Fernand Sorlot's case - irice

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Conference “Publishing and Politics in France and in Great-Britain in the .... Sorlot issued the first French unabridged version of Mein Kampf, preceded by an.


Hazards of the Job. Publishing for the Enemy during the War and its consequences : Fernand Sorlot’s case Conference “Publishing and Politics in France and in Great-Britain in the Aftermath of the Second World War”, Maison Française d’Oxford, November 10-11th 2006

“The disaster for the publishers is that their commercial activity remains in everybody’s minds. They cannot come tomorrow with a statement saying: “I might have published ten pro-German books (they would say “European books”). I was forced to, but I have also published one hundred pure French literature books. They would be answered: “Even if you had published only one pamphlet in favour of Hitler compared with one thousand French books, it would still be enough to prosecute you”. And if they tried to generalise by saying that they were as innocent as the shopkeeper who had sold goods to the Germans, or the worker who had had a job at Citroën, we would answer the publishers: in an ideological war, like the one the Germans fought, the French people who agreed to serve German thought, through the newspapers, books or the radio, were far more guilty than the ones who sold their vegetables to a client, or their work to a boss. […]” This extract of an article published on the front page of the clandestine newspaper Libération, on the 10th of July 1944, made things clear: for the French publishers who agreed during the Occupation to publish for or in favour of the enemy, things would be terrible even though the Occupation was over. They would be prosecuted, and sentenced without extenuating circumstances. Convinced of the political responsibility of the publishers who had collaborated with the Germans, the jurists from the Resistance introduced a specific provision into the legal texts drafted to punish the collaborators: the publishers, guilty of national unworthiness, would be deprived of their rights to rule their own publishing house, or to have any managing position in another publishing house. Till the end of their life, they could not be publishers any more.


Ten years or so afterwards, were those threats turned into reality? If we admit that Paris had always been, and was still during the Occupation, a key place, we can look at the next figures with great interest. Among the eight thousand eight hundred and eleven men or women handed to the Civic Chambers of Paris, the exceptional jurisdictions set up by the Resistance to enforce national unworthiness between 1945 and 1951, only twelve publishers, compared with thirty one writers, and one hundred and nine journalists were brought before the Courts. The statistics are quite clear: publishers were less prosecuted than writers for their activity during the Occupation, but, above all, far less prosecuted than journalists. As Jacques Lecarme has argued, among the French intellectuals, the journalists were the ones who suffered more from the judicial purge in the aftermath of the war. Among those twelve publishers, one of them died (I am not talking about Denoël, but about Adrien Bagarry), six of them were acquitted: it is roughly the average acquittal rate of the Courts (50%). One of them was “relevé”, which means condemned, but the sanction would have no effects. In truth, only four of them were been condemned: 1-Robert Hersant (1920-1996), sanctioned to ten years of national degradation on the 3rd of December 1947, which did not prevent him from becoming the most powerful French press magnate in the seventies, controlling 40% of the total circulation of the newspapers. It did not prevent him either from having very powerful acquaintances among the French élite: Robert Hersant was François Mitterand’s friend, just like 2-Gabriel Jeantet, founder, in the thirties, of the extreme-right movement, La Cagoule. In 1940, Jeantet created a new organisation, “L’Amicale de France”, with a review, France. Revue de l’État nouveau, and a publishing house, la Société des Éditions de l’État nouveau. On the 8th of October 1948, Jeantet was sentenced to 25 years of national degradation, with global seizure of his goods. This was the harshest sentence passed on a publisher, but its motives were more political than strictly linked with his publishing activities. 3-The third name is the most famous: Bernard Grasset. Jean Bothorel, in his biography, has given lengthy details of the incredible judicial adventures of Bernard Grasset between 1948 and 1951. Branded as the “Führer of the French publishers”, because of his public outing in favour of collaboration with the

