Writers and Artists in the Line of Fire

When the Allies disembarked in Normandy, Alfred Fabre-Luce saw their landing craft as Viking ships in a new invasion. Along with other right-wing writers, journalists, actors and artists likely to be accused of collaboration, Fabre-Luce had to decide whether to stay or flee, but he appeared more relaxed than most. At a literary funeral during the uneasy interregnum of that summer, when writers of the intellectual Resistance were moving back to Paris, he noted that ‘one could see side by side François Mauriac “already returned” and Drieu la Rochelle “not yet departed”’.

The tension increased during late July and early August. The actor and dramatist Sacha Guitry, like several others at risk, began to receive scribbled death threats. The Spanish ambassador, José Lequerica, at a dinner on 17 August, offered Guitry a visa for Spain. He made a similar offer to Drieu la Rochelle, but both declined: Drieu because he felt his fate awaited him in Paris, not in exile; and Guitry because he believed his popularity would protect him. (His optimism was excessive, if one goes by an Institut Français d’Opinion Publique poll: 56 per cent of the sample wanted him punished.)

As well as writers such as Céline and Lucien Rebatet who escaped to Sigmaringen, a few sought shelter elsewhere. The elderly Alphonse de Châteaubriant, who won the Prix Goncourt in 1911, elected to live out a hermit’s existence in a forest of the Austrian Tyrol. He was on the Resistance’s wanted list because he had been a member of the central committee for the recruitment of the Legion of French Volunteers. Charles Maurras, the arch-reactionary demagogue of Action Française, hid under a false name in Lyons. Georges Simenon, the Belgian-born creator of Inspector Maigret, feared arrest because two or three of his books had been filmed by the German film company Continental. He was placed under house arrest in January 1945 for three months, but released without charges being brought.

The majority of compromised writers chose to lie low and stay in the capital, despite the threat issued by the Resistance that all those who had contributed to enemy propaganda would be brought to justice. This justice was undefined, but the assassination on 28 June of Philippe Henriot, the Minister of Propaganda in Laval’s last government, provided a clear warning that words as well as deeds could constitute a capital offence.

Drieu la Rochelle and Jacques Benoist-Méchin were among those who stayed behind. Benoist-Méchin had the most to fear. He had not simply written in support of the New European Order; he had served as a junior minister in the Vichy administration and been passionately involved in raising the anti-Bolshevik legion for the Russian front.

Drieu had signed the diehard declaration of right-wingers on 9 July 1944, which called for a new government and heavy penalties, including the death sentence, for all those who encouraged civil war or compromised ‘the European position of France’. This would have been enough to execute him, but many would have pleaded for mercy in his case. Thanks to his charm and his talent, he had many friends on the left despite his views.

Obsessed since adolescence with death and suicide, Drieu made an unsuccessful attempt to kill himself the day before the church bells rang out in Paris. ‘He failed with his death as he failed with his life’ was the verdict of the Resistance newspaper Franc-Tireur. It took two more attempts before he finally succeeded in the following year. Drieu’s old friend Aldous Huxley wrote after his death: ‘The moral of the whole distressing story is that the majority of intellectuals at the present time recognize only two alternatives in their situation, and opt for one or the other, with results that are always bad, even if they happen to choose the victorious side.’

Others who stayed behind in the capital were Jean Giono, Fabre-Luce, Henry de Montherlant, Paul Chack and Robert Brasillach, the latter an exultant fascist and former editor of that virulent publication Je suis partout. Hidden in various apartments behind closed shutters, all they could do in that last week of August was to listen to the sounds of the Liberation and wait for a hammering on the door.

On 14 September, after twenty-eight days concealed in an attic room, Brasillach gave himself up. The decision was made when he heard that, on his account, his mother had been arrested and imprisoned. After taking a last look at the banks of the Seine opposite Notre-Dame – ‘Paris is beautiful, when one is about to leave it,’ he recalled from his cell – he presented himself in the afternoon at the Prefecture of Police and was conducted without handcuffs across to the Conciergerie on the Quai de l’Horloge. He spent the next five months in prison, first at Noisy and then at Fresnes.

Prominent figures in the performing arts were more visible targets than writers, but few of them had been carried away by the sort of dangerous idealism which had infected Brasillach. These members of the demi-collaboration were not guilty of treason, but of wanting to continue their lives as if nothing had changed. Jean-Louis Barrault argued that continuing to work and ignoring the Germans was a positive attitude, and all that could be done if one were not an active member of the Resistance.

