TO BE FRENCH OR NOT TO BE FRENCH: THE TRIAL OF ROBERT BRASILLACH

Quoted by controversial political figures like Jean-Marie Le Pen and appearing in the work of existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, right-wing polemicist and collaborationist Robert Brasillach was ‘for a time, … France’s most envied and reviled writer’ (Corliss, 2000). On 19th January 1945, following the Liberation of Paris, he was tried for intelligence avec l’ennemi—best translated simply as ‘treason’.

The trial therefore centred on the extent to which Brasillach had betrayed the nation, meaning France and the concept of ‘Frenchness’ were at its heart. Historically and in most cases, we associate nationalisms with the political right, often with the far right. During Brasillach’s trial, however, this was flipped on its head. Brasillach’s Frenchness or, more specifically, his supposed lack thereof was used to discredit him and, ultimately, condemn him to death by firing squad. Frenchness was a central aspect of the trial, with the prosecution attempting to distance Brasillach from it, whilst the defence aimed to remind the jury that he was an homme de lettres, ‘the soul of his generation’ (Kaplan, 2000: 171), an important part of the French literary tradition.

BRASILLACH ON BEING FRENCH

Fig. 2

Echoing the rhetoric of countless other far-right writers, politicians, and intellectuals, Brasillach denounced those he deemed undesirable as Other and as ‘étrangers’. Nowhere is this more blatant than in the 17th February 1939 issue of Je suis partout (fig. 2), the fascist weekly newspaper of which Brasillach was editor-in-chief from June 1937 to September 1943. For this special issue of the newspaper, which focussed on ‘LES JUIFS ET LA FRANCE’, Brasillach penned an opinion piece entitled ‘Les Français devant les Juifs’, which was placed as the foremost article on the front page. Throughout the piece, Brasillach establishes the idea of a French people and national identity in order to exclude Jews from it. Early in the article, Brasillach asserts that ‘les Juifs n’étaient pas des Français comme les autres. C’est là, en effet, une part importante du problème’.

He goes on to repeat this sentiment throughout the article, with the phrase ‘les Juifs sont des étrangers’ punctuating the paragraphs, almost like a call and response, or a constant reminder to readers of who can and cannot claim to be French. This phrase plays an important role in the structure of the article; it breaks up the blocks of text while also allowing Brasillach to constantly reiterate his central argument throughout. He uses the visuality of the medium of the newspaper front page to emphasise this point: in separating the bullet-pointed statements into their own paragraphs (see fig. 3), they leap out from the page. This is aided by the use of bold type for Brasillach’s opinion pieces, in contrast to the other front-page articles.

Fig. 3

The repetition of this phrase has echoes of Emile Zola’s famed 1898 epistolary article J’accuse…!, which stoked the fires of division across the nation during the Dreyfus Affair; this is an interesting parallel given that Brasillach, too, would go on to be tried for treason, like Captain Alfred Dreyfus. It also perhaps shows that Brasillach saw himself as an intellectuel engagé in the style of Zola, speaking truth to power—here, however, those he saw as powerful were the Jews, who he believed were taking over and damaging the nation.

As a result, he argued that persecution of Jews was ‘une simple réaction de défense’; to Brasillach, the Jews are alien to France, therefore the nation would simply be defending itself from a foreign threat. He concludes by stating that establishing a legal minority status for Jews in France would be ‘les seuls moyens d’assurer sans violence la paix nationale et l’indépendance absolue du sol français’. Even though three years earlier in 1936, France had seen its first Jewish prime minister in Léon Blum, Brasillach establishes anti-Semitism as a part of the national identity: ‘l’antisémitisme n’est pas une invention allemande, c’est la tradition française’.

FRENCHNESS ON TRIAL

Jacques Isorni, Brasillach’s defence lawyer who would later go on to defend le Maréchal Pétain, asked the jury: “Les peuples civilisés fusillent-ils leurs poètes?” (Isorni, 1945 cited in Sapiro, 2002: 1690). In doing so, he aimed to evoke the humanitarian values on which the French republic had been founded, calling into question the prosecution’s loyalty to the national identity. On the stand, Brasillach arguably played up to the characterisation of a stereotypical French intellectuel engagé. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the way in which he presented himself—his ethos—with his dark, heavy glasses and serious expression appealed to the public perception of what a truly French writer should look like (see featured image). In doing so he could position himself as the archetypal homme de lettres—someone who could not have betrayed his country as he embodied it.

It was not only Brasillach’s defence that called on the concept of Frenchness. Marcel Reboul, the prosecutor, harnessed ideas of what it meant to be French to portray Brasillach as someone who had betrayed his country. Academic David L. Schalk (1979: 84-85) writes that Reboul looked to ‘Brasillach’s virulently anti-Semitic, antirepublican and even pro-Nazi journalism’ to prove that this was not a ‘“trial of opinion” … but the trial of a traitor’. Reboul selected portions of Brasillach’s writing to show his sympathy for this enemy, highlighting an admiration for Germany which was, at times, supposedly even a homosexual love for France’s historic rival (Kaplan, 2000: 162). Brasillach (1944, cited in Sapiro, 2002: 1689-90) had written that the French ‘auront plus ou moins couché avec l’Allemagne, non sans querelles, et le souvenir leur en restera doux’. Reboul manipulated Brasillach’s use of rhetorical devices such as this sexual metaphor to mark him out as ‘un-French’. As Schalk (1979: 104) argues, ‘homosexuality cannot explain a commitment to fascism any more than it can account for a dedication to antifascism’; while this is true, in 1945, Reboul’s allusions to it during the trial were enough to tie Brasillach to something deemed at the time undesirable and un-French.

his perception of Robert Brasillach is one that endures today. Writing in TIME Magazine in 2000, Richard Corliss asks, ‘He never reconciled his love of France and his ardor for the Reich [sic]. How can one be both a French nationalist and a cheerleader for a conquering power?’. This image is arguably reflective of the situation of the country as a whole: how to reconcile having collaborated with a foreign power with staying true to a French national identity?