3 Germans, and his manoeuvrings to be chosen by Vichy as the sole negotiator, Grasset was in deep trouble at the end of the War. He was also sick, and had to be locked up in a psychiatric hospital. The judges were not touched by his health problems. On the 20th of May 1948, they sentenced him by default to five years of national degradation, global seizure of his goods, and five years of forbidden residence in Paris reproaching him of – I quote: “having had pro-German opinions in accordance with the Nazi and Vichy propaganda” and “having published books in favour of collaboration and racism”, followed by a list of eight books. Among them: Drieu La Rochelle, Ne plus attendre; Abel Bonnard, Pensées de l’action; Georges Suarez, Pétain ou la démocratie… On the 17th of November 1949, Grasset, still sick, did not show up in Court. A second writ of judgement was issued, saying the first one was enforceable: Grasset was not allowed to be a publisher for five years, and lost all his properties, among them, his publishing house. According to common French penal law, and the special statutes elaborated by the jurists of the Resistance clandestinely to punish collaborators, judgements in default were strictly codified. If the accused did not show up twice in court, the first sanction, which was always the highest one, had to be enforced. It was not the case as far Bernard Grasset was concerned since he would benefit from the quite extraordinary privilege of being judged three times. On the 27th of March 1950, the judges, accepting the fact that Grasset did not know he had to come to court because he had been sick, allowed him to be tried again. They did not try him immediately, but decided to re-open the investigation. Grasset’s case offered a wonderful example of how NOT to judge people, and of the clemency of the republican political justice: Grasset was never sentenced. 4-The fourth case is, in my opinion, the most interesting one. This is the one of Fernand Sorlot, the French publisher the most severely condemned. On the 15th of May 1948, Fernand Sorlot was sentenced to twenty years of national degradation and to a fine of two million Francs. This harsh sentence was a very debatable one: Sorlot had been condemned for being a pro-German publisher, which he was not, and not for being a proVichy publisher, which he was. I-An anti-German publisher

4 Fernand Sorlot’s ideological positions, which had always been of the right, were intertwined with what was the most important thing for him: the success of his publishing house. As the Commissaire du gouvernement, the prosecutor of the 5th Civic Chamber, put forward in 1948, I quote: “Sorlot’s patriotic beliefs were not as strong as he said. He had been primarily in search of sensational books, the ones capable of high prints runs, and valuable benefits”. Coming from a low social background, with no family money, Fernand Sorlot had set up his own publishing house, Les Nouvelles Éditions Latines, in 1932. Sorlot was a friend of Georges Valois, a member of the Action Française in the twenties, and the founder of the first fascist organization, Le Faisceau, who would go on to be a résistant. Sorlot was also a friend of Jean Luchaire, the leader of Les Nouveaux Temps, who would be a collaborator, sentenced to death and executed in 1946. And if from 1936, he entered the Parti Populaire Française ruled by Jacques Doriot, and was clearly a publisher of the Right, or the Extreme-Right, he wanted to be a popular publisher, and first of all, wanted to sell his books. As a publisher, Sorlot was well known to have been the first French publisher of the unauthorized version of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf in 1934. According to an anonymous note presented in 1946: he did so because it was a good bargain as he had never had the intention to pay Hitler’s royalties. Sorlot issued the first French unabridged version of Mein Kampf, preceded by an introduction so ambiguous that it was simply impossible to know if he agreed with Hitler or not. The book in itself was important enough to have extracts published and be reviewed by Marcel Cachin on the front page of the communist, L’Humanité, under the ironical title: “Hitler, a pacifist”. I quote: “Our first objective is to crush France”. The anti-French tone of the book was what struck his contemporaries. Sorlot did not pay Hitler’s royalties, and after a trial which sentenced him to pay 1 000 francs per book sold and to destroy his stock, he was forbidden from selling it at the request of the German publisher in 1938. Put on the list Otto, the famous list of forbidden books printed by the Germans in autumn 1940, Mein Kampf would be nevertheless continuously sold by Sorlot during the Occupation. He had printed 10 000 copies on a clandestine press, and for many résistants, the risks Sorlot had taken to disseminate the book, which was considered the “Bible of Nazism”, showed clearly