This was perfectly valid as far as it went, but many people found it difficult to remain morally upright throughout the Occupation. It was also tempting for people in the performing arts to look on the Germans in Paris as no more than a new, cultivated élite. Otto Abetz was an ardent Francophile and those who attended his parties at the German Embassy in the rue de Lille found it hard to remember that this was the civilized face of a brutal and oppressive enemy.

The superficial glamour of the Occupation was perhaps best illustrated at the parties given by General Hanesse of the Luftwaffe, who had taken over the Rothschild town house in the Avenue de Marigny as his official residence. There he gave magnificent receptions, for Goering among others, which attracted a number of stars from the French stage. Arletty had a stronger reason for going. Her lover, with whom she lived in the Ritz, was one of General Hanesse’s officers. His guests were not only filmstars. On his return from prison camp, Baron Élie de Rothschild remarked to the old family butler, Félix, that the house must have been very quiet under General Hanesse’s occupation.

‘On the contrary, Monsieur Élie. There were receptions every evening.’

‘But… who came?’

‘The same people, Monsieur Élie. The same as before the war.’

Sacha Guitry, whose talents both as a dramatist and an actor suggest comparisons with Noël Coward, was arrested early one morning before he had a chance to dress. He was hustled out of his house in yellow-flowered pyjamas, jade-green crocodile pumps and a Panama hat, and taken to the mairie of the 7th arrondissement. When asked by the examining magistrate after his arrest why he had agreed to meet Goering, Guitry replied ‘par curiosité’. He said that he would have been just as interested in having dinner with Stalin, which was probably true.

Guitry recorded in his memoirs that as Leclerc’s troops approached the city Arletty had telephoned himin great agitation: she was an obvious target for épuration. When she was arrested early in September, a terrible rumour ran round Paris that her breasts had been cut off. This was a grotesque invention, but she may well have had her head shaved. Her hairdresser clearly remembers her turbaned head and having to make a wig for her. Arletty is said to have yelled at her accusers: ‘What is this government which is so interested in our sex lives!’ Her own account plays down the event of her arrest: ‘Two very discreet gentlemen came to fetch me.’ There was a car and no handcuffs, she said. Fromprison, she was allowed out under escort to make the final reshoots for Les Enfants du Paradis. It came out on 15 March 1945. One of her lines ran: ‘I amthe victimof a miscarriage of justice.’

Gabrielle Coco Chanel was born poor like Arletty, but rose to become the founder of one of Paris’s most successful fashion houses. She too had made her way up from nothing and was contemptuous of what people thought. ‘France has got what she deserves!’ Chanel declared at a lunch party on the Côte d’Azur in 1943. Prince Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge’s wife, Baba, was so shocked that, on meeting Coco the next day, she turned her back. (Shortly afterwards, when police came to arrest Baba Lucinge as a Jew – she was born d’Erlanger – Lucinge suspected that Chanel had tipped off the German authorities.)

The most striking similarity between Arletty and Chanel was that both had taken German lovers and lived in the Ritz. Arletty had her ‘beau Fridolin’ from the Luftwaffe, as Galtier-Boissière called him. Chanel – then aged sixty – was with a handsome German called Hans Gunther von Dincklage, known as Spatz, who may or may not have been an Abwehr spy.

As an insurance policy at the Liberation, Coco Chanel is said to have given away hundreds of flacons of Chanel No. 5 to GIs from her establishment in the rue Cambon. But when she was arrested at the Ritz early in September no American troops came to her support. She was, however, released soon after. She claimed that she had been involved in a secret mission to Spain, to bring the Allies and the Axis to the peace table, and hinted that Winston Churchill – a friend from her days as the mistress of Bendor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster – had intervened on her behalf. But whatever the reasons for her release, she left Paris in a bitter mood. She and Spatz, who had got out of France before the Liberation, were reunited in Switzerland; and Chanel made only odd visits to France over the next eight years.

Colette had supplemented her income during the Occupation by writing for the collaborationist paper Le Petit Parisien, and even produced an article for the pro-German La Gerbe. On the other hand, she was hiding her Jewish husband, Maurice Goudeket. After his escape from prison camp in 1942, he did not leave their apartment in the Palais Royal until the Liberation.

Colette’s neighbour in the Palais Royal, Jean Cocteau, exaggerated the insults and blows he received from fascists during the Occupation as an avant-garde writer and a homosexual. As a persecuted minority, he stood a better chance of effacing his appearances in Otto Abetz’s salon at the German Embassy.

