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.