L’EPURATION: REHABILITATING FRANCE AND FRENCHNESS

The period of trials and convictions which followed the Liberation of Paris and of which the Brasillach trial was part was known as l’épuration—the purge. L’épuration was a way for the French government to wash its hands of fascism and collaborationism, to salvage France’s collective memory of the Occupation and the Second World War. It was in the French national interest to distance itself from collaborationists like Brasillach in order to rewrite itself as a nation of total resistance to fascism. As a result, ‘Brasillach … never stood a chance’ (Corliss, 2000).

At the same time, France stood to benefit from promoting its emerging existentialist intellectuals on the world stage, most notably Jean-Paul Sartre. In an essay entitled Qu’estce qu’un collaborateur?, written in August and September 1945, Sartre positioned himself as defender of French values, with fascist collaborators positioned in opposition to this. In an uncharacteristic show of patriotism, Sartre helped to distance collaborators like Robert Brasillach from the national identity, asserting that they had no ‘liens réels avec la France contemporaine, avec nos grandes traditions politiques, avec un siècle et demi de notre histoire et de notre culture’ (Sartre, 2013: 195). In The Sudden Rise of French Existentialism, sociologist Patrick Baert (2011: 636-37) consolidates this argument, suggesting that Sartre helped promote a view of the Occupation in which collaborators were ‘marginal characters’,

in stark contrast to a reality ‘characterised by widespread inaction of many French people’. He argues that the newfound popularity of the existentialist movement in the late-1940s and 1950s was at least in part due to the French people’s desire to distance themselves from collaboration and fascist writers and intellectuals like Brasillach who supported the Vichy regime. France today still struggles to reconcile the fact that many of its great hommes de lettres and, indeed, many of its people actively collaborated with Nazi Germany. It is clear at least that French identity was confused during the interwar and post-war periods, manipulated and exploited by those on left and right, resistance or collaborator.


Appendix

Feature image: Image retrieved from: https://www.robert-brasillach.fr/petition-adressee-au-general-de- gaulle-pour-soutenir-le-recours-en-grace-depose-par-robert-brasillach/. (Photo by STF / AFP) Document reference 000_APP2001040934221.

Fig. 2: 1939, Je suis Partout, Paris. Full newspaper available at: https://www.retronews.fr/journal/je-suis-partout/17-fevrier-1939/719/2125615/1#

Fig. 3: 1939, Je suis Partout, Paris. Full newspaper available at: https://www.retronews.fr/journal/je-suis-partout/17-fevrier-1939/719/2125615/1#

Bibliography

Baert, P. (2011) ‘The sudden rise of French existentialism: a case-study in the sociology of intellectual life’, Theory and Society, Vol. 40, No. 6, pp. 619-640.

Corliss, R. (2000) ‘Killed for His Words’, Time, May 15. Available
at: http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2056321,00.html. Accessed 31 October 2021.

Kaplan, A. (2000) The Collaborator: the Trial & Execution of Robert Brasillach. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Mestre, A. (2012) ‘A Lille, Jean-Marie Le Pen fait son show et cite Robert Brasillach’, Le Monde (online), 18 February, Available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/election-presidentielle- 2012/article/2012/02/18/a-lille-jean-marie-le-pen-fait-son-show-et-cite-robert- brasillach_1645347_1471069.html. Accessed 30 October 2021.

Sapiro, G. (2002) ‘Alice Kaplan, Intelligence avec l’ennemi. Le procès Brasillach‘, Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 57e année, No. 6. pp. 1688-1691.

Sartre, J-P. (2013, first pub. 1949) ‘Qu’est-ce qu’un collaborateur?’, in Situations III. Paris: Gallimard, pp. 191-204.

Schalk, D. L. (1979) The Spectrum of Political Engagement. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Further reading

Carroll, D. (1995) French Literary Fascism: Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and the Ideology of Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Drake, D. (2005) French Intellectuals and Politics from the Dreyfus Affair to the Occupation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

de Gaudemar, A. (2001) ‘Du plomb dans la plume’, Libération (online), 1 November, Available at: https://www.liberation.fr/livres/2001/11/01/du-plomb-dans-la- plume_382476/. Accessed 2 November 2021.

Kritzman, L. D. et al. (2006) The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought. New York: Columbia University Press.

Renard-Payen, O. (1966) ‘Brasillach, l’anti-démocrate’, La Revue administrative, No. 114, pp. 632-645.

Sapiro, G. (2010) ‘Punir la violence des mots : les procès des intellectuels français au sortir de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale’, L’Esprit Créateur, Vol 50, No. 4, pp. 4-19.

Tomara, S. (1945) ‘Robert Brasillach, 35, Editor, Sentenced to Die as Traitor’, The New York Herald (Europe Edition), 20 January.

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