Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism

By Werner Hamacher; Neil Hertz et al. | Go to book overview

Paul de Man and the Cercle du Libre Examen

EDOUARD COLINET

As a student at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, from 1937 through 1941, Paul de Man was involved in the political and literary activities of the Cercle du Libre Examen. He wrote for the group's newspaper Jeudi and its monthly journal Les Cahiers du Libre Examen. In the course of our correspondence with some of his pre-war and wartime acquaintances, we received from Edouard Colinet the following letter, a brief history of the group associated with the Cahiers, which he had prepared with the help of a number of his, and Paul de Man's, contemporaries. We print it here and, with his permission, have added in end‐ notes supplementary material gathered from published sources and from others who knew Paul de Man during the I930s and I940s.—Eds.

Brussels, 17 May 1988

Dear Professor Hertz:

[...]

When Belgium entered the war on May 10, 1940, I was serving as President of the Cercle du Libre Examen. In that position I was one of those responsible for the publication of Les Cahiers du Libre Examen and was a close friend of the members of its editorial board as well as of a number of its contributors, including Paul de Man. I am shocked by the attempt to impeach Paul's honor on the part of people who either do not take into account all the facts concerning the period 1940-1944 or have never even known them.

I shall first try to describe the situation in the Cercle du Libre Examen in the years 1936-1940, then try to comment on what I learned about the period 1940-1945 immediately after my return to Belgium in February 1945. I lived in Southwest France during the war years and was involved, part-time, in underground activities directed against the Germans and Italians. At first, in 1941, I worked with Italian antifascists under the leadership of Silvio Trentin; later I joined the armed group Corps Franc Pomics, a group staffed by officers of the French Army. Being a foreigner, I did not think it fit to be involved in actions that were a mixture of acts against the invaders and French internal politics. The mayor of the little town where I lived— L'Isle-Jourdain (Gers)—was Joseph Barthelemy, a professor of international law at the Université Catholique de Paris and later Garde des Sceaux in a couple of French governments led by Maréchal Pétain.

Through these connections I became aware of the ambiguities of real politics and learned by experience that in politics things are never clear; what is right and what is wrong depends on how you look at the situation and on your background. I hope it will be understood that while I cannot be considered a "collaborator" of the Germans or of their friends, neither could I be considered an unconditional follower of ideas promoted by officially labelled "Resistance" political parties.

In Belgium, although I was raised in a French-speaking family, I was never anti-Flemish. Indeed, during my student years I was a member of the Flemish Students' Association at the ULB known as "Geen taal, geen vrijheid" ("No Language, No Freedom"), even though I was myself unable to deliver a speech in that language. In sum, I think that I may be held an unbiased witness of human behavior during those years.

First, a word about Paul de Man's background. Paul's uncle, Henri de Man, was a high-grade political philosopher and successful Belgian politician during the I930s. In the late 20s and early 30s, Henri de Man studied in Germany and after that became the "thinker" of the Belgian Workers' Party (POB). To un‐

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