Intersectional Beauty Tips

Sabrina Strings

Fearing the Black Body:
The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia

New York: New York University Press. 2019

This was a yummy, provocative idea for a book that didn’t quite work out. Its proposition is that fat-shaming and racism and white supreemism are all part of the same deal. Their history is intertwined. Hundreds of years ago, White  Europeans looked at the strange, repellent physiognomies and fleshy bodies of the African Negro, the Bushman and the Hottentot, and were both fascinated and repelled.

As a result, in the fullness of time, White women evolved a beauty ideal that prized clear, fair skin, chiseled features, and—most significantly of all—a slender, even anemic-looking figure!

Or, to quote the author’s words at the end of book, describing the argument she believes she’s just spent 200 pages successfully propounding:

For decades, white feminist scholars and historians focused largely on the impact of the “thin ideal” on middle-and upper-class white women. They claimed that the thin ideal was oppressive, but also suggested that they did not know how it developed. This book endeavors to address that question, adding a much-needed intersectional component to the analysis of the development of fat phobia… [T]he fear of the black body was integral to the creation of the slender aesthetic among fashionable white Americans.

Of course the whole thesis is silly and shallow. Feminist rhetoric nothwithstanding, there’s no mystery to why women who can be stylish and slender choose to be that way. It has to do with aesthetic sense, physical and mental health, a sense of well-being, & c., & c.

The “slender aesthetic” is not some cultural construct formed by marxian struggles of class and race. The human figures are lithe and slender on Greek amphora, in Medieval manuscripts, in Early Netherlandish painting. Moreover, White people do not, by and large, bother themselves much about what Cullud Folx think and do. They may notice, and get annoyed, when too many 400 lb. African-Americans wander into their field of vision, filling whole bus seats and blocking subway entrances. They might even vaguely wonder how it is that anyone could become that obese. But that’s really about as far as it goes. Whatever the author might really believe, Whites simply do not view Blacks as negative role models whom they fear turning into.

And lastly: there are Black women who keep themselves fit and stylish without (I assume) imagining they’ve gone and sold out to the honkies. The author of this book, for example.

Sabrina Strings—assistant professor of sociology at UC Irvine, as well as a 200-hour certified yoga teacher, as she proudly informs us—never really brings home the bacon. She can’t prove her case because she can’t formulate it in her own head. I wouldn’t have minded if she’d given us some loopy, conspiratorial argument—e.g., Whites forced Blacks to become fat in order to perpetuate Enslavement and Systemic Racism! That might have been fun. Instead, what we get is limp, damp, inchoate theory: poorly explained or illustrated, even though sprinkled with vague maunderings gleaned from such faddists as Michel Foucault [1] and Noel Ignatiev.

In a style common to young academics in the social sciences, Strings fills out her dissertation with all sorts of marginally relevant research that she’s gathered up, magpie-like, over the years. She gives us Art History slide lectures about Renaissance pictures of docile Negresses, followed by vast, fleshy European women of the 17th century . . . who eventually disappear into prim, bird-like Englishwomen painted by Thomas Gainsborough in the 18th. We are treated to numerous, often conflicting descriptions of Black Africans in the 17th and 18th centuries, followed by a digression on the “Hottentot Venus,” a freakishly buttocked creature who was given the Afrikaans name of Saartjie Baartman before sailing north and being displayed as a popular tourist attraction in Regency London and Restoration Paris, where she died in 1815 . . . after which her remains were put on display in a Paris museum for a century and a half. [2]

Moving on, we get tedious discussions of 18th century dietary theories, a lengthy digression on a priggish-sounding 19th century American periodical (Godey’s Lady’s Book, which you can find at the Internet Archive); the story of Charles Dana Gibson and his Gibson Girls; John Harvey Kellogg and his wacky sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan; and the rise of 20th century diet faddery and calorie-counting.

Inevitably this grab-bag assortment of sources and subjects sometimes leads Strings well out of her depth. She is under the impression that the Kellogg who ran the sanitarium also gave the world cornflakes. No no; that was his brother, W. K. Kellogg.

More hilariously, she quotes at length an 1836 essay on feminine face, figure and eating habits, “written by a woman named Leigh Hunt.”

Well now, that’s a good one. Clearly Strings has never heard of Leigh Hunt, who not incidentally was for decades a regular contributor to that selfsame Godey’s Lady’s Book. Leigh Hunt was one of the most prominent English men of letters of his day, quite as famous as his late friends Keats and Shelley, not to mention Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens. His light verse is embedded in popular culture even today.[3]

My guess is that our Southern California yoga teacher saw the name Leigh Hunt—a  plausible name for an up-and-coming 1990s Hollywood starlet—and naturally assumed he was a girl. You can’t blame someone for that.

Nor can I blame Sabrina Strings for what I suspect was her ur-motivation in coming up with this daffy dissertation. In recent years there’s been a lot of media emphasis, much of it indirect or accidental, on Fat Black Women. I won’t name the films, or the legal cases, or the obese politician in Georgia. But Strings cannily saw her opportunity, her opening, and made her move.

It was good timing. Pre-publication excerpts ran in a number of outlets in 2019, including the tony Lapham’s Quarterly (which, like the author and the New York University Press, didn’t know Leigh Hunt wasn’t a woman).

The best use for this amusing book is to make copies of the provocative cover (front and back—get a nice hardbound if you can, then return it) and then print up a bunch of them as dust jackets for blank sketchbooks. These will serve you as cherished gifts and stocking-stuffers for years to come.

Notes

[1] Pretty much at random, I grab this footnote paraphrase of Foucault as an example of the author’s peculiar idiom. I will award a fat red apple to anyone who can tell me what it means:

Foucault suggests that at any given historical moment, a specific meaning will attach to certain bodies. Frequently this meaning is produced within the halls of power—for example, within the disciplines of science, medicine or philosophy. However, its origins are often obscured. And, because they are attached to bodies, the meanings are easily naturalized. This is how bodies become “legible,” or understood in a particular way, within a given society. Foucault, Discipline and Punish. (Strings, p. 225)

[2] Incidentally it’s this steatopygous prodigy who supposedly appears on the cover of the book, although neither the author nor the publisher bother to tell you this. Hardly drawn from life, it’s a comical French print made in 1830, some 15 years after her death, and titled: “The Hottentot Venus in the Salon of the Duchess of Berry.” Scientific fascination with her body was mostly focused not on her buttocks but on her huge, distended genitals, which were afterwards preserved in a jar of formaldehyde.

[3] Leigh Hunt: “Stolen sweets are always sweeter/Stolen kisses much completer”? How’s about “Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)”? Or, surely you know: “Jenny kiss’d me when we met/Jumping from the chair she sat in”? That one’s about Mrs. Carlyle. If none of this is familiar, try Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

Stan the Uncuckable

 

P. J. Collins

M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom
Steven F. Hayward
New York: Encounter Books, 2022

Is it possible to be a real old-school conservative or Man of the Right, and not—sooner or later—cut corners, betray your principles, sell out? Or—as we liked to put it seven or eight years ago—cuck?

This question was in the forefront of my mind as I dipped into this richly entertaining new biography of M. Stanton Evans by Steven Hayward. Surely, I thought, Stan Evans is going to disappoint us sooner or later. He’ll pull a Bill Buckley move, come out with trite drivel about how there’s Only One Race (the yoomin race); or how Israel is our most trusted ally; or how Harry Truman was so wise to “integrate” the armed forces in 1948. He’ll do a George Will and tell us why some new “liberal” agendum is actually very sound and in keeping with conservative or libertarian principles. Et cetera.

But not a bit of it! Incredibly, this Stan Evans fellow appears to have got through his 80 years of terrestrial life with his integrity intact. From what I can gather, he managed it with tons of wit, a cynical attitude, a healthy pugnacity, a bit of deflection, and maybe also the good sense to keep away from the fever swamps of the Left where the debate was rigged. If you tried to nag and provoke him with some Left-liberal piety—Don’t you agree, Stan, don’t you agree?—he’d zap you with some hilariously contrarian declaration.

Perhaps the most famous “Bore Baffler” (as he called it) was his rejoinder to a cocktail-party bore trying to persuade Stan to denounce the late Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy:

“Personally Phil, I didn’t like what McCarthy was trying to do, BUT I DID LIKE HIS METHODS!”

Much of the Evans wit follows the same shock-and-awe template.

“I wasn’t for Nixon until after Watergate,” he told an earnest academic audience at Princeton in 2006. “After wage and price controls, Watergate was a breath of fresh air. In fact, I called over to Pat Buchanan at the White House and told him, “If only I had known you guys were doing all this neat stuff…

When accosted by a bum asking for money, Stan agreed to give him some, along with the admonition, “Only if you’re going to buy alcohol; I wouldn’t want you to use it to buy food.”

