Jennifer Birkett

Drieu La Rochelle: Double Agent

Drieu La Rochelle

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In 1944-45, after his suicide attempts and with trial for collaboration an increasingly likely possibility, Drieu La Rochelle blamed his inability to live up to the fascist ideal on his class inheritance: ‘I was basically, essentially, weak. The son of timid, frightened bourgeois … I’ve always been frightened of everything. There was in me another man, who dreamed, like most petit-bourgeois, of wounds and bruises. But the ‘taste’ for force was something I could only express intellectually’.

His grandfather was a clerk, who had obediently defended Paris against the Prussians in 1870. When the Commune took power he equally obediently added a few cobblestones to their barricades and then left the city as fast as he could. Drieu puts it neatly: ‘We’re covered in blood. My grandfather, a very gentle petit-bourgeois, thought it quite natural for the Versailles Government to cut 20,000 Communard throats.’ His father was a lawyer who turned to business and lost all his money and credit while his son was studying at Sciences politiques. Through fellow-students, Drieu had already made useful and wealthy contacts (many of them Jewish) who would later introduce him to surrealist and leftwing circles. His father’s failure left him with a permanent sense of inferiority and insecurity; he attributed his own failure in his finals to the examiners’ reluctance to let a bankrupt’s son into the diplomatic service.

In the army in 1914, he was torn between the patriotic visions he’d acquired from his reading and the ‘crushing’ feeling of being ‘drowned in humanity … I was an ant lost in an anthill’. The frightened herd under fire, he observed, responded to the authority of the charismatic leader. At first he followed their example; later, he found that this was a role he himself could play, given a moment of sufficient frenzy.

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