Massacre at Clichy! with Dr. Chris Millington

The French History Podcast
The French History Podcast
Massacre at Clichy! with Dr. Chris Millington
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Gary:  Today’s special episode is an interview with Dr. Chris Millington of Manchester Metropolitan University. Dr. Millington returns for a record third appearance to talk about his new book, The Clichy Massacre: Political and Police Violence at the Time of the Popular Front. Our talk centers on the fateful night of the 16th of March 1937, in which police killed six. The bloodshed was part of a broader conflict during the interwar period as the far right and far left battled in the streets. Far right convoys, antifa and a polarized political atmosphere marked the 1930s.

Well, today we have our reigning champion, Dr. Chris Millington, returning yet again to talk about the crazy times that were the 1930s in France. Today we’re talking about his book, Le Massacre de Clichy, Violence Politique et policère en temps du Front Populaire; in English, it would be The Massacre of Clichy: Political and police violence in the time of the Popular Front. Can you tell us what your book is about and the particular event that you seek to cover?

Chris: Yes, so the book is about a specific riot that took place in Paris in March 1937. So part of the book focuses on this riot. It’s quite a forensic study of what happened during the riots. But the other part of the book sets the riots within a broader context of confrontations and political violence during the 1930s. So I wanted to examine the broader themes of confrontations of violence in the thirties, and then look at how this was played out in the streets in Clichy in March 1937.

Gary: If anyone needs any background on this, I would recommend listening to the other episodes that you and I have done together, because you have become quite an expert on the tumultuous period of the 1930s, a period of economic and political anxiety, and a time of polarization between the far right and the far left. Now your study examines a fascinating concept, street demonstrations and control of streets as political power, the power of crowds taking over an area and using that to exercise political power goes back a long time in French history, famously to the revolution. Yet there is something modern about the form street fighting took in the interwar period as the left and right groups purposefully provoked riots for propaganda purposes. Do you see continuity between the revolutionary sans-culottes and the interwar street fighters, or is this more of a break with the past?

Chris: Well, I see a continuity in terms of the symbolism of these demonstrations. So we could say that this revolutionary heritage hung over these street confrontations in terms of the fact that the street itself, as a site of political action still had revolutionary connotations. So, for example, the left wing is considered the street to be their domain. And it was a place where they could take the fight to the enemy. And when left wingers did stage these demonstrations and if they descended into violence and they constructed barricades in the street, this was always seen as a really revolutionary act, and all old parts of the press would comment that barricades were built. On the other hand, the right tends to see the streets as an unruly and disorderly place, not one where right wingers would gather spontaneously and they would point to these barricades as being evidence of left wing subversion. So there is kind of this, people are aware of this revolutionary heritage. But then in terms of the form of violence and all the symbols that go with violence, it’s much more contemporary. So we can look to the late 19th century. On the left, we have the example of labor militancy at this time on the image of the virile worker and virile street activists. And on the right you have these extra parliamentary groups called Leeks, which are founded in the 1890 and which kind of continue into the thirties. And then, of course, we have the First World War, which affects everything the way people see the world. So this affects the para militarism of the left and right. So I’m not really saying that veterans really take part in street violence because it was actually much younger French who engaged in the majority of the fighting. Both the left and right borrowed what we might call the stylistic devices from the war, like things like salutes, uniforms and hierarchical organizations of their movements.

Gary: What was the general nature then of street demonstrations? Can you explain how these groups would organize, Form a procession of people or increasingly cars and target rival political groups?

