The violently antisemitic writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, an author credited with revolutionising twentieth French literature and language, reflects a deeper unease about the antisemitic literary traditions of the era.
Céline championed the rise of Hitler in his lifetime. His antisemitic pamphlets were considered “savage, filthy slang” by one Nazi propagandist who welcomed his ‘correct’ racial notions.
The pamphlets in question are titled “Trifles for a Massacre” (“Bagatelles pour un Massacre”), “School for Corpses” (“L’ecole des Cadavres”) and “A Fine Mess” (“Les Beaux draps”), according to France 24. Bagatelles is said to have sold 75,000 copies by the end of the Second World War.
A decision to republish such texts in 2018 as a single volume has caused outrage in France.
In 1937, he ranted: “I don’t want to go to war for Hitler, I’ll admit it, but I don’t want to go against him, for the Jews”. A year later, Céline said: “I consider them [Nazi Germany] brothers, they have every reason to be racist. It would bring me no end of pain if they were defeated.”
Writing for the New York Review of Books in January 2010, Wyatt Mason noted that much of antisemitism found in Céline’s writing were plagiarised from those around him. Mason also translated some of his most extreme and antisemitic screeds:
What’s happening with the k****s in Italy and France is exactly what happened with pseudo-sterilization. It’s no mystery…. If you want to get rid of the rats in a ship, or the stink bugs in a house, do you de-rat by half, and exterminate on just the first floor? You’ll be reinvaded in a month by ten times the rats, by twenty times the bugs
The Aesthetics of Hate: Far-Right Intellectuals, Antisemitism, and Gender in 1930s France, by Sandrine Sanos, note that: “Bagatelles was the resounding and unapologetic articulation of distinctively French racial antisemitism.” Adding that: “His virulent antisemitism must therefore be read with an eye to the colonial imagery that sustained it and the obsession with a fragile heterosexual masculinity that drove his writings.”
Céline is reviled in his native country for his support of the collaborationist Vichy regime, he fled to Germany and Denmark following France’s liberation. He returned to France in 1951 following a pardon but died a decade later following an aneurysm.
He had written to Lucien Rebatet, a collaborationist writer, praising his antisemitic pamphlet “Les Décombres,” or “The Ruins.” Written in 1942, “The Ruins” called for the murder of Jewish people.
According to Arthur Davis, Louis-Ferdinand Céline favoured the extermination or expulsion of Jewish people, having advocated for the political slogan ‘Votes for Ayrans, Urns for the Jews’ in “A Fine Mess”.
The puppet Vichy regime helped Nazi Germany deport about 78,000 French Jews to death camps during its short-lived occupation.
So, controversial is the legacy of Céline that the French cultural ministry scrapped plans to honour him in 2011 following outrage from Jewish organisations.
The decision to republish Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s antisemitic screeds follows an unusual about-face from his 105-year-old widow, Lucette Destouches.
Others are not advocating censorship but a ‘forensic’ approach which counters the violently racist and antisemitic falsehoods perpetuated by Céline. Some historians fear such an exercise would give undue credibility to his views. Concerns raised by some in the French government.
Frederic Potier, delegate for the fight against racism, antisemitism and anti-LGBT hatred, has requested a ‘guarantee’ from the publishing house Gallimard, that any such volume contains the relevant critical context.