Robert Brasillach was born on March 31, 1909 at Perpignan, Pyrenees Orientale into a conservative, catholic catalan family. His father, a French Army lieutenant, was killed in battle in Morocco in 1914, when Robert was five years old. Brasillach was a brilliant product of the best French education. After graduation from the summit of the French educational system, the prestigious élite Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, he wrote several acclaimed novels in the 1930s including L'Enfant de la nuit, Comme le temps passe, Les Sept Couleurs, Notre Avan-guerre and co-authored, with his brother-in-law Maurice Bardèche, L'Histoire du cinéma (1935), the first prominent survey of film. A brilliant writer with a particular talent for embedding venomous stings in elegant prose he also became famous for his literary criticism. Robert Brasillach was a gifted, prolific man of letters — novelist, poet, playwright.
Brasillach took side on the far right, an acerbic opponent of French democracy. He had put himself at the service of the extreme right ever since his days at the elite École Normale Supérieure, when he made his name with a mock obituary of André Gide. Brasillach openly espoused fascism after the February 6, 1934 riots in the Place de la Concorde and embarked on a career as a writer for Charles Maurras' fascist weekly l'Action Francaise. There Brasillach launched wounding attacks on Republicans, Communists, Jews and foreigners. For a time he was France's most envied and reviled writer. His brand of fascism was neither analytical nor truly political; it had a romantic, almost swoony quality. His politics contained elements of romanticism and eroticism. He wrote that in the war, Frenchmen had "more or less slept with Germany ... and the memory of it will remain sweet for them." Later, this line was quoted with pleasure by his prosecutor, who was anxious to identify Brasillach as a homosexual.
Brasillach was drafted in 1939 when the Second World War broke out. Captured in June 1940, he spent 10 months as a prisoner of war. Two million French soldiers had been taken prisoner, and since the political consequences of freeing these men were unclear, the Germans interned most of them. Brasillach, though, was allowed to return to Je Suis Partout ("I Am Everywhere"), the most widely read newspaper in the Occupied Zone (northern France, including Paris). Brasillach became the star writer for the pro-National Socialist press. As editor in chief of Je suis partout he wrote in favor of collaboration and establishment of a new European order governed by National Socialist ideology. Belonging to a younger generation of Right-wingers who had no personal recollections of France's defeat by Prussia in 1870, or even of the First World War, he did not share the common hatred of Germany but believed in the Reich founding a New Europe. He celebrated German power and publicly denounced Frenchmen, including Jews, who, he said, should be arrested by the Gestapo. At one point he suggested killing all communists in prison; they were, after all, enemies of France. He consorted with the Germans throughout the War, encouraging and assisting them in many ways, some of which put French patriots at risk. He never reconciled his love of France and his ardor for the Reich.
In his study of Robert Brasillach "The Fascist Ego" (Univ. of Calif. Press, Berkeley, 1975) William R. Tucker suggests that, far from being a form of social or moral conservatism, Brasillach's fascism was inspired by an anti-modernism that placed the creative individuals sensibilities and his ego at the center of things. Brasillach's fear that the individualist prerogatives of the creative elite would be submerged in the industrialized and rationalized society that loomed on the horizon was important as a basis for his thoughts and actions. Brasillach's involvement in fascism can be seen as a form of anarchic individualism or `right-wing anarchism.'
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 saw himself as a "moderate" anti-Semite. "We grant ourselves permission," he wrote, "to applaud Charlie Chaplin, a half Jew, at the movies; to admire Proust, a half Jew; to applaud Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew; and the voice of Hitler is carried over radio waves named after the Jew Hertz." He declared that "fascism is anti-Semitic." As he put it in 1938, "We don't want to kill anyone, we don't want to organize any pogrom. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable actions of instinctual anti-Semitism is to organize a reasonable anti-Semitism."
On the subject of France during the Second World War, only the committed cynic has even a chance of getting at the truth. For decades, France fed the world an idealized history of Resistance fighters blowing up German trains while saving Allied pilots who were shot down over French territory. To those who innocently absorbed the message delivered by films and books from the 1940s to the 1970s, France was a nation of heroic fighters against the German occupators. In those years it was rare to hear anyone doubt that story. But since the 1980s, historians, memoirists and journalists have taken apart that entire structure of heroism, brick by brick. Today, little remains: There were indeed some Resistance fighters, but their numbers were minuscule beside those who genially collaborated with the Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944 and ignored or encouraged anti-Semitic outrages. It now seems that most of the French at that time considered collaboration morally correct.
In the summer of '44, the German Army hat to abandone 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 tried by the High Court, convicted of "intelligence with the enemy". His trial stirred angry debate amongst French intellectuals regarding the responsibility of writers for the actions their works incite. It remains one of the most controversial episodes in the history of twentieth-century France.
In The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach (The University of Chicago Press), Kaplan, an English professor at Duke University, has produced the fullest, most diligently researched study of this complex drama. Brasillach's trial, as recreated by Kaplan, is suffused with the drama and heft of Dreyfus' or Joan of Arc's. The trial was held on the afternoon of January 19, 1945, when the Germans were still holding various pockets along the Atlantic, as well as Colmar, in Alsace-Lorraine. The prosecutor, Marcel Reboul 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 accused the writer, suspected to be homosexual, of "sleeping with the enemy", counting on the jurors' aversion to homosexuals. During the interrogation Brasillach actually dominated the judge. The writer was measured and brilliant in his own defense, explaining that he was a patriot, loyal to the constitutional Vichy government. 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 carefully chosen veterans of the Resistance he had denounced so furiously. They deliberated for only 25 minutes. As Brasillach's death sentence was read, his supporters exploded into outrage, but the defendant shouted, "It's an honor!"
Francois Mauriac, a Catholic writer and resistant, was a leading opponent of Brasillach's execution and circulated a petition asking General de Gaulle to commute the sentence. This petition for clemency was signed by Albert Camus, François Mauriac, Jean Anouilh, Jean-Louis Barrault and Arthur Honegger. Albert Camus signed the petition but only because he opposed the death penalty in all cases. Prominent leftists, Jean Paul Sarte and Simone de Beauvoir refused to sign. De Gaulle considered the plea for clemency, but upheld the sentence holding firm in his belief that intellectuals must be held accountable for the consequences of the ideas they propagate. 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.
Brasillach, age 35, was executed on February 6, 1945 at Montrouge, south of Paris. His execution seems to have been intended partly to ease France's shame over surrender and collaboration. He was also a victim of bad timing: Had he gone into hiding for six months, like many others, he would likely have received a prison sentence. Brasillach was executed because he stayed in France following the "liberation". With him hundreds were put to death by the French Liberation government during the violent days of score-settling carried out in 1944-45 known as the Purge, but, apart from Pierre Laval, Prime Minister of the collaborationist Vichy state set up in the South after France's defeat in 1940, he was the most prominent casualty of the purge.
One can hate or pity Brasillach. But if one condemnes him, he 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. Today, Brasillach may be considered as a hero and martyr for the contemporary European right, a man of intensity and glamour whose life was unfairly snuffed out by the communists, the liberals, etc. They have turned him, Kaplan says, into "the James Dean of French fascism."