Today is the birthday of Robert Brasillach, French journalist, novelist, and film historian (The History of Motion Pictures , co-written with Maurice Bardéche).
It is Brasillach’s fate mainly to be remembered for being the only collaborateur sentenced to death (by firing squad) for “intellectual crimes.” The execution is doubly memorable because it was protested by a wide variety of French literary figures, including Albert Camus, Paul Claudel, Jean Cocteau, and Colette, who petitioned Charles de Gaulle for clemency.
De Gaulle refused the request. At that point he was head of a Provisional Government that delicately balanced a coalition of Communists, socialists, and Free French, and could not afford to spare the life of young writer mainly known for editing a pro-fascist newspaper, Je suis partout. Besides which, de Gaulle would soon be commuting the death sentence of his onetime mentor, 89-year-old Marshall Philippe Pétain.
Robert Brasillach’s Notre avant-guerre is basically a long and digressive essay, combining both a sentimental autobiography of his youth, circa 1925-1933, and a kind of journalistic aide-mémoire about political figures and crises of the latter 1930s. The French political upheavals in the Popular Front era (1936) loom large, as do the related events of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).
Brasillach apparently completed his initial version around the start of the Second World War, dating his Foreword September 13, 1939. However, the book did not come out until 1941, by which point the political landscape had changed a bit. His dream of a resurgent French nationalism no longer seemed quite apropos or relevant. So he inserted a number of emendations to bring the book up-to-date, and perhaps make it seem less foolishly optimistic.
The excerpts translated here deal mainly with the 1936-38 period, and include some conversations (and an automobile ride) with Léon Degrelle, the young head of the Belgian Rexist party and fresh new face of the European Right. Later on, Brasillach goes off on a two-week automobile excursion to the Spanish Civil War, with Pierre Cousteau and his own brother-in-law and friend, Maurice Bardèche.
From Notre avant-guerre
By the mid-1930s we’d come a long way from those muddled promises made in Geneva around 1925, where they were building castles in the air. Granted, we young French weren’t entirely free of illusions ten years later. But our dreams had another coloration, subtly different, and this is a difficult thing to understand, as I describe the intellectual adventure of the pre-war period. It was a time when everyone was turning to foreign countries, seeking (and often rejecting) their warnings and instructions. It was a time when French nationalism came to a new consciousness of itself, but also a time when we listened more closely than usual to what was going on around our borders. It was a time when a national spirit formed, as though in preparation for a French fascisme. Such was the final formative experience for many young people on the eve of war, and yet it’s a story that seldom gets told.
* * *
It was during a journey to Belgium in 1936 that, for the first time, I met some people possessed of this new spirit. Meanwhile, the Communist revolution was going on in Paris [June 1936], though I didn’t yet know about it. A guided tour for journalists and travel agency directors had been organized by the Belgian tourist bureau. I don’t know why, but I had been asked to be part of it. I have never done any other group trip: this one instance was both boring and highly amusing. Mainly, I remember the comical aspect of the caravan, the oddball characters. I found some new companions and showed them the streets of Bruges, the quays of Ghent, once we got away from our chaperoned groups: Roger d’Almeras, Jean Barreyre. We passed through the villages of the Ardennes, still as enchanting as in Shakespeare, where in twilight a banal castle of a false Louis XIII style became a magical and green place I will never forget. And I took the opportunity to go and see somebody of whom there had a lot of talk in France for a few weeks, the leader of a new Belgian party, Léon Degrelle.
My fellow Frenchmen on the Belgium trip probably did not notice the slogans along our route—drawn in white on the pavements, black on the houses – saying “Vote Rex.” Or: “Rex will conquer.” Along the endless lengths of Flanders roads, and in the beautiful forests of the Ardennes, these fateful words shone out. You could see ingenious posters in bright colors, or immense photographs of a vigorous young man. Such were the last stages of this rough and surprising election campaign, which was to bring to the two-hundred-member Belgian Chamber of Deputies twenty-one members of a new party that was unknown a year earlier: the famous Rexist party.
I remember seeing Léon Degrelle for the first time, the very day of his thirtieth birthday. He was a lad with a full and smiling face who didn’t even look his age. I watched him walk to his table after everyone else, and I heard the sound of his voice more than his words. If it is true that a certain physical radiance, a certain animality, is necessary to be a leader of men, it is certain that Léon Degrelle possessed this radiance and this animality. I had not heard him speak in public yet, but I was sure he was a remarkable speaker.
