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Portrait of the Writer as a Traitor: the French Purge trials (1944-1953)

Traduction de Jennifer BIRKETT

Texte intégral

1To use the term “treason” to describe the attitude of a writer might seem an oxymoron. After all, isn’t the writer the incarnation in the modern imagination of freedom and disinterestedness? Unattached, free from dogma and social constraints, he is assumed to obey only the dictates of his free subjectivity and his immediate inner convictions. In that condition, what cause could a writer betray? And if his positions are inconsistent, is that not the perfect proof of his freedom from all determinants?

2The idea that enables us to escape from this apparent contradiction in terms is that of the responsibility of the writer. It is no accident that this idea has long stood in opposition to that of the artist’s freedom. In his famous article “What is an author,” Michel Foucault recalled that the author was first defined, historically, in terms of his responsibility under the penal code (789-820).

3If a work offends the feelings of the community, its author and publisher are held responsible. As the Durkheimian sociologist Paul Fauconnet put it in 1920, responsibility is closely linked to sanctions. The rule of freedom of expression, installed in France under the Restoration, defines certain limits to that freedom, when it becomes associated with crime, offends against morality or attacks individual reputations, and such transgressions invoke sanctions. So what limits the writer’s freedom, in social terms, is criminal responsibility. It can be shown that the idea of the writer’s freedom has very largely been developed in response to the idea of criminal responsibility, which he came up against in the course of his various trials (Sapiro, “The Writer’s Responsibility.” I am preparing a book on this question).

4In 1881, the Third Republic adopted the liberal press regime that is still in force today. At the same time, primary education became obligatory. Confronted with this extension of access to reading and knowledge, conservative Catholic intellectuals – in particular, Paul Bourget – theorised the idea of “responsibility” and set it in opposition to the freedom and gratuitousness of art (see Sapiro, “The Writer’s Responsibility,” and Serry chap. 1). From the Dreyfus Affair onwards, Zola tried to promote a different notion of the responsibility of the writer as defender of truth and freedom, both conceived of as absolute moral values, existing independently of the collective interests they bring into play (see Charle, and Suleiman). Nevertheless, the conservative formulation of the writer’s responsibility prevailed right up to the Liberation. It lies at the heart of the quarrel about “intellectual corruption,” in which literature was held responsible for the military defeat of France: literature, it was argued, had harmful effects because of its subjectivity, its pessimism, and its amorality; it helped “weaken” the nation’s energies; and so on. (Sapiro, La Guerre des écrivains,” chap. 2). With the Libération, the concept of responsibility changed sides. It was redefined by progressive intellectuals from the intellectual Resistance, especially Sartre, who gave it a philosophical dimension by linking it to his idea of freedom (see Sapiro, “Responsibility and Freedom”).

5The purge trials played a key part in this reversal. In Autumn 1944, the provisional Government of the French Republic launched proceedings against writers suspected of the crime of “intelligence with the enemy”, in accordance with articles 75ff of the penal Code, or crimes relating to the ordinance of 26 August 1944, which created the crime of “indignité nationale” (“national indignity”). I want to show here how the image of the writer-as-traitor constructed in the course of these trials contributed to those shifts in the idea of responsibility. I shall concentrate on the moral portrait painted of the traitor, rather than the content of the accusations that were laid. That means looking at the material that was presented in the course of the trials as the motives of the crime. My analysis draws on the transcripts of the trials, where they exist, judicial archives (I have consulted a total of 30 files altogether in the National Archives, with the exception of Brasillach’s file, where the contents are known to have disappeared), and press reports of court testimony. In my first section, I shall show how the prosecution’s arguments constructed the moral portrait of the traitor, part of which can be found in Sartre’s famous article, “What is a collaborator?” In my second section, I shall show how that moral portrait was often reinforced by the strategy adopted by the defence.

The Moral Portrait of the Traitor

6From the legal point of view, personal reasons are the motives of a crime. For writers, generally assumed to have been acting rationally, reasons are of roughly four main kinds: personal conviction, desire for fame, venality (desire for gain), and desire to do harm. There are degrees of difference between the four, depending on the aim of the act of publication. These very general motives have specific meaning in the intellectual domain, because of its particular values.

