Weiss, Louise (1893–1983)
Weiss, Louise (1893–1983)
French international journalist, writer, film producer, and feminist who was an advocate of realpolitik, peace, and European unity. Pronunciation: loo-EEZ VICE. Born in Arras (Pas-de-Calais) on January 25, 1893; died in Paris, France, on May 26, 1983, and cremated at Père-Lachaise Cemetery; daughter of Paul-Louis Weiss; her mother's maiden name was Javal; educated at the Lycée Molière, Lady Margaret Hall (Oxford), and the Collège Sévigné, and earned an agrégé in literature; married José Imbert, around 1934 (divorced around 1937); no children.
Passed the agrégation examination and founded a small hospital for wounded soldiers (1914); was editor at Europe Nouvelle (1918–19); was editor-in-chief of Europe Nouvelle (1920–34); went to Russia to observe the Revolution (1921); founded the École de Paix (1930–36); founded La Femme Nouvelle, which promoted women's suffrage (1934–38); was secretary-general of the Refugee Committee (1938–40); went to the United States to obtain pharmaceuticals for France (1940); was editor of the Resistance gazette La Nouvelle République (1942–44); undertook a series of travels to Asia, the Mideast, North America, and Africa, resulting in books and documentary films (1946–65); won the Literature Prize of the Académie Française (1947); was secretary-general of the Institut de Polémologie (1964–70); failed election to the Académie Française (1974); elected to the European Parliament (1979–83).
Délivrance: roman (A. Michel, 1936); Souvenirs d'une enfance républicaine (Denöel, 1937); La Marseillaise (Gallimard, 1945); L'Or, le camion et la croix: un voyage du Mexique en Alaska (Julliard, 1949); Sabine Legrand: roman (Julliard, 1951); La Syrie (Del Duca, 1953); Le Cachemire (Hachette, 1955); Images de l'Empire Soleil (Oeuvres Libres, 1959); Le Voyage enchanté (Fayard, 1960); Souen: le singe pélérin (Oeuvres Libres, 1962); Mémoires d'une européenne (6 vols., A. Michel, 1968–80); Lettre à un embryon (Julliard, 1973); Deniéres voluptés: roman (A. Michel, 1979).
her principal collaboration was at Europe Nouvelle (1918–34); also contributed articles to numerous other journals, Le Radical (1915–17?); La Revue de Paris (1915), L'Information (1919), Le Petit Parisien (1921–22), La Nouvelle République (1942–44), Le Fer rouge (1957), L'Aurore, Parisien-Libéré, France-Illustration, Guerres et paix, and Paris-Match.
Selected documentary films:
Une station-service en mer Rouge; Allah aux Comores; Caravaniers de la lune; Le Christ aux sources du Nil; Moi et le lion; Pirates et parfums; Face au volcan, face au cyclone; Ivoire et bois ébène; Une reine, un général, un président; Duel avec le soleil; Survivre; Des chameaux, des poignards, de la boue; O pauvre Virginie; Pitié pour les tortures; Rien avant le pôle Sud; Allah au Cachemire; Catrunjaha; Sainte Colline de la Victoire morale; Aux frontières de l'au-delà ou l'Himalaya trône des dieux.
One of the most eminent journalists of her time, Louise Weiss would have dearly loved to pursue a career in politics, where she probably would have reached the highest levels. But she was 51 years old before French women at last received the vote (1944). She lived a life of great accomplishment yet shadowed by painful might-have-beens planted by a happenstance: the timing of her birth.
She was born in Arras (Pas-de-Calais), in Picardy near the Belgian border, in 1893, the second of five children (two girls, three boys). Her family was well situated financially. Her father Paul-Louis Weiss was the son of a Protestant notary in Strasbourg who, when Paul was three, had emigrated after the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) because Alsace-Lorraine had come under German rule. Paul was a mining engineer in the coalfields of the northeast and eventually the director of the entire French coal industry during much of World War I (1914–18). Louise's mother was Jewish, a Javal (originally Jacob) related to southern Alsatian bankers and boasting ancestral ties to Jewish families scattered over most of Germany (Baden, Brandenburg, Bavaria) and Austria, as well as cousins in Belgium and England. She was a daughter of a famous ophthalmologist, Louis-Émile Javal, and granddaughter of a feisty grande dame, Théodora von Lindenberg (1821–1911), daughter of a court banker. Louise later wrote that as a child she had acquired "a view of history of rare amplitude" from this great-grandmother who had been born the year Napoleon died.
As a daughter of families from the classic border region of Alsace and related to people all over the Continent, Louise Weiss took a lifelong interest in European cooperation: "My European mark was all but inevitable." She was also, however, a French patriot who recalled bicycle jaunts with her father to visit his conquered Alsatian homeland.
In 1899, the family moved to a fine residence in the west end of Paris. Louise had her first brush with politics there, for the Dreyfus Affair (1894–1906) was at its apogee. Not surprisingly, her family was Dreyfusard; at the Exposition of 1900, her mother even spat in the face of a general who had persecuted the Jewish captain. Her mother—anticlerical, rationalistic, liberal, strong willed, strict, and moralistic—helped Weiss to become spiritually independent. Her grandfather Javal, "a born teacher," a friend of Émile Zola, and like his father a one-term deputy for Yonne in Parliament, also exerted a powerful influence on her. Her mother insisted, over her father's objections, that she attend a girls' preparatory school, the Lycée Molière, in Auteuil. Such schools for girls had existed only since 1880, and to attend one was to make a statement regarding republicanism and the intellectual advancement of women. Louise's father, thoroughly old-fashioned, felt she should think only of preparing to marry. Louise entered the lycée in 1906. In 1907, she spent three months in England to improve her English and then returned to Molière, where she graduated in 1910 decked with honors. An excursion to Syria and Palestine followed. To placate her father, however, she then spent three months at the high-toned Household School of the Grand Duchess of Baden, in Germany, where she learned domestic skills. Weiss hated it and left a month early, but once home she made such an ostentatious display of her new culinary arts that her father ceased his carping.
