Myth and legend have always been more appealing than history. However picaresque, mysterious or episodic, stories usually work their seductive magic through clear structure, a solid delineation between the good and the bad, cliff-hanging drama and satisfying resolution, usually in the form of a happy end. Against all hope, history itself is rarely, if ever, as tidy, and we like to construct narratives with which to make sense of the chaos that characterises the evidence left by people's lives.
There are few recent periods in which history and legend are so entangled as France's war years. Popular history and culture have started to catch up with some of the excellent historical work on the period, most notably that of United States historian Robert Paxton, and to take account of the miasma of divided allegiances, hypocrisy and revisionism that has settled over the period, but the legacy of myth-making remains.
Works such as Patrick Marnham's gripping biography of resistance leader Jean Moulin and Alice Kaplan's illuminating study of the trial of writer and fascist propagandist Robert Brasillach provide welcome additions to the literature that dismantles the all-too-facile narratives offered by the vested interests of the right and left, the hero-building exercises that accompany inflations of resistance legend or the revisionism of the Holocaust deniers and "patriotic" apologists for the Petain regime.
Moulin was not always considered France's major resistance hero. His life had been so obscured by secrecy and his death so clouded in mystery that he remained a shadowy figure. His near-canonisation in 1964 was promoted and used by Charles de Gaulle as a means of strengthening a sense of national unity that was conspicuously absent in postwar France. Moulin had attempted, following the general's orders, to unify the very disparate groups working in both the occupied north and in Petain's southern zone, as well as trying to bring the increasingly powerful communist element under some kind of control.
Moulin was captured by Klaus Barbie in Lyon in 1943, and he died in circumstances that have not been clarified: he may have committed suicide to avoid breaking under torture, or else died as a results of wounds suffered under extreme torture. The raid in which Moulin and other resistance leaders were caught was the direct result of a denunciation or tip-off, forms of treachery that were extremely common, as Marnham makes abundantly clear, in a situation of paranoia and mutual suspicion, near-famine and endemic rivalry among resistance groups. Marnham has done a great deal of thorough detective work - and it makes for a fascinating read - but his results are inconclusive. There is, though, a strong suggestion, underpinned by hints that run through the book, that the communists would have benefited most from his death.
Reacting against his elevation to the status of resistance hero in 1964, several historians suggested that Moulin had in fact been recruited by the Soviets in the mid-1930s, and that he had been an extremely well-placed communist agent, as close as anyone to de Gaulle in London and in constant touch with key Soviet intelligence agents. This would have enabled Moscow to take an increasingly commanding position within the resistance. Marnham does not find evidence for this.
He manages to construct painstakingly an account of Moulin's life, drawn in part from the six-volume French biography by Daniel Cordier. Moulin grew up as a classic French Republican: a defender of the values of the revolution - as opposed to a monarchist and Catholic - attracted to the left in the 1930s, and close enough to key communists during the days of the Spanish civil war and the Popular Front to be identified as a fellow-traveller. But Moulin succumbed to the charismatic leadership of de Gaulle, adopting his idea of patriotic national unity, after meeting the general in London. The apparently emotionally motivated commitment to de Gaulle as France's wartime leader is difficult to reconcile with the manipulative politician described by Marnham earlier in the book. There are precious few clues that suggest this as a credible shift in Moulin's personality and style. Perhaps wisely, given occasionally superficial and speculative psychological interpretations, Marnham does not speculate as to Moulin's deeper motivation, or the personality traits that would have made him susceptible to the general's undoubted personal power.
While he lays out the complexities of the situation well, Marnham clearly has a particular score to settle with the communists. They are presented, perhaps a little too unequivocally, as the scheming villains of his story: both opportunistic and ruthless, and determined, after the fact, to rewrite the history of the war and their part in the resistance. That many of them, and perhaps all those who pulled the strings for Moscow and the Comintern, were manipulative and at times criminal is undeniable; but it is also true that many of the party's resistance foot soldiers pursued paths of extraordinary courage and self-sacrifice.
If Moulin's resistance years have been exploited as heroic narrative by the Gaullists and a story of duplicity and Soviet-manipulated treachery by the right, the very different case of the writer Robert Brasillach has become a cause célèbre for Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front as well as French Holocaust deniers. Brasillach was one of the few collaborators who was condemned and executed for his beliefs and words. It is probable that he would have survived if he had been arrested after the end of the war rather than giving himself up in 1944, only a few weeks after the liberation of Paris. His trial provided a symbolic moment, an event through which retribution - so badly needed at the time - could be expressed and "justice" re-established, cleansed of its inevitable association with collaboration.
There is no question that Brasillach, aged 35 at the time of his trial, was responsible for the vilest form of propaganda, as well as publicly denouncing Jews, communists, Freemasons and other enemies of la patrie , mostly in Je Suis Partout , the odious fascist paper he edited until 1943.