7Personal conviction can be an attenuating circumstance in so far as it is linked both to freedom of expression of opinion and freedom of philosophical discussion, or to the particular rules of literature (its autonomy), and if it can be considered rational in terms of particular values, following the classification proposed by Max Weber. Being free to develop and publish his own system of thought, the author who acts out of personal conviction and the writer bound by the constraints of his art are deemed to have acted in good faith, not necessarily intending to do harm, and not having realised the consequences of their acts. Sincerity and good faith are attenuating circumstances. The accused is thought of as having made a mistake. Against this “ethics of conviction” the prosecution usually sets the “ethics of responsibility,” to borrow the terms in which Max Weber formulated that opposition. This is why the defence often tries to transfer responsibility to others further up the hierarchy: a leader, a superior, or a mentor. The prosecution can then blame the accused for his servility and lack of independence, which is associated with weakness of character – a typically “feminine” feature, opposed to the strength of character and independence of “superior” men. Servility is a primary moral characteristic of the traitor.

8The prosecution also tries to prove that the act of publication has not been determinedby moral factors alone (according to the Weberian paradigm of rational action regarding values) but also – indeed, especially – by less pure aims. Desire for fame and desire for gain are aggravating circumstances, because in this case the author has acted out of self-interest without thought for the consequences of his actions. The metaphor commonly used to designate this kind of act is “prostitution,” with the underlying analogy between selling one’s body and selling one’s pen, which refers to the personalisation of the idea of the “author,” and the identification of the man and his work. The quest for fame can lead ambitious authors to break the law solely to get talked about, and by that means become famous. The desire to make one’s name with the public, and acquire a reputation, however dubious, figures in the social imaginary as one of the commonest “sins” of the ambitious writer, as portrayed by Balzac in Illusions perdues. The expedient is equally despised by writers, who condemn easily-won success and have no confidence in reputations built on scandal.

9Servility, self-interest (usually venal) and the craving for fame are the features that constitute the moral portrait of the traitor as the negative of the national hero, who at that time was embodied in the image of the Resistance fighter. They are the mark of an inferior morality and a certain irresponsibility that tended at that time to be imputed to women, children and “savages” or “barbarians.” They invoke a system of “masculine” and “feminine” oppositions that are characteristic of the mythical mindset: hardness/softness, strength/weakness, coolness/impetuosity, self-control/slackness, bravery/cowardice (Bourdieu 21-5).

10These three characteristics represent the image of the writer-as-traitor as he appears in the purge trials. To establish the motives of their literary crimes, questions were asked about the reasons that could have induced men of letters with some degree of celebrity to put their “talents” at the service of the enemy, the assumption being that that was incompatible with professional ethics and social respectability.

11Their servility towards the enemy could have been bought. Investigators tried first to establish whether the accused had received payments from an enemy power in return for his propaganda activities, which would also be irrefutable proof of “intelligence with the enemy” and treason. They checked whether his living standards and lifestyle had improved following his political activity, and whether he had met informally with foreign dignitaries during his trips abroad. It is notable that when treason was the issue, desire for money always had immoral motives and was accompanied by a scandalous lifestyle. Reports showing that Henri Béraud, the famous polemicist on the extreme-right populist weekly Gringoire, awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1922, changed his lifestyle around 1937-38. He changed his cars for luxury models, he bought a little estate, and he apparently took to gambling; but the investigation failed to establish that Béraud had received any payments from Italy, which he visited often, and the change in his lifestyle seemed more likely to be due to his remarriage about that time than to professional or political activities.

