Esther Delisle. Mythes, memoires et mensonges: l'intelligentsia du Quebec devant la tentation fasciste 1939-1960. Montreal: Editions Multimedia Robert Davies, 1998. 190 pp. $17.99 (paper), ISBN 978-2-89462-028-1.
Reviewed by William D. Irvine (York University, Canada)
Published on H-France (April, 2000)
Canada may be the peaceful kingdom, but that peace tends to evaporate fairly quickly when the subject is Quebec and its relationship with France, as Charles de Gaulle would discover in Monetral in 1967. Esther Delisle is one of the more controversial young historians in contemporary Canada. In the early 1990s she wrote a doctoral dissertation, subsequently published, on the legendary French Canadian nationalist of the 1930s, the abbe Lionel Groulx. Both the dissertation and the book created a major fuss among Quebec nationalists. They were incensed by her penchant for using terms like anti-semite and fascist to describe Groulx and his followers, and by and large they saw her writings as a gratuitous attack on a figure still revered in nationalist circles in Quebec. The affaire Delisle was also something of a sensation in English Canada, albeit for rather different reasons. Few English Canadian historians were much troubled by her depiction of Groulx as an anti-semite; what bothered them was the tendency for their Quebec colleagues to deny the uglier dimensions of French Canadian nationalism. It did not help matters very much that the whole debate about Delisle more or less coincided with the referendum on sovereignty of 1995.
Delisle is nothing if not stubborn, and she is back on the attack with her recent book dealing with French Canada in the 1940s. World War II was a critical turning point in Canadian history, but also a divisive one. English speaking Canadians rallied enthusiastically to the cause in 1939, which is not entirely surprising. The Dominion of Canada (as it was then known) was but a generation removed from being a glorified British colony. Most English-speaking Canadians closely identified with what was still referred to as the mother country. By contrast, many French speaking Canadians were rather more reluctant to enlist in what seemed to them to be Britain's war. It was also France's war, certainly in 1939-40, but also, at least from the perspective of Free France, thereafter. Of course, any direct Canadian association with France had ended two centuries earlier with the conquest of 1763. Moreover, there were few in the clerical and conservative Quebec of the pre-war years who had much affection for the Godless Third Republic. Indeed, for many Quebecois, the France with which they could most easily identify was that run by Marshal Philippe Petain. All of this is well-known. Delisle, as the subtitle of her book indicates, wants to stress the degree to which the Quebec intelligentsia of the period were seduced by foreign, mostly French, fascism. Here it is useful to note that Delisle has no patience with those who cavil about the definition of fascism or who worry excessively about the legitimacy of using that term to describe what others might consider to be merely conservative, clerical, or authoritarian individuals or movements. Moreover, the six essays that make up this book are often disjointed and confusing. In particular the reader is often treated to a series of mini-histories which all too often fade out without their historical significance ever having been clearly established.
The author begins her story with Rollin R. Winslow, the American Consul-General in Quebec from 1939 to 1942. Winslow was genuinely uneasy about the nationalist currents in wartime Quebec, fearing that they could provide a base for a pro-Axis movement on the North American continent. Of course he was equally, and rather more plausibly, concerned about the consequences of Quebec nationalism for American investments in the province. His particular preoccupation was a certain Father Ignatius Eschmann, then a professor of sociology at Laval University in Quebec. Eschmann had left his native Germany in December 1938, apparently unhappy with the Nazi regime. With the spectacular German military victories in the spring of 1940, however, he seems to have changed his mind and began to predict that before long Hitler would be dining in the Hotel Frontenac in Quebec. Worse, from Winslow's point of view, he was by now sending and receiving mail from Germany, via a postal address in New York City. This correspondence, intercepted by Winslow, indicated that the young priest was anxious to return to his homeland.
Eschmann's ultimate undoing, however, resulted from a rather different epistolary adventure. Ecclesiastical authorities in Quebec were not pleased to learn that Eschmann was engaged in correspondence with a Quebec woman living in New York, a correspondence which suggested an amatory relationship. He was promptly shipped off to a disciplinary camp in northern Canada, which seems to have cured him of any latent pro-German sentiments. Shortly thereafter he began a distinguished career as a medievalist at the University of Toronto.
