Poison pen

The execution of writer Robert Brasillach for "intellectual crimes" during World War II raises questions we still don't know how to answer.

Topics: Academia, College, Books,

Robert Brasillach, the brilliant and pugnacious pro-fascist French novelist and critic, was shot by firing squad on Feb. 9, 1945, on the direct orders of Gen. Charles de Gaulle himself. The James Dean of French fascism, as historian Alice Kaplan calls Brasillach in her lucid and gripping new book “The Collaborator,” met a dismal fate that was shared by countless other collaborationists. But Brasillach’s death was different. As a former editor of the pro-German journal Je Suis Partout, the 35-year-old Brasillach was executed for intellectual rather than military or political crimes. The questions posed by Kaplan are still disturbing and poignant today, for Brasillach was essentially executed for what we would now call “hate speech.” “The issues are profound and irresolvable,” Kaplan writes at the end of her book. “Why was a writer punished for what happened in France between 1940 and 1945? Why this writer and not others? When are words as noxious as actions? Did Brasillach deserve to die for his words?”

Controversy has continued to surround Brasillach’s fate. Kaplan, the daughter of a Nuremberg prosecutor, reminds us that it is difficult to consider these matters — and individuals like Brasillach — with a cool and measured eye. On the other hand, she agrees with Simone de Beauvoir, who attended Brasillach’s trial, that his sentence was symbolic rather than judicially sound. The case is even more charged for us today because our very definition of “hate speech” is a product of the events of the 1940s, the period that created much of our contemporary moral debate about whether and how to punish the sort of “intellectual crimes” Brasillach committed.

De Gaulle later declared that whereas he had pardoned from execution all those who had not actively colluded with German authorities, he had to make an exception for Brasillach. “Talent,” he loftily declared, “is a responsibility.” Brasillach had fully earned his death warrant, in other words, because of his poisonous pen.



Only in France, it is often said, could the misuse of words carry a death sentence. With Brasillach’s death, France attempted both to close the terrible wounds of the Occupation and to affirm the majesty of the written word. Had he been tried just a year later, many historians believe, Brasillach almost certainly would not have died. And the French intelligentsia, many of whom attended his sensational trial at the Palais de Justice in January 1945, were certainly uneasy with his condemnation. Fascist he may have been; but Brasillach was still one of them — an intellectual, a literary star, a renowned literary critic of exceptional sensitivity and acuity, the youthful author of the world’s first sustained work of film criticism, the superb “L’Histoire du Cinema” of 1937.

An odor of bad conscience hung over the whole affair, for Brasillach’s judge and prosecutor had themselves — as he pointed out in his spirited defense — been employed by Vichy. Was Brasillach, as his contemporary defenders on the far right now claim, a sacrificial lamb butchered by the forces of Gaullism on the altar of some fictive “national unity”? Or were his guilt and his punishment simply two independent vectors which should not have met at the stake, as Kaplan suggests?

Brasillach was born in 1909 to a comfortable upper middle class family from Perpignan. His father served in the colonial military in Morocco and was killed there in 1914. Three years later, his mother remarried a wealthy doctor and the family moved to the small town of Sens near Paris.

The embittered boy had already written what Kaplan calls his first work of vitriol to this prospective stepfather, insulting him with impressive dexterity and thus providing sundry biographers with an interpretive handle for explaining his later fascism. Hating his bourgeois pseudo-father, in other words, and hating the sham, left-of-center Third Republic of the ’30s could be seen as synonymous. Either way, explaining Brasillach’s political proclivities is not a simple task. Yet we cannot understand fascism without understanding why gifted, superlatively educated boys like Brasillach drifted into it. Brasillach, along with peers like Celine and Drieu La Rochelle (both of them now acknowledged as among the greatest of 20th century French writers), represents the most disturbing face of fascism. Not the usual stony Freikorps face, but that of the puny, bespectacled and disillusioned poet.

The usual place to start is the right-wing Action Francaise paper, the brainchild of the violent and rather rancidly radical monarchist Charles Maurras and a hotbed of rightist revolutionary thought — and action. It was the paper’s Camelots du Roi (a kind of monarchist street gang) who created the right’s greatest martyrs of the ’30s when 15 of them were killed by the Paris police during a demonstration in 1934. Brasillach venerated their memory all his life. Was it a turning point in his own spiral into fascist mythology? Perhaps. But many Action Francaise writers went on to be heroes of the Resistance. The roots of Nazism and its appeal to men like Brasillach, in reality, go far deeper than questions of simple nationalism or even of racism — and Brasillach was certainly a racist by anyone’s definition.

By the early ’30s, Brasillach had already made his name as a literary critic with a scathing attack on Andre Gide and an odd book on Virgil called “Presence de Virgile”, which celebrated the Roman poet’s love of young boys. He went on in the intellectually high-quality pages of Action to become a feared young Turk of the Left Bank literary scene. At the same time, as Kaplan tells it, he wrote a series of rather thin, lyrical novels, with plots turning around sublimated incest and a great deal of sentimental and artificially arranged “atmosphere.” Kaplan thinks there is a politically telling disjunction between the critic and novelist: the one fierce, witty, lethally lucid; the other lost in bamboozling lyricism.

