Yale Scholar’s Wartime Anti-Semitic Writings Are Revealed

The New York Times revealed that Paul de Man, noted for his work in deconstruction, had written a number of newspaper articles during World War II, at least one of which contained anti-Semitic views. Critics of deconstruction, a method of literary criticism, argued that this bigotry discredited deconstruction because it exposed its morally neutral inability to condemn bigotry. Among the most serious charges against de Man was his long-time silence about these early writings.

Summary of Event

In August, 1987, a Belgian doctoral student, Ortwin de Graef, made a disturbing discovery while researching his dissertation on Belgian-born literary critic and philosopher Paul de Man. Early in World War II, when de Man was in his early twenties, he had over a three-year period written seventy articles as chief literary critic for the Belgian collaborationist newspaper Le Soir. Belgium was then under German occupation, which involved close Nazi editorial control of major newspapers such as Le Soir. Most of de Man’s articles were standard reviews of books, music, and plays. However, a number of these articles had clear political implications. Some articles expressed both anti-Semitic and profascist opinions consonant with the Nazi Party line. [kw]Anti-Semitic Writings Are Revealed, Yale Scholar’s Wartime (Dec. 1, 1987)
New York Times;and Paul de Man[Man]
Man, Paul de
Yale University
New York Times;and Paul de Man[Man]
Man, Paul de
Yale University
[g]United States;Dec. 1, 1987: Yale Scholar’s Wartime Anti-Semitic Writings Are Revealed[02320]
[c]Racism;Dec. 1, 1987: Yale Scholar’s Wartime Anti-Semitic Writings Are Revealed[02320]
[c]Publishing and journalism;Dec. 1, 1987: Yale Scholar’s Wartime Anti-Semitic Writings Are Revealed[02320]
[c]Education;Dec. 1, 1987: Yale Scholar’s Wartime Anti-Semitic Writings Are Revealed[02320]
Graef, Ortwin de
Derrida, Jacques

After the war, de Man had gone on to a very distinguished career as a literary critic and philosopher in the United States. His wartime journalism became public four years after his death in 1983. De Graef had sent photocopies of the most controversial articles to American scholars in de Man’s field of deconstructionist criticism, most especially to scholars at Yale University, where he had held an endowed chair in the humanities.

The news from Belgium shocked de Man’s colleagues and students. None could recall him expressing anti-Semitic or profascist sympathies. Nonetheless, the de Man scandal came to national and international attention when, on December 1, 1987, The New York Times published the article “Yale Scholar Wrote for Pro-Nazi Newspaper” on its front page. Accounts followed in other influential media, and an angry debate erupted among Western academics.

What exactly had the young de Man written between 1940 and 1942 that would provoke such heated disputes nearly fifty years later? On March 4, 1941, Le Soir had published a special edition devoted to “The Jews and Us.” Among the articles was one by de Man. Next to his article, “The Jews in Contemporary Literature,” was a caricature of two bearded, elderly Jews praying to God to “confound the gentiles.” De Man’s article appraised the quality of Jewish literature at the time and argued that it had “polluted” modern literature in unspecified ways. He thought it best for European society if Jews were isolated somewhere outside Europe.

By this time, Belgian legislation under Nazi guidance had excluded Jews from the professions of law, teaching, journalism, and government service. De Man later published a piece in Le Soir to counter the claim that the German occupiers of Belgium were barbarians. Their conduct, he wrote, had been impeccable and they were both disciplined and civilized. On other occasions de Man praised Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Benito Mussolini for his strong authoritarian rule as a possible model for Belgium. De Man also admired the place fascism gave to literature and art in society, and he praised the first generation of Italian poets under fascism.

After the war, in 1948, de Man emigrated to the United States and completed a doctorate in comparative literature at Harvard University. He taught at several American universities, until his appointment in 1970 as a humanities professor at Yale. Then he began to teach what was then a new mode of literary criticism: deconstruction. Deconstruction had not originated with de Man but with his close friend, French philosopher and literary critic Jacques Derrida. In 1967, Derrida published a book that elaborated a new strategy for analyzing philosophic and literary texts. For Derrida, there was no objective reality, no ultimate truth, and no absolutes. He insisted on the uncompromising questioning, or “deconstructing,” of everything thinkable.

Deconstruction was a special kind of literary analysis that focused primarily on language and meaning in literature and in philosophy texts. The actual literary text conferred no meaning, as such, but only what each reader was able to “construct” from reading a given text and then creating a virtual text for oneself. In this sense, no real world existed—only a construct of it existed in the minds of readers. For Derrida, nothing exists “outside the text.” That is, meaning is derived from the mind’s interaction with words to form a temporary virtual text.

