Books: Cultural Amnesia — Pierre Drieu la Rochelle |
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Pierre Drieu la Rochelle (1893–1945) was the tall blond darling of the French right between the wars. Brought up in a bourgeois family with royalist beliefs, he emerged from World War I with with the kind of loathing for capitalism that found the right more congenial than the left. Later on he said that he had been a fascist all along, Although he didn’t officially declare his allegiance until 1934, he had decided quite early that there were only two sides, fascism and communism. A much-admired poet when young and an effective prose stylist always, he would have been regarded as an adornment of French culture if not for his politics. As things turned out, only his politics lend him lasting interest. (A direct route to the centre of his agitated political consciousness is Pierre Drieu la Rochelle: Secret Journal and Other Writings, translated and introduced by Alastair Hamilton, a valuable student of the fascist intellectuals right up until the day of their total disappearance at the end of World War II.) Drieu was convinced that French culture had been toppled from its rightful pre-eminence by the corrosive influence of liberals and Jews. Giving a warm welcome to the idea that France might be restored to strength by an alliance with Germany, he saw France as the woman and Germany as the man in a partnership that for him always had sexual overtones. His personal beauty was important to him. He was the kind of man who takes it to heart when he loses his hair. Since he looked more like a blond barbarian Nazi god than most of the Nazis did, his alliance with the invader had the stamp of destiny. More than ready to collaborate with the Nazi Occupation, he accepted the editorship of the Nouvelle Revue Française after the parent publishing house, Gallimard, made a deal with the Germans by which it would censor itself in order to stay in business. To do him what little credit he had coming, Drieu became disillusioned with the occupiers, but his annoyance was mainly because they proved themselves less keen about the strength of French culture than he was. The measures against the Jews didn’t bother him.

Nevertheless he must have been aware that he had not only chosen the losing side, but behaved badly enough to attract vengeance, because when the Liberation came he attempted suicide instead of standing up to argue for his views. The failure of his quest to eliminate himself raised the question of what to do with so embarrassingly gifted a leftover, but finally he managed to do the right thing, although scarcely for the right reason. “We played and I lost,” he said in the farewell address he called Final Reckoning. “Therefore I demand the death penalty.” But we don’t demand the death penalty because we lose. We demand it because we have done the wrong thing.

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And above all, I am not interested enough in politics to let them encumber my last days.

ON THE FACE of it, Drieu’s valedictory testament was absurd. It was 1944, after the liberation of Paris; he had never made any secret of collaborating with the Nazis; his deeds were done and his time had run out. And his whole personal disaster had been because of his interest in polics. Already resolved to suicide, he was attributing a deficiency to himself in the very area where he had been most obsessed. It is an instructive demonstration of the lengths to which self-deception can go. In the thirties he had been the golden boy and even looked like one. His hulking personal beauty was certainly enough to make some extremely civilized women forget his politics. (Visiting from Argentina, the bluestocking heiress Victoria Ocampo, future editor of the literary magazine Sur, welcomed him into her bed, and decades later she was still forgetting his politics, writing fond articles of reminiscence in which his intellectual proclivities featured as charming quirks at worst.) But his political passions, which included a visionary anti-Semitism, had led him all the way to treason, by a series of steps that had begun with his disgust at the inability of France to unite Europe in a crusade against the liberal democratic heresy. Since he thought Nazi Germany could do a better job, he welcomed the German invasion. It is important to remember, on this point, that he was not coming from the direction of Action Française. Maurras hated the Germans. What united the two different strains of collaboration was that they both hated the Jews.

As editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française under the tutelage of a compromised regime, Drieu was effectively a collaborator for as long as he held the chair. But here the difficulties begin. The picture becomes less clear than we might like. Drieu found out, on closer acquaintance, that he didn’t think much of the Nazis either: they weren’t really serious about the transformation of culture. Feeling that, he was able to nurse within himself the belief that he still had the interests of a greater France at heart. (The fate of the Jews, it need hardly be said, he was able to ignore: i.e., tacitly approve.) Had he chosen to live, he might eventually have been able to put up a case for his past behaviour. As a collaborator on the practical level, he had not done much more to favour the oppressive power than many of the late-flowering literary résistants had done against it. It had been Rebatet and Brasillach, after all, who had helped to direct the hunt against the Jews. Punish those two, by all means. But Drieu had been a cut above all that vulgarity, had he not?

He might even have been able to carry the point about politics: the thoroughness with which he had got them wrong was, after all, a kind of proof that they had never held his interest, which had been expended on his purely intellectual vision of a properly authoritarian Europe. In other words, he might have proved himself incompetent. Some of his contemporaries later ventured the cynical but all too plausible opinion that if he had stayed hidden for a couple of years he might have resurfaced as a minister in the provisional government, where he had friends and admirers. It wasn’t just his old Nazi pals who tried to get him to safety. When he revived in hospital after his first suicide attempt through an overdose of Luminal, he found a passport good for Switzerland under his pillow. The documents were almost certainly put there by Lt. Gerhard Heller of the Propaganda Abteilung. Heller was still busy in the corridors of Paris even as the German troops were pulling out and the high-echelon collaborators were settling into their supposedly safe new billets in Sigmaringen. But Heller’s efforts were duplicated by Emmanuel d’Astre de la Vigerie, minister of the interior in the provisional government, who also thought that Drieu and Switzerland were a good match. There were plenty of eminent literary figures who considered Drieu as one of them, and thus too important to be sacrificed on the altar of l’épuration. They had a point, about it if not about him. All too quickly it had emerged that the purgative courts would be used as a means of settling old scores. The unspeakable Louis Aragon (a long-time apologist for state terror as long as Stalin was in control of it and not Hitler) shamelessly tried to nail doddery old André Gide. Gide’s collaboration had amounted to not much more than a judicious reticence, eked out with the occasional soirée for Ernst Jünger where both men could deplore the barbarism that made it so hard to concentrate on one’s art. But Aragon, as a Communist bonze, had never forgiven Gide for his pioneering pamphlet Retour de l’URSS, which had revealed Stalin’s regime for what it was.

Luckily Aragon’s vindictive spite did not prevail. Nor, thank God, did Picasso’s stupidity: to his everlasting shame, the greatest of all modern painters allowed his studio to be used as a meeting point for vigilantes preaching havoc against those who had compromised themselves with the foe—a strictness that came oddly from Picasso, who had eaten in black market restaurants throughout the Occupation and never run a single risk. It was a time for fake virtue: a time in which there was no sure sign of real virtue except diffidence. The fair-minded François Mauriac (some said he had to be fair because his brother had been a collabo) put in a good word for the unsavoury Henri Béraud, who throughout the Occupation had kept up an unrelenting barrage of vituperation against Communists, the Popular Front, England and, always and above all, Jews. Mauriac was brave enough to defend even the choleric Jew-baiter Robert Brasillach as “ce brillant esprit,” large praise for someone who had asked for his fate in open print by telling the Gestapo which doors to knock on. Brasillach’s execution by firing squad was generally regarded at the time as the least he had coming, but Mauriac was prescient in guessing that a saturnalia of rough justice would produce a lasting hangover. Mauriac simply disliked l’épuration, and in retrospect he seems right. A good moral test for the business is that while Camus saw that there had to be a reckoning but thought it should be done regretfully, Sartre was an untroubled enthusiast. If Drieu had faced trial straight away, a death sentence might well have been on the cards. But it could be that he had already sentenced himself. In March 1945 he finally succeeded in committing suicide. He used gas. Since he almost certainly knew the truth about what had happened to the Jews deported from Drancy, perhaps he thought the means of his own exit appropriate.