Chris: Yeah. Well, something we have to recognize in the first place is that both the left and the right placed great importance on public space, but they did it in a very specific way. So they didn’t try to take public space in a military sense. The point was that they would be seen in public space, so they considered the streets we could call a stage upon which they could demonstrate their numbers and therefore demonstrate their strength. And we get out their masculinity into that. And by the way, there were differences to the way left and right, did things in the street. So that the right was very much concerned with projecting an image of martial and military strength. So this meant that they sent their leagues into the streets in uniforms. They staged very carefully choreographed parades and marches. And this was all to convey the image that the right was a disciplined force, one that could put down the left if necessary. And they did this on various days of national significance, like the 14th of July or the commemoration of Joan of Arc in May. Now, the rights you mentioned cost, the right did use cause a lot, particularly one right wing group called the Croix de feu, which would organize huge gatherings of its members. They would organize these in secret and they would give the members instructions at the last minute where the gathering would take place and these members would travel in their cars. And now sometimes there would be over 10,000 cars carrying these members to the meeting place. Can you imagine seeing 10,000 cars in 1935? It must have been very intimidating. Well, it depends on which side you were on, either intimidating or impressive. As for the left, they are a bit more spontaneous, so they don’t really go in for paramilitary displays or paramilitary parades. What they want to do is they encourage popular mobilization. So they often do call members into the street at very short notice to to well, they call it mass self-defence. So this meant calling members into the street to counter demonstrate against fascist meetings. And that’s what happened at Clichy. And these counter demonstrations were meant to show that the working class people of an area rejected fascism, and they rejected this in what they thought to be the invasion of their territory by the fascists. So I suppose in the end we have all groups seeing the street as this really important political space where it says important to be seen in the space as important as it is to defeat the enemy in that space.

Gary: I am convinced that history is always relevant. I couldn’t help but think of the Truckers for Freedom convoy when you asked if we could imagine what having all these cars would be like, and not just the Truckers for Freedom in Canada or in the United States, but there was also a sort of copycat movement in Paris which met with violence when Macron said that it would not be allowed within the city limits, but they went anyway. I’m sure we’ll talk about some of these parallels, whether they are truly accurate parallels or not. But before we get to modern times, let’s focus on your book itself. So what impact did street fighting have on politics in general? Was it an isolated phenomena between left and right radicals, or did it change the broader political landscape?

Chris: Well, this is a time of really severe political division in France, particularly after 1934. We see polarization between the right and particularly the extreme right and the left wing populist France coalition, which is this alliance of the socialists, the communists and the radical party. Now, street fighting, we could call it relatively minor. And by that I mean that fatalities were infrequent. But fighting in the street was frequent. So, for example, in some towns, the local mayor would ban the sale of newspapers in the streets because it caused so many flights throughout the week because enemies would attack their rivals and newspaper sellers. Now, although these clashes could be minor, the press and political parties gets a great publicity, especially ones that anything that involve firearms or anyone being shot. And in these circumstances, both sides would usually accuse the other of being the aggressor. So pretty unsurprising. And they would link the fighting to a broader and longer established political lines of attack. So if the communists were said to have started a fight, it was because they were inherently savage and would use all means available to achieve revolution. If the fascists were accused of starting a fight, it was because they were said to be violent paramilitaries like the Blackshirts in Italy and the S.A. in Germany. And they’re trying to undermine French democracy for Hitler’s benefit. So I think the importance of all this was that though there were there were relatively few mass outbreaks of violence. This regular fighting kept tensions perpetually high. It kept the language for the discourse of politics continually radicalized. And it did potentially affect the behavior of people in the street. So it’s low level, regular violence that has this continual destabilizing effect on politics.

Gary: So you touched on this a bit. But your book notes that France was strikingly peaceful compared to its major neighbors, such as Italy and Germany, which had fascist takeovers, and Spain which had a civil war. How would you describe interwar France? Was the violence and chaos overblown by the media of the time and by historians now, of course, yourself excluded?

Chris: Well, this period is often referred to as the French Civil War. I suppose we could say that one thing we can be clear about is that there wasn’t a civil war in France. And what I didn’t want to do was claim that France was as violent as Italy or Germany in terms of the number of fatalities resulting from violence, because that’s an argument that could be immediately shot down, really, that several hundred people died in Germany and fighting and many more died in Italy. In France, it does look quite peaceful by comparison. So we have over a hundred people die in 20 years in France in political fighting. But as I say, in Germany, you got a hundred dying in a month and in the early thirties. And for that reason, historians have tended to dismiss French political violence as undeserving of attention. One French historian Serge Berstein, famously describes it as a simulated confrontation, that people didn’t really mean it when they said that they were going to attack and kill their enemies. So the point I make in my book is that we have to be very careful about comparisons because if we look at France and Britain, for example, I’m yet to find anyone who died in street fighting in British domestic politics, which then makes France look much more violence in comparison with another long established democracy on the continent. However, again, we have to be careful with the comparison because Britain is only peaceful if we ignore the example of Ireland and the Empire as well.