5 that he was not a collaborator. The great résistant Henri d’Astier de la Vigerie told the judges that Sorlot had agreed to give the Resistance 2 000 free copies of Mein Kampf; Jacques GrouRadenez, the son of the printer of the clandestine newspaper Défense de la France who died in deportation, said -I quote: “Sorlot was NOT a collaborator neither from a spiritual nor from a material point of view. A publisher is not a communist for publishing Marx, neither is he a fascist for publishing a history of Mussolini’s Italy, nor is he a Nazi by translating Mein Kampf. He simply does his job, just like the peasant who ploughs his own furrow without knowing what will happen with the wheat harvested”. Two other stories confirm Sorlot’s anti-German positions. The first one is a funny one. Convinced of the inescapable defeat of Nazi Germany, Sorlot was persuaded that he could make a lot of money by defrauding the German publishers with no risks. In 1939, he chose to translate a Franco English dictionary issued by a publisher from Leipzig. He devised quite a sophisticated system not to pay any royalties. As Maximilien Vox, a former résistant, told the judges in 1948: “At the very beginning of the war, Sorlot came to see me, and suggested taking advantage of the state of war with the Germans to photograph and to reproduce, as it was, a textbook of Anglo-French conversation published by a German publisher from Leipzig. The royalties due to the German publisher would be put on the compensation account the victory of the Allies would impose on the defeated Germans”. Sorlot published the dictionary, and infuriated the Germans who, in 1943, sent two members of the Gestapo to claim the royalties from him. Sorlot was completely desperate. Not only because of the text-book, but also because he had been the publisher in 1939 of Les Fables de la Fontaine et Hitler “in which Hitler was held up to ridicule”. The book was destroyed under the supervision of a German officer in 1940. After the defeat, 36 of Sorlot’s titles were put under the list Otto by the Germans, compared with 24 of Grasset’s, or 29 of Denoël’s. One hundred and ??????? thousand of his books would be destroyed by the Germans. It is very clear, at the beginning of the war, that Sorlot was considered as a fierce anti-German publisher. Was he not the only French publisher who had to sign up to the “Convention de censure”, the document by which the Union of the French publishers had agreed to collaborate with the Germans? Pascal Fouché interpreted this very unusual practice as a kind of blackmail: Sorlot had to sign up the

6 Convention on the 7th of December 1940, and was allowed to re-open his publishing house at the end of the same month. Sorlot would be the only French publishing house in which the Germans had decided to acquire interests. In December 1941, after a great deal of pressure from the Germans, Sorlot had to agree to conclude an association with a mysterious German gobetween, Schindler, and the German publisher List. He succeeded in restricting the financial investment of the Germans: 8 hundred thousand francs to publish three collections, “Écrivains du siècle”, “Les Chefs d’oeuvre”, “La Vie Européenne”. The German money would never be invested in Sorlot’s publishing house, but put aside, in a separate account. The money would be used by Sorlot to buy, under the Occupation, Treasury bills, and when the Liberation came, Liberation bills. Quite a clever way to divert German money in aid of the French governments… The first titles of the collections the Germans had paid for would be only published in September 1942, roughly a year after the association was set up, and Sorlot would manage to publish books with no success. In 1943, the association was in deficit to the tune of seventy thousand francs. The Germans were not pleased at all. I quote: “The two first years of the association Sorlot/List has proved to be very unsuccessful.” Doctor List accused Monsieur Sorlot of not having developed enough common commercial operations although he had published in his own house very successful books which could have been put in one of the three collections the association was intended to promote. Sorlot was forced in May 1944 to renew the association contract, but once again, resisted the German will to buy his publishing house. In fact, his pro-German activity during the Occupation was very limited. Because of his personal acquaintance with Carl Epting, who ran the German Institute in Paris, Sorlot was the official publisher of the Cahiers de l’Institut Allemand, an ideological publication, but a highly élitist one with a limited influence on public opinion. I quote Sorlot in 1946: “I did not put them in the bookshops. I only distributed them to order. Then I sold them, because I had to”. He also published two books, one from a conference made by Henri Clerc on European economic problems, La Collaboration. Vers une économie européenne (1941) and the other by the Nazi writer Friedrich Grimm, Faisons la paix franco-allemande (1941). Those were

