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On February 6, 1945, Robert Brasillach was executed for treason by a French firing squad. He was a writer of some distinction—a prolific novelist and a keen literary critic. He was also a dedicated anti-Semite, an acerbic opponent of French democracy, and editor in chief of the fascist weekly Je Suis Partout, in whose pages he regularly printed wartime denunciations of Jews and resistance activists.
Was Brasillach in fact guilty of treason? Was he condemned for his denunciations of the resistance, or singled out as a suspected homosexual? Was it right that he was executed when others, who were directly responsible for the murder of thousands, were set free? Kaplan's meticulous reconstruction of Brasillach's life and trial skirts none of these ethical subtleties: a detective story, a cautionary tale, and a meditation on the disturbing workings of justice and memory, The Collaborator will stand as the definitive account of Brasillach's crime and punishment.
A National Book Award Finalist
A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
"A well-researched and vivid account."—John Weightman, New York Review of Books
"A gripping reconstruction of [Brasillach's] trial."—The New Yorker
"Readers of this disturbing book will want to find moral touchstones of their own. They're going to need them. This is one of the few works on Nazism that forces us to experience how complex the situation really was, and answers won't come easily."—Daniel Blue, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
"The Collaborator is one of the best-written, most absorbing pieces of literary history in years."—David A. Bell, New York Times Book Review
"Alice Kaplan's clear-headed study of the case of Robert Brasillach in France has a good deal of current-day relevance. . . . Kaplan's fine book . . . shows that the passage of time illuminates different understandings, and she leaves it to us to reflect on which understanding is better."—Richard Bernstein, The New York Times
THE MAKING OF A FASCIST WRITER
In the last week of August 1944, Robert Brasillach was hiding in a tiny maid's room on the rue de Tournon. All around him was the joy of liberation and the violence of the final battles, as the Germans left Paris and the people of the city expended their energy in the construction of homemade barricades, blocking the last Nazi tanks that were trying to make their way along the city streets. Brasillach did not share in that popular joy. Like thousands of other men and women who believed that the previous four years of German occupation had been good for France, Brasillach now understood the Liberation as his own undoing. Many of these collaborators were tried in the months that followed. In hundreds of Purge trials, government officials, political assassins, radio broadcasters, fascist party hacks, and journalists all attempted to defend themselves against the charge that they had betrayed France for the German cause. No other defendant spoke as eloquently, appeared as dignified or as proud of his past actions, as Robert Brasillach. After it was all over, after Brasillach was executed by the Liberation government, he remained, in the public mind, the symbol of the collaborator for generations to come.
How did Robert Brasillach, a writer, come to play that singular and shameful role?
* * *
He was born on March 31, 1909, in Perpignan, France, near the Spanish border, where the wine is dark and pungent, the heat is dry, the landscape dotted with cliffs and sandy beaches. His father was a military man, a graduate of the Ecole St. Cyr, France's West Point. Lieutenant Arthémile Brasillach served in the regiment of Marshal Louis Lyautey, a colorful figure in French colonial history, and he was absent for most of Brasillach's early childhood, stationed at one colonial outpost or another. Family legend tells how Brasillach's mother, Marguerite Redo Brasillach, tiring of the long separation from her husband, finally succeeded in taking her family to Rabat, Morocco, to join him, despite an official military policy that forbade the presence of women and children with the colonial army. Thanks to his mother's determination, Brasillach's earliest, most romantic memory was of a charmed orientalist life in the exotic Moroccan landscape. The family idyll was cut short by World War I. Brasillach's mother took her two children back to Perpignan; Lieutenant Brasillach stayed stationed with Lyautey's army, preoccupied with fighting rebellious indigenous tribes.
In 1914, Arthémile Brasillach was killed in Morocco in the Kénifra skirmish. His son was not yet six. When the young boy was nine, his widowed mother, still a beautiful woman at thirty-three, became engaged to a doctor stationed at Perpignan, Paul Maugis. When Brasillach learned of the engagement, he sent his future stepfather a letter full of insults. It was a good beginning for a polemicist.
