“Your father is the only one who ever succeeded in taking advantage of the Jews. I don’t know how he did it.” So Pascal Bruckner’s father René said one day to his grandson. The father remained a fanatical follower of Hitler even 60 years after the Nazi downfall. The son went in the opposite direction, toward friendship with French Jewish intellectuals like Alain Finkielkraut, and a partnership with Roman Polanski (Bruckner wrote the novel on which Polanski based his movie Bitter Moon). Bruckner’s first marriage was to a Jewish woman, his second to a Belgian of mixed Jewish and Tutsi ancestry. And so Bruckner’s father, his head still in the Fascist clouds, was treated to Jewish and mixed-race grandchildren.
These days Bruckner, the celebrated French intellectual, has been thinking about his father, the anti-Semite. The elder Bruckner died in 2012, and now Bruckner has published a book in France, Un bon fils (A Good Son) about their relationship.
“Anti-Semitism was his fuel; it’s what made him live and get up every morning. From the beginning of his adult life to the end, hatred of Jews was his reason for being,” Bruckner told me when I interviewed him this spring in Houston, Texas. “When I was a kid, the word ‘Jew’ was pronounced every day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Bruckner added. “As he was very violent and mean to my mother, I eventually started to identify with the people he hated.”
Bruckner’s father dominated his mother and regularly humiliated her over her hysterical coughing fits. The couple had moved to Austria during the Nazi years so that Bruckner’s father could work at Siemens and aid the German war effort. Decades later he received a letter offering reparations for his forced labor for the Germans. The elder Bruckner was outraged: He had eagerly volunteered to work for Hitler, he wrote back, and still believed in the cause. The Third Reich was his dream, his utopia. Near the end of his life, in the hospital, he reported to his son that he had had the most marvelous dream: singing children lining the streets, flags whipping in the breeze, a procession of motorcars headed by a Mercedes convertible, and in it a man with a moustache waving to the jubilant crowd. It was the day that Hitler was named chancellor, when “everything was possible.”
“I no longer have the strength to hate him,” Bruckner writes about his father. “I’ve pardoned him out of fatigue.” That wasn’t always the case: Bruckner remembers that, when he was a boy, he would pray to God for his father to die, preferably in a car crash.
But father and son remained closely tied despite their opposing beliefs. For some years his father had a “remission” from anti-Semitism, Bruckner writes, and started reading Jewish authors like Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. Then the old disease returned in force. His father wrote indignant letters to newspapers when they mistakenly said his son was Jewish. He crowed in delight when the old resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel told the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung in 2011 that the German occupation of France was “relatively inoffensive” compared to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. François Hollande, he swore, must be a Jew, like all Frenchmen named after countries or cities. His son would sometimes bring him books about Nazi crimes, like Christopher Browning on the Einsatzgruppen. He would read the books in a day and give them back to Pascal with a shrug: all old news.
Bruckner now finds himself on the front lines of France’s battle with what can only be called Islamofascism. “I like to jog in the Place des Vosges,” Bruckner told me. “There you have a whole army of guards with machine guns. How long can we maintain this? The army will have to go back to its barracks, they are exhausted.” Two Muslim associations, Les Indigènes de la Republique and Les Indivisibles, are now suing Bruckner because he wrote that they had given psychological support to the Charlie Hebdo killers. (In an email to me, he described both groups as “pathologically anti-Semitic and fascist.”)
Bruckner spent his childhood in grim provincial Lyons and, for a time, in an Austrian sanatorium recuperating from tuberculosis—in the same country where his father had worked for Siemens. His world was transformed when he moved to Paris at 17. He had never met a Jew before Paris; he had never spent all night in a café, never dived into Hegel and Fourier and Sartre. He became a student of Roland Barthes and then joined in 1977 with another Barthes student, Alain Finkielkraut, to write a bombshell of a book, Le nouveau désordre amoureux (The New Love Disorder), in which they announced that “love does not lend itself to revolution”: the ’60s, they said, had killed the true magic of eros. Bruckner and Finkelkraut, both just 28 years old, were called the “twins”; skeptical but excitable polemicists, they bonded over their love for the Beatles and the Stones. “What brought us together was that we were both only sons with very possessive mothers,” Bruckner commented in our interview. “We each found the brother we didn’t have in reality. We had the same sensibility—against official dogma.”
Like Finkielkraut, like Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann, figures to whom he is often compared, Bruckner has always been a liberal iconoclast at heart. He was at the margins, not the center, of the revolt against Gaullist France. “You’re part of something bigger than you, throwing stones at the cops, running in front of them, without knowing why,” Bruckner told me about his experience as a ’68er. More significant to him than the taste of rebellion in the streets was what followed in the ’70s: the waning of Communism and third-worldism, which had dominated the French intellectual scene.
The die-hard student radicals that Bruckner knew in Paris shared a few traits with his father, on the other end of the political spectrum: self-certain, righteous anger and the will to expose world-historical villains. Not for nothing was the extreme left infected by anti-Semitism, because the anti-Semite always knows exactly who is guilty. “Most of the time, he knew only one mode of expression: indignation,” Bruckner writes of his father.
And so Bruckner rebelled by becoming a tolerant, easy-going man who clearly feels that to take pleasure in the world is a moral value. His prose, lithe and aphoristic, is itself a pleasure. Bruckner was raised in Jesuit schools, and so in natural reaction he became a secularist and a hedonist, but in moderation: the very model of a modern apikoros. In person he is unexpectedly mild and gracious, reluctant to criticize his contemporaries. In print, though, he remains a first-class provocateur.
