Jaques Brel and crimes against humanity
Jacques Brel's songs, including standards such as Ne Me Quitte Pas, have been covered by a Who's Who of performers from Scott Walker and Judy Collins to Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone, and his records have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. Musicians including Leonard Cohen and David Bowie have been influenced by Brel who is a revered figure in his native Belgium and in his adopted homeland of France. So a story about Jacques Brel at the peak of his career singing on a sex education record made by a notorious French war criminals guilty of crimes against humanity sounds like the stuff of an April 1 post. But this remarkable and little known story is true.
Regular readers will know that France, monastic orders and Gregorian chant are a recurring theme On An Overgrown Path. For as the incomparable Bernard Levin wrote "I sometimes think I would exchange all the music I have ever heard for real plainsong heard amid walls of stone". During my recent physical and virtual travels I stumbled across a number of intriguing references to links between traditionalist Catholic communities, such as Solesmes which is famous for its Gregorian Chant, and supporters of Marshal Pétain, leader of France's collaborationist wartime government. In particular the name of French war criminal Paul Touvier kept cropping up.
During the Second World War Paul Touvier served under the Vichy regime as head of the intelligence department in the Chambéry Milice reporting to Klaus Barbie the notorious 'butcher of Lyons'. In September 1946 Touvier was sentenced to death in absentia by the French courts for treason and collusion with the Nazis. He was arrested in 1947, but escaped and was on the run from 1947 to 1966 when the 20 year statute of limitations in France abrogated his death sentence.
A lobby with strong clerical connections extracted a pardon from President Pompidou in 1971, a ruling which caused a general outcry in France. In 1973 an accusation of crimes against humanity relating to the killing of seven Jewish hostages at Rillieux-la-Pape, near Lyon, in June 1944 was filed and Touvier went into hiding again. A warrant for his arrest was issued in 1981 but it was not until 1989 that Touvier, seen above at his televised trial in 1994, was arrested in the priory of Saint-Joseph de Nice run by followers of the right-wing cleric Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre. During his time in hiding Touvier stayed in a number of traditionalist monasteries with musical connections including Solesmes and Fontgombault.
But I was most surprised to find another quite unexpected musical link to Paul Touvier. Several French sources on Touvier made opaque references to Jacques Brel. My interest was piqued by these, but the main online Brel biographies make no mention of Touvier and my search on the official Belgian Edition Jacques Brel website against the term 'Paul Touvier' returned a result of 'There is no page matching your request!'
It looked as though that was the end of the story. But further research eventually uncovered confirmation of surprising links between Paul Touvier and Jacques Brel. In an interview in French on the International Justice Tribune website Jean-Pierre Getti, the last of four examining magistrates on the Touvier case between 1989 and 1981, says:
In 1967 Touvier gained permission from the singer [Brel] to produce a sex education record for children titled “L’amour et la vie” - [Love and Life]. He [Touvier] told me that he had met him [Brel] when he was visiting Chambéry, by going and sitting at the restaurant table in his hotel and introducing himself with the words: “I am Paul Touvier, a condemned man.”
The title of the record was the vital information which allowed me to uncover the rest of this surprising and little known story. L'Amour Et La Vie was released as the Philips vinyl LP seen above with the translated subtitle of 'Conception and birth explained to children', and the producer is listed as 'Berthet'. Paul Touvier's wife's family name was Berthet and he was known to use the alias Paul Berthet. The sleeve says the record is a collaboration with the marriage guidance service of Grenoble, the nearest city to Chambéry where Touvier first joined the Milice. The sleeve note says 'This record is intended for parents and children alike. It is about the difficult subject of initiating young people into the "mystery of life".'
L'Amour Et La Vie is not listed on the official Jacques Brel discography but the Discogs website lists Brel, seen below, as singing the first track on side 2, Voir. The other tracks are sung by the Petits Chanteurs de l'Ile-de-France, a well-known ensemble directed by Jean Amoureux that was formed in 1946 and performed with artists including John Williams, Nana Mouskouri, Michel Legrand, and Sacha Distel. L'Amour Et La Vie was released by Philips, Brel's record label from 1954 to 1962. He recorded Voir for another Philips disc in 1962, so presumably the Brel song on L'Amour Et La Vie was a repeat of the 1962 track.
Philip's pressed 30,000 copies of L'Amour Et La Vie. 1967 may have been the year of the Beatles' Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Stockhausen's Hymnen, but the French press enthused about a new release featuring Jacques Brel, a children's choir and tracks such as Un Papa, Une Maman... Pourquoi? - 'A mother, a father... why?' Franche Dimanche wrote of "parents speaking of their love and their children" and the Catholic le Pélerin said the the record "cannot be recommended too highly".
Jacques Brel, seen above, was no fool. So the sixty-four-thousand- dollar question must be, was his involvement with Paul Touvier an innocent mistake, or was it something else? We have Jean-Pierre Getti's account, corrobarated elsewhere, of Touvier introducing himself to Brel with the words ‘I am Paul Touvier, a condemned man’. But Touvier's account may not be truthful as he was known to be a convincing serial liar. A 1988 Le Nouvel Observateur article tells how Touvier collabarated with Brel on a number of projects, but quotes Brel's wife as saying they knew Touvier under the name Berthet and only discovered his true identity "later".
