Communist Veterans and Paramilitarism in 1920s France: The Association Républicaine des Anciens Combattants

Chris Millington. Journal of War & Culture Studies. Volume 8, Issue 4. November 2015.

This article investigates the French communist veterans’ association the Association républicaine des anciens combattants (ARAC) during the 1920s. Historians have paid little attention to the ARAC, preferring instead to investigate both larger Republican associations and the extreme right-wing leagues of the period who appealed to veterans for support. The ARAC differed from other veterans’ associations: from its founding in 1917, it denounced the war as a needless sacrifice in which millions of men had been duped into fighting for international capitalism. It associated the material demands of the veterans with those of the broader working class and the ARAC persistently challenged the view that veterans deserved a special status in society. However, despite its internationalist and anti-war stance, in the mid-1920s, the group threw itself into paramilitary politics. In response to the founding of fascist-style leagues in 1924, the ARAC established the Groupes de défense antifascistes (GDA), uniformed shock squads intended for street confrontation with right-wing thugs. The article argues that the legacy of the war in France was therefore complex. The ARAC can neither be subsumed into notions of a ‘culture of victory’ in the postwar years nor can its paramilitarism be traced solely to the conflict. The GDA emerged in the postwar context of extremist politics, while bearing resemblance to pre-war manifestations of left-wing activism.

It is well documented that the interwar French extreme right sought to attract the support and membership of the veterans of the Great War. For the nationalist leagues, the veteran represented the epitome of patriotic values and his unrivalled moral legitimacy contrasted starkly with the alleged rottenness of the Third Republican political class. Furthermore, his experience of military combat was thought useful in the street battles against the new enemy on the revolutionary left. What is less well known is the case of French veterans on the extreme left of politics. The most significant group was the Association républicaine des anciens combattants (ARAC). Founded in 1917 by socialists Paul Vaillant-Couturier and Raymond Lefèbvre, with the support of Le Feu author Henri Barbusse, the ARAC was a federation of provincial veterans’ associations. Antoine Prost writes that the founding of the association heralded a new radicalism in the veterans’ movement, for the ARAC’s overtly political character distinguished it from other ex-servicemen’s organizations (38). Certainly, the largest anciens combattants groups—the conservative Union nationale des combattants (UNC) and the centre-left Union fédérale (UF)—ostensibly rejected all politics as tainted by factional self-interest. The UNC and the UF envisaged (rhetorically, at least) a largely apolitical ‘civic’ role for their members. On the other hand, the ARAC advocated a revolutionary socialism. Lefèbvre intended that the veterans of the ARAC would act as a liaison between the urban and the rural working class and thus facilitate a revolution in France akin to those that had taken place in Russia and Hungary (1).

The ARAC’s revolutionary character was cemented after July 1923 when communists rose to positions of influence in the association’s leadership. Under the tutelage of Vaillant-Couturier, Barbusse and Jacques Duclos, the ARAC became a satellite organization of the French communist party (30). Its mission came to resemble that of the German Roter Frontkämpferbund (RFB): to spread communist propaganda amongst urban workers and veterans. The results were decidedly mixed. The size of the ARAC’s membership fluctuated during the 1920s, with periods of growth (1917-1923) matched by periods of near-disastrous decline (1927-1930). Despite the association’s continuous appeals to the proletariat, the makeup of its support was diverse, including salaried workers, minor public officials, small business owners, and artisans (178). The membership stabilized at around 20,000 during the 1930s, with a significant number of adherents (approximately 6300) based in the Seine department (47n35, 54, 64). It was at this time too that the ARAC began to publish a regular newssheet, Le Réveil du combattant. Up to that point, its publications had appeared rather haphazardly, with the group’s first newspaper, L’Ancien combattant, established in 1919 and undergoing a series of name changes during the decade from Le Combattant to L’Antiguerrier. ARAC sections in the provinces also produced newssheets and leaflets.