Stripped to its bare essentials, this would seem to be little more than a tale of a homesick priest. Delisle hints -- but only hints -- at the possibility of more sinister dimensions to this affair. She notes, for example, that one of his letters was addressed to an Ina Frank in Berlin, but began with the salutation Dear Uncle. The authorities examining the letter wondered if this did not indicate that Eschmann was somehow sending coded messages to Germany containing secret information. It seems not to have occurred to either the author or the (unnamed) authorities that perhaps Eschmann's uncle was living at or receiving his mail at the address of Ina Frank. Other (again unnamed) Canadian authorities suspected that Eschmann's liaison with the mysterious woman in New York involved treason as well as sex. But since we never learn the identity of the woman in question, her reasons for being in New York, or anything substantive about the contents of the letters, this is at best mere speculation. Typically Delisle notes that the Church hierarchy, while indifferent to Eschmann's dubious political activity, reacted quickly upon learning of his presumed sexual peccadillos. This is consistent with her generally skeptical view of the religious establishment, but overlooks the fact that the only issue about which the record is clear was his suspicious contact with a woman.
Comparable problems emerge with her discovery of what the book's dust jacket (but not the text) describe as a clandestine Nazi organization in Quebec. In March 1942, the Canadian police arrested a young man for distributing pamphlets outside a meeting of Quebec nationalists. The pamphlet in question denounced the R.A.F for having recently bombed the Renault factories in occupied France. It also suggested that dirty Jews among the Free French in London, who might usefully have fought for France in 1940, were now the agents of British imperialism. All-in-all, this was a typical Vichyite screed. Its authors identified themselves as members of the Iron Guard and claimed a membership of 2,000. Two young men, barely out of their teens and one of whom was suffering from a psychiatric disorder, were arrested, charged with and convicted of distributing illegal literature. One was given a fine of $25 (Canadian); the other, destined for a prominent media career in post-war Quebec, was sentenced to two months in prison.
The only thing that makes this episode significant is the fact that the police investigation turned up a notebook belonging to one of the young men which contained, among other items, the names of a dozen prominent French Canadian nationalists designated as being the Committee of the Iron Guard. At this point the story has the makings of a typical Ludlum thriller. But were any of these individuals, one of whom had been dead for five years, really associated with the Iron Guard? The author, although she lovingly details the biographies of the men in question, is, as is her wont, rather coy on the point. Perhaps these were simply individuals who had influenced the young members of the Iron Guard. Or perhaps these names simply were part of the febrile imagination of a couple of not entirely stable individuals; certainly the notebook in question also contained the names and addresses of the consuls of Yugoslavia, Italy, Poland, and Colombia, to say nothing of the home address of the French fascist, Eugene Deloncle!
What is not in dispute is that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, not suspect in war-time Canada of any special tenderness for subversives, concluded that the Iron Guard had, at most, five or six members. Delisle makes much of the fact that the French consulate took an interest in the case. This is perhaps not surprising. There was little in the pamphlet to which Vichy could not subscribe although saying so publicly would have incurred the wrath of His Majesty's Government. It seems reasonable to assume that the Vichy government was not altogether unhappy to learn that these views were being disseminated although, on Delisles account, it seems to have also suggested to the Iron Guard that it stop such overt activity.
In fact, much of Delisle's case is based on the activities of the Vichy government, rather than the response of the Quebec intelligentsia. She, like Winslow before her, is struck by Radio Vichy's appeals to the French speaking world in North America. She, like Winslow, takes seriously the claims of the Free French that Vichy was attempting to subvert Quebec. She has much to say about the role of certain citizens of Vichy France in Quebec. But the critical question is: how did Quebec nationalists respond to all of this? Here she has much less to say. It is beyond dispute that representatives of Vichy France frequented nationalist circles. It seems entirely likely that in private and in their careless moments Quebec nationalists subscribed to many, if not all, of the Vichyite dreams. But very little in the way of hard evidence is adduced to support her position.
Delisle also deals with the immediate post war situation and the very delicate question of immigration. It has long been established that a number of individuals accused of war crimes in Vichy France managed to immigrate to Canada in the post war years. Some of them incontestably received the protection of prominent French Canadians. It is also the case that efforts by the Canadian federal government to have these individuals expelled were frustrated both by their Quebec protectors and by a French government that was anxious neither to have suspected war criminals returned or, by at the latest 1947, to communicate their dossiers to the Canadian department of justice. Although there is now a serious literature on this aspect of postwar Quebec, Delisle does add some new details. An interesting case is that of Georges Simenon, author of the best-selling Inspector Maigret detective novels. Simenon was also a man of distinctly right-wing views, and during the Occupation contributed to some of the more notorious collaborationist newspapers (alas, as is so often the case in this book, it is not clear whether these articles were literary or political). Although acquitted of criminal charges at the time of the Liberation, he was notorious for having frequented Vichy circles, and as a result sought to find a more forgiving place to reside.
