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Louis Aragon: (Re) writing the Nazi-Soviet Pact


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1At the time of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939, Louis Aragon was a member of the French Communist Party (PCF), a well known novelist and poet and a journalist. Whilst his writing career had undergone several notable transformations, not least that from surrealist to socialist realist, his political commitment to the left and, from 1927 to the PCF, remained steadfast for much of his life. Indeed, unlike the PCF’s interpretation of the Second World War, which underwent a number of shifts, Aragon’s position remained anti-Nazi from the beginning to the end of the war.

2The announcement of the pact on 23 August 1939 caused shock waves within the PCF, and Aragon responded to the news both as a journalist and a novelist. His immediate responses were articulated in his editorials for Ce Soir, the paper of which he was editor at the time. He also included a fictionalised account of the events of August 1939 in his novel Les Communistes which was published between 1949 and 1951. The time lag is significant since it meant that this later account of the pact was as much influenced by the changed political climate of the Cold War as by Aragon’s own memories of 1939. A revised version of Les Communistes, published in 1967, gave Aragon the opportunity to modify further his account of the pact. There are, therefore, three versions of Aragon’s writing of the pact. An examination of these three evolving, though hardly revolving, accounts will be placed in the context of reactions to the pact by other Communist intellectuals and writers of the time.

  • 1 . Parenthetical references to the Oeuvre Poétique will henceforth take the form of the abbreviation (...)

3The years preceding the outbreak of war were ones of intense activity for Aragon, who wrote numerous articles and essays, and delivered speeches on the international situation. Anti-fascism is a key characteristic of these interventions which focus on Nazi Germany, the Spanish Civil War and the annexation of Austria, together with a patriotism which had been markedly absent from his writing in earlier years. In October 1938, he denounced the Munich accords and the illusory peace which they brought, making a distinction between the “la paix compromise” (“La grande victoire de Munich,” Oeuvre poétique, vol. 3, 762)1 bought at a high price by the French and British governments, and “La paix véritable.” (OP3 764) This echoes the PCF’s rejection of the accords on the grounds that, far from preventing war, they would make war more likely by freeing Hitler’s hands for an attack on the Soviet Union. (Adereth 83) Despite continued opposition to Hitler’s expansionist policies, Aragon is careful to maintain a distinction between the Nazi régime, which he deplores, and the humanist culture of the true German nation, celebrated in a special number of Commune in February 1939 devoted to L’Humanisme allemand. (“Reconnaisance à l’Allemagne” OP3, 888)

The pact: Aragon’s response as journalist

4The signing of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact in Moscow on 23 August 1939 came as a bolt out of the blue for the party. Criticism of Franco-British failure to pursue negotiations with the Soviet Union for collective security had been the cornerstone of articles in Ce Soir by Aragon and Paul Nizan throughout the preceding month. Indeed, as late as 22 August, in an article entitled “Gare aux capitulards!,” Aragon was warning of the dangers of delaying such an agreement.

5The timing of the pact was particularly awkward for the PCF since not only was the news unexpected, but the majority of the party hierarchy was on holiday when news of its imminent signature broke late on 21 August. Aragon, in consultation with Marcel Gitton, the only member of the Politburo in Paris, published an editorial entitled “Vive la paix!” on 23 August in Ce Soir. (Courtois 42) The pact was presented as a “un gain pour la paix,” a triumph for the Soviet Union which had brought Hitler to an agreement. The Soviet Union was seen as a guarantor of peace, unlike the allies, prevaricating over negotiations for collective security. Aragon called on the French and British governments to seize the opportunity to sign their own pact with the USSR in order to prevent war: “Le pacte tripartite (qui n’est pas un simple pacte de non-agression mais bel et bien une alliance, et demeure la pièce maîtresse du Front de la Paix) viendra compléter merveilleusement un pacte de non-agression germano-soviétique.” (“Vive la paix!” OP3 1044) These same points were emphasised in L’Humanité which appeared that day with a photograph of Stalin accompanied by the text “Staline, champion de la paix et de l’indépendance des peuples.” The headline in Ce Soir of 24 August (“L’annonce du pacte de non-agression germano-soviétique a fait reculer la guerre”) affirmed the analysis of the pact as an anti-war strategy, while Aragon’s editorial “Cessez de faire le jeu de M. Hitler,” reaffirmed opposition to Hitler, and underlined the importance of the pact in preventing war and encouraging France and Britain to pursue negotiations with the USSR.