Two teachers at Molière had especially strong influence on her intellectually and morally. Marguerite Scott , from England, was the soul of charity and political idealism—peace, feminism, socialism. Marie Dugard "incarnated moral reason." She championed high culture, "a Cartesian in her statements but as much removed from Pascal as from Voltaire." Louise later wrote that Dugard "changed everything" about her life and destiny. When Weiss did not dare at first to continue her education beyond the lycée, Dugard gave her free weekly tutorials. It was Dugard who most inspired her with a love of learning.
But what to do now? She had not taken the baccalauréat examination and so was ineligible for the Sorbonne or the Sèvres Normal School. But she could, possibly, study at the Collège Sévigné to prepare for the daunting agrégation, which qualifies one to teach in the lycées. Both her mother and (ironically) Dugard saw her future as that of a cultivated wife. For her part, Louise thought that all professions should be open to women. Her mother gave way and supported the Sévigné option, but Dugard held firm, saying that bright though she was she still had little chance of passing and should pursue cultural self-improvement. In a wrenching scene, Weiss broke with Dugard and declared her independence. The choice between work and domesticity was hard for her for decades: she never quite gave up hope that Prince Charming would appear.
For a few months in 1911 Weiss prepared in modern languages at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, before settling into a grinding regimen of lectures at Sévigné, eight hours at the Bibliothèque Nationale, and then night study at home. She sat for the agrégation in July 1914 and was one of 11 who passed. Her father did not ask how she had done. When she finally got up the nerve to tell him, he turned to her mother and exclaimed, "Do you hear? Your daughter would do better to marry," and then added, "I would have preferred your son graduating first from the Polytéchnique." That was all.
Would she now become a State teacher somewhere? An examiner had taken offense at the rose-decorated straw hat she had boldly worn. The placement officer at the Ministry of Education warned her against such incartades. Knowing instantly she could never stomach working in a bureaucracy, she resigned on the spot, walked out, and skipped down the street, bursting with joy. She never lacked the courage to part with persons or situations "incompatible with my nature."
A fortnight later, while she was with her family on their annual vacation in Brittany, the Great War exploded. Weiss later spoke for her generation when she wrote, "The war of 1914 has marked me profoundly. From its massacres I emerged in full youth and revolt into a world in ruins where men of my age had almost all been killed." She choked down a dislike of nursing and started a small hospital at Saint-Quay-Portrieux (Côtes-du-Nord) tending lightly wounded convalescents. After these men were transferred south, she opened a clinic for civilians (until November 26) and, inspired by Romaine Rolland's pacifist appeal from Switzerland, helped care for German POWs housed in an abandoned barracks—not a popular charity.
Back in Paris by the winter of 1914–15, she became—through her father, ironically—a journalist. He had complained about the government's economic incompetence to his friend Senator Justin Perchot, owner of Le Radical, a small but influential daily. When Perchot suggested he write articles, he indignantly declined, but Louise seized the chance and volunteered to write anonymously (as "Louise Lefranc") under his inspiration. Her father's well soon ran dry, but she got his permission to continue with subjects of her own choosing and under her own name. She also wrote in the Revue de Paris, in February and March 1915, on POWs and French people deported to Germany. Weiss had begun (but never finished) a doctoral thesis on political poetry in the 16th century, but journalism had "hooked" her. She began to take up the cause of independence for the subject nationalities of Central and Eastern Europe and of an international organization to prevent war, the germ of the League of Nations. These themes, which consumed her for the next 20 years, took shape under the impress of her first love affair.
Milan Stefanik, a lieutenant in the French army, had emigrated from Slovakia (Austria-Hungary) just before the war, established political connections as a technologist promoting long-distance radio communication, and by late 1915, when she met him, was working for General Ferdinand Foch to arouse fellow Slovak and Czech soldiers to strike for independence. Though she was entranced by this adventurous genius, she asserted it was not a physical attraction. Their love, she writes, was "a total spiritual communion in a climate of inhuman asceticism." Looking back on it, she concluded that "for the balance and orientation of my young life, no sentimental adventure could have been more harmful." The separation of the moral from the physical in this affair "accentuated the masculine character of the mind with which nature had endowed me and barred me several times from the path of happiness for which I had been raised." In any event, through Stefanik she became closely acquainted with the leaders of the future Czechoslovakia, Thomas Masaryk (1850–1937) and Eduard Benes (1884–1948), and was instrumental in bringing their cause to the attention of the world, especially in the pages of a new publication, Europe Nouvelle (New Europe).