Another Le Nouvel Observateur articles describes Touvier as Brel's secretary and says that he lived in Brel's villa in Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse from 1968 to 1971. An interview on the Europe1 website (no longer available) with journalist and commentator Claude Moniquet dates the first meeting between Brel and Touvier as 1959: which means that Brel was closely involved with Touvier for at least eight years, a truly remarkable period for the war criminal to successfully keep his true identity concealed.
Further attempts to explore Brel's motives stall in the realms of the unsubstantiated and speculative. Brel's biographer Olivier Todd, a member of Jean Paul Sartre's circle wrote that in politics Brel followed his heart rather than his head. Touvier himself said:
"Toute ma vie n’a été qu’une énorme tromperie. Je crois bien que j’arriverais à tromper Dieu ! Qu’importe ! Je suis bien à ce point où Dieu et le Diable ne font qu’un !"As well as being involved in the massacre of the seven Jews at Rillieux-la-Pape, in January 1944 Paul Touvier was linked to the murder of Victor Basch and his wife Ilona. Basch was the former president of the League of Human Rights which in the 1890s had led the defence of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French army captain falsely accused of treason.
"My life has big one big fraud. I firmly believe I could manage to deceive God! What does it matter! I have come to the point where God and the Devil are one and the same! ".
In July 1991 Paul Touvier was granted provisional release and his trial for complicity in crimes against humanity was delayed until March 1994. He was defended by the monarchist lawyer Jacques Tremollet de Villers, who later became president of the traditionalist Catholic organization La Cité Catholique. A priest from the controversial Society of Saint Pius X founded by Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre sat beside Touvier throughout his trial and acted as his spiritual advisor.
In April 1994 Paul Touvier was found guilty of crimes against humanity and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died of prostate cancer in Fresnes prison near Paris in 1996 and a traditional Tridentine requiem mass for the repose of his soul was offered in St Nicolas du Chardonnet, the Society of St. Pius X's chapel in Paris.
Jacques Brel gave his second and final concert in Carnegie Hall, New York at the start of 1967. L’amour et la vie was edited by Paul Touvier in April 1967. The following month Brel retired from touring after a final appearance in Roubaix, France, but he continued to work in the recording studio and in films and the theatre. Jacques Brel died of lung cancer aged 49 in October 1978.
* This article started with a series of extended conversations inside a traditionalist Catholic monastery. The Rule of St. Benedict requires that monasteries offer guests shelter without prejudice, whether they be war criminals or bloggers. But, that notwithstanding, I am grateful for the continuing hospitality and receptiveness of the contemplative orders.
* An excellent excellent 1989 article on Paul Touvier in the New York Times, but it makes no mention of Jacques Brel.
* Article and audio clips of interview with Claude Moniquet on Europe 1 website - now removed.
* Examing magistrate Jean-Pierre Getti's testimony is available in French on the International Justice Tribune Archive on the Radio Netherland Worldwide website.
* Le Nouvel Observateur archived articles of 3-9 Nov. 1988 and 1 June 1989.
* Editions Jacques Brel - official website.
* Details of L'Amour Et La Vie from Discogs website.
* Obituary of Touvier in the Independent is a well researched and balanced source with good background on the involvement of the Catholic church, but again no mention of the Brel connection.
* Brief biography of Touvier on the FranceInter website provides my illuminating quote.
* An unsubstantiated post on Brel's political backround on a Belgium blog.
* None other than Alastair Campbell has written about "the genius of Jacques Brel." I quote from his 2008 Times article - 'The extent of his [Brel's] double life, and the unpleasant things he sometimes said to his children, and about women, were perhaps the biggest surprise of my research. Yet I was pleased to hear from those who worked with him that, to them, he remained a hero. Pleased too that he was politically aware and, though not very active, basically left-wing.' Just another dodgy dossier ...
* Brian Moore's 1995 novel The Statement is very loosely based on the Touvier story. Worth reading but most definitely not a reliable source. The novel was later adapted into a film directed by Norman Jewison and starring Michael Caine.
* Most definitely a source of humour but nothing else is the 1996 London Times Online article with its accusation that 'In 1967, when the statute of limitations expired for his crimes, Touvier emerged from his monastic hidey-hole to record a song about having sex with girls called L’amour et la vie, with Brel contributing backing vocals' . Presumably the Times had problems with the translation of 'un disque sur l'éducation sexuelle des enfants'. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
* And there will always be the music. Gregorian Chant is here. Photos of Brel in this article are publicity shots used in Barclay's 2004 compilation Brel Infiniment. More on Jacques Brel here.
January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day. This date is the anniversary of the liberation by the Soviet Army in 1945 of the largest Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Read about a little known Holocaust opera here. And with thanks to Hérisson for invaluable assistance with research for this article and the always excellent food and drink.
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