12In the case of Alphonse de Chateaubriant, owner and editor of the weekly La Gerbe, which he founded directly after the defeat of France in 1940, there was clear evidence of the existence of payments from Germany. Aged 63, the author of novels charting the history of the fallen landed aristocracy from which he came, which in 1911 had earned him the Goncourt, Chateaubriant had flung his energies into an anti-modernist campaign that led him to look beyond Catholicism for the archaic origins of a mysticism that he finally found embodied in National Socialism (Thiesse 154-6). The sheet of charges described him as a “servile and by no means disinterested collaborator.” Thanks to the monies he received from Germany he had “lived an extravagant life along with his mistress.” To support his immoderate lifestyle, Chateaubriant had taken from the till of La Gerbe the sum of1,125, 000 francs, all the profits earned by the paper over the period. As proof of his duplicity, the enquiry adduced the fact that as early as July 1944, while he was still claiming in his writings that he was convinced of a decisive German victory, he was emptying his bank account and preparing to flee (Exposé par le Commissaire au Gouvernement adjoint, Maurice de Coissac, 27 février 1947. Dossier d’instruction de Chateaubriant).

13The “venality” motive can also refer to more or less licit profits made from collaboration with the enemy. These profits were considered the more illegitimate in that they were made primarily out of the nation’s misfortunes. Céline notoriously declared on the 29th October 1943, in Je suis partout: “Just shut up with all this talk of traitors. Are the first traitors, then, anyone who’s earned a penny out of the Germans?” If the political positions of the accused seemed incoherent or opportunistic, as in the case of the aged Abel Hermant, a member of the Académie française, who began as a famous Anglophile and then after the defeat turned Anglophobe and Germanophile, then suspicion of venality was the first accusation to come up. “There is every reason to believe that M. Abel Hermant, who has no private means of his own, set his writing and journalistic talents at the service of German propaganda, out of simple venality,” explained one police inspector (Rapport de l’inspecteur Le Serf, 15 décembre 1944, Dossier d’instruction d’Abel Hermant). At the trial of the journalist Jean Luchaire, in January 1946, the Government Commissioner Raymond Lindon began his prosecution speech in these terms: “When men committed treason with their pen, their treason was often inspired by fascism. In Luchaire’s case, it was inspired by venality and corruption.” (Lottman  246) Comparing Luchaire to Béraud, against whom he had asked for the death penalty,he said that the anger that had moved him at the first trial was now joined by “disgust.”

14However, greed for money is not enough to explain the phenomenon of the Collaboration. Its most tragically famous figures, in particular Brasillach and Rebatet, could not be accused of having been bought by the enemy or motivated by venality. Brasillach certainly saw his income increase substantially during the Occupation: the weekly he edited, Je suis partout, doubled and then tripled its pre-war figures, to become a flourishing enterprise. But his lifestyle remained modest, and it seemed clear to the Government Commissioner, as to the Court, that this product of the École Normale had not been motivated by vulgar self-interest. In the same way, Rebatet had received no German money. And though the account of his motives emphasised that the papers that took his articles paid well, and his pamphlet Les Décombres (The Ruins), the best-seller of the Occupation, at 65,000 copies, had earned him 500,000 francs, that was not the basic reason for his treachery.

15On the whole, the collaborators had tended to benefit from their commitment on every level, material and symbolic. But their treason was most often the product of their political convictions. Anxious to avoid accusing people for their opinions, the prosecution could not overlook their political ideas, but they could refer to them to show that they had led to treason. Political idealism had overwhelmed national sentiment. The change could have been produced by blindness. Rebatet’s admiration for the regime in Germany had blinded him to the point where, from 1936 onwards, he could not or would not see the threats facing France. That was how he had come to wish for France’s defeat in 1940, and to envisage the country’s Occupation by a foreign power as a source of new possibilities rather than a disaster. He had acted out of “political passion” and “arrogant hatred of the people of the Republic.”

16But submission to the conqueror came, more profoundly, from a kind of moral baseness, the typical servility of weak men, bowing to force. The proof was that the verbal violence in which Rebatet expressed his political passion, far from being matched by bravery, in fact hid a cowardly streak, in line with the standard image of the traitor. We might have expected, said the prosecutor, that having pushed young Frenchmen down the path of military collaboration he would have gone off himself to join the ranks of the Waffen SS and “fired the last shots alongside the last defenders.” Hadn’t he claimed in front of ten thousand Parisians that he was no “chicken”? Instead, his behaviour was “far from glorious”: “he left shamefully for Germany, and there he went to ground until the Allied troops came, with their crushing contradiction of his prophecies” (Parquet cour de justice, 31 mai 1946, exposé des faits par le Commissaire au gouvernement adjoint, M. Fouquin, dossier d’instruction de Lucien Rebatet).