Listening to “Light My Fire” by the Doors (Stan seems to have had an encyclopedic knowledge of rock music) he said, “What do you mean, there’s no time to wallow in the mire? There’s always time to wallow in the mire. Hey, you make time to wallow in the mire.”

Author Hayward very wisely front-end-loads his biography with some of the most pungent witticisms and stories. About how Stan liked junk food: he supposedly once sent back a White Castle hamburger because “it wasn’t greasy enough.” In his latter years, when he lived near Leesburg, VA, he rejoiced that his new village gave him great variety in restaurants, as there was a Roy Rogers at both ends of town. He liked having a three-legged dog named Zip, because Zip wasn’t always begging you to go for walks or play fetch. He considered cigarette smoking his way of getting the recommended five daily servings of leafy green vegetables.

And so Hayward hooks you from the start, showcasing a colorful, lovable personality you want to know more about. That’s a good thing, because the Evans career was a dizzying one. At one moment he’s appointed regional editor for the nascent National Review, in the next he’s writing editorials for the Indianapolis News, then suddenly he’s editor of the paper, at age 26. Meantime he’s founded Young Americans for Freedom and will go on to start the American Conservative Union, CPAC, and the National Journalism Center in Washington, DC, which has produced a varied array of writers and pundits, including Ann Coulter, Malcolm Gladwell, and Greg Gutfeld. He didn’t found the rather unfortunate American Spectator publication, but in its early, two-fisted incarnation, it came into being while sheltered under his Indiana lee, as it were.  Author Hayward also credits Evans with founding the Party of the Right in the Yale Political Union during his undergraduate days. The POR was more or less the motherhouse and spawning ground of YAF and the ACU, so that would make sense. However my POR historian friends tell me that the author is in error; Stan Evans was a member, but not the founder.

Moving right along here: Stan was also managing editor of Human Events (for which he was radio pitchman), taught journalism at a university for twenty-five years, and edited a magazine called Consumers’ Research (new to me, but it turns out to be the original, investigative version of Consumer Reports; the latter originated as a Communist-backed spinoff in the 1930s). He’s probably also the individual most responsible for electing Ronald Reagan to the White House, beginning with Reagan’s insurgent bid to wrest the nomination from Gerald Ford (whom Stan despised) in 1976. He met President Reagan regularly during the first term in office, and Human Events never held back criticism when the President strayed from the conservative strait-and-narrow. “I’m reading it more and enjoying it less!” said Reagan, balefully.

Reading the Reagan section, I was put in mind of F. Roger Devlin’s shrewd and bitter appraisal of the Reagan years as an eight-year self-congratulatory inaugural ball. (This was during Roger’s talk at the November 2016 NPI Conference.) A fair judgment, but Stan Evans wasn’t to blame.

You may recall Stan’s sonorous, drawling voice from CBS Radio’s Spectrum (“Nine Distinct Viewpoints!”) a few decades back. The Stan Evans sound was a mix of Jimmy Stewart and Jim Backus, with maybe a little Edward G. Robinson thrown in. He didn’t tell jokes; the segments were too short for that. His commentary was always somber and thick with facts. When I was in college, listening to his radio spots and his plugs for Human Events, I never guessed what a hilarious and subversive wit lay behind the drawl.

I did know a little bit about his background, however, and had good reason to suppose that he was of very sound stock. His father, Medford B. Evans, was a college professor and onetime head of security for the Manhattan Project. Evans pere was also a regular contributor to American Opinion magazine (the John Birch Society periodical) and—best of all—the managing editor of The Citizen: A Journal of Fact and Opinion, which was the organ of the Citizens’ Councils of America (CCA). The Citizens’ Councils are almost invariably referred to in Leftist media as “White Citizens’ Councils,” and if you do a quick search online (go ahead and Google) you’ll find the usual slurs (“white supremacist,” “racist,” etc.) that attach to racialist and pro-segregation activism. I see Wikipedia actually calls them White Citizens’ Councils throughout the article, and says they were basically a Rotarian version of the Ku Klux Klan.

But in its heyday the CCA was a very constructive and useful organization. The Citizens’ Councils came into being in order to halt or avoid school segregation in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. One obvious solution was to found your own private day schools (“segregation academies,” the Left called them). Medford B. Evans wrote a guide on how to do it, entitled, “How to Start a Private School.” Curiously enough, author Hayward mentions the Bircher connection of the elder Evans, but says nothing about his prominence in the CCA. This is probably simply an oversight; what happens when you write a biography without consulting me. The only reason I know Medford Evans edited The Citizen is that I read American Opinion in my tender years, and there it was, every month, in Prof. Evans’s bio.

I lay these tidbits about Stan Evans’s background before you not just because they’re interesting trivia, but because I believe these facts made his life easier. There was no way he could cuck and canoodle his way into the Left’s good graces, the way Bill Buckley and Barry Goldwater and, alas!, Ronald Reagan liked to do. Stan’s father was one of the leading segregation activists of the 1950s and 60s, and there was no getting away from that. Perhaps if Buckley’s father had been something like that, National Review could have held onto the pro-segregation stance it took in its early years.

Significantly, Stan seldom touched on issues of race; he didn’t need to. Nor did he waste ink chasing after pointless “social conservative” causes such as abortion and the homosexual menace (you know—the two issues we’re permitted to waste energy on). After all . . . there was so much other neat stuff to write about.

Pricking inflated reputations, for example. I was delighted to find him expose the poltroonish humbug of George F. Kennan, the “Mister X” who wrote one long telegram in 1946, proposing a “containment” against the USSR, and spent the next half-century coasting on his reputation. In the 1950s and 60s the usual Kennan advice was that we shouldn’t try to roll back the Soviet juggernaut, rather we should devote ourselves to maintaining Peaceful Coexistence.

Stan Evans liked to rehabilitate reputations, too, when such was in order. Perhaps his most famous book is the monumental Blacklisted by History, a thousand-page doorstop demonstrating that Joe McCarthy was usually in the right, while his defamers are well-poisoners, passing off endless lies that eventually embedded themselves as commonly accepted “facts.” A crucial one here is the very first lie they told about McCarthy, that in Wheeling, WV in 1950, he said “I have here in my hand” a list of 205 Communists or security risks in the State Department. Stan Evans chased this story down the rabbit hole and found that the actual number McCarthy used was 57. Where did the 205 come from? Who knows, but it doesn’t appear in any news report from the time. Likewise, the story that McCarthy was a bottle-a-day man who drank himself to death is highly dubious, and most likely one more instance of character assassination.

Digging for facts and numbers and other paydirt were Stan’s specialty. He didn’t just dump opinion on your lap, the way most columnists and editorial writers do. Decades before anyone talked about “death panels” and healthcare rationing as a result of Obamacare, Stan was gauging the effect of Federal involvement in healthcare delivery, and finding that the net result was a doubling in healthcare costs, as a result of removing competition from the marketplace. If you find your health insurance now costs five times what you paid 30 years ago, this is something that was long ago forecast and diagnosed by M. Stanton Evans.

As we can see from the cover, Stan was quite a handsome young man. Again, a bit Jimmy Stewart-ish. But you’d never recognize him from that drawing or early photographs if you knew him any time after about 1970. Early on he developed a jowly visage, ending up looking like the cartoon character Deputy Dawg. This fit in very well with his wry, contrarian persona. Stan was the mischievous uncle who feeds you a glass of rye when you’re ten years old. “Good medicine! It’ll kill the worms! Drink up!” How can you not love this guy?

 

 

Brasillach at Nuremberg, 1937

This continues the translation of Robert Brasillach’s Notre avant-guerre, portions of which have appeared here in three earlier installments.

In our last episode, Brasillach was taking a motor tour of war-torn Spain in 1938 with two friends (Maurice Bardèche and Pierre Cousteau). On leaving Spain he begins to reflect on his visit to Germany the previous year, and the narrative suddenly jumps back to September 1937, when he went to the Nuremberg congress with Annie Jamet, Pierre Cousteau, and other journalists and intellectuals of the French Right [1].

Unlike the Spanish episode, which was filled with funny anecdotes and unexpected dark comedy, this German reminiscence seems sedate and familiar. It is taken from an article Brasillach published in the Revue Universelle in October 1937, “One Hundred Hours with Hitler.” It is mainly a reflection on the strangeness of the new order in Germany, and poses the question of whether the National Socialist regime has any lessons for France. He likes the general idea of national revivification and youthful patriotism, but is put off by the occultism and ritualism that colored so much of National Socialism. Some of his ponderings here are so dense and personal it appears the Brasillach was deliberately avoiding clarity. But as he explains herein, he simply found too much to unpack, and didn’t wish to seem like a naive enthusiast.

