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The Épuration:
An Intellectual & Political Purge

2,021 words

Robert Brasillach on trial

Robert Brasillach on trial

Translated by Guillaume Durocher

Translator’s Note:

Épuration,” literally meaning “purge,” “cleansing,” or “purification,” was the process of killing, imprisoning, ostracizing, or otherwise punishing those deemed to have been traitors by the Gaullist government and the Resistance following the eviction of German forces from France in 1944-45.

The following is taken from Dominique Venner’s Histoire de la Collaboration (Paris: Gérard Watelet/Pygmalion, 2000), 207-16. The title is editorial.

The word “épuration” has an unequivocal meaning. In other epochs, men would speak of ethnic, political, or ideological “purification.” It is used for the exclusion of individuals deemed unworthy of belonging to a party or a social group. Its political and ideological character is evident.

An épuration légale[1] had been called for as early as the Anglo-Saxon landing in North Africa in November 1942 by five parliamentarians exiled in London: Pierre-Bloch, Paul Antier, Félix Gouin, Max Hymans, and Pierre Mendès France. In a letter to President Roosevelt, they wrote: “French public opinion would not understand that the enemy’s accomplices and servants could continue to exercise any authority in the liberated territories.” Quoting this astonishing letter addressed to a foreign head of State against their compatriots, [the historian] Robert Aron observes that these “five representatives of the people [. . .] were still but isolated survivors of the republican collapse.”[2]

The judicial and administrative purge would be instituted by the Provisional Assembly of Algiers during the sessions of 11 and 12 January, 1944, and then of July 10, 1944. The order signed by General de Gaulle on June 26, 1944 instituted courts of justice, at the administrative center of every court of appeals’ jurisdiction, charged with ruling on events between June 16, 1940 and the Liberation “which reveal the intention of promoting endeavors of the enemy’s of any kind, and this, notwithstanding any legislation in force.” This then could cover mere crimes of opinion or actions allowed under existing law.

The courts of justice were partisan emergency courts. They had the same rules of procedure as assize courts, but limited their judges to one professional magistrate who presided and to five juries chosen from a list of resisters. The governmental commissioner replaced the public ministry [as representative]. The condemned could appeal to the court of cassation and ask for a pardon.[3]

The administrative purge was regulated by the orders of June 27, 1944 and November 28, 1944, which created purge councils charged with taking disciplinary measures against civil servants, soldiers, and equivalent, up to dismissal without pay or pension. According to the study published by François Rouquet (XXème Siècle, January-March 1992, 106-17), some 22,000 to 28,000 civil servants would be punished, including 9,508 at the Interior, about 4,000 at the National Education, 4,892 in the SNCF [national rail service], 2,591 in the PTT [Post, Telegraphy & Telephones], etc.

Of all the professional categories, it was journalists and writers who were the hardest hit, which evidently underscores the ideological character of the conflict and of the épuration. The proportion of writers and journalists executed, imprisoned, or banned from their profession was greater than for all other categories. Need we recall the murders of Albert Clément, Philippe Henriot, and Robert Denoël, the suicide of Drieu La Rochelle, the pretrial death in prison of Paul Allard, the executions of Georges Suarez, Robert Brasillach, Jean Luchaire, Jean Hérold-Paquis, Hubert Huin, Paul Riche, or Paul Chack, the death sentences commuted to harsh punishments which struck Lucien Rebatet, Pierre-Antoine Cousteau, Claude Jeantet, Henri Béraud, André Algarron, Robert de Beauplan, etc. Those who expressed ideas were attacked far more than businessmen who had promoted the German war industry. The professional bans decreed by the CNE [National Writers’ Committee][4] in September 1944 affected 160 writers and journalists. The creation of a journalist ID card was part of the same logic because at its inception, its granting was dependent on the agreement of a political commission whose role was to exclude a wrongly thinking category from the profession.