17The prosecution speech against Brasillach delivered by Marcel Reboul opened with the list of titles to fame of the brilliant young graduate of the ENS (École Normale Supérieure), acknowledged by all his peers. The question he tried to answer was:

Why did a man with so many gifts, crowned by so much success, who could have become one of the most eminent writers in our country, had he remained true to his first ambitions, misuse his gifts, successes and authority, and attempt to seduce the young first into a sterile political cause and then into the enemy’s camp? (Isorni 127)

18Reboul put forward three arguments. In the first place, Brasillach had committed treason in order to get out of prison camp, that is, out of self-interest. Secondly, yet another instance of the weak yielding to the powerful, he had let himself be seduced by the invader’s strength: that was a near-explicit charge of homosexuality, based on the pleasure Brasillach had taken in the humiliation of France (Kaplan 179). Alluding to Brasillach’s claim in his article “La Naissance d’un sentiment” that, “During those years, thinking Frenchmen effectively got into bed with Germany, with a few arguments, and the experience will have left them with happy memories” (cit. Isorni 138), Reboul said: “Your almost carnal attraction to brute force may have made you try to lead your country into that bed of such happy memories,” and he greeted with derision Brasillach’s claim of attachment to the “emasculated France” that was left (Isorni 142 167). Finally, it was the desire to increase his audience that led Brasillach to treason, that is, his search for symbolic rather than material profit, and his desire for fame. “I wonder what intellectual Papacy in German publishing they may have dangled in front of you,” he suggested, and later he argued:

“Brasillach’s treason is, above all, intellectual treason. It was motivated by pride. He got tired of breaking lances in the peaceful jousts of pure literature. He needed an audience, a public platform, and political influence, and he would have done anything to get them.” And:

“He wanted an audience, and he wanted real influence, especially political influence, and to get them he took complicity with the enemy to its furthest extremes.(Isorni, 141, 146, 147)”

19So Brasillach committed treason out of weakness and vanity. The idea of intellectual prostitution, not for money but for material and symbolic gain (getting out of the prison camp, and winning an “audience” and a “public platform”) is certainly present by implication in Reboul’s charges against what he calls the treachery of a “clerc” (an intellectual) (Isorni 137), referring to Julien Benda’s famous pamphlet of 1927, La Trahison des clercs (on the debate around this book, see Cornick, chap. 2).

20Brasillach’s intelligence, his powers of persuasion and his influence were all put to the service of enemy propaganda, and that constituted intellectual treason. The writer was a traitor because he abandoned pure literature out of his desire for power, a bigger readership, and political influence (Réquisitoire de Me Reboul, Isorni, 137, 146-47). The intellectual was a traitor because he took advantage of his influence over the young, and his powers of persuasion, to try and turn them into informers and criminals (159). The critic was a traitor because he gave himself up to propaganda and denounced wholesale Communists, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, civil servants, university men, and students – his talent allowed him to “vary the epithets” (Isorni 160-64).  And finally, the ultimate “intellectual crime,” the university man was a traitor, because he “insulted his Alma Mater” by demanding the suppression of freedom of thought in the Universities (Isorni 165).

21In his famous article “What is a collaborator,” Sartre reworked and universalised some of these characteristics, which he took straight from the trials, to paint a moral portrait of the traitor – one which is much better remembered than his pseudo-Durkheimian analysis of collaboration in terms of social disintegration. Sartre began by reminding readers that the collaborator’s motives could be reduced to self-interest and ambition. Besides the fact that disinterested collaborators did exist, their authority resided not in their personal prestige but in the strength of the occupying army. But all collaborators believed there would be a German victory.

