The Strange Case of Paul de Man

Wartime Journalism: 1939–1943

by Paul de Man, edited by Werner Hamacher, by Neil Hertz, by Thomas Keenan
University of Nebraska Press, 399 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Critical Writings: 1953–1978

by Paul de Man, edited and with an introduction by Lindsay Waters
University of Minnesota Press, 246 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Reading de Man Reading

edited by Lindsay Waters, edited by Wlad Godzich
University of Minnesota Press, 312 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Paul de Man was born in Antwerp on December 6, 1919, second son of Robert and Magdalena de Man. They were a comfortable, upper-middle-class family. Robert was a manufacturer of medical instruments, and especially of X-ray machines. So far as we know, Paul’s childhood and adolescent years were fairly placid until June 20, 1936, when his brother Hendrik was killed in an accident. On the anniversary of his death, a year later, Magdalena hanged herself. In October 1937 Paul enrolled in the Ecole Polytechnique at the Université Libre de Bruxelles as a student of engineering. In 1938 he switched to chemistry. But his main interests were in philosophy, politics, and literature.

In the spring of 1939 he started writing articles for Jeudi, a left-liberal student newspaper. When the war broke out, he wrote in favor of Belgian neutrality, a policy nullified when the Germans invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940. De Man and his wife Anaïde fled the country, making their way by train to Bagnères de Luchon in the French Pyrenees, where they spent the summer waiting for permission to cross the border into Spain. Refused permission, they went back to Brussels in August, presumably because they had nothing better to do and Paul had heard that the German forces occupying Belgium were behaving themselves decently.

Besides, he may have been acting on the advice of his uncle, Henri de Man, an influential socialist politician in Belgium who persuaded himself that a German victory in the war would offer new opportunities for socialism and a new order in Europe. Henri de Man advised King Leopold to surrender the Belgian army to the Germans unconditionally, and he urged Belgians to collaborate with the new regime. “For the working classes and for Socialism,” he wrote on June 28, 1940, “this collapse of a decrepit world, far from being a disaster, is a deliverance.”

It was probably Henri de Man who arranged for Paul to write for Le Soir, a Belgian evening newspaper under German control. He began contributing to it on December 24, 1940, and continued until November 28–29, 1942. Beginning on March 29–30, 1942, he also wrote for Het Vlaamsche Land, a small Flemish-language newspaper sponsored by the German authorities; and, from February 1942, for Bibliographie Dechenne, a publication evidently designed to show that civilized intellectual life was thriving under the Occupation. His writings ceased, for whatever reason, in March 1943. In December he and his wife took their family to his father’s house in Antwerp, where they lived, so far as we know, until the end of the war. On September 4, 1944, two days after the liberation of Antwerp, a student socialist magazine in Brussels denounced de Man for having collaborated with the Germans, but in May 1945, after an examination by the Auditeur Général in Antwerp, he was released without charge.

De Man lived out the last years of the war, it appears, doing odd jobs of translation and editing. In the summer …

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Letters

Deconstruction, the Nazis, & Paul De Man October 12, 1989

The Higher Criticism September 28, 1989