Robert Brasillach was a French fascist intellectual. Accustomed to channelling his views through novels and essays, he came to edit the far-right newspaper Je Suis Partout. (Milza, 1987: 218). The 1938 special edition on Jews was a bid to capture public opinion. Brasillach hoped to win over French readers to fascism by kindling their inner anti-Semitic instincts; the outcome was not as successful as he had anticipated (Tucker, 1975: 167). This was because of two challenges: firstly, the need to spread an authentically French fascist philosophy; secondly, the need to appeal to a diverse readership – many of whom had not engaged before with political journalism. The front page of the edition brings these challenges to the fore through the following: the three cartoons, Brasillach’s opening article, and other textual elements.
Brasillach needed to sell French fascism in his newspaper. This was not an easy task. Some readers of the special edition branded him a Hitlerite for appraising the German dictator’s treatment of Jews (Tucker 1975: 167). Sartre is not surprised: not only did French fascists abandon France’s proud republicanism, they did so in favour of a foreign ideology – that of German Nazism (1949: 48). Why did this special edition fail to ignite French patriotism? The front page has the answers (please click on the website link at the bottom of this article, in order to access the full newspaper cover).
Brasillach addresses France with his opening article “The Jewish Question”. The title of “La Question Juive” is in a stylish and characteristically French art-deco font, indicating Brasillach’s discussion of Jews from a solely national perspective. He observes that, whilst all types of religions and ethnicities are represented in France, the one thing which unites them is their shared dislike of Jews. This is the unshakeable premise from which French citizens should unanimously conclude the truth of French fascism.
With apparently solid foundations, the argument then falters. Brasillach fails to distinguish between the French and German fascist ideologies: foreign ideas are undermining his national philosophy. One distinctively German idea is Nazi race theory, which classifies Jews as an inferior people to Europeans (Soucy, 1995: 12). On the right-hand side of the page is the title “Jews and Germany”, placed above a cartoon of a Hasidic Jew with heavily pronounced facial features. The cartoon of rich Jews on the left-hand side of the page also emphasises these “Jewish” features. However much Brasillach might have appraised Germany’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which deprived German Jews of numerous civil and political rights, the visual link between the title and these cartoons promotes foreign Nazi policies to the French reader.
This is at odds with French antisemitism. Unlike Nazi antisemitism and its vulgar representation of Jews, Brasillach wants a French theory for the intellectual: an antisemitism with nuance and sophistication. The cartoon of Léon Blum is an example. It is anti-Semitic, not so much visually as with the other cartoons, but textually through its caption. Cartoonist Hermann-Paul implies that Blum is a descendant of Judas: the request of the Prime Minister for thirty silver coins questions his national loyalty on the sole basis of his Jewish identity. There is no vulgar opposition between European and Jewish ethnic features. There is a focus on Jewish national loyalty, which Brasillach builds on in his ‘intellectual’ article. Like Judas betraying Jesus, a Jewish head of state may well betray France; but French Jews can also be loyal, as shown through the actions of war hero Pierre David and the Alsatian Jews under German occupation. Brasillach’s solution is to separate the Jews who are “worthy” of French identity from their peers.
In a novel or an essay, Brasillach would have ample space to fully explain all the nuances of his argument. The newspaper format is not so conducive: Brasillach’s front page cannot disguise the Nazi sympathies in his French fascist brand. Bernard-Henri Lévy’s comments on antisemitism might explain the editor’s issue. Since antisemitism is fundamentally irrational, it must hide its logical flaws behind an ‘appearance of legitimacy’ (Lévy, 2016: 23). Overall, Brasillach failed to appeal to the ‘millions of French citizens’: they did not want a Hitler à la française (Tucker, 1975: 167).
Brasillach had to make his arguments accessible as well as consistent. The popular masses, to whom the special edition was targeted, contained all manner of readers. Je Suis Partout traditionally boasted high-quality journalism: amongst other actualités, they had a literary page (Tucker, 1975: 160). In 1938, Brasillach wanted to attract people engaging in intellectual ideas, such as students who associated with far-right organisations (Soucy, 1974: 445). Selling antisemitism to the wider public was a new frontier. The paradigm of the successful anti-Semitic paper was Germany’s Der Stürmer. Readers adored its tabloid-style journalism, written with a contempt for factual correctness (Zeman, 1973: 21-22). Would Brasillach compromise his newspaper’s reputation for sensationalism?
The solution was to merge the two genres of journalism. A textbox on the left-hand side of the front page assures the sophisticated reader that they are reading a “rigourously objective” special edition. Brasillach’s article promotes an “inquiry” into Jews with the assistance of foreign correspondents. It would seem that this antisemitism is not for the hoipolloi: it is an ideology of “reason” and deserves the attention of those who, like Brasillach himself, may have also graduated from the prestigious khâgne system (Milza, 1987: 218).
Equally, it is an antisemitism for the masses. The newspaper’s content is accessible both economically (at only 1 franc and 25 cents!) and intellectually. Brasillach writes his article with punchy short sentences; he demarcates each paragraph with a black box. This helpful layout conveys to the reader the essential points of the edition. The new reader need not peruse other long-winded books and treatises on fascism. Indeed, even the visual elements on the front page convey a key message: Jews are infiltrating France. Starting from the newspaper’s headline on “Jews”, the reader observers each of the three cartoons in order of size. The largest one shows Prime Minister Blum; the next presents Jews who have entered the high French society (as the caption symbolises through the changed surnames); the final cartoon contains the stereotypical Hasid. With each cartoon, Brasillach erodes the Jewish subjects’ ‘Frenchness’, until the reader can see them at their most foreign and frightening selves.
In spite of these efforts, the edition was not successful as planned. Habermas’ theory of the French newspaper readership since the 18th century explains Brasillach’s genre difficulties (Laughley, 2007: 48). The special edition was part of the ‘penny press’ of the 1930s, when low prices attracted new readers: unlike bourgeois readers, these people had lacked the ‘psychological facilitation’ to engage with any political journalism previously. (Habermas, 1989: 168). This places the burden on Brasillach to prioritise the accessibility of his arguments far above their intellectual appeal.
In summary, the front page of the 1938 edition is a complex engagement with mass media. Brasillach faces the challenge of communicating his nuanced anti-Semitic philosophy in the newspaper format: this leads him to incorporate foreign influences into an ideology which he claims to be authentically French. Added to this is his writing at a time when newspaper readership in France was fundamentally changing.
Image used for feature media: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Brasillach
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