation of Action Francaise as meaning that France, too, would have a form of “Hispano-Italian Catholicism” which, allied with a rigid dogmatic traditionalism, would seek to impose a “law of violence” on the country. He thought that what had previously been a skirmish between the “red-Christians” of France and a certain “Claudel-facisto-franquist-feeling” among other Catholics was now becoming a much wider, global, struggle between a political Catholicism (along Italian and Spanish lines) and a Catholicism, like their own, which was more consciously inspired by the Gospels. Maritain considered it the role of Simon and himself to become spokesmen for the latter so that it would be understood in Rome that “French Catholicism” represented a general force, a spiritual movement, to which an important part of Christian vitality in the entire world was committed: “Our duty is to fight with all our strength so that Catholicism a la Franco does not even seem to win out in this world, as that would be a grave setback for civilization and for religion.” The older man urged Simon to write for Temps Present that there be an alternative to the obfuscation of Thierry Mualnier. Simon responded that he would consider contributing to Temps Present, given the new anti-fascist articles by Maurice Schumann, but that he considered Maritain too optimistic about the attitudes of their friends.

Soon Simon objected to Maritain’s publishing an article on “moral renewal in France” which the latter had written for Nouveaux Cahiers, a publication in which many of France’s leading Christian intellectuals were calling for drastic national renewal. In response, the older man mildly reproached Simon’s attitude toward friends who “do what they can, while you only sit and speculate on a campus, etc.” But Simon was uncompromising, warning that the center of opposition to Roosevelt, to the antifascist cause, in the United States was, again, a Catholic milieu prepared to betray their country. (As an example, Simon cited the “demagogic” commencement address at Notre Dame by Senator David Worth Clark of Idaho, an alumnus.) On 12 June 1940, the day before the victorious Germans occupied Paris, Simon regretted that he had not, from the time of his book on Ethiopia, been a vitriolic polemicist against men, such as Cardinal Baudrillart, who were “apologists of those who are today stabbing France in the back.” A great part of the tragedy, he thought, was that a few “imbeciles,” with hopelessly naive views of fascism, had been in key positions of moral influence in the Vatican, bishoprics, the Catholic press, etc., with the result that soon “criminals [will] have a free rein.”

On 18 June 1940, the day of De Gaulle’s dramatic appeal for resistance from London, Maritain confessed that Simon had been right: “All that you wrote about Catholics… is perfectly true. My distempered imagination can only see abominable treasons everywhere…. I still believe in my heart of hearts that France will be saved. But not in the way I thought. Nor in the time parameters I imagined.” Simon telegraphed Maritain on 25 June to ask if they could do anything with De Gaulle, but Maritain, although favorably disposed, thought that they still knew too little about the man and those around him. Simon then wrote directly to De Gaulle requesting information and De Gaulle’s response was encouraging. Through his lieutenants, the general urged Simon, Maritain, and their friends to defend the cause of the Free French as best they could in the intellectual milieu.

Yves Simon tended to take a stronger anti-Vichy line than did Maritain in the first years of the occupation, charging that people like Petain, with the complicity of prominent clerics, had been consciously preparing for a Nazified government in France. In November 1940 Maritain confessed that he, too, had become troubled by some of the activities of their French friends. The Catholic magazine The Commonweal had had “the unhappy idea” of publishing an article by Emmanuel Mounier, editor of Esprit and a former protege of Maritain, which was “a very painful symptom.” Esprit, France’s most prominent “Catholic Left” review, seemed to be characterized by a desire to shift with every change in the wind, by “opportunism,” acceptance of the loss of liberty as a fait accompli, and the notion that their role was now to look for liberty under totalitarianism. And if Esprit was not disquieting enough, The Commonweal, too, had become “a nest of pacifism.”

There were other disquieting symptoms in America: Simon found the Catholic pro-Nazi journal Social Action thriving in Detroit, and Maritain and Simon agreed that a pernicious anti-Semitic tone had even crept into the pages of The Modern Schoolman. For Simon, Catholics everywhere, except in Poland, had taken a position against France as well as against their own true national interests. “Fascism,” he wrote Maritain, “is socialism which has been clever enough to fool the vigilance of the church, as no other socialism has done.” As the months went by, Maritain came to share his friend’s notion of the complicity of Catholics in the fascistization of France and of Europe as a whole, and confessed that he had been in error in urging Simon to give the benefit of the doubt regarding Petain’s intentions. “Vichy,” he wrote, “has entered completely into collaboration.”