Serge Lifar, Diaghilev’s protégé, who during the Occupation had been the Vichy-appointed director of the Paris Opéra and had toured in Germany, was initially banned for life from the French stage but was then let off with only a year’s suspension. He protested that he should have been honoured, not condemned, for having saved the Opéra from the Germans, but Lifar was seldom in touch with the real world.

Collaborators in the plastic arts numbered those who had attended the opening of the exhibition of Nazi-approved sculpture by Arno Breker at the Orangerie in May 1942 and those who had accepted an official tour of Germany sponsored by Berlin.

The Breker exhibition, in aid of Wehrmacht charities, was opened by the sculptor Aristide Maillol, and the occasion attracted most of the demi-collaboration. Guitry even argued in his memoirs that because Breker had asked Maillol to open his exhibition, and introduced him to a line of saluting Wehrmacht generals as ‘Mon maître vénéré’, the whole event represented France’s supremacy in the arts over Germany, and thus washed away the defeat of 1940. Guitry did not mention that a year later ‘degenerate works’ by Max Ernst, Léger, Miró, Picabia and Picasso were publicly destroyed outside the Jeu de Paume.

Among the painters who had been on the sponsored tour of Germany were Paul Belmondo, André Derain, Dunoyer de Segonzac, Kees van Dongen and Vlaminck. Vlaminck, a friend of Simenon and bitter enemy of Picasso, went into hiding at the Liberation. But the sanctions against the painters were mild. The Beaux-Arts recommended that they should each be made to create a major work for the state as punishment, and their works were excluded from the Salon de la Libération.

‘It is clear,’ wrote Galtier-Boissière in his diary two weeks after the Liberation, ‘that the majority of our stars are more or less tainted… but in the campaigns which are gathering steam, there is a strong whiff of jealousy.’ Even after Arletty’s death in the summer of 1992, letters were published in newspapers objecting to the fulsome obituaries. They did not complain about her ‘collaboration horizontale’ with a German officer, but about the fact that she had been dining at the Ritz while the rest of France was going hungry.

Most of the directors and stars of the cinema had worked with the German-controlled company Continental. Henri-Georges Clouzot was the director of Le Corbeau, considered one of the most remarkable films of the war years. The Germans were very dubious about Le Corbeau, in which a series of poison-pen letters throws the inhabitants of a village into a turmoil of mutual hatred and suspicion. Many people saw it as a veiled indictment of the Occupation; but after the Liberation, Clouzot was banned from working in France. As soon as the decision was announced he left for Hollywood.


Robert Brasillach reached Fresnes prison a week after Benoist-Méchin, but at first neither of them knew of the other’s presence, even though they were colleagues in an alien world, with echoing sounds of footsteps, keys jangling and iron doors clanging. Benoist-Méchin described the image of shivering figures in its foggy penumbra as ‘a queue of the damned waiting to cross the River Styx’.

In the rare moments they found for conversation, usually in the exercise space, they discussed their lawyers, their examining magistrates, but not their own prospects of acquittal, only those of others. The trials of writers and propagandists began that autumn.

The last day of October marked the trial of a fanatical old scribbler of pamphlets, Comte Armand de Chastenet de Puységur, who described himself professionally on his visiting cards as ‘anti-sémite, anti-maçon, anti-bourgeois, anti-capitaliste, anti-communiste, anti-démocrate et anti-républicain’. When he heard the death sentence read out, he gave the fascist salute and shouted, ‘Vive la France!’ The anti-Semites of vieille France had forgotten nothing and forgiven nobody. When Charles Maurras, the leader of Action Française, was condemned to life imprisonment a few months later, he cried from the dock, ‘It’s the revenge of Dreyfus!’ Maurras lost his chair at the Académie Française.

Céline, imprisoned in Denmark, was accused in absentia of collaboration under Article 75. His retort, predictably sarcastic, was that he had hardly sold the plans of the Maginot Line. He also sent the following diatribe from Copenhagen: ‘I never set foot in the German Embassy. I never met Otto Abetz before the war. Abetz always detested me. I met Abetz during the war two or three times for a few minutes. I always found the political activities of Abetz grotesque and disastrous and the man himself a creature of terrible vanity, a cataclysmic clown.’