Brasillach's letter did not prevent his mother from marrying Dr. Paul Maugis and moving the family to his hometown of Sens. The northernmost city in Burgundy, in the shadow of the Parisian capital, Sens was a huge leap, geographically and culturally, from the warm south—colder, wetter, and more sophisticated. It was in Sens that Brasillach and his sister Suzanne, one year his junior, grew up and went to school, returning to the beaches near Perpignan for their summers. A half sister, Geneviève, was born in 1921. Brasillach and Suzanne were inseparable, and delighted at putting on plays with Suzanne's dolls in the attic of their multistory house. Brother-sister relationships, deeply affectionate, protective, asexual, appear in much of his fiction.
Sens has been a walled city since Roman times. Today, its boulevard du Mail still circles the town like a rampart. The eighteen-room house of the Maugis-Brasillach family stood right on the boulevard. In immediate range were the places common to all French towns that could influence a boy growing up in the twilight of the Third Republic, and that certainly influenced young Robert: the ugly wedding-cake city hall representing the Republic he would come to hate; the imposing twelfth-century Gothic Sens Cathedral with its famous relics; and on the boulevard itself, an elaborate classical monument to the First World War dead, where the names of hundreds of men from the generation of Brasillach's father were inscribed in marble. Across from that monument was a glamorous art deco movie house, the Rex. What a welcome relief it must have been from the municipal architecture that surrounded it! Down the boulevard from the Rex, right across the street from Brasillach's house, was a huge square lycée that looked like a prison.
It was a comfortable, bourgeois childhood. Brasillach's stepfather had a lucrative practice. At age sixteen, young Brasillach left the lycée at Sens for Paris, to attend two years of classes at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, in preparation for the competitive exam that would guarantee his entrance to France's most prestigious intellectual institution.
The first real sense we have of Brasillach as a young intellectual comes from his two years at Louis-le-Grand. There he met a group of boys who would become, in their different ways, significant intellectuals—teachers, writers, journalists. A classmate named Maurice Bardèche stood and watched one fateful day as Brasillach and a theatrical young man named Roger Vailland stood on chairs and recited verses of poetry at one another. At Louis-le-Grand, Vailland, who later became a flamboyant communist, already identified himself as a left-wing anarchist; Bardèche was already a young man of the right. In the coming months, Bardèche managed to coax Brasillach out of Vailland's orbit and into his own, though in his memoirs Bardèche claimed it was Brasillach who chose him.
Brasillach described Bardèche in his own writing about their youth as a tough fellow who "wore a black jacket cinched with a belt." He was, in Brasillach's words, "quick, enraged, subtle and stubborn." Bardèche taught Brasillach how to work, had him read Proust and Barrès, took him to bistrots, to parks, and to working-class neighborhoods. They walked through the city by day and night.
Bardèche described Brasillach: "He was very brown-skinned and brown-haired, not very tall, his cheeks less full than later on; he wore a sort of violet jerkin decorated with an owl that I never managed to convince him was hideous, and ugly metal glasses behind which his eyes, somber and sweet, cast a sympathetic glance at everything." Their favorite teacher at Louis-le-Grand, André Bellessort, was a passionate intellectual in the tradition of Charles Maurras who lectured on classical Mediterranean culture and inducted Brasillach, along with his friend Maurice, into right-wing royalism.
Brasillach was admitted number 26 to the literature section of the Ecole Normale, in the class that entered in 1928. Low in rank—26 out of 28, but he made it in, along with Maurice Bardèche and Thierry Maulnier from the Louis-le-Grand gang.
The Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris was and is still, though to much a lesser extent than in the 1930s, the elite training ground for France's best students in literature, philosophy, and science. The Ecole was designed to prepare young intellectuals for a teaching career in the secondary schools and universities of France, but graduates of the school often went on to glorious careers as ministers and presidents of the Republic, as well as writers and public intellectuals. The Ecole Normale Supérieure of the late 1920s produced Jean-Paul Sartre, future French president Georges Pompidou, and philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Simone Weil. Samuel Beckett came on a fellowship from Ireland in Brasillach's first year, 1928, and acted as an English-language tutor. Like similar institutions reserved for a young intellectual elite—Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge—the Ecole was known for its freedom and for the relative laziness of its students. It was very hard to get in, but once you were in, you were "in." You could do what you wanted.
