France - Literature

Was French writer Albert Camus killed by the KGB?

Nearly 60 years after French Nobel laureate Albert Camus died in a car accident aged 46, an Italian writer has argued in a new book that he was assassinated by KGB spies in retaliation for his anti-Soviet stance.

French writer and 1957 literature Nobel prize laureate Albert Camus, reading a newspaper in Paris in 1953.
French writer and 1957 literature Nobel prize laureate Albert Camus, reading a newspaper in Paris in 1953. ©STF / AFP

Camus died in a car crash on 4 January 1960 but the exact circumstances have always been shrouded in mystery.

His publisher, Michel Gallimard, was at the wheel when he lost control of the car and crashed into a tree.  

The Nobel prize-winning author died outright, his publisher several days later. 

In the wreckage, police discovered an unfinished manuscript entitled The First Man, a semi-autobiographical novel based on Camus’ childhood in Algeria.

In 1978, writer Herbert Lottman questioned the strange circumstances of Camus’ death in his biography of the author. 

“The accident seems to have been caused by a blowout or a broken axle," he wrote. "Experts were puzzled by what happened along a long stretch of straight road, 30 feet wide, with little traffic at the time of the accident.”

Now Italian author and academic Giovanni Catelli claims Camus' death was most probably politically motivated.

KGB-French alliance

In his book La mort de Camus (The Death of Camus), published earlier this year in French, Catelli builds on a theory he first published in Corriere della Sera daily in 2011.

He claims Camus' death was the result of an alliance between KGB spies and the French government, keen to keep its relationship with the Soviet Union on an even keel at the time.

He bases his claims on notes he discovered in the diary of Czech poet and translator Jan Zábrana who wrote that a "well-informed source” had told him that the KGB rigged a tyre on Camus’ car with “a tool that eventually pierced it when the car was travelling at high speed”. 

According to Zábrana, it was Dmitri Shepilov, the Soviet Union’s minister of the interior, who gave orders to assassinate Camus following an article he wrote for the French journal Franc-Tireur in March 1957 in which he expressed his opposition to the Soviet regime.

A critical voice that annoyed the Soviets

Catelli spent years researching and verifying Zabrana’s account. He interviewed Zabrana’s widow Marie and investigated the KGB’s infiltration of France. 

One chapter in the book centres around second-hand testimony from French lawyer Jacques Vergès who controversially defended several war criminals. Vergès told Italian lawyer Giuliano Spazzali that he was certain Camus had been eliminated by the KGB. 

In an interview with Catelli said he felt “almost certain the crash could not have been accidental".

“I believe the KGB conceived a plan to eliminate him at the time of the scandal provoked by the Occupation of Hungary. But I remain convinced that what really drew them to execute the plan was  [President Nikita] Khrushchev's visit to Paris in March 1960: the French and Soviet governments wanted to became closer, at the expense of the U.S.”

“Don’t forget that in 1966," Catelli continues, "discrete pressure from the Soviets convinced De Gaulle to leave Nato. French and Soviet governments, as well as the French Communist party, had spent months carefully preparing the Soviet leader’s visit. It was meant to seal the friendship between France and the Soviet Union. No critical voice could be raised.”

Supporter of Hungarian uprising

Camus had been a member of the French Communist party in his youth, but later published articles in some anarchist reviews like Le monde libertaire, La révolution prolétarienne and Témoins.

From autumn 1956 onwards he sided publicly with the Hungarian uprising and was critical of Soviet actions. He lent his support to Russian author and dissident Boris Pasternak.

"He had ferocious enemies in different milieus," says Catelli: “Algerian revolutionaries, the Soviet Union, French communists, reactionaries and the OAS - they all had reasons to go after him.”

'Implausible theory'

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Catelli admits that Camus’ daughter has not backed his theory, although it has been given a supportive foreword by American writer Paul Auster who praises Catelli’s “thorough investigations”.

Meanwhile French philosopher Michel Onfray, author of a Camus biography, remains sceptical of Catelli’s claims. 

“I don’t think it’s plausible,” he told L’Express magazine, “the KGB had the means to get rid of Albert Camus in another way.”

Onfray pointed out Camus had not planned to travel by car on the fateful day of the crash, but was supposed to be leaving by train.

“He had his ticket and it was only at the last moment he decided to go home with Michel Gallimard. The Soviets wanted to get rid of him, for sure, but not in that way.”

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