A Cultivated Collaborator

Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Cultivated Collaborator by David Jacobs
I had come to understand that power and beauty are two inseparable phenomena and that great political epochs invariably coincide with great epochs in art.
—Jacques Benoist-Méchin, De la défaite au désastre.

A new collection has joined the Hoover Archives’ already significant materials on Vichy France: the papers of Jacques Benoist-Méchin, an intellectual who was a willing, even eager, collaborator with the Nazi occupiers of his country. His life and writings offer another window into the minds of the French who cooperated with Hitler.

Benoist-Méchin was sentenced to die after World War II for his collaborationist activities, but in a remarkable turnaround, his sentence was commuted to life in prison, he was freed after a few years, and he achieved a kind of de facto rehabilitation as a successful author in postwar France. Scholars who mention Benoist-Méchin usually present him as a puzzle: a highly educated and cultured man whose collaboration seems at odds with the other phases of his career. Yet the man who saw power and beauty as intimately connected may have lived more consistently than historians realize.

Cultivated Collaborator by David Jacobs

Little has been written in English about Benoist-Méchin, as perhaps befits someone who, while occupying a number of high positions in the collaborationist Vichy regime, including a ministerial post, never achieved the notoriety either of those for whom he worked (Admiral François Darlan and the Vichy head of state, Marshal Philippe Pétain) or of those with whom he associated (Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a famously anti-Semitic author, and Pierre Drieu de la Rochelle, one of the main ideologues of French fascism).

Spared execution and then released from his cell after only six years, Benoist-Méchin gained his life while perhaps at the same time forfeiting any claim on posthumous fame. A fellow collaborator who was executed, the writer Robert Brasillach, achieved a notoriety denied to Benoist- Méchin, who admittedly was the lesser known figure before the war. This is not to say that Benoist-Méchin has gone unnoticed by historians. His role in Franco-German negotiations during the war is the subject of an entire appendix in Robert O. Paxton’s groundbreaking 1972 study Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940–1944. No biography, however, assembles the parts of his life or tries to make sense of the whole. In France, he seems to be regarded as an errant soul who at least partially redeemed himself in his later incarnation as a historian and connoisseur of the Middle East and North Africa. Little scrutiny seems to have been given to the question of how much, if any, of his Vichy baggage, with its Nazi insignia, accompanied him into the second half of his life.

Condemned to death and then freed, Benoist-Méchin gained his life while perhaps forfeiting any claim on posthumous fame.

As a young man, Benoist-Méchin had a number of walk-on roles in the dramas of more famous individuals, in the manner of the title character in Woody Allen’s Zelig. In this movie, we see the young Benoist-Méchin as variously a composer of classical music who also advised James Joyce about a song that appears in Ulysses; a Proust scholar who was personally acquainted with the author; a reporter heading a European news bureau; an adviser to William Randolph Hearst on his art purchases for Hearst Castle in San Simeon; and an aspiring writer and accomplished translator at ease in the literary circles of 1920s Paris. Everything seemed to indicate that he was headed for the kind of brilliant career enjoyed by talented and wellconnected French intellectuals of his generation.

Yet, by the 1930s, Benoist-Méchin’s attentions had turned toward history and politics and a special fascination with Nazi Germany. Having served in the French army occupying Germany after World War I, Benoist- Méchin had formed an early and positive impression of the country and its traditions, but its postwar Weimar culture had shocked him by what he perceived to be its decadence and dissolution. The order and military prowess established by the Nazis appealed to him. In 1936, Benoist-Méchin published his first major work as a historian, a five-volume study of the German army, which at the time became the standard reference work on the subject. (Interestingly enough, it was a work much appreciated by Vichy’s foe, General Charles de Gaulle, which may have played a role in mitigating the author’s postwar death sentence.)

Benoist-Méchin would later describe his enthusiasm for fascism as one that had been based not on economic or social doctrine but on a “style of life.” He was not referring to a lifestyle in the contemporary sense of the word, but rather to an aesthetic concept that he saw embodied in the new Nazi state and that he linked explicitly to power.

In France, Benoist-Méchin seems to be regarded as an errant soul who at least partially redeemed himself in his later historical work. Few asked how much, if any, Vichy and Nazi baggage he held onto.