Normaliens practiced a certain style of practical joke or hoax for which the school was famous, known in a slang unique to the school as "canulars." The novelist Jules Romains, a generation older than Brasillach, had fictionalized the spirit of the Ecole in his novel Les Copains [The chums—1913], which Brasillach claimed to know practically by heart. Brasillach later said about Romains that, for him, the entire world was like a vast high school in whose halls you could wander as an eternal adolescent trickster. Brasillach liked to think of himself as a lighthearted trickster in the Romains tradition. At the same time, this was not any high school, and these were not ordinary tricks. The literary normaliens were imbued with a long erudite tradition, with a sense of their own high culture references, their own place in a tradition. The pressure of excelling at oral exams made them born intellectual performers from the time they were eighteen. In front of the Ecole Normale, there's a sight line down the rue d'Ulm straight to the Pantheon, where France buries her heroes: Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, Marie Curie. Busts of great men line the rooftops on the second floor of the Ecole Normale building, and on a warm spring day students love to crawl out along the statuary. The school lends itself to childlike games and Pantheon-like ambitions.
In Brasillach's records from the Ecole, kept in the National Archives along with all the other normaliens' files (a mark of the centralized French system, and the care taken to record the careers of the elite), his file is stamped "pupil of the nation." As the son of a man who died for his country, he qualified for a full scholarship. One of his teachers in his second year (1929) lauded his class report on a Baudelaire poem and referred to his qualities as "essentially literary." As the 1930s advanced, along with Brasillach's career, different qualities emerged: Brasillach became a pungent critic, capable of the perfectly pointed insult, and he became the editor of a weekly newspaper that dreamed of a fascist future for France.
* * *
Robert Brasillach was a short round man with tiny shoulders. In some of his photos he looks like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. He worethe huge black-rimmed glasses that were standard at the time, which made his olive skin look paler than it was. He bore no resemblance to our stereotypical image of a black-shirted fascist tough guy. He looked harmless, a slightly chubby bookworm. It's very difficult today to get any reliable sense of his personality at age twenty, age thirty. The accounts that do exist are retrospective, clearly influenced by his later career as a fascist, or by his retrospective aura as a man condemned to death. A book published in the 1990s on the history of the Ecole Normale, playing to any number of clichés, suggests that Brasillach was a boy who liked to be bullied by meaner boys, who liked to give in. Apologetic accounts by friends describe him in exactly the opposite vein, as a charismatic leader whose charm and spirited love of literature drew people to him.
Along with Jules Romains's Les Copains, Brasillach's literary ideal was Alain-Fournier's 1913 novel Le Grand Meaulnes, the "Catcher in the Rye" of turn-of-the-century French adolescence. The plot is baroque, involving two young men, Auguste Meaulnes and Frantz de Galais, and their intersecting love affairs. Meaulnes loves Frantz's sister, Yvonne, and eventually marries her. But his loyalty to Frantz comes first, and so he loses Yvonne again. The early scenes of the novel are set in a magic castle hidden in the woods, where Meaulnes and Yvonne first meet. The writing is poetic, mystical; the male characters are innocent and masochistic, the women have either fallen from grace, or they are pure and unobtainable. Alain-Fournier's friendship with Jacques Rivière, who married Alain-Fournier's sister, provided one inspiration for the novel, and Alain-Fournier's story became Brasillach's own ideal: "I, too, wanted to write 'in tight, voluptuous little paragraphs' a story that might have been my own." He was attracted to a sensual writing style, and to a life that would lend itself to prose.
