Books: Cultural Amnesia — Robert Brasillach |
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Robert Brasillach was born in 1909 in Perpignan and excecuted as a traitor in 1945. He is sometimes thought of, by wishful thinkers in France, as perhaps the most conspicuous example of the promising young all-rounder whose career would have been different if the Nazis had never come to Paris, although he had already been beguiled by what he thought of as their glamour when he visited Germany. But they arrived, and his nature took its course. As a regular contributor, during the Occupation, to the scurrilous paper Je Suis Partout (I Am Everywhere), he stood out for his virulence even among its staff of dedicated anti-Semites. His Jew-baiting diatribes were made more noxious by his undoubted journalistic talent. Most of the prominent French collaborators with the Nazis got into it because they were disappointed nationalists who thought their country had a better chance of becoming strong again if it stuck with the winning side. Comparatively few of them actually admired the Nazis. Brasillach was one who did. When the winning side became the losing side, he paid the penalty for having guessed wrong. Though there have been attempts, not always unjustifiable, to rehabilitate his reputation as a critic, few tears have ever been shed over his fate. By his rhetoric of blanket denunciation, he had been handing out death penalties for years. Whether the death penalty was warranted in his own case, however, is bound to be questioned by anyone who believes in free speech, however foul it might be.

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It is among them that I have found the most passionate defenders and they have shown a generosity which is in the greatest and most beautiful tradition of French literature.


PREPARING HIMSELF FOR his imminent death, the condemned Robert Brasillach showed courage, but unless remorse had renovated his character it is doubtful if he realized just how generous his defenders had been. At the eleventh hour and the fifty-ninth minute, he can be heard enrolling himself amongst the greatest and most beautiful tradition of French literature, as if he still believed he had been its servant, instead of its betrayer. Whether he was a traitor to France was, and remains, a fine point of legal interpretation. There were plenty of people, including Marshal Pétain himself, who sincerely believed that to serve Vichy was the only legitimate loyalty, and later on they were able to argue from conviction that they had broken no laws. (During François Mitterrand’s presidency it was revealed that his supposed career as a Resistance hero had been preceded by a verifiable career as a Vichy functionary. He contrived to imply, without being toppled from office, that there had been no alternative at the time, although of course he had been preparing himself for Resistance all along.) There were fewer people, although still far too many, who actively cooperated with the Nazis in the belief that the Third Republic had deserved its fate and that the alliance with Germany, even though compelled, would have been worth making voluntarily in the interests of European renewal and a France purged of liberal equivocation. There were very few people who behaved like Nazis themselves, although even in the literary world there were still more than a handful. Brasillach was one of them.

He was given carte blanche by the Nazis to wield his poisoned pen in the pursuit of Jews. On any scale of crime and punishment, a firing squad could scarcely exact payment for the damage he had caused. But he was shot anyway, and got out of his debt early. If the blindfolded angel of Justice could have intervened, she would have sent him to Sigmaringen, the appropriately fantastic cliff-side haven on the Danube where Louis-Ferdinand Céline and all the other unrepentant enthusiasts, taken away to safety by the Nazis, were even then sitting around in plush chairs and boring each other to tears with the tatters of their madcap theories. Their haven was soon overrun but the reprieve had lasted long enough to save most of them from a death sentence. In his disgusting book Bagatelles pour un massacre, Céline had murdered a thousand time more Jews with his foul mouth than Brasillach had ever accounted for by publishing names in the crapulous weekly newspaper Je Suis Partout so that the Gestapo and the Vichy militia could add to their lists over breakfast. Locking Brasillach in the same cell with Céline for the next ten years would have been a far tougher punishment than shooting him. But the vigilantes, as always, were in a hurry, so Brasillach died before he had time to entertain the possibility that his real treason had been to the French humanist tradition he thought himself to be part of.

He could have argued back, and said that Voltaire loathed Jews too. But what would he have said about Proust? What did he think that a pipsqueak like himself amounted to beside a man like that? Proust might have been only half a Jew, but Brasillach was barely a quarter of a literary figure, and in normal times would probably have measured even less: the Zeitgeist lent him a dark lustre. He had some talent as a critic, and could write forceful prose, even against the common run of his own political position, whose banalities did not escape him. As late as his 1937 visit to Germany, though he was impressed by the vault of searchlights (the Lichtdom) at the Nuremberg rally and bowled over by the sexy energy of the Hitler Youth, he could still describe Hitler as a sad vegetarian functionary. (After the Nazis took over in Paris, Brasillach had to censor some of his own stuff.) But his fateful attendance at the 1941 Weltliteratur pan-European get-together in Weimar put him over the top. It was the combination of poetry and daemonic power that did him in. No tenderness without cruelty! In occupied Paris, Brasillach knew that the Germanophile French writers were being had by the Propaganda Abteilung. But Brasillach wanted to be had. The Jewish Bolshevik peril was still there, and now it was there for the crushing. Here was the organized violence that could do it, and he could be part of it. Anger drove him, as it always drives the resentful. He had the kind of energy that could never widen its view. But it could certainly widen its scope, and the Occupation gave him the opportunities of a big game hunter set loose in a zoo: the targets had nowhere to run. His short career was the logical outcome of the nefarious, microcephalic intellectual trend that had started with the Dreyfus case and the foam-flecked symposium of Action Française: the idea that a cleaned-up, non-cosmopolitan, Jew-free culture could restore the integrity of France as the natural leader of Europe. Whether this glowing future was envisaged with the Germans or without them, it was always without the Jews.

But France was already the natural leader of Europe, and exactly because it had outgrown pseudo-hygienic notions of cultural purity. Paris had played host to Heinrich Heine when there was no home for him in Germany. As Nietzsche himself insisted, Heine was the greatest German poet since Goethe and one of the greatest in any language. Heine’s presence in Paris had been a foretaste of the only cultural integrity that would ever matter: the hegemony of the creative mind that enriches nations but makes their boundaries transparent. The French anti-Semitic right was not just a political freak show, it was a cultural anachronism. From the veteran arch-nationalists Maurice Barres and Charles Maurras downwards to such bright young things as Drieu la Rochelle and Brasillach, its fluently virulent mouthpieces raved on about their nation’s poisoned blood without ever realizing that they were the poison. Brasillach’s goodbye note to a cruel world is just one more piece of evidence that they never got the point. Literature should have taught them better: but the real treason of the clerks has always been to suppose that their studies confer on them a power beyond the merely mortal, instead of revealing to them that merely mortal is all they are. If Brasillach had lived to repent, he might have found that out: although if he had, his conscience would have killed him anyway. He had too much blood on his hands. Thanks to his accusers, his is on ours. Some of them, like his defenders, were men of letters. They should have put it in writing. People who don’t think that’s enough shouldn’t write.