After the encouragement from the Free French headquarters in London, both Maritain and

Simon wrote books to maintain a “true French way of thinking” over against the flood of anti-republican and anti-liberal propaganda in the occupied zone and Vichy. Maritain initially had some difficulty in finding an English publisher for Simon’s effort, and so turned for help to the lively group of Montrealers who published the liberal-Catholic review La Nouvelle Relieve. These latter then published a series of important resistance tracts—the Editions de l’Arbre—which would eventually be parachuted into France and circulated underground by the antifascist resistants. Neither man undertook the writing of these first Resistance polemics lightly: Simon feared retaliation against his sister and mother, both in the occupied zone. Maritain confided to Simon his feeling that in putting himself firmly against Vichy with his book A Travers le Desastre (1941) he had “sacrificed for the common cause and for the honor of France the most precious things I can have in this world and that I will perhaps never see again.” Simon felt obliged to single out the “political faults” of Catholics, and privately worried over “giving scandal” or writing things which could be “used by the enemies of the church.” But it was his duty, perhaps even the raison d’etre for his book, because he was addressing “a country lost in clericalism and where, evidently, clericalism serves as the vehicle for anti-civic ideas.”

By summer 1941, after completing the text of La Grande Crise de la Republique Francaise (of which The Road to Vichy is a nearly complete translation) and responding to Maritain’s criticisms of the draft, Simon decided he had come to a turning—”even cutting off”—point in his relationship to the Thomistic philosophical revival. Many French Thomists had been sympathetic to Petainism in their hostility to the French Revolutionary heritage. Unfortunately, however, “what has been taken from the French Revolution, from the Rights of Man and the Citizen, has gone to Hitler, not to St. Thomas.” Waldemar Gurian chided Simon that this was to be expected, for if St. Thomas were alive, he would be for Franco, for Tizo, for Petain. And Simon wondered if this might not be true, for in 1941 the notorious Petainist Father Garrigou¬Lagrange was St. Thomas in philosophical circles. Simon found himself reading, late at night, a history of the French Revolution in an effort “to understand practical things which my knowledge of Thomism doesn’t explain to me.” He hoped someday to find “a center of harmony and the principles of a political spirit which is not made to please Franco, Petain, and Garrigou.” The new talk in France of “personalism,” of the “democracy of the person,” seemed a rather suspicious terra incognita for him. He was disgusted with the politics of many prominent Thomists, and now greatly regretted the moderation of his own “stupid, but so Thomist” book on the war in Ethiopia in which he had rejected the notion of an anti-fascist crusade. In contrast to Maritain, Simon thought that he had, in the previous two or three years, broken with his past. “I don’t see the break in you,” he told Maritain; “There is one in me.” Simon had concluded that the Thomism to which he and Maritain had dedicated their lives had not been “up to the circumstances” when faced with the wave of authoritarian and antidemocratic regimes of the 1930s.

Maritain admitted his vexation over Father Garrigou’s “valiantly fighting for Vichy” in the pages of Revue Universelle, while attacking Maritain and his friends for their “pernicious activities.” (In fact, as Maritain reminded him in a quarrel after the war, the distinguished Dominican, mentor of the future Pope John Paul II, had gone so far as to declare that to support De Gaulle was a mortal sin.) For himself, Maritain had some serious regrets: “Having believed for a time in a parallelism of action between the people of the A.F. and the Thomist renaissance is one of the great errors of my life…. I paid very dearly for that error.” “Since then I have undertaken the liquidation of the errors of the past with perseverance.” For himself, Simon returned again and a6in to the figure of Father Garrigou (“a disgusting character”): “If I did not hold the sacerdotal role in such respect I would write to him that I would hold him responsible if some misfortune comes to any of my Jewish friends.” Simon confessed a temptation to hate the Thomist theologian more than Petain, more than Mussolini, more even than Hitler. Simon told Maritain that he “would rather have a daughter in a whorehouse” than have a son grow up to be a pro-fascist priest. He urged Maritain to formulate a philosophy of democracy compatible with the Catholic Church, for most of the great democratic movements that had brought something positive to the world—the French and American revolutions, the Italian independence movement—had been suspect from the Catholic point of view; Father Garrigou had “never even tried” to come to grips with democracy.

