The Power of Words

On Friday August 25th 1944 Paris was liberated from the Nazis and the Occupation of France in World War Two was officially over. You might think that after the years of pretty ugly Nazi domination, after the brutality and the bullying that the French had had to endure, the unjust deportations and the fear and mistrust that had been so desperately pervasive, that this wounded nation might have clung to whatever shreds of peace and respite it may have been offered. But no. What happened next is one of those morally gray moments in history, as the French turned on their own and sought violent retribution against those who had collaborated with the Germans in what is generally known as the Épuration, or the ‘purge’.

The scale of the Epuration is bitterly contested, with the most extreme figures – some 100,000 to 120,000 victims during the Occupation and after the Liberation – now long discredited. But estimates still range from about 10,000-15,000 deaths, perpetrated by the Résistance, by the FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur, known familiarly as the fifi’s a cutesy name for the marauding forces of vengeance they became), by criminal gangs pretending to be one or the other, and by silent crimes that history has preferred to leave unrepresented. These figures do not account for all the wounded and humiliated. Most people have heard of the way that women who were accused of collaboration horizontale had their heads shaved in public, often being used as scapegoats within small communities, the necessity of feeding or protecting their children failing to constitute a reason for leniency in the eyes of those hellbent on justice. And the extent of the rage towards those who had sold their fellow French citizens to the authorities, or who had loudly voiced anti-Semitic statements or even just used friendship with the Nazis as a way to stay fed and comfortable while others starved, is difficult for us to imagine. When survivors of the concentration camps limped their way home, revenge was often one of the few remaining motivations for living. There are emotional justifications for what happened, even if the morality of such actions is unclear. But what does seem ironic, at best, is that the Nazi desires for purification that lay at the heart of their behaviour should be so simply and violently repeated in the nation’s immediate response to regaining its own internal control. The rush to accuse and to exact retribution did not affect all French however; some commentators found the situation sad beyond belief. The writer Galtier-Boissière said that ‘The Nazis have left us an imprint of authoritarianism and persecution.’

The situation of writers is particularly interesting here. It seems to have been part of the ideology of the times that intellectuals committed themselves wholeheartedly to either the Left or the Right and felt that their access to the public arena implied a responsibility to transmit vehement and polemical messages to the people. There had been no shortage of writers voicing their support of the Nazis and the place they believed France would occupy in the new Europe, and their moment of reckoning had come. Some, like Drieu la Rochelle, committed suicide, others like Céline skipped the country. But others still, like Robert Brasillach, outspoken fascist editor of a journal entitled Je suis partout (I am everywhere), were obliged to stay and face the music. Brasillach spent twenty-eight days concealed in an attic room, but when he heard that his mother had been arrested and imprisoned in his stead, he gave himself up. His case became the apogee of the intellectual purge. Camus had begun by stating almost pathologically that ‘These are men of betrayal and injustice. Their very existence poses a problem of justice, since they are part of the living body of the nation and the question is how to destroy them.’ When Brasillach’s trial ended in the death sentence, however, Camus was forced to reconsider his own rhetoric. Another great writer, François Mauriac, was wholly opposed to this kind of vicious retribution and felt it would poison the new state of France before it had even begun to establish itself. He organized a petition calling for clemency and asked Camus to sign it. After a sleepless night, and despite the fact he abhorred everything Brasillach stood for, on the grounds that he was against the death penalty, Camus did so, but the whole endeavour proved fruitless. De Gaulle rejected the appeal, wanting not to appear soft and indecisive. Later he was to publicly regret not issuing a reprieve; and indeed all other authors who came to trial much later received far, far milder punishments as the emotional temperature of the nation rapidly dropped. Once he was dead, the words of Brasillach’s defence lawyer, ‘Do civilized people shoot their poets?’ seemed more insightful than when he was still alive.

Brasillach died because he was brash and dangerously smart and creatively gifted. A worse writer may have been considered less guilty, but damning statements like ‘We must separate ourselves from the Jews en bloc, and not keep the children’ seemed to call for summary justice. The prosecutor asked him ‘How many young minds did your articles incite to fight against the maquis? For how many crimes did you bear intellectual responsibility?’ The death penalty was imposed on Brasillach on the understanding that influential writers who espoused shocking views that sought to incite others were as guilty as if they had committed the crimes themselves. The intellectual rebirth that began around about the same time, with Sartre pushing Existentialism onto a confused, spiritually impoverished and exhausted nation must surely have gathered some of its strength from this forced acknowledgement; that what people wrote and the things they thought were every bit as significant as the actions they performed. No wonder intellectual endeavour and engagement were so highly prized in the period after the Occupation, when it had become so obvious that those who lived by the word could also die by it.