Little historical work exists on the ARAC. Prost’s magisterial study of the French veterans’ movement tackles the association tangentially. Like the extreme right-wing Croix de Feu, Prost judges the ARAC too political to be included in the scope of his study, stating that it was ‘on the margins’ of the veterans’ movement during the interwar years (47). My own work on the French veterans concerned only the largest associations and, under the influence of the ongoing debate about the strength of French interwar fascism, it privileged the veterans’ relationship with the extreme right over their links to the left.

In the first instance, this article sheds light on this hitherto unexplored aspect of the French veterans’ political culture: how did anciens combattants of the extreme left conceive of both the war experience and their role in post-war French society? Secondly, the article examines the ARAC’s role in the 1920s culture of paramilitarism that developed in France as elsewhere in Europe. In the mid-1920s, the association founded uniformed paramilitary units known as the Groupes de défense antifascistes (GDA) in response to the emergence into politics of fascist-style leagues. Left-wing paramilitarism in France, especially that of veterans of the Great War, offers an up till now under-investigated window onto not only the veterans’ movement but also French politics in the post-war decade. Prost has argued that the patriotic pacifism of French veterans largely protected French society from the post-war ‘brutalization’ (a theory first advanced by George Mosse) that seemed to lie at the basis of the paramilitary conflict in nations left defeated or disappointed in the aftermath of the war. Moving beyond Mosse, recent research has placed emphasis on the ‘mobilizing power of defeat’ in nations where the unsatisfactory end to the war seemed to legitimize the use of violence (2-4).

Conversely, France enjoyed a ‘culture of victory’ reinforced by the election in 1919 of a right-wing government whose perceived upholding of wartime values brought most French—and especially the conservative right—closer to Republicanism. However, by late 1923, as paramilitary violence was coming to an end on the continent, the French ‘culture of victory’ seemed threatened both by the victory of the left-wing Cartel des Gauches and the emergence of the French communist party. With the Cartel more willing than the Bloc National government to reconcile with, and offer concessions to, the former German enemy, worried conservatives turned to uniformed shock squads bent on protecting France’s ‘national interest’ from the threat of left-wing revolution (220-31).

The ARAC had long been estranged to the culture of victory. In the aftermath of the Great War, it persistently contested the emerging memory of the conflict as a necessary and worthy sacrifice with its own version of the war as a futile slaughter of the proletariat, while simultaneously calling for the post-war treaties—in which were contained the fruits of the Allied victory—to be annulled. The association retained such rhetoric even after its move toward paramilitarism, although the two sat uncomfortably alongside each other. All this suggests that if we are to understand post-war paramilitarism—and particularly its left-wing variant—we must look beyond the war experience.

We Who Bear the Wounds in Our Flesh: The Politics of the ARAC

The ARAC was founded before the end of the Great War, on 2 November 1917, and to a great extent it was a product of the contemporary mood on the left. In that year, sections of the French left began to display signs of disengagement from the wartime ‘Sacred Union’. At its December conference in Clermont-Ferrand, France’s largest labour union, the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) condemned the wartime political truce and declared its support for both US President Woodrow Wilson’s peace terms and the Bolshevik Revolution. Emerging at this time, the ARAC was a part of what Horne has termed ‘cultural demobilization’: the ‘dismantling [of] the wartime frames of mind’ that began to develop on the extreme left even before the end of the conflict (104). The association’s conception of the war experience differed starkly from that of the mainstream Republican associations. Rather than the apogee of patriotism, war had been a lesson in the perniciousness of militarism, with the war dead framed as ‘victims of global militarism’. In turn the ARAC celebrated the ‘heroic’ mutineers of the Black Sea fleet, of which leading communist André Marty was the most notorious. The group pursued a policy of antimilitarism and it encouraged the membership of serving soldiers who, it hoped, would expose the brutality and mistreatment of life in the barracks.

