France is no stranger to putting its writers on trial. Voltaire was arrested for La Henriade, Flaubert for offending public moral with Madame Bovary, and the same goes for Beaudelaire and Les fleurs du Mals. But on the 6th February 1945, fascist writer Robert Brasillach was executed by the French Republic for intelligence avec l’ennemi – or what one can translate as intellectual treason. Amongst the 300,000 trials that took place in the post-liberation period of épuration, he was the only collaborator to be as, TIME magazine put it, ‘killed for his words’.
The six-hour long trial saw the editor of Je Suis Partout, the most notorious collaborationist publication during the French occupation, plunged into the iris of the public eye, remaining today in its periphery vision. Under de Gaulle’s post-war government, its anti-Semitic and collaborationist nature was deemed unforgiveable, and the so-called ‘intellectual traitor’ drew in an audience of iconic French intellectuals such as Simone de Beauvoir, was featured on front pages and still makes appearances today in the modern media. Alice Kaplan – current Chair of the French department at Yale – meticulously analysed the spectacle, observing that fellow intellectuals were met with the ‘intimidating and empowering knowledge’ that they and their words ‘mattered’ (2000: 229)
Perhaps an inverted image of the Dreyfus Affair can be seen in Brasillach’s trial. The former gave birth to the intellectual through a fight for justice, the latter saw the execution of one who stood in the way of it. Emile Zola’s J’accuse defended a victim of gross anti-Semitism on the front page of the socialist newspaper l’Aurore, whilst Brasillach was brought to the Cour de la Justice for his anti-Semitic hebdomaire. But how did it embolden ‘the issue of the responsibility of the writer’ (Drake, 2002:20), and how does Brasillach feature in the media today?
Trial and Tribulation
What came to be known as the ‘Je Suis Partout’ trial was saturated with the idea of the intellectual, that which the prosecution accused Brasillach of betraying. In the notorious photo of him stood in the box of the accused (fig 1) the defendant is a visual definition of what has come to be recognised as a French intellectual. Thick-rimmed spectacles, dishevelled hair and a dark overcoat assert his intellectual authority just as the judge would have done through his white wig and gown (Prochasson, 2010: 58). His hands grip the dock as he kept a firm grip on his ideals, insisting that ‘he had been motivated by a love for his country’ (Drake, 2002:18) with what The Economist has called shameless casuistry.
Beauvoir acknowledged his staunch loyalty in her reflective essay ‘Oeil pour Oeil’ asserting ‘his worthiness at the moment of his trial’ (Kaplan, 2000: 217) – the intellectual who died for his ideas, despite deeming their nature unforgivable. Indeed, for an intellectual, the hand is the most important body part after the brain, for it puts their ideas on paper (Prochasson, 2010: 63), but it’s what Brasillach chose to write that put his hands in cuffs. He showed such unquestionable dedication to his beliefs that he defended them until his last moments – as any intellectual should.
But it wasn’t the fact that he believed, it was what he believed in and the Nazi regime with which he collaborated as a result. He did not defend the oppressed, he defended the oppressor. Yes, Brasillach was an undoubtedly talented writer, but this ‘was not about freedom of expression’ (Drake, 2002: 19) it was about a ‘crime against humanity of the pen’ (Kaplan, 2000: 218).
According to philosopher Julian Benda, author of La Trahison des Clercs (1927) – translated as the Treason of the Intellectuals – an intellectual must transcend the realm of politics and using ‘intellectual authority in the interests of a nation’s advancement or defence could only be a perversion of intellectual values’ (Paulson, 2006: 15). Benda wrote this soon after the separation of church and state, where the new-found clerics – what he dubs intellectuals – were to be separated too. Rather remaining a “pure” intellectual (Schalk, 1979: 100), Brasillach launched himself into the political arena with a catapult borrowed from the enemy.
The government commissioner Marcel Reboul alluded explicitly to this in his berating apostrophe to Brasillach, warning him that the French Republic would try him as ‘le clerc qui avez trahi, le procès de votre trahison’ (Isorni, 1956: 136) or ‘the clerc who has betrayed, the trial of your treachery’ (Schalk, 1979: 85). An intellectual has political engagement at the very core of their existence, but when there is direct involvement with the state – explicitly that of the enemy – the intrinsic idea is betrayed.