Gary: So that seems to always be the case.

Chris: Yes, yes. So like I say, the situation in France is one of low level, persistent fighting. What I mean by that is things like regular fighting in meeting halls. So people would be attacked in the streets if they were seen reading an enemy newspaper or if they were seen wearing an enemy insignia or about a scuffle or a fight might break out in a bar. Most of the violence was spontaneous, and it didn’t involve many people when it did break out. Now there were larger incidents of violence, but these were it was quite rare that large numbers of enemies would come face to face and purely because the police were quite good at keeping them apart. We could say that the violence was overblown by the media because it presented an ideal propaganda opportunity to score points over the enemy. Even a simple fist fight was blown out of proportion because there’s great propaganda value to be had in it. But it was important that this very regularity of violence meant that parties and factions became further entrenched in their positions, and it prompted them into action where the people died or not really. So whether France was truly peaceful or not depends on which comparison you take. I wanted to examine France on its own terms really.

Gary: Well, thank you for that. Whether or not France was truly peaceful, it did have some dramatic events, such as the right wing march on the National Assembly in 1934, which some perhaps mistakenly feared as a right wing coup, a la the March on Rome or the failed beer hall putsch. What other events occurred before Clichy that added to the growing left right tensions?

Chris: Well, Clichy is the culmination, really, of a series of violent incidents that take place over a number of years. So when I say a series of violent incidents, I mean ones that particularly stood out and involved the same groups. So involved a particular right wing party, the Croix de feu which then became the Parti social français. Now there has been a series of incidents in the in the districts around Paris, in the suburbs of Paris in 1934 and 35, which had led to serious fighting, often between anti-fascists and the police. And these all add to what we might call, suppose a dynamic of violence, a cycle of attack and defense, and then revenge between left and right. And this is really important because when people experience violent incidents and when political parties and factions reported on these incidents, they didn’t understand them as isolated as they understand them as just the latest episode in this serious confrontation and a level of tension between left and right. And they would often reference things that had happened many years ago by saying, oh, they haven’t changed. This is the way they’ve always done things. They would have a list of martyrs who had been killed in street fights on the left and the right. And they would print these pictures of them and on show pictures of injured members and activists in hospital with bandages around their heads and things. So, there are a number of serious incidents before Clichy which kind of come to a head, I think Clichy. But I suppose my point is that we always have to look at the longer term history and why people responded in the way they did. And it was down to years of being conditioned to think about the opponents in a certain way through the violence that had broken out.

Gary: So far we’ve been talking about the left in general and the right in particularly the far right in general, although you mentioned the Croix de feu. Can you tell us what were the exact groups, which were the leaders in these street demonstrations?

Chris: Yes. So on the left, we tend to have the Communist Party, which is the I suppose the most forceful actor on the anti-fascist left. So this is a party that’s founded in 1920. Of course, it aims to bring about Bolshevik Revolution in France violently if necessary. But in terms of actual violence that it does commit in the street in the 1920s, it has a brief period of paramilitary or para militarism in France, these groups called anti-fascist defense groups. They didn’t last very long, in part because some members objected to what they saw as militarism, so that they wore uniforms, for example. But also because the 1920s is a period when the Communist Party faces severe repression from the police. So it’s much more difficult for them to operate out in the open. So this period of para militarism ends at the end of the twenties when the party goes in for a new policy that tries to get the French public involved. So it thinks these paramilitary groups are too narrow in their appeal. We need to get the masses involved in violence. And they decide, well, the way we’re going to do this is we will organize huge street demonstrations if the police try to ban the demonstrations, they decide that they will go ahead anyway, because the point of these demonstrations is to fight with the police, so they want to be repressed in the street by the police because they think that this will be evidence that the bourgeois regime is the enemy of the people and that this will bring them new, new recruits. And actually, if you read communist newspapers at this time, they’re full of very bloody descriptions of violence and the awful things that the police have done to innocent women and children in the streets. By the mid 30s this policy is changed again to warn of what was called mass self defense. So anti-fascist mass self defense. So this is in the context of what the party sees to be the growing fascist threat in France. And what it really entails is a rapid organization and staging of what they claim are peaceful counter-demonstrations to fascist meetings. And again, these demonstrations are meant to show that the fascists are not welcome in particular areas, particularly working class areas, but they often lead to violence with the police. So that’s kind of a summary of the left. On on the right, we have this party, Parti social français which is originally founded in the late twenties as a veterans association, and it’s taken over by a man called Lieutenant Colonel François de la Rocque, and he transforms it into a paramilitary league. So it’s anti Republican. It doesn’t engage in elections because La Rocque rejects that, and it grows hugely after 1934. So it expands beyond the veterans constituency to attract young men who hadn’t fought in the war, women and children. And it has about half a million members by 1936. So it’s very popular. It’s banned in 1936 by the left wing governments because this government of the popular front bands, all violent fascist groups. But what La Rocque decides to do is he just transforms it into an ordinary political party. So that party, Parti social français. He begins to tone down the violence of its rhetoric and its para militarism. But in 1937, when Clichy happens, it does still have street fighting sections, which were called the propaganda flying squads. So it’s actually a meeting of the PSF in Clichy in 1937 that sparks the riots.