The ARAC’s appreciation of the war stemmed from its understanding of class conflict. It condemned all forms of patriotism as dupery intended to provide working-class cannon fodder for the French Army (termed the keystone of the ‘bourgeois edifice’) and the real victors of the war, Renault and Krupp. In 1919, the ARAC scoffed at the ‘orgy’ at the Arc de Triomphe on 14 July. Instead, its cortege went to lay a wreath at Albert Bartholomé’s monument to all dead in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Provincial sections carried the same message to their members. At Montluçon in 1925, comrade Chanudet described the local war memorial as ‘a pillar of the hatred between peoples [erected] for profits which are not theirs’. In the event of another war, the association advocated defeatism as the best defence of the proletariat in order to undermine imperialist war (Archives nationales, Paris [hereafter AN] F7/13179: 14-15 August 1927).

The ARAC was just one of a range of veterans’ and political associations that invested its own significance in the memory of the war experience. From 1918, commemoration became a political stake into which groups read different meanings, whether it was the condemnation of capitalist war, the celebration of the Republic, or the glorification of the fatherland (19-20). If ministers desired to impose a uniform meaning on the war—that of the victorious Republic—veterans’ groups resisted attempts to transform the annual commemoration into a celebration of the armies of the Republic. Instead, the veterans placed the war dead at the heart of their ceremonies. The ARAC’s antimilitarist slant on the commemoration of the war remained a minority view in France: few of the 36,000 war memorials erected carried the inscription ‘Death to war!’ (114, 115, 123).

A desire for immediate rapprochement with the former enemy distanced the ARAC further from the broader veterans’ movement. Lefèbvre admitted that while the German had indeed perpetrated atrocities on French territory, it was absurd to blame a nation for the crimes of its generals and a minority of reprobates. At a time when many French were calling for the Kaiser to be executed, he advised that the figure of the Emperor should engender hatred of imperialism rather than the German nation (14-15). In April 1920, the association met with German veterans at a conference in Geneva that founded the Veterans’ International, described by Barbusse as the ‘army of life’ (72; 24). Further exchanges with German veterans’ associations took place: Karl Tiedt, president of the Internationaler Bund der Kriegsopfer, spoke at the ARAC national congress in 1922 (AN F7/13179: n.d.). As for the League of Nations, after some initial enthusiasm, the ARAC soon lost confidence in the body, considering it a useless and hollow talking shop.

The association’s conception of the ‘veteran’ likewise differed from that of its rivals in the movement. Vaillant-Couturier was clear about this in his first editorial for L’Ancien combattant: ‘The title of veteran confers no special rights on the one who has the misfortune to bear it’. To be known as a ‘veteran’ was merely to enjoy little more than a status rendered by a twist of fate . This declaration jarred with ideas in the majority of other ex-servicemen’s associations for whom only the veteran was qualified to lead (both politically and spiritually) a rejuvenated France. Such notions contained no small amount of authoritarianism, especially in their juxtaposition of the virtuous ancien combattant and the rotten elected politician. Yet for the ARAC, the veteran had little reason to be proud of his elevated social status. He had not been a hero during the war; in fact, he had envied the peaceful life of the shirker back home, prayed for a ‘liberating wound’ to deliver him from the hell of the trenches and, upon returning home, was keen to throw his ragged uniform away with the trash (AN F7/13320: 5 April 1934). As for the much-eulogised ‘trench fraternity’—a classless society in which solders of all ranks allegedly stood equal in the face of suffering and death—this too was a lie. On the contrary, class divisions at the front had been real and persistent (85-87).

The ARAC sought to portray veterans as simple workers. It placed itself at the forefront of the working-class movement, looking to recruit men with the ‘calloused hands’ of the proletariat. Indeed, Prost writes of a ‘sort of complementarity’ between veterans’ groups such as the ARAC and trade unions at the time of demobilization when urban veterans experiencing difficulty in their readjustment to civilian life turned to working-class and even revolutionary organizations (58). ARAC propaganda continually associated the plight and demands of the veterans with those of the proletariat: both were to be united in the battle against the common capitalist enemy; the worker was as much ‘work fodder’ as the soldier was cannon fodder (AN F7/13179: n.d.a). The association’s programme thus entwined demands particular to the veterans with broader claims made in the name of all workers (12-13; 36-43). In particular, the association campaigned for an equalization of pensions between disabled veterans and workers injured in industrial accidents, arguing that: ‘There is no more glory in losing an arm on the battlefield from a shell than losing an arm caught in machinery on the daily battlefield of capitalist exploitation’ (6, 46).