As the end of this section, Brasillach bemoans the ineffectuality of the various Rightist parties and leagues that formed in France in the mid-1930s, and is sadly disappointed with the amiable but abstracted Count of Paris, hero of monarchists and pretender to the throne.

We pick up from last time with Brasillach and companions continuing their tour of museums, a day or so before the Nuremberg festivities start.

From Notre avant-guerre

What I found most amusing was the Anti-Masonic Exhibition in Erlangen. It is in a masonic lodge that was surrounded and captured a few years ago, before the Venerable Masters had time to move it. Now it’s a museum, where you walk through black-lined corridors, see initiation rooms, coffins, skulls—the whole paraphernalia of masonry.

There were some ingenious tableaux showing the history of the world from a masonic angle. They go all the way back to Hiram and Solomon, then we see them playing their important role in the Revolution of 1789. And also—rather curious here in the land of the Protestant Reformation—their influence on Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. Showcases display masonic jewelry,  photographs of officers in pointed helmets and insignia (the German army was very mason-icized before the war), correspondence with foreign lodges, and an Iron Cross intertwined with a triangle.

A learned professor who wears the Hitlerian insignia, Roman fasces and five Falangist arrows on his lapel, guided us through these rooms and performed the initiation in French. Next to him was a chart listing the masonic ranks. We immediately looked for one that said “Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret.” The whole scene was enormously funny, I must say.

These museums and exhibits, and all the villages getting ready for the grand fête, were a pretty fair introduction to Germany. But now it was time to enter the magical amphitheater and see the Hitler pageant unfold.

It really is like a religious ceremony. Visitors always comment on that. It all begins with parades through the city, but that’s not the main part. One evening, from the grand hotel in Nuremberg, we tirelessly watched groups of SA in brown uniforms passing under the windows, lit only by the light of torches. Elsewhere, it would just be a village torchlight procession. Here it is something else, with a different gravitas, different sentiments.

At the Zeppelin field outside the city, a huge stadium had been built, in the almost Mycenaean architectural style beloved of the Third Reich. In the bleachers it can seat a hundred thousand people, in the arena it holds two or three hundred thousand. The banners with the hooked cross snap and shine under the blazing sun.

And now come the labor battalions, the Arbeitskorp, eighteen ranks of them. Music and flags at the front, shovels on the shoulders. They leave the stadium, they come back in, and the leaders of the labor service follow them, bare-chested. And then the young girls. Shovels are presented—and the Holy Mass of labor begins.

“Are you ready to nourish German soil?”
“We are ready!”

They sing, the drum rolls, the dead are remembered, the soul of party and nation is fused into one. Finally the master manages to stir up this enormous crowd and make it into a single being, and he speaks. By the time the stadium has slowly emptied itself of officials and spectators, we begin to understand what the new Germany is.

We understood it even better the next day, at that extraordinary ceremony which bore the banal name of “roll call of political leaders” (politischen Leiter). It was night. The huge stadium was barely lit by a few searchlights that revealed the massive and motionless battalions of the SA dressed in brown. Between their ranks spaces were provided. One of them, wider than the others, formed a sort of avenue leading from the stadium entrance to the tribune stand, along which the Führer was to pass.

At exactly eight o’clock the latter entered, followed by his staff. He took his place, with a burst of acclamations from the crowd. Those who shouted the loudest were the Austrians. We saw them at all the parades, shouting their rhythmic call:

“Austria salutes her Führer!”

Bavarians smiled, eyed the tribune stand, and applauded.

At the precise moment when Hitler crossed the stadium, a thousand spotlights were lit all around the enclosure, aimed vertically at the sky. They were like a thousand blue pillars all around, like a mysterious cage. Out in the countryside they would be seen shining all night long, designating the sacred place of national mystery. The organizers named this stupefying fairyland Licht-dom: the cathedral of light.

Now the man was standing on his platform. Now the flags unfurled. No song, no drum roll. The most extraordinary silence reigned, as the first ranks of standard-bearers appeared, at the edge of the stadium, in front of each of the spaces separating the SA groups. The only light was that of the unreal, blue cathedral, beyond which we see butterflies, airplanes perhaps, or maybe just dust. But the gaze of a searchlight arose on the flags, highlighting their mass of red, following them as they moved forward. Moving forward? It was more like a flow, a flow of purple lava, in an enormous and slow slide, filling these interstices prepared in advance in the brown granite. This majestic advance lasted nearly twenty minutes. Only when they were close to us did we hear the muffled sound of footsteps. Silence reigned until the moment when they came to rest at the foot of the standing chancellor. A stony, supernatural silence, like something astronomers would observe on another planet. Under the blue-striped vault up to the clouds, the wide flowing roads were at last calmed. I do not think I have seen in my life a more prodigious spectacle.

To wrap up: before and after Hitler’s speech—along with waves of outstretched arms—came the singing. There was the Deutschland über alles, and the Horst Wessel (in which comrades killed by the Red Front and Reaction march on in spirit), and the song of the soldiers of war:

I had a comrade;
Better, I will not have…

And then even more songs, written for the rally and blending together this cool night, this solemn hour, these beautiful multifaceted somber voices, into that musical enchantment without which Germany cannot conceive of anything: neither religion, nor country, nor war, nor politics, nor sacrifice.

During my remaining stay in this surprising country—which seemed farther away than the most distant Orient—it occurred to me again and again that I had no clear understanding of those minutes. Not because what had gone on was void of meaning, but rather because it was terribly significant, something based on a doctrine. And it’s because these ceremonies and these songs do mean something, that we must pay close attention to them.

First, they stand for the youth of the country. It is to them that everything is addressed. One is almost astonished to discover, in the SA which fill the streets, these debonair Bavarians—plump, small, peaceable—so that their uniforms are merely the garments of a tranquil national guard. One could easily forget that there were Germans over the age of twenty-five, and it was they who had made National Socialism. But while they may have created it, now the movement is for the youth.

And we wished to see it, too, this jeunesse allemande. Through the countryside, in the small villages, and in the woods (the tree is the German divinity par excellence) we’d talk with our guides. On one occasion I was reminded of a remark of Monsieur de Ribbentrop, who cited Charles Maurras on the deep historical consciousness of the Germans.

Our guide didn’t talk about swastikas. No, he talked about the Thirty Years’ War:

“This is the key to German history. There were twenty-five million Germans before, only five after. We had to rebuild. From the Rhine, Bavaria or Austria the axis shifted to northern Prussia. And we built Germanism, a Germanism which is above all else a [nationalist] particularism, something that does not want to impose itself as a universal rule.”

I leave the responsibility for these historical reveries to this young German. I simply wish to point out that they are being made.

But now, along a little sunken road, we arrived at a village of wooden houses. No more discussion of historical controversies. We saw before us a labor camp, like thousands in Germany. Fifteen of its residents were delegated to take part in yesterday’s parade of shovels. The rest were still here now, eighty or a hundred nineteen-year-old boys. We crossed through the gate, saw an empty courtyard surrounded by barracks and clumps of flowers. The garçons, we were told, were in back of the camp.

And there they were, indeed, under the tall birches, sitting in the sand, their shovels in the distance . . . and they were singing. These young people dressed in brown, under the trees, composed so natural a picture of eternal Germany at rest, that we halted ourselves, a little shocked. Then we were told:

“It’s the singing lesson.”

No prettiness or frivolity here, merely seriousness, truth, and a hard and powerful love of the fatherland. A total devotion, expressed in this language of songs and chorus which is the true native tongue of Germany.

We questioned some of these young people in front of us. They were almost all out of Saxony and Franconia. In a moment we’d hear their program for their day: getting up at five o’clock, going to bed at ten; a very strict military program. Except that in the relations between these boys (they belong to all social classes), and in the relations between chiefs and the subordinates, there was a kind of unity, of camaraderie.

This undeniable novelty of the Third Reich is Germany’s most formidable force. The Hitlerjugend, the SS sleep on their mats in their bivouacs. Here in the labor camp there are beds, rooms of rigorous cleanliness, decorated with a large cross (I mean a crucifix, not a hooked cross). And naturally, everywhere, these boys destined for the afterlife have built flowerbeds.