22According to Sartre, that belief revealed one feature of their world-view: historical realism, which induced them to surrender to the fait accompli. This “political positivism,” which was how Maurras defined his own philosophy of history, led them to approve the existing state of affairs simply because it was the case. This was a form of “making the present into the past,” which relativised events, and identified progress with the movement of history. It was the origin of their “docility in the face of a future they refused to create.” To that extent, realism takes the opposite stance to the voluntarism of human freedom, which “means saying yes or no according to principles,” and “acting without hope, persevering without success”. It is an inverted morality, which derives law from facts, instead of judging facts in the light of law and of universal principle. The collaborator identifies what is with what ought to be. At the same time, he picks and chooses the facts on which his realism is based. For example, he chooses to consider the defeat of 1940 as a fact. Here there appears a second characteristic of the collaborator: bad faith. That bad faith is nurtured by his “feudal” submission to individual realities – a man, a party, a foreign nation – and that, added to his submission to particular facts, leads him into a state of permanent contradiction. Talleyrand is his model.

23His other characteristics also derive from this attitude of submission: cunning and femininity. Cunning is the weak man’s weapon – strength, for him, being the origin of law and the foundation of the power of the master. Cunning is notably a woman’s weapon. At a time when the Resistance was festooned with all the virtues of virility, Sartre saw in collaboration a typically “feminine” phenomenon of passivity and submission. Quoting the sexual metaphors used by some collaborators to describe relations between France and Germany, in which France played the woman’s role, he saw in them “a curious mixture of homosexuality and masochism.” He added that “homosexual circles in Paris supplied many brilliant recruits.” In this affirmation, Sartre was echoing and helping to spread a contemporary prejudice, expressed, as shown, by Reboul, the prosecutor at Brasillach’s trial. But the prejudice, as I have demonstrated, is linked more generally to the construction of the image of the traitor as the negative of the Resistance hero, with, consequently, feminine features.

24Sartre’s final explanation for collaboration, which he thought was the best one, was hatred. Collaboration was the direct expression of social disintegration: the collaborator “hates the society where he has been unable to play any part.” In certain cases, like that of Drieu La Rochelle, to whom Sartre devoted one of his clandestine articles on the theme (“Drieu, ou la haine de soi”), “self-hatred” had turned into hatred of man in general: “He was determined to see himself as a typical product of a completely rotten society.” All the psychological characteristics of the collaborator – realism, refusal of universal law, right-wing anarchism, cunning, femininity and self-hatred – could be explained, for Sartre, by Durkheim’s concept of disintegration.

25I have shown elsewhere, on the basis of an inquiry about the social attributes of collaborationist writers, that Sartre’s analysis was partly wrong. The collaborator is more often a professionalized man of letters, belonging to professional literary organisations, than a disintegrated person. But he is not given symbolic recognition, and this is probably in part a reason for his resentment. Furthermore, his position probably does not correspond to his initial ambitions. The phenomenon of disintegration described by Sartre might well be a subjective experience deriving from the collaborator’s subjective relation to his social position, rather than an objective fact (Sapiro “La collaboration littéraire”).

The Image of the Irresponsible Writer

26The arguments of the defence generally consisted in pleas for the good faith, sincerity, and disinterestedness of the accused: he had not acted out of desire for gain, and was not motivated by base financial interest. Evidence was presented of his professional integrity, including his integrity in the field of political conflict. He had not been bought by the enemy, and that turned an accusation of treason intothe lesser charge of holding the wrong kind of views (délit d’opinion).The most politically committed, like young Lucien Combelle, made a contrast between doctrine and politics; Combelle said he had acted out of loyalty to his socialist ideals. Similarly, Robert Brasillach could plausibly argue that his fascist anti-semitic views were rooted in a thoroughly French tradition. In connection with one of the articles he had published in the Fascist weekly Je suis partout, under the title “Loyalty to National-Socialism,” Rebatet invoked his loyalty to the principles that he cherished: “authority vested in the State, and concern for social issues.” They all swore they had defended these ideas and principles in the interests of France, out of patriotism, unless, like Lucien Combelle, they invoked a higher ideal such as socialism. In any case, they said, they had only been following the official policies of the French government and its representative, Marshall Pétain. Admittedly, some of them acknowledged, their pens had sometimes run beyond what they really thought, but such remarks had been written “polemically.”