In sum, the first year of the Vichy regime in France was one in which Yves Simon drew his famous mentor Maritain out on a very lonely limb: they engaged in a polemic that, in the circumstances, cut them off from their home country and risked placing their families in the occupied zone in danger; they began to build bases of support for the Free French in North America and to construct a political philosophy for the anti-Vichyite French. The Road to Vichy demonstrates the extent to which circumstance had pushed Simon to a dramatic rupture with his heritage and his friends, one which deeply troubled his religious conscience, and which led him to see the necessity of lucidly assessing the forces in the background of his countrymen which had made them so amenable to Petainism, if not outright Nazification. Since Simon came from a Catholic milieu, his analysis was particularly telling and painful when dealing with his coreligionists. His severe indictment of his countrymen could only have been “in-house,” by an eyewitness, and at the time.

The Road to Vichy, though written with polemical verve by Yves Simon in the heat of the first year of the occupation, is similar to some of the most important “revisionist” studies of the Vichy regime by contemporary historians. Simon was unaffected by the myth of a resistance movement he was helping to create. Writing from his secure American university base, he could let the chips fall where they may, and the result is a cutting indictment of his countrymen and of his kind. The background to the Petainist regime, the “road” to Vichy, is seen as strewn with hypocrisy, bad faith, poor judgment, and treachery. Were the French complacent toward, even sympathetic to, international fascism by the late 1930s? After the Gotterdammerung of Hitler and Mussolini, and the triumph of De Gaulle, many Frenchmen have preferred to forget the troubling prewar developments depicted by Simon.

This militantly Republican, even Jacobin, essay suggests a mainstream French Republican author. But Simon rather unexpectedly tells us that he hates “the numerous and monstrous errors of the French Revolution as much as anyone,” and that he was “not one of those Catholics embarrassed by the denunciation of the errors of the modern world in the Syllabus of Pius IX.” He also worked for two years after World War I with “the only Catholics who worked for Franco-German reconciliation after the War”—the Jeune Republique. In fact, Simon’s association with Marc Sangnier’s small cohort helps explain the distinctive line he took toward the background of Vichy, because these Jeune Republique Catholics, with Christian Democratic leanings in the line of the prewar Sillon, were self-consciously convinced of the compatibility of democratic institutions and Christian ideals. And they took a special interest in promoting contacts between young people of France and Germany, notably in the youth hostel program which Sangnier pioneered. Thus the republicanism and internationalism of the Sillonist Catholics was galling to the royalists of the Action Francaise who believed that they themselves represented authentic French national Catholic tradition and that Catholic Jeune Republicains were traitorous perverters of the hierarchical essence of Catholic religiousness—heirs of the “Modernist” heresy condemned by Pius X. In the Vichy years an inordinate number of Sangnier’s former followers—such as Yves Simon—came to play prominent roles in the Free French movement and were understandably determined to settle old scores with A.F. Catholics in the entourage of Petain.

Yves Simon had spent some time in a Catholic region of Eastern Germany in 1929 and 1930 and become optimistic for the future of French-German relations—just when the Nazis were beginning to be taken seriously. Thus in the 1930s Simon had an acute sense of tragedy as the most sinister and warlike elements suddenly came to the fore in Germany—to meet a perverse complicity among the very French rightwing circles which had most loudly criticized fraternization with the Germans.