However, the discourse of the association did at times draw upon the specificity of the war experience in order to highlight the special qualities of ARAC veterans. Prost cites an ARAC publication that urged the association’s members in 1919, ‘you must be a new man. You obeyed during the war, you alone must command during times of peace’ (148). Bodily injury suffered at the front figured in the association’s rhetoric, as it did in that of all veterans’ groups. Secretary General of ARAC Jacques Duclos accused the veterans of the UNC of being ‘not specifically veterans who were in the trenches but “shirkers” in the rear who bore no injuries of front line soldiers’. This rendered the UNC suited neither to defending the rights of veterans nor to speaking in their name (AN F7/13320: 10 April 1935). In addition, disability and suffering seemed to bring clear-sightedness in politics. Gabriel Fargue claimed that the war was unleashed to destroy the spirit of internationalism and that ‘we who bear in our flesh the deep marks of wounds caused by the most atrocious barbarism’ know that this is true. Infirmity figured too in the ARAC’s pictorial propaganda. In August 1930, a cartoon in Le Feu depicted a crowd of workers carrying ARAC and communist flags. In the foreground, where one might have expected to see the clenched fist of the communist salute, there was a prosthesis equipped with a hook, from which flew a flag carrying the slogan ‘Against imperialist war’. Thus while the ARAC’s association of the veteran with the worker differentiated it from other groups, at times it employed tropes familiar to the rest of the veterans’ movement.

In line with its political concerns beyond the veterans’ constituency, the ARAC practiced a liberal membership policy, admitting non-veterans who had demonstrated their commitment to the broader causes of the group. Young people, especially members of the Jeunesses communistes, were encouraged to join. At times this policy caused tension: youth member Chauvet criticized the veterans for having missed the opportunity to turn their weapons on the bourgeoisie while at the front. In contrast, he claimed that the young would be ‘more courageous’ (AN F7/13179: 13 November 1926). Women were allowed to join the ARAC too, something that, while not altogether unique in the male world of the veterans, was still unusual. In the ARAC, Marianne Rauze, a war widow and former editor of the women’s newspaper L’Equité, was a member of the executive committee and she often spoke at the association’s meetings (AN F7 13179: 22 February 1926).

The ARAC’s distinctiveness within the veterans’ movement brought it into conflict with other ex-servicemen’s associations. Initially, the group collaborated with the UF, but its belligerent attitude to the admission of former officers—and the UF’s preference for neutrality in political matters—saw the ARAC break with this centre-left group soon after the war. The association’s conflict with the UF continued until the mid-1930s when the Popular Front strategy led communist groups toward the centre of politics. Ultimately, the UF supported the ARAC’s application to join the inter-associational veterans’ Confédération in 1935. As for the UNC, the ARAC remained an intractable adversary. The UNC considered the extreme left-wing association to be a conduit through which communism would infiltrate the combatants’ movement. In turn, ARAC accused the UNC of many crimes: it was funded by war profiteers; its members were fascists, strike breakers and shirkers; its leaders collaborated with the paramilitary leagues and supported Hitler (Fonds Moscou, Fontainebleau, 19940500: 8 April 1938). Veterans in both associations worked to disrupt each other’s meetings and violence broke out at times. During a meeting in Limoges in June 1926, an ARAC delegate criticized the local UNC section for its campaign to erect a war memorial in the town. A fight broke out when angry UNC members attempted to invade the stage and silence the speaker (AN F7/13179: 5 June 1926). Sites and ceremonies of commemoration, as well as bodies, were thus transformed into discursive and physical battlegrounds over the memory and meaning of the war.