27Whereas the prosecution, to establish their responsibility, tried to show their influence, and the consequences of their writing, the accused denied that what they said had had any real effects. Surely the welcome given to the Allied soldiers, and the country’s enthusiasm for liberation, proved that the press, which everyone knew was controlled by the occupying power, had no “appreciable influence,” said the defence lawyer Moureaux, at the trial of the journalist Stéphane Lauzanne (Transcript of Stéphane Lauzanne’s trial 128). The prosecution laid great emphasis on the denunciations, and the defence denied them. Rebatet was accused of having denounced his fellow-writers in an article of 22 October 1943, published in Je suis partout under the title “L’Intelligence Service.” Here is one of the extracts cited in the charge:

What are we to make of an official French publication that refuses to acknowledge that Malraux is a Bolshevik … Among its contributors, our late-lamented doyen André Bellesort serves as cover for  “the Englishman,” Thierry Maulnier, pride of the former Figaro … According to them, there is no French literature after Claudel, the man who celebrated the day Algiers fell, or Mauriac, that sanctimonious Red, or the Tharauds, who became Israel’s lackeys after having studied Israel’s crimes more closely than anyone else, or that great humanitarian Duhamel, who did nothing but bleat when we were strong and could use our weapons, and turned into a spiteful belligerent the day our weakness forced us to make peace. Rebatet said that these were not denunciations. He had been talking about “writers who were extremely well known, and whose political positions were public knowledge. In any case,” he added, “none of them was ever troubled by the authorities, at least not as a result of that article.” Moreover, he had not asked in his article for “steps to be taken against them;” he insisted he had, as “a man of letters,” been defending his position “against other men of letters who were openly defending their own” (Procès verbal de l’interrogatoire du 31 octobre 1945. Dossier d’instruction de Lucien Rebatet).

28In the trials of writers, numerous literary arguments were mobilised to explain texts that had been called into question. Both defence and accused sought excuses in literary genres and scholarly references. Asked in the course of questioning to justify what was in his writing, Abel Hermant said one article was literary criticism and another “just literary knockabout.” He invoked psychology, and comic effect, explaining: “This article proves that when a man of letters tries his hand at politics he always lapses into literature. The writer in me was struck by the comic side to the way the young Bolsheviks were received in England” (Procès verbal de l’interrogatoire du 6 juillet 1945. Dossier d’instruction d’Abel Hermant). Similarly, Rebatet argued that his virulent pamphlet Les Décombres was a “confession,” not a piece of propaganda. The aim of the confession was to rid him of political issues, and “free him from some of the things that made him angry,” so that he could devote his attention to literature (Procès verbal du 2e interrogatoire du 27.10.45. Dossier d’instruction de Lucien Rebatet). Justifying his style by reference to the playwright and satirist Courteline, he noted that “an author is much more concerned with producing a colourful effect, or painting particular types or characters, than with setting out and propagating a political thesis.” Such an author will answer polemically when attacked. But, he added, “Isn’t the polemicist’s bark always worse than his bite?” (Note by Rebatet on Les Décombres, in Dossier d’instruction…)

29Brasillach’s defence counsel, Jacques Isorni, referred to Renan to explain his client’s infamous remark, quoted above: “During those years, thinking Frenchmen effectively got into bed with Germany, with a few arguments, and the experience will have left them with happy memories.” Had not Renan written in the preface to his book La Réforme intellectuelle et morale (Intellectual and Moral Reform) that “Germany was my mistress?” (193) In fact, Isorni said in his Memoirs, he discovered much later that the phrase came straight from Jean Giraudoux’s Siegfried et le Limousin: “They’ve just caught me  committing adultery with Germany. Yes, Siegfried, I’ve slept with her.” (cit. Kaplan, 286 n. 61). Just as in the nineteenth century arguments of “art for art’s sake” had been developed to exculpate writers accused of offences against morality and society, the flag of literature was again flourished to justify the offending writings, even though they were not fiction.