Many people were imprisoned, deported or executed as a result of his denunciations. There is something particularly horrifying about Brasillach's call for the deportation of Jewish children along with their parents. "We must separate," he wrote, "from the Jews en bloc and not keep any little ones."
It is perhaps to Alice Kaplan's credit that she does not try to harden her readers' sense of outrage in the face of Brasillach's inhumanity. She does not go over the terrible experience of those unaccompanied children who travelled from various camps to Drancy and then on to Auschwitz. It is difficult at times not to feel that she is being a little too measured and, in the process, passing over the intensity of feelings that made the trial and its outcome possible. Kaplan is probably closest in spirit - and she is in excellent company - to the two most significant writers to join in signing a petition to de Gaulle asking for mercy for Brasillach: Albert Camus and Francois Mauriac. The first signed after lengthy reflection because of his opposition to the death penalty, the second because he believed passionately (and in advance of most of his vengeful contemporaries) in the need for forgiveness.
In his book on Moulin, Marnham describes the post-liberation terror in Marseilles with an emphasis on the bloodlust and almost random horror that fired the events that serves his anti-communist slant very well. Kaplan is not as partisan, but in assuming that her readers are familiar with the frenzy of the purges, or in believing that her account of Brasillach's trial is better served by a less emotional "story", she may have produced a work that fails to contextualise the judicial process sufficiently. She is very good on the dramatis personae, the prosecutor Marcel Reboul, the defence advocate Jacques Isorni and the jurors, with fascinating background on their war years and careers after the trial, but the world outside is only partially present - and in a muted form.
Brasillach himself comes across as a strange figure, a talented wordsmith, particularly as literary historian and critic, split between what Kaplan describes as "soft-focus" sentimentality and a mercilessly vicious streak. This dichotomy makes psychological sense - although Kaplan does not go into this - as the two extremes seem to have excluded the possibility of a middle ground, and encouraged a split personality characteristic perhaps of someone stuck in schoolboy mode. Brasillach has the physique of those children, arrested in the midst of puberty, unable to identify strongly with a given sexuality and precocious to the extent of taking on the presumed body language and verbal mannerisms of adults. The fact that Brasillach always lived with his sister and brother-in-law, and probably never followed through his homoerotic longings, fits in with this picture of arrested development. None of this is explicit in Kaplan's book, but it is to her credit that such a reading, among several others, can be made.
Brasillach's homosexuality, which was undoubtedly connected with his admiration of Germany's cult of athletic male youth, was exploited by prosecutor Reboul, who used the accused writer's reference to France having "slept with" Germany as a means of introducing metaphors of passive sodomy that made his treachery appear doubly criminal given attitudes to homosexuality at the time. Interestingly, in a recently published study of the shaving of French women who were supposed to have "slept with the enemy" at the time of the Liberation ( La France 'Virile' by Fabrice Virgili), the metaphor of France having been penetrated by Germany comes up again, and Virgili argues that the women had in a way - and not unlike Brasillach - to pay for their surrender to German sexual conquest.
Nazism, therefore, for Brasillach, was romanticised, idealised, as a world in which male youth, fountainhead of creative power, is allowed its full expression. The horror lies in Brasillach's adolescent naivety as much as in anything else. But it also lies in his undeniable skill with words and his ability to influence younger people and turn them towards hatred and intolerance.
Kaplan's book is infused with a quality absent from Brasillach's own writings: a sense of mercy. Although she does not shrink from finding him responsible for encouraging "crimes against humanity", she does not allow herself to be drawn into recrimination, and she achieves a degree of detachment and wisdom that is rare and exemplary in writings about the second world war. Her book represents a quiet and unassuming act of redemption, extricating qualities of humanity and fallibility from the blinkered certainties of blame, retroactive spin and politically motivated interpretation.
In the light of her earlier French Lessons , which described, among other things, an extremely unpleasant set of exchanges with Maurice Bard che, Brasillach's brother-in-law and apologist, The Collaborator , on the surface not an autobiographical venture, gains from its connection to Kaplan's own personal journey of exploration. This voyage began at the age of eight, when after the death of her father, one of the Nuremberg prosecutors, she discovered in one of his desk drawers a number of horrifying photographs from the camps. This is what elevates her book on Brasillach above the purely academic study, and all the more so because she has been able to keep her emotions out of the work.
What both these books do, in their very different ways, is reinforce the sense of intractable difficulty that surrounds the period and the mythologisation that affects it. That neither book comes up with easy answers or interpretations, and opens up new questions rather than resolves them, may not be immediately satisfying, but makes for much better history.
Mark Kidel is a writer and film-maker working in France and the UK. He grew up in postwar France, where his father wrote about French politics.
The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach
Author - Alice Kaplan
ISBN - 0 226 42414 6
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 308