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French Cultural Diplomacy in Eastern Europe, 1936-51

March 4, 2015

I suspect that Annie Guénard-Maget’s newish book Une Diplomatie Culturelle Dans Les Tensions Internationales: La France En Europe Centrale Et Orientale (1936-1940/1944-51). Brussels: Peter Lang, 2014 isn’t going to be a best seller but if you’re interested in the history of public diplomacies it’s a fascinating contribution.

The study looks at the development of French cultural diplomacy in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia on either side of the Second World War (1936-40 and 1944-51) It’s a valuable contribution for a number of reasons.

1. Quite a lot has been written about French activities in the America’s so it’s very interesting to see a discussion of the cultural instrument at work in a core zone of contestation. The book begins with the attempt to revive French activities in the region in the face of a rising Fascist threat. In 1940 France was groping towards a strategic concept that integrated cultural activities and propaganda with other aspects of statecraft.

2. The second half of the book is even more interesting and provides a different perspective on the early Cold War from that found in Anglo-American accounts. From the moment of the liberation the French leadership saw the reconstruction of their presence in Eastern Europe as an important part of the restoration of France’s position in the world and jumped in with both feet; schools, higher education links, cultural institutes and Alliance Française committees were all soon operational and entrenched by cultural agreements. The growth of communist power soon meant that these links came under pressure but the cultural agreements both provided routes by which the new governments could cause trouble (because of requirements for agreement to various actions) but also made them harder to get rid of. There are useful comparisons with the experience of the UK and the US who were more cautious about getting involved but also more likely to operate unilaterally via their embassies and consulates.

3. Whereas British and American accounts of these events (and I think perspectives at the time) tended to play down differences between countries in favour of a focus on the advance of Soviet power the French perspective (as well as Guénard-Maget’s account) was much more ‘national’ in two ways. Firstly, it placed much more weight on the local situation in s the six countries but also in the assumption that in the end the nation was the basic unit of international relations. For example a country might be run by communists but in the end they were still had a nationality that nation had a special bond with France. Or a country might reject a programme of visiting French lecturers. The solution – send French communists, after all they were still French before they were communists.

4. The fact that the study looks at multiple countries allows an examination of what was common to these cases and what differs. One irony is that the Yugoslavian government was particularly suspicious of the French despite Tito’s split with Stalin.

5. There’s a mass of detail here which can get a bit heavy but really adds to the story.

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One comment

  1. I had seen that book, but now I really need to order it.

    The French policy’s country-specificity you mention is also linked to the fact that France had had relations with these countries (Poland, Rumania, etc) from way back. There were known to the French, France had had a cultural presence there before 1945, there were diasporas in France, etc. Milan Kundera is just one example of cultural figures for whom French was a second language. That was never the case with English before the 1980s.

    So these cultural relations seem to me to be inscribed in both long-term cultural relations and the specific context of the Cold War.



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