A writer's words can sting, but are they lethal weapons? And if so, do they merit legal vengeance? These rankling questions arose last month, as David Irving was successfully accused of Holocaust denial. They swirled even more vividly around Robert Brasillach, a gifted, prolific man of letters — novelist, poet, playwright — in Paris during the 1940-44 Nazi Occupation. As editor-in-chief of the fascist paper Je Suis Partout, Brasillach launched wounding attacks on Republicans, Communists, Jews and foreigners. For a time he was France's most envied and reviled writer.
Then, in the summer of '44, the Nazis abandoned Paris to the Resistance forces headed by Charles de Gaulle. The Liberation government quickly began punishing those accused of collaborating with the Germans. In four months the Courts of Justice condemned 6,763 persons to death; 1,500 were executed. Brasillach was convicted of "intelligence with the enemy" and, despite a petition for clemency signed by Albert Camus, François Mauriac, Jean Anouilh, Jean-Louis Barrault and Arthur Honegger, Brasillach went before the firing squad on Feb. 6, 1945 — the only writer of distinction to be killed for what he wrote. He thus became a martyr for the rabid right, a hero to politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen. Historian Alice Kaplan calls Brasillach "the James Dean of French fascism."
In The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach (The University of Chicago Press; 308 pages), Kaplan, an English professor at Duke University, has produced the fullest, most diligently researched study of this complex drama — the parable of a man at war with his best instincts, and of a nation so eager to salve its own unease at living with the enemy that it could find no punishment for a collaborator short of death.
Brasillach was born in 1909, the son of a French Army lieutenant who was killed in battle in Morocco when Robert was five. After graduation from Paris' elite Ecole Normale Superieure, he wrote several acclaimed novels and co-authored, with his brother-in-law Maurice Bardèche, L'Histoire du cinema (1935), the first prominent survey of film. He also won notoriety as a literary critic eager to toss incendiary insults at his elders.
In '30s Paris a writer had to take sides, and Brasillach's was on the far right. His brand of fascism was neither analytical nor truly political; it had a romantic, almost swoony quality. He could declare that "fascism is anti-Semitic," yet write warmly of Chaplin, Proust and Yehudi Menuhin. He never reconciled his love of France and his ardor for the Reich. How can one be both a French nationalist and a cheerleader for a conquering power? Brasillach's "soft" faction lost a battle with a more virulent group at Je Suis Partout, and he resigned. Yet he still could write, "I have confidence in the Wehrmacht and in Adolf's patriotism."
Brasillach's trial, as recreated by Kap-lan, is suffused with the drama and heft of Dreyfus' or Joan of Arc's. The writer was measured and brilliant in his own defense, explaining that he was a patriot, loyal to the constitutional Vichy government. But the real star was the prosecutor, Marcel Reboul. He nailed Brasillach on some of his rankest opinions: that Jewish families should be deported "en bloc," and that the pre-Vichy Republic was "an old syphilitic whore [with] her canker sores and her gonorrhea." He linked Brasillach's fondness for the Germans with an SS massacre of 600 villagers. And he accused the writer, suspected to be homosexual, of sleeping with the enemy. As Brasillach had appealed to Frenchmen's suspicion of Jews, Reboul counted on the jurors' aversion to homosexuals.
Brasillach, whatever his crimes or lapses, never stood a chance. The judge had served Vichy and may have thought he could exonerate himself by condemning Brasillach; the jurors were veterans of the Resistance he had denounced so furiously. They deliberated for 25 minutes. As Brasillach's death sentence was read, his supporters exploded into outrage, but the defendant shouted, "It's an honor!" De Gaulle considered the plea for clemency, but upheld the sentence. He later wrote, "in literature as in everything, talent confers responsibility." If Brasillach had been less adept at his noxious art, he might have been spared.
Kaplan's book has some of Reboul's prosecutorial zest. She links Brasillach's writings with photos of Holocaust victims, though there is no evidence he knew the extent of the "final solution." She argues that the crucial question is not whether Brasillach should have been shot (she says no) but whether he was guilty (she says yes). To this, we add: Guilty under whose rules? The Purge trials provided justice on the fly, handed out with caprice. Brasillach was killed, while a Paris police chief who masterminded the roundup of French Jews got only a two-year suspended sentence.
One can hate or pity Brasillach. But if we condemn him, we should also challenge the motives of a vengeful France. A writer who loses his soul is not as dangerous as a nation that loses its mind.