War and Sport: A Rich New French Anthology Considers Sports in International Relations

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Kristian Gerner
Dept. of History, Lund University


Luc Robène (red) Le sport et la guerre: XIXe et XXe siècles 537 sidor, hft., ill. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes 2012 ISBN 978-2-7535-2126-1

Luc Robène (red)
Le sport et la guerre: XIXe et XXe siècles
537 sidor, hft., ill.
Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes 2012
ISBN 978-2-7535-2126-1

The director of the volume under review, Professor Luc Robène of the University of Rennes in Bretagne, heads a research institute, a “laboratory,” called Violence, Identités, Politiques et Sports. The scope of the volume is broad, in line with the institutional affiliation of Robène. It encompasses not only sport and war but also nationalism, politics and international relations. The variety is so great and the contributions so numerous that one can say that the reader is invited to an intellectual cocktail party with focus on sports, nationalism and conflicts. The volume presents 45 papers (by a total of 52 authors) that were read at a colloquium in Rennes in 2010.

The basis of the project is the declaration by Robène in his general introduction that whereas war is the instrument of rulers – Machiavelli’s The Prince is referred to – and the continuation of politics by other means – here Clausewitz’s On war is quoted – after the Great War of 1914–1918 also sports became politics by other means. A good demonstration of this thesis is the analysis by Jean-François Polo of sports diplomacy in the relations between Turkey and Armenia on the occasion of the two matches between the respective national football teams in 2008–2009 in the qualifying round for the World Championship tournament in 2010.

There is not much talk of sports per se in Le sport et la guerre. Thus the article on Turkey’s and Armenia’s encounter does not report on the matches as such or on football as a sport in the two countries, and in an article by Yohann Fortune the renowned Czechoslovak long distance runner Emil Zatopek is presented not primarily as sports phenomenon but in his capacity first as a propagandist for socialism, Soviet type, and then as a champion of human rights and political freedom. In the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, where the USSR took part for the first time, Zatopek, a citizen of communist Czechoslovakia who won three gold medals, was framed as an example of the superiority of socialist society, and he also endorsed the prospect of political détente between the East and the West. However, on the occasion of the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968, in the wake of the brutal Soviet repression of the Czechoslovak reform movement “the Prague Spring,” the old champion acted not as an athlete but as a political being and “focused the audience’s attention on the incoherence of the whole Soviet discourse over the years” (474).

The majority of the contributions deal with French themes. According to several observations in the volume, the Prussian military victory in the 1870–71 war – “Sedan” – was experienced by the French as a humiliation that could be overcome by making the French nation “more Prussian than the Prussians”, a nation of well-trained soldiers. For this reason, sports as training of soldiers became part of French identity building.

Most of the forty-odd articles in Le sport et la guerre are highly detailed. The numerous case studies give intimate knowledge of the connection between sports, the military, society and politics in France in general and in Bretagne especially, but also in Switzerland in the late nineteen thirties, in Spain under the military dictator Primo de Rivera in the twenties and in the first republic in the thirties, in colonial Africa in 1870–1914, in Czechoslovakia in 1952–1968 (the Zatopek case), in the United States, during the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991–1995 and in contemporary Turkey and Armenia (the football matches).

However, the football diplomacy was of limited avail because of the continuing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabach, the break-away Armenian autonomous region in (Turcophone) Azerbaijan.

The volume is organized in six parts that deal with diverse aspects of the subject matter sports and war. Examples are the role of media reporting and of sports under foreign occupation. In this French project, sports in Vichy France in 1940–1944 and in Alsace in 1879–1914 are rather self-evident subjects. Concerning the latter, Jérôme Beauchez offers a highly informative analysis of how interest in and organization of sport in the course of the changeover from one generation to the next resulted in the emergence of a third “national” option for Alsacians. (France lost Alsace to Germany in 1871). On the threshold of the Great War, the young sportsmen in the rowing clubs came out as Alsacians in their own right. They did not harbor nostalgia for France but they did not envisage becoming Germans either. Instead the self-consciousness bred in the rowing clubs resulted in the political project of attempting to make Alsace a Land in its own right in the German Empire, with its own constitution and legal rights. This is sport as an instrument of peaceful conflict resolution rather than as a preparation for revenge and warfare.

The theme of sports, diplomacy and war are ingeniously analyzed in the papers devoted to respectively the Turkish–Armenian relation and the break-up of Yugoslavia. Jean-François Polo shows how the matches between Armenia and Turkey seemed to signify a new opening in the relation between the two countries, where the issue of the Ottoman genocide of Armenians during the Great War had loomed large and hindered constructive co-existence. It now seemed to become “solved” in the sense that the two states would establish regular diplomatic relations. However, the football diplomacy was of limited avail because of the continuing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabach, the break-away Armenian autonomous region in (Turcophone) Azerbaijan. Thus the protocol on establishing diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey was not ratified by either parliament.

In order to corroborate his thesis that the civil war in Yugoslavia was not triggered by football hooliganism and the confrontation of fans from the clubs Red Star of Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb, Loïc Tregoures gives an excellent overview of the background to the civil war, placing the heritage from Tito’s ethno-national policy in the context of the actions after Tito’s death by intellectuals, the secret service and the Orthodox Church in Serbia.

The seventh and concluding part of Le sport et la guerre is called “témoignages croisés”, i.e. “crossed testimonies”. It offers two contributions, each written by a colonel. They are devoted to physical exercise in the army and among professional soldiers. The author of the last article, Colonel Michel Goya of the renowned French military academy in Bretagne, Écoles de Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan, observes that “on the whole, sports policy in the fighting units is not remarkable for its variety” (523).

The gist of this article at the end of the volume is that the contemporary French physical training of soldiers does not meet the challenges of contemporary warfare. Goya hints that the situation is reminiscent of the situation a century ago as he reports on an obviously rather futile recourse to “l’Hébertisme” as a means to promote physical training by making it part and parcel of the exercise of military tactics. Georges Hébert (1875–1957) was a French officer who developed his “natural method” of physical training as an antidote to the (supposedly “formalistic”) “Swedish model”. He defined the goal of physical education as to promote “the qualities of organic resistance, muscularity and speed, towards being able to walk, run, jump, move on all fours, to climb, to keep balance, to throw, lift, defend yourself and to swim.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_H%C3%A9bert. Retrieved 16.05.2012)

Le sport et la guerre is a highly informative book on sports as an important dimension of contemporary history and international relations. However, for a reader who wants to get a full picture of certain aspects that are only hinted at, consulting Wikipedia may be helpful.

Copyright © Kristian Gerner 2013

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