In England, where Fascism never took hold, many of the leading modern writers—Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Eliot, Pound, and Lawrence—were reactionaries who sympathized with that movement. In France, by contrast, the best modern authors—Gide, Malraux, Sartre, and Camus—were passionately committed to the left. Robert Brasillach (1909–45)—“the symbol of the collaborator”—was the exception. Alice Kaplan’s clear, elegant account of Brasillach’s career, trial, and legacy raises several important questions: “the accountability of writers and intellectuals, the power of words to do harm, the possibility of justice during wartime, and the dangers of revisionist history.”
Born in Perpignan, the son of an army officer who’d been killed in a colonial skirmish in Morocco, Brasillach was educated at the elite Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the Ecole Normale Supérieure. In the 1920s he became a journalist and freelance writer for Charles Maurras’s Action Française, which “stood for anti-Semitic nationalism, royalism and Catholicism, and for hatred of foreigners.” From 1937, Brassilach edited a newspaper, Je Suis Partout (“I Am Everywhere”), which proudly revealed the names and addresses of French Jews hiding from the Gestapo. Kaplan describes him as short, round, with tiny shoulders and owlish spectacles, “a man of great culture and enormous charm, capable of great loyalty and friendship . . . a sparkling, feared critic, a controversial political pundit, and a cultural celebrity of the extreme right”—“the James Dean of French fascism.” The dreamy, effeminate writer was also thought to be homosexual.
As the Nazi occupiers’ principal cultural spokesman, he romanticized their political brutality.
Brasillach vitriolically attacked the decadent Third Republic as “an old syphilitic whore, stinking of patchouli and yeast infection, still exhaling her bad odors, still standing on her sidewalk,” and blamed the left for the country’s malaise. But his criticism went beyond colorful metaphor, and he wanted his political enemies to be destroyed. As the Nazi occupiers’ principal cultural spokesman, he romanticized their political brutality. He refused to help French writers in the Resistance, like Max Jacob and Robert Desnos, who were killed by the Germans. In his most notorious statement, he ruthlessly encouraged the deportation and murder of Jews and their children, insisting that “We must separate from the Jews en bloc and not keep any little ones.”
Brasillach’s stature as a writer ideologically based on the medieval concept of “benefit of clergy,” in which the literate were exempted from civil punishment—was crucial during his trial for treason. Even the indictment conceded that he was “the author of several novels of an incontestable literary value.” His defense lawyer claimed he was “the finest promise of contemporary letters,” and his petition for clemency called him “one of the most brilliant minds of his generation.” Kaplan praises his first book, Presence de Virgile (1931), for its
wide-eyed sensual style, a clear sense of chronology, a traditional assumption of a direct relationship between a writer’s life and work, a right-wing emphasis on native geography, and, especially, an unapologetic projection of his own desires that gave the story life and verve.
But it’s impossible to accept this special pleading for a man who was better as a translator than poet and (as this book makes clear) wrote maudlin, sentimental novels and rabid criticism. He cruelly attacked Gide and Mauriac, accused Malraux of using melodrama in his great novel Man’s Fate to inculcate an “unhealthy taste for heroism,” and (in a passage not quoted by Kaplan) wrote of his idealistic Spanish War book Man’s Hope: “If this novel had been composed by a Hitlero-Japanese, a lubricious viper, a Trotskyist dog, a jackal of the POUM [a Spanish anarchist party], or by an anarcho-fascist, it could certainly not be more harmful to the cause it wishes to defend.” Brasillach was no André Chenier, executed by French revolutionaries during the Terror. His work, even when compared to that of the leading Fascist writers, Céline and Drieu la Rochelle (whom he also attacked), is insignificant. As Jean Cocteau aptly put it, he was both “absurd and harmful.”
When Paris was liberated in August 1944, Brasillach refused to flee to Germany and went into hiding; when his mother was arrested, he gave himself up. During his trial, at once insolent and serene, he had no apologies or regrets—though he blatantly denied he had ever advocated “that families be separated, that women be separated from their children.” Kaplan observes that
By claiming, throughout his ordeal, that he was willing to pay for his actions, eager to accept his responsibility, Brasillach was both elevating his importance and encouraging his own guilty verdict.
He is remembered today for his trial rather than his work. It took place in January 1945, in recently liberated Paris, while the war was still being fought and part of the country still under German occupation. Brasillach had committed treason in writing, not action, though his writing had had fatal results. The defense argued that, in addition to his outstanding literary merit, his father had given his life “to save our country.” In fact, he’d died while trying to impose French rule on wild Moroccan tribesmen.