You have to bear in mind that in 1936, a portion of Belgium (and also a little of the foreign opinion) was quite definitely enthralled with the head of Rex. People wanted to know about the movement’s ideas, and they promoted him in the major French newspapers. Men would say with a little irony, “Women love Léon Degrelle a lot. They find him so beautiful!” The Rexists actually joked about it all, with a frightful play on words. “This is what we call Rex-appeal!”
* * *
I saw Léon Degrelle a few times in those years, in Paris or Brussels. Pierre Daye arranged our first meeting. The contrast was striking between Daye, who was thoughtful, smiling, and curious about everything, and this young man Degrelle, impetuous and ever-ebullient. He was touching when he spoke of his little daughter Chantal, who’d been gravely ill for some years, and for whom the Party was making pilgrimages; and he himself would sometimes run over to Notre-Soul de Ham on a snowy night because she was in danger. He seemed to me symbolic of our time, richly alive and picturesque. He took on new challenges with joy, excited by life, its pleasures and promises, but never worrying too much about life’s temptations or making a wrong move.
I suppose I will remember for a long time that night in a car, on the road from Namur to Brussels, in the soggy woods, where Léon Degrelle, on his return from a meeting, told me, in no particular order, stories about his country childhood – birdwatching and stealing apples, this little boy in sabots. I remember his voice, a little hoarse from his speechmaking – a voice I listened to without seeing his face, in spite of all the brisk wind and the swerving of the car, and the noise of the rain against the windows. He talked to me about his family:
All my father’s family is French, native to Soire-le-Château, near Maubeuge. All mine are buried at the little cemetery. We were an extremely large family. All this is inscribed on our livre de raison [family register], which I still possess. They mark the births, the reason why the children were given such names, and how the old ones died. I had an ancestor who was killed at Austerlitz, on the very day his daughter was born, and she was called Souffrance. Another daughter, born at the time of Napoleon’s wars – she too – and was called Victoire. For four hundred years, farmers called Degrelle have cultivated the same field. In the livre de raison, there are also the love letters of the fiancé to fiancée. Along with their love, they give current news, and report on the harvest. They say: the wheat, or the rye, will be good this year. I think, you see, that in France in the time of kings there were millions of families that were like mine; and that’s why France is a great country.
Following the anti-religious laws [presumably about 1905] his father, a convinced Catholic, had come to Bouillon as a brewer. I visualized, while he was talking to me, that little town of three thousand inhabitants, so near the frontier of France, and which many years ago was part of the same country as our Sedan. It is one of the jewels of the Ardennes, with its brown and curved bridge on the Semois, its deep river, its castle commanding the town, and especially its nearby woods, and the wonderful softness of its hills, its light.
Put me twenty kilometers from Bouillon, out in the woods. I’ll find my way with my eyes closed. As children, we could see the trains come down from the woods over the Semois. The wonderful thing there, that’s the winter. It brought us tree trunks, pines covered with ice, and sometimes an enormous boar, all swollen and tangled with grass, which got caught against the piers of the bridge.
Then came spring. Boys running on the slopes, searching for the eggs to find. We’d study the young pines. In the old pine trees, the birds won’t nest. For hours you had to wait to see the mother approach the young tree. Alors, we climbed, and found the nest. We ate the hot eggs, or we would go to steal apples. My father had apples too – but stolen apples have such better taste!
You see, I shall never forget those moments. Nobody can have fun the way we had fun, me and my brothers or sisters. Think of what a fair was for us. We would wait for the cars of the fairgrounds at the top of the hill, four, five kilometers away. On the first day of the fête, one would give us a franc, the second day ten sous, the third, five sous. I’ve never been so rich, I’ve never been happier.
It is there that the little boy learned a lot of things, and that he was formed.
I was playing with the other children in the village. We were all the same. You know that in Wallonia, the adjective is often put before the noun, in the old fashion: it is called hard life, white bread, black coffee. With us there was mostly black bread, and not always coffee. But everyone loved each other. My father was a bourgeois, and the notary, or the doctor, were bourgeois. But they saluted the blacksmith and the tanner, as the blacksmith and the tanner, as they earned their living and had many children, were honest and hard-working. Besides, everybody had a lot of children: at home we were eight, and eleven in my father’s family, and ten in my mother’s, and twelve in the notary’s office, and seven in the doctor’s. You know, we’re never rich when we have so many children to raise, and that’s what’s good. Then the worker thinks that his boss fulfills his duty. So we respect it. And a bereavement is a bereavement for all. Look at the big cities. When someone dies, his neighbors don’t even know it. At Bouillon, the whole village was in mourning when someone was dying. It was at home that I learned the social community, the community of a people.