7 the two books held against him in 1945: they were no more pro-German than many other books published in France during the Occupation, and none of these books was a bestseller. So, how can we explain the sentence of twenty years of national degradation and the seizure of two million Francs that Sorlot was condemned to in May 1948? Was it because the judges considered him to be a pro-Petainist publisher? II- A pro-Petainist publisher If Sorlot was not a pro-German publisher, he was definitely a pro-Petainist one. In April 1941, interviewed in an official newspaper, Sorlot stated: “In National Revolution, the role of the publishers, just like the one of Literature, is a key one”. According to him, the publishers were to be the “lever” of what he called a “national restoration”. They had to gather around them writers “eager to fight with their pen, rather than to earn money”. He planned to develop three collections, the “Collection de politique nationale”, which would publish all Marshal Pétain’s speeches, the “Cahiers Français”, under the direction of the regionalist writer, Henri Pourrat, and a third one dealing with the “Great Historical Restoration”. The publishing house he launched in Clermont-Ferrand in July 1940 before going back to Paris was so completely devoted to Marshal Pétain that its shop window would be destroyed by the Resistance in March 1942. In October 1942, Sorlot considered that the proposal to create a Publisher Order was not enough, because publishing did not only concern publishers but must also be a matter of concern for writers and booksellers. That is why Sorlot suggested a wider reform, by developing country-libraries, but above all by enforcing a new tax. I quote Sorlot: “A new tax, a book-tax, has to be instituted. Oh! I know, many would say: “One more new tax”. Of course, it is true, but this new tax would not be heavy, and far more useful and efficient than many others. Who would refuse to give ten cents, or one franc, for the libraries? […] Such an organization is only conceivable if a superior association is set up, working in close collaboration within the Sate”. His public outings and his catalogue during the Occupation unambiguously showed Sorlot’s pro-Petainist commitment. In addition to Marshal Pétain’s speeches, he published books from his minister (such as Georges Lamirand, Messages à la jeunesse) and was also highly

8 approving of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was not new in Sorlot’s catalogue: did he not publish in 1939 Marcel Jouhandeau’ essay, Le Péril Juif? And he kept the same line during the Occupation, publishing in 1942 Louis-Charles Lecoc, L’Enjeu de la guerre: les juifs, and in 1943, Léon Brusat, Synthèse de la question juive. But none of those titles had any effect on his judicial fate, because, as I have already said, the two titles held against him by the judges were Henri Clerc, La Collaboration and Friedrich Grimm, Faisons la paix franco-allemande. The first one especially had terrible consequences for Sorlot. Henri Clerc was a journalist, jailed in Fresnes in 1946. The judge asked for his statement and pronounced - I quote: “A quick reading of his book demonstrated that the author had accomplished the clearest propaganda in favour of the Germans, urging the French to collaborate with them. Clerc had said that Sorlot, who had heard about his conference at the Salle Gaveau, had phoned him to ask his authorization to publish it as a pamphlet. So it was on the defendant’s initiative –Sorlot’s - that this outrageously anti-French book was published”. III-A publisher badly-sentenced? In my opinion, Sorlot was not innocent, by this I mean that he had to be convicted. He was guilty of national unworthiness, a crime set up by the jurists of the Resistance in 1944 to punish the French people who had supported a French Government which had agreed to collaborate with the Nazi Germans who, under the Armistice, were the enemy of France at war, but also the enemy of the Republic. The problem is that Sorlot was not convicted because of his pro-Petainist opinions. As Pascal Fouché pointed out, the purges never blamed the French publishers because they had been pro-Petainist minded. That is why Sorlot’s case is a very interesting one, because it reveals the ambiguities of the entire purges which did not produce innocent people unfairly sentenced, as the Extreme-right would say, but a much more complicated category, the badly-sentenced people, people who had to be convicted, but who had been convicted for bad reasons. Sorlot, in my opinion, exemplifies this category. On the 15th of May 1948, he was sentenced to twenty five years of national degradation and to a two million franc fine because of, I quote: “his anti-national attitude during the Occupation, especially because he had published, under no sufficient constraint, a certain number of collaborator’s books, two of which constituted an outrageous apology for