This journal resulted from a chance meeting with a financial writer and promoter bearing the Dickensian name of Hyacinthe Philouze. He had money from a bequest, and she suggested creating a weekly review of diplomacy and international economics. Philouze took up the idea and, needing someone with brains and willing to work for a pittance, made her general secretary. The first issue appeared on January 12, 1918, providentially only four days after President Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points" address. It drew instant attention. Its standpoint was basically Wilsonian yet focused not only on idealistic ends but also technical means. Weiss' particular interest lay in the spread of democracy and in freedom for the subject nationalities of Austria-Hungary. In her memoirs, she credits Philouze with teaching her how to write articles rapidly and to exact lengths, dictate directions, and make her way into the most influential circles where news is made.
The end of the war in November 1918 and the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 supplied ample grist for Europe Nouvelle's columns. Meanwhile, Stefanik was working his way toward the top of the nascent Czechoslovak Republic. He served in the Czech Legion in Russia, was decorated and named the republic's minister of war. Angling to replace Benes and become the real power behind Masaryk, he wanted to arrive in Czechoslovakia by air, a sensational act. In a lacerating scene, he told Louise that because he could never be her master or teach her anything, he could not marry her; rather, he had found a very young Italian marquese who fit the bill. He left for Rome on May 4, 1919, and died when his plane crashed near Prague. Weiss read about it in the papers.
She attended the signing of the Versailles Treaty, which she feared carried the seeds of another war, and then in August resigned from Europe Nouvelle, having quarreled with Philouze over the review's direction. Later that month, she set off on a four-month professional trip—the first of many during her life—to Prague (visiting Masaryk), Budapest, Warsaw, Vienna, Lvov, etc., while sending bi-weekly articles to L'Information.
Back home in 1920 and jobless, dependent on her parents for money, she was astounded when Philouze begged her to return. She drove a hard bargain: editor-in-chief with administrative oversight, and her father as chair of the board of
directors. Trips to London and again to Eastern Europe followed, but she especially wanted to go to Russia. Weiss got her wish when Élie-Joseph Bois, editor of the mass-circulation daily Le Petit Parisien, paid her way in return for articles. From September 14, 1921, into November, she interviewed numerous Russian leaders, while incidentally aiding 125 governesses stranded by the Revolution to return to France. Among her subjects she counted Maxim Gorki (writer), Kamenev (Moscow soviet), Lunacharsky (education), Radek (Pravda), Chicherin (foreign affairs), Joseph Stalin (nationalities—she learned little), and Leon Trotsky—but not Lenin. Trotsky asked her if she wanted "an interview or a political argument" after she challenged his resentment of criticism, but he let her return several times; his idealism and honesty so appealed to her that later (1946) she visited his widow Natalia Trotsky in Mexico.
Her visit to Russia proved more important to her than the notoriety she reaped from her articles. As did many idealists of the time, she found the Revolution inspiring in its aims, its leaders unforgettable, and the people marvelously courageous amidst their suffering. But she was profoundly disturbed by evidence of what would soon be called totalitarianism. She drew the lesson that either men are made for principles and then persuaded or forced to conform to them; or that principles are made for men in order to develop, protect, and comfort them—"to help them to die in bed." She opted, permanently, for the latter, quoting Aristide Briand (1862–1932), whom she came to know and admire immensely, that "the art of politics is to conciliate the desirable with the possible."
The grandmother of Europe.
—Chancellor Helmut Schmidt
Until she resigned in January 1934, Europe Nouvelle was a remarkable production. (After she left, it would quickly fade.) It was advanced for its time by paying attention not just to politics but also to economic, commercial, and financial questions. It became required reading for the international elite of politics, diplomacy, and business, who also contributed articles (even Benito Mussolini did). Its own staff housed a raft of men (and a few women) who were or became writers of note or came to occupy the highest positions in diplomacy and public administration. She developed an incomparable network of sources and acquaintances and worked nonstop, writing (including pieces for other journals to raise money), interviewing, soliciting funds, attending virtually every international conference and League of Nations annual session in a decade crammed with them, and even, in October–December 1926, undertaking a lecture tour in the United States sponsored by the Foreign Policy Association. In 1925, her friend Premier Édouard Herriot admitted her, at age 32, to the Legion of Honor.
Astonishingly, only with the decoration did her father at last reconcile himself to having a daughter more brilliant than his sons. Until then, she had lived under her parents' roof or, after she had fled, in an apartment, closely watched, even spied upon, for fear she, unmarried, might soil the family's name by some social or sexual indiscretion. She vastly admired her father's intelligence and ability but seemed unable to stop his and her mother's attempts to control her. Why she submitted for so long is a question she seemed unable to answer fully even in six volumes of memoirs.
She also became more independent financially, although sustaining a review was never easy. She had, somewhat out of character, speculated very successfully in German marks in the early 1920s. One result was that she learned much about capitalism's power to unleash individual effort, and in her memoirs she criticized socialism for distributing money to political supporters and "imbeciles and ne'er-do-wells," and French governments for decades of confiscating, devaluating, and nationalizing; by destroying individual sheep, as she put it, they had created a big flock harder to master than a single animal.
By 1930, it was clear that prospects for peace were fading. In 1931, Weiss organized at the Trocadero a large rally (1,095 delegates from 395 associations worldwide) to support an upcoming disarmament conference, but such efforts were taking on an air of futility. She also founded (November 1930) the École de Paix (School of Peace), a private foundation under a component of the Académie de Paris, which sought to develop a "science of Peace." It held weekly public meetings from November to May at the Sorbonne featuring speakers and panel discussions by important people from all over Europe. Resembling both a forum and a think tank, this rather original entity survived until 1936, when participants from the Eastern dictatorships finally made reasoned discussion impossible. By that time, Weiss had been out of Europe Nouvelle for two years.
