1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Fascinating details, Dec 30, 2022
A montage of glimpses into France between the World Wars. A book of this short length, on such a subject, simply cannot cover it to any detail, no matter how skilfully written. Though the latter it certainly is, given the author's expertise as a writer and a historian.
The chapters are disconnected. There is little flow between one and the next. Which means that you can read them in any order, with little narrative loss.
Within a chapter, we see sharp anecdotes, that highlight the subject, be it the culture/s, migrants, religion or whatever. Some of these are bloody hilarious. Like, did you know that in some French cities, people were emptying slop buckets into the streets till the 1950s? Yuk! :-( Wow! That regular bathing was rare, and widely considered unhealthy?
Some attitudes, like the suspicion of the emanations of power lines, echo today's views in France and elsewhere in Europe, about genetically modified foods.
Quite a nice read.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
France in fragments, Feb 25, 2023
'The Hollow Years' was an unsatisfying, yet compelling read. Eugen Weber offers his readers a truly kaleidoscopical view of what France (partly) was in the 1930's. Each chapter centers a baffling amount of facts around themes as society, religion, morality, agriculture, demographics, the highs and lows of the French economy, and last but not least French politics. After having finished reading, the reader has digested such an amount of data that one wonders how Eugen Weber could have possibly called this book 'The hollow years'.
Weber's book contains excellent passages. The first chapter, in which Weber describes the widespread sentiment against war is very well written. The issues of religious life, emerging leisure and vacation, and the emancipation of French women are well worked out. Yet, over the whole, Weber has not been able to free himself from the weight of the primary (and secondary) sources stacked (in amazing quantity) in the footnotes. We read facts, hardly interpretations. We get information, but little overview. The book develops no grand, overarching themes. The image of France stays very diffuse. Fittingly, the book does not end on a conclusion.
The author's choice to solely focus on facts, not trends, results in the incomprehensible omission of cardinal elements of what France (also) was in the 1930's:
- Despite the eye-popping blue on the 1930 world-maps, Weber entirely ignores the French domination of Viet-Nam, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Madagascar and enormous parts of Africa. The Colonial Exposition (1930), which marks the apogee of French empire and attracted millions of visitors is left virtually untreated.
- During the 1930's, the French Communist Party became the most important West-European Communist Party and a leading force in French politics. We do not read anything about the roots of this emergence, nor the importance of communists within French political life.
- After 15 years of division, 1936 saw the merger of the two most important French trade unions: the CGT of the socialist Leon Jouhaux (Nobel Peace prize 1951) and the communist-oriented CGTU, led by Benoit Frachon. Together, they fought for the 40-hour work week and controlled an enormous block of voters, but are absent in the Hollow Years.
Moreover, the book is drenched with a sustained and often irritating antipathy towards virtually all leading French politicians, diplomats and armymen. Weber does not treat France kindly at all. The author allows himself to make patronizing comments towards the behavior of leading politicians on numerous occasions. The extreme negativity of the tone makes the reader constantly want to question the arguments which are put forward. As such, reading Hollow Years was a rather sharpening intellectual experience.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Charming, clever, but more anecdotal than analytic, Aug 13, 2023
On first glance Weber does not appear to be an ideological historian. He is lighter, more charming, and more tolerant than, say, Richard Pipes. Peasants into Frenchman, his most famous book, is noticeably more profound than Pipes' own relfections on the Russian peasantry where the gap in class, religion and nation produces a noticeably gap in sympathy. But this is ultimately misleading. Weber is an ideologue of consumerism. The problem with this account of the thirties is the subtle but insinuating sense of superiority that Weber feels against France for being insufficiently wealthy, insufficiently successful, insufficiently innovative. It is too worried about dreary politics of the left and right, not like the hip charming sexy centrists of the New Republic. His anecdotes look less at complex debates about French diplomacy, its economic performance, class struggle and about the "real" issue of living in our joyful yet principled anti-Communist consumer utopia, and how France fails on this score. The result is a stimulating book full of lively detail which is subtly misleading. Historians recognize that they have the advantage of hindsight, and that the people they study do not. Weber seems to forget this crucial point.
Weber's gift for anecdote can be seen in his discussion of the diffusion of such things as refrigerators, telephones, electricity. French roads were so bad in the thirties that one would not bet to get from Paris to Lyons in less than nine hours. When Jacques Le Roy Ladurie, a leading French historian went for his driver's liscence, he hit a wall and a chicken and nearly missed a pedestrian, but still got his liscence. Carmelite nuns never washed themselves and used paper strips when menstruating. He describes the often hostile attitude towards feminism and towards immigrants.
Yet Weber's wide range of source reflects an indulgence in anecdotes rather than a sharp sense of analysis. The result is a scattershot impressionism which exaggerates French weakness and decline. He quotes Lindberg's contemptuous comments on the army, but other contemporary comments said French soliders were more determined and resolute. Weber quotes an unflattering song by Maurice Chevalier on the army, but not Paif's more patriotic Mon Legionnaire. Labor struggles are simply blamed at one point on communist agitation, much is made of pacifist fearmongering and naivete. Yet the sinister and authoritarian Croix de Feu is absolved of being fascist. Ultimately the arguments are strings of anecdotes which do not fully take into account of opposing arguments.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Very good account of France before the debacle, Jun 11, 2023
As a great fan of Weber, particularly his social histories of turn-of-the-century France, I bought this book with the highest expectations. There are endless lessons to be drawn from France's disastrous policies and psychological conditions in the 1920s and 1930s. Striking and poignant are the contrasts both with pre-1914 France and with the nation's confident development after World War Two. Weber certainly captures much of this, and you can't quarrel with the thrust of his analysis. He is also a very elegant writer. Newcomers to this period of French history will therefore greatly enjoy his book. For those with deeper prior knowledge of inter-war France, the book may be a tad disappointing because so much of the detail is familiar and available elsewhere. Nevertheless, well worth reading.