We left the camp under the trees while an orchestra played dance tunes for us. And next day there was another orchestra, when we arrived in the morning mist and on a ground tempered by the rain of the night, at the great camp of Hitlerjugend tents, which had been visited that morning by the youth leader Baldur von Schirach. From the top of a wooden tower we gazed in the distance, over this plain beside the woods, and looked down at these light shelters wherein was practiced Hitlerian adolescence. Except for the number—several thousand youngsters are sheltered here—nothing differed significantly from a boy scout camp. They rushed towards the orchestra, eager to sing, with a sort of starving ardor which would perhaps be unknown to French youth. Nearby on a wooden memorial, were inscribed the names of the hundreds of children of the party who fell under the Marxist bullets. A flame burned, while a child stood watch. We silently saluted the young dead.

Here again, what struck us was the character of the discipline. The militarization of childhood in Germany was not at all what we thought. Those who came to talk to us approach us joyfully, without fear, and by themselves. I confessed that I find that much more important, from the point of view of German power, than a dry authoritarianism.

But soon night fell, and we were to go to Nuremberg to dine at the SS bivouac. We were received there by Monsieur Himmler, head of the SS, master of the Gestapo; while Monsieur Goebbels will emcee the dinner himself. The camp looked picturesque, with its tents reserved for the Führer’s personal guard, but that was merely a naive perception. The atmosphere of the grand maneuvers is the same in all the countries of the world— and that of official banquets too, even if they consist only of sauerkraut, Bavarian sausages and dry Franconian wine. All this would be of little interest if we had not been led, on leaving, to the camp flag. It was the hour when the colors were brought in, a little later than on warships. A bugler played a wistful tune, and slowly the flag came down. Such a spectacle is beautiful in all countries no doubt, but here it took its place in an ensemble. After the party, as after the game, after the daily routine, it is now the habit for Germany as a group to suddenly recall the most serious thoughts which direct its nation and its race. Even after this official banquet, which might have been merely pleasant and easygoing, we were reminded that there was this other, graver, aspect, of rendering the honor due the symbol of their empire.

But it is France that we are thinking of now. There are many things in Germany that are different from what we need, that we have the right not to like. But from now on can we really tell ourselves that such soaring emotions are incomprehensible to France, that we could not pass them on to French youth, or embrace them at home, in our own fashion? This kind of regretful thinking haunts us whenever we consider what democracy has done to France. This brief stay in Germany does not fill us with naive wonder for the brusque grace of Hitlerism. But if our feelings about this phenomenon from across the Rhine are complex, it is precisely because there is too much to say.

I wondered what my impression would be in front of the man who supports on his shoulders not only this empire, this Reich, but also this new religion. Again, the complexity of the impressions is so great that we cannot, in good faith, draw valid conclusions from them, and we must content ourselves with trying to sort them out a little.

I remembered having often listened to Hitler, during his electoral campaign in 1933, on the radio or in the cinema. Today he speaks much more calmly. Admittedly, the Germans always get excited to hear him, and applaud fervently when he promises them that their sacrifices will lead to power. Certainly his voice took on emotion at times, as it did the other day at the Politischen Leiter parade, when he proclaimed that he was sacrificing everything to Germany, and that he would give his life if necessary. But on the whole he gives us the impression of greater moderation. He no longer makes any gestures, or speaks with his hands crossed, while the loudspeakers echo the end of his sentences. Admittedly, the foreigner is a little surprised, and wonders about the enthusiasm of those who listen to him.

As it happens, I had just seen him, up close, two hours earlier. Eighty to a hundred foreign guests had been invited by Monsieur de Ribbentrop to a tea at which the Chancellor was to appear. Rudolf Hess, the Führer’s right arm and colleague from the beginning (even for Mein Kampf, they say), had initially received us. Hess is a man with an energetic face, with sunken and hard eyes. He briefly expressed his satisfaction at seeing foreigners taking an interest in the new Germany.

Then we were led to another room, where we discovered, in a kind of disorderly crowd, the man who is the master of seventy million people. The usual uniform—surprising, somehow—with the yellowish jacket and black trousers. The lock of hair. A tired face. Also sadder than we thought. You can only see his smile up close. An almost childlike smile, as leaders of men so often have. “He’s so nice,” say the people who work with him. We introduce him to a few people, he shakes hands with an absent look, answers with a few words. And we remain there, amazed.

However, you have to look at his eyes. In this face, they’re all that really matters. They are eyes from another world, foreign eyes, of a deep blue and black where one can barely distinguish the pupil. How to guess what is going on in them? What is there but a prodigious dream, an unlimited love for Deutschland, the German land, the real one and the one still to be built? What do we have in common with these eyes? And above all, the first impression, the most astonishing, remains: those serious eyes. An almost insurmountable agony, an unheard-of anxiety remain there. We guess in a flash: the present difficulties, the possible war, the economic crisis, the religious crisis, all the concerns of the responsible leader. We feel strongly, physically, what a terrible ordeal it is to lead a nation, and to lead Germany towards its all-consuming destiny. Especially when this chief is charged with transforming it so that a “new man” as he says it at every moment, can be born there and live there.

We don’t want to be romantic. Yet this man with the distant gaze, who is a god for his country, one June day descended from the sky, like the archangel of death, to suppress by duty some of his oldest companions.[2]  And we can see that what happened on that June 30 was a palace revolution. But it means something more. Because this man made a sacrifice for what he judged his duty, and his personal peace, and friendship. And he would sacrifice all—human happiness, his own and that of his people on top of the bargain—if the mysterious duty which he obeys commanded him. Hitler cannot be judged as an ordinary head of state. He is also a reformer, called to a mission which he believes to be divine, and his eyes tell us that he bears the terrible weight of it. This is what can, at any moment, be called into question.

I do believe I’ll never forget the color and sadness in Hitler’s eyes, mysterious beyond doubt. Certainly, I do not claim to judge him on this impression, although it was felt by many others during these solemn days in Nuremberg. Above all we asked ourselves, we French folk who were witness to these extraordinary shows: of all this, what can we possibly have in common one day?

On Sunday, the most singular ceremony of the Third Reich took place, that of the consecration of the flags. The “flag of blood” was brought before the Führer, the flag borne by the demonstrators during the failed putsch of 1923, in front of the Feldherrenhalle in Munich.

In Munich, there were several
When the bullets hit them…

The Chancellor seized in one hand the Blood Flag, and in the other the new standards he was to consecrate. Through it, an unknown fluid must pass, so that the blessing of the martyrs would henceforth extend to the new symbols of the German fatherland. A purely symbolic ceremony? I don’t believe it.

In Hitler’s thought as in that of the Germans, there seems to be the idea of a mystical transfusion, analogous to that of the blessing of water by the priest—if not, dare we say it, to that of the Eucharist. Whoever does not see in the consecration of the flag the analogue of the consecration of bread, and thereby a kind of German sacrament, runs the strong risk of understanding nothing about Hitlerism.

And it is then that we are worried. In front of these grave and delicious decorations, this antique romanticism, this immense flowering of the flags, these crosses coming from the east—I wondered, on the final day, if all this was really possible. You can give a people new vigor. But can we transform everything to the point of inventing new rites, which penetrate the lives and hearts of citizens? The French, who do not understand foreigners anyway, do not understand and are merely astonished.

The flag itself accentuates this weird oriental impression. So surprised are we at the impressions of expatriation and exoticism that one needs to make an effort to realize that some of the virtues brought back into honor—work, sacrifice, love of the fatherland—are part of the common heritage of all peoples. There seems to be some irony of fate in emphasizing the oriental appearances of these myths, in a country that rejects everything that seems to it to come from the East. But Hitler, founder of the Walpurgis nights of May 1, [3] of pagan festivals, of the consecration of flags, is in reality faithful to the profound vocation of Germany, which from Goethe to Nietzsche and Keyserling [4] has always been turned towards the sun of the east. In many aspects of this new policy, we want to say rather about this poetry, all, certainly, is not for us, and we do not need to insist on saying it.

But what is for us, what is a constant call to order, and without a doubt a kind of regret, is this sustained preaching that is given to the youth for faith, sacrifice and honor. Just as Jacques Bainville [5] returned as a Monarchist from pre-war Germany, so every Frenchman returns from the Germany of today convinced that his country, his youth, could do at least as well as our neighbours, if we were restoring, first of all, certain universal virtues. And this is a valid lesson for all.

This is the final impression that we take away: beautiful shows, beautiful youth, life easier than they say, but above all a surprising mythology of a new religion. When one tries to remember those days so full, that one evokes the nocturnal ceremonies lit at an angle by the glow of torches and searchlights, German children playing like wolves around gleams of memories of civil war and sacrifice, the Leader raising in large swells, with plaintive cries, this subdued crowd, we say to ourselves, in effect, from this country, so close to us that it is first and foremost, in the full sense of the word, and prodigiously, and profoundly, a strange country.

