The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach

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We take the word 'fascist' too lightly. The word gets used for conservative opponents whose views offend, or just as a common verbal brick for throwing.

Alice Kaplan

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Monday, November 20 2000, 5:25 PM

We take the word 'fascist' too lightly. The word gets used for conservative opponents whose views offend, or just as a common verbal brick for throwing. Giuliani, despite his despicable policies, is not a fascist. Through hyperbole, 'fascist' has become a denatured insult.

The first time I met a real European fascist the circumstances were somewhat delicate: he was my girlfriend's father. It was a matter of great pain and emotional trauma for his two daughters, who despised their father's political history but did not get a choice in fathers. To make matters worse, the family was Jewish. An authentic Jewish fascist was an appalling idea for me, although he would come to look a soft-hearted liberal compared to some theo-fascists I met later.

The father had grown up as a very poor child in the ghetto in Venice. He entered the ranks of Mussolini's fascists in the 1920s because the party seemed to him a progressive force that would end poverty in Italy, and during the '20s and early '30s the fascisti did not care about his ethnic origin. He joined the Italian army, advanced quickly as a party member, invaded Ethiopia, and became a colonel and provincial governor. When Mussolini enacted anti-Jewish legislation, the father was stripped of his rank and mustered out of the army. After brief internment by the British as an enemy alien, he ended up watching the war as a barkeeper in Kenya.

One evening in the family home in Zelarino, across from Venice, he took out his photo albums to show me his history. Strongly warned by my girlfriend against asking questions, I kept quiet and listened. In some pictures a far younger version of this pharmaceuticals representative appeared in uniform, and in others he stood in front of the ranks of Ethiopian troops serving Italy. "See this general, he was my commanding officer," he said, tapping a picture, "The Ethiopians took him prisoner and cut off his head." That general got off easier than many, was my quiet thought. This man lived and worked quietly, but the neighbors all remembered his history. After over thirty years he and his wife received their first invitation to join a wedding reception at their next-door neighbors' home, and knowing their actual welcome in the home of Communist Party members, they spent two very stiff minutes offering congratulations and left.

A lifetime of social ostracism, instead of an axe to the neck. Not too bad a deal for an old fascist. After having sent millions to death, that was the fate of most European fascists: disappearance into the social woodwork. Very few spent time in prison, and after a couple years even they faded into bourgeois obscurity.

When Robert Brasillach faced a firing squad in Paris in 1945 for intellectual collaboration with the Nazis, it was an unusual fate. Only about 1,500 French fascists and collaborators suffered death sentences, a minute proportion of those who collaborated. Most French collaborators sentenced during l'Epuration were out of prison by 1952; the last were released by 1964. Indeed, the magistrature that tried Brasillach collaborated with Vichy as a whole, with only a single honorable exception who refused to take a loyalty oath. As Brasillach's defense would point out, even in post-liberation France the president of the High Court of Justice charged with trying the Vichy ministers, was himself a Vichy man who spoke kind words about Brasillach in a newspaper interview. Brasillach, one of the best and probably the most prolific writer associated with the Vichy regime, has been rediscovered by the European far-right over the past two decades as a modern martyr. Neo-fascist publishing houses have reissued his novels and he provides a line of intellectual descent for contemporary fascists. In this book, Alice Kaplan traces Brasillach's intellectual history and provides an unexpurgated portrait of a fascist and profound racist.

One pronounced characteristic of fascism lies in its social denials. 'Nothing bad happened. Nobody was hurt (or only far fewer than claimed). We spoke the truth. We improved the world.' Just as the bodies of victims disappear, so too do the words disappear. Historiography in the face of revisionism becomes more than an effort to prevent the eradication of memory and violence; it is an effort to ensure the ethical use of language. European fascism has persistently relied on a culture of denial and on language that obfuscates its violation of human rights: it cannot do otherwise and persist in its racist advocacies.

Kaplan's historical task in large part has been to penetrate that shield of denial in order to illustrate editorial excisions, half-mouthed acknowledgements of awareness, and shifty language habits. As she argues, it is these intellectual practices that have provided the contemporary far-right with its sense of legitimacy based on alleged post-war mischaracterization of fascism in defeat. Jean-Marie Le Pen's dewy-eyed view of far-right French nationalism, including the supposed martyrdom of Brasillach, relies on precisely these expurgations of memory and language. The history of the World War II victors, whatever its Hollywood-ization and problematic issues, is and will ever remain incomparably superior to the execrable history propagated by the war's losers.

