The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach
by Alice Kaplan
University of Chicago Press, 308 pp., $25.00
The Collaborator is a well-researched and vivid account of a controversial trial which took place in 1945, at the end of the German occupation of Paris. I have, however, an initial quibble about the title. The definite article in The Collaborator gives Robert Brasillach too general an importance, as if he were an archetypal case, like the Norwegian, Quisling, whose name became a common noun meaning “traitor.” Brasillach was an odd individual. Before 1939, he was a writer, mainly known as a literary critic and a minor novelist. Since his political sympathies were with the Action Française, he also wrote articles in the right-wing press, using the violently pugnacious style which was fashionable at that time with both reactionary polemicists and their most vociferous opponents, the left-wing anarchists. But he was neither a practical political activist nor a serious political thinker.
His novels show him to have been a rather sentimental dilettante, capable, however, of a vicious turn of phrase. Before the war, he had expressed admiration for Mussolini and Hitler and the discipline of Fascist movements everywhere. After the collapse of France, he threw in his lot with the collaborationists, and became a propagandist vituperating against all forms of resistance and supporting the German persecution of French Jews. He did not waiver in this course throughout the occupation, but it is perhaps to his credit that, when the end came, he remained behind in France whereas some other collaborationists, including Louis-Ferdinand Céline, sought refuge in Germany.
In the body of her text, Professor Kaplan doesn’t rate Brasillach very highly either as a personality or as a writer. He came from a middle-class provincial family and, being academically clever, gradually worked his way up to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, the goal of most ambitious young men with a literary bent. To become a normalien was to be set up for life as a member of the French intellectual elite. However, Brasillach didn’t follow the usual course, which would have meant passing the final competitive examination, l’agrégation, the key to a variety of official posts. He failed it twice, having become too involved in the journalistic and literary life of the capital. From an early age, then, he lived by his pen. In addition to his right-wing articles and his novels, he produced a History of the Cinema, in close collaboration with a normalien friend, Maurice Bardèche.
Stunned by the defeat, most French intellectuals took time to adjust to the situation, but Brasillach seems to have been one of the few who positively welcomed the German invasion as a first step toward a fruitful partnership between the two countries, with a consequent reversal of everything represented by the Front Populaire. I find it difficult to understand how any sane person, having listened to Hitler’s hysterical caterwaulings that the German radio blasted over us during all those pre-war months, could believe that any good might come from so obviously evil a source. In 1914, my English …