What, then, does this disjunction in Brasillach’s work tell us about the mind of a talented writer toying with his first steps toward moral catastrophe? To Kaplan, it’s a question of denial. The same brittle polarity, she argues, was brought to bear on Brasillach’s view of decadent, democratic France (the object of his lucid, devastatingly critical side) and young Nazi Germany (the object of his romanticizing, “soft focus” side). Nazism, in other words, was first and foremost a lyrical mood, a religious effusion that harnessed his harsher side only when dealing with the Jews: His anti-Semitism had nothing soft-focus about it.

“The scandal of Brasillach’s concept of fascism,” Kaplan writes, “is that he relied on the reference points and vocabulary of a literary critic — images, poetry, myths — with barely a reference to politics, economics or ethics.” Curiously, however, he was entirely capable of describing Hitler himself as a “small, sad, vegetarian civil servant.” What Brasillach really liked was the strapping, pure, utopian, devoted and hyper-masculine Nazi work camps. In short, the classic, shrill and immensely charged aesthetic of Revolution itself.

In his psychological dependence on myth and symbol, moreover, and his scorn for politics and economics, he eerily mirrors Hitler himself. As Albert Speer records, Hitler was famously always pining for the day he could retire from “filthy politics” and become an “artist.”

Brasillach himself wrote the following of his visit to the Nuremburg Rally of 1937:

Faced with this serious, delicious decor of an erstwhile romanticism, faced with this immense flowering of flags, faced with these crosses from the Orient [swastikas], I asked mysel f … if anything goes …

The fragmentation of the quote itself seems to hint at the inner dissolution of the individual in a moment of mass hysteria.

And this brings us to the heart of Kaplan’s quest to uncover the psychic dynamics of her subject. What, she asks, were the sexual pathologies underlying Brasillach’s infatuation with orgiastic Nazism? It is, of course, a much-pondered question, most famously in the heretically Freudian work of Wilhelm Reich and in Klaus Theweleit’s 1978 “Male Fantasies,” a somewhat overworked Reichian exploration of the sexual pathology of fascism. This is interesting if murky territory. And fascism does indeed lend itself to such lurid deconstructing. For where communism seems drably asexual, the quasi-erotic swagger of Nazi regalia, symbolism and uniform seem equally undeniable. Hitler’s sexual relation to his audiences, whom he called “my bride,” was legendary. What is at work here?

In the case of Brasillach, Kaplan deals head-on with his reputed homosexuality and its relation to Nazi ritual. It’s a theme Genet also explored in his wild account of the male sexuality of the Occupation, “Pompe Funebre,” with its glamorous and virile blond Nazi lover figure. In his Occupation diary, quoted by Kaplan, the Parisian writer Jean Guehenno wrote in 1941: “Sociological problem: Why so many pederasts among the collaborators?” Kaplan distances herself from the dated tone of this rhetorical (and perhaps tongue-in-cheek) question. But the collaborationist gay scene, she points out, was indeed very conspicuous in Paris (just as it had been among Hitler’s SA).

None of this matters, of course, except insofar as Kaplan is able to suggest that Brasillach had a kind of homoerotic relation with fascism — just as Genet had described it. According to writer Jean-Louis Bory, the German army exercised a distinctly sexual allure. It consisted, he claimed, in “a taste for boots, leather, metal, and the famous Nuremberg masses in which … someone like Brasillach could find the exaltation of a humanity to their liking.” And Kaplan herself concludes : “Whatever the reality of his sexual life, Brasillach’s writing suggests a homoerotic attraction to the rituals of fascism.”

But Kaplan also shuns any simplistic explanations along these lines. There were many possible psychological roots for fascism. “How many children of men killed in the First World War,” she asks, “were there among the fascists?” The orphaning and brutalizing effects of the First World War on this generation have been inadequately understood. The roots of Brasillach’s tragic pathology, in other words, were unfathomably complex, and they disturb us precisely because we also do not really possess a convincing explanation for fascism itself. Despite the lakes of ink expended on its analysis, deep down we remain baffled by it. We are obsessed by fascism and its terrors, as any evening spent watching the History Channel will prove. They are our principal collective nightmare, which we cannot intellectually resolve and from which we do not seem able to escape.

More important, however, are the unanswerable questions about Brasillach’s fate. Why, Kaplan asks, was Brasillach shot while Rene Bousquet, the head of the Paris police who oversaw the infamous roundup of Parisian Jews, was given only two years of a suspended jail sentence? She suggests that it’s partly a question of timing. The legal definition of “crimes against humanity” is a fairly recent invention; the trial of men like Klaus Barbie was not possible until its advent. Brasillach, too, was tried while the war still raged. Passions were high, and De Gaulle perhaps needed a symbolic execution to close one era and begin another.

Yet there is also the question of Brasillach’s undeniable guilt in committing technical treason, the crime for which he was actually shot. And there is the more obscure question, too, of his actual involvement in denouncing Jews in hiding in the pages of Je Suis Partout. It was never proved beyond doubt, but clearly the intent to harm existed. It’s an open question whether such ambiguities merit death. In a society at peace, it is difficult to judge the mood of a place like wartime France, where words could literally kill.

“Hate speech” still arouses passion because of the Nazis, essentially, and because of men like Brasillach. We have seen the horrors they are capable of. But Kaplan, like de Beauvoir, is right when she points out that executing people because of their words is a dubious path to tread. If words are actions, after all, why not have a thought police and arm them to the teeth? Brasillach would have approved.

Lawrence Osborne is the author of "Paris Dreambook" and "The Poisoned Embrace," both published by Vintage. He lives in New York City.

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