The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

005 Jean Jaurès and the last strawberry tart

Jean Jaurès

Jean Jaurès

The socialists, too, prefer war

It is Sunday 26 July 1914. It is the fifth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Emperor Wilhelm II prematurely returns from his holidays, without being informed that his government has declined an English attempt for mediation.

The Russians proceed to partial mobilization.

The Austrian emperor declares war on Serbia.

The German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg is put out and announces that this declaration of war is against the German advice.

Meanwhile Winston Churchill has started preparing the navy for action.

Also the French have their troops standing by.

British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey is outraged about the offer of Germany that it will not touch France, if England stays neutral. 

Before war has even been declared, German troops cross the Luxembourg border at Troisvierges.

Germany declares war on Russia.

Belgium again announces loud and clear that it wants to remain neutral.

And in Paris a patriot named Raoul Villain ends the life of the leader of the socialists Jean Jaurès.

Jaurès is one of Jacques Brel’s most touching chansons. It is a tribute to ‘our grandparents’, as Brel calls the labourers who were completely used up when fifteen years old, who ended before they had even started life. Their faces had turned ashen as a result of toil and labour. ‘And if they happened to survive, it was only to be sent to war, dying in blind fear in the field of horreur.’

The chorus is one single question which Brel poses the audience twice. ‘Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès? Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?’ ‘Why have they killed Jaurès? Why have they killed Jaurès?’ They killed Jaurès on 31 July 1914. Well, in fact the murderer was an individual, he was not a member of a group of loyals like Gavrilo Princip a month earlier in Sarajevo. There is no conspiracy theory which makes it plausible that this Raoul Villain got his orders from above.

Villain was a lonely patriot who shared an ardent desire with many: to recover Alsace-Lorraine from Germany, which was something a true Frenchman should not speak about, but which was always on his mind. ‘Y penser toujours, n’en parler jamais’, according to the national commandment as formulated by Léon Gambetta. He was the man who made his name by flying over the capital in a hot-air balloon during the Siege of Paris in 1870. Erasing the disgrace of the lost war against Bismarck’s Prussia was the one thing any Frenchman should bear in mind. Bismarck had even been the very person presenting the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

Now that France was about to undo the injustice in a new war against Germany, Raoul Villain saw only one danger on this road: Jean Jaurès, leader of the socialists. Jaurès who was a threat to the union sacrée, the sacred unity in France. Jaurès, the pacifist, who had opposed the introduction of the three year conscription with the same ardour he had used when making a stand for Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish officer who was wrongly convicted for high treason. His case had divided France to the bone, a cause célèbre.

Ultimately the French Republic was also to Jaurès worth defending. But to him internationalism principally came before nationalism. French-German overtures were no utopia to him. Seventy years after the outbreak of the First World War Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand were to prove Jaurès right in this respect by striding hand in hand across the battlefields of Verdun.

Then why did they kill Jaurès? Why did the working classes go to war in high spirits, in France as well as in Germany? Where was the international solidarity of the proletariat? Why did the most socialist of France’s socialists, Jules Guesde, take a place in the war cabinet? And why did all the German socialists in the Reichstag vote in favour of giving war loans on the very day that Jaurès was put in his grave?

The socialist leaders of Europe had debated endlessly in the preceding years about the question how to prevent a war. Time over again Jaurès had made a case for general strike as a means to bring war to a standstill. But especially the German socialists had not expected any good to come from that.

Now that the moment suprême was approaching, the socialist vanguard could not withstand the advances of the wargod Mars.The pressure of the masses was too big. A socialist member of the Reichstag described the atmosphere of the July days of 1914 in a very apt way. On his way to the vote on the war loans he ended up at the railway station in a group of reservists. ‘Think about us in the Reichstag’ they said. ‘Get us what we need, do not be mean and vote in favour of the loans.’ He did, to the satisfaction of the emperor, who said: ‘From now on there will be no more parties, only Germans.’

Would Jaurès finally have collapsed under the wave of patriotism that washed over France? Would he have agreed to a ‘defensive war’ after all? Who knows. Anyway, they killed Jaurès.


Jean Jaurès obtained his doctorate as a philosopher with two theses. One of them, written in Latin, is about the origins of socialism with four German thinkers: Luther, Kant, Fichte and Hegel. ‘Socialism was born in the German mind long before the abnormal growth of its big industries and the other conditions which are necessary for economic socialism,’ so goes Jaurès’ motivation.

The miners’ strikes at Carmaux, which drag on from 1892 till 1895, turn him into a socialist once and for all. There in the southern French department of Tarn he grew up in a bourgeois social background. His mother shaped him with her love and tolerance. ‘He had absolutely no idea of the essential absurdity which is normal practice in everyday life’, explained the novelist Jules Romains when talking about the trust in mankind which Jean Jaurès held on to in a not altogether unmelancholy way.