8 thoughts on “The Power of Words

  1. Your post reminds me of the recent debate about Holocaust denial and Germany’s penalties for such writings. Two camps seemed to have emerged, those who believe that the denial of the Holocaust is an issue of freedom of speech and those that believe that it is an issue of grave liable. I tend to lean toward the second, not so much because I believe that the myth could be propagated in any large way (not in our lifetime anyway) but that the memories of those who died so needlessly is enduring further indignities with this nonsense. Is prosecuting the act censorship, and should the act be seen as a criminal behavior? Tough call, but until the wounds of the rape of Europe begin to reside, in my thinking, strict intolerance of this particular hate-based rhetoric must predominate.

    I wonder if you have read Iain Pears’ “The Dream of Scipio.” Part of it deals the dilemma of intellectuals and artists in Nazi occupied France.

  2. The pen is far more damaging than the sword. If I am killed, then my life stands on its own merits or demerits. If I am libelled then my life is stolen. The same applies to my country. Yet history is written by the winners and truth is a moveable feast.

    I stand with Voltaire and with Camus against censorship. At the worst, driving some thoughts underground can allow them to fester and spring forth in horrible excrescences. At the best, opening the thoughts of a nation, the world, to public scrutiny and to future historical examination can lead to enlightenment and the avoidance of making the mistakes.

    I wish I could get my thoughts properly organised on this subject.

  3. Ian – you’re right, this is linked to the issue of free speech, although I hadn’t been focusing on that issue when I wrote it. What’s interesting in some ways was the virulence with which retribution was sought, and then the subsequent discomfort people felt at the very intensity of the violence. It was a shame that the Nazis hadn’t taught the French anything about just resolution of conflict, but I suppose the natural inclination, having been the victims of oppression, is to turn the tables and get your own back. But still, as you say, there are important issues about free speech that need discussing in the light of this. I have to thank you so much though for that book recommendation. I do indeed possess it but haven’t read it, and it has just shot up the TBR pile! Archie – you know I’m in full agreement with you on this one. What gets repressed just comes back uglier next time. But isn’t it hard to articulate oneself on the topic? I’m still trying to find the right way to talk about this myself.

  4. Funny, I’m reminded of the way some Americans have acted since the 9/11 terrorist attack, especially as we begin to hear more and more about the torture being condoned by the CIA. It seems that people so often, rather than responding to barbarism rationally and maturely, stoop to responding to barbarism with barbarism.

  5. Thanks for such an interesting post. I learn about books from you and now I learn a bit of history too. I knew there was something of a backlash (to put it mildly) after the war, but I had no idea about most this. I’ve got to do some reading. Any suggestions?

  6. Emily – that’s exactly what I think (why does that not surprise us?). An eye for an eye has only ever been a way of escalating violence. Stefanie – I’ve been reading two wonderful books on the general area: Paris after the Liberation: 1944-1949 by Anthony Beevor and Artemis Cooper, and The Burden of Responsibility. Blum, Camus, Aron and the French Twentieth Century by the wonderful Tony Judt. I can thoroughly recommend both! I realised I have this huge gap in my knowledge where history ought to be and I’m trying to do something about it!

  7. I like the way so many Germans, born after WW2 or too young to have any responsibility for it, have taken responsibility for their country’s actions since. I wish Japan had been more responsible.

    An Irish friend once described visiting with a group from several nations, somewhere in rural Ireland. Germans were there, and the topic of The Holcaust came up, and they expressed remorse, in part for how their country was perceived. The Irishman spoke up and said no one needed to explain persecution or concentration camps to the Irish.

    The reason we don’t have more Holocaust museums here in America, for the Mandan tribes and so many others, is that there are no members left to build them. The genocide was accomplished, as it was in Tasmania and so many other places.

    Sometimes I think we, especially here in the US, find it very easy to vilify the Nazis, very convenient to focus on *them* and how bad *they* were and to separate ourselves emotionally as much as possible, because otherwise we might have to recognize some things in our own past. Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” expresses a small bit of it quite chillingly.

    It would seem much more responsible or healthier to me if we all realized we have this thing inside us, when pushed to extremes like Berlin 1938 or Paris 1944 or north Georgie when the Cherokee were forced to walk their Trail of Tears.

    Easy to write, I suppose, from a safe California home. but I’m glad at least, that as barbaric as the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld regime has been in their response to 9/11, that moderating forces have finally begun to work here.

    As many people as live in the world now (over 6 billion) and with the resource re-arrangement promised or at least posed by global warming, I can’t say I’m real optimistic about the 21st century being a kinder time than the last century, on balance.

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