Soldiers of Antifascism: The Groupes de Défense Antifascistes

The emergence of the fascist leagues after 1924 saw antifascism become the central pillar of the ARAC’s political action. The policy took physical form in the shape of the ARAC’s GDA: uniformed shock squads that were intended to confront extreme right-wing leaguers in the streets and meeting halls of France. The decision to form the GDA was taken in January 1926 and the groups were unveiled on 29 May during a meeting at the Gymnase Huyghens in Paris (30). Members took an oath, as a delegate of the RFB (likely to have been Friedrich ‘Fritz’ Selbmann, noted German Communist Party activist) looked on (AN F7/13179: 30 May 1926). French revolutionary heritage was accorded a place at the ceremony too when veteran of the Paris Commune Zéphyrin Camélinat presented a red flag to ARAC delegates (AN F7/13179: 30 May 1926). The GDA made their first public appearance during the march to the Mur des Fédérés in late May 1926 when they paraded in tight ranks during the communist demonstration (AN F7/13179: 30 May 1926b).

Paramilitarism was central to the groups’ organization and identity. The national executive of the ARAC’s defence groups sat in Paris, with responsibility at a provincial level delegated to a regional executive and local section heads each in charge of a brigade of 100 men. These brigades were subdivided into ‘thirtieths’, ‘thirteenths’, and ‘sixths’. Each thirtieth had a distinctive insignia to be worn on the beret (AN F7/13179: March 1927). Such paramilitarism was essential to the ARAC’s propaganda appeal. In Lyons, comrade Thivol reported enthusiastically to his colleagues what he had seen in Paris during the 1926 march to the Mur des Fédérés: the perfect discipline of the stewards and their remarkable appearance and propriety (AN F7/13179: 7 July 1926).

The founding of the GDA saw the ARAC embrace the language and imagery of a martial masculinity that contrasted with the association’s broader antimilitarist agenda. In fact, the inspiration for the GDA seemed to stem from the perceived lack of manliness on display during ARAC street action in comparison with that of the leagues. For Jacques Duclos, Armistice Day 1925 marked a low point in the association’s campaign against fascism. He contrasted the ARAC’s ‘tumultuous’ and ‘disorderly’ march through the streets of Clichy with the ‘disciplined’ and ‘militarily organized’ march of the fascist legions to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Drawing on the vocabulary of a martial manliness, he recommended that the ARAC should act with similar ‘order’, ‘discipline’, ‘courage’, and ‘willpower’ in order to form an ‘invincible front of red combatants’ (36-37). While the war provided an immediate point of reference for ARAC militants, the emphasis on the virility of the left-wing activist may be traced to the pre-war period too. Marc Angenot has shown that prior to the Great War, the socialist party lionized the militant, described as the virile and energetic champion of the proletariat at the head of the ‘socialist army’. Just as Duclos in 1925 condemned the disorderly Clichy march, pre-war socialists lambasted the docility of the ‘cowardly’ masses. Consequently, during both the Belle Epoque and the 1920s, revolutionary socialists saw a solution to the inertia and disorganization of the people in the manly militant (79-82). Still, ARAC activists were keen to stress the difference between the discipline of the GDA and that of their paramilitary adversaries. Left-wing discipline was the ‘freely-consented’ variant of the revolutionary rather than the regimented drudgery of the parade grounds. Nevertheless, it was central to the functioning of the GDA: comrade Soudeille told members in the Lyons region, ‘[i]t will be necessary, comrades, to accept discipline and carry out orders given by a section leader. If we want to be strong, we must be disciplined’ (AN F7/13179: 15 September 1926).