Being pro-American is almost always deeply unfashionable in France. But Bruckner has always known that America is an essential strategic partner for Europe, and a healthy cultural contrast too. He fondly remembers the year he taught at U.C. San Diego and often visits America. Bruckner wrote in an email to me that “if anything tragic comes from the enemies of the West, let us say Russia or ISIS, we will be very happy to be sheltered by the American umbrella as we were in 1917, 1944, and 1948 during the Cold War.” In April 2003, disturbed by what he saw as pro-Saddam Hussein sentiment on the part of France, he announced along with Glucksmann and Romain Goupil his support for the invasion of Iraq. A year later he denounced the American mishandling of the war, and in a later book Bruckner condemned the “mad dream in the second Gulf War of reshaping the Near East.”
Bruckner likes to lash out against politically correct dogmas. In one recent book, The Fanaticism of Apocalypse, he denounces the new ecological obsession. The current panic about reducing our carbon footprint, which Bruckner wittily calls the contemporary equivalent of original sin, won’t help us save the earth. We increasingly see our human presence as a harmful burden to the planet; it would be better, we think, if we could let nature alone as much as possible. But this is flat-out impossible, Bruckner argues, and moreover, the earth is not a sentient being with rights equivalent to ours. It exists for our use and our enjoyment. We fantasize about the inevitable catastrophe awaiting the planet and at the same time pretend we can ward it off by recycling plastic bags and turning off lights. There is an absurd discrepancy between the prophesied catastrophe and the ritual gestures prescribed to cure it. He sees ecological extremism as just the latest in a series of secular theologies that began in the ’60s with the worship of Third World revolution.
Ten years ago, in his book The Tyranny of Guilt, Bruckner assailed the Western fetish for self-condemnation, which, he claimed, is more about finding satisfaction in the thought of our own corruption than actually addressing the world’s problems. Assigning guilt to Europe and America for all the evils of history is a way of keeping ourselves at the center of the story, he argued: We are the contemptible ones, the key to all the disasters of our time. The West’s self-blame is, Bruckner acutely commented, “the typical evangelical posture.” Our guilt knows no bounds: how many times has the 1953 coup against Mossadegh been used to extenuate the crimes of the Iranian mullahs? It used to be Communist regimes that were excused in this manner; now, it’s right-wing Islamic theocracies.
Using Euro-American guilt as an all-purpose explanation for the world’s problems is, Bruckner writes, a way of making us both “cursed and indispensable.” We flatter ourselves into thinking that we are the source of evil: Sykes-Picot, the birth of Israel, and the invasions of Iraq are to blame for the chaos of the current Middle East. Our colonialism and our capitalism generated African warlords. The trick of Western guilt that Bruckner identifies has become increasingly common. It can even take a fashionably freakonomic form, as when Simon Schama suggests that there would be no Arab terrorism had Winston Churchill not decided just before World War I to run the Royal Navy’s ships on oil rather than coal.
Bruckner’s point is not to exonerate the West and blame the rest of the world for its humanitarian disasters. Rather, he argues, the theological instinct to separate the guilty from the innocent stands in the way of clear thought and action. But what is to be done? Bruckner’s forte is lancet-like critique; policy proposals are not part of his job description. It is clear that he values both cultural tradition and humanitarian action, and that he firmly believes that such action is more effective the more it recognizes its own limits. Finely balanced between hope and pessimism about human nature, intent on bringing together conscience and prudent action, he is one of the best specimens of a now-rare breed, the European intellectual.
Bruckner remembers when Europe’s cultural splendor attracted the rest of the world. Yet today Europe means not culture but material comfort—the world of the haves, desperately desired by the have-nots. National culture is Europe’s most precious possession, but the migrants from the Muslim lands have a culture of their own already, and so Europe ignores them, unwilling to believe that the newcomers don’t want to become Europeans. Communications and technology bind the world together, and so we are nearly all connected; but we do not share the same values. Democratic rights are in eclipse in China, Iran, Russia, and elsewhere. An Islamist regime that peddles sexual slavery and relies on high-tech advertising rules much of the Middle East.
France, Bruckner said in our interview, has reached a crisis point because of radical Islam. “Teaching the Shoah is impossible in many schools; teaching about Voltaire or Madame Bovary is impossible,” he remarked. Muslim anti-Semitism is different from his father’s old-fashioned kind, Bruckner explains, though his father late in his life was happy to see that radical Islam had become a vehicle for Jew-hatred. Now, he remarks, Muslims protest when the Jews claim the position of victim, a position they themselves want.
In addition to Islamist terror France now faces another threat, its own refusal to deal with a refugee crisis unprecedented in European history. Today, “racism is multiplying,” Bruckner writes with alarm, recalling that racism was his father’s religion. Incompatible tribes seem to be replacing the old liberal dream of humanity as unity-in-diversity. Among the exponents of the new tribalism are, increasingly, the nations of Europe, who are both welcoming refugees and nervously imagining ways to keep them out. Perhaps America will join this trend too, at least judging by the popularity of Donald Trump, with his plans to deport immigrants. Bruckner still thinks of Europe as “the planet’s moral compass”—how’s that for old-fashioned?—because it “has acquired a sense of the fragility of human affairs.”
What Bruckner for all his clear-eyed brilliance may not have reckoned on is that, with the hordes of desperate immigrants, Europe’s greatest challenge since World War II has arrived: will it be a closed or an open society? A continent so unsure of its identity, fearing its own decline, feeling threatened by masses of Muslim refugees and faced with Islamist terror, may be tragically ripe for a repetition in a minor key of the tribal faith that seduced Bruckner’s father. Now people like Bruckner (who is writing a book about Islam in Europe) have to rely on their clear-eyed intelligence to draw a line between national feeling and nationalism, to decide whether and how Europe can meet its Muslim other halfway. Bruckner knows that the continent’s great test is under way and that his father’s beliefs still cast a long and ominous shadow.