Her disillusionment with the League of Nations, the great hope of her generation, had become profound. It deeply marked the rest of her life. She could no longer stomach "the general lie" infecting this "greatest abortion in history." Europe Nouvelle had preached that "idealism gains nothing from feeding on illusions": one must get the facts right and be realistic. She was a pacifist yet no advocate of "peace at any price." Peace with Germany was her dearest wish, but it had to be founded on material security (including reparations for war damage) and enforceable guarantees. Instead, the United States had long ago walked away, Britain was more suspicious of French "imperialism" than of Germany, and France was physically and psychologically bled out. The League had refused to face facts; the diplomats and the secretariat had covered up the real state of affairs, deceiving themselves and the League's supporters. In 1931, well before he came to power (1933), she was warning, "You can't traffic with Hitler." Few were listening yet. In short, her labors had reached a dead end: international law was being trashed, the League was a farce, war was surely coming, and France, lacking the leadership and will to respond, would surely lose it.
The defeat staring her in the face was also, to her, personal. Had this battle been worth the sacrifice of marriage and children? In the eyes of others, she believed, she was "an abnormal woman, that is, a monster of intelligence and authority," while inside, despite all appearances, "I only wanted to be cherished and mastered." Sentiments such as these go far to explain her marriage (c. 1934) soon after she left Europe Nouvelle. José Imbert was a talented architect and musician of humble origins who never won much acclaim. The marriage lasted only a few months, a victim, she asserted (again), of her independent spirit. She devoted less than a page to it in her memoirs. Ironically, she noted, marriage and especially the divorce (c. 1937) brought her a civil status which helped her and "opened romantic opportunities that … I would not have encountered as a spinster." Rumors, in fact, linked her with several prominent men.
Gone from Europe Nouvelle, Weiss found to her chagrin that no journal wanted her in a senior position. At that moment, her political ideals a shambles and while apparently experiencing a deep anxiety about her own womanhood, writes Michael Bess, she was approached by Marcelle Kraemer-Bach , who invited her to meet Cécile Brunschvicg about becoming involved in the UFSF (the French Union for Women's Suffrage). In her memoirs, Weiss says she was first struck forcibly by the suffrage issue when interviewing Idaho's Senator William Borah back in 1926; they were interrupted by a delegation of female constituents to whom Borah was most deferential. It struck her that nothing like that would happen in France, where politicians began speeches with "Ladies and Citizens." In France, she was a prominent, well-connected political journalist, yet voteless.
She quickly warmed to the task. The vote would advance the cause of peace and open the doors for women to all professions. She met Brunschvicg but told her the UFSF was too timid and too linked to a political party (the centrist Radical-Socialists). She decided to form her own organization, La Femme Nouvelle (The New Woman), politically independent, devoted solely to winning the vote, and using methods made famous by England's "suffragettes"—news-making demonstrations and stunts: "Feminism must be dragged out of the salons, where it dilly-dallies uselessly, and the orthodox leagues, where it is becoming petrified." So saying, she launched into "one of the most thankless campaigns of my life, even more exhausting than my apostolate for the League of Nations."
La Femme Nouvelle began with a flourish. It opened an office on the Champs-Élysées on October 6, 1934, its window displaying a large world map with a bold legend, "English women vote, American women vote, Chinese women vote," and so on, ending with "French women do not vote." On October 17, Weiss flew with three female aviators to a large rally in Marseille. In October and November, the political parties were lobbied, and in December a rally at the Paris City Hall during a convention won endorsements from a host of mayors—a coup. There was even a helpful scandal: Weiss was sitting on some steps, knees drawn up, engrossed in a report while waiting to be admitted to the premier's office, when a photographer from the reactionary Action Française slipped a camera under her dress and snapped a picture. It was circulated on thousands of postcards, but Weiss, rather than sue, simply quipped, "As you now know, gentlemen, I don't wear culottes," thus turning the laughter to her side.
La Femme Nouvelle reached its peak in 1935–36 and then faded until its demise in 1939. In its heyday, it drew much press and newsreel attention and made women's suffrage a lively issue. In 1935, it succeeded in defeating one Senator Duplantier, who had made a grossly insulting speech against women's suffrage to his guffawing colleagues. Weiss "ran" in Montmartre for the Paris Municipal Council, while votes (some 19,000) favoring the suffrage were collected in hatboxes outside the polls (May 5). When the police moved in, they were doused with rosescented talcum powder, to general hilarity. On May 12, some 45 women chained themselves in pairs at the Bastille column, where they burned hostile newspapers and scattered tracts.
The year 1936 was charged with drama. Accompanied by massive strikes, a left-wing coalition, the Popular Front, came to power under Socialist premier Léon Blum (1872–1950). La Femme Nouvelle militants worked hard to shove Blum and Parliament toward the suffrage. On the final election day, May 3, they launched balloons carrying tracts toward the president's box at the French soccer Cup Final. The hatboxes reappeared and collected 15,000 votes, while Weiss "ran" for Parliament in the Latin Quarter. When the Chamber of Deputies convened on June 1, militants in the visitors' gallery help up placards, and at the Senate on June 2 they tossed darned socks from the gallery to shame a senator who had said mockingly that women wouldn't darn socks anymore if they got the vote. On June 28, they delayed the start of the Grand Prix de Longchamp horserace, to the fury of the crowd, by filing out on the track. They held a rally later that day, mounted a shivaree on July 3 outside the home of a hostile senator, Henri Merlin, and the next day chained themselves together to block the rue Royale. (A policeman, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, told his superior he couldn't arrest Weiss because "she gets her clothes at Molyneux.")