The purge of writers was not only a judicial affair. It became a matter of professional conscience, or politics. During the Occupation the Comité National des Écrivains (CNE) – the National Committee of Writers – had been established as an association of intellectual resistance. Its mouthpiece was Les Lettres françaises, the literary review of the Resistance, established by Jacques Decour (later executed by the Germans at the fort of Mont Valérian) and Jean Paulhan, a writer and editor at Gallimard.Les Lettres françaises was a defiant challenge to Drieu la Rochelle’s takeover of La Nouvelle Revue française.

On 9 September, two weeks after the Liberation, the first non-clandestine issue was published. It contained not only articles by Mauriac, Sartre and Paulhan, but also a ‘Manifesto of French Writers’ signed by some sixty leading intellectuals. This contained a demand for ‘the just punishment of usurpers and traitors’. The next issue had a blacklist from the CNE containing ninety-four names. An expanded list of 156 names was included in the issue of 21 October.

Jean Paulhan – ‘Paulhan le Juste’, as Galtier-Boissière called him – became first uneasy about, then strongly opposed to, the calls for retribution. Like Paulhan, Galtier-Boissière distrusted and disliked the rush to accuse. ‘The Nazis,’ he wrote, ‘have left us an imprint of authoritarianism and persecution.’

Louis Aragon, the Surrealist turned Stalinist, with his silver hair and icy looks, was the Robespierre of the intellectuals. He attempted to extend the attack to writers hated by the Communist Party. But he was not as bloodthirsty against his right-wing colleagues as has often been made out. He stood up for Drieu la Rochelle and for his former publisher, Robert Denoël.

The trials of journalists and writers continued in December and into January 1945. This rapid rhythm was explained by Pierre-Henri Teitgen, who became de Gaulle’s next Minister of Justice: ‘these “intellectuals” had provided the prosecution case for their own trial during the Occupation. It was only necessary to reread their articles and other published work to establish, without any argument, the indictment they deserved before sending them in front of the court.’ The result was that writers were tried while the clamour for vengeance was at its peak.

On 29 December, however, when Henri Béraud, the editor of Grin-goire, was condemned to death, people were shocked. Béraud was right-wing, anti-Semitic and hated the British, but he had never written in favour of the Germans. Many suspected that jealousy had played a part. Béraud had been the best-paid journalist in France, earning 600,000 francs a year. And when the secretary of Jean Hérold-Paquis (the announcer of Radio-Paris, who had been executed in October) was condemned to forced labour for life, even the Resistance press was outraged.

Two days later, on 4 January, François Mauriac published his article, ‘About a Verdict’, in Le Figaro. There were no grounds for condemning Béraud for intelligence with the enemy, he argued.

This intervention almost certainly persuaded de Gaulle to commute the sentence. In his campaign in Le Figaro against the imbalances of the épuration, Mauriac even went so far as to say that people should be allowed to have made the wrong political choice – a brave position to hold at the time, and one that made him many enemies. The satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné baptized this outspoken Catholic writer ‘Saint-François des assises’ – St Francis of the assizes. Camus argued in Combat that mercy for killers removed their victims’ right to justice, and that the crimes of fascism must be discouraged for ever. Mauriac replied in Le Figaro; and so began a great tennis match of moral argument.

Even before it opened on 19 January 1945, there was a feeling that the trial of Robert Brasillach, the fascist editor of the magazine Je suis partout, was going to be the apogee of the intellectual purge. François Mauriac and Paul Valéry both provided submissions on his behalf.

The morning of the trial was intensely cold. Paris had been under snow for sixteen days. There was no fuel for heating since coal barges were ice-locked on canals. In the ill-lit courtroom, the breath of a speaker condensed in the freezing air.

The issues, apparently clear at first, were hammered in and out of shape by both sides. Brasillach’s counsel, Maître Jacques Isorni, who became famous as Marshal Pétain’s most eloquent defender seven months later, claimed that an error of political judgement did not constitute treason. If Brasillach had supported the Germans, it was his way of wanting a stronger France. The climax of his defence was when, having elevated Brasillach to the status of a poet of national stature, he lifted his arms and cried out, ‘Do civilized people shoot their poets?’ This dramatic question tapped into the feeling which had swept Europe in 1936, when the Nationalists executed Federico García Lorca. Isorni ignored the fact that Brasillach was on trial not for his literature but for his denunciatory journalism.

