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033 Marie Curie and the enemy’s X-rays

Marie Curie

Marie Curie

War divides scientists

It is Sunday 7 February 1915. It is the 33rd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The second Battle of the Masurian Lakes breaks out against a wintery background in an attempt of the Central Powers to capture the Russians via Galicia and East Prussia.

Heavy snowfall in the west contributes to a lasting trench front.

South African general Louis Botha prepares for the attack on Windhoek, the capital of German Southwest Africa.

From the Black Sea warship Breslau, originally German, but now sailing under Turkish flag, bombards Jalta on the Crimean peninsula.

The Russians do the same with Trabzon on the Black Sea coast.

The British seize the cargo of SS Wilhelmina on suspicion of having Germany as its destination.

The British Foreign Office justifies flying a neutral flag at sea.

The United States warn both Great Britain and Germany: British ships should not sail under a neutral flag and German attacks on American ships in the so-called war zone will not be tolerated.

From Dunkirk the British carry out an air-raid on the Belgian seaside towns of Ostend and Zeebrugge.

And behind the West Flanders front X-ray photographs of wounded soldiers are made by Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie. 

Science also has to show its true colours in the war. Marie Curie, the internationally renowned scientist who won two Nobel Prizes, hurries to the front in Flanders with her daughter already in the first year of the war. She intends to help the doctors there diagnose wounded soldiers correctly. She can do this thanks to a relatively new specialized area in medical science called radiology. With the help of electro-magnetic rays it has become possible to trace a bullet or pieces of shrapnell in the human body or map a fracture.

The X-rays, which Madame Curie so gratefully uses, also carry the name of their discoverer, Wilhelm Röntgen. Just like Marie Curie he was laureled with a Nobel Prize, in 1901. Röntgen has also taken sides in the war, but for the other party. He is one of 93 intellectuals – artists and scientists – who addressed the world in October 1914 with a manifesto. Germany had fallen into disrepute because of what was seen as barbaric actions in Belgium. Especially setting fire to the Library of the University of Leuven had given the Germans bad publicity worldwide. Their emperor was seen as a descendant of Attila the Hun, who had defeated the Europeans as the scourge of God long ago. The 93 intellectuals thought these odious lies. The world had nothing to fear. The Germans of Wilhelm II would maintain as a civilized nation the heritage of Goethe, Beethoven and Kant.

After the war Röntgen distanced himself from the manifesto. Without really thinking he had signed it, but maybe that says a great deal. Röntgen was known as an extremely thorough researcher, for whom facts were sacred. But also the conscientious Röntgen, who had spent his childhood in the Netherlands, immersed himself in the all consuming passion of patriotism.

Of course this applied to the other side as well. In the very same month The Times published the reaction of British scientists to the manifesto of the 93 Germans. But there were also some scholars who emphatically set themselves above the parties. Heart specialist Georg Friedrich Nicolai reacted to the pro-German manifesto with an ‘Appeal to the Europeans’. Albert Einstein was one of the few to sign this initiative.

Those who read the ‘appeal’ of Nicolai and Einstein realizing that it was only October 1914, will restrospectively take off his hat. Just listen to this: ‘The struggle raging today will likely produce no victor: it will leave probably only the vanquished. Therefore, it seems not only good, but rather bitterly necessary that educated men of all nations marshall their influence such that – whatever the still uncertain end of the war may be – the terms of peace shall not become the wellspring of future wars.’

In the years after also Einstein would observe that the Great War developed into a playing ground for applied science. Fritz Haber, also one of the 93 to sign the ‘Manifesto to the civilized world’, was perhaps the most telling example of this. Haber used all his knowledge for the monstrous novelty of chemical warfare. Due to science gas entered the war.

The relation is of course mutual, the war also controlled science. To put it bluntly, psychiatrists and surgeons could learn from an abundance of practical experience. However, to the Dutch writer Leo van Bergen this statement is an outright myth which enabled doctors to justify their participation in the war. Van Bergen also points out that in wartime only research which was in the interest of this particular war was given a chance. The rest had virtually come to a standstill. Those who want to consider the medical battlefield of the Great War, should read ‘Before my helpless sight – Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914-1918’, by Leo van Bergen.

The beginning of the twentieth century had shown a true explosion of knowledge. Sigmund Freud had descended into the very depths of the human psyche. Karl Landsteiner had come with a system of bloodgroups. Thanks to dogs that started drooling before they got their food, Ivan Pavlov had been able to describe the conditioned reflex. Guglielmo Marconi had succeeded in telegraphing across the Atlantic Ocean wirelessly. Ernest Rutherford developed the first atom model. Paul Ehrlich and Sahachiro Hata found a cure against the dreaded venereal disease syphilis. Louis Blériot had flown a self-designed aeroplane from Calais to Dover and Willem Einthoven had invented the string galvanometer, a device that could register the heartbeat in cardiograms.