Blum, maneuvering, put three women (Iréne Joliot-Curie, Suzanne Lacore , and Brunschvicg) in his Cabinet, but on condition that they not raise the suffrage issue because it would only complicate the current domestic and foreign crises and split the Left, which had always feared women, many under Roman Catholic influence, would support the Right. In her memoirs, Weiss asserts that Blum invited her, but she had rejected the condition. That he ever made her an offer seems quite doubtful. They disliked each other, anyhow; Blum referred to her in private as "la belle grosse Louise." For her part, she had nothing but scorn for the female under-secretaries of state, especially Brunschvicg, as her memoirs amply testify.
The Chamber approved a suffrage bill on July 30, but the shivaree and a brutal jeering of a Brunschvicg speech caused the Senate group favoring the bill to denounce such tactics as "disorderly" and "tasteless." The Senate thus found another excuse to bury it. La Femme Nouvelle now lost support rapidly. Weiss continued to lobby and spoke in the provinces, notably at a large rally at Lille on October 27, 1937. The Senate passed a bill to remove the civil disabilities of married women, which became law on February 20, 1938. Not unjustly, Weiss claimed some credit for it. With her failure in 1938 to persuade the government to create a non-combat women's component in the army, she left the movement to concentrate on international affairs once again.
Weiss' excursion into feminist politics proved disappointing, although she rightly noted it was important that, when Charles de Gaulle simply gave women the vote in 1944, they could hold up their heads for having helped in their own liberation and not merely received a favor from above. It remains true, however, that she turned off the bulk of the conservative mass of women, while most feminist leaders viewed her as an egotistic latecomer, too obviously dismissive of others' efforts. Many, too, raised legitimate doubts as to the wisdom of engaging in provocative acts in the midst of the Depression, when violence or its threat could endanger the regime itself. Nevertheless, in her memoirs she took pride in having had a part in winning the suffrage: "The worldwide accession of women to a civil status identical with that of men is without doubt the most important collective phenomenon of the first half of this century."
As noted, Weiss early on believed another war was coming. She attended Masaryk's funeral (September 1937) and warned Benes not to count on France. The sellout of Czechoslovakia at Munich (September 1938) surprised her not at all. From mid-1938, she worked tirelessly to cope with the oncoming catastrophe. Until its end in June 1940 because of the German invasion, she was secretary-general of the officially sanctioned Refugee Committee, which tried to find housing and jobs for thousands of Jews flooding in from the east. She played a key role in getting permission for the Saint-Louis, crammed with Jewish refugees, to disembark at Antwerp (1939) after many countries (including the United States) had refused to accept them. In gratitude, the (Jewish-American) Joint Distribution Fund financed the Mimi-Pinson Canteen she had started in Montmartre which served the mothers, wives, and daughters of soldiers.
She also founded (February 7, 1938) the Union of French Women Decorated with the Legion of Honor, which sought to strengthen the country through non-partisan efforts to improve civil rights and to lobby on questions of general interest, notably public morals and health. The Union founded the Propaganda Center for the Grandeur of the Country, which focused on persuading elite civil service women to support strengthening the family (including raising birth rates) and proclaiming the "civilizing mission" of French womanhood.
Beyond these causes, Weiss worked to educate the public about air raids and passive resistance to invaders, and hence was accused of warmongering. She also tried to persuade the government and the army to institute Women's National Service, whose thousands of enrollees would release men for frontline duty. "Women are patriotic, but timid," so organize them. Weiss took her case to President Lebrun himself, but she battered in vain against a wall of indifference, red tape, bureaucratic bumbling, and political fears. Premier Daladier told her army service for women would ignite demands for the vote, which he opposed. Not until the Germans were advancing on Paris did the government send out a call, but so many women volunteered that the authorities sank under the flood just before the surrender.
In her memoirs, Weiss paints a detailed, devastating picture of France in those tragic years, reserving particular contempt for the wishy-washy Radical-Socialists and above all the Socialists and Blum, whose irresponsible policy of "support without participation" left governments exposed to every wind. Their refusal to face realities—she found they just didn't grasp what Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler really were—and their smothering of all bad news to spare the public's nerves paved the road to the debacle.
In 1939, she fell in love—an "amour délicieux"—the great love of her life. He was a large landowner in Brie (southeast of Paris), a 40ish decorated veteran whose unfaithful wife had declined into insanity, leading him to cancel his intent to divorce her. The "Chevalier de Magloire"—she would not reveal his name—was called back to service in 1939. They shared passionate trysts during his leaves until the May 1940 invasion. A principled, courageous man, he insisted on frontline service and was killed on June 9 defending the Seine bridge at Andeleys (Eure). She endured six agonizing weeks before she learned he had met the fate she intuitively knew would be his.
As the Germans approached Paris, Weiss went to Bordeaux, where she declined an invitation by Jean Monnet, the future father of the Common Market, to escape to England. After the capitulation, she went to Vichy (capital of the unoccupied zone), where she petitioned Marshal Pétain to let her go to the United States to get medicines for France. On the eve of her journey, she learned of the chevalier's death, but she resolved to return because she had promised to do so and because, she says, her "whole culture and disposition" disposed her toward sharing and relieving France's suffering. She felt obliged, too, not to abandon the women she had led in the suffrage fight.
