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Volume 10, No. 7 - October, 2000  
Table of contents for this issue
J'Accuse Sartre

THIS APRIL WAS THE TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF JEAN-PAUL SARTRE'S DEATH, and the French marked the occasion with more than a dozen books and much conversation. But when the Groupe d'Études Sartriennes met in June to commemorate the founder of existentialism, the mood was strained, to say the least: The group's hero stood accused of benefiting from the World War II-era dismissal of a Jewish instructor.

In an article published in the spring 2000 issue of Commentaire, Ingrid Galster, a Sartre specialist and professor at the Katholische Universität Eichstätt in Germany, raised the issue of Sartre's early academic employment. In 1941, after returning from a German prisoner-of-war camp, the future author of Being and Nothingness took over a teaching position at the prestigious Lycée Condorcet formerly held by a Jew, Henri Dreyfus-Le Foyer, who had been forced to resign during the occupation. Dreyfus-Le Foyer was not just any Jew, moreover, but the great-nephew of the famous Alfred Dreyfus, the army captain whose wrongful condemnation for selling secrets to the Germans tore France apart in the 1890s.

The Sartre-Dreyfus revelation had already surfaced in a 1997 editorial in Le Nouvel Observateur, but Galster's tough rhetoric and suspicious stance embroiled the tightly knit world of Sartre studies in a new affaire. Sartre, Galster contends, did nothing to protest the Jewish professor's departure and indeed took advantage of the relatively undemanding post left behind by Dreyfus-Le Foyer to write several of the works that would make his reputation. Though Galster's article avoids taxing the late philosopher with actual collaboration, it does accuse him of hypocrisy: After all, in a conference shortly after the war, Sartre cast blame on all Germans who failed to protest against the Nazi regime and singled out German academics who didn't leave the university when their Jewish colleagues were dismissed.

True, few Parisian intellectuals did much to protest the occupation. But given Sartre's radical and rather self-righteous stance regarding the engagement of not only professors but all individuals, shouldn't we hold him to a higher standard? "Sartre," Galster contends, "n'est pas tout le monde." Echoing criticism leveled by Vladimir Jankélévitch in 1985, Galster concludes that Sartre's postwar political activism, and particularly his pathbreaking 1946 attack on anti-Semitism, Réflexions sur la question juive (Anti-Semite and Jew), may have been motivated by an "unhealthy compensation" (une compensation maladive) for wartime guilt.

Unlike the French army during the drôle de guerre, the Parisian Sartre specialists have mounted a vigorous defense against this new German attack. In the summer issue of Les Temps Modernes, the journal founded by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Sorbonne literature professor Jacques Lecarme points out that Dreyfus-Le Foyer's immediate successor was not Sartre, but Ferdinand Alquié, who held the post for several months before Sartre took over. (Galster notes that Alquié did not officially replace Dreyfus-Le Foyer but merely filled in for him before a permanent replacement was found; Sartre was this replacement.)

Lecarme goes on to specify that although the Lycée Condorcet was a prestigious Parisian institution (it prepared the French elite to compete for coveted places at the École Normale Supérieure), it cannot be compared with a university, where professors would be much more likely to know who held their chairs before they did. A "foreign researcher" such as Galster, Lecarme rather chauvinistically allows, might be excused for her ignorance of the French academic system but should nonetheless avoid "assimilations which cannot be sustained." Furthermore, according to Lecarme, Galster doesn't have her facts straight: Sartre taught nine hours of classes per week, in both philosophy and math, not the less-demanding six hours that Galster alleges helped launch his writing career.

As Lecarme sees it, Sartre's wartime actions should arouse admiration rather than shame. The author of several articles that can be classified as "résistants" in the clandestine Lettres françaises, Sartre nearly lost his teaching position because his play Les Mouches was understood by the occupation authorities as a protest against the regime.

Few writers at the time, according to Lecarme, went as far as Sartre in fighting the Nazis with their pens. But whether we can follow Lecarme in his assertion that "one hardly sees how he could have done more" is another matter. Susan Rubin Suleiman, a professor of French and comparative literature at Harvard University, points out that a certain amount of accommodation to the Vichy regime and the German authorities was necessary to stage Les Mouches and that Sartre certainly knew that Jews were being dismissed from teaching posts at all levels and yet failed to raise his voice in protest. In this, Suleiman adds, Sartre was typical of his time - neither more heroic nor more blameworthy. Denis Hollier, a professor of French literature at New York University, concurs: "This is just another reminder that Sartre's heroism should certainly not be overblown."

Yet the need to hold Sartre up as a role model dies hard, as witnessed by Lecarme's aggressive tone in his dismissal of Galster's attacks. What this shows, according to Suleiman, is that Sartre has become a "lieu de mémoire...a kind of national monument" marking a "sore point" in French national memory. The current Sartre conflict turns on issuesóthe occupation and the Jewish genocideóthat remain fraught for the French today. Sartre's war record can still get pulses racing because the French have so far failed to probe sufficiently what Hollier calls the sensitive "borderlines" of their national past.

Maurie Samuels


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