This is the kind of rhetoric captured the minds of intellectuals who, questioning their own responsibility as writers, called for new boundaries to replace those broken by Brasillach. And to do this, intellectuals called upon their medias.
An eye for an eye
The intellectual world was engulfed by the trial of ‘one of their own’ (Drake, 2002: 16) where ‘for a year following the execution, one can say with no exaggeration that the death of [Brasillach] was at the forefront of every French writer’s mind’ (Kaplan, 2000: 215). These minds were polarised between those who supported the Republic’s conviction, and those who petitioned passionately against the death penalty. These minds stormed the mass media with articles about the collaborator that remained at the forefront of newsstands for far longer than 365 days.
October 1945 saw the first edition of Les Temps Modernes, a journal created by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir that was a polemical publication until its final issue just this year. In its introduction, penned by Sartre himself, he purported that ‘ideas are more important than words’ (Kaplan, 2000: 215).
Exactly one year after, in February 1946, de Beauvoir published the aforementioned notable essay entitled ‘Oeil pour Oeil’ (An eye for an eye) in the fifth edition the journal, illustrating the reverberant nature looming in intellectual minds long after its verdict. From the title alone, de Beauvoir initially implores her audience to consider that Brasillach’s punishment was a case of reaping what he sowed in his anti-Semitic newspaper, but found that his conviction did not meet his crime: he was responsible for ‘the degradation of man into a thing’ (Kaplan, 2000: 217), the very process that an intellectual should reverse, if one takes the example of Emile Zola who transformed Dreyfus from a scapegoat into an emblem of justice.
Almost twenty years on, de Beauvoir’s thoughts had been eloquently gathered, expressing them in her novel La Force des Choses (The Force of Circumstance):
‘Il y a des mots aussi meurtriers qu’une chambre à gaz…dans le cas de Brasillach, il ne s’agissait pas d’un « délit d’opinion » ; par ses dénonciations, par ses appels à l’assassinat et au génocide, il avait directement collaboré avec la Gestapo’
‘There are words as murderous as gas-chambers…in the case of Brasillach, there was no question of a mere ‘offense of opinion’ his denunciations, his advocacy of murder and genocide constituted a direct collaboration with the Gestapo’ (Beauvoir & Howard, 1964:22)
The connotations of Simone’s similie are obvious: the writer is powerful, and their words can be deathly, reminding her readers of how his words impacted through conjuring imagery of a ‘chambre à gaz’. The scathing accusation and lexical theme of génocide also serves to remind them of her lack of forgiveness towards Brasillach for the lengths to which he went to betray the intellectual.
Myth and Martyrdom
The trial, being ‘suffused with the drama and heft of Dreyfus’, had an equally dramatic reaction from the right-wing of the realm. In 1948, Association des Amis de Robert Brasillach was established in Switzerland by a group of young students determined to rehabilitate the works of a man who was – in their contrasting eyes – ‘assassiné pour un crime d’opinion’, or a crime of opinion. Their first bulletin (fig 2) is formatted to resemble a pamphlet for an underground political resistance movement; imageless and greyscale, its modest appearance imitates that of an organisation working against an oppressive state, creating a sense of irony in the wake of Brasillach’s treason. And his execution has eternalised this presence in the media.
Kaplan addresses the manifestation of this myth in her book, concluding that the extreme right found ‘an imaginary hero, forever young, killed by the Republic he hated’ to exonerate their ideals, and that if his punishment had not been death, [it] would not have materialised’ (2000:231). Just as Dreyfus became a martyr for the left, Brasillach has for the extreme right. As someone cried that his sentence was a shame, he responded that ‘It’s an honour!’ in his last very public address. An exclamation of his belief, a refusal to accept the crime of his collaborationist newspaper, and the beginning of a debate in the media that Brasillach abused and is used by still.
Source: Causeur.fr, 19th February 2019 © 2019. All rights reserved.
Image retrieved from:
Source: ARB, © 2019 Les Amis de Robert Brasillach. All rights reserved.
Image retrieved from:
Benda, Julien (1927): La Trahison des Clercs. Paris: Bernard Grasset
Corliss, Richard: ‘Killed for his words’, TIME magazine, 15/05/2000, retrieved from:
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