Simon’s serious and reflective Catholicism gave him a special outlook on the rapid transformation of political sympathies in France in the 1930s. Raised in a solid middle-class family in Catholic Normandy, a student-disciple of the prominent Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, Simon as professor in the Catholic Faculty in Lille encountered the pressures to which functionaries of Catholic institutions were subjected in the face of those sudden successes of fascism and national socialism which began to split his country in two. He saw his compatriots “softened” to fascist values by the propagandists of the Action Francaise, and then even more profoundly corrupted by the national socialists. In contrast to the optimism of many French Catholics in the 1930s (impressed by the dynamism of Catholic Action or the Young Christian Workers movements, and the consolidation of pro-clerical regimes in Austria, Portugal, and Spain) Simon sharply dissented. He thought many of his countrymen had been taken in by international movements with values completely antithetical both to those of France and of the Roman Catholic tradition. He described “moral gangsters” “who did not hesitate to steal the souls of little girls in schools dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.” Simon’s description of a slippage toward fascism in the French Catholic milieu, replete with concrete examples and telling illustrations, could only have been written “from the inside.”

A striking feature of Simon’s description of the 1930s is a harsh portrait of the French Right, a visceral repugnance unusual for someone with his religious and philosophical predilections. Simon’s Vichy portrays the writers for large circulation reviews such as Jour, Candide, and Gringoire as simply scoundrels. And yet he remarked that, by the 1930s, the political horizon of French intellectuals was completely dominated by the striking success of the Action Francaise group. Despite the self-conscious Catholicism of many of the leaders of the A.F., Simon called them “truly atheists even when they went to Mass,” for, in his view, “whoever mocks these divine names, liberty, justice, mercy, cannot remain a worshipper of the true God.” Thus, in contrast to those who celebrated the “successes” of the A.F. in the inter-war period as the victories of a Catholic party, Simon saw the rise of a heresy perverting the very sense of the God of Catholics.

Why was the Right, then, so attractive to the young? Simon recalled the unfortunate contrast in his student days of the tender-minded liberals over against the militants of the Right: partisans of the League of Nations, for example, had been notably bourgeois in temperament and style, and lacked the “vigor, doctrinal strength, freshness, and determination” of the political extremists. Since they lacked “driving enthusiasm” the liberals were never numerous, producing solid studies of major issues but never succeeding in launching a powerful myth. Thus, when the crisis came they would be swept aside by those animated by “a spirit of violence.”

The purveyors of violence made special progress among Catholics. By the 1920s, according to Simon, the Action Francaise, while powerful among all of the intelligentsia, came to exercise “an almost complete dictatorship” in the Catholic intellectual milieu. A democrat in Catholic circles became “the object of ironic and scornful pity,” considered depasse, a relic of an earlier age. Under the influence of Maurras and his sympathizers, Catholic intellectual leadership thoroughly rejected literalism and the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Catholics came to joke about the talk of “progress,” the rights of conscience, human dignity, the League of Nations, and hopes for an international order. In sum, French Catholic elites came to harbor contempt for even the most positive aspects of liberal democracy.

One result of this unholy consensus was the appearance, after the defeat, of the smug Catholic spokesmen who perceived a providential design in the defeat, who saw their countrymen’s suffering as the punishment for their impieties. Their own sense of being secure from a similar punishment, their self-satisfaction, implied that all would go well for those following their guidance.

Simon charged that a great number of people in France were favorable to fascism but didn’t openly declare their sympathies. All of the various leagues, he maintained, “tended more or less definitely toward fascism, but they were careful not to say it. It was not so much what right-wingers wrote or said in the 1930s so much as what they did or would do. Thus the history of the treason could not so easily be reconstructed from the words used at the time; intentions behind declarations counted for much. An example was the controversy in France over the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Young Professor Simon had attracted attention with his polemic on the clash of Mussolinian imperialism with French political principles. Over against Simon, the prominent Catholic writer Henri Massis—an old friend of Maritain and paladin of the Action Francaise—published a “Manifesto in Defense of the West,” describing Mussolini’s aggression as an expansion of Western Christian civilization. For Simon this Christian rhetoric camouflaged a sinister mindset “already ripe in 1935 for the policy of collaboration with the Nazis.” Thus, over against military factors in France’s defeat and the rise of Vichy—Simon stressed a subtle, but very real, prewar process of Nazification. Meanwhile in Rome, highly placed church officials had orchestrated a pernicious campaign portraying the “red” France, run by the Jewish Leon Blum and the socialists, as rabidly anticlerical as was Republican Spain.