Man was well on the way towards solving all the problems of the world. Ernst Haeckel had written the bible of this scientific materialism at the end of the last century. The title of this book was Die Welträtsel, the riddles of the world. The zoologist Haeckel had reached the philosophical question of the meaning of life. He did not try to find the answer higher up, but as an atheist held the opinion that all human behaviour could be reduced to matter. A thought process was to Haeckel merely a meticulously worked out interaction of nerve clusters.

Is it coincidence that it is Haeckel who is the first to have used the term ‘First World War’? It is not until the early thirties when it is imaginable there will be another global war, that the term ‘Great War’ is beginning to give way to ‘First World War’. But already on 20 September 1914 Haeckel writes the following: ‘There is no doubt that the course and character of the feared ‘European War’ will become the first world war in the full sense of the word.’ It is the materialist who made the cold analysis of a war that was started by overheated romantics.

Marie Curie distinguishes herself from the other scientists by travelling to the front and helping out the wounded, just like Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War of the previous century. Because of the war Curie cannot continue her work as head of laboratories in both Paris and Warsaw. So she starts to serve the French army by equipping lorries with radiological machines and setting up field hospitals. She shows up behind the Flemish front in Veurne, Poperinge, De Panne and Hoogstade, where she will also meet the Belgian King Albert.

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw in 1867 as Maria Skłodowska. She discovered the element polonium and called it after her native country Poland. In her childhood Polish territory is still occupied by Russia. Women are not admitted to university, which is why Marie resorts to the clandestine Flying University of Warsaw. Penniless she works like a woman possessed. The title of one of Marie Curie’s biographies is ‘Obsessive Genius’. In this book one can read that she controls her depressive nature by unrestrained activity.

In 1891 she moves to Paris. As a nanny she has earned enough money to study mathematics, physics and chemistry at the Sorbonne. She focuses on the mysterious phenomenon of radioactivity. In Paris she also meets Pierre Curie. She not only marries him, but also devotes her life with him to science. Together they are awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, according to the motivation ‘in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel’. Marie Curie is the first woman to have received a Nobel Prize, but in 1911 she will be awarded another one, for a different discipline: chemistry. The ceremony , however, is overshadowed by her affair with a married family man, fellow scientist Paul Langevin. She is named and shamed by the press.

In 1911 Pierre Curie has been dead for five years. Alone with his thoughts he was run over in Paris by a horse and cart near the Pont Neuf. He and Marie had two daughters. The youngest, Ève, becomes a pianist and a writer, among other things of a biography of her mother.  Ève died in 2007 at the age of 102, after having survived her father by more than a century.

Just like her mother Irène Curie was awarded a Nobel Prize, also together with her husband. Following in the footsteps of her parents Irène Curie focused on nuclear physics. But the parallel with her mother goes further, even in death. Both died of leukaemia, probably as a result of continued exposition to radioactive radiation. Marie Curie was 66 when she died, her daughter Irène only 58. If men can  become heroes by exposing themselves to the dangers of war, mother and daughter Curie have found their fatal heroism in science.

It is cruel irony that it was the Curies who have contributed greatly to the fight against cancer cells. Marie remained indifferent to the harmful consequences of radioactivity for a long time. Even when deep cracks covered her hands and she had almost turned blind, she refused to acknowledge the dangers of radioactivity.

In 1995 the bodies of Marie Curie and her husband were placed in the Panthéon in Paris, in the presence of president François Mitterrand and his Polish counterpart Lech Walesa. Another feminist achievement is that Marie Curie is the first woman to get a place in this holy sanctum of the French dead for her own merits.

This is a tribute that was never paid to Lise Meitner. This physicist is also called the ‘German Madame Curie’, though she was from Austrian-Jewish descent. She did groundbreaking research in the field of nuclear physics, but like Marie Curie she was to be found behind the trenches during the Great War. Her field of activity was Galicia on the eastern front, where she fanatically X-rayed wounded front-line soldiers as a röntgen nurse.

Mother and daughter Curie had left for the front at an early stage to assist the medical service. We still have a beautiful photo of the then 18-year-old Irène Curie from the autumn of 1915. The picture is taken in the Flemish town of Hoogstade. Irène Curie, dressed in a nurse’s uniform, is standing on the step of a medical mobile vehicle with the words Service Radiologique written on it. She is flanked by two men with moustaches.

Eventually the French army had 140 mobile vehicles like this, which were nicknamed ‘little curies’. It is a word which is alien to the war. ‘Little curie’ sounds like tenderness and care, though it may be argued that prompt treatment of wounded soldiers on the basis of technologically advanced diagnostics served only one purpose, patching up the poor sods for battle.