The crucial evidence lay in his articles in Je suis partout. Here Isorni was on more difficult ground. Brasillach’s words were there on the page, and what Isorni called his ‘erreurs tragiques’ went beyond most people’s idea of collaboration. He had supported the German invasion of the unoccupied zone in November 1942 on the grounds that it reunited France. He had called for the death of politicians such as Georges Mandel, Reynaud’s Minister of the Interior in 1940, who was murdered by miliciens shortly before the liberation of Paris. Although he had not denounced anybody to the authorities, he had denounced people in print. Brasillach, like Drieu, had signed the call in the summer of 1944 for the summary execution of all members of the Resistance. But perhaps the most chilling statement was: ‘We must separate ourselves from the Jews en bloc and not keep the children.’ Brasillach claimed that, although anti-Semitic, he had never advocated collective violence against the Jews. Probably he did not know about the death camps when he wrote those words; yet even if he was thinking of mass resettlement in Eastern Europe, his statement is still horrifying.

Despite the weight of the case against him, Brasillach confidently dissected the prosecution case in the interests of historical accuracy. He defended himself ‘with eloquence and skill’, wrote the apprentice film director Alexandre Astruc, reporting the case forCombat. The jury, however, took only twenty minutes to reach their verdict. ‘C’est un honneur’ was Brasillach’s only comment on the death sentence, after some of his supporters had cried protests in his favour.

Brasillach’s mother, whose husband had been killed in the First World War, begged Mauriac to save her son’s life. Mauriac threw himself into the task. He redoubled his arguments for clemency in the Le Figaro and organized a petition asking de Gaulle to reprieve Brasillach. Among the fifty-nine signatories were a few genuine resistants, many neutrals, and a number of writers and artists who were already under a cloud.

Those who signed included Jean Anouilh, Claudel, Valéry, Colette, Cocteau and, most surprisingly, Albert Camus. Camus had spent a sleepless night debating whether or not to sign. He abhorred everything Brasillach stood for yet signed as a moral stand against the death penalty. Jean Cocteau signed because he felt that writers were being made the scapegoats for other leading collaborationists, especially industrialists, who, it could be argued, had killed many more people by helping the German war machine. (Among those who refused to sign were Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who believed in authorial responsibility, and Picasso, who said he was following the will of the Communist Party.)

On 3 February 1945 at midday François Mauriac was received by de Gaulle at the rue Saint-Dominique with great courtesy; but that, as he realized, was not a reliable indication of the General’s thinking. Isorni received a much clearer idea that night at de Gaulle’s private residence in the Bois de Boulogne, where he was taken in an official car, through heavily guarded barriers. De Gaulle, despite all Isorni’s arguments, decided to reject the appeal.

Isorni believed that de Gaulle did not want to be attacked by the Communists for softness. There is also a phrase in Gaston Palewski’s memoirs which revealed his influence: ‘Personally, I regret that I did not insist on a reprieve for Robert Brasillach.’

Brasillach was executed on 6 February. It was the eleventh anniversary of the right-wing riot and the attempt to storm the National Assembly across the Pont de la Concorde, an event which led, two years later, to the Popular Front government. On 20 April 1945, as the Red Army fought towards the centre of Berlin, Brasillach’s coffin was moved to the cemetery of Père-Lachaise.

His friend Jacques Benoist-Méchin did not face trial for over two and a half years. The delay undoubtedly saved him. He was condemned to death on 6 June 1947, but his sentence was quickly commuted to forced labour for life. He was freed in 1954, having acquired a fascination with the world of Islam through prison reading. This extraordinary man amassed such a knowledge of his subject that de Gaulle, after he became President in 1958, used him discreetly as a special adviser on Arab matters.

Céline, finally tried in absentia in 1950, received a sentence that would have been unimaginably light five years before – a year in prison and a heavy fine.

The épuration only increased political tensions in the world of letters and the arts. According to that redoubtable chaplain of the FFI, Father Bruckberger, he and Camus resigned from the National Committee of Writers because of the increasing Communist grip exerted by Aragon and Elsa Triolet. Mauriac, who did not resign, later buttonholed Camus in an attempt to persuade him to return.

‘Why did you resign?’ he asked.

‘It’s for me to ask you why you didn’t resign,’ Camus replied. ‘And I’ll tell you why you didn’t: because you were afraid.’

‘You’re quite right,’ Mauriac admitted.

Mauriac was too honest to have any illusions. At a dinner with Pastor Boegner, he described the National Front – a Communist-dominated organization of which he was a member – as ‘the screen behind which Communism carries out its business. I know because I’m part of it.’

