Rolland, Romain (1866–1944)

views updated

ROLLAND, ROMAIN (1866–1944)


French writer.

Romain Rolland was born 29 January 1866 and grew up in a middle-class, republican family in Clamecy (Nièvre) in Burgundy, France, where his father was a notary. In 1886 he matriculated at the École Normale Supérieure. There he embarked on studies in history, which were crowned by his success in the teaching certification examination (agrégation) of 1889. In the same year, he was awarded a scholarship that allowed him to spend the next two years at the École Française in Rome. There he met Malwida von Meysenburg, who influenced his view of Germany. In Rome he cultivated his taste for music and art and in 1895 earned his doctorate in musicology. He then became a lecturer at the Sorbonne; he also taught at the École Normale Supérieure. Meanwhile, he published plays and the biographies of several artists, the most famous of which is Beethoven (1903). From this point on, Romain Rolland was to some degree "Beethoven's high priest," in the words of Esteban Buch. And indeed, the figure of the Romantic musical genius plays a major role in his magnum opus, Jean-Christophe, a novel of artistic apprenticeship written between 1901 and 1914 and published in ten volumes. The work, which won the prize of the Académie Française in 1913, presents European civilization as a synthesis of German and French influences.

Rolland was living in Switzerland when World War I began in August 1914 and decided not to return to France. He thus became a voluntary exile from his country of origin and more generally from a Europe now at war. In 1914, while living in Geneva, he published a series of articles in the Journal de Genève, including the famous "Audessus de la mêlée" (Above the battle). Because of the position he took, he came under fire from both the Germans and the French. He was the target of German intellectuals such as Gerhart Hauptmann, whom he criticized for remaining loyal to a kaiser he scorned and from whom he demanded a firm and resolute condemnation of German atrocities committed in Belgium. During this time, admittedly, his criticisms of Germany were harsher than those he reserved for France, though he did warn France against employing colonial troops, whom he called "those savage hordes." That racist argument was current at the time, though more commonly voiced by the enemies of France, as in the Aufruf an die Kulturwelt (Appeal to the civilized world) by ninety-three German intellectuals and professors in 1914. But when he attacked political leaders, generals, churches, intellectuals, and the socialist elites who had exploited the idealism of young soldiers for their own ends, Rolland aimed his remarks at all the countries at war.

The major criticisms of Rolland came from his compatriots, however, who were familiar with the articles he had written despite their having been censored. He was considered a traitor to his country. The authorities shared this point of view and did not allow him to return to France until May 1919.

The slander he had faced, the Nobel Prize for Literature he received in 1915, his meetings in Switzerland with pacifists of all nationalities, and his involvement with the Red Cross all led him to an ever more radical form of pacifism. In 1916, together with Henri Guilbeaux, he founded the pacifist and internationalist review Demain (Tomorrow). He provides a fictionalized account of these years in his semi-autobiographical novel Clérambault (1920). From this time on, Romain Rolland became something of a cult figure for young intellectuals on the left, pacifists and Europeanists such as the poet Pierre-Jean Jouve, whom he met in Switzerland and who published the first biography of Rolland in 1919. On his return to France, Rolland became a living incarnation of left-wing pacifism, while remaining for many French people (especially those on the right of the political spectrum) a symbol of "defeatism." His pacifism, however, did not prevent him from engaging in polemics with the other tutelary figure of French pacifism, Henri Barbusse. Immediately after the war, the two intellectuals had come together to proclaim their allegiance to "independence of mind" by issuing manifesto after manifesto against the intellectual Right, which, under the aegis of Henri Massis, had proclaimed itself the "party of intelligence." Between 1921 and 1923, the pacifist alliance between Barbusse and Rolland broke down. Rolland refused to join Barbusse's movement Clarté (Clarity) and criticized him for placing his pacifism and independence of mind at the service of the Communist Party. This did not prevent Rolland from being so drawn to the USSR a decade later that he became one of its loyal "fellow travelers." In 1933, for instance, he published the pro-Soviet novel L'âme enchantée (The Soul Enchanted). Only in 1939, with the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, did Rolland's procommunist convictions waver: he publicly reaffirmed his support for the cause of the democratic countries. But his political positions now elicited little interest. He retired to Vézelay in his native Burgundy and died there in 1944.

See alsoBarbusse, Henri; Pacifism.


Becker, Jean-Jacques. "Au dessus de la mêlée." In 14–18, la très Grande Guerre, edited by the Centre de Recherche de l'Historial de Péronne. Paris, 1994.

Fisher, David James. Romain Rolland and the Politics of Intellectual Engagement. Berkeley, Calif., 1988.

Jouve, Pierre-Jean. Romain Rolland vivant, 1914–1919. Paris, 1920.

Klepsch, Michael. Romain Rolland im Ersten Weltkrieg: Ein intellektueller auf verlorenen Posten. Stuttgart, Germany, 2000.

Nicolas BeauprÉ