6It was only on the following day, 25 August, that the PCF published a communiqué in L’Humanité confirming Aragon’s editorials by presenting the USSR as a defender of the peace. It too stressed the party’s continued opposition to Hitler, and its readiness to defend France against future fascist aggression (reprinted in Courtois 493-95). In his editorial of 25 August in Ce Soir, “Tous contre l’agresseur,” Aragon reaffirmed the point, supporting “la déclaration du Parti Communiste Français, qui montre que je ne me suis pas trop avancé hier, qu’en cas d’agression, tous les Français défendraient leur pays, et tiendraient, les armes à la main, les engagements de la France,” (reprinted in Virebeau 6). This edition, however, was seized by the police before publication as a prelude to the complete banning of the newspaper, along with L’Humanité andall other Communist publications. It remains Aragon’s last word as a journalist on the controversy caused by the pact, for the legal outlets had disappeared. His words clearly demonstrate his readiness to defend his country against the Nazi aggressor, a position to which he was to remain faithful throughout the war, notwithstanding changes in the party line.

7The PCF was also, at this stage, firm in its resolve to oppose Hitler. On 23 August, the group of Communists in the Chambre des Députés voted a resolution affirming the party’s readiness to defend France. (Courtois 43) On 2 September, the PCF voted for war credits in the Chambre des Députés. After the closure of L’Humanité, the weekly syndicalist newspaper Vie Ouvrière carried the essence of the party line between 27 August and 21 September. It was characterised by statements of support for a united France standing against the Hitlerite aggressor, under such unambiguous headlines as: “Le peuple de France unanime contre l’agression,” “Tout pour maintenir et renforcer l’Union” and “L’Europe, demain, ne sera pas hitlérienne.” This position, however, changed after 20 September, when instructions from the Comintern informed the PCF that the war was no longer to be considered anti-fascist, but a war between imperialist powers which the party should therefore oppose.

Other reactions to the pact

8Reactions of shock to the news of the pact were widespread among left-wing intellectuals. Given the PCF’s history of anti-fascism throughout the 30s, both within France and particularly in relation to the Spanish Civil War, news of an alliance between Hitler and the leader of the socialist world was for many not easy to accept. The characterisation of the news as a “coup de tonnerre” is a frequent one. It is the phrase used in her memoirs by Lise London, a party militant since the early 1930s, to describe the feelings of many party members. (London 27) Despite her description of fellow Communists as being “sous le choc,” hers is a particularly positive analysis of the moment, describing how many of the party faithful swallowed their doubts and accepted the pact as a necessary means to ensure peace, and maintaining that “le comportement des communistes à cette époque, malgré leur trouble, leur isolement, témoigne de leur foi inconditionnelle en Staline, de l’idée mythique qu’ils avaient de la ‘Patrie du proletariat mondial.’” (27)

9Writer and historian Edith Thomas was another to describe the news as “un coup de tonnerre” in her memoirs. (Le Témoin compromis, Mémoires, 78) In 1939, Thomas was a sympathisante rather than a member, only joining the party in 1942, when she came to be an important figure in the intellectual Resistance. Unlike London, she could not, despite considerable heart searching, accept the justifications offered for the pact. Rejecting the argument that the pact represented a guarantee of peace, the best interpretation she could place on it was that the USSR saw it as an opportunity to spread revolution: “considérant que la guerre est la meilleure des situations révolutionnaires, l’URSS décide ouvertement de laisser les pays capitalistes (…) se jeter les uns sur les autres.” (Pages de journal 1939-1946, 37.) Unconvinced by her own hypothesis, she concludes that, far from guaranteeing peace, the pact has actually hastened the arrival of war. Critical of Aragon for his defence of the pact, her faith in communism is undermined; and her judgment that the pact will hasten war is confirmed when, “bouleversée d’horreur,” she learns of the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September (Pages de journal, 49).

