Reading the letters of the young Charles de Gaulle, I recently came across an interesting passage describing life in interwar Poland. Actually, there is something charming about these letters in general. De Gaulle writes to his “bien chère Maman” (dearest mum or mummy) all the while using the formal vous. After spending half of War War I in German POW camps, he is eager to get his military career back on track, and so has volunteered to move to Poland to train the officers for the newly-formed Polish army. He complains of the cold trains and the bureaucratic inefficiency of the French military, while his mother pressures him to find a girl and get married.
Here is my translation of the letter:
Modlin, [Poland, near Warsaw,] May 23, 1919
My dearest Mum,
I have still received nothing from you! Here the postal service is nonexistent, as is everything else. Literally everything remains to be done from top to bottom. The Russians, when they occupied this country, had systematically prevented the Poles from doing anything, whether in trade, industry, administration, or the army. These people, when left to their own devices, are good for nothing, and the worst is that they think they are excellent at everything. We will need much, much effort to rebuild a country with such people. And yet we have such an interest in achieving this that it is worth making the attempt. Warsaw is a city without charm or character, yet quite pleasant and very animated, filled for now with a whole crowd of more-or-less decorated people hailing from Russia, White Russia, and Lithuania, where the Bolsheviks have occupied their lands, and who despite their misfortune are frantically enjoying themselves.
The well-off families of Warsaw, whose wealth has been chipped away at by the recent agrarian laws, war, and a profligate lifestyle, help [the Russian émigrés] with all their means and imitate them. All these people are incidentally very friendly towards us, and receive us more often than we would like. Everything is extremely expensive – about three times more expensive than in Paris – and the smart set here do not deprive themselves of anything. Lower down, the city is swarming with 500,000 impoverished people. One wonders just how they are able to get by, given that there are no working factories, nor any commercial traffic, nor any building works underway.
And in the middle of all this innumerable [. . .], hated to death by all classes of society, all enriched by the war, which they took advantage of on the backs of the Russians, the Boches,A derogatory term for German, roughly equivalent to “Krauts.” and the Poles, and quite disposed to a social revolution in which they would receive a lot of money in exchange for a few dirty tricks.
Our students arrived on June 1st. We are ready to receive them.
A thousand affections for you, Dad, and all of you, my dearest Mum. I very troubled by this lack of news from you.
Your very affectionate and respectful son.
I don’t know why the term of “Jews” has been marked “[…]” in the text. Did the publishers censor it? Or did De Gaulle bowdlerize himself? My edition containing this letter does not make this clear at all. This is however a significant marker of an educated French officer’s opinion on Eastern European Jewry as being disposed to both communism and unscrupulous business.
Much later, De Gaulle would effectively stand up for Jewish interests by moving to London during the Fall of France of 1940 and thus found ‘Free France’ as an integral member of the Allies and an unconditional enemy of Hitlerism. Raymond Aron, a liberal-conservative Jewish journalist who had also moved to London during this time and pursued the struggle against Hitler from there, later strangely wrote that at the time in that city “the Jewish question was present with a kind of obsession.”Article in Raymond Aron, Essais sur la condition juive contemporaine (Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2007, [originally Éditions de Fallois, 1989], p. 32.
Later still, as President of the Republic – in comments spoken in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and the Arabs, and the rising prominence of the Zionist lobby – De Gaulle would say of the founding of Israel: “Some even feared that the Jews, until then dispersed, who had remained what they had always been, an elite people, self-confident and dominating, would, once they were reassembled at the site of their former greatness, change into an ardent and conquering ambition the very touching wishes they had expressed for 19 centuries: next year in Jerusalem!”
I’ve been struck at the revulsion which Polish Jewry in particular has tended to inspire among Europeans. Among Germans, this long predates the notorious Nazi film The Eternal Jew, some of the footage of which is quite shocking.
The famous Prussian king Frederick the Great carefully maintained a policy of limiting the number of Jews in his realm and despised Polish Jewry’s way of life, despite harboring no religious sentiment against them (the king was equally contemptuous of all religions).
The great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz would voice his disgust in a letter to his wife, with a striking premonition of a holocaust:
The whole experience of the Poles is as though bound and held together by torn ropes and rags. Dirty German Jews, swarming like vermin in the dirt and misery, are the patricians of this land. A thousand times I thought if only fire would destroy this whole anthill so that this unending filth were changed by the clean flame into clean ashes.Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 212-13.
More recently, the French anti-Zionist nationalist Alain Soral has claimed there is a unique hatred stemming from Polish Ashkenazi Jews in particular, evident in people like Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut. Certainly, there is a stereotype of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews being more laid back, sleazier, and less intelligent (represented in France by the vulgar radio jock Cyril Hanouna, the grotesque Jabba-the-Hut-like Israel-firster politician Meyer Habib, and obnoxious jeans-salesmen).
Whatever the reason, the relationship between Europeans and Jews seems to long have been the unhappiest in this eastern part of Europe.
 A derogatory term for German, roughly equivalent to “Krauts.”
 Charles de Gaulle, Lettres, Notes, Carnets: 1919-June 1940 (Paris: Plon, 1980), p. 27-28.
 Article in Raymond Aron, Essais sur la condition juive contemporaine (Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2007, [originally Éditions de Fallois, 1989], p. 32.
 Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 212-13.