Gary: You’ve touched on this in response to my last question, but there is one other major group involved in street demonstrations, which were the police. What role did the police play? Did they favor one side or another? And what was the backlash?

Chris: Yes, of course we can’t forget the police. And actually they present a really interesting case study. Well, it’s one of the most interesting parts of my research, if only for the simple fact that it was actually the police that killed more people than anyone in France in politically violent confrontations. So left wingers and right wingers often didn’t come into contact with each other. They fought with the police and died at the hands of the police. Now, this is all in spite of the fact that the police are actually trained to avoid violence. So we must bear in mind that this is a supposedly a Republican police force and lawmakers want the police to respect the Democratic rights of the French. The problem was that on the ground that didn’t often work in practice, it clashed with a culture of policing that favored violence. There were generally two types of police officer that were involved in violence. So firstly, there was the the Gardien de la Paix, so we could call them the lowly constable patrolling the streets, making the rounds.  He could be called to police large gatherings, or he could just be the man on the spot. He has to disperse spontaneous gatherings. I looked at the police training manuals and they were advise to sort of move people along in the street, very politely move them along with a smile. They were advised to do. Actually, they moved them along by swinging their truncheons at them, swinging the capes that they wore, which were quite heavy. Sometimes police swung their bicycles at people and they resorted to their fists. More often than not, they would beat activists in the street, or sometimes the unfortunate bystanders would just be caught up if they were too slow to be along. And these bystanders would be pummeled by these Gardien de la Paix. So they have the reputation for being quite thuggish, these constables. When most serious violence was threatened, there was a group of police called the Mobile Guard. So these were specially trained riot police officers, and they were attached to the army, and they were called in when political groups had decided to organize large demonstrations. So they do things that we would be quite familiar with, like set up barricades, occupy important locations, and they’re there to just as well look generally frightening. So they have black uniforms, they have black helmets, they carry rifles. Sometimes they appear on horseback to charge into the crowd. And these Mobile Guards are very much hated by the left. In particular, the left wingers see them as a military force, as a provocation. They see them as the bludgeoners is of the working people. And so these two forces or two elements of the police, the constables and the mobile guards, as I said, they do a good job of policing crowds and policing confrontations, but they do it with violence. But I think it’s important to recognize, too, and this might not be what many people want to do, is that these people, these policemen were actually under a lot of stress. So they were themselves attacked from all sides. They they’re often hit with stones or bottles or bricks or they were shot. Anything that anyone in the street could lay their hands on to swing a policeman or throw at a policeman. So one of the things I want to do with the book is show that these policemen were sometimes responding in kind to the treatment that they were suffering, and they didn’t really favor one side over the other, I don’t think. I never really found that the police expressed any sort of bias against the left or the right. If I found that more anti-fascists were injured fighting with police, that’s largely because more anti-fascists were prepared to fight with the police or put themselves in positions where they would where they were threatening the police.  So that was the only time I ever found that there might be evidence of bias, but I didn’t really see it as bias in itself.