To that end, in June 1945 he sought and received an interview with the Canadian ambassador to France, Georges Vanier. We learn that this contact was facilitated by the personal intervention of a Quebec publisher and that Simenon was granted a visa. But what exactly does this episode prove? If Simenon had settled in Quebec, been warmly received by the Quebec nationalist intelligentsia, and entored by a professor of French literature at Laval University, Delisle might have had yet another example of post-war Quebec's receptiveness to Nazi collaborators. But this is not what happened. In fact, while Simenon did pay brief visits to Canada, his ultimate destination was the United States where he lived for many years. His entry into the literary milieu of New York was facilitated by Justin OBrien, a professor of French literature at Columbia and Harvard and former director of the French section of the Office of Strategic Studies. Whatever were OBriens reasons for overlooking Simenons checkered past, it is unlikely that a pervasive philo-fascism in post-war Harvard and Columbia were among them. Indeed, as her own evidence shows, short and selective post-war memories were not unique to Quebec. Another convicted war criminal, Dr. Georges-Benot Montel, was certainly warmly received by clerical and nationalist circles in Quebec. But he also benefited from the hospitality of several Yankee industrialists, including the tool-making magnate, Stanley.
A more serious case was that of Jacques Duge de Bernonville, a war criminal with a long history in the Cagoule and the Milice. De Bernonville was condemned to death in absentia after the Liberation. But he managed to escape to Quebec, where he was warmly welcomed by some of the leading Quebec nationalist figures who long resisted efforts by the federal government to have him extradited or expelled. Although this case has been the subject of previous studies, Delisle adds some intriguing new details. It transpires that Mme de Bernonville managed to persuade the wife of the Canadian ambassador of her husband's innocence. Apparently the French justice minister, Pierre-Henri Teitgen, confirmed Mme de Bernonville's story. As a result, the author notes, de Bernonville would arrive in Canada avec le plein assentiment de lambassade [canadien](p. 70). This is both serious and mysterious. After all, de Bernonville's wartime activities were well known; on the other hand, neither Georges Vanier nor Teitgen were remotely suspect of sympathies for Nazi collaborators. But the author cannot resolve this mystery. Nor does she explain exactly what form this assentiment took. When de Bernonville next appears in her account, seven pages later, we learn that he arrived in New York in 1946 with false papers and subsequently entered Quebec under an assumed name. The attentive reader, curious as to why de Bernonville would need to so behave if he had the assentiment of the Canadian embassy in Paris, is left to wonder.
In a later chapter Delisle reviews, via their memoires, the wartime activities of some of the outstanding political and intellectual figures of post-war Quebec, Pierre Elliot Trudeau among them. Most were non-combatants; all opposed conscription. There were few who seemed concerned about the sufferings of wartime France, none appears to have taken a clear position about Ptain, and more than a few seemed to have been soft on authoritarian Christian rgimes like Francos Spain or Salazars Portugal and indifferent or worse to the fate of the Jews. It is a negative portrait of French Canadian nationalism very like that which prevailed in English Canada into the 1960s -- and often later. It is also not a very new story.
So one ends this book with a sense of frustration. Delisle is surely not wrong to insist that much of the intellectual elite of Quebec was indifferent to the Allied cause in World War II, not altogether unsympathetic to some of the softer European fascisms, insensitive to the victims of the Nazis and, in a word, altogether parochial in its pre-occupation with French Canadian society. She probably has a case that this is a version of Quebec history that has too often been ignored when not denied by many Quebec historians. But too much of it reads like a conspiracy history, replete with tantalizing tidbits which, upon closer investigation, do not lead anywhere. One can almost hear her saying at times: Coincidence? I dont think so. This is a story that needs to be told, or at any rate retold. But it is also one that deserves a better telling.
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William D. Irvine. Review of Delisle, Esther, Mythes, memoires et mensonges: l'intelligentsia du Quebec devant la tentation fasciste 1939-1960.
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