Next week: Bernhard von Bülow

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

011 Joseph Gallieni and the taxi’s that were quite something

Joseph Gallieni

Joseph Gallieni

Paris escapes the Germans

It is Sunday 6 September 1914. It is the eleventh week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Austrian troops cross the river Drina and penetrate Serbia again.

A German cruiser succeeds in cutting the Pacific Cable halfway down the Pacific Ocean.

The British are hunting down the German cruiser Emden in the Indian Ocean.

The Russians in East Prussia have to run from the Germans.

The same Russians bring the Austrian armies of archduke Joseph and  count Viktor Dankl von Krasnik down to their knees in Galicia.

For the first time a British submarine eliminates an enemy ship in the North Sea: the German cruiser Hela.

Australians capture the town of Herbertshohe, part of German New Guinea.

During the first ever air fight Russian pilot Pjotr Nesterov loses his life when crashing into an Austrian reconnaissance plane. 

The Battle of the Marne claims half a million dead and wounded on both sides in barely a week.

And Paris taxi drivers transport soldiers to the front, watched approvingly by general Joseph Gallieni.

When France calls upon him to defend the capital, his wife has just died. He is already 65 years old. Three years earlier he passed up a chance to occupy the highest post in the French army. He is ill. In the two years to come he will have to undergo operations on his prostate gland twice. This will be in vain as he dies halfway through the First World War.

His name is Joseph Gallieni, the man who snatched Paris away from the clutches of the Germans in September 1914. When hearing this story you immediately think of the Paris taxi drivers who were sent out by Gallieni to transport soldiers to the front. It is a story that has assumed mythical proportions. Gallieni is supposed to have stood by the side of the road, mumbling approvingly: ‘Eh bien, voilà au moins qui n’est pas banal!’ ‘Well, well, this is quite something.’

It is not that these taxis made a huge difference in the terrible Battle of the Marne, on which also the fate of Paris depended. The railway was the vital artery of the army. Military successes or defeats could frequently be traced back to the capacity of the railway network. The German Schlieffen Plan was also grafted on the railway timetable. But Gallieni’s taxis of course appealed enormously to the imagination. Obviously the idea must have come from Gallieni himself. When the overworking of the railways was discussed, he suggested: ‘Mmm, why not use taxis?’

One greedy taxi driver is reported to have asked: ‘How much do we charge?’ Lorries, limousines and even racing cars joined the convoy. Many taxi drivers turned back at their destination Nanteuil for a second ride. A taxi could take five soldiers. A total of around 4,000 men were taken to the front by taxi. ‘Eh bien, voilà au moins qui n’est pas banal!’ to quote Gallieni once again.

One of those taxis can still be seen in the army museum of the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. Hundreds of these droll little cars got together on 7 September to load soldiers for the French Sixth Army. It was formed in a hurry to take away the force of general Von Kluck’s sweep which was noticed late.

Gallieni watched the taxis  through his lorgnette hanging over his stately nose and grey drooping moustache. Joseph Simon Gallieni was tall and lean. French president Raymond Poincaré provided the following profile. ‘With his straight stature, his head held high and his penetrating look he came across to us as an impressive example of human strength.’ And his curriculum vitae showed this, too. When he was 21 Gallieni fought at Sedan as a second lieutenant. To France this was the fatal battle in the Franco-Prussian war. Gallieni was carried off to Germany as a prisoner of war. There he had also mastered the German language, in the same way as he would later concentrate on learning Russian. He kept a diary in German, English and Italian with the peculiar multilingual title ‘Erinnerungen of my life di ragazzo’.

All in all Gallieni, son of an Italian immigrant, was a man of the world. His career in the French army took place outside the old country. Gallieni was a colonial soldier. His career went from the island La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, via West Africa, Martinique, the Sudan and French Indo-China finally to Madagascar. There were those in the French army who characterized the colonial service as le tourisme, but Gallieni certainly did not restrict himself to sun-worship. He proved himself to be a master at oil-slick politics, spreading the colonial sphere of influence from the centre by entering into home alliances using common sense.

Gallieni was also ruthless, especially going on a rampage on Madagascar. He did not limit himself to banning British influences on the island, but also brutally suppressed a revolt of the natives. Many people apply the term genocide to this operation. His period on Madagascar gave Gallieni the local nickname jeneraly masiaka, ‘the cruel general’.

In 1911 his reputation as warhorse can bring him promotion to the highest military post of his home country. Commander-in-chief Victor-Constant Michel has been sidetracked. The man is aware of the German danger, reason for him to draw up a defensive plan. But defence is a forbidden word in post-Sedan France. Attaquer à l’outrance, attack to the extreme, is the motto. Michel the defender has to be replaced by an attacker that does not hesitate. Gallieni, however, declines the honour. He feels too old, but is also afraid that the national army will not swallow a colonial like him.