Sharing Derrida’s radical skepticism and interest in literary criticism, de Man published two books during the 1970’s that brought him to the unchallenged leadership of the deconstructionist movement in the United States. Like Derrida, de Man made literary language his main focus. He insisted that language could never describe any objective reality because an author’s words, and a reader’s perception, were always shifting in meaning. For de Man, language was incapable of communicating what it intended because the author of a text had motives or “intentions” that could never be known in any permanent sense, even by the author. Basically, things are what one says they are. Truth cannot be defined. Every text, whether a novel, a history, a document of any kind, had to be deconstructed or “decoded” before it could be profitably approached.

The disclosure of de Man’s articles in 1987 was greeted with vehement denunciations by academics and the general public. De Man’s defenders were quick to accuse detractors of using the scandal to undermine deconstruction itself. What many critics found most objectionable and dangerous in deconstruction was its uncompromising relativism. For example, de Man’s deconstructionist approach, they claimed, involved the rejection of any moral standards whatsoever, which rendered the approach incapable of confronting, for example, fascism and racial prejudice.

De Man’s supporters and advocates of deconstruction countered that deconstruction was badly misunderstood by its critics. Deconstruction offered, rather, an exhilarating liberation from all stereotypes and stale certainties. Everything must be thought and experienced anew, always. Deconstruction was a subtle, complex, and ambivalent process that could not be generalized.

Most critics found inexcusable de Man’s article of 1941. Supporters contend that the anti-Semitic article was a form of cultural anti-Semitism. It pertained only to the realms of literature and art, which distinguished it from the vulgar, or commonplace, racial and religious anti-Semitism so prevalent in occupied Belgium and the rest of Europe.

Among the most serious charges leveled against de Man, however, was that in his thirty-five years in the United States, he failed to mention publicly his early anti-Semitic, profascist writings. His great silence was considered a cowardly failure to come to terms with his secret. Defenders responded that his later writings showed a clear rejection of authoritarianism and, in other respects, could be seen as atonement for his questionable, though hidden, past.


Deconstruction reached its peak of influence and popularity during the 1970’s and 1980’s, especially at Yale, whose leading scholar was de Man. However, the deaths of the primary formulators of deconstruction (de Man in 1983 and Derrida in 2004) seemed, in retrospect, to be benchmark events in the diminishing profile of the movement. De Man’s wartime articles clearly contributed to the waning popularity, but in ways difficult to measure.

Meanwhile, new varieties of literary criticism and philosophy appeared with other agendas. De Man’s primary focus on literature was supplemented by a fresh emphasis on neglected issues of politics and ethics, and it came to include postcolonial, gender, and cultural studies. However, de Man’s influence would remain, even though the Yale School of deconstruction lost prestige in the field of literary theory. Dozens of his students, and their students as well, would become professors at universities in the United States and Canada. Many testified to the vivid, inspirational quality of de Man’s teaching.

As for the de Man scandal, many found his collaborationist conduct indefensible. Others were less condemning. Either way, it seemed essential to examine his later writings in the light of his early articles. De Man, it seemed, had carefully avoided racial and political topics, except for a firm rejection of authoritarian government. He also made occasional oblique references to the burden of guilt and remorse carried by his generation after World War II.

De Man’s reputation for integrity certainly suffered following the posthumous discovery of the Le Soir articles. For some, his subsequent public silence on the matter only compounded his moral offense. The question remained whether de Man would be remembered more as the dynamic and influential leader of deconstruction in literature or as the youthful wartime collaborator with Nazi politics. His legacy, overall, remains mixed. Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism]
New York Times;and Paul de Man[Man]
Man, Paul de
Yale University

Further Reading

  • Hamacher, Werner, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Kernan, eds. Responses: On Paul de Man’s Wartime Journalism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. Essays evaluating the charges of anti-Semitism against de Man and the impact of those claims on his scholarly reputation and character.
  • Julius, Anthony. T. S. Elliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Fascism. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003. Makes a detailed case for convicting de Man of anti-Semitic and profascist sympathies as a young writer during World War II.
  • Kaplan, Alice. French Lessons: A Memoir. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Kaplan, a literary scholar, discusses her work on French fascist intellectuals and reexamines her discovery that de Man, who had been one of her graduate-school professors at Yale, had written for the pro-Nazi Belgian press.
  • McQuillan, Martin. Paul de Man. New York: Routledge, 2001. Contains a sympathetic assessment of de Man’s early articles. Concludes that de Man was not personally anti-Semitic and that his wartime writings should be considered in historical context. Includes a translation of de Man’s controversial newspaper article of March 4, 1941.

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