And what was France doing? It lived under the regime of the Popular Front, sometimes under socialist leadership, sometimes under radical leadership, under the perpetual threat of communist blackmail. But in youth, one could also see, without forcing things, this pre-fascist spirit taking shape which was perhaps born, in spite of everything, around February 6, 1934.[6] We found it, this spirit, in the leagues as long as there were leagues, sometimes among certain members of the PSF, [7] despite the cups of tea, in the Parti Populaire Francais of Doriot [8], and in the crowd of non-parties.

All was not happy in the career of the young nationalist. We had generally followed with sympathy the efforts of the Comte de Paris [7] to make himself known to the French: he was an aviator, which pleased the crowds, he had been married in Palermo to a beautiful and famed princess, he had many lovely children. He wanted to start a journal, the Courrier Royal, he signed articles and books, where we found this alliance of the social and the national which seemed essential to us. I went one day in 1936 to see him in Brussels with Annie Jamet who wanted to organize or two conferences under its auspices. I saw him again during the trip I made the following month. His presentation seemed to me, as in 1930, fine, moving, seductive. He always listened admiringly. He spoke wise and fair words. However, if he happened to speak of the workers, of French working-class life, one sensed, unfortunately, that all that was far from him, that he had no direct knowledge, that he was unaware of the men of his country. His reasonings were excited, but a misty, impalpable je ne sais quoi interposed itself between reality and him. It was, of course, difficult to tell him, and what was most solid in him was precisely a strong self-confidence, the confidence in his destiny. But the conversation was more awkward than one might think given the kindness of his welcome.

 

Notes

[1] Annie Jamet was the founder of the «Cercle Rive Gauche» which hosted Rightist salons and conferences in the prewar years. A mother of six, she suddenly died in 1938. Her widower, Henri Jamet, founded the Librairie Rive Gauche (bookshop) on Blvd. St-Michel during the War. Pierre Cousteau, 1906-1958, brother of explorer Jacques Cousteau, was a Rightist journalist, part of Brasillach’s circle at Je suis partout.

[2] At his most circumlocutory, Brasillach means the “Night of Long Knives.”

[3] Walpurgisnacht or St. Walpurga’s Eve, the “night of witches,” is actually April 30, the eve of May Day. Brasillach seems to be alluding to a notion popular among critics of National Socialism that Hitler and his regime reveled in witchcraft and the occult, but the specific reference is unclear.

[4] Hermann von Keyserling, Baltic German philosopher, first to use the word Führerprinzip.

[5] Jacques Bainville (1879-1936) French historian, monarchist, and leading figure in Action Française.

[6] February 6, 1934 was the date of a massive rally of veterans and nationalist leagues near the Chamber of Deputies, following the Stavisky affair (q.v.).

[7] Parti Social Français, nationalist political party founded 1936.

[8] Parti Populaire Français, another nationalist political party founded by Jacques Doriot in 1936 in opposition to the Popular Front government.

[9] Henri, Duke of Orleans (1908-1999), pretender to the French throne through the Bourbon Orleanist branch; descendant of Louis Philippe I (king, 1830-1848).

With Brasillach in Spain and Germany

Published in Counter-Currents, March 31, 2021

Remembering Robert Brasillach (March 31, 1909 – February 6, 1945)

Here we have a continuation of the narrative presented in past installments, describing Brasillach’s auto-tour through wartime Spain in July 1938, accompanied by his brother-in-law Maurice Bardèche and their friend Pierre Cousteau. As before, I have translated it directly from Brasillach’s memoir Notre avant-guerre (1938-41).

In the last section Robert Brasillach gave a quick summary of his automobile tour, along with his impressions of the Nationalist spirit and sense of social justice in the new, revolutionary Spain. Here he fleshes things out with a more thorough description of Toledo, where the Spanish Civil War really began, with the siege of the Alcázar (July-September 1936).

After Toledo the Frenchmen move on to Madrid’s University City, where some of the fiercest fighting of the war had taken place. In fact it was still taking place in mid-1938, when Brasillach, Berdache, and Cousteau visited. There was little more than a stone’s throw between the trench lines of the Nationalists and those of the Red “International Brigades.” At one point our jolly threesome, apres-dejeuner, fortified with excellent food and wine, go exploring the local trenches. Like college kids, they slip their official escorts and nearly get themselves blown up by the Reds or arrested as spies by the Nationalist side!

The Robert Brasillach we have as narrator here is not quite the pious and socially concerned fellow we saw last time. This Brasillach is a darkly funny guy, with a love of the absurd. He takes us to a crazy woman who complains to the mayor of Toledo that her husband and son have been killed . . . but mostly she’s upset because she hasn’t got any potatoes. And she rustles her empty canvas sack to make the point!

Brasillach meets a pastry cook who prides himself on being the Famous Frenchman Who Lived Through the Alcázar Siege . . . although the Keystone Kops explanation of how the pastry cook escaped execution by the Reds might not be entirely reliable.

And then we’ve got some Moorish soldiers on the Nationalist side, most of whom have little Spanish and less French. They encounter Brasillach and friends in the trenches outside Madrid and suspect them of being Red spies.

This episode of Brasillach, Cousteau and Bardeche—three somewhat nerdy French journos taking an after-lunch stroll near a no-man’s-land where they shouldn’t be at all—would make a really nice little film script. Except, of course, Brasillach was executed by the Reds in 1945, and I don’t believe a script of this particular scope has ever been green-lighted for production.

Robert Brasillach himself was a film and literary critic, not a travel writer, and this comes through in passages where he drops place names and personages, and makes a joke without offering some substantive or intriguing detail. There’s one funny anecdote that takes place just before our three Frenchmen get lost in the trenches. While they’re touring the remains of University City, the local Nationalist brass invite them to an impromptu “sumptuous lunch” at the Architecture building—one of the few local structures that haven’t been bombed to smithereens. Brasillach tells us they were treated to this lunch because these officers hope these French journalists will write it up and turn University City into a great gastronomic destination! This might well be banter on the soldiers’ part, with Brasillach playing along, suggesting he’s going to do a “Michelin three-star”review of the lunch.

Then he jokes to us, in an aside, that the only trouble with this fine-dining locale is that it’s nearly impossible to get to, seeing as you’re fifty meters from the enemy lines, with bombs exploding and mitrailleuses blasting away, right outside the window.

But ironically, after all this discussion of matters gastronomique, Brasillach leaves out the central detail of what they ate for lunch! As I say . . . he was not a travel writer!


 

From Notre avant-guerre

. . . .After Burgos, where we enjoyed those unforgettable scenes of lively and joyous crowds promenading down the [Paseo del] Espolon at 8 p.m. every evening, we moved on through dusty Valladolid, full of soldiers at rest. And then we finally reached Toledo.

Barely two kilometers from the enemy lines, Toledo is even deader than when Philippe Barrès saw her. [French politician and journalist Barrés, 1896-1975, had written of Toledo in Le Matin.] It’s a strange town, buried in the night. In those winding little Arab streets, there’s no light other than flashing blue lamps. Off in the Plaza de Zocodover, cafés are braced by sandbags, stacked up all the way past the ground floor; and moreover, these cafés are closed at midnight.

The streets are deserted, the shops are dismal. You can sense the menacing war, the nearby front, even if this marvelous green and yellow neighborhood itself hasn’t been smashed to pieces yet. The rest of Toledo hasn’t suffered too much, at least, but Zocodover Plaza is in ruins. It hasn’t entirely disappeared from the face of the earth, that is true; we can dream of restoring it as a monument, and we can tell ourselves that San-Juan-los-Reyes (St. John of the Monarchs), in front of the Alcázar, might quickly heal these wounds. What we can’t imagine is how we could restore this weird masterpiece, with those fifty irregular balconies; these houses that lack style, but are somehow exquisite, with their crazy, marvelous facades.

Zocodover

Zocodover Plaza

Cannons and the mines have forever destroyed this unique success of Spain. So close to the front, Toledo has not yet resumed its former life.

A little after this we met the mayor at a café. Don Fernando Aguirre had lived through all seventy-two days of the siege of the Alcázar. [July-September 1936]. He told us about it with a kind of puckish glee

“I didn’t like boiled horse at all,” he confessed. “Not at all. Maybe if there had been salt… But no salt! So I ate some flour. It was not very good, because of the sawdust. But it was better than the boiled horse!”

And he laughed very loudly, in his gastronomic chagrin.

Of the Alcázar itself, of the exterior nothing remains at all, apart from monumental ruins. We toured the underground passages, with their enormous walls. We saw the entrance from which they aimed a single little cannon. And then there was the flour mill they made out of a motorcycle engine, and the telephone from which Colonel Moscardó heard his son’s voice. [1] And the bakery . . . and all the other small mementoes of the siege: the last bottles of medicine, the bread, the remaining supply of grain . . .