The four jurymen—a printer, an engineer, an electrical employee, and a technician—came from the Communist-dominated working-class suburbs of Paris. Kaplan says that the illustrious literary names mentioned by the defense “were meaningless to the jury,” but also states, quite unconvincingly, that when the prosecutor quoted Oscar Wilde’s “the love that dares not speak its name,” “most of the people in the courtroom recognized the reference.”
Brasillach was convicted in a procedure that took only six hours, and was sentenced to death. A number of eminent writers —Valéry, Claudel, Aymé, and Mauriac—swayed, despite Brasillach’s vicious attacks, by Christian charity and by the wish to save a fellow writer, signed a petition for clemency. Camus, torn between desire for justice and for charity, decided to sign because he opposed capital punishment. He wrote to Aymé:
I have always been horrified by death sentences and I decided, as an individual at least, that I could not participate in one, even by abstention. . . . But I want you to tell him, from me: I did not add my signature to yours for his sake, nor for the writer, whom I consider as nothing at all, nor for the person, whom I despise with all the force that is in me.
Sartre and De Beauvoir, who believed that talent confers responsibility, ethics, and moral rectitude, refused to sign because of the French writers who had been murdered by the Germans. “By his denunciations and his calls for murder and genocide,” Beauvoir wrote, “Brasillach directly collaborated with the Gestapo.” De Gaulle agreed with their argument and refused to pardon Brasillach, who was executed by firing squad only eighteen days after the trial. He rejected a blindfold and just before they shot him cried out:
“Vive la France quand même” [Long live France anyway]. It was a perfect last line for Brasillach, typical in its combination of ideological fervor and taste for the joke and “bon mot.”
Kaplan concludes that Brasillach was guilty, but should not have been shot because “the myth of a martyred innocent gives sustenance to the extreme right” and to the Holocaust revisionists. If he had lived, the notorious criminal would not have been able to hide his Fascist past under a respectable academic disguise, like Paul de Man and Mircea Eliade. Yet in posthumous editions of Brasillach’s work, the most violent passages, which encouraged the arrest of resistance writers, were quietly deleted. Had he not been executed he could, like his fanatical followers, have continued to poison the present as well as the past. The recent work of the pro-Nazi historian David Irving, who denies the Holocaust, shows that Brasillach’s beliefs can still do harm.
He was immediately captured, tried for treason, and sentenced to death.
Kaplan is perceptive and sound, excellent on the historical context and on the ambience of occupied and liberated France. But the book lacks a bibliography and needs photographs, and she makes a few surprising mistakes. There are no “states” in France; Plon was De Gaulle’s publisher, not editor; and the title of Pascal’s work is Provincial Letters, not “The Provincials.” Kaplan could have illuminated Brasillach’s cultural collaboration and treason by comparing them to similar Anglo-American cases. In 1916 the Irish patriot Sir Roger Casement, hoping to lead a rebellion against the British, bungled an attempt to land on the coast of Ireland in a German submarine. He was immediately captured, tried for treason, and sentenced to death. When friends circulated a petition for clemency, British Naval Intelligence published copies of his private homosexual diaries, genuine but based on fantasies rather than reality, in order to extinguish the last remnants of public sympathy. Casement, like Brasillach, was executed for homosexuality as well as for treason.
During World War II, Ezra Pound broadcast fanatical pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic propaganda on Italian radio while the Jews in Rome were being rounded up and sent to their death. But Frost, Hemingway, and MacLeish, more effective than Brasillach’s supporters, quietly arranged to have Pound declared insane so that he would not have to stand trial and risk execution for treason. Like Brasillach, Pound remained unregenerate to the very end. (Oddly enough, Pound’s old friend Iris Barry, who had two illegitimate children with Wyndham Lewis, translated Brasillach’s History of the Cinema.)
Eliot greatly admired Brasillach’s mentor Charles Maurras, who also was convicted of treason but only sentenced to life in prison for extenuating circumstances. As late as 1948 Eliot took Maurras as his spiritual guide and (perhaps alluding to Brasillach’s book) wrote: “Maurras, pour certains d’en- tre nous, représentait une sorte de Virgile qui nous conduisait aux portes du temple.” If Brasillach was, as Mauriac wrote, “one of the most brilliant minds of his generation” and one of the most prominent writers of his time, then something was festering and rotten in the core of French intellectual and cultural life, which made the country ripe for invasion, defeat, and occupation in 1940, as it had been in 1815, 1870, and 1914. Brasillach, thoroughly corrupt, was no great loss to French letters. Sartre and De Gaulle were right to hold him responsible for his actions.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 3, on page 69
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