9 Hitlerian ideology and an anti-national propaganda in favour of the German enemy”. As one of his witnesses, Marcel Rives, the former head of the “Comité d’organisation du Livre” between 1941 and 1944, wrote in a letter sent to the judges in 1948: “I cannot mention any French publishers who did more than Sorlot to help the French people know the reality of the Nazi regime”. In other words, you can accuse Fernand Sorlot of many things, but not for being pro-Nazi… Two main reasons have to be taken into account to explain Sorlot’s severe punishment. The first one was the scandal created by his venial professional sanction in the spring of 1945. The second one that he went on publishing political books showing clearly that he had no intention of stopping his political activities. Fernand Sorlot was arrested on the 6th of September 1944 and was released shortly afterwards. Meanwhile, he was excluded from the Publishers Union. Sorlot had infuriated the publishers from the resistance by claiming, on the 2nd of December 1944, that he would published Isabelle Eberhard’s Au Pays des sables –a posthumous book which we may suppose he imagined he could have for nothing. Pierre Seghers resigned from the Commission d’épuration de l’édition. Vercors. The other publisher of the Resistance, and the head of the clandestine Éditions de Minuit, was ready to do the same. That was probably why Sorlot was arrested again, on the 6th of December 1944, and was once more subsequently released at the very beginning of January 1945. In May 1945, the Commission nationale interprofessionnelle de l’édition decided not to sanction Sorlot, and to blame him only without publicity. The Commission d’épuration de l’édition was so angry, that it decided to give up collectively. So, not sanctioning Sorlot raised a problem of republican public order. It was simply impossible for the Authorities originating in the Resistance to have such an open conflict with institutions also born of the Resistance. The real mistake Sorlot made, in my opinion, was to go on publishing, without waiting for his judicial sentence. He published, in 1946, L’Age de Caîn, a harsh criticism of the Liberation written by a former collaborator, René Chateau. The judges did not appreciate this. I quote: “Not one publisher had dared to take the responsibility to publish this infamous book. Sorlot did and had put instead of the printer’s name, the credit: “Imprimerie

10 spéciale des Éditions Nouvelles”, which was simply a lie; the Éditions Nouvelles did not have any printing press”. By infuriating the judges, Sorlot had made a great mistake. Sorlot had seemed to be sure to avoid trial: his file had been held by the Court of Justice which had decided, on the 24th November of 1947, to send him back in front of a Civic Chamber, considering that he was not guilty of treason, but of national unworthiness only. Both his lawyer and himself seemed to have thought that they could play with the provision of the statute, and emphasized the fact that it was to late and, henceforth, illegal, to try him. I am not going go through here the technical details involved, but they were wrong, and Sorlot would be tried on the 15th of May 1948. By one of those incredible “hazards of the job”, I had the chance to meet the prosecutor who had convicted him, and had a clear rememberance of this man who was a fantastic comedian, crying in front of the Court, and protesting his innocence… In retrospect, the reason why Sorlot was convicted and harshly sentenced is not because of what he really did during the Occupation, but because he forgot this essential republican rule: to take political justice seriously.