BRASILLACH’S “INTELLECTUAL CRIMES” AND PUNISHMENT: LA QUESTION SINGE
Brasillach lived through arguably the most turbulent political period in European history. His Parisian upbringing was typically bourgeois, and in 1928 he completed his studies at Ecole normale supérieure, the birthplace of intellectual celebrities in France (Beckett, Sartre and Foucault to name a few). Unlike his intellectual counterparts, however, just over fifteen years after his graduation, 35-year-old Brasillach found himself before an impassioned court at a heavily media-documented trial. He was charged with collaborating with the Germans, declared guilty for treason and “intellectual crimes”, with his writings used as evidence against him. Just two weeks later, he was gunned down by de Gaulle’s firing squad, and for those who were dedicated to the extreme right, martyred.[i]
Quickly a ‘rising-star’ in the intellectual community, Brasillach was embarking on a moral mission to rally and unite French society, and to combat threats to national and social cohesion through his writings. With the tangible economic and social instability left in the wake of WWI, France was on the brink of its second major wave of anti-Semitic and fascist thought, second only to the scandalous Dreyfus affair. Brasillach envisaged fascism as the means to achieve France’s national reform, and together with a surge of intellectuals around Europe, he was attracted by the “spiritual revolution” it promised.[ii] He was actively engaged in public discourse to incite this “spiritual revolution” amongst his society, which he believed was threatened by foreign forces gradually infiltrating and corroding French nationality from within. Tucker notes that for Brasillach, rather than being an overtly social, political, or economic “revolution”, fascism constituted a form of self-fulfilment on an individual level and a particularly youth-oriented ideal.[iii] Whilst he engaged with a variety of different written medias as a critic, essayist and novelist, this was primarily through the printed press, with which he was heavily involved for most of his life. He is largely remembered, infamously so, for his contributions to right-wing newspapers, notably the increasingly fascist weekly newspaper, Je suis partout, of which he was editor from 1937-1943. New forms of media coincided with the rise of fascism across the world. At the beginning of his time as editor, the rise of media and new technologies allowed the rest of the world to watch the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) unfold, with Spain as ‘the mirror to the world’.[iv] As a result, Brasillach was conscious of the power of media to disseminate his ideals. Perhaps one of the most notorious of his writings was an article entitled La question singe, published on the front cover of the paper before the outbreak of WWII in 1939. Schue describes the period during which Brasillach wrote La question singe simply as ‘ideologically charged’.[v]
Brasillach employed bold, eye-catching editing techniques to entice readers to his article. At the paper’s peak, it attained 300,000 readers proving a cheap and accessible form of disseminating his ideals. Whilst using the platform of a weekly newspaper allowed him to quickly and regularly disseminate his ideals to a wide audience, he had limited space to attract the reader’s attention. It was therefore necessary to clearly and persuasively put forward his argument. The front page is donned with ironic drawings with snappy captions, ironic headlines in bold text and puns to draw the reader in and rouse their curiosity. In the case of La question singe, he presents what he believes to be the core issue with French society explicitly and dramatically in bold text and capital letters: ‘LA QUESTION SINGE’. This lies beneath an illustration of two shady Jewish figures, drawn with exaggerated supposedly unappealing features, looking as though they are leering over French people in a café. Directly beneath the headline, in large, stylistic font, he proposes the solution, ‘il faut nous organiser un « antisimiétisme » de raison et d’Etat’. His striking pun, “antisimiétisme” plays on the words ‘simiesque’, meaning monkey-like, and “antisemitisme”, clearly setting out in a matter of lines the simple instructions, a clear anti-Semitic attitude for both French people and the state to adopt, to resolve the country’s sensationally described ‘monkey’ or Jewish ‘problem’.[vi]
As in La question singe, Brasillach would often write his column to a an imaginary ‘provinciale’ by the name of ‘ma chère Angele’, informing her of the both the failings of his government and, more generally, of his country, ‘denouncing the imperfections of politicians and representative democracy.’[vii] He names Republican politicians at the time, Mr. de Kerillis and Mr. and informs of ‘les erreurs accumulées’. This stems from a deep disenchantment with his government. Conversely, he was enraptured by the seemingly youthful, disciplined, purposeful and idyllic fascist society, which he saw in full swing when he attended the Nuremberg rally in Germany in 1936, which he called “the highest artistic creation of our time”.[viii] He championed the fascist society he saw underway in Germany and recognised in it the qualities lacking in France.