They’d set up an infirmary in the chapel, and covered it with a large red carpet. They set up a copy of the Virgin of the Alcázar (the original statue of which is now in the cathedral). Here we saw the small room where was born one of the two children of the siege, named Ramon-Alcázar, and over there we saw the swimming pool where still slept about twenty of their dead . . . and beside that, there were the bathhouses where bodies were buried standing up. Standing out in the courtyard, his armor pierced with a bullet, was the statue of [Holy Roman Emperor] Charles V.

Every step we took, we encountered the presence of war. When we went to the town hall, a little old woman clutching a waxed-canvas tote-bag approached Señor Alcade, the mayor. She talked quickly while crying, and occasionally opened her canvas bag. They killed her husband, her son—she said—and now she has no potatoes!

But who were they? The Reds? Whites? We never found out. She babbled on in terror and confusion, slapping her bag with desperation. In tears she repeated her three interchangeable sorrows—her dead son, her dead husband, and no potatoes; and then she’d focus her despairing, mad chatter to her mysterious waxed-canvas bag.

We knew there was a Frenchman in the Alcázar, but didn’t know much about him. Turns out his name was Isidore Clamagiraud. He was a pastry chef in Zocodover Plaza. He had a little rat face, with freckles, and he told us boldly, with a smirk: “C’est moi! Yes! I am the famous Frenchman of the Alcázar! “

At the end of July and beginning of August [1936] Isidore had gone out, twenty evenings in a row, looking for flour. Then, on the twenty-first night, he got caught! Next morning, the Reds were about to shoot him.

But that very day, the French consul in Madrid was making a tour of Toledo to ensure the repatriation of French nationals. He heard that Isidore was going to be executed. So he waited for a funeral cortege to come down the street, on its way to the Synagogue del Transito [originally a 14th century Sephardic synagogue, later used as a Catholic church and museum]. And then he jumped on the condemned man, pushed him into his car, and drove off at high speed—in the best style of American cinema!

Isidore the pastry chef recounted all this to us quietly, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

In the streets of Toledo, we’d come across some legionaries from the Madrid front, resting up for a couple of days sometimes. One of them, a Frenchman who fought in the last war, and who had been fighting in Spain since the beginning, told us some beautiful yet horrible stories.

“The Reds tried to take over Toledo in 1936,” he said. “We sent the Legion against the tanks. Do you know the best way to deal with the tanks? We throw a gasoline bottle, it breaks, we throw a grenade, and the tank ignites like a match. Only problem was, when we got to the tanks, the bottles were full of water! Our little Red friends had played a nice trick on us. When we got back we were one hundred out of seven hundred.”

He shrugged his shoulders: such are the misfortunes of war.

We asked him what the legion’s general opinion was, regarding the Frenchmen in their ranks.

“In my bandera“, he told us, “the commandant gave an order: any legionnaire who speaks ill of France will have two days in a peleton. Do you know what the peleton is? We get up at four o’clock, we work non-stop, we go to bed at two in the morning. And if we have to deal with a really bad head-case, we put the bag on him: a bag on his back, very heavy, that he can never take off, even to sleep. So what the commandant says, goes.”

He told us stories, and was probably making up a lot of them. But one of them was the true gen: “You remember the mobile guard captain Monsieur ——, killed by the communists in Colombes, this was three or four years ago? He had a son, sixteen at the start of the Revolution. One fine day, the kid leaves for high school with his books in his bookstrap. Only this time he had borrowed some money from his sister. Three days later he’s in the legion. We have to believe that it was his intention to fight against those who killed his father. So now, he’s eighteen, he’s been wounded five times, everyone loves him. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t think of women. This lad is one shining example. We were together at the Cité Universitaire. [2] When he had a little money, he’d go down to Toledo and buy himself a kilo of caramels. He’s just a kid.”

In the future, Toledo will undoubtedly reclaim its former destiny as a sumptuous place, a city of enchantment. Maybe the Alcázar will be rebuilt. Maybe not. We can only hope that a wisely directed public policy, like the social movements of the Falange, will revive life in these city streets and desolate countryside. Today, Toledo  may be nothing more than the museum of warring Spain, but it is the most moving and the most magnificent of museums. Civic life might well resume elsewhere while Toledo remains wounded, torn, left with ruins and memories: a fate bestowed on no other city of Spain. Neither Burgos nor Seville nor Segovia, however seductive they are, suffered such a martyrdom.

For months to come, with its veiled lights and abandoned streets, Toledo would remain the very city of death.

As for the University City of Madrid, it is no further from the capital than the Cité Universitaire de Paris is from ours.[3] It was in Madrid itself, at the gates of the city, that Franco’s soldiers took refuge for a long time, in a sort of gateway besieged on all sides, constantly undermined and only able to communicate with the back-country through some wooded area and a pasarela (footbridge). They’ve occupied and fortified this region across the bridge. It’s where they lived, and where they sorted out strategy.

When we were at the border and we said we wanted to go to the University City, they knew exactly what we meant: “Ah! Ah! la pasarela!…

Señor Merry de Val [4] repeated this to us, as did our Spanish press official. Apparently we were to go get travel certification in a small, dry, brown village. This turned out to be San-Martin de Valdeiglesias, I believe. A place we had trouble searching out in the Spanish desert.

The lieutenant-colonel then mentioned the pasarela again, and added, with a laugh: “Pequeno riesgo!” A little risky!

Up to this point we assumed that this «pasarela» was some kind of boat for foreign journalists. Now we were told that we had to cross a footbridge “under the fire of a machine gun”—one-by-one.

In the morning, Pierre Cousteau was singing, to the tune of The Legion (A legionnaire knows how to die …):

Oh, a journalist faces death . . .

And in fact it was so: we went one-by-one, but the machine gun never shot at individuals.

Nevertheless, when we got to the end of this famous footbridge, we found a stretcher left out to receive the wounded . . . with a bouquet of flowers. It all looked pretty macabre.

We were much less impressed, I must say, by these last ten meters of footbridge than by the course we’d just completed, some five or six times longer, concealed by some very scant shrubbery, while bullets like swarms of bees were hitting the trees around us. As I write about this eighteen months later, this all seems like an ironic introduction to the new adventure we’d taken ourselves into. For us and our comrades there would be other footbridges, and other shrubbery to cross and hide behind, when we were no longer mere tourists. But our pasarela tragica experience will keep a privileged place in our memories.

Once we crossed that famous footbridge, we came across an encampment that might well have passed for a holiday camp. The lieutenant-colonel had a little pink house amongst the trees: this was the “Villa Isabelita”, which was recently built for him, with kitchen, bathroom, all modern conveniences.

As for the soldiers, they’d built themselves a swimming pool, a pretty good-sized one from what I could tell, where they could happily forget the sun and the scorching heat. Soon enough, we visited a tabor de regolares (Moroccan colonial troops), banging away on a piano sheltered by leaves. To tell the truth, we quite forgot that the enemy lines were less than a hundred meters away.

We almost forgot all those kilometers we traveled under the sun, through the trenches of the University City. But from time to time, we’d still hear that little whistle, or a dull, dry noise that we novices still couldn’t distinguish as bullets that might miss us or hit us.

They were curious, those trenches, extraordinarily clean, and paved in the strangest way in the world. From the little palaces around University City, the most varied and sometimes luxurious materials were borrowed. Marble, mosaic, rough brick alternated in beguiling eclecticism. But mainly, their trench architects were into radiators. Yes, they would lay their radiators on the ground to let the water flow, thereby avoiding the wooden slats which were generally used in trenches. It was even possible to walk through the trenches and—from behind a large stone in the loophole, and often as close as 25 meters—see the trench-lines of the Reds, and the high townhouses of Madrid so very close; as well as the giant Telefonica building, and the churches.

Within the University City proper, few buildings—or ruins, I should say—belonged to the Nationalists. The colonel of the sector, who usually had charge of us and accompanied us everywhere, would point them out to us with his cane:

“Here is the Philosophy Department… It is Red.”

“Naturellement!”

“Here is Medicine, Dentistry … also Red! But the hospital-clinic is ours. And also the Architecture department … And the Casa Velasquez.”

We saw the destroyed Plazete, which was the “folly” of the Duchess of Alba; we visited the remains of the Casa Velasquez, the maison for French language and culture here; and then we took in the most extraordinary ruination suffered by the enormous hospital-clinic. This had been one of the most beautiful in Europe, but now it was completely ransacked, with dozens of floors collapsed and folded on top of each other like paper.

The Architecture department was in better condition. It was there that the local officers immediately invited us to the most sumptuous lunch—as they believed that we would be listing University City as one of the top gastronomic destinations for tourism in new Spain. (A destination that right now is . . . unfortunately . . . a little difficult to reach!)

