Review- Kaplan, “The Collaborator”

Alice Kaplan, “The Collaborator: the Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach” (2000) – This book grapples with questions that should interest me more than they do. What are words worth? How does the answer to the previous question change during wartime? What constitutes treason, or crime of any kind, when it amounts mainly to words?

American scholar of French history Alice Kaplan attempts to answer these questions by examining the case of Robert Brasillach. Brasillach was a fascist intellectual. In some ways, he’s the kind of far-right intellectual you don’t see much of anymore: a genuine homme de lettres, critic, novelist, poet, read by his intellectual opponents due to his power to shape the discourse from his post at the right-wing paper Je Suis Partout. In other ways, he’s a familiar figure: an edgelord and a shitposter, hiding by turns behind irony and sentimentality, the former mostly in his political/critical writings and the latter in his novels and poems.

He started out as a student with Action Francaise, the French royalist proto-fascist grouping, which had a significant intellectual wing to go along with its street fighters. Kaplan depicts Brasillach as being swept away by the romance of fascism as the ideology grew stronger. Always anti-democratic, Brasillach was enamored of the newness, youth, optimism, virility of fascism, the rallies and the parades and the in-group camaraderie and on and on. He was also a committed anti-semite, placing the Jews at the top of a list of enemies including leftists and parliamentarians that were supposedly degrading France. In his writings, he compares Jews to monkeys and rats, and when the time came, was entirely in favor of their being deported from France, most of them to their deaths in the concentration camps.

What exactly he did during the war became a bone of contention in the trial. He was drafted into the French army and taken prisoner by the Germans, where, already pro-Nazi, he began his formal career as a collaborationist. He continued writing during the Occupation, publishing pro-Nazi pieces, encouraging the puppet Vichy regime to crack down harder on dissidents, and living it up with his Nazi and collaborator buddies during a time of want for most French people.

To me, what renders a lot of the back-and-forth inspired by the Brasillach case that Kaplan tries to sort out moot is Brasillach’s participation in another favorite pastime of the contemporary far right: doxxing. In the pages of Je Suis Partout, Brasillach outed resistance members, communists, and Jews in hiding. Kaplan is careful to point out that we do not know if any of Brasillach’s doxes actually led to any arrests… but it wasn’t for lack of trying on Brasillach’s part. A doxxing then meant a lot more then mean phone calls and stalking by basement-dwelling chuds, it could mean torture and execution. As far as I’m concerned, even if you don’t think being a fascist is a punishable offense by itself, doxxing constitutes direct collaboration with fascist occupying authority with intent to kill.

The Resistance arrested him around the time Paris was liberated by the allies. Brasillach’s entire imprisonment and trial took place under the shadow of the ongoing war and France’s fledgling reconstruction of its own nationhood. The charge against him was treason- giving aid and comfort to the enemy and degrading the nation. Notably, his propagandizing for French participation in the Holocaust was not emphasized in the case, happening as it did before the Nuremberg Trials came up with the idea of crimes against humanity- otherwise, they could’ve gotten him like they got Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher.

Kaplan goes into great detail about those involved in the case, not just Brasillach. She discusses the two attorneys, for the prosecution and the defense, at great length. Both signed the Vichy pledge of loyalty to Marshal Petain; family legend has it the prosecutor helped the Resistance, but we have no real way of knowing. Virtually all of France’s lawyers signed the pledge- they were part of the state apparatus, after all, and Vichy was the state until DeGaulle had consolidated sufficient control over the Resistance (and the German grip slipped some). The jurors were drawn from lists of Resistance-friendly Parisians, and Kaplan profiles them, too, telling about their lives mostly in the working class suburbs of Paris, their small but noble acts of resistance, etc.

Brasillach’s lawyer tried to get him out of it by citing his career, from the high-end Ecole Normale to his collections of poetry and translations- not, Kaplan points out, the sort of thing that would appeal to this jury. Moreover, Brasillach himself came to compare himself to the Resistance, in poems and statements- both were just carried away by difficult times and ideology, or something like that (something tells me we may see contemporary fascists try that one before it’s all over). Nobody bought it. The prosecution layered on — and thereby made the whole thing “problematic” — insinuations of Brasillach as being gay or womanly, as being in love with the Nazis, a way to further inflame and disgust the jury. I agree that’s messed up, though Kaplan herself seems to agree there was a distinct erotic edge to Brasillach’s feelings for fascism. Either way, the jury voted to convict and execute Brasillach.

He appealed to de Gaulle to save his life, and so did a number of prominent French writers (including Camus but not including Sartre or de Beauvoir, for those keeping score at home). French intellectuals had become alienated from the purge of collaborationist elements and the complicities and complexities it continuously revealed. De Gaulle refused- some say due to being confused by a picture of Brasillach with French fascist leader Jacques Doriot, where Doriot was in German uniform and de Gaulle thought Doriot in uniform was Brasillach in uniform. Either way, Brasillach was shot, and became a martyr to the French far right to this day.

Kaplan concludes by saying that Brasillach should have been found guilty of treason, but not have been executed. I tend to disagree and think that his doxxing during wartime earned him a bullet. I see Kaplan’s point about making martyrs, but a living Brasillach could be an inspiration to the French far right, too. Speaking extra-judicially, I think Brasillach got what was coming to him, and think he should serve as an example to other fascist propagandists. ****

Review- Kaplan, “The Collaborator”

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