Simon conceded that Blum had been foolish to republish his monograph On Marriage, so offensive to Catholic sexual morality, for Blum himself thus rashly abetted the international fascist movement’s moralistic posture, a line with appeal to traditionalists in countries like France. But Blum’s was only one of a series of insensitivities of the Left which, according to Simon, unwittingly furthered the cause of the Hitlerites in France. So successful was the “skillfully indirect method” of fascist propaganda that by the late 1930s “Hitler had already won the battle of France.”

“Learn first to hate what I hate,…your enemies will be my enemies.” This, according to Simon, was the fundamental Nazi propaganda line in the non-German world, and French traditionalists nurtured strong antipathies which made them susceptible to it. Not only among anti-intellectual reactionaries, but also in high positions in education, literature, and journalism—even in young “New Left” Catholic circles—he had encountered fervent condemnations of the bourgeoisie, capitalism and “the world of finance.” A “New Left” also joined the Right in execrating communism and communists (particularly after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939), as well as in denouncing the faults of the West. Writers of the “1930 generation” blamed France’s Depression woes on her “decadent” liberalism. Thus while lukewarm to Hitlerite National Socialism, young Frenchmen seemed obsessed by bogeymen not unlike those execrated by the national socialist revolution. A progressive, orchestrated shift in mentality by the late 1930s, Simon claimed, made several obsessive hatreds into important political factors.

A new hatred of Jews was particularly noticeable among the bourgeoisie in France in the last years before the war, and a near fanatical hatred of the Masons. Simon conceded the unattractiveness of the Masons’ “antireligious morality, individualism, belief in inevitable progress, etc.” (Like so many others of his generation, of both the Left and Right, Simon took it for granted that “individualism” was a pernicious phenomenon.) But he blamed a manipulative orchestration for that paranoia which left Hitlerism the lesser of evils. Already in 1938 the pro-fascist propaganda network, Simon charged, has been strong enough to obstruct him, as a professor in a Catholic institution, from denouncing Japanese atrocities in China.

“Before being conquered on the battlefields France was conquered from within,” Simon asserted on France’s disaster in 1940. France’s will to resist, according to Simon, was eroded by the ambiguity in the antiwar movement in France. French pacifists confused the consolidation of the forces struggling for peace with a deadly cooperation with the “diabolical” forces working for the appeasement of dictatorships. These hidden “forces of death” could now also be seen at work in the United States, “like Satan disguised as an angel of light” (La Grande Crise de la Republique Francaise).

Passing over military, economic, and political factors, Simon argued that his country had most lacked a “myth”—the sort of galvanizing ideal which inspired those dynamic societies which made history. France needed a worldscale myth of liberation comparable to the sorts of “collective beliefs” which George Sorel saw precipitating historical change—a noble rival to those of her enemies and oppressors. (Something like that “myth of the Resistance” which Yves Simon and his friends would create in North America.)

Yves Simon was unusual for describing Vichy France as already Nazified in 1941, and for stressing the role of the Right, particularly of the Catholic Right, in softening up the country for fascism. Only months after the defeat, in uncompromising terms (which would have been highly unpopular in postwar France), Simon blamed the French for the scandals at Vichy and in the occupied zone, only months after the defeat. The French pacifists had, he charged, dissimulated their position through the 1930s and came out on top after the collapse.

The Road to Vichy, like Yves Simon’s subsequent book, The March to Liberation (1942), represents a vivid contrast to the more comfortable, “official,” French descriptions of the road to Vichy which appeared after the war and is a useful complement to our newest historiography on the subject. Written by an eyewitness and participant, it is one of the frankest, most balanced, and lucid descriptions of the forces which led to the abandonment of republican and democratic institutions in wartime France. A number of the classic accounts of that period—such as Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat or Robert Aron’s History of Vichy—were written by men who, we now recognize, had reasons to downplay prewar French complicity with Nazism. Yves R. Simon, in contrast, wrote with a righteous moral passion and “let the chips fall where they may.” After the war the “philosopher of the fighting French,” like his friend Jacques Maritain, chose to remain in the United States and study the philosophical foundations of democratic societies.


  • John Hellman

    John Hellman holds a Ph.D from Harvard and is a Professor of History at McGill University.

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