I did not want to interrupt this boy who was so sensitive to all that surrounds and supports him, when he evoked the familiar demons of his childhood.
And imagine the war, above all. Imagine how much this communion of a whole village grew up through war, through privations, through the pain of the invasion. We fell back on ourselves. Now you have to remind yourself that before the war, many inhabitants of Bouillon had never left their town, or the valley of the Semois. You’d have to be mon grand-pere the doctor, mon pere the brewer, going to visit sick people, or to deliver beer. Some went on foot to Namur, Liege, a ham hanging on each shoulder, to sell it at the market. I saw this. They’d go a hundred and fifty kilometers or more, in three days, without a carriage, without a horse, like pilgrims. But others did not leave their house at all. At the bottom of the hillside there is a place called Point du Jour, because it is there that the Sun rises. And the top of the hill bears a magnificent name: it is the Terme. Meaning, there’s nothing more beyond. I remember when I was very young we organized a bicycle race in Bouillon. I had never seen such a thing. I followed the racers, and I went to the Terme. I discovered, with an immense surprise, that the road continued, that the world continued, that it didn’t end at Bouillon! I’d never been so stunned. Eh bien! It is this hilltop, this Terme we kept watch on for four years, waiting for the French soldiers. And one fine day we saw Americans arrive. We immediately took them through another road. We did not understand why we did this: maybe we were afraid we’d see them come to a bad end. But you understand, that’s what this hill meant to us.
* * *
Eventually, Rex lost its power of seduction, along with Degrelle’s attraction for the crowds. The success of Rexism is explained by the atmosphere of 1936, by the Popular Front, by the Communist menace. Thousands of brave people, who certainly had no dictatorial ideal, believed in Rex in opposition to Moscow. Outside Belgium, their effort was regarded with immense sympathy. Degrelle’s youth and dynamism formed a charming legend. There was agreement among classes and across the various factions of the country: the Rexist program was attractive, and it was right. The proof is that all parties and the government have more or less resumed it.
There were mistakes in maneuvers, and imprudent actions, maybe serious, I don’t know. Rex was carried [in 1936] by the anti-parliamentary wave, independently of Degrelle’s oratorical talent, but by the deep needs of young people who thought they’d found in the movement the answer to their deepest aspirations.
When the war of 1939 broke out, Léon Degrelle vigorously supported the policy of neutrality. Belgium, however, was to enter the war on May 10, 1940. The chief of Rex was arrested in order to prevent disorder. For months the Party had been disintegrating, and several very serious accusations had been made against the young leader. [Degrelle had reportedly accepted funds from Hitler and Mussolini.] But let us not forget that in 1936, in any case, there were wounded veterans of the old war on the Rexist platforms, wearing the French Croix de Guerre: patriotic fighters, and authentic francophiles. In 1936 there was no need for a Frenchman to regard the Rexists as enemies of his country, let alone Germans. Likewise with their leader – the son of a Frenchman, married to a Frenchwoman. However you judge his later actions [after a period of imprisonment by the French, Degrelle returned to Belgium and openly collaborated with the Germans], we did see the curious birth of a movement, and the arrival of an astounding figure. And we can recognize that the success of nationalism in those years came from its power to stir up a crowd with visions, and (be it good or bad) poetry.
* * *
. . . [T]he country to which all our eyes were directed in those years was, first of all, Spain.
The Spanish war lasted from July 18, 1936 to April 1, 1939. The Spanish generals, soon to be commanded by Franco, had suddenly risen against the Popular Front government. To the Marxists, it was all about the “rebels” against the “Republicans.” To others, it was Nationalists versus Reds. Up until the alert of September 1938 [when the Leftist International Brigades were banned from combat zones, per order of the tottering Republican government], the Spanish war never ceased to excite French opinion for a single day. First of all, we had to defend ourselves at every moment against the Marxists, who were pushing for us to intervene alongside the Spanish Reds: petitions, demonstrations, newspapers, parliamentarians – there was simply no let-up. Georges Bernanos and Jacques Maritain, those confused Catholics, took the side of those who dug up Carmelite graves and laid the bodies on church steps; who killed sixteen thousand priests and ten bishops.