The GDA’s culture of manliness extended beyond their paramilitary appearance. Their associational culture underscored the masculine qualities required of members and the readiness to commit violence if necessary. In the Allier, Roger Tuélais claimed that only the ‘tough shoulders’ of workers could break the fascism of the leagues. Meanwhile, Secretary General Brun told a gathering at Lyons in July 1926 that the men in the GDA should be chosen for their ‘sang-froid’ and discipline resisting provocation (AN F7 13179: 15 July 1926). If the GDA demonstrated that some left-wing veterans were prepared to commit violence, we must acknowledge that much of the groups’ strategy lay in the threat, rather than the use, of violence. But if the emphasis was placed on calmness, in the event of attack antifascist activists were ordered to ‘wreck’ the fascists (AN F7/13179: 25 July 1926). L’Humanité likewise hailed the sang-froid of the ARAC but warned, ‘[w]hoever crosses us will be stung’. This manly culture of violence did not exclude the participation of women; on the contrary, the group envisaged an important role for female activists, who should be enrolled as nurses to treat injured comrades (AN F7/13179: 15 September 1926). The ARAC’s antifascist discourse and imagery thus combined physical toughness with moral discipline and the preparedness to commit violence: a pamphlet advertising the GDA depicted a beret-wearing and uniformed veteran in the foreground with the smoking chimneys of a factory behind him. In his hand, he grasped a heavy cane (AN F7/13179: n.d.b).

The GDA drew on a broader French culture of violence that privileged the masculine qualities of non-violent self-control and bloody vengeance if attacked. Moreover, the ARAC’s depiction of the manly communist militant was broadly consonant with gendered ideas of activism at the political extremes during the 1920s. Communist discourse espoused a hypermasculinity in which physically fit, muscled and brave young men were lionized as the avant-garde of the coming revolution. Party propaganda emphasized the robust physicality of these shock troops (68-71). Women, too, were urged to follow the example of their male comrades and become revolutionary companions, whether this meant selling newspapers in the street or brawling with police (32). Such an emphasis on physical and moral manliness was mirrored on the extreme right: the leagues’ ‘new man’ aped the youthful and combative traits of his communist equivalent. Groups on both the extreme left and the extreme right encouraged their followers into sporting activities that would harden both their muscles and their resolve when confronted with the enemy in the street (133-50). The GDA were thus symptomatic of a contemporary gendered extremist politics that posed paramilitarism as an essential political strategy; as comrade Nozat told ARAC members in July 1926: ‘You see our comrades wearing a beret and carrying truncheons? Well, you must all be as disciplined as them. Only then will we be the masters’ (AN F7/13179: 8 July 1926).

While the specifically veteran character of the GDA drew special attention—Jacques Deuler, a delegate of ARAC’s central committee informed a meeting at Rouen in April 1926 that the aim was to create a ‘veterans’ force’ that could be used to support revolutionary action in the future—the association admitted youthful paramilitaries into the GDA affiliate, the Jeunes Gardes (AN F7/13179: 13 April 1926). The Jeunes Gardes recruited men under 25 who had not yet completed their military service. The sections made their first appearance at the ceremony to mark the eighth anniversary of the Armistice at Saint-Denis in 1926. Their paramilitarism reflected that of the parent association: at the Salle Franklin in Le Havre, the Jeunes Gardes were presented to a 1000-strong audience: ‘these young people, numbering about sixty, came forward and gathered at the foot of the stage, and stood to attention. At this moment the band played the Internationale and the Jeunes Gardes Antifascistes raised a clenched fist up to their face, in the form of a salute. The room applauded their appearance frenetically’ (AN F7/13179: 13 November 1926). According to their press, the purpose of the Jeunes Gardes was to couple discipline with the ‘drive’ of youth to confront fascism with a young ‘Red Front’, ‘solid as a rock’.

It is undeniable that the GDA drew inspiration from foreign forms of paramilitarism. Antifascist voices in France, with the example of fascist domination in Italy still fresh in their minds, had long demanded that the working class should not let itself be terrorized by the new fascist leagues. It was with groups based in Germany, a country where the fascist takeover was yet to happen, that the ARAC had most contact. In France’s eastern border regions, exchanges took place between French and German groups. The ARAC section in Strasbourg developed links with associations such as Baron Claus Zorn de Bulach’s Alsatian secessionists, while the Metz section had contacts with the RFB in Sarrebruck (AN F7/13180: 4 September 1927; 15 November 1927). In August 1927, a delegation from ARAC’s Lorraine sections attended a ‘red combatants’ congress in Mannheim. L’Humanité hailed the paramilitary orderliness with which the German masses lined up to hear the speakers at this event (AN F7/13180: 5 August 1927). That same year, the ARAC section for Alsace-Lorraine informed its members that the GDA—formed in Metz, Basse-Yutz, Algrange, Sarrebourg, Sarreguemines, Strasbourg and Mulhouse—were based on the model of the German paramilitary groups which had been so successful in obstructing the march of German fascism (AN F7/13180: 21 July 1927). In fact, the decline of the French leagues in 1926 had seen Moscow order that the GDA should emulate the RFB in the party’s new policy of class warfare (33).