While there, we also visited some rooms of non-commissioned officers and soldiers (on the wall, holy pictures only). All the while we were shielded by armored window-shutters and the occasional blasts of machine guns. And then in the most sheltered corner of the Architecture department, we found the University City Hospital. This was perhaps the miracle of Spain. They’d set up a whole ward there for advanced surgical services. The wounded were transported there immediately and treated at once. All the while, the enemy was fifty meters away. Constant shooting, constant bombing. Not very far from here a mine exploded one day, taking out thirty Moroccans at once.

Everywhere, moreover, mines were ready to explode. Trenches were evacuated and left under the watch of a single sentry who waited for something to go off. And it was under these conditions that a modern surgical hospital had been set up and operated un-transportable wounded. “Here is one,” the surgeon told us. “Wounded three days ago, in the lung and in the liver. Today, he has temperature of 37.5º, so he’s safe. If it had been necessary to move him anywhere, he would have died. We’ll evacuate him at night, by the footbridge.”

At the bend of a passage, Pierre Cousteau and I lost Maurice, while our guides continued to advance. Finally we found ourselves in a line of unknown trenches, deserted. It was time to start shooting again, bullets whistling overhead. Presently some Moorish troops appeared, and watched us civilians with curiosity.

We tried to talk to them. They didn’t know Spanish. We were a bit uneasy. We realized what an odd sight we were. Here we were—French, in University City, Madrid, very close to the International Brigades (a mere thirty meters away from our trenches at some points). Not a good look for us, is it? An unlikely bunch.

But then a Moroccan approached us when he heard us speak. “Toi Français?” he said. He was from the French zone of Morocco, and he was glad to see us. He led us to an officer who would eventually take us back to Villa Isabelita.

By now our guides had become very worried, and they were interrogating Maurice. Calling him “Don Manuel” [the mis-written name on his transit pass], they thought he was just ignoring their questions in Spanish. Little communication here, but they felt reassured when they heard the French words “tuer”, “fusiller”, “Mores” [Moors]—easily recognizable to them.

So it seems that we escaped it all beautifully. Our press official who was responsible for us gave sighs of relief when we finally turned up.

To cries of “¡Arriba Francia!” we left and went back to Toledo, then moved on to quieter places. We drove all day to reach Zaragoza where the Grand Quartier is located. It was a very amusing city, and we would not find another one so lively; just as we’ll never see Burgos so vastly swollen with ministries and troops, as it was when we saw it in wartime. We were left at the Grand Hotel, which is a caravanserai where we three were offered a small room with camp beds . . .

*   *   *

We saw the Struggle for Nationalism in a Spain at war. But there was also a Nationalism Triumphant that we could visit—even if it was a nationalism of a somewhat different essence. I mean, of course, Germany.

About Germany, we were always curious. Our two peoples are the products of history, as well as geography. (Maybe more geography than history?) And there was a lot to see in Germany, if you had the time to spend there. A lot of us felt that we needed to cover Germany quickly, because maybe we wouldn’t really have that much time to see that country at peace.

Anyway, in 1937 we made up our minds go to the Congress of Nuremberg. We were pretty sure we’d find some newspapers happy to have some slightly biased special correspondents, and that this would enable us to cover part of our travel expenses. Annie Jamet [5] joined a trade mission from Lyon, which was going to attend the Congress, accompanied by a few curious parliamentarians, including M. Pomatret, now Minister of Labor.

One happy motorist invited by Je suis partout, Pierre Cousteau, took his wife, as well as Georges and Germaine Blond (Georges was covering the Congress for la Liberté). I didn’t join these folks till the last few days. [6] [Brasillach footnote: Georges Blond’s account was published as A Hundred Hours with Hitler in l’Revue Universelle.]

We had a lot of fun. We motored the route from Nuremberg to Bamberg (where we were lodged, as there was a lack of space in the holy city!), while singing the “Madelon,” always under the respectful eye of the Bavarians, and I think we made a charming impression. We got to talk with a number of Germans who were involved with Cahiers franco-allemands journals with Fritz Bran and Otto Abetz, whom we knew somewhat. We had wide scope to take in the new Germany.

A hundred hours is roughly the time I spent in Germany, and I have to ask myself how I avoided being biased by all the contradictory impressions. For one thing, it’s a bit pretentious to judge a country after such a brief exposure. Neither Germany nor Hitler are simple things. We can read a few books and meet a few Germans, and think we feel at ease there, and imagine (even if we’ve never even been there!) that we know what we like and don’t like about the place.

But the reality is quite different. The fun gets mixed together a very different way from anything we anticipated. Our hundred hours has surprises and contrasts, things you might not notice if you’ve been living there for years. I mean, look at those Bavarian villages that you go through on the train and automobile. There they are in the middle of your green and pleasant journey, childlike decorations along the way.

Whether the roofs are pointed or round, you still have those brown, visible beams, and the flowers in all the windows . . . and that’s the Germany that’s dear to romantics (including Jean Giraudoux [7] who gave us these impressions in the first place). Perfectly shaped, as graceful as a Nuremberg toy! It’s medieval, it’s feudal, it dresses up the roads with a contrast that might well astonish you.

So, along the little paved streets of Nuremberg and Bamberg, along rivers and canals, near cathedrals and impressive statues . . . you see the old Germany of the Holy Roman Empire, now merged into the Third Reich. Nothing really surprising here, though . . . apart from these millions of flags hanging from the facades. No posters here, as you’d see in Italy. Just the flags, though some immense, hanging there, five storeys up, others less extensively, but still maybe three per window! Can we imagine such an adornment, so joyful under this gray sky, which is associated with the touching baroque of the sculptures, the old houses and the flowers on the balconies?

Here is a people who love flowers. We see it in the garages, where the workers devotedly furnish their clients’ motorcars each morning. This is the sort of thing that has always attracted nostalgic devotees of the “good” Germany, people like the fat Madame de Staël [8]. But let’s not let love of flowers distract us from the harder realities.

Quite literally, there was not a village which was not proud on this triumphal road to Nuremberg, during this week from September 6 to 13, where the National Socialist Party was holding its convention in the old town of Franconia, the holy week of the Reichsparteitag. This lavish decoration merely pointed us to the ceremonies we’d come to see, and prepared for the sacred rites of The New Germany. Big banners, here and there, welcomed us. At the gates of cities, we spotted others asking us to come next year. No other announcements except those which were seen at the entrances to villages and a few inns where it was simply stated, with restrained politeness: “Jews are not wanted here.” But outside the venues devoted to the celebrations of the new culture, you wouldn’t see anything other than flowers and flags. If we wanted to know more, we would need to investigate beyond this façade of grace and freshness.

We went to Exhibitions. In Nuremberg there was a great Anti-Marxist show going on, with photographs and posters of Marxist crimes around the world. The sailors of the Deutschland, the ship bombarded by the Spanish Reds, received special honors, naturally enough. The French figure prominently among the revolutionary nations, because of Jean-Jacques [9]; but to please our own amour-propre, the race theorists have made a plea to Voltaire and Napoleon, whose anti-Semitic phrases they display in big letters. The exhibition was well done. We French contributed the remains of a bus that was bombed on 6 February 1934, as an example of «Rouge» barbarism. [10] Our French folk would pass this display and smile.

Notes

[1] The reference is to one of the most dramatic—and perhaps characteristically Spanish—episodes of the war in Spain. Soon after the Alcázar siege began in July 1936, the Republicans (aka “Reds,” or “Loyalists”) captured the son of the Alcázar’s commandant. By telephone they ordered Colonel Moscardó to surrender, or else they’d shoot the son, Luis. Luis came to the phone, and his father told him to commend his soul to God. Luis was shot, and the siege held out for two months, long enough for Francisco Franco’s troops to reach the Alcázar and defeat the enemy.

[2] Meaning they were in the trenches by University City outside of Madrid; not attending classes together at university!

[3] As close as the University of Paris? The claim looked dubious to me, but in fact Madrid’s University City is only about 2km from central Madrid . . . about as far as the Sorbonne and Latin Quarter is from present-day central Paris.

[4] Alfonso, Marquis Merry del Val, 1864-1943, London-born Ambassador of Spain to the United Kingdom, 1913-1931; later, unofficial representative of General Franco in Great Britain, 1936-38.

[5] Annie Jamet was organizer of the Cercle Rive Gauche, holding salons and conferences for the young French Right intellectuals on the Left Bank. A close friend of Brasillach’s she accompanied him to Nuremberg in 1937 but died the following year. During the War her husband Henri Jamet ran the Librairie Rive Gauche (bookstore) in the Latin Quarter, at 47 Blvd St-Michel, corner of  Pl de la Sorbonne. Les Collabos, articles from L’Histoire (Paris: Fayard/Pluriel, 2011).

