The Debt of WWII French Resistance Writers to WWI Veterans, Post 1: Albert Camus
This post is the first in the WWrite Blog series entitled, “The Debt of WWII French Resistance Writers to WWI Veterans.” This week’s post focuses on Nobel Laureate, French writer, Albert Camus. Over the next few months, WWrite will take a look at other French resisters like Jean Moulin, Victor Basch, and Louis Aragon.
Almost 20 years after the Allied victory in WWI, which cost millions of French and German lives, France found itself at war with Germany again. This time, France couldn’t sustain the fight…at least at the beginning of WWII.
In 1940, the Nazis invaded France and months later, the French Army surrendered and the northern part of the country became German-occupied territory. The unoccupied south fell under the rule of Vichy, the French government that collaborated with Hitler. Vichy’s leader, le Marechal Pétain, was chosen for the role due to his status as a celebrated WWI figure. He was credited with victory, leadership, and courage in some of France's most important Great War battles. While he claimed he wanted to keep France independent from complete Nazi rule, he consented to help engineer discriminatory policies and mass deportations of Jews, Roma-Sinti, homosexuals, Communists, and other political dissidents.
Vive la France! Vive la Résistance!This was the call from General Charles De Gaulle, the leader of what was known as Free France, the exiled French government based in London that assisted the Allies by organizing the military in the colonies and coordinating Resistance movements on French soil. De Gaulle fought in WWI and was taken prisoner by the Germans at Verdun in 1916.
The patriotic pride shared between De Gaulle and Pétain in WWI took on radically different forms in WWII. Pétain wanted to defend a noncombatant, peaceful yet Nazi-collaborative France while De Gaulle defended the France that wanted to keep fighting.
The same observation can be made for WWI writers, artists, and intellectuals.
Some WWI French veterans, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Maurice Pujo, and Maxime Real del Sarte, were German sympathizers, Pétain supporters, and proponents of Anti-Semitism during WWII. Their patriotic vision of France was one of a return to the monarchy, racial purity, or collaboration.
Other writers, like Albert Camus, Jean Moulin, Louis Aragon, and Victor Basch, who took part in WWII Resistance, known as "The Army of Shadows," did so because they felt they owed a different kind of debt to the veterans of WWI. The fighters of the Great War included Jews, Communists, and men from the colonies, all of whom became victims of Nazism in the France they had defended just twenty years prior. While some today disagree about the exact historical role played by the Resistance, these writers defended a France free from fascism and dictatorship.
Albert Camus, a native of French Algeria, was too ill with tuberculosis to physically fight in the Resistance, but he edited the underground journal Combat alongside Jean-Paul Sartre. Camus’ father, Lucien Auguste Camus, was killed in WWI in 1914, not even a year after his son’s birth in 1913. He died of wounds from the Battle of the Marne at the Saint-Brieuc hospital. Camus never knew his father, but his posthumously-published novel, The First Man, reflects a lifelong quest to find out how Lucien Camus lived and died. Camus was killed in a car crash in 1960 at the age of 46 and this unpublished book was found at the accident site with his belongings. With the help of his daughter, Catherine Camus, The First Man was published almost thirty years later, in 1994.
In the collection of his Notebooks, he perhaps spoke of The First Man, declaring “The work is an avowal. I need to bear witness.” Through the narrator-character of the son, Jacques Cormery, the novel bears witness to the terrible butchery of WWI that takes the life of the father character, Henri Cormery.
The novel begins as the narrator stands in front of his father’s grave in a military near Saint-Brieuc in the Marne region of France and realizes that he is older than his father was at the time of his death. Jacques recalls that the Saint-Brieuc hospital sent his mother (Lucie Cormery) the piece of shell that wounded his head along with his father’s last words: “The piece of shell that had torn open his father’s head was kept in a small cookie jar behind the same towels from the same dresser, with the cards written from the front whose words he could recite by heart in their dryness and brevity. ‘My dear Lucie. I am well. We are changing quarters tomorrow. Take care of the children. I love you. Your husband.’” Another note reads “I am injured. It’s nothing. Your husband.” He died a few days later. The nurse had added a note, which read “It’s better this way. He would have stayed blind or crazy. He was very courageous.”
Jacques then reconstructs the battles his father fought at the moment of his death:
The commander cried “Charge.” And then we went down, it was like a ravine full of trees. Someone told us to charge. There was no one in front of us. So we walk, we walk forward like that. And then suddenly machine gun fire started to hit us. We all fell on top of each other. There so many wounded and dead at the bottom of the ravine, there was so much blood we could have crossed it with a small boat . And then there those who screamed “Mother.” How it was terrible.
In another entry from his Notebooks 1937-1939, Camus writes of war and human relations, “The only fraternity possible now, the only one that is offered to us and is permitted to us is the sordid and sticky fraternity of facing military death.” While it’s obvious that Camus finds war abhorrent, he seems here to recognize the important reality of solidarity –even a sordid one– when facing the enemy. Camus’ father, Lucien, lived far from French native soil in French colonial Algeria. However, in his son’s eyes, it's possible he went to fight in WWI perhaps to affirm or claim the fraternity and sense of solidarity he felt with France, the motherland.
Despite the abuse native Algerian groups experienced under French rule, which Camus deplored and protested in his writings, his somewhat romantic desire to achieve solidarity among all those living in French territory, was part of what pushed him to join the Resistance.
In the months leading up to the liberation of Paris in 1944, Camus saw France as a whole united in the fight for total freedom. In August 1944, Camus, editorialist of Combat dreamt of a country regenerated by a democratic revolution, which he saw through the solidarity of the French Resistance. He writes in Combat, "It is only at this price that France will resume this pure face that we have loved and defended above all else." He opposes the newly-liberated France from 1944 to that of the one just prior to the beginning of WWII, which he calls "official France" of lasting monarchist ideals. The 1944 France is ideal and heroic France, which he calls the "people," a France for which the Resistance was the vanguard.
Did the WWII Resistance victory Camus celebrated help him reconcile with the death of his father in WWI? Did he owe his own fight to that of his father's? Camus said many times he would give his life for the France united by the solidarity of the Resistance ideals. He walked in his father's footsteps and survived WWII. Perhaps writing The First Man breathed life into his father's WWI sacrifice, made him live by telling the story. His father never walked with Camus during his lifetime, but he did accompany him in the author's death. The manuscript of The First Man was found alongside Camus' corpse at the site of the fatal car crash. In the last minutes of Camus' life, he was united with his father's story. The irony is tragic, but the solidarity between the two fighters–WWI father and WWII son–becomes more real.