Gary: We’ve covered a lot of ground just getting to Clichy, but now we are pretty much there. Can you set the stage for the 16th of March 1937, and why did so many left and right demonstrators gather in this particular neighborhood?

Chris: Okay. So the background to the rioting then is that Clichy was understood to be a working class district of Paris. Whether it really was is beside the point really. It had a left wing mayor or a left wing deputy. It was thought to be working class and the party Parti social français, the PSF, this right wing group decides to hold a meeting in Clichy.  We could say it’s the classic tactics of left Lieutenant Colonel de la Rocque because he’s in the habit of holding meetings in working class areas. And the left wingers see this as a deliberate provocation. It’s their territory, they say. And so the usual response was for the anti-fascists to call a counter-demonstration. Now, what the PSA does is it responds in a way that I feel that a lot of modern right wingers do is that they say that they have every right to hold a meeting because we live in a democracy. We can say what we like. We can go where we like. This is a democratic freedom. Even if the PSF have didn’t really subscribe to democratic freedoms, they want to be able to exercise themselves. And they argue that this meeting is just a social gathering for families and that there’s nothing political about it. But that, again is beside the point, because for the anti-fascists, there’s been a challenge laid down. And the only response is that the the anti-fascists have to accept this challenge. So this is typical of thinking of the time that these perceived challenges have to be confronted and fought off. And it’s often framed in very gendered terms. And the situation in March 1937 was doubly tense because the LA Rocque at that time was on trial for illegally reconstituting the Croix de fue in the form of the PSF. So there’s this complicated political background. And so what the left wingers in Clichy do is they call this huge counter demonstration against the meeting. And from that moment on, it just all spirals out of control really. Whether the PSF is genuinely holding a social gathering or not, it can’t back down because if it cancels the meeting, it will lose face, it will look weak, and the communists and the anti-fascists will say they’ve scored a victory. So even if the PSF is not actually intended to provoke the left, it refuses to cancel the meeting. And that in itself becomes provocative. And so this means that when both sides show up in Clichy on the 16th of March 1937, while violence was not inevitable, activists were ready for it. If it happens and it was this readiness to commit violence stemmed from, as I’ve explained, these immediate events before the night, but also from the much longer history of confrontation that I’ve explored earlier.

Gary: What happened on that night? What do we know and what don’t we know?

Chris: We do have quite a lot of sources to use. I went to Clichy and in fact the reason I wanted to write the book was because I came across a huge pile of eyewitness statements and in the Archives de Paris from people who were present on the night. And I know also actually in some of the boxes of documents I came across bullets had been extracted from the victims as well, which was quite eye opening. But of course, these eyewitness statements are given to the police. The people who are giving them are left wingers, right wingers and police officers as well. So the full range of actors were interviewed. Now, of course, they did have to approach them critically because there were things in them that were very obviously motivated by a desire to escape criminal charges. So, for example, the left wing, as were interviewed, didn’t name any of their comrades who they had shown up with on the night, so they were very vague about who they’d been with. Right wingers claim to be completely innocent victims of communist aggression. And meanwhile, when you look at the police eyewitness statements, it’s very strange because if you believe what is in those documents, no policeman fired his weapon, which is very strange given that a handful of people were actually killed by police bullets. What no one actually shot one.

Gary: So one of life’s great mysteries.