At her own expense, she left Vichy on July 14 by air and arrived in New York on July 29 from Lisbon. Until December, she shuttled between there and Washington, pleading with all the important people she could collar, including Eleanor Roosevelt . It was a hard sell: France, especially Vichy, was out of favor because of the defeat. Many feared supplies of any kind would only end up in Nazi hands. The quarrels among French émigrés helped not at all. Weiss walked on eggs. The British finally gave her permission to bring, in person, 200 kilos of medicines through the blockade. She returned by ship to Lisbon and drove to Vichy with her precious cargo. She believed she had established the principle of allowing aid into unoccupied France; only two food ships, however, later went to Marseille. Weiss proposed a second trip, but when the Vichy authorities asked her to spy, she refused. Banished to the occupied zone, she returned to Paris in February 1941.
She lay low, for she knew she was on the Gestapo's lists. Conning a French official, she obtained a document saying she was pure Aryan. She slipped back to Vichy once to deliver a report to the American ambassador on morale in the occupied zone and to leave some articles for The New York Times, which it published anonymously. At the end of 1941, the Germans seized her library (6,000 volumes), a Golden Book of pictures, epitaphs, and commentaries by her friends—a gallery ranging from Raoul Dufy to Thoman Mann, Paul Valéry, Colette , Hjalmar Schacht, Chaim Weizman, and on and on—and at both her home and the chevalier's they took all her notes and letters from the 1920s and 1930s. She did succeed, however, in saving the papers of the Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), the utopian socialist who had planned for a united Europe. Devastated by her losses, she went to the German police to complain. They promptly turned her over to a high SS officer for interrogation. Terrified, recognizing her naïveté, she yet managed to put on a show of indignant injured innocence to deny she had any Jewish ancestry. Convinced against his will, he let her go. In August 1943, she would play another such scene to persuade a vacillating French prefect to release her arrested brother André.
In 1942, she came into contact with the Resistance in the form of a Masonic network, Patriam Recuperare, containing many important future politicians, and became editor-in-chief of its gazette, La Nouvelle République. Until March 1943, when arrests ended the connection, she sent considerable information to London; she also traveled clandestinely all over France, including trips to the Ardennes to develop information on German exploitation of French farm workers which was used later at the Nuremberg Trials. As the Liberation neared, her life became increasingly imperiled. A tip led her to avoid arrest by moving several times. When the Germans retreated at last, she returned to her Paris home to find that officers, who had made it into a casino, had stripped it of its valuable paintings, furniture, documents, and mementos. Her anguish only deepened when La Nouvelle République was sold out from under her by its owner. She had hoped to see it become a major newspaper.
Weiss' experiences in the fight for the League of Nations and the suffrage and in the terrible collapse and occupation during the war left her feeling she had been a fool. Her memoirs reflect this bitterness. What is universal in humans is not a thirst for justice, she concluded, but a will to dominate others. Force and will, not the spirit of compromise, shape history. In her chastened state, she vowed to discover new bases for world peace by studying human behavior.
At war's end, Weiss was aged 52, but her career was only half over. In an astonishing display of will and vitality, she would remain active until two months before her death in 1983 at age 90. She began by making her only try at politics (in May 1945) when she joined the Radical-Socialist Party and lost to the Communists in a bid for the municipal council of Magny-les-Hameaux (Seine-et-Oise), where her family owned property. Thereafter, she moved to the Gaullist Right but devoted herself to writing and traveling.
Weiss wrote a long series of articles and books, including novels (the last in 1979). Most analyzed parts of Asia, the Mideast, Africa, and North America she had visited. Six stout volumes of memoirs (published 1968–80) took her 11 years to write. If this were not enough, she lectured widely (often sponsored by the Alliance Française) and, mainly with Pathé-Cinéma and sometimes with government support, produced some 37 documentary films derived from her excursions from 1946 to 1965. These travels arose from her thirst to understand, "if possible, dominate intellectually," the accelerated change of her times. She could not do it from books alone; she had to see for herself. Her writing and films especially investigated human aggression, religion, politics, and the evils ravaging the world. "I have searched for lightening, the lightening of the human spirit," she wrote. "Too often, I have found darkness, bestiality, fetishism, greed." The work was arduous. Her long-time photographer, Georges Bourdalon, recalled her at 71 riding in a jeep for 12 hours in a blazing heat on the fringe of the Sahara to reach a colonial outpost, and then sitting up half the night "fiercely" arguing politics with the locals.
Her writing earned her the Literature Prize of the Académie Française in 1947 for her novel La Marseillaise (1945), and she later won other literary prizes. But in 1974, when she posed her own name (a highly irregular act) for election to the Académie—partly to point up the fact that it had never elected a women—she was rebuffed. She had hoped her memoirs in particular might win her the coveted seat. She also failed in a bid for a Nobel Prize which she persuaded influential friends to make on her behalf. In 1976, she was, however, promoted to Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor and made a delegate to UNESCO; later she received the Robert Schuman Gold Medal for service to European peace and unity. And from 1976 to 1979, she was chosen by Jacques Chirac, president of the Gaullist Party (RPR), to lecture all over Western Europe on European unity.