10Unlike Thomas, Aragon’s colleague at Ce Soir, foreign correspondent Paul Nizan had been a fully fledged member of the Party since 1928, but he resigned a month after the news of the pact. In the early part of the summer, his articles as foreign correspondent in Ce Soir had reiterated criticism of the French and British governments for their failure to pursue negotiations with the Soviet Union for collective security. Nizan was away on holiday when news of the pact broke, and various accounts underline his apparent shock at discovering the news. Henriette Nizan, described her husband as “tout pâle (…) absolument silencieux.” (Cohen-Solal 244). Yet James Steel maintains that back in May 1939 Nizan had understood all too well the implications of the replacement of Soviet Foreign Minister Litvinov by Molotov, seeing it as a defeat for the policy of collective security which Litvinov had been pursuing. (Steel 356-58) Nizan’s own comment in a letter to his wife dated 30 September 1939 also suggests that he was not as taken aback as some: “Ce que je craignais en Corse s’est finalement produit.” (Brochier 109) Nizan’s public response to the pact remained unknown until after his mobilisation. On 25 September, he announced his resignation from the PCF in an open letter to Jacques Duclos which gave no indication of his reasons for resigning. His message was short and to the point: “Je t’adresse ma lettre de démission du Parti communiste français. Ma condition présente de soldat aux armées m’interdit d’ajouter à ces lignes la moindre commentaire.” (Thornberry 530) Nizan’s correspondence with his wife suggests that his resignation was less to do with disapproval of the pact itself, as many assumed, than with the way in which the PCF leadership responded to it, failing to anticipate the political consequences. In a letter dated 22 October, he wrote:

Ce n’est pas parce que je croyais “mal” de la part de l’URSS son accord avec Berlin que j’ai pris la position que j’ai prise. C’est précisément parce que j’ai pensé que les communistes ont manqué du cynisme politique nécessaire et du pouvoir politique de mensonge qu’il eût fallu pour tirer les bénéfices les plus grands d’une opération diplomatique dangereuse. (Thornberry 548)

11Jean Albertini reads this as an indication that Nizan is critical of the party for exposing itself to repression through its public support of the pact. This would make sense since his resignation did not immediately follow immediately the news of the pact, but came later in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Poland. The timing of his letter of resignation, a full month after the announcement of the pact, certainly suggests a different interpretation. The fact that it was dated shortly after the Soviet invasion of Poland also suggests that this event, or indeed the imposition by the Comintern of a new analysis of the war as imperialist rather than anti-fascist, may have played a role in triggering his decision to resign.

12Nizan was killed in action in May 1940, and until then, as a soldier on active duty, he was largely cushioned from the waves caused by his resignation. In fact, he recounts in his war correspondence that “les camarades d’ici” approved of his decision. (Brochier 114) Henriette Nizan’s commentary makes it clear that Nizan was referring not just to army “camarades” but to “camarades” in the communist sense: “communistes de son régiment-des camarades de base.” (Cohen-Solal 245) Thorez wrote a damning criticism of him in an article “Les Traîtres au pilori,” published in March 1940 in Die Welt. In it, Thorez accused Nizan of being a police informer and of having played out in real life the role of Pluvinage, the traitor figure of his last novel La Conspiration. Even after the war, and despite the fact that Nizan had died fighting for his country, these accusations persisted. In 1945, Henriette Nizan told Sartre of rumours that her husband had become a government informer. (Albertini 114) This accusation was countered in a declaration by a number of intellectuals, led by Sartre, published in Le Figaro Littéraire (and elsewhere) in March 1947. In it, the PCF, and specifically Aragon, were challenged to prove the accusations of betrayal. Aragon remained silent. The fallout from Nizan’s resignation from the party in the wake of the pact has been discussed at some length here, since its repercussions were to influence readings of the first volume of Aragon’s novel Les Communistes.