Chris: Yes, it is very strange, yes. And so I think what actually happened on the night shows how violence was in actual fact, not inevitable. So whether violence broke out or not depended on a lot of different factors that happened in the heat of the moment. Of course, this has made it easier for violence to break out if everything’s on a knife edge, right, like they were. But what we have it Clichy is a large crowd of anti-fascist demonstrators begin to gather on the town square in the early evening, not far from where the PSF’s were meeting, and in a local cinema. Now, the police had failed to occupy that square. And this, I would argue, is their first mistake, because it means that the demonstrators can argue that it can occupy that square. And it also means that the demonstrators push towards the cinema along a very narrow street. And if you look at pictures from the night, you can see thousands of demonstrators rammed up against police lines and the police are trying to hold them back. And it must have been genuinely suffocating to be there. They are on the front row of the demonstrators. The there are punches exchanged and the police respond by charging and beating back demonstrators. And they use the butts of their rifles to force them back. And in actual fact, the police were ordered by their commanders to throw back at the demonstrators anything that was thrown at them. So that includes like rocks and cobblestones and bottles. Now, this lasted for some time until the police call for reinforcements midway through the evening. And this leads to what I would say is their second error. So the reinforcements arrived in open sided vans from neighboring districts. So that meant the policemen inside them were vulnerable to attack. But also the drivers of these vans didn’t know where they were going to. Some of them didn’t know the best way to get to Clichy. When these police vans arrived at Clichy, they ended up causing a traffic jam on the road to Clichy because they couldn’t get through the crowd. And the van drivers in some instances decided that all they can do is drive into the demonstrators so drive over them, I suppose. And what that means is that when the police reinforcements arrive on the square in Clichy, they’re battered, they’re bruised, they’re fearful for their lives. They’re not in communication with their commanders. And so they just start firing indiscriminately on the demonstrators and several people die as a result.

Gary: What was the immediate aftermath of the violence?

Chris: There was an inquiry into the deaths. So there were five civilian deaths on the night and one policeman was killed. Part of the inquiry focuses on the role of so-called agent provocateur. So people who may have incited the crowd to violence and in the aftermath, some left wingers claim that actually shots were fired at the police by these provocateur in the crowd. There’s a small amount of evidence that police finds that these provocateur were present, but it’s not really an explanation that I like, really, because I think the violence can be much better explained if we look at the mistakes that the police made on the night. And in the end, it wasn’t the first time anti-fascists and police had fought. So you didn’t really need anyone to provoke violence. It could come about perfectly naturally on its own. Now, the investigation also seeks to establish whether or not the dead, the dead of the riots, for well, for of a better way of putting it, could be blamed for their own deaths. So the leading investigator, the magistrate asks his doctors to examine the hands of the dead victims to determine if there was any traces of iron or dirt on them, which would say they’d picked up projectiles and thrown them at police. Or was there any evidence that they had hailed a hand gun as well as there was an imprint on their hand of a handgun because he wanted to be able to argue that the police had fired in self-defense against these attackers. Now, conveniently, he ignores the fact that most of the civilian dead were shot in the back. So they were shot while they were running away from the police. Now, in the in the longer term, the violence becomes simply another episode in this long spiral of confrontation during the 30s. So all sides respond in what we might call the usual way. Either it was a communist act of aggression or it’s a fascist act of aggression. But it does cause some problems for the ruling Popular Front governments because the Communist Party, which supports the government, denounces the fact that a left wing administration is overseeing a massacre of workers and it calls for a purge of the police. So it causes problems within well within the corridors of power at a time when the Popular Front is struggling to hold itself together.

Gary: You mentioned how the violence at Clichy is a forgotten episode in French history. Why is that? And what events would you say overshadow it?

Chris: Yeah, if I was the first, to be perfectly honest, I think we all as historians claim to be researching forgotten episodes in the past or things that have been overlooked. I do think that the Clichy riots is overlooked because political violence in interwar France has been overlooked in general. So I mentioned to the French historian Serge Berstein, who he back in the 1980s, he wrote a very famous article in which he argued that this confrontation was simulated. So what he meant was that political rivals like to attack each other verbally. But when actually came to fighting in the streets, they were reluctant to do so. They didn’t want to shed any blood. And this article appears in the context of the debate about fascism and into all fronts, which we’ve discussed previously, that historians like Berstein have tried to minimize the strength of French fascism and I suppose to serve this agenda. He therefore wanted to dismiss violence in French politics. But when you actually look at the article that he wrote and he cites just one source as a footnote, one archival source, and it’s one that has nothing to do with violence. So I’m not quite sure how he arrived at this idea of the simulated confrontation without anything to back it up. Nevertheless, it’s been quite influential on historians of Interwar France, and anyone who’s looked at violence in that period tends to concentrate on the riots of 6th February 1934, which you mentioned earlier, when fascists and veterans demonstrated in Paris against the government. But the point I wanted to make in the book and in my broader work on violence is that these mass outbreaks of violence like February 1934, they’re actually quite rare. And it’s all the outbreaks of violence in these persistent, more low level, low key incidents, which Clichy could be one of them. They show that violence wasn’t sporadic and spectacular. It was low level, but it was a persistent feature of French Democratic politics. And we could add to that, well, we could ask the question, to what extent does Democratic politics resolve the need that people feel to use violence, or does violence sit alongside Democratic politics always?