The decree of May 26, 1944 ordered the suspension of all newspapers that had continued to be published fifteen days after June 25, 1940 in the northern zone and fifteen days after November 11, 1942 in the southern zone. Most newspapers which had been published during the Occupation would thus disappear. Their goods, offices, and printers would be confiscated or given to newspapers stemming from the Resistance. A National Society for Press Companies (SNEP) would be formed so that not only the newspapers with lots of capital could publish and be capable of buying printers.[5]

A decree signed by General de Gaulle on August 26, 1944 instituted an unprecedented retroactive crime, that of national indignity, and a punishment, national degradation. “Any Frenchman who, even without violating existing penal law, has made himself guilty of a manifestly anti-national activity, is to be downgraded; he is an unworthy citizen whose rights must be limited to the extent he has ignored his duties.” This law legitimized the persecution not merely of actions but of attitudes and opinions expressed from June 16, 1940 onwards, that is to say sometimes more than four years before its publication in the Official Journal.[6] What is a “manifestly anti-national activity”? The idea a Pétainist had of this was evidently not the same as that of a Gaullist or a Communist.

The consequences would be dire for a considerable number of honorable men, and for the lives of very numerous families deprived of resources by the ban on exercising certain professions due to national degradation. This could be for life or for a determined amount of time. It deprived the condemned of the right to vote, of eligibility for elections, and of all civil rights. It removed one’s rank in the military, dismissed or excluded them from employment in public offices and State bodies, deprived them of the possibility of being a jury, an expert witness, an arbitrator, a lawyer, a notary, a solicitor, a teacher or a supervisor, a director or a mere employee in a press, radio, or cinema company, a journalist, a company manager, director or secretary-general of a bank or insurance company, etc. Almost 50,000 “unworthy nationals,” that would mean 200,000 or 250,000 people directly affected, reduced to poverty, sometimes to destitution by the loss of the breadwinner’s work. It is at the very least paradoxical that, all the while attacking Vichy for its laws excluding Freemasons and Jews, the opponents of these measures would in turn institute the exclusion of groups of citizens whom they did not like.

The Exclusion of a Category of Frenchmen

The statistics of the épuration légale are obviously better kept than those of the épuration sauvage.[7] When the last court of justice ended its activities in 1951, the number of cases ruled amounted to 57,954, to which must be added the 69,797 cases decided by the civil chambers [a subset of special courts], and those of the High Court (ruling on members of the government and equivalent). The results do not take into account of death sentences by court martial, whose numbers are not known:

  • Death sentences in presence of the accused: 2,853
  • Death sentences in abstentia: 3,910
  • Executed death sentences: 767
  • Forced labor in perpetuity: 2,777
  • Forced labor for a duration of time: 10,434
  • Solitary confinement [réclusion]: 2,173
  • Imprisonment: 24,116
  • National degradation: 49,723

For its part, the High Court looked at 108 cases, gave 8 death sentences, including 3 which were executed (Laval, Darnand, Brinon), 42 dismissed cases [for lack of evidence], 16 guilty verdicts in abstentia, 3 acquittals, 17 prison sentences, 14 sentences of national degradation, including 7 dismissals “for services rendered” [to the nation].

These statistics do not take into account the very numerous legal and illegal imprisonments in preventive detention, either in administrative offices, in private prisons, or in the internment camps, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

A Horrifying Waste

[. . . ] Le Figaro of April 6, 1946 estimated the number of people arrested during the summer of 1944 at 1 million. According to Philippe Bourdrel (L’Épuration sauvage, volume 2, 394): “we estimate that there were 600,000 to 700,000 people extra-judicially imprisoned between August 20 and October 1, 1944. There were still 250,000 detainees in November 1944.” In his Letter to the Leaders of the Resistance, the writer and former resister Jean Paulhan wrote: “It is no exaggeration to estimate the number of Frenchmen affected in some or another by the crimes of the épuration at between 1,500,000 to 2,000,000.”[8]

For her part, the former communist Annie Kriegel wrote in her memoirs:

It took me a long time to understand, if only as a historian, that, instrumentalized, the épuration had been, in the minds of Communists, less a procedure for eliminating “traitors” than a means of dislocating institutions and political and social forces likely to oppose their hegemony.[9]

In their dryness, these numbers give an idea of what was the civil war and “revolution” of 1944. What they do not say, is the weight of sufferings, the most often silent or hidden.