It is difficult to estimate the size and success of the ARAC’s antifascist squads. During 1926, groups sprang up throughout the Paris region. There is evidence that sections were founded in the provinces too: a group was established in the Rhône to protect meetings and ‘prevent certain demonstrations’ (31; AN F7/13179: 15 July 1926). By spring 1927, the ARAC claimed to have 4000 members across the GDA and the Jeunes Gardes; at this time, the association’s total membership was approximately 23,000. That year, the first regional congress of the Jeunes Gardes was held in Paris, with Le Combattant reporting that sixty-four delegates representing twenty-five sections had attended (AN F7/13180: May-June 1927).

The Comintern’s rejection of paramilitarism in 1928 saw the GDA brought to an end. The antifascist groups were proving unpopular. To some extent, the GDA were now out of step with broader developments in French politics. In comparison with Germany, where political practice, semiotics and iconography became ever more militarized, by the late 1920s, the paramilitary sub-culture in France had subsided. Yet the unpopularity of the GDA seemed to run deeper than this. Many members had long disliked the groups. Discomfort was expressed with their military styling. As early as June 1926 (1 month after the launch of the GDA), comrades expressed concern that the majority of their colleagues opposed the wearing of a uniform because of its militarist connotations (AN F7/13179: 5 June 1926). Conservative enemies of the ARAC were quick to point out the sartorial and gestural similarity between the new communist militia and their fascist enemies; such comparisons could not have been lost on communist members themselves . The communist party recognized that some comrades lacked the stomach for fighting. Le Combattant repeatedly called on members to support the GDA both morally and financially, but it was consistently disappointed with the response (AN BB18/2793: March 1929).

The seeming unpopularity of the GDA has been interpreted as evidence of a broader rejection of paramilitarism by ordinary veterans. Furthermore Stéphane Audoin has cited the communist party’s concomitant decline in the late 1920s as indicative of the broader refutation of violence in French politics. Both factors apparently point to a strong current of non-violent Republicanism not only in the veterans’ movement but also in French society. It is true that the ARAC suffered a crisis of membership in the mid-1920s that coincided with its paramilitary turn. Police reported in 1926 that the association had lost more than two-thirds of its members since passing into the hands of the communists (AN F7/13179: 11 December 1926). By the end of the decade, some sections of the ARAC were experiencing severe financial difficulties caused by a drop off in membership: members in the Parisian section numbered only 2800 with this figure declining by 10 per cent during 1928-1929 alone (AN F7/13180: 18 December 1929).

While we should not ignore the reluctance of ARAC veterans to adopt the group’s paramilitary politics after 1926, we must also take into account the broader difficulties that communist organizations faced at this time. Following the violence between communists and the Parisian police during the so-called Sacco and Vanzetti riots of August 1927, the Ministry of the Interior and the Prefect of Police (zealous anti-communist Jean Chiappe) began a crackdown on revolutionary groups. Throughout the country, departmental prefects were advised to use all means available to bring to justice any person advocating violence and antimilitarism (AN BB18/2794: 20 April 1929). Leading communists were convicted of provoking soldiers to disobedience; Duclos himself received a jail term. By 1929, the ARAC admitted that a large proportion of its members were in prison, facing prosecution or enduring constant police harassment, with mere propaganda activities punished by up to 5 years’ imprisonment. Prost writes that Chiappe had members of the GDA arrested ‘by the truckload’ (47n35). At the group’s national congress in December 1930, delegates heard that since the jailing of Duclos links between provincial groups and the central organization had broken down, with the former acting with virtual autonomy from Paris. Meanwhile, with fewer than 20,000 members, the association needed to double the number of subscriptions to its newspaper if it was to survive.