[6] Georges Blond, 1906-1989, was a contributor to Je suis partout and became renowned after the war with his Histoire de la Légion étrangère (1981).

[7] Presumably refers to Giradoux’s play Siegfried (1928).

[8] Germaine de Staël-Holstein was the daughter of Louis XVI’s finance minister, Necker, and a would-be romantic groupie of the young Napoleon Bonaparte. In France, Mme. De Staël became a byword for any loquacious, unattractive bluestocking. Brasillach is no fan, as we can see.

[9] Must refer to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who is imagined by some to have prefigured the French Revolution.

[10] This could be another instance of Brasillach irony. The date is generally associated with Rightist rioting in Paris after the Stavisky Affair (q.v.).

 

Bernardo Bertolucci and The Conformist

Published in Counter-Currents, 11 December 2018

Reputation-wise, Bernardo Bertolucci (1941-2018) missed a good bet by not dying a quarter-century ago, rather than lingering on for years of illness and diminishing fame. Orson Welles spent his lengthy dotage introducing himself to new generations as a pitchman for [Gallo Wine]* Paul Masson, and that seemed pretty sad, but at least people knew who he was. When the equally talented Bertolucci died on November 26 he had almost no public profile at all. “Director of Last Tango in Paris Dies at 77,” said the New York Times, damning him with his most memorably lurid, and memorably mediocre, film.

Most obituaries and film columns remembered him for that, and his Oscar-sweep for The Last Emperor in 1987. Twenty-five years ago Bertolucci was still front-and-center in popular consciousness.  If his latest, early-90s films were perverse and inaccessible (The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha), that didn’t matter. The Last Emperor Oscars were a recent memory, and his signature works of the 1970s (The Conformist, Last Tango, 1900) still stood tall in the cultural landscape, even if critics regarded them as self-indulgent.

The reputation of Tango will forever be tarred by the anal-rape-with-butter scene, as well as fatuous interviews that stars Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider gave during the movie’s opening in late 1972. 1900 came out in 1976 and is probably the longest feature production ever released. It starts out with a man screaming that Giuseppe Verdi has died, and goes downhill from there, wandering all over the place for over five hours of political passion and manure, along with the most coprophagy you’ll see outside of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló.

But then we come to The Conformist (1970)endlessly gorgeous and influential. For a film historian, the Bertolucci of this period is intriguing because of the cross-fertilization that went on between him and director Francis Ford Coppola. They became friends right around the time Bertolucci was making The Conformist and Coppola was doing preparatory work for The Godfather. Visually and musically The Conformist is very similar to The Godfather (and Godfather Part II), for the very good reason that Coppola cribbed ideas from his friend. You have scenes in dim, dark-wood rooms; venetian-blind shadows; musical crescendoes behind shots of fallen, drifting leaves.

People often think that Coppola gave his Godfather films a vague “Italian movie” look, but what he really did was copy The Conformist. The two directors also shared some actors in those 70s films. Bertolucci and Coppola both use Brando (in The Godfather and Last Tango) and then Robert DeNiro (Godfather II and 1900) during DeNiro’s brief, glittering zenith as an bankable, international leading man. (The only other one at the time would probably be Gerard Depardieu, playing opposite DeNiro in 1900.)

My favorite shared talent, though, is Gastone Moschin, the comic-relief thug who portrays Special Agent Manganiello in The Conformist, and then, a few years later, turns up in The Godfather Part II . . . playing a similar role as Fanucci, the Black Hand capo whom the young Don Corleone (DeNiro) kills.

Jean-Louis Trintignant, Gastone Moschin

Like most Italian and French auteurs, Bertolucci was a very character-driven director. He didn’t really do plot, in the sense of having some overarching quest or chase that holds our attention. His people don’t have much agency; they’re passive actors, victims of history and random events. The usual Bertolucci technique is to have characters discover each other, talk or kiss or fight; and let a story unfold from there. Some directors and screenwriters (e.g., David Mamet) consider this a wretched way to make a film; plot must be the priority.

For Bertolucci the technique worked pretty well, so long as he had a basic narrative to work from (a novel, say). But his fatalistic outlook meant that he sometimes ended up telling a very different story from the original text. This is what happens in The Conformist, based on a novel by Alberto Moravia. Moravia was part-Jewish with Fascist family connections, and his somewhat surreal, episodic novel was intended as a kind of apologia for his family’s politics.

Bertolucci takes the broad outline of Moravia’s story but subverts the novel’s plot and intent. Most thumbnail descriptions of the film are very bad; they really describe what the novel was supposed to be about. An example, from imdb-dot-com:

A weak-willed Italian man becomes a fascist flunky who goes abroad to arrange the assassination of his old teacher, now a political dissident

But that’s not really the plot of the film. The film’s anti-hero, Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a Roman civil servant, is devious but not particularly weak-willed. He wishes to call on his old philosophy professor, an anti-Fascist currently in exile in Paris. He uses the pretext of a honeymoon trip to visit Paris, and meantime alerts the Fascist intelligence services that he’s willing to report to back to them. He’s covering all his bases and saving his job, you see, in case someone gets suspicious. And then, when Marcello gets to Paris, the professor tries to test him by asking him to mail a confidential letter, but Marcello spots the ruse and refuses, thereby assuring his old teacher that he is not, in fact, a Fascist spy.

That’s all confusing enough for the core plot. But then Marcello forms a passionate interest in the professor’s young ballet-teacher wife (Dominque Sanda), though she seems more interested in Marcello’s new bride, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli). The setting of the film is 1938, but the subdued kinkiness was put in for 1970-style spice.

And Marcello’s little spy mission is expanded. His handlers order him to kill the professor. This was never part of Marcello’s plan at all. When murder-time comes, after a long cross-country pursuit, Marcello won’t get out of the car. He watches impassively through the car window as some Fascist henchmen kill the professor and his wife in the snowy hills of Savoie. This cold-blooded set-piece doesn’t make an awful lot of sense; up until now Marcello has been a sympathetic figure. Bertolucci presumably added the scene to give Marcello one token instance of villainy.

The script is convoluted, and stuffed with flash-forwards and flashbacks, and even flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Then, on top of these other distractions you have the film’s architectural-travelogue beauty, shot in blue-greens like a 1930s Ektachrome slide. Nevertheless its narrative is tighter than the novel’s. The book strains to make some vague, didactic point about the attractions and pitfalls of Fascism. Marcello in the novel suffers from obsessive thoughts that make him seek the protective cover of utter normality. Hence,  a “conformist.” But this is very abstract, a hard thing to get up on the screen. (Perhaps a Jacques Tati comedy?)  

So instead of a cowardly conformist, Bertolucci gives us a priggish haute-bourgeois with an overwhelming disdain for degeneracy. Marcello’s mother is a rich junkie who gets morphine and sex from her Japanese chauffeur. His embarrassing father (a wife-and-child abuser in the novel) is an early Fascist Party supporter who’s gone insane. Marcello looks down his nose at the slimy Fascisti he has to work with, just as he has utter contempt for Italy’s new Nazi allies. The film’s Marcello isn’t a weak-willed worry-wart, he’s a snobbish Don Quixote, a foppish dude who wishes to clean up Dodge.

This elegant and influential motion picture did not get wide distribution in America, and is virtually unknown outside the art-house and film-critic communities. For many years there was neither a quality English-dubbed version, nor (preferably) a good subtitled edition. This has changed in recent years with the issue of a revised, “extended” cut.

Some of the bad translations in the original release were comical. For example, when Marcello tells his wife about his old professor, he recalls that the students thought him a divine fool: “We called him Smerdyakov,” says Marcello (in Italian). The subtitle translators presumably had a working knowledge of Italian, and French, and English, and some German too; but they didn’t know their Dostoyevsky. And they must have really puzzled over this one, because in the end they came up with the English subtitle: “We called him shithead.”  

 


*My friends at Counter-Currents were good enough to catch this boner immediately. WHY did I think Orson Welles was a pitchman for Gallo? I think it’s because I briefly worked for DDB Needham (Doyle Dane Bernbach + Needham Harper Steers) when they were handling a wine account where the pitchman was R. J. Wagner. Somehow, during this time, (circa 1986) I formed the notion that Paul Masson was just a slightly upscale label for Gallo. Gallo does have upscale labels, but they also make table plonk and are not ashamed of it, and I respect that. But obviously I couldn’t be bothered, in December 2018, to look up Orson Welles and see what winery he worked for!  

 

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