Politically, Brasillach was drawn from his earliest student days to the Action Française. The Action Française was at once a political party—the cradle of the French right wing in this century—a daily newspaper, and a way of thinking. The Action Française stood for anti-Semitic nationalism, royalism and Catholicism, and for hatred of foreigners—Germans as much as Jews. Its leader, Charles Maurras, took himself for a modern-day Socrates and promoted the cultural myth of a true French genius, "Mediterranean" or "Latin." Victor Hugo, paterfamilias of nineteenth-century literature and of Third Republic politics, was Maurras's nemesis. A militant offshoot of the Action Française called the "Camelots du Roi" fought on the street in its name, but there was always something abstract and almost unreal about the movement. It was, despite its Catholic, royalist pretensions, fundamentally oppositional—it was condemned at various times both by the Pope and the Count of Paris. Although Maurras was already a deaf old man by the time Brasillach first heard him speak, the movement still benefited, in the young man's eyes, from a revolutionary spirit. In Brasillach and Bardèche's milieu, the Action Française had the counterculture flavor of a "society for creative anachronism."
At a time when his friends were pairing off and marrying, there were no significant romantic figures in Brasillach's own life, but there are many allusions in his memoirs about the 1920s and 1930s to gracious young women who served as a kind of gentle décor for a charmed life. Claude Roy described Brasillach, pointedly, as a man who kept people at a "magic lantern's distance," who loved books close up but could only love women from afar.
Then one of his deepest literary wishes, his own Grand Meaulnes, came true. His best friend, Maurice Bardèche, became involved with his sister, Suzanne. Brasillach had introduced them at the Ecole Normale, when Suzanne, also a student in Paris, came to work in their rooms. In 1932 Brasillach wrote Bardèche, grilling him about his intentions towards Suzanne. Brasillach's desires and his sister's are so tightly linked in this letter that it reads like a marriage proposal for three:
You talk about staying with us or going off to the Far East. And all that is a very big salad, dear and strange Nice. Do you see, there are two little points that you neglect in all you're telling me, and these two points are extremely important and the most important: it's that Suzanne loves you. First of all. And next that you love her and that you are jealous like a ferocious Siamese. A veritable Turk. Don't believe, in spite of all that I've told you, that I would want to separate from her—or from you—our way of life is something to be seen according to circumstances; but you can be very certain that I want, as much as possible, to live with the two of you.
When Bardèche and Suzanne went on their honeymoon, Brasillach went with them. From 1933 until the Liberation forced Brasillach into hiding, the three formed a household, first in the Vaugirard neighborhood, then on the rue Rataud, behind their dear Ecole Normale.
* * *
Brasillach's sexuality has been the subject of much speculation and little analysis. His principal biographers, Pierre Pellissier and Anne Brassié, present him as an eternal boy with discreet romances on theside; neither of them mentions homosexuality. Both go to great pains to describe his relationships with women, but the descriptions feel forced. In the absence of direct evidence in the form of interviews or letters, it's impossible to speak definitively about Brasillach's lived sexual life. It is significant, nonetheless, that he was perceived by several of his contemporaries, and by any number of commentators since, as a homosexual. Homoeroticism colors his work as early as a 1931 essay on Virgil. From the 1930s until his death, his writing is filled with references to the power and beauty of friendships among men.
The particular current of Nazi masculinity in Brasillach's writing suggests that his fascism may have been sparked and nourished by homoerotic feeling. His contemporaries—Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle on the right, notably—refer to him repeatedly as a homosexual, but their remarks appear in private diaries and correspondence, in the form of insults. In a postwar essay, schoolmate Etiemble famously dubbed Brasillach and Bardèche "brasillèche et bardache" (lèche in French means "lick" and bardache means a boy lover or young male prostitute). Because of the homophobia and sarcasm of these references, it is tempting to ignore the entire issue.
"Sociological problem: Why so many pederasts among the collaborators?" asks Jean Guéhenno in his Occupation diary in June 1941, at the beginning of a passage in which he mentions Brasillach by name. He perceives a link between fascism and homosexuality, but he doesn't have an answer to his question. It is a question that arouses suspicion today, in a society less threatened by sexual nonconformism. A critic of our own generation might be more likely to ask how many homosexuals were drawn to the resistance out of disgust with Vichy's family values.
Excerpted from The Collaborator by Alice Kaplan. Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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