Brasillach had the education that enabled him to engage in rationalizations of fascism in the name of patrie et gloire. He emerged from the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieur in Paris, an historic breeding pond for the French intelligentsia. He became a novelist, although Kaplan makes quite clear that she has little patience for Brasillach's polite, allegorical and repetitive fictions. Entire novels disappear in three-line synopses.

Accompanying his fiction-writing, Brasillach began working in 1931 as a critic for Action Francaise, a reactionary daily with a literary page impressive enough to entice left-wingers like Walter Benjamin to read the newspaper daily. The publisher was Charles Maurras, grandfather of the French nationalist right, a royalist and an anti-Dreyfusard whose long career finally ended after Liberation with a treason trial and a life sentence. However influenced by Maurras, Brasillach was too much the modernist and soon switched to Je Suis Partout, an outspokenly fascist and antisemitic daily. By 1937 he was editor-in-chief, continuing to publish essays even while spending ten months as a prisoner-of-war in 1940-41.

Having been identified by the Nazis as a friend, Brasillach was released from imprisonment in order to lend support to the German occupation policies in France. He remained editor-in-chief until August 1943, publishing the largest-circulation daily in the Occupied Zone and writing his pro-Nazi front-page editorials that would lead to the firing squad. Even Jean Anouilh, whose Antigone became a parable of wartime resistance, published work in Je Suis Partout (which, after its remaining editors decamped for Germany together with the retreating Nazis, became in one wag's coinage, 'Je suis parti! -- 'I'm outta here!').

All this is really prologue for Kaplan, whose attention centers most on Brasillach's trial and its political milieu. Her treatment of the trial in August 1944 is admirable, particularly in the depth and detail of its archival research. The personalities of its participants emerge vividly. Marcel Raboul, a career prosecutor, charged with conducting a prosecution that would restore public respect to a magistrature severely tarnished by its Vichy allegiance. Jacques Isorni, Raboul's neighbor and landlord, a flamboyant right-wing attorney who defended Brasillach and later Petain. Maurice Vidal, the slow and ponderous president of the court, quickly bested rhetorically by Brasillach. One of the most interesting chapters investigates the lives of the four jurors, all from workingclass suburbs of Paris and who had personal experience in the Resistance, who joined the court president to judge the case.

Brasillac's trial lasted one day. Raboul's courtroom argument was notable for its fear of homosexuality, referring both to speculations on the defendant's sexuality and the image of France buggered by Germany. To find Brasillac guilty, Kaplan argues perceptively, was to recover a metaphoric national hetero-masculinity. Isorni's defense futilely concentrated on mitigating undeniable denunciations and praising the novelist's literary merit.

For his part, Brasillac was unrepentant: "I can regret nothing of what I have been", he said in his closing court statement. Although a guilty verdict was foreordained, he had hoped for a prison sentence. After twenty minutes deliberation, the court sentenced him to death. During the eighteen days that lapsed before his execution, a public debate broke out over clemency. A petition of intellectuals supporting commutation of Brasillach's sentence contained, among others, the names of Albert Camus, Paul Valery, Franois Mauriac, Colette, Cocteau and Anouihl. Camus, who expressed his complete contempt for Brasillac, signed out of opposition to the death penalty and as a counter-gesture to Brasillac's own refusal to urge mercy for captured Resistance fighters. The petition drew vehement opposition from Sartre, de Beauvoir, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard and others who demanded that writers remain responsible for their words.

Kaplan concludes the book by choosing her side of the debate over Brasillach's execution, opposing it with an argument that his life would have been lived in discredit and his death created a martyr for the extreme right. He became "the James Dean of French fascism." In these final arguments Kaplan runs off the track.

