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The Sorrow and the Pity

THE POLITICS OF RETRIBUTION IN EUROPE, World War II and Its Aftermath Edited by Istvan Deak, Jan T. Gross and Tony Judt; Princeton University Press: 326 pp., $19.95

THE COLLABORATOR, The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach By Alice Kaplan; University of Chicago Press: 296 pp., $25

May 21, 2000|EUGEN WEBER | Eugen Weber is the author of numerous books, including "The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s" and, most recently, "Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages."

In 1944 and 1945, as war rolled over Europe, carrying in its wake liberation from oppressive, murderous German occupation, alien repression gave way to homemade revenge. Those, and they were many, who had accommodated the enemy as best they could joined as enthusiastically in the purges of the time as did the few who actually resisted. It was, writes Istvan Deak, one of the editors of "The Politics of Retribution in Europe," "as if Europeans hoped to rid themselves of the memory of their compromises and crimes by decimating their own ranks." Lynchings, ritual humiliations, dismissals, arrests and trials targeted several million individuals. Collaborators were to be punished. The popular call for retribution went hand in hand with an equally passionate hope for a rejuvenated society that would be cleaner, more just and more functional than the moth-eaten regimes that the Germans so easily swept aside in 1940. As Peter Conway explains, the cleanup was also about disowning past failures; purges were more than mere revenge: they were "statements of a wider commitment to justice and freedom."

Like most political and social aspirations, these hopes were going to be disappointed by and large, and the sharpest frustrations were reserved for those who had hoped for swift and equal justice. The essays in "Politics of Retribution" describe what happened--mostly in terms of administrative action and court activities, from Athens to Amsterdam and from Budapest to Bordeaux. They range from a rather perfunctory account of "Postwar Justice in France" to exemplary discussions of "Popular Passions and Political Realities" in Belgium and the Netherlands. Everywhere, a majority of the population supported vigorous action against collaborators. But vigorous, let alone severe, action varied, as it did between the Netherlands, where for every 100,000 inhabitants more than 1,200 were penalized, and France, where only a quarter as many got some comeuppance. Everywhere, political crimes were punished more swiftly and harshly than economic ones; and almost everywhere those who lived by publicity--journalists, men of letters, public figures--paid heavily for it.

The respectable classes and their acolytes--industrialists, businessmen, magistrates, policemen--did better. The masses clamored for rough justice; the ruling classes, preoccupied with restoration of productivity and order, sought to minimize the damage that purge and persecution could wreak on economic recovery. Revenge was reduced by restoration. Less productive traitors went first: Actors, actresses, cabaret performers, writers, poets, subordinate abettors and simple crackpots could be sacrificed more economically than less expendable members of the property-owning classes.

Alice Kaplan's "The Collaborator" provides a good example of how the practice worked. In France, a land of articulate, impertinent intellectuals, Robert Brasillach--the collaborator in question--was a prodigy. Owlish and chubby, he had proved himself a pungent critic, a sensual stylist, a viciously clever sophist while still in his teens. By 1931, when he was 21, he had published his first book (on the poet Virgil) and had been put in charge of the country's premier politico-literary page: that of the "Action Francaise," a royalist, nationalist, anti-Semitic daily whose intellectual influence reached to the far left and right. By 1937, still not yet 30, he was the editor of Je Suis Partout, a major weekly with virulent fascist sympathies.

Seduced and titillated by Nazi spectacle, ritual and brute force, wishing that France could match them, he invested his talent in preaching a Nazi-style social and national revolution for France, too, romanticized Hitler and poeticized Nazism. His publications meanwhile kept flowing: essays (on Corneille), novels (half-baked), poetry (charming), history (propaganda), memoirs and a history of the cinema that still sits on my shelves. Kaplan describes the fat book, published in 1935, as probably the first general history of the art, encyclopedic, written with grace and charm. She's right, and it's still worth reading, as are, for those interested in France between the wars, his political chronicles. Unfortunately, he did not stop at that.


After 1940, the poisonous polemicist became what he called a "collaborator of the heart." He pursued Gaullists, resistors and leaders of the defeated Republic, all allegedly cat's-paws of communists and Jews. In the wake of the first roundup of Paris Jews in 1942, he demanded that Jewish children be deported with their parents. Callowly callous, he denounced mayors, professors, students, all who failed to meet his standard of enthusiastic collaboration, calling for their chastisement, even their deaths.

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