Rewriting the pact: Les Communistes, I

13Aragon’s novel was an ambitious project, originally intended to cover the whole of the Second World War. In fact, he abandoned the novel with the defeat of June 1940. Much of the novel is based on his own experiences of 1939-40. It is important, however, to remember that the novel was written after the war and the first volume, the one which will concern us here, published in 1949. The events of 1939-40 were thus re-written during the Cold War and inflected by the very different political agenda of that time. It becomes clear that one of Aragon’s primary aims in the novel is to remind his readers of the heroism of Communists during the war, at a time when the party had fallen from the position of eminence it enjoyed at the Liberation. A corollary of this aim is the negative portrayal in the novel of those seen to be enemies of the party.

  • 2 . Parenthetical page references to the first version of Les Communistes will take the form LC1, fol (...)

14It is the Nazi-Soviet pact and its repercussions which provide the major focus of interest in the first volume of the novel,which covers the period from February to September 1939. Clearly it was much more difficult in 1949 to sustain Aragon’s 1939 analysis of the pact as a strategy to guarantee peace, so this argument has all but disappeared from Aragon’s account, as has the emphasis on opposition to Hitler. Aragon’s own steadfast anti-Hitler stance has quietly given way to the party line, which saw the war as a conflict between imperialist powers. Instead Aragon focuses the reader’s attention on the intense atmosphere of consternation and confusion that news of the pact caused among faithful members of the Party, on the mixed emotions provoked within the wider community of the Left, and on the outright hostility, and even satisfaction, that the news generated among non-communists: “Une tempête semblait s’être déchaînée sur le pays. La consternation, la peur, s’abattaient sur la plupart des gens. (…) Des rancoeurs qu’on croyait éteintes, des colères rentrées, des haines couvantes renaissaient.” (Les Communistes 76)2 Particularly marked is the satisfaction of those on the Right at the discomfiture of the party faithful. This is embodied in an argument which dominates in the early part of the novel: that the anti-communism unleashed in the wake of the pact is the culmination of longstanding antagonisms dating back to the Front Populaire:

La démoralisation était grande à gauche, mais non pas à droite: ce que le pays tout entier considérait comme un désastre, ce rapprochement des Allemands et des Russes, ce pacte, on disait déjà cette alliance militaire, du bolchevisme et du fascisme, tout un monde haineux y voyait l’éclatante démonstration de l’erreur populaire, la faillite d’une politique détestée, la preuve d’avoir eu raison, eux, qu’on appelait les factieux, les fâchistes… (LC1 77)

15Indeed, the very first reaction to the pact described in the novel is that of a bourgeois character delighted at the possibility the pact offers for political point scoring: “Il pleurait de joie: ‘Le miracle attendu… Hitler et Staline. On va pouvoir régler son compte à la canaille’.” (LC1 64) This sense of pleasure at the discomfiture of the Communists finds an echo in the first paragraphs of the novel in which Aragon illustrates the delight of the French right at the defeat of Franco. In both cases, longstanding resentments over the Popular Front and fear of Communism are identified as motivating factors for this reaction: “la revanche de ceux qui, depuis trois ans bientôt, n’osaient publiquement avouer attendre la victoire de Franco (…) ici le mensonge était évident, et la peur des rouges avait un seul visage.” (LC1 9) This lays the ground for a message which will be heavily emphasised in the course of the novel: that the pact provides the pretext for class war, waged by the political establishment on the PCF. This emphasis is justified in the novel through a detailed depiction of the repression of Communists in the wake of the pact. It is also an analysis which squares well with the official Comintern line, imposed in September, which saw the war not as an anti-fascist war, a point of view Aragon had promoted in August, and a point of view to which he remained faithful throughout the war itself, but rather as a conflict between imperialist powers, contrary to the interests of the working class. This line is emphasised within the novel as it becomes clear to the Communists that war is being waged not on Hitler but on them. Communist militant Cormeilles points out that despite its support for the pact, the party remains opposed to Hitler and is ready to go to war against him in the event of aggression on his part: “Nous ne sommes pas contre toute guerre, Gaillard, contre toute guerre! Nous sommes toujours contre l’hitlérisme, les accords entre deux puissances ne changent pas notre position….” But this statement is modified by his comment that such a war would be an unjust war, and he concludes: “Nous serons aux armées, comme vous… parce qu’on peut transformer une guerre injuste en guerre juste, retenez cela, Gaillard… en guerre juste! ” (LC1 103) This seems to represent a mid point between the patriotic readiness of the party in early September to defend France and the new Comintern analysis of the war as an imperialist conflict. The reference to a “guerre injuste” which can be transformed into a “guerre juste” looks ahead to the final volume of Les Communistes, where the emphasis is laid upon the Communist ambition to bring about a change in the character of the war, to transform it into a defence of the nation. As Lahanque has pointed out, it is very important for the Communist militants depicted to establish that the war they are engaged in is indeed a “guerre juste,” (Lahanque 153) though at this point in the novel, there is little discussion of what a “guerre juste” might be.