Another experience that seems to have left Benoist-Méchin receptive to fascist ideology was his negative reaction to the United States, where he had spent a year in the 1920s and which he had come to see as a land dominated by money and inhabited by uncultured people. Nazi themes denouncing “plutocracy” and the crassness of U.S popular culture would have found an echo in Benoist-Méchin, whose disillusionment with democracy and capitalism was shared by many who gravitated toward fascism in the 1930s. Furthermore, a widely held belief among fascist-leaning intellectuals was that the Nazis would deliver on the promise of a New Europe, thereby realizing the pan-European hopes of a generation that had gone through the First World War and was prepared to do anything— including acquiesce to German conquest—to achieve a united Europe.

After the fall of France and a brief time as a prisoner of war, Benoist- Méchin embarked on a road of close collaboration with the victorious Germans. As he wrote years later in his memoirs, À l’épreuve du temps, the choices he faced in November 1941 after France’s defeat came down to a few succinct words: “A defeated country has the choice of either submitting to a conqueror or of being together with it; I chose to be with it.”

In both words and deeds, Benoist-Méchin made clear what it meant to “be with” the German conquerors of France. His was not a passive or tacit collaboration; it was active, enthusiastic, and sincere. Benoist- Méchin was no opportunist looking to ingratiate himself with the new rulers of his country. He already had befriended some key German officials, including the Nazi ambassador to France, Otto Abetz, before the war. Moreover, Benoist-Méchin’s collaboration was driven by his core beliefs, not circumstances.

Cultivated Collaborator by David Jacobs

Benoist-Méchin wanted France to join the Axis as a full partner in the war against the Allies, in return for which he believed that the Nazis would restore French sovereignty in a fascist Europe dominated by Germany. He learned the hard way that the Germany he so much admired was not about to agree to his proposals, which were turned down flat by Hitler. This disappointment did not lead to disillusionment with the Nazi cause, however. Viewed as too pro-German even by many of his French colleagues, Benoist- Méchin spent a relatively brief time at the top of the Vichy power structure (he served in 1941–42 as secrétaire général des services administratifs under Pétain), it was eventful.

Cultivated Collaborator by David Jacobs
Even Charles de Gaulle, Vichy’s archenemy, appreciated Benoist-Méchin’s history of the German army. De Gaulle’s attitude may have spared the author’s life.

The Benoist-Méchin papers include photocopies of what he called his notes politiques: memoranda, correspondence, and reports, all of which had originated with Benoist-Méchin, were sent to him, or otherwise crossed his desk during his time in government. Those documents, which provide details on various debates within the Vichy regime, include a letter sent by Adolf Hitler to Marshal Pétain on the first anniversary of France’s surrender to Germany. In it, Hitler responds to a letter from Pétain in which the marshal complained about the harshness of the German occupation (in particular, the shooting of hostages in reprisal for the killing of German officers by the French Resistance) and that the Germans were still interning a large number of French prisoners of war. The führer angrily rejects all Pétain’s meek entreaties:

I have learned, Monsieur le Maréchal, that you are indignant at the fact that hostages have been shot in reprisal for the murder of German officers. I believe, Monsieur le Maréchal, that the only ones who have the right to be indignant are me or the victims themselves and the survivors of the German officers who, although innocent, have been assassinated from behind because:

1) These officers did not come to France for their pleasure. It was France’s declaration of war that brought them to this country. They all would have preferred to live in Germany in the midst of their families, rather than to have to fulfill their duties as occupiers in a foreign country.

2) They have fulfilled the mandate that was imposed on them, their duty as soldiers even against their will, and that without any indignity or abuse.

The letter then veers into a sustained rant by Hitler, who accuses Vichy of being ungrateful for Germany’s role in saving France from “the Judeo-Anglo-Saxon menace” (presumably the British and Americans) and “the Bolshevist danger,” that is, the Soviet Union. The führer’s obsession with the Jews is much in evidence, as he conjures up his dark vision of what would happen should Germany lose the war: “The ruin of Germany would lead, it is true, to the triumph of French Jews, but the French people would itself be the victim of a disastrous catastrophe.”

Cultivated Collaborator by David Jacobs
Cultivated Collaborator by David Jacobs

The Benoist-Méchin collection includes other interesting materials: unpublished writings, correspondence, a large number of photographs, and unusual items relating to his time in Fresnes prison, including letters and poems exchanged among his fellow prisoners, all Vichy collaborators. In drawings and other artwork, these prisoners depict themselves as martyrs and victims of those who had defeated them: the Resistance and Free French forces. These images are remarkable in the level of their self-pity and evasion of responsibility for Nazi and Vichy militia violence against civilians.

