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 father, on Christian principle, had been a conscientious objector; in 1939, I was convinced that, had he been still alive, he would have had to admit that the use of armed force was inevitable, in view of Hitler’s baleful display of murderous intent. So how could a Frenchman like Brasillach be so credulous?
Professor Kaplan, following up hints from various people who knew Brasillach, suggests that his surprisingly favorable attitude toward Germany may have been conditioned by his sexuality. He was not a declared homosexual but, on the other hand, there is no evidence that he ever had any female attachment, and some of his fellow students at the École Normale believed that he and Bardèche had a sexual relationship, with Bardèche playing the boy part (he later married Brasillach’s sister). It is possible, then, that Brasillach’s commitment to Germany was a sort of homoerotic illusion peculiar to himself (i.e., not shared by French homosexuals in general)—a willing submission to a master race of handsome young soldiers visible on the streets of Paris—rather than a reasoned political decision.
I find some corroboration for this view in Brasillach’s last novel, Les Sept Couleurs (1939), the action of which is set partly in Germany. The hero has two half-hearted relationships with women which come to nothing, but he falls completely under the spell of the Nuremberg rallies, believes in the “fascist joy” of the Youth Camps, and is thrilled, rather than alienated, by Hitler’s satanic charisma:
Hitler cannot be judged as if he were an ordinary Head of State…. He has been entrusted with a mission that he considers divine, and we can read the terrible weight of it in his eyes.
This sadomasochistic emotionalism makes his behavior more comprehensible but, objectively, it in no way lessens his guilt in calling for the destruction of his recalcitrant fellow countrymen and in supporting the active persecution of French Jews.
When Brasillach realized that Germany had lost the war, he first went into hiding, and then surrendered to the police, after learning that the Free French forces had, illegally, of course, arrested his mother as a hostage. Actually, given the inevitable confusions and injustices of l’épuration which followed the Allied victory, it is rather surprising that Brasillach received what, in the circumstances, could be considered a relatively fair trial, if we overlook the fact that both the judge, Maurice Vidal, and the prosecutor, Marcel Reboul, had worked for the Vichy court system during the war. However, they could not have been involved in anything particularly shady, since they were acceptable to the new authorities.
Professor Kaplan gives a very clear analysis of the arguments put forward on both sides. Brasillach, who was interrogated first by the presiding judge, Maurice Vidal, outmaneuvered the older man by his verbal facility and quick-wittedness, and was less than honest about his more outrageous verbal attacks on the opponents of collaboration. He boldly claimed that he had done nothing for which he need apologize. But he met his match in the public prosecutor, Marcel Reboul, who had made a close study of his writings. Reboul amply demonstrated that, while Brasillach had no doubt never committed any act of violence himself, he had used his literary talent to incite others to denunciation and murder. If he took responsibility for his words, he must also accept responsibility for the consequences of those words.
In response to this, the famous Maître Jacques Isorni, who was later to act on behalf of Marshal Pétain, managed only a rather contrived defense. He began by pointing out that Brasillach’s father, a professional soldier, had been killed in action in Morocco in 1915, as if the patriotic death of the father could, in some way, offset the misbehavior of the son. He also took it upon himself to apologize for some of Brasillach’s more scurrilous writings, and to plead that they were forgivable exaggerations. But his main argument was that to condemn this man of thirty-five to death would be to deprive France of a valuable literary talent. This was a strongly emotional card to play, and considerable support had been drummed up for it, even among writers totally opposed to Bra-sillach’s political views. Among those who signeda petition on his behalf were François Mauriac, Paul Claudel, Colette, Paul Valéry, and Albert Camus (who later said, however, that he signed only because of his general opposition to the death penalty).
To understand why such a show of support was possible, you have to be aware of the special status enjoyed by writers in France, especially half a century ago, before they yielded ground to pop singers, TVstars, and athletes. To put the matter briefly, a writer is someone whose function it is to express all the possibilities of human nature, even the most extreme, and he serves a purpose even when he is demonstrably antisocial and amoral. The outstanding example is the Marquis de Sade, who, in the light of modern psychology, has been elevated to the status of great French genius. Bra-sillach may have been only a minor, clandestine homosexual; still, he was a normalien, a novelist, a polemicist, a skillful handler of the French language. Had the four-man jury been composed of intellectuals or littérateurs, he might have benefited from “extenuating circumstances.” But Kaplan traced the four men who were on the jury and found they were far from the literary world. They accepted the simple point that Brasillach had misused his talent for evil purposes. She writes:
Desvillettes, the Don Juan and ambitious Communist Party hack; Riou, the straight-arrow electrician; Van der Beken, solid scout leader and Protestant humanist; and Grisonnet, the good printer, the artisan risen from the working class. One communist, one man with socialist ideas, two men whose resistance had no special party affiliation. All of them from the suburbs. These were four ordinary men, not superheroes of the resistance, and yet in their hands fell the power to adjudicate the moral authority of the postwar era in a highly symbolic trial.
On hearing the death sentence, Brasillach did not break down, but had the spirit to say “It is an honor!” as if his cause had been just and he was willing to die for it. When he faced the firing squad, he refused to be blindfolded and made a memorable last utterance, “Vive la France quand même!,” which carried the implication “Long live my country, even if it is wrong in putting me to death!”
Professor Kaplan, who was allowed access to the file submitted to General de Gaulle after the trial, found in it a handwritten letter from Brasillach, humbly asking for a pardon for the sake of his mother. This private plea rather reduces the dignity of his public stance. De Gaulle, without explaining the reasons for his decision, did not grant a reprieve, and one might say that he did Brasillach a favor by allowing him the noble singularity of execution in place of the shame of imprison-ment. Others, as guilty as himself, managed to escape both execution and imprisonment.
While waiting in prison, Brasillach wrote a number of texts, in both verse and prose. They make sad reading, because they confirm that he was incapable of any mature sense of responsibility or guilt. “There were faults on both sides,” “The Germans should have found a different way of dealing with the Jewish problem,” etc. He even compares himself to Jesus Christ and André Chénier. But Chénier was a blameless young aristocrat and poet, guillotined in 1794 during a wave of collective hysteria. Brasillach was a clever, rather shallow littérateur who, in the national crisis, took a wrong turn, and paid for his mistake. Insofar as the legend of Brasillach the martyr has ever existed, it has obviously been an illusion, as Professor Kaplan’s book shows, but I can’t share her fear that “today, the myth of a martyred, innocent Brasillach gives sustenance to the extreme right.” The personage is surely too shoddy to be durably remembered.
October 19, 2000