16Aragon’s editorial criticisms of the failure of the French and British governments to negotiate with the USSR find a place in the fictional framework in the words of the militant Blanchard, often the voice of communist authority in the novel. He recalls Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov’s speech in March, warning that if France and Britain did not reach agreement with the Soviet Union on opposition to Germany, then the USSR would be obliged to enter into an agreement with Germany, thus effectively predicting the pact months before its announcement. (Grenouillet has identified the confusion surrounding Aragon’s use of Molotov as a source of communist authority on this point. In March 1939, Molotov was not yet Foreign Secretary and so could not have made a speech in that capacity. It would seem that the essential ideas were taken from a speech made by Stalin in March 1939, and reinforced by comments made by Molotov himself in a speech made in May 1939 [Grenouillet 260-66]). Molotov’s speech is referred to later in the novel by another militant, as an essential part of the Communist’s armoury in defence of the pact, which is attributed to the French and British governments’ refusal to negotiate an alliance with the USSR:

Comment, vous ne le connaissez pas? Mais alors, comment vous expliquez le pacte aux gens? C’est celui où, déjà en mars, Molotov a déclaré publiquement que les Français et les Anglais ne voulaient pas s’entendre avec les Soviets, qu’ils amusaient l’opinion, et que s’ils continuaient comme ça, l’URSS serait obligé de s’entendre directement avec l’Allemagne.(…) Ça fiche toute leur argumentation par terre… (LC1 252)

17In Les Communistes, Blanchard is exceptional in being able to construct a logical justification of the pact. Aragon stresses rather the political uncertainties experienced by many, showing how even the Party faithful were caught unawares, the less politically confident instinctively wishing to defend the pact and their Party against public hostility, but uncertain of the grounds for doing so in the difficult moments before the Party’s first public pronunciation. The discussion between Communist militant Bastien Prache, a lorry driver, and his socialist friend Dansette illustrates this tension perfectly:

Et toi, Bastien? Tu es pour le pacte?
- Je ne sais pas, dit Bastien Prache, honnêtement. Car il ne sait pas. Seulement il sait que si les socialistes sont contre, c’est contre les communistes qu’ils sont. Tort ou raison, c’est une autre affaire. Lui, il ne peut pas être avec les socialistes contre le Parti. Si seulement on pouvait avoir L’Huma… est-ce que c’est déjà sur L’Huma, ce pacte ? (LC1 72)

18Such instinctive faith in the Party and its pronouncements is later criticised by Blanchard for whom “La foi ne suffit pas… On a une tête, c’est pour s’en servir.” (LCI 74). This conversation also illustrates the instinctive mistrust between Communists and socialists. Prache assumes that if the socialists denounce the pact, it is the result of an anti-communist instinct, while Dansette is critical of unquestioning communist faith: “Vous ne pensez pas par vous-mêmes….” (LC1 72)