Jean Paulhan raged the most against the takeover of Les Lettres françaises. He openly scorned the more-resistant-than-thou fellow-travellers and the National Committee of Writers, which Aragon and Triolet wanted to turn into a writers’ union closely allied to the Communist Party.

Aragon’s plan, no doubt elaborated at party headquarters, was the classic Stalinist tactic of extending the purge to include critics of the Communist Party. On 25 November, in Les Lettres françaises, he launched an attack on André Gide, comparing him to Hérold-Paquis, the fascist propagandist from Radio-Paris. His real target was not the Gide who had, for a short period, written for Drieu’s Nouvelle Revue française, but the unrepentant author of Retour de l’URSS, the book most reviled by Stalinists at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Gide’s friend Roger Martin du Gard was disgusted with ‘the bad faith and the dishonest motives of Aragon’, and he warned Gide in Algiers to take care on his return to France. ‘Think carefully about reaching Paris: the ground is mined!’

The party also sought to destroy the reputation of Paul Nizan, a novelist and Sartre’s oldest friend, who had been killed on the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940. Nizan had been a loyal Communist until the Nazi– Soviet pact in August 1939. When his very short and simple letter of resignation was published, the enraged party circulated malicious allegations and Maurice Thorez described him as a ‘police spy’.

After the war Louis Aragon, as part of a renewed whispering campaign against Nizan, repeated the allegation to Sartre, a fellow member of the National Committee of Writers. Sartre prepared a statement of protest against the vilification and persuaded André Breton, Albert Camus, Jean Paulhan, Julien Benda and François Mauriac to sign as well. Sartre was powerful enough to stand up to the Communist anger directed against him, but the lies lingered on for years.

Politics were also complicated for those in the literary establishment who had something to hide. The veteran Catholic poet Paul Claudel presented a poemto the glory of General de Gaulle, which was read at a gala for the Resistance at the Comédie-Française some ten weeks after the Liberation. But the following morning, unkind tongues reminded people that Claudel had written a strikingly similar work in 1942, dedicated to the glory of Marshal Pétain.

Several publishers faced even more delicate problems. A week after the Liberation, the Resistance press demanded the blacklisting of publishers accused of collaboration, among them Gaston Gallimard, Bernard Grasset and Robert Denoël. Grasset was arrested and taken off to Fresnes prison, but Gallimard was left untouched. Gallimard had allowed Drieu la Rochelle to take over the Nouvelle Revue française, but since he had also helped Jean Paulhan launch its Resistance counterpart, Les Lettres françaises, he had covered himself brilliantly. ‘Not stupid, the old man!’ commented Galtier-Boissière in cynical admiration.

Gallimard had another strong suit. His publishing house, which dominated French literature, boasted many members of the National Committee of Writers. He had been scrupulous, even generous, in the dispatch of royalty cheques during the lean Occupation years, so it would have been a very churlish writer who was not grateful. Even Aragon was about to have his next novel, Aurélien, published by Gallimard, having forsaken Denoël.

It was no secret that Gaston Gallimard had cooperated with the Germans. He had respected the ‘Otto List’ (named after Otto Abetz) of works proscribed by the Germans; he had exercised self-censorship in the books he published during the Occupation; and he had attended receptions at the Deutsche Institut. Nevertheless, he found strong supporters prepared to speak up for him – among them Sartre, Camus and Malraux.

André Malraux, author of La Condition humaine and L’Espoir, was as gifted a mythomaniac as he was a novelist. He pretended a deep knowledge of the cultures and languages of the Far East, whereas in fact he was more interested in the trafficking of Oriental antiquities. He made hugely inflated claims for his participation in both the Spanish Civil War and the Resistance, and it is astonishing that so few people challenged them: he was awarded all the most distinguished decorations for service in the Resistance, and the British gave him the DSO, the second-highest award after the Victoria Cross. This compelling, mercurial man had been a Communist sympathizer in his youth; but from the mid-1940s, he became a committed Gaullist and formed part of the General’s closest circle.

Malraux’s establishment in the Gaullist camp naturally put him out of sympathy with those, like Sartre, who were moving ever more aggressively to the left. Four years later, the differences between the two writers would erupt. Malraux, to obtain revenge on Sartre, was to blackmail Gaston Gallimard by threatening to expose his wartime record. Yet when questions were raised about Malraux’s exaggerated exploits, he threatened to send back all his Resistance medals – a gesture so dramatic that it seemed to silence his critics.

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