* * *
One day [in 1939] I met Georges Bernanos, who had now been booted out of Majorca, where he’d pitched his vagabond’s tent. This corpulent mop-top laid out his grievances to me for an hour, repeating the same fuliginous phrases, shaking that crazy old lion’s head and banging on about his old hobbyhorses. First he was going to publish a book against Spain; then – and this is in 1939, right on the eve of the war – he was going to do a book denouncing the younger generation in France. Two utterly hopeless ventures. The Bernanos meeting jolted me, and I persuaded myself I’d just seen a madman.
Ce Soir, a Communist journal that dared not announce itself as such, was specially founded to support the cause of the “Republicans” of Spain, because Vendredi [a Popular Front weekly, 1935-39] was only a weekly newspaper, and too intellectual to be successful. But as for us, we followed the beautiful events of the war with wonder. The whole world was passionately following the siege of Alcazar in Toledo [the siege of Nationalist rebels in Andalusia, July-September 1936]. The resistance of Oviedo [the siege of Nationalists in northwest Spain, August-October 1936], of the sanctuary of La Cabeza [siege of Nationalists at a religious shrine in August 1936, broken by Republican forces in May 1937], we learned about later. They spoke of the administrative skill of General Franco, of the humanitarian reforms, of the Auxilio Social [Social Aid, a pro-Franco relief organization]. One would dream of the figure of the young founder of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera. The Left-wing press portrayed General Queipo de Llano as a ridiculous figure – he who took Seville alone, and who is a picturesque and beguiling man. Italy and Germany sent volunteers to Franco’s side, while in the meantime France and Belgium took the side of their opponents. These daily incidents and the never-ending danger in Spain were with us every moment. We would learn the songs of the Falange and the Requetés [the Carlist militia], the salute of ¡Arriba España! [“Cara al Sol,” a Falangist anthem]:
The flags will return victorious,
At the happy step of peace . . .
In October 1936, I’d written a little book with Henri Massis about the Alcázar, based on an idea he had. Charles Maurras had gone to Spain and been received by General Franco as though he were a head of state. In April 1938, Pierre Gaxotte and Pierre Daye, accompanied by Madame de Lequerica, made a triumphant journey to Seville.
Spain was on my mind and I felt like seeing her again. Pierre Cousteau had once lived in Burgos for a few months. We decided on a short tour of about fifteen days in early July 1938. There would be me, Maurice Bardèche, and Cousteau himself, riding in the dashing beige car that Pierre had driven all over Europe. During the trip we would be sending in news reports for a special issue of Je suis partout on the war, to appear on the second anniversary of the National Revolution [July 18, 1938]. We also thought of collecting interviews for writing a History of the Spanish War.
At that time, crossing the frontier was arduous. It was first necessary to sign papers in Paris releasing the French state from all responsibility, and to swear that nothing would be done contrary to non-intervention, nothing which might have led one to think that one was inclined toward a certain particular political faction rather than to another. Happy joke! At the International Bridge of Irun, you were fingerprinted and photographed, but otherwise treated with good grace. When we had gone through, we saw that an anonymous man had written on our safe-conduct pass: “Viva Je suis partout!”
1. Brasillach refers to the post-First World War Geneva protocols regarding disarmament; probably he was also thinking of the Locarno Treaties from the same year, guaranteeing the borders of France, Germany, and Belgium.
2. The Front Populaire government under Léon Blum, beginning in June 1936, was a coalition of the Communist Party with various other Leftist parties in the Assembly.
3. Roger d’Almeras and Jean Barreyre were journalists and film critics, like Brasillach.
4. Pierre Daye (1892-1960) was a Belgian journalist, Rexist Party supporter, and correspondent for Brasillach’s Je suis partout.
5. Georges Bernanos (1888-1948) was a French novelist and pro-monarchist polemicist. He briefly supported the Spanish rebels, then became an anti-Francoite.
6. José Antonio Primo de Rivera (1903-1936) was a Spanish nobleman and the founder of Falangism. He was executed by the Republicans in December 1936.
7. Gonzalo Queipo de Llano (1875-1951) was a Spanish General and the hero of the Battle of Seville. He was accused in Republican legends of having been responsible for mass executions after the battle.
8. Pierre-Antoine Cousteau (1906-1958) was a French Right-wing journalist and the brother of deep-sea explorer Jacques Cousteau.
9. These excerpts were translated for this article from the 1992 Livre de Poche edition of Notre avant-guerre: Mémoires, pp. 301-320.