19Later in the novel, the hints of tension between Communists and socialists which underpin this discussion, and which reflect criticism of the pact in the socialist newspaper Le Populaire, resurface as the pact is discussed at a union meeting in the factory where Blanchard works. These tensions reflect the way in which the pact, by allying fascism and communism, has fractured the familiar left-right political divide and, along with it, the precarious allegiance between Communists and socialists. Animosity comes to the surface even before the meeting begins, as a supporter of Doriot’s Parti Populaire Français attacks Communist support for the pact. A socialist calls out that the PCF has shown by its support of the pact that it wants war (the absolute opposite of the official PCF line that the pact would prevent war), provoking Blanchard’s attack on “les mensonges du Popu.” (LC1 120) This mirrors criticism of the anti-Soviet stance of Le Populaire articulated in L’Humanité of 10 November 1939. Almost immediately after his interjection, Blanchard ruefully acknowledges to himself that it is not the moment to create further divisions among the workers at a time when the unity of the Front Populaire has been well and truly dissipated. Such disunity is a bad omen at this critical moment when the political stakes are so high. He links a lack of working-class unity with the defeat of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Such a defeat cannot be allowed to be repeated: “Il avait eu tort de faire de l’ironie. (…) Et la guerre, c’était pour demain, et qu’est-ce que vous pouvez foutre contre la guerre sans l’unité ouvrière? Et on a été battus en Espagne, il ne faut pas qu’on le soit en France… ce n’est pas que nous qu’on défend.” (LC1 120)

20Reactions to the pact are also reflected through the figure of Patrice Orfilat, a Communist journalist. This notoriously unpleasant portrait was widely acknowledged in 1949 to be a thinly veiled attack on Paul Nizan, whose resignation from the Party after the pact was seen by Aragon and others as a betrayal. Jean Albertini cites Roger Payet-Burin in France nouvelle (21 May 1949), Maurice Nadeau in Combat (24 June 1949) and Jean-Marie Domenach in Esprit (November 1949) as having made this connection. Albertini points out, however, that out of 17 Communist reviews, only one seemed to have recognised Orfilat as Nizan, while in the non-communist press 2 out of 7 made the connection (Albertini 117). Little attempt is made to present an objective reasons for Orfilat’s opposition to the pact. Instead the emphasis is laid on his concern for his own self-preservation. He is selfish and cowardly, driven by his resentment of the party, which removed his name from a list of potential parliamentary candidates. He is worried he will not be paid now L’Humanité has been closed. He is afraid of the prospect of war, of his own mortality, and his fear reduces him to a pathetic, unsympathetic figure:

Il avait cru que la guerre était impossible, comme les jeunes gens ne croient pas à leur mort. Tout d’un coup la guerre était pour demain, et il tremblait, il était fou de peur, il en avait des sueurs froides. La guerre, sa mort (…) La mort et la guerre étaient des choses possibles, présentes (LCI89).

21The emphasis on the fear of death further highlights parallels with Nizan, whose work is permeated by a preoccupation with death. In this frame of mind, Orfilat clearly has no intention of remaining faithful to the Party in its moment of difficulty, as is demonstrated when he witnesses a party militant, wheelchair-bound, who is selling copies of L’Humanité, being attacked by a right-wing group. Orfilat turns away when his help is sought. There is a brief discussion between him and his Communist friend Felzer about the pact, in which it becomes clear that Orfilat believes the Soviet Union is to blame for going ahead with the alliance with Hitler, a belief which brings the discussion, and with it their friendship, to a close.

22Albertini has pointed out, however, that the connection between Orfilat and Nizan is less obvious than is usually assumed. The biographical details do not fully coincide. While Orfilat is a journalist (for L’Humanité, not, like Nizan, Ce Soir) and (like Nizan) an intellectual product of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, his family details, home and physical details do not correspond. Albertini concludes persuasively that Aragon’s portrait is a generalised one of a certain type of intellectual, probably not intended to be a portrait of a specific individual. Albertini’s article contains a number of other important points which seem to indicate that there are good grounds for accepting his hypothesis. Particularly convincing is his reference to Henriette Nizan’s memoirs where she affirms not having recognised her husband in Orfilat. (Albertini 117-19) Setting aside Aragon’s own intentions, it seems likely that the context of the publication of Les Communistes influenced not just its composition but also the reading of the novel, and that the 1947 revival of interest in what became known as “le cas Nizan” and the accusations relating to him led by Sartre had some influence on the way in which the character of Orfilat was associated in such an unquestioning way with Nizan.

Rewriting the pact: Les Communistes, II

  • 3 . See Grenouillet (257) for an extended discussion of this point.