30The defence also made much of the loyal and worthy services these intellectuals had performed for their country. They had all served and defended the interests of French culture. Abel Hermant swore that his primary concern had been “the preservation of the French genius.” Claude Autant-Lara gave evidence that Lucien Rebatet had given signal service to the cause of French cinema. Moreover, were they not themselves part of the French cultural heritage? Witnesses called by the defence attested to the talent of the accused. Marcel Aymé, Paul Valéry and François Mauriac wrote letters to confirm Brasillach’s gifts as a writer and critic. Lara said of Rebatet that he was “one of our best film critics.” Henri Béraud had won the Prix Goncourt, Abel Hermant was a member of the Académie française. Was France to lose these men of talent, who were among her claims to fame?

31Just as literature was opposed to politics to justify the texts, writers were opposed to polemicists. In contrast to the prosecution, who tried to show that a writer’s talent made his propaganda all the more effective, and that celebrity increased responsibility, the defence separated the two planes of literature and politics. The polemicist might have been in error, but the writer had to be saved at all costs.

32In September 1944, just as the Comité national des écrivains (National Writers’ Committee) began to draw up its list of writers who had collaborated, Jean Paulhan claimed for writers “the right to make mistakes,” which he later also termed “the right of aberration.” It was the right to make mistakes, a consequence of good faith, which the defence invoked in most of the trials. The error of judgement came from ignorance of the true facts, misinformation, the powerful influence of Marshall Pétain, or the influence of some other figure. Or it could be some kind of professional deformation, as in the case of the journalist Stéphane Lauzanne, who according to his lawyer, Moureaux, was “led astray by his great learning, his deep knowledge of international problems, and his instinctive need always to investigate both sides of the question” (Plaidoirie de Me Moureaux. Transcript of Stéphane Lauzanne’s trial). Most often, the accused shifted responsibility onto their sources of information, or onto Marshall Pétain. The famous polemicist Henri Béraud, whose work appeared in a paper that sold 300.000 copies before the war, wrote in his defence statement: “How could a simple citizen like myself, whom the Marshall commanded at Verdun, helped in his literary career, and treated like a son, have doubted his authority?” (Mémoire à l’intention du juge d’instruction, daté du 4 novembre 1944. Dossier d’instruction d’Henri Béraud.) Or they blamed the person in charge of the publication, in the case of newspapers (Bunau-Varilla in Lauzanne’s case, Carbuccia in that of Béraud), or, finally, some intellectual influence. Stéphane Lauzanne, for example, invoked the authority of Cardinal Baudrillart, and Lucien Combelle quoted Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. The concept of “taking the passive course” was frequently used to express the feeling of having been tricked, misled or deceived. Stéphane Lauzanne talked about his client’s “weak character.” He may have been over 70, but “more than anyone else he was under the influence of his employer,” Bunau-Varilla, editor of Le Matin; consequently, Lauzanne said, “the old man’s sense of responsibility was diminished and even partly destroyed,” and that ought to be taken into account in considering attenuating circumstances. (Plaidoirie de Me Moureaux. Transcript of the trial of Stéphane Lauzanne, 115, 117.) Abel Hermant, though at 83 years of age the oldest of the intellectuals on trial, went further than anyone in casting all responsibility onto his sources of information and the authority of Marshall Pétain, alleging his own credulity and naivety throughout his eleven question sessions with the examining magistrate and then in questioning before the judge at the tribunal. He had read an article in the papers and repeated the information without checking it; he had been told someone was a Communist and he had written it without checking; he had been told that dissidents going over to the enemy were traitors and he had believed it and written it; he had been wrong and he had been deceived (Dossier d’instruction d’Abel Hermant).