Cultivated Collaborator by David Jacobs
“A defeated country has the choice of either submitting to a conqueror or of being together with it,” Benoist-Méchin wrote about his thinking in 1941. “I chose to be with it.”

The papers also document Benoist-Méchin’s postwar reinvention of himself. In the third volume of his memoirs, he describes how, after traveling to North African and Middle Eastern countries and becoming an intimate of a number of their rulers, he experienced a moment of epiphany in which he discovered that he had found his way again. In a mystical reverie, he recounts scenes from his youth, his time in prison, and then his more recent experiences in the desert and in Jerusalem. He describes a continuity in his life between a first half dominated by Germany and a second in which the Orient (by which he means the Middle East and North Africa) prevails:

In one hand, there was my German bastion; in the other, my Oriental bastion. Which would weigh the heavier? It is not for me to say. All that I know is that they correspond faithfully to the two halves of my life: the first bloodied by a Franco-German conflict; the second, torn by a Franco- Arab conflict.
These two halves of my work, these two halves of my life, it is here, for the first time, that I perceive the unity.

Historians may ask how much of Benoist-Méchin’s fascist sympathies remained in his later life. The evidence in the collection suggests not only that Benoist-Méchin remained steadfast in his convictions but that his anti- Semitism and admiration for strong authority figures were connected to the role he played in the second half of his life as an interpreter of Middle Eastern and North African history and politics.

In his many publications, Benoist-Méchin wrote glowingly about various authoritarian rulers—Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, King Hassan II of Morocco, Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi, among others—while at the same time denouncing what he perceived as the injustices of colonialism and Zionism. Of course, seeing a common theme in Benoist-Méchin’s pro-Nazi past and his later opinions does not mean that all who were pro-Arab at that time, or who denounced Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, were pro- Nazi. But among former Nazis and their apologists, strong pro-Arab sympathies were not uncommon. For Benoist-Méchin and others like him, no great intellectual leap was necessary to go from fascism to anticolonialism and anti-Zionism, positions that at any rate were not mutually exclusive.

Cultivated Collaborator by David Jacobs

The letters in Benoist-Méchin’s papers reveal the continuing relations he maintained with pro-Nazi figures not only in France but also in Germany, elsewhere in Europe, and in the Middle East. Among his correspondents were Oswald and Diana Mosley, the power couple of the small British fascist movement; the children of Rudolf Hess, who were trying to have their Nazi father released from Spandau prison (still imprisoned, Hess committed suicide in 1987); Johann von Leers, a Nazi propagandist wanted for war crimes who changed his name to Omar Amin after finding haven in Egypt, where he translated some of Benoist-Méchin’s writings into German; and Franz von Papen, the German official who played a key role in Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1934 and served the Nazi state until the end of the war.

Cultivated Collaborator by David Jacobs

Benoist-Méchin also corresponded with Paul Rassinier, one of the most prominent names associated with French “negationism”—those who deny that the Holocaust ever took place. The negationist thread also runs through Benoist-Méchin’s letters with Maurice Bardèche, a prominent figure in the history of French fascism and the brother-in-law of Robert Brasillach, the writer executed for collaboration. In a letter dated November 25, 1977, Bardèche suggests that Benoist-Méchin write to Robert Faurisson for information about the writings of an American “revisionist” (as the negationists call themselves) named Arthur R. Butz. Faurisson is known in France as a key figure in the history of Holocaust denial whose efforts continue to the present. Most recently he appeared at a conference with an explicitly negationist orientation that was held in Tehran under the official sponsorship of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Cultivated Collaborator by David Jacobs
For Benoist-Méchin and others like him, it was no great intellectual leap to go from fascism and anti-Semitism to anti-colonialist and anti-Zionist views, and Holocaust denial.

Benoist-Méchin’s post–World War II correspondence, however, was not limited to an extremist fringe. At the same time as he was in touch with former Nazis and deniers of the Holocaust, he was also corresponding with the crème de la crème of French politics and journalism. A full assessment of Benoist-Méchin’s remarkable return to the good graces of the French establishment remains to be written, and the material in the Hoover Archives may help flesh out such an account.

The title of Benoist-Méchin’s memoirs, À l’épreuve du temps, can be translated as either “the test of time” or “the ordeal of time.” Most historians would certainly say that the ordeals of Benoist-Méchin were small in comparison to those of the victims of the Nazis and Vichy France. Given the dubious ways this intellectual put his undoubted talents to use, it may be more interesting to ask whether his rehabilitation in the eyes of the French political class will stand the test of time.