Once a politician on a national level he is taking great pains to overcome the differences of opinion between moderate and radical socialists, in much the same way as he is looking for a synthesis of French and German socialism. As representative of the socialist party he tries to stem the tide of patriotism in his country. In his newspaper L’Humanité he calls for the immediate halt of imperialist politics in France.

On 7 July 1914 the French president  Raymond Poincaré and his prime minister René Viviani ask parliament for a loan for their state visit to Russia. The Austrian-Serbian feud after the shooting at Sarajevo overshadows the debate. Jaurès gets up to speak on behalf of the socialists. ‘We think it inadmissible that France gets drawn into wild adventures in the Balkans because of treaties whose words, meanings, restrictions and consequences it does not know. (..) When the tsarist counter-revolution had executed or imprisoned the brave Russians who had conquered their basic liberties in an heroic manner, France lost its only guarantee that the treaty with Russia served a just purpose’, Jaurès said. Only the socialists voted against the 400,000 francs.

On 29 July, two days before his death, the socialist leaders of Europe convene in Brussels for an emergency meeting. On behalf of Russia Lenin fails to come. But the Austrian Viktor Adler, the German Hugo Haase, the Briton Keir Hardie, the Belgian Emile Vandervelde and also the Dutchman Pieter Jelles Troelstra all look for a possibility to turn the tide. But they do not find it. It is painfully clear that the socialists on both sides only rate their own governments among the peaceloving parties.

At night during a mass meeting Jaurès will put his arm around the German Haase’s shoulders before the workers of Brussels. And he starts a glowing speech. This man has charisma. There is more than his beard to remind us of Karl Marx. The masses wave white cards on which is written ‘guerre à la guerre’, ‘war on war’.

When Jaurès leaves, he speaks reassuringly to the Belgian Vandervelde. There have been crises like these before. ‘It is impossible not to find a solution’, he says. Jaurès even suggests to visit the museum to admire the art of the Flemish Primitives.

On the night of 31 July, the day of Germany’s final warning to Russia, Jaurès orders a strawberry tart in the Café du Croissant, Rue Montmartre in the centre of Paris. Raoul Villain walks past the window and fires two bullets at Jaurès. Europe’s most prominent socialist dies within minutes. He will be called ‘the first war casualty’.

In the afternoon he had opened up his heart in the presence of journalists. ‘Are we going to start a world war, because Izvolski is still angry about Aerenthal’s deceit during the Bosnian affair?’ Even Louis Malvy, the interior minister, had been accosted by Jaurès. The soothing tone which was meant for the Russians should be stopped. The danger for France was much bigger than for Russia.

Many years later the writer Roger Martin du Gard gave the following impression of the dead body of Jaurès being sped off through the streets of Paris. ‘When the horse trotted away and the ambulance, escorted by policemen on bicycles, rattled into the road towards the Paris Bourse, a noise rose up from nothing, like the roar of an angry sea drowning the jingle of the bell. It was as if the sluices had opened and the bottled-up emotions of the masses were now released: Jaurès! Jaurès! Jaurès! Jaurès forever!’

The news shocks the French government, especially prime minister Viviani, an old comrade of Jaurès. Together they had founded the daily newspaper L’Humanité. The ministers fear that the murder of Jaurès will lead to riots. On no account can France face Germany as a divided nation. But it was not so bad as all that. There is sadness everywhere because the ‘mighty oak’ has been cut down, though this sadness is not translated into resistance to war.


‘Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?’ Jacques Brel quite rightly poses his question twice. Why have they killed Jaurès the father? And why also his only son? Louis Jaurès voluntarily signs up with the army in 1915 when he is seventeen. He explains this as follows. ‘When you have the honour to be the son of Jean Jaurès, you should set the example. Philosophical internationalism is not incompatible with the defence of the country when the future of the country is at stake.’ Louis Jaurès is killed on 3 June 1918 when the French army tries to stop a German advance at the Chemin des Dames.

Raoul Villain, who killed Jaurès the father, has not fought in the front line for his country. He spends the entire First World War in a cell in custody. The matter is taken to court after the war. And the incredible happens. Villain is acquitted. The jury thinks he has saved his country from ruin by his act. Jaurès’s widow is ordered to pay the legal costs. Villain leaves for Ibiza, where he leads an inconspicuous life. In 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, republicans must have mistaken him for a Franco accomplice. He is found dead on the beach. A bullet shot in the neck of the man who killed Jaurès. Why?

Next week: Albert I

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


Single Post Navigation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: