…I want to talk about an event which was collective, in a sense, and which, despite the variety of origins, opinions, characters, motives and aims of those who participated in it, did live up to its name: collaboration.
These are among the opening words of Final Reckoning. It is the work of a man at the end of his life, and at the end of a generation. This cannot be understated, for Pierre Drieu La Rochelle was of a unique generation: one forged in the trenches of the Great War. Like others on both sides of the cataclysm, he saw in these trenches the possibility – and necessity – for a new order in Europe. While the war swept away the final remnants of old Christendom, the trenches took the rootless proletarians of Europe and set them side by side with those of other classes, regions, and tongues. The furnace of war would burn a new consciousness into their minds. It is the consciousness of continental geopolitical power, of mechanized societies where the worker and soldier embrace the same discipline, and of the possibilities for new men and new social orders.
In 1925, the same men can be seeing admiring both the fascist and communist paths and their visions, while never ceasing to abjure the “moderates” in between. The triumph of liberalism in the West and communism in the East will mark the end of this age of foment in 1945.
This essay will review Drieu La Rochelle’s Final Reckoning, as well as his Secret Journal. The former lays out his public testimony, the latter reveals his inner struggle. The Secret Journal contains two elements. His diary describes his time from October 1944 until March 1945. It begins after a suicide attempt in August 1944, and ends with a successful one on March 15. An essay on suicide gives us background on his childhood and mental states. The Final Reckoning is a statement drawn up in case he must testify for his actions to the Resistance tribunals. This reflection is not interested in questions of politics. It is interested in a personality; in Drieu, we see a psyche not uncommon in times where spiritual crisis and political missions are seen to go hand in hand.
Reading Drieu La Rochelle has an eerie character to it, intensified by the introspective and frenetic nature of his journal. In his personal reading, he names authors familiar to many of us. In one entry, he reflects on the work of Rene Guenon. In another, he recounts Bertrand de Jouvenel. Yet given the absence of these figures from any daily interaction, he may as well be invoking the memories of men from another time. It might just as easily be a diary not from the past, but from some future of our own timeline – slipped by mysterious hands into a little bookstore in a bustling city center. The recorded ultimate fate of some nameless young man in the rightist circles of today, sent backward like a ripple from a yet-unforeseen conclusion. By what means and to what end, none can say.
The facts of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s life are quick to summarize. He is born in Normandy to a middle class family. He fights in the Great War, and is thrice wounded. He leaps into the political tensions of his time. His constant loyalty is for an autarkic and unified Europe, which he sees as necessary to defend a heroic and higher civilization. His constant antagonism is against parliamentary democracy, capitalism, and materialism. Drieu calls himself a European socialist, and for this fundamental reason he enters the party of collaboration, knowing he will be feared and hated. He admires Hitler’s New Order as a force for European renewal. He comes to despise Hitler during the time of collaboration itself, and saves men from the Gestapo. He defends his collaboration as a patriotic act. In the same final works, he will see Stalin as a post-war hope for European autarky. He attempts suicide and fails. He attempts again and succeeds.
The tensions of Drieu are a different matter: his simultaneous love of country and suspicion of the masses, his twin attachments to intellect and action, and the constant death wish which underlay them all. The first thing to mention is his self-conception of the role he played for France. Drieu’s personality is that of an intellectual. His love of reading and ability for writing reveals this. And yet, Drieu has a tremendous distaste for the detached nature of the intellectual, revealed in the Secret Journal:
What embarrasses me about the part of the dandy and what prevented me from playing it is the puritanism in disguise: noli me tangere, the prissiness of the dandy who guards himself against life, against marks and smudges. After all I prefer to have rolled in the mud with everyone else…And then I was one of the happy few, one of those collaborators who did not collaborate for the sake of collaborating but in order not to be elsewhere, in the herd sweating with fear and hatred.
His justification itself reveals the tension. Drieu wishes to be present in the events of history, yet remain apart from the masses. The constant phrase resurfaced: “to muddy one’s feet but not one’s hands.” It is the tension familiar to many in the circles of the Right. Drieu again:
When we pay too much attention to our own country we end up by insulting the whole of humanity in it, we attribute to it all the ill we think of men. I have seen enough of the Germans to find them as idiotic as the French.
Intense love can be turned to intense hate with only a few drops of disappointment. What does the nationalist love in a time when his country and people have enthusiastically embraced spiritual death? And yet, it must be remarked that Drieu refuses to abandon his country in the end. Having been in Switzerland, with every opportunity to remain there, Drieu chose in the end to return to France. If his intention was to fulfill a death wish, perhaps he could not bear to fulfill it away from home.
It is time to remark more on that death wish. Drieu teases out the timeline in Secret Journal, beginning around six years old. At this time, the child Drieu imagines the act to be one of supreme power which will send him to “a place so dark and so unknown that it was nowhere on earth”. At the same time, the experience of old age via his grandparents leads him to decide that he does not want to grow older than fifty. The death wish surfaces again at age twenty, when he will fail the exam for the diplomatic service, despite his excellent performance throughout his studies. But in the war, this tendency will become ever more marked and intertwined with the events around him.
…I had the crushing and definite impression that man was drowned in humanity. All the false appearances of originality, of personality, of dignity, of individuality which can multiply in the illusory world of peace – which could multiply in the tranquil, settled period before 1914 – dissolved. I was an ant lost in an anthill. For lack of other people to distinguish me, I became indistinguishable to myself…Since I was lost, why should I not lost myself still more? There was only one way of recovering from this loss of myself in everything, and of myself and everything in nothing – to lose myself altogether.
Drieu tells us that the desire was, for the first time, cut off by fear. He begins to fear the solitude of the act, and this perhaps reflects his political awakenings in the trenches. The solitude of the intellectual becomes likewise distasteful. Nor is he by any means alone in this need for bonds. The men of the Great War experience dislocation, it is true, but it is a dislocation of the masses – of men thrown together into fire. It is no coincidence that both the radical Right and Left will use the soldier’s term “comrade” in years to come. Such were the bonds forged in the mechanized wreckage of the old world. For the men of the 21st century, solitude is far more pronounced. The vaunted connectivity of technology has never been able to reproduce the brotherhood of the trenches.
As Drieu grows older, suicide ceases to be mysterious. Its presence in his mind becomes familiar. He reflects that the notion “gradually lost its edge by repetition, and became commonplace.” As he begins to study the eastern philosophical traditions, a more philosophical approach to the death wish also arises. Of particular interest to him is the idea of the true Self, the transcendent unity of being which lies beyond the corruptible, worldly ego. The notion of leaving behind the temporal for the spiritual will be present in his attitude towards collaboration as well as towards death.
In the last two years of the German occupation, I lived in an enchanted atmosphere which I found ever more captivating. I had left the crowd and everyone who had thought like the crowd long ago…I now knew that I was threatened, condemned by the crowd, by the majority of what is commonly called the elite…And so, unexpectedly and in a delightfully excessive manner (I have always had a liking for excess), my secret wish to be deprived of everything, to be torn away from everything, was coming true.[…]
I wanted to wait [to kill myself] until the last minute and I did wait. I was perfectly sure of myself. I never had a moment’s doubt or hesitation. This certainty was an incessant source of joy for me, for it was the expression of a faultless faith. My soul was in perfect accord with itself – it was as if my own self had passed into the Self at last.
Despite such resolution, the attempt would fail. In August 1944, Drieu swallowed a dose of luminal, but was found by his housekeeper before dying. An attempt to finish the job upon his recovery by opening his wrists was botched for similar reasons when a nurse found him. And so, Drieu was left to see the end of the war. He would read, write, reflect, and study. He would return to affection for parts of life. He would also write documents of a more ideological nature, staunchly defending his political choices. Half-heartedness would not be his way.
It is important to distinguish certain aspects of Drieu’s thought from that of popular ideas regarding nationalism or the fascist ideology. First, Drieu emphasizes that he saw an alliance between France and Germany as being necessary ever since his time in the trenches. For this reason, he rejected nationalism in the petty sense of the word, calling himself “a nationalist and an internationalist”. He first put his faith in the League of Nations. It was only after the failure of that project that he turned to more geopolitical modes of thought, considering Europe from the context of the Great Powers. From the Final Reckoning:
…[T]he problem that remained was to decide which alliance was more profitable for France and for Europe. I never separated these two ends. For me, they cannot but form a single one. The German system seemed to me preferable to the others…Only an alliance between Germany, a major and central power with a vast industrial and scientific proletariat, and the other continental nations, could preserve this unity [of Europe between America and Russia]. This alliance presented itself in the form of German hegemony. I accepted this hegemony, just as I had accepted the hegemony of England and France in the League of Nations at Geneva, for the benefit of European unity[…]
In the view of these general ideas, I accepted the principle of collaboration.
One of the hardest aspects of Drieu for any modern reader to grasp is the seeming mix of ideological commitments. After all, we have learned a simple history. Fascism and communism are opposite ends of a spectrum. Nationalism is what defined the Right, and fascism is the most extreme form of it. Drieu seems to contradict himself. But rather than thinking in these simple categories, we must again reflect on the world of the trenches.
Drieu and his contemporaries – Oswald Mosley and Ezra Pound in England, Ernst Jünger and the Conservative Revolution in Germany, and others – were convinced of certain simple ideas. First, the old order had been eradicated. “There is no order left to conserve; it is necessary to create a new one.” Second, the solidarity of the trenches had to be transmuted into a new social order – a socialism which opposed rootless markets on the one hand and materialist communism on the other. Third, it was necessary to think on the European level and overcome the divisions which would set the continental countries at the whim of America and Russia. Finally, a new ethos of the state must come into being; this ethos must put an end to the factionalism of Weimar-era parliamentary factions and unite a worthy elite to build the new world. Based on these things, Drieu is remarkably consistent in his embrace of the League, of socialism, and of Germany. In the failure of his project, he does not see an end to Europe:
What is profoundly necessary in integral socialism, in communism, is the return of humanity to total totalitarianism. It is too bad if it doesn’t work, but if it does, humanity will depart, after a long sleep, for a new civilization. This is its only chance to remain a creative force. Otherwise it will fall into a still longer sleep…Other peoples have been sleeping for a long time: it is they who will take communism in hand…It seems to me that Stalin must go all the way, immediately[…]
Politics hardly interest me because I think that the future has now been established; Russia will be the mistress of Europe. She is over halfway there…I believe in the triumph of communism and I am too old and too far gone to be a communist.
If Poland and Hungary’s isolation from American liberalism and their tested strength against communism allow Europe to live on in the east, then perhaps Drieu’s instincts will have panned out. If China ends up holding the balance of the world, likewise. But this was all to come. Let us return to Drieu.
As Drieu enters 1945, his thoughts are ever more with philosophy. He reads East and West. He compares Schopenhauer to the Gita. He also reads fiction, especially his beloved English authors: Shakespeare, Coleridge, Wilde. Drieu takes another opportunity to compare the dilettante to the man of action. He castigates even the great novelists for being “rebels and at the same time…conformists. They want to become understood by the public, the critics, they want to become classics. And so they write clearly, correctly.” The irony is, of course, that Drieu himself has already written the Final Reckoning and other statements laying out in perfect clarity the justification for collaboration.
In some ways, there may be a greater honesty in these statements. If we gain a lot of clarity of his inner states from the Secret Journal, it is the Final Reckoning which shows us what he will do and say when put to testimony. For all his dismissal of the crowd, he too demands that the crowd remember him. However, Drieu notes something further, issuing a warning to his enemies in the Resistance: the “ill-determined, ill-justified” melding of parliamentary, conservative, and communist elements that compose it will also destabilize it. And indeed, one day it will be General de Gaulle who assumes ideological supremacy over the Resistance’s own legacy.