Gary: Your work seems highly relevant to the present time, which is depressing for us, though. Great for your career. The polarization of politics in democratic capitalist states. Street fighting between the far left and far right. The rebirth of Antifa. All date back to the interwar period in some form or another. Yet you’ve criticized other historians who claim that interwar France and modern Western countries experiences are very similar. Most notably in our previous episode, you criticized American historian Robert Paxton for drawing a parallel between the 6th of February 1934, right wing demonstration in Paris and the 6th of January 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. What similarities do you see between interwar France and modern political developments? Preferably within France, although I suppose we can talk about the U.S. as well, since I think we always have to at some point or another, the U.S. does seem to draw people’s attention. And aside from these similarities, what differences are there? And finally, what lessons would you have us draw from your work on interwar popular political conflict?

Chris: Well, I think, of course, we can look to the interwar years. Many people have  the lessons and comparisons with modern politics. We have to admit the period provides some numerous, very colorful examples that we can cite when we discuss modern politics. So, for example, the comparison between interwar, fascism and the modern right, an extreme right. But as with the case of Paxton, once you really start to get into the detail of these comparisons, it’s where problems arise. So in this sense, I like to look at these things two ways. So firstly, we can look at them as a citizen. So I could freely make comments about modern politicians and political leaders who resemble historical fascists on a very broad level. But as a historian, I feel that I’m trained to be critical. I’m trained to recognize the importance of context and nuance. And that makes me really uncomfortable to make comparisons between modern developments and history, because we can only really make these comparisons on the most general or in the most general terms. So that the problem is that if we’re thinking about extremism and violence in France today, we have to factor in all the other things that would make it different to the experience of the 30s. So the legacy of fascism in the Second World War, for example, the legacy of the Algerian war in France in particular, and also things like social media and the use of smart technologies to organize activists and demonstrations and spread messages. So in the French context, we could of course look to the gilets jaunes movements and their process of a few years ago against President Macron. But from what I know of them, they’re less easily distinguishable as either left or right than the groups during the interwar years. The thinking about my work on violence on Clichy I think the main lessons I might draw from looking at these years and the political conflict of them are twofold really. Firstly, once politics polarizes, it’s difficult to reestablish common ground. Polarization, I think, is the result of both sides actions. From what I know of American politics, I can see that it seems to be from my point of view in the UK, very polarized. And the problem is with that is that you lose the ability to appreciate nuance or to understand issues from a range of viewpoints or to disagree with someone with civility. And I think it’s difficult to see how you get that back once it’s gone. And I think the second lesson I’ve learned is that words have consequences. And that might seem a very simple lesson, but what is said and printed in the political arena can prompt people to act in the street. And so politicians really need to be cautious about indirectly inciting violence. Now, none of this means that violence is inevitable. And often, as I’ve mentioned, when it broke out and interwar fronts, it was due to any number of reasons. But activists can be mentally prepared for violence by what they’ve heard and read about the enemy. And often looking just for any excuse, however minor, to start a fight. So I think that, rather than, I suppose, make comparisons with the 1930s and today, I think it’s much more fruitful, I suppose, to suggest the lessons that we might learn. And I think they’re the two main ones I think are most important for politics today.

Gary: Well, I should hope that we would learn the lessons of history, though unfortunately I am not holding my breath. Thank you again for coming on the show. I am sure that the next time there is some sort of extreme violence between right and left, we will have you back to bring up another obscure, overlooked episode from the 1930s, which was more or less perfectly in line with what’s happening today. The book is Le Massacre de Clichy, Violence Politique et policère en temps du Front Populaire. It is currently in French, but when we do get an English translation, I will be sure to link it. In the meantime, everyone just work on your duo lingo so you can read it in its original form as it was meant to be read. Thank you again very much, Dr. Chris Millington, for joining us.

Chris: Thank you very much.

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