23Aragon undertook a process of significant revisions of Les Communistes in 1966-67, for publication in a volume of complete works. In a postface to the novel, he identifies three types of changes he made: stylistic changes, particularly changes of tense, changes of character, and changes made in the light of “l’esprit de responsabilité,” which include changes of political emphasis made necessary by the events of 1956. In fact, the narrative of the Nazi-Soviet pact itself remains relatively untouched. It is probably Aragon’s “esprit de responsabilité” which lay behind a change of emphasis in the heated discussion of the pact between socialists and Communists. The first version had hinted at tensions and differences of opinion between the two groups. The revised narrative is accompanied by a number of additional comments which attempt to attenuate criticism of the socialists’ reaction to the pact - even more than Blanchard had already done in the first version. This playing down of socialist/Communist antipathies, which were at a height in 1939, is somewhat anachronistic in terms of the narrative present of 1939, but it reflects the impact of a changed political context: in 1966, left-wing unity was back on the political agenda.3

24The most striking change to the narrative of the pact, however, lies in the removal of the Orfilat/Nizan character. Aragon’s discussion of the rationale behind the suppression of certain characters makes no direct reference to Orfilat. He accounts for the loss of a number of characters as a consequence of his decision to abandon the original project for Les Communistes. Certain characters that were to have had significance in later stages of the novel were no longer needed in the curtailed version and so were removed from the novel. Two such characters were Patrice and Edith Orfilat. Aragon’s only reference to the Orfilat character was an oblique one: a denial that the novel was a “roman à clefs” and a rejection of parallels between real and fictional characters: “Si certains personnages épisodiques ont des traits évidents d’hommes ou de femmes qui ont existé, ils ne sont pas ces hommes ou ces femmes.” (LCII 600) This is perhaps as close as Aragon gets to denying that Orfilat is Nizan, something he never did explicitly. From another point of view, his omission of Orfilat is the nearest he came to admitting that the original portrait was a mistake, perhaps motivated in this by Sartre’s rehabilitation of Nizan’s memory and literary reputation in his preface to the 1960 edition of Aden Arabie. Again, these were changes made in response to a changed context.


25Aragon’s interpretations of the Nazi-Soviet pact are not static, but are a measure of changing political circumstances, not just in 1939, but in 1949 and 1966. One factor which does remain constant, however, is the value Aragon places on loyalty. A sceptical audience might view as somewhat risible the efforts of Communist militants, clearly at a loss to understand the cataclysm of the pact, trying to second guess how the party would justify the pact. While in the novel, Aragon’s alter ego Blanchard is critical of blind faith as a political instinct (“la foi, c’est quand on avale tout, malgré les faits qui vous crèvent les yeux” [LCI 74]), it is clear that Aragon put a high value on unquestioning loyalty to the party. According to an anecdotal comment of Aragon’s, this was the factor which helped the party survive this period: “La fidélité au parti est sans conteste une vertu. Sans elle, tous auraient déserté au moment du acte germano-soviétique.” (Desanti178) He acknowledged in the postface to the revised version of Les Communistes that this loyalty may have led him into error: “J’appartiens à une catégorie d’hommes qui ont tant et si bien regardé toute leur vie la lumière que parfois ils sont devenus aveugles de l’aimer” (LCII 595). It is loyalty to the policies of his own party that underpins Aragon’s own rewriting of history in his three accounts of the Nazi-Soviet pact. Whether or not that faith was misjudged is for us to decide.

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1 . Parenthetical references to the Oeuvre Poétique will henceforth take the form of the abbreviation OP, followed by the volume and page numbers.

2 . Parenthetical page references to the first version of Les Communistes will take the form LC1, followed by the page number, while the revised version of the novel will be referred to as LCII.

3 . See Grenouillet (257) for an extended discussion of this point.

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Angela KIMYONGÜR, « Louis Aragon: (Re) writing the Nazi-Soviet Pact », E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 8, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 01 novembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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University of Hull
Angela Kimyongür is Senior Lecturer in French at the University of Hull. The main focus of her research is the writing of Louis Aragon and she has recently completed a monograph entitled Memory and Politics: Representations of War in the Work of Louis Aragon. She is currently working on issues of gender representation in the work of Aragon and other French Communist writers.

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