Je suis partout was directly influenced by Charles Maurras’ intellectually-targeted, anti-republican and nationalist newspaper, Action Française, from which Brasillach started his intellectual career as a literary critic in 1931. Tucker argues that it was from here that he ‘found fame and intellectual influence.’[ix] Both papers aimed to attract a young, intellectual audience. Soucy affirms that his fascism constituted ‘the revolt of a young, healthy, idealistic generation against an old, sick, rotten one.’[x] The primary target for both papers was a young, intellectual audience. The front cover aptly demonstrates his typically persuasive, mocking, humorous, tone, tailored to this young, intellectual audience, as though he and the reader are sharing an inside joke at Jewish expense. This is particularly well evidenced through his mention of the Grammont law, an animal rights law passed in 1850, stating in a thinly veiled innocence that he will not break this law.
Soucy notes that Brasillach ‘welcomed fascism as a means of plunging more deeply into the irrational’ and believed that ‘fascism would tap hidden animal instincts which would revitalise one’s emotional life.’[xi] He uses hyperbolic anti-foreign and nationalistic language in his writing to guide the French to fascism, or rather awaken their inner fascist. He believed that a steady ‘taking-over’ of foreigners had led to the internal deterioration of French national identity. Through his use of animalistic language he writes to denounce Jewish people as sub-human ‘creatures’, describing their ability to imitate ‘les gestes des hommes’, to imply that these feelings of racism and anti-Semitism form a primitive part of human-nature.
Although in the run up to WWI, antisemitic feeling was largely squashed under the guise of uniting the country to fight, in the devastation following the war’s conclusion, the profound wounds on the country’s political and cultural psyche from the Dreyfus affair, which engulfed and polarized French society, were rekindled. Although amongst many right-wing groups, Jews weren’t specifically mentioned in their anti-foreign rhetoric, most of France’s ‘foreign’ population was Jewish and xenophobia was gradually normalised.[xii] Brasillach, however, coyly pretends to skirt around specifically naming Jews; ‘‘Nous ne parlerons donc plus des… enfin de qui vous savez. Mais je suppose qu’on nous permettra bien de parler des SINGES’. This line is made especially powerful with the capitalisation and therefore exaggeration of ‘singes’. The tone is ironic, mirroring what was for him the pretence of subtlety in French society, only to highlight what he perceives as the glaringly obvious anti-Semitic attitude appearing in French society. His frustration with this pretence is tangible through his tone as he emphasises the prevalence of these feelings in French society.
Brasillach’s relationship with the media, then, was multifaceted. He was writing at a time when the media was rapidly growing in influence and was acutely aware of the power of the media to spread ideals. Through his privileged and intellectual position as editor of Je suis partout he used persuasive rhetoric and editing techniques to awaken the French to what he believed to be a fascist truth. On reviewing Brasillach’s case before ultimately deciding to sentence him to death, De Gaulle supposedly concluded, “Non, péché d’intellectuel”[xiii] which sparked a new wave of intellectual debate about the ‘higher responsibilities’ of the intellectual, their accountability, morality and freedom of speech in the media.[xiv]
Figure 1: Complete newspaper accessed at: https://www.retronews.fr/journal/je-suis-partout/31-mars-1939/719/2125641/1
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Tumblety, Joan.(1999) Revenge of the fascist knights: Masculine identities in Jesuispartout, 1940–1944, Modern & Contemporary France, 7:1, 11-20, DOI: 10.1080/09639489908456466
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[i] Paul Schue, “Remember the Alcazar! The Creation of Nationalist Myths in the Spanish Civil War: The Writings of Robert Brasillach.” National Identities, vol. 10, no. 2, 2008, pp.145
[ii] R. Soucy, “French Fascist Intellectuals in the 1930s: An Old New Left?”. 1973, French Historical Studies, (8:3). pp.445
[iii] W.R. Tucker, “Politics and Aesthetics: the Fascism of Robert Brasillach.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 4, 1962, pp 605
[iv] Jean Franco, ‘César Vallejo: The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence’, New York, 1976, pp.226
[v] Schue, pp.132
[vi] Sandrine Sanos, The Aesthetics of Hate: Far-Right Intellectuals, Antisemitism, and Gender in 1930s France. Stanford University Press, 2013, pp.324
[vii] Soucy, pp.447
[viii] David Carroll, French Literary Fascism: Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and the Ideology of Culture. Princeton Univ. Press, 1998, pp.691
[ix] Tucker, pp. 606
[x] Soucy, pp. 447
[xi] Soucy, pp.448
[xii] Carroll pp.691)
[xiii] Roger, Shattuck, “De Gaulle and The Intellectuals.” Salmagundi, no. 100, 1993, pp.19
[xiv] Shattuck, pp. 18