A few months after his last dispatch on the famine appeared, Germany and the ussr signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the news of one African colony’s travails was pushed off the front page. On September 7, with Nazi troops in Poland, Camus again saw the black and the white of a conflict. “You can’t say: ‘I don’t know about it,’ ” he wrote in his notebooks. “One either fights or collaborates . . . . It is both impossible and immoral to judge an event from outside. One keeps the right to hold this absurd misfortune in contempt only be remaining inside it.” Although already embarked on what would become a multi-genre trilogy of the absurd—the play Caligula, the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, and the novel The Stranger—Camus couldn’t anticipate the heights of absurdity that the coming war would reach.


To recuperate from a bout of his recurrent tuberculosis, Camus left Algeria in 1942 for a mountain village in France and the following year joined the staff of the clandestine newspaper Combat. After the liberation of Paris in August 1944, his newly attained editorship of the paper assumed greater complexity. Without a common foe to unite disparate factions, the Resistance-bred affiliations between Catholics and Communists, socialists and conservatives, quickly weakened; the old question of power, who wielded it and how, reasserted itself. No small issue was how to deal with collaborators: Vichy officials, opportunistic industrialists, complacent journalists (some 32,000 French citizens were eventually imprisoned for collaboration). Days after the liberation Camus in Combat refused to distinguish between killers and accomplices, and he soon wrote that “it is pointless to contest the terrifying fact that we will be obliged to destroy a living part of this country in order to save its soul.” By then he was in a debate, played out in the editorial pages, with François Mauriac. The Catholic novelist and future Nobel Prize in Literature-winner had worried about the Resistance’s postwar potential for excess from the start: here he pointed out that “inquisitors also burned bodies in order to save souls.”

Camus offered analysis on news foreign and domestic—the role of journalism in a free France, FDR’s reelection, General Franco’s Spain—but his back and forth with Mauriac forced him to be specific about his own calls for morality to enter into politics. Camus was fond of implicating his readers; now he implicated himself. It is often only in dialogue that either position becomes truly defined, and he had to follow his logic through to the gallows. When the first death sentence for a collaborator came down, he wrote in his favored first-person plural, “And we have chosen to embrace human justice, with its terrible imperfections, while seeking anxiously to correct it by clinging desperately to honesty.” Divine justice may have sufficed for a believer like Mauriac, but eternity was not soon enough for most men; justice needed to be terrible and swift. That the death sentence in question went to a journalist and not, say, Marshal Petain, who led the Vichy government, or a member of the paramilitary Milice, which deported Jews, indicated how those imperfections would play out.

Through all this, Algeria was not far from Camus’ thoughts. Six days after Germany surrendered, he published the first of six articles in Combat that derived from a three-week visit to his homeland. It was a tough time to rouse readers to action around another famine abroad, but Camus persisted, running the pieces on the front page. “We are condemned to live together,” he wrote. Send justice, grain, and money. He informed his countrymen that hundreds of thousands of Algerian Arabs had just fought under the same tricolor, and that since France had failed to assimilate or enfranchise those Arabs earlier, with the modest Blum-Violette proposal, it wouldn’t be long before the colony would fail France. The realities of famine do not change, Camus found, but their repercussions do.

Elias Altman is an associate editor of Lapham's Quaterly.