All sorts of hypothetical futures were available for post-war fascists. In the literary line, if he had lived, Brasillach might have become another E.M. Cioran, once a murderous participant in Romania's Iron Guard pogroms, who ended life as an honored aphorist in Paris. If he had been younger and far more obscure as a pro-Nazi journalist, he could even have joined Yale's English department in its deconstructionist phase. Most, like that Venetian businessman, became solid members of the bourgeois and led quiet lives. A good life awaited ex-collaborators with talent, a life that did not await their victims. Regardless of Brasillach's individual fate, Europe's neo-fascists would have found their martyrs. Another dead Gallic fascist would surely have been available for the same pseudo-histories.

Kaplan's political argument emerges from her decency, but wars are not begun, fought or concluded with gentle decency. With tens of millions of victims of fascism lying dead at the conclusion of World War II, there was no sensible reason for restraint or gentleness towards fascist intellectuals who provided words that inspired and justified such genocide.

There has been a lengthy social habit of privileging writers on grounds that their acts were those of expression rather than direct action, as if they could be neatly distinguished. As years passed and some memories thinned, writers could hope even to attain honor in spite of their alliances with fascism and its outrages against human rights.

A domain of post-war privilege protected writers like Celine and Pound, both of whom deserved summary execution far more than the literary apologetics that served each so well. Such writers benefited from a class system that permitted them to escape merited punishment because, unlike ordinary souls, their expressive complexity earned them special consideration. When Pound stood charged with treason, writers like Williams, Hemingway, MacLeish, Frost and Cowley swarmed to his defense. Literary merit became a privileged defense for collaboration: "Read his cantos and find out first, before you order his neck broken," wrote the otherwise anti-fascist Charles Olson pleading Pound's case to the US attorney-general. How different was this rationalization from Jacques Isorni's dramatic defense line, "Do civilized people shoot their poets?" Like Brasillach's novels and poetry, however, Pound's cantos were not the issue. Such privilege for writers is unjust on its face.

Kaplan does not participate directly in another rendition of this exculpatory privilege, but her position opposing Brasillach's execution does provide indirect support. If not Brasillach, then was any death penalty for collaboration justified for less symbolic and ordinary figures? Without explicitly doing so, for this book does not consider everyday fascists, Kaplan implicitly accepts Jean Paulhan's position endorsing "the writer's right to error." Possibly a more relevant question to pursue here would have been why so few intellectual collaborators in France shared Brasillach's fate. As Brasillach's fellow journalist collaborators stated later, public debate over his execution probably spared their lives when they stood trial later.

Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in the European war's practical and ideological geography. Oradour-sur-Glane, with some six hundred massacre victims, was nearly a singular event in France. In Poland, Moldova, Ukraine, Serbia, and other eastern areas that suffered far more massive civilian population losses than did France, the viciousness of the Nazi race-war ensured that there was little if any post-war mercy for local collaborators. Despite Cold War claims to the contrary, there was far less sufferance of Nazi collaborators in eastern than in western Europe. A pro-Nazi newspaper editor like Brasillach was doomed: many of his eastern intellectual peers never had the ceremony of a trial after their wartime capture, and some died very ugly public deaths.

A further element of explanation lies in the massive complicity in France with the Vichy government and the German occupation. How far down the line would such punishment go? Collaboration in France functioned on an opportunistic continuum between passive and active, which enabled many collaborators to reinvent themselves after the war as quiet resistors. The Resistance gained large numbers of theretofore unknown and invisible divisions in the wake of the German retreat. The question of why there were not many more Brasillachs finds an echoed response in a frequently supine French acquiescence to the German occupation. In this sense, Brasillach was arguably a scapegoat for a far more pervasive national failure.

France is hardly alone in facing such issues. How should Americans, for instance, address the legacy of William Randolph Hearst who through most of the 1930s endorsed the policies of Hitler and Mussolini and employed them as columnists for his newspapers? Hearst, whose politics during these years were proximate to the elite hierarchicalism of the far-right Action Franaise, had a more complicit relationship with Hitler at a level far beyond what poor Brasillach could ever imagine. Although Hearst did not maintain that relationship in wartime, should he not receive an historical judgement equally as severe for nurturing fascism?

Kaplan's treatment of Brasillach provides an extraordinarily sharp and well-written social portrait of a fascist intellectual, his trial and death. The book does not, as Kaplan would have readers conclude, provide the corrective perspective of a half-century's remove in arguing against Brasillach's execution. Instead, it confirms that clear justice delivered with restored due process in the midst of genocide stands on its own and resists latter-day second judgment.

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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