Was this what had wanted the non-communist resisters, when they dreamed of a liberated France, but also of a regenerated and united France, restored to her past splendor? After having suffered the frightening disaster of 1940, followed by a cruel occupation and a destructive civil war, one cannot but think the tragedy of this country, once so great, has but few examples in history.

Many resisters, sometimes very early on, spoke out against the excesses of the épuration and argued for a reconciliation. [. . .] François Mauriac and Jean Paulhan [took action] in favor of intellectuals. Less known is the account of Colonel Passy (Dewavrin), founder and chief of Free France’s secret services from June 1940 onwards. In 1949, he learned of the memoirs of Pierre Pucheau [a Vichy minister who had attempted to join the Free French and, to his surprise, was executed by them]. This reading reawakened in him the memory of the trial [Pucheu’s] he had witnessed in Algiers in March 1944:

I came out of it sickened and, for the first time since the dark days of June 1940, full of a mad anxiety. That day, indeed, I felt that the hopes that most of us had imagined, in the Free French Forces, would be brutally disappointed. I realized completely and all at once, like a an astounding slap, that this world, bettered and renovated by common suffering and struggle, of which we had dreamed, was dead before having been born.[10]

Given who the author was, this is perhaps the most definitive statement that has been written on the frightful waste that was the Franco-French conflict.

In the past, after other inexpiable and bloody divisions, reconcilers had always been found. But after the civil war of 1943-44, for her misfortune, France did not find within herself a figure analogous to what had been in their day Henry IV or Napoleon. To the contrary, she would never cease, morbidly, to reopen old wounds.


1. “Legal purge.” – GD

2. Robert Aron, Histoire de l’Épuration, volume 1 (Fayard, 1967), 67-68.

3. Of the 1,594 death sentences submitted to General de Gaulle up to January 1946 (112 by court martial, 1,212 par the courts of justice, and 270 by other jurisdictions), he would use his pardoning power 998 times, and so 596 of those sentenced would executed. See Robert Aron, Histoire de l’Épuration, volume 2 (Fayard, 1969), 35.

4. The CNE was a Resistance organization founded by the Communists which unofficially designated writers to be punished for thought-crime after the Liberation. Many of these were indeed executed, imprisoned, punished, or generally ostracized. – GD

5. The French identitarian  writer and European civil servant Anne Kling reports that the first president of the SNEP was none other than Jean Pierre-Bloch, the Jewish Freemason and head of the International League against Anti-Semitism, ancestor to the LICRA. He was in charge of privatizing and distributing the resources seized from the press and, like a post-Soviet oligarch, became a millionaire by skimming off money into his pockets. Pierre-Bloch’s mismanagement provoked a scandal by 1947, but caused no lasting damage to his career. He would later receive a medal from the Supreme Soviet. It all hangs together! See Guillaume Durocher, “The Culture of Critique in France: A Review of Anne Kling’s Books on Jewish Influence,” The Occidental Observer, May 24, 2015. – GD

6. The French State’s official legislative record. – GD

7. The épuration sauvage, or “wild purge,” was the extra-judicial killings organized by the Resistance and the new authorities following the Liberation. These are estimated to have numbered between 9,000 and 100,000, with the historian Robert Aron citing 40,000. – GD

8. Philippe Bourdrel, Lettre aux directeurs de la Résistance (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1991).

9. Annie Kriegel, Ce que j’ai cru comprendre (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1991).

10. Colonel Passy-Dewavrin, “J’ai vu condamner Pucheu,” La Semaine économique, politique, financière, June 8, 1949, 2.


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