The association did survive. A reorganization in the early 1930s put the group on a surer footing and the regular publication of Le Réveil du combattant was a sign of the ARAC’s success. The cause of antifascism further ensured the survival of the association. As French politics polarized after 1934, ARAC veterans were called upon to form the nucleus of antifascist committees throughout France. Along with 28 other Parisian veterans’ groups, the ARAC formed the Mouvement d’action combattante in 1934 to counter directly the appeal of French fascism to the ex-servicemen community (172). It continued to contest the memory of the war and the war dead with its right-wing rivals. At the inauguration of a war memorial in June 1934, two ceremonies took place, the first led by the UNC accompanied by the singing of the Marseillaise and the flying of the tricolour flag. The second, unofficial, ceremony under the auspices of ARAC matched the symbolism of the first with the flying of the flag of the Soviet Union and the singing of the Internationale. In 1937, the UNC withdrew from the Armistice Day in protest at the ARAC being allowed to march behind a red flag.

As Europe moved closer to war, the association did not remain silent on international issues. It demanded that France should supply the Republican government in Spain with arms, claiming that the embargo was prolonging the war (106-07). Interestingly, the ARAC’s discourse during the Spanish Civil War drew on the language of civilizational conflict that was more familiar to the right. It claimed that Madrid, once a beacon of Western civilization that had defended Europe from Arab invasion, had been set ablaze by an ‘army of African Moors’ and legionnaires under the command of fascist ‘Franco the African’, burning working-class districts and killing women and children. In the name of humanity, the association called on Paris and London for help (107-08). In September 1938, the association opposed the Munich accords as a sop to ‘financial oligarchies and bloody international arms dealers’. As war approached it demanded a greater effort to secure peace but declared that it would not live in servitude to the ‘modern Huns’ (138-55). The ARAC was dissolved on 1 November 1939 according to the terms of the decree of 29 September 1939, which outlawed the communist party and its affiliated organizations. The group’s leaders were arrested and the association passed into clandestinity.

On the surface, the ARAC appears to be an anomaly in the French veterans’ movement. It rejected the representation of the war as a necessary sacrifice and refused in the main to admit that veterans deserved special rights. Yet though anomalous, it would be incorrect to dismiss the ARAC as estranged from a broader veterans’ culture. While we must admit that the association’s interpretation and representation of the war years differed from those of the mainstream associations, even within the UF and the UNC the meaning and memory of the war, as well as the mission of the war generation, were at times contested. Certainly, the great associations largely depicted the war as a noble, if murderous, sacrifice and the veterans as warriors of a French ideal. But different interpretations crept through at times, too—hardly surprising given the size of the veterans’ movement itself. Furthermore, the ARAC’s engagement with paramilitary politics was by no means unusual in the veterans’ world: the leagues of the 1920s could not have existed without the membership of ex-servicemen.

The ostensibly anomalous nature of the ARAC is further present in its paramilitarism, which seems to present a case out of step with its counterparts in the rest of Europe. The GDA emerged in a nation that escaped both the brutalization of its politics and a culture of defeat. Furthermore, the organization from which these shock troops emanated was untouched by the culture of victory, the perceived dismantling of which sparked the birth of the extreme right-wing leagues. The case of the ARAC suggests that to look only to the war experience in search of an explanation of interwar paramilitary politics is insufficient. We must recognize the influence of pre-war left-wing violence in France. It seems that the heritage of the manly socialist activist, shepherding the masses into violent action against the bourgeoisie, stretched back into the late nineteenth century. Furthermore, though the war experience remained an important reference point for the GDA in terms of their paramilitary structure, membership and mystique, more immediate contextual factors—the foundation of the leagues—help to explain their establishment. Of course, Moscow ultimately directed the French party, but without the emergence of French fascism it is difficult to envisage the founding of the GDA. The ARAC thus helps to nuance understandings not only of the French veterans’ movement but also of the culture of paramilitarism that emerged in France in the mid-1920s.