From 1964 to 1970, she served as secretary-general of the Institut de Polémologie, devoted to the study of the nature of war, and assisted its founder, Gaston Bouthoul, as editor of Guerres et paix, funded by the French Ministry of Defense. Bouthoul was probably the "savant" with whom she had a happy 25-year liaison until, with tears, she broke off because he refused to recognize her contributions to "our common creations"; her whole nature and past, she wrote, forbade such an "abdication." She then founded (1970) the Institute of the Sciences of Peace (Strasbourg), devoted to European unity, peace, and the amelioration of human relations; and in 1971, to support it, she set up the Fondation Louise Weiss, which annually awards a prize to a person or institution advancing these causes. Recipients have included Helmut Schmidt, Simone Veil , Jacques Delors, and Anwar Sadat.
Weiss was something of an anomaly: a peace advocate but on the political Right, defending imperialism and waxing nearly apocalyptic when describing the menace to the West posed by the Soviet Union and China. Storm over the West was the title she chose, aptly, for the last volume of her memoirs, which cover the years 1945 to around 1975, when the Cold War and the ending of the Western empires held center stage. (Not that her opinion on the colonies was unique; until the latter 1950s it was shared by a majority in France.) She could write, for example: "The defeat of the Americans in Indochina has shaken the world more than it was once shaken by the fall of Byzantium." Or in Le Fer rouge (The Red Iron), a short-lived (seven months) review she founded in 1957 to oppose the retreat from North Africa: "Our present decomposition will take us through a period of indescribable agony, toward a final collapse in favor of an Asiatic Europe which will wipe us off the face of the map." The collapse of the Soviet Union only six years after her death would have astonished her perhaps even more than it did virtually every expert of the day.
Until the mid-1970s, her leading themes were that 1) Europe was being ground between the new world empires of the Soviet Union and the United States and turned into "dishonest and beggarly vassals"; 2) that the Soviet Union and China are powerful and growing more so ("All China needs is time.") while the democracies, including the bumptious, directionless United States, are decaying amidst "laziness, corruption, and abundance"; and 3) that Western civilization, clearly the leading one, threw away, through sheer fecklessness and a misplaced sense of guilt, its opportunity to finish the great work of raising the Third World to its standards of science and material well-being. She was an assimilationist and as such critical of the failure of the French, for example, to grant Westernized, educated natives the same positions as whites.
These views testify to the profound impact on her of the catastrophic failure of the democracies in the 1920s and 1930s and of the overwhelming defeat of France in 1940. The United Nations ("the Machine"), like its sorry predecessor, had become little more than a "club of dictators" from the Communist bloc and the Third World who hypocritically ignore blatant violations of human rights. Would she witness a repetition of all that wretched failure only on an even larger scale? The question haunted the last half of her life.
Her answer was that Europe contained its own—and the world's—best hope. It must recognize its cultural unity and assert its independence. It must summon from its glorious past the courage to face the harsh realities of international life, where force is the last argument and weakness is punished with slavery and death. It must tame the self-indulgence which is rotting its very core. Especially through the 1970s until her death, she preached this gospel with renewed fervor. She was a French patriot to the marrow, believing each country has a right to its own political identity. But she proudly proclaimed, as she had since the 1920s, that she was also a European. Franco-German reconciliation lay especially close to her heart. (She named one of her cats "Bismarck.")
The end of her long life brought a wonderful reward. In 1979, the European Parliament, the principal advisory body to the European Community, was elected by popular vote for the first time. (Previously, members were chosen by national parliaments.) Jacques Chirac placed her fifth on the combined list of the RPR and the group "Defense of French Interests in Europe" (of which she was a member), thus all but guaranteeing her election. When the new Parliament convened at Strasbourg, a place of special meaning to her, she was by virtue of age (86) the temporary president and delivered an inspiring address. She told of her joy, "the greatest joy a human being can experience in the evening of life: the joy of a youthful vocation miraculously come to fruition." She evoked a crowd of historical heroes from every part of Europe and, with her usual verve, challenged her listeners to forge a real European unity. Why not a European constitution, university, academy, museum, and symphony orchestra, and even sport teams? "The [European Economic] Community institutions have produced European sugar beets, butter, cheese, wines, calves, and even pigs. They have not produced Europeans." Full of years and honors, Weiss died in a Paris hospital on May 26, 1983. On June 1, a service was held at the Protestant church on the rue Cortembert and she was cremated at Pére-Lachaise Cemetery.
Few women experienced so intensely so much of the 20th century as did Louise Weiss. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once dubbed her "the grandmother of Europe." (She didn't like the title, saying it sounded too much like "granny.") Few if any of her contemporaries were her equal in promoting a vision of European unity extending beyond economic integration. She was a lifelong peace advocate, but after the early 1920s she was no dewy-eyed idealist. Writes Bess:
Weiss clearly understood two fundamental facts of globalism. First, she came squarely to grips with the awesome diversity of the world's cultures, confronting head-on the problem of maintaining order in the pullulating mosaic of human wills. And second, she observed the empirical fact that power in the present world all too often took the shape of domination of some people by others…. Hers was the voice of tough-minded, world-weary experience.
