When Robert Brasillach's play Berenice was staged in Paris in 1957, protesters from former resistance groups stormed the stage and shouted down the cast. Brasillach was the most eminent writer to be put to death by the liberation government during the days of the "purge", after the Nazis vacated the city. His crime was treason, but his punishment, as Alice Kaplan's well-researched account shows, was symbolic - the execution of a man guilty of holding opinions. He was tried in a courtroom that had heard many cases brought by the occupying power and by prosecutors who had worked for the Vichy regime only months earlier. It has long been debated in France whether he was any worse than these men, but he was certainly no better.
By many accounts, it could not have happened to a nicer fascist. He was faithful to his friends and claimed to love his country. But he also denounced resistance heroes and felt moved, on occasion, to shake passing storm-troopers by the hand. At the age of 21, Brasillach became the youngest literary critic ever to write for the Action Francaise newspaper. He acquired a reputation as a brutal, skilful reviewer. But, as a novelist, he was mediocre, guilty of the traits he excoriated. Brasillach's evil was not quite banal, but nor was it terribly sophisticated. As Kaplan writes, his concept of fascism relied on the reference points of the literary critic, with barely a nod to politics or economics. The common cause of racism and the jackboot aesthetic were enough to convince him. He once described Hitler himself as a "small, sad, vegetarian civil servant . . .", at which point one begins to think that Brasillach could not have been all bad. But then he adds that Hitler was "transformed by the power of Nazism into a god, an archangel descended on to Earth".
It is customary to disparage the physique of prominent Nazis; Brasillach, for his part, was a chubby, round-shouldered bookworm with oversized glasses. One court reporter at his trial noted his short fingers. Another wrote of "tiny little hands barely sticking out from his sleeves". Brasillach was homoerotically attracted to the rituals of fascism, smacking his lips at the boots, the flags and the marching. He showed a particular interest in the work camps of the Hitler Jugend, admiring "the seriousness, the virility, the hard and powerful love of the country" exhibited by those strapping boys.
Brasillach rejected the chance to flee the country in August 1944, and went into hiding before handing himself in. His former colleagues at the Je Suis Partout newspaper escaped to Sigmaringen, in Germany, from where they broadcast lists of the resistance personalities they would most like to have shot (one of whom would be the chief prosecutor at Brasillach's trial). Their time would come, but Brasillach had long enough to rehearse a Wildean defence. The trial lasted only six hours, and the result was never in doubt. If his arguments were wasted on the jury, they were more successful with his fellow writers, even though most of them despised him. A petition for his pardon was signed by 49 writers and intellectuals, among them Collette, Valery and Camus. Sartre refused to add his name, believing that a writer should be prepared to die for his ideals. Brasillach did not disagree and conducted himself with dignity at his trial, accepting responsibility for his words and actions.
From the pages of right-wing journals, Brasillach had exhorted the collaborationist authorities to extend no mercy to the men of the resistance. Against these crimes, his appellants to the Pardon Commission cited his virtues as a person and as a writer. De Gaulle was not swayed.
If words alone are not enough to exonerate an individual, nor are they enough to condemn him. Kaplan thinks that Brasillach was guilty, but that he did not deserve to die. I won't be the only one to disagree.
Nicholas Fearn is working on a book about philosophy