Albert Camus, the Guillotine’s Relentless Foe

A man woke before dawn, dressed quietly so as not to disturb his wife, and rode into town to watch a man be put to death. It was neither fascination nor bloodlust that pushed him to attend the public execution but a sense of outraged justice: the condemned man had, in a murderous frenzy, bludgeoned to death not just a husband and wife on their farm but their children too. When the man returned home after the execution, he rushed past his wife, vomited in the bathroom and collapsed in bed. Until the end of his life he refused to speak about what he saw that day.

Readers of Albert Camus will recognize this story, which was about his father, Lucien Camus. It surfaces intact in his first and last novels, The Outsider and The First Man, and in his long essay Reflections on the Guillotine, and it floats to the surface of The Plague. This story — one of the few Camus’ mother was able to tell the son who never knew his father — infuses the near entirety of Camus’ writings. For Camus was driven by the same sense of outraged justice as his father.

In Albert Camus contre la peine de mort  by Eve Morisi, (Gallimard, Paris, 2011)  a stunning collection of extracts from Camus’ fiction and non-fiction, notebooks and letters (many never before published), Eve Morisi has performed an invaluable service. Through her sensitive pairing of fictional and non-fictional works, she reminds us why Camus was one of the most influential and consistent moral voices of the 20th century. And why he remains relevant for our own century.

After the second world war Camus became France’s most eloquent voice of the Resistance, and spoke out on behalf of condemned political prisoners across the world, protesting against (in Morisi’s words) the “death-centred state in all of its guises”. The letters in this volume trace Camus’ interventions for political prisoners in Franco’s Spain and Stalin’s Russia, eastern Europe, Iran, Vietnam and Greece. Throughout, the book underscores his unflagging insistence on moral candor and coherence.

‘Too many men have died’

One particularly revealing episode, involving his role in the épuration (purge) in liberated France, shows how Camus publicly revealed his own change of heart. As editor of the Resistance paper Combat, he wrote a series of editorials in the summer and autumn of 1944 calling for a quick, forceful use of capital punishment. This was a dramatic reversal for someone who had long been a pacifist and determined opponent of the death penalty. Yet, even before France’s liberation, Camus had defended Charles de Gaulle’s decision to execute Pierre Pucheu, minister of the interior under the Vichy regime, who had ordered the execution of Resistance fighters. “Too many men have died whom we loved and respected;” Camus wrote, “too many splendors [were] betrayed, too many values humiliated … even for those of us in the midst of this battle who would otherwise be tempted to pardon him.”

Pucheu’s greatest crime, Camus argued, was neither his treason nor the deaths for which he was responsible: it was his “lack of imagination” — by which Camus seemed to suggest his lack of humankind’s most fundamental trait, empathy. As minister, Pucheu believed that nothing had changed since France’s defeat and occupation; he remained a creature of the “abstract and administrative system he had always known.” Signing these laws in the comfort of his office, Pucheu failed to see they would be “transformed into dawns of terror for innocent Frenchmen led to their deaths”.

Pucheu’s crime forced Camus to measure fully his own words: “It is in the full light of our imagination that we are learning to accept without flinching … that a man’s life can be removed from this world.” In his post-liberation editorials, Camus focused on this same “banal” flaw. At the end of August, reacting to the torture and murder of 34 Frenchmen by members of Vichy’s murderous militia, he exclaimed: “Who would dare speak here of forgiveness?” His outrage focused on the torturer’s lack of imagination. After depicting the scene where the bodies were found, Camus concluded: “Two men face to face, one of whom prepares to tear off the fingernails of the other who watches him do it.” Asked if there was a place in post-war France for men who committed such crimes, Camus replied: “No, there isn’t.”

Until, that is, the revolutionary purge collapsed into a series of inconsistent trials, accompanied by summary acts of revenge dressed up as justice. As Camus’ disgust mounted, the trial of Robert Brasillach took place. Brasillach, a writer and ardent collaborationist, was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death in early 1945. The writer Marcel Aymé contacted Camus: would he would sign a petition to de Gaulle asking that Brasillach’s sentence be commuted to life imprisonment?

François Mauriac, whose resistance and literary credentials were perhaps greater than those of Camus, had signed the petition. Devoutly Catholic, Mauriac had already collided with Camus over the purge. Mauriac, the older of the two, insisted on the need for mercy and national reconciliation, but the fiery pied noir replied that national healing could only be built on the foundations of implacable justice.

‘We are going to need charity’

When the trials turned into a sham, Camus admitted: “We now see that Monsieur Mauriac was right: we are going to need charity.” But Mauriac refused to let him off the hook: he disdainfully thanked “our young master” for having spoken from the “heights of the works he has yet to write”. Camus retorted that Mauriac’s brand of mercy was irrelevant for the generation that he, Camus, represented: Christianity meant nothing for “those in this tormented world who believe that Christ may have died to save others, but that he did not die to save us”. And so, “we will forever refuse a divine charity which frustrates the justice of men”.

But Camus did sign Brasillach’s petition, once again embracing his lifelong, principled opposition to the death penalty. In his accompanying letter to Aymé, he explained: “I have always held the death sentence in horror and judged that, at least as an individual, I couldn’t participate in it, even by abstention. That’s all. And this is a scruple that I suppose would make Brasillach’s friends laugh.” One year later, speaking at a Catholic conference, Camus referred to his earlier clash with Mauriac and admitted again that Mauriac was right.

While this confession may be familiar to readers, they may know less about Camus’ interventions during Algeria’s war for independence. In the wake of his failed effort in 1956 to broker a civilian peace in his native land, Camus had retreated from the public arena, refusing to speak or write on a subject that seemed beyond resolution. Horrified no less by the violence of the French “ultras” than by the FLN , and no longer convinced by his earlier claim that pieds noirs and Arabs were “condemned to live together”, Camus fell silent.

Behind the scenes, though, Camus was active — relentlessly so. His biographer, Olivier Todd, noted that Camus intervened in at least 150 cases, most of which involved capital punishment. And the publication of letters revealing Camus’ consistent and courageous position during this period is another of the great merits of Morisi’s book. Time and again, lawyers defending condemned Algerians called on Camus to intervene. And, time and again, Camus did so. He read the dossiers carefully, noted the distinguishing characteristics of the case and insisted that a lasting peace in Algeria could never be achieved via the guillotine.

Camus read and replied to these requests quickly: all too often, men were being prepared to die as their lawyers frantically wrote or telephoned Camus. There was a dramatic, at times terrifying, element to these exchanges. Gisèle Halimi sent a short letter to Camus in which she said simply: “You must help us”; Germaine Tillion conveyed her “agony” over the impending fate of condemned Algerians; and his old friend Yves Deschezelles ended his letter with the plea “My God, you need to shout!” In each of these cases, despite his own deeply conflicted attitude towards the future of French Algeria and fate of his own family and friends, Camus did respond.

It is unclear to what degree his interventions influenced the powerful men to whom he wrote. In some cases, sentences were commuted; others were carried out. But in his letters to presidents and prime ministers, Camus always recalled the immense power these men had been given through their elected positions. Behind these reminders lies Camus’ insistence on the reality behind cold bureaucratic phrases; he never wanted his interlocutors to hide from the sheer finality of capital punishment. For he believed that we must never stifle the moral imagination to picture what we are doing to one of our own.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of history at the Honors College, University of Houston, Texas, author of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life, Cornell University Press, 2010, and co-author of France and Its Empire Since 1870, Oxford University Press, March 2010.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.