33 As Alexandre Astruc put it in Combat, Hermant did much more than appeal to the legitimacy of the armistice and the authority of Marshall Pétain:“He sketched out […] another set of defence arguments, in which the writer’s irresponsibility played the greatest part. After having played the Fascist on the air at Radio-Paris, and been generally thought of as an engaged writer, he now presented his writings as pure exercises in style. He claimed comic licence. Even literature itself was called in to save him. In his view, a man of letters who gets involved in politics always lapses into literature. He came close to arguing that in the phrase “working in intelligence with the enemy” the word is “intelligence,” and that was hardly true in his case.”Up to this point, the arguments adduced all came within the paradigm of rational action. But some people did not hesitate to resort to explanations founded in that of irrational action. In his defence speech for Georges Suarez, Monsieur Boiteau stressed that his client’s great talent went with an “impulsive” character; he was “sick,” and subject to “fits of anger” (Suarez 110). Similarly, when questioned during the preliminary examination of Rebatet’s file, Robert Denoël, his publisher, saw in his verbal violence, his anti-semitism, and his Germanophilia, aberrancies that he attributed to his “hypersensitive” nature, which he thought made him at times “pathologically violent.” Neurotic behaviour and hypersensitivity, the opposite of self-control, refer to characteristics thought of as typically feminine, and reinforce the “feminised” image of the traitor.

34The representation, since the nineteenth century, of the creative act as something basically irrational is not unconnected with the claim that it cannot be subject to penal responsibility; in so far as penal responsibility presumes freewill, children and madmen are considered irresponsible. The fortunes of the theme of Celine’s insanity, which drew on that particular representation of artistic creativity, are related to this key moment in the debate on the responsibility of writers who collaborated, and the attempts of the defence to absolve them, and redeem what they did, by invoking their talent.

35The theme of insanity is the most drastic formulation of that paradigm of irresponsibility that most of the collaborators who came to trial adopted as a defence strategy. There is something paradoxical in the fact that, at the Liberation, the people who four years earlier were accusing literature of being partly responsible for the defeat of 1940 now declined all responsibility for the consequences of their own writing. Indeed, only Brasillach, who was executed, and Drieu La Rochelle, who committed suicide, claimed full responsibility for their acts. While writers coming out of the Resistance, especially Sartre, were reappropriating the paradigm of the writer’s responsibility, and using it as the basis of their theories of engaged literature, the schema of irresponsibility was being used to reinforce the portrait of the traitor as servile, venal and prepared to do anything in the name of ambition and fame. It established the negative or feminine version of the virile image of the intellectual, conscious of his symbolic power and of the influence of his writings; and it was that virile image that the purge trials in France reaffirmed, by condemning writers to death.

36However, in Sartre’s thinking, the treachery is not to the State, but to the intellectual’s mission, which is the defence of freedom. According to Sartre, it is the intellectual’s duty to betray a State which suppresses the freedom of its citizens, as did the Vichy regime. The very notion of legal responsibility, in the modern sense, rests on the idea of a subject endowed with free will. Sartre drew all the logical consequences of this philosophical principle, set out most notably by Kant, and turned it against the State by developing his concept of intellectual responsibility founded on freedom, of which the writer is the perfect embodiment. According to Sartre, the writer is an undetermined subject who makes choices that engage him and for which he must take responsibility, following the tradition established by Zola and Voltaire. As the embodiment of freedom, he is responsible for the freedom of others. This theory of engaged literature allowed Sartre to transcend the opposition between freedom and responsibility which up to that point had structured discussion in the literary arena. Against the definition in criminal law of authorial responsibility, Sartre’s theory established the independent professional ethics of the responsible intellectual.

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Gisèle SAPIRO, « Portrait of the Writer as a Traitor: the French Purge trials (1944-1953) »E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 10, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 08 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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CNRS - Centre de Sociologie Européenne
Gisèle Sapiro is research director at the CNRS (Centre de sociologie européenne-Paris) and teaches at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales. She has published a book on the French literary field during WWII, La Guerre des écrivains, 1940-1953 (1999), and articles on literature and politics, public intellectuals, translation, etc. She has co-edited Pour une histoire des sciences sociales (2004) and Pierre Bourdieu, sociologue (2004), two issues of Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales on international literary exchanges and the circulation of ideas (144 and 145, 2002), and an issue of  Sociétés et représentations on socialist realism in France (15, 2002). Most recently, she edited a special issue of Le Mouvement Social on the organization of professions (214, 2006), and published an article on “Responsibility and freedom: foundations of Sartre’s concept of intellectual engagement,” in the Journal of Romance Studies (2006).

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