One thing can be noted: Drieu does not ask for mercy. This may be the core consistency between his inner life in the Secret Journal and the publicly-intended statements of the Final Reckoning. He also sees honor in his numbering among a minority – and a hated one:
There must always be a minority, and we were that minority. We lost, we have been stigmatized as traitors; that is right. You would have been the traitors if your cause had been defeated. And France would have been no less France; Europe, [no less] Europe.
Drieu had chosen to return to France. This is the other consistent thread: his willingness to submit to judgment. This is also a contradiction, since he appears to honor the judgment of the crowd which he dismisses:
But, when the time comes, you must judge me in full. That is why I am here. You will not escape me. I will not escape you. Be true to the pride of the Resistance as I am true to the pride of the Collaborators. Do not cheat me any more than I am cheating you. Sentence me to death.[…]
Yes, I am a traitor. Yes, I worked with the enemy…Yes, I am no ordinary patriot, no limited nationalist: I am an internationalist. I am not only a Frenchman, I am a European. You are Europeans too, whether you know it or not. But we played, and I lost. I demand the death penalty.
By another’s hand or his own, he was determined to see his lifelong wish fulfilled.
I stated earlier that this was a reflection on a personality. It is not a personality unique to Drieu, but one which appears again and again in times of crisis. In these closing words, that personality is one that should be known and recognized. Throughout its long reign – from the Great War onward – liberalism has never truly been able to grapple with alienation. The men of the trenches stood in absolute contradiction to the bourgeois liberalism of the individual. These were comrades of blood and struggle and machine. Authority and comradery; the leader and the collective; fascism and socialism. The ideological worlds born from the trenches were those which had to be born after such an event.
Our day has not yet had its equivalent event. Though the alienation and dislocation has become ever more intense, neither Right nor Left appear to have the will they once had. The pink-haired, nagging red guards of our universities pale compared to the communist partisans of Drieu’s day, with their Spartan determination. The technological transformation of society is fueled not by politics, but by entertainment. And yet, we have men of intellect and men of action. The street battles are with us again, a century later. So, too, are the debates, the radical paths which promise to lead us to something more meaningful. Meaning – not economic comfort – is what drives men of action into the streets, and men of intellect into real thought. We can be sure that there are Drieu La Rochelle’s. There are men torn between action and thought, men for whom death is a viable solution to the contradictions which our era multiplies.
It is not always clear in such times what the ultimate consequences of a decision will be. Drieu faced many such moments. For him and many like him, there is no possibility and no desire to escape them. This is rational, because if we live in times of crisis, then we must also live with the resolution. And if we do not contribute to that resolution, then others will–perhaps our enemies. Once in the tumult, one is set between factions, worldviews, and roads to unclear destinations. Those who begin revolutions are never the ones who finish them. Despite the noise, a misstep in such times can lead one to dark places one had never imagined.
In the 1930s, Hitler was seen as the malleable fanatic, and the establishment as the pragmatic men of power. By the end of the decade, the pragmatists had become the bonded servants of the artist. Drieu believed that the destiny of France and her people lay in a united Europe. Was serving that cause worth treason and the hatred of his countrymen? It is worth noting that he accuses the Resistance of many things, but never of evil. Bourgeois France is treated to much harsher language. We who live in times of crisis today must beware, lest we find ourselves becoming demons.
If Drieu made a fundamental error, it is likely this: he placed far too much value on loneliness. Though the image of the lone thinker is a romantic one, it is the mannerbund which keeps men sane through the darkest hours. If we could send a message backward, perhaps we might encourage him to remember this lesson from the trenches.
Pierre Drieu La Rochelle is not hero or villain. He is not a good man or evil. His was an hour of decision. He is a personality with whom we are intimately familiar, echoing throughout the generations.