Albert Camus, Editor of the French Resistance Newspaper Combat, Writes Movingly About Life, Politics & War (1944–47)

Image by Unit­ed Press Inter­na­tion­al, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

When total­i­tar­i­an regimes around the world are in pow­er, writ­ing that tells the truth—whether lit­er­ary, jour­nal­is­tic, sci­en­tif­ic, or legal—effectively serves as counter-pro­pa­gan­da. To write hon­est­ly is to expose: to uncov­er what is hid­den, stand apart from it, and observe. These actions are anath­e­ma to dic­ta­tor­ships. But they are inte­gral to resis­tance move­ments, which must devel­op their own press in order to dis­sem­i­nate ideas oth­er than offi­cial state dog­ma.

For the French Resis­tance dur­ing World War II, one such pub­li­ca­tion that served the pur­pose came from a cell called “Com­bat,” which gave its name to the under­ground news­pa­per to which Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus both con­tributed dur­ing and after the war. Camus became Com­bat’s edi­tor and edi­to­r­i­al writer between 1944 and 1947. Dur­ing his tenure, he “was sus­pi­cious,” writes Michael McDon­ald, and he urged his read­ers to “be sus­pi­cious of those who speak the loud­est in defense of demo­c­ra­t­ic ideals and absolutes but whose goal is to instill fear in oppo­nents and to silence dis­sent.”

Camus wit­nessed and record­ed the lib­er­a­tion of France from the Nazi occu­pa­tion in mov­ing pas­sages like this one:

Paris is fir­ing all its ammu­ni­tion into the August night. Against a vast back­drop of water and stone, on both sides of a riv­er awash with his­to­ry, free­dom’s bar­ri­cades are once again being erect­ed. Once again jus­tice must be redeemed with men’s blood.

After the pre­vi­ous­ly unthink­able event that end­ed the war in the Pacif­ic, the 1945 bomb­ings of Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki, Camus explic­it­ly cri­tiqued the “for­mi­da­ble con­cert” of opin­ion impressed with fact that “any aver­age city can be wiped out by a bomb the size of a foot­ball.” Against these “elo­quent essays,” he wrote dark­ly,

We can sum it up in one sen­tence: our tech­ni­cal civ­i­liza­tion has just reached its great­est lev­el of sav­agery. We will have to choose, in the more or less near future, between col­lec­tive sui­cide and the intel­li­gent use of our sci­en­tif­ic con­quests.

Camus heav­i­ly doc­u­ment­ed the ear­ly post-war years in France, as the coun­try slow­ly recon­sti­tut­ed itself, and as coali­tions for­mer­ly unit­ed in resis­tance col­lapsed into com­pet­ing fac­tions. He was alarmed by not only by the fas­cists on the right, but by the many French social­ists seduced by Stal­in­ism. The very next month after the lib­er­a­tion of Paris, Camus began address­ing the “prob­lem of gov­ern­ment” in an essay titled “To Make Democ­ra­cy.” Gov­ern­ment, writes Camus, “is, to a great extent our prob­lem, as it is indeed the prob­lem of every­one,” but he pref­aced his own posi­tion with, “we do not believe in pol­i­tics with­out clear lan­guage.”

By Decem­ber of 1944, a few months before the fall of Berlin, Camus had grown deeply reflec­tive, express­ing atti­tudes found in many eye­wit­ness accounts. “France has lived through many tragedies,” he wrote, and “will live through many more.” The tragedy of the war, he wrote, was “the tragedy of sep­a­ra­tion.”

Who would dare speak the word “hap­pi­ness” in these tor­tured times? Yet mil­lions today con­tin­ue to seek hap­pi­ness. These years have been for them only a pro­longed post­pone­ment, at the end of which they hope to find that the pos­si­bil­i­ty for hap­pi­ness has been renewed. Who could blame them? … We entered this war not because of any love of con­quest, but to defend a cer­tain notion of hap­pi­ness. Our desire for hap­pi­ness was so fierce and pure that it seemed to jus­ti­fy all the years of unhap­pi­ness. Let us retain the mem­o­ry of this hap­pi­ness and of those who have lost it.

These lucid, pas­sion­ate essays “include lit­tle that is obso­lete,” wrote Stan­ley Hoff­man at For­eign Affairs in 2006. “Indeed it is shock­ing to find how cur­rent Camus’ fears, exhor­ta­tions, and aspi­ra­tions still are.” Hoff­man par­tic­u­lar­ly found Camus’ demand “for moral­i­ty in pol­i­tics” com­pelling. Though “deemed naïve… [by] many oth­er philoso­phers and writ­ers of his time,” Camus’ insis­tence on clar­i­ty of thought and eth­i­cal choice made for what he called “a mod­est polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy… free of all mes­sian­ic ele­ments and devoid of any nos­tal­gia for an earth­ly par­adise.” How sober­ing those words sound in our cur­rent moment.

Camus’ Com­bat essays have been col­lect­ed in Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press’s Camus at Com­bat: Writ­ing 1944–1947 and in Between Hell and Rea­son: Essays from the Resis­tance News­pa­per Com­bat, 1944–1947 from Wes­leyan.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Camus: The Mad­ness of Sin­cer­i­ty — 1997 Doc­u­men­tary Revis­its the Philosopher’s Life & Work

Albert Camus Talks About Nihilism & Adapt­ing Dostoyevsky’s The Pos­sessed for the The­atre, 1959

Albert Camus’ His­toric Lec­ture, “The Human Cri­sis,” Per­formed by Actor Vig­go Mortensen

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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