He knows somebody, one of his officers from his days in Madagascar. Yes, let Joseph Joffre do the job. Thus Joffre becomes the man who is entrusted in 1914 with his native country in distress. He will put all his cards on the attack via Alsace-Lorraine. For a long time Joffre is blind to the muscles the German army is flexing on his right in Belgium, and not much later in the north of France. But Gallieni is well aware of the danger.

Gallieni is a confidant of Adolphe Messimy, Minister of War. At the end of August they arrive at a double conclusion. Paris is about to fall and Joffre does not realize that. Messimy asks Gallieni to take the defence of Paris as governor upon himself. A remarkable detail is that this is still the task of Michel who was earlier on sent away as commander-in-chief. Roaring with anger he is sent away a second time, after which old Gallieni positions himself on the city walls of Paris. He demands more troops of his own, which will have to be withdrawn from Joffre’s armies. The latter, however, disregards this command. When Gallieni came to alert Joffre to the danger called Von Kluck some time earlier, Joffre had only allowed Galllieni a two minute appointment. The stubborn commander-in-chief obviously did not like a superior officer from the past breathing down his neck again.

Nevertheless Gallieni will resolutely take up the defence of Paris. The capital is in the right mood for it. During the first few days of September the people of Paris had looked up at the sky in amusement to see a Taube – a small yellow-white German plane – circling overhead. The ‘pigeon’ not only dropped small bombs, but also pieces of paper for the Paris population came fluttering down. The message was that the German army was at the gates of Paris. There was no other option than surrender. One old woman was killed by a bomb from a Taube. After that, however, the small aircraft that regularly came flying over was mainly light entertainment.

The American attaché Eric Fisher Wood described how ‘all Paris’ was waiting for ‘the six o’clock Taube’ on Friday 3 September. But ‘Von Heidssen’  – as Fisher Wood erroneously called him – did not show up. Up in the sky a bullet had gone straight through his heart. The following day it was announced that ‘Von Heidssen’ was found down on the ground, strapped in his undamaged crate. Perhaps this was propaganda, for from other sources it appears that Ferdinand von Hiddessen – which was his real name – is made a prisoner of war in 1915, after being shot down above Verdun. Years later the same name crops up again on an American list of nazi bigwigs.

In the beginning of September the situation in Paris really turns awkward. A true exodus starts. The need to run from the Hun is urgent. Spurred on by Gallieni the government also takes refuge. But on the same day two staff officers in Gallieni’s headquarters are jubilant. Apparently Von Kluck had his army bear off to the east, away from Paris, towards the river Marne. Then Gallieni sees his opportunity. Joffre entrusts him with the command of the Sixth Army. At the river Ourcq Gallieni attacks Von Kluck’s unguarded right flank. It is the opening phase of the unprecedently gruesome Battle of the Marne, when the German advance is halted.

Unlike in 1871 and 1940 Paris does not fall in 1914. Gallieni gets the credit. Historian Basil Liddell Hart even attributes a ‘Napoleonic coup d’oeuil’ to him, but it is commander-in-chief Joffre who can write ‘Miracle of the Marne’ after his name. For the time being the French people believe Papa Joffre can do nothing wrong any more. Gallieni, who does not even get a Croix de Guerre for his share, certainly does not agree with this.

As governor of Paris Gallieni no longer plays a prominent role. After the return of the government he is the odd one out. On the sideline of the western front he recognizes the deadlock. Together with politician Aristide Briand and fellow-general Louis Franchet d’Espèrey he thinks that opening a second front on the Balkan Peninsula is necessary.

In October 1915 a new French government with Aristide Briand as Prime Minister appoints him Minister of War. Energetic as always he starts his work. He sees it especially as his task to raise the matter of the mistakes made by the general staff under the command of Joffre. The neglect of Verdun’s defence becomes a divisive issue. In March 1916, however, it becomes painfully clear to Gallieni that he is going to lose this battle. The government retains the far too popular Joffre.

In the month of his death he presented a memorandum to the French cabinet about the change of high command. Gallieni does not beat about the bush. The military should deal with military matters.The Minister of War has governmental responsibility. Commanding officers who support ‘anachronistic ideas and outdated procedures’ should be sidetracked, according to Gallieni.

But then Gallieni resigns and not much later he is hospitalized. He dies on 27 May 1916. No one of military command is present at the funeral. Five years later, however, Joseph Gallieni is posthumously promoted to field marshal.


Gallieni has not sunk into oblivion. In Paris there is the Gallieni Metro station, an important junction which is connected directly with Gallieni bus station. The small town of Fréjus in the Provence not only has a grammar school and tennis club named after Gallieni. There is also a museum of the maritime troops. Its showpiece is the little 19th century car Gallieni used to drive around Madagascar.

He who saves Paris, will not be labelled ‘Butcher of Madagascar’.

Next week: Helmuth von Moltke

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)
















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)

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