Her protean personality shines through her lively, detailed, and opinionated memoirs, a matchless description of persons and events of her time which, nevertheless, must be approached with caution. Nothing, least of all her role, loses in the telling. She was often pessimistic and bitter about the world, frustrated as she was in love and ambition. Her temperament was authoritarian and in tone often sarcastic and cynical. Humble she was not. In truth, her ability, intelligence, and energy left her with little to be humble about. She was witty and loved humor. She possessed an ample endowment of blonde, blue-eyed charm, and used it; and she liked to be courted in turn. Except for those who were her equal in intelligence and success, she did not prefer the company of women. Yet she was a staunch, lifelong feminist. She hated the patronizing of women. When someone mentioned the new Cabinet post of Secretary of State for the Feminine Condition, she drawled, "Why not a Secretary of State for the Canine Condition?" Moreover, in contrast to much of her public image, she loved children, animals, flowers, and decorating her home. Louise Weiss was, in short, one of the more striking individuals of her time. The French have a word for persons of her stamp: formidable.
Bard, Christine. Les Filles de Marianne: Histoire des féminismes 1914–1940. Paris: Fayard, 1995.
Bess, Michael. Realism, Utopia, and the Mushroom Cloud: Four Activist Intellectuals and Their Strategies for Peace, 1945–1989: Louise Weiss (France), Leo Szilard (USA), E.P. Thompson (England), Danilo Dolci (Italy). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Carrère d'Encausse, Hélène, et al. Louise Weiss. Lausanne: Fondation Jean Monnet pour l'Europe, Centre de récherches européennes, 1989.
Conte, Arthur. Grandes françaises du XXe siècle. Paris: Plon, 1995. Ch. 1.
Hause, Steven, and Anne Kinney. Women's Suffrage and Social Politics in the French Third Republic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Klejman, Laurence, and Florence Rochefort. L'Égalité en marche: Le Féminisme sous la Troisième République. Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques/Éditions des Femmes, 1989.
"Louise Weiss: 'la grand-mère de l'Europe,'" in Historiens et Géographes. No. 340, 1993, pp. 37–40.
Montbrial, Thierry de. "L'Idéalisme et la réalisme de Louise Weiss [et l'idée d'Europe en 1918]," in Revue des Deux Mondes. No. 1, 1992, pp. 87–94.
Nugent, Neill. The Government and Politics of the European Community. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989.
Palmer, Michael. The European Parliament: What It Is, What It Does, How It Works. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1981.
Rabaut, Jean. Histoire des féminismes français. Paris: Éditions Stock, 1978.
Reynolds, Sian. "Women and the Popular Front in France: The Case of the Three Women Ministers," in French History (England). Vol. 8, 1994, pp. 196–224.
Scott, Joan Wallach. Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Smith, Paul. Feminism and the Third Republic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
Vallance, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth Davies. Women of Europe: Women MEPs and Equality Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Weiss, Louise. Mémoires d'une européenne. 6 vols. Paris: Albin Michel, definitive editions, 1971–1980. I. Une petite fille du siècle, 1893–1919; II. Combats pour l'Europe, 1919–1934; III. Combats pour les femmes, 1934–39; IV. Le Sacrifice du Chevalier, 3 septembre 1939–juin 1940; V. La Resurrection du Chevalier, juin 1940–aôut 1944; VI. Tempête sur l'Occident (1945–1975).
——. Souvenirs d'une enfance républicaine. Paris: Éditions Denöel, 1937 (Une petite fille du siècle is a revision of this).
——. Speeches by Mrs. Louise Weiss, Oldest Member, and Mrs. Simone Veil, President, Strasbourg, 17 and 18 July 1979. Strasbourg: European Parliament, 1979.
Zand, Nicole. "Européenne et féministe" (obituary), in Le Monde. May 28, 1983.
Betts, Raymond. Tricoleur: The French Overseas Empire. NY: Gordon & Cremonesi, 1978.
Fine, Michele. "A Passion for Action: The Political Crusades of Louise Weiss, 1915–1938." Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA, 1997.
Girardet, Raoul. L'Idée coloniale en France de 1871 à 1962. Paris: La Table Ronde, 1972.
Hoffmann, Stanley. Decline or Renewal? France since the 1930s. NY: Viking, 1974.
Monnet, Jean. Memoirs. Trans. by Richard Mayne. London: Collins, 1978.
Naguères, Henri, et al. Histoire de la résistance en France, de 1940 à 1945. 5 vols. Paris: Robert Lafont, 1981.
Schmidt, Hans A. The Path to European Union. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.
Sorum, Paul C. Intellectuals and Decolonization in France. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.
Talbot, France. "L'Engagement politique d'une femme entre les deux guerres: Louise Weiss." Ottawa: Bibliothèque du Canada, 1983. M.A. thesis, Laval University.
Thornton, A.P. The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1985.
Weber, Eugen. The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s. NY: W.W. Norton, 1994.
Weiss' private papers are in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Nouvelles Acquisitions Français, Legs 1977, Côtes 17794–17862, and Legs 1983, Don 84–06. The Bibliothèque du Parlement Européen (Luxemburg) and the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand (Paris) contain newspaper clippings on her career. Original prints of her films are housed in the Archives du Film, Bois d'Arcy (Seine-et-Oise).
The Bibliothèque universitaire de Strasbourg and the City of Arras (Pas-de-Calais) received her books; the City of Saverne (Bas-Rhin), her residual heir, houses her memorabilia and art works at the Palais Rohan; the Musée de l'Homme (Paris) contains musical documents from her travels. There exists a European Association of the Friends of the Fondation Louise Weiss.
David S. Newhall , Pottinger Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, Centre College, and author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (1991)