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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

Simone Weil Goes to War (or dies trying)



French philosopher and tortured mystic Simone Weil (1909-1943) has been on my mind a lot lately. Many consider her one of the "foremost" thinkers from the twentieth century, or so my Penguin Classics version of "The Need for Roots" assures me. She's kind of a big deal.

And yet, I've struggled to figure out this complicated woman. I'm not alone. Susan Sontag once wrote that the public's enduring interest in Weil was due to her "seriousness," even if no "more than a handful of the tens of thousands of readers she has won since the posthumous publication of her books and essays really share her ideas." (1)

I must say I'm not one of those readers who shares her ideas, even if I admire some of them from a good safe distance. 

Let me start with what I admire about her before I pivot and take this in a more critical direction.

No matter what else I may think of Simone Weil, I can't dismiss the fact that she was fearless and went to extremes in pursuit of her convictions. That's undeniable. In fact, she demonstrated an unblinking willingness to live those convictions even unto death. This makes her tough to ignore or dismiss. I get that. I respect it, especially in a world where the herd consensus orients our moral compass without much personal reflection: right and wrong by consensus. 

There's something attractive about someone who rejects a life of room-temperature ethics and soul-slicing compromise and doesn't care what anyone thinks about them. Weil was like that. That said, Sontag's point stands. Though we may admire Weil's dedication to the Truth or the Absolute or Whatever, few of us - me included - want to emulate her.

Nevertheless, she was that rare unicorn combination of powerful intellect and bottomless compassion for society's downtrodden. An unwavering commitment to social justice and human dignity defined her life. A philosopher, mystic, and activist, Weil's profound insights sought to bridge the divide between thought and action. Something she preached, which I respect, is that thought or belief without corresponding action to actualize it in the world is meaningless. 

Socially and economically, this made her a harsh critic of capitalism, which she believed exploited the many for the benefit of the few.

Here she turned thought into action by quitting her comfortable teaching job during the Depression to work in a factory and live on the pitiful wage she earned there, all to better understand life as an ordinary worker. 

She was also a bitter foe of Fascism. Here again, she turned thought into action by putting her life on hold, and her pacifism too, to join the fight against Franco's Fascists in Spain. As we'll see below, she would later do everything in her power to fight Hitler.

Despite being raised in a secular Jewish family with little regard for organized religion, she nevertheless sought out God in her final years, desperately, agonizingly, and with all her heart and soul. Elite-educated and privileged people rarely go in this direction toward faith, but she did. She wrote with eloquence about her struggles with faith before dying in lonely obscurity from a combination of starvation, self-neglect, despair, and tuberculosis at the young age of 34. 

But her ideas didn't die with her. Admirers like Albert Camus and Gustav Thibon rescued her from oblivion by publishing the many notebooks, letters, and essays she left behind. Those have inspired admiration (and controversy) ever since. 

This guaranteed her an enduring place among the most revered figures in modern intellectual history. You know you've made a lasting impact on the discourse when you have a Penguin Classic of your work, and Weil has several.

Okay, so that was the Standard Weil Narrative you've likely heard - if you heard anything about her - which is all quite admirable, don't get me wrong, especially for someone of her privileged background who could have taken a far easier road in life.

But I nonetheless find much about Simone Weil to be profoundly irritating. Difficult people are often that way - they're complicated, I get it - but I think some of her more annoying quirks have gone underreported for far too long. 

Why is this? 

Perhaps because they are so unflattering? 

Or maybe it's because pointing out her flaws doesn't feed into the mythological superhero version of Simone Weil that many prefer. 

Or maybe it's because most people don't read lengthy books anymore and rarely go deep enough into the nitty-gritty details to learn about someone like Weil.

Sadly, the average person's knowledge of her will come from a 5-minute YouTube video or the summarized contents of a crowd-sourced Wikipedia page. 

It's all superficial, wave-top, and good for the highlights only.

That, and nothing more. 

So, for the sake of (relative) brevity, I will only tackle one of those quirks here, mainly because it irritated me so much. 

I'm talking about Weil's overwhelming and bizarre desire to put herself in harm's way by trying to get herself sent on dangerous missions behind enemy lines. In short, to be a martyr. She did so numerous times, and it irked me more than I'm happy to admit. 

Nevertheless, she wanted to play war despite having no aptitude or qualifications. Once you read the details, you'll realize that "dangerous" doesn't go far enough in describing her behavior. Suicidal is better. And oddly selfish for someone so selfless in other aspects of her life. 

One example of this in her life would have been a fluke. Call it the immaturity of passionate youth. No big deal. Twice would have been more interesting, but probably not worth writing about here. Still no big deal. 

But four times? 

Oh, now there's a psychological pattern to unpack!

​It's so bizarre that it's interesting.

So, let's begin. 

"Birth of Fascism" by David Alfaro Siqueiros, 1936


Weil Fights Fascists in Spain

Weil did play war once, briefly and a bit farcically, during the Spanish Civil War. In the summer of 1936, Franco launched his rebellion against the left-leaning Republican Popular Front government. Weil, like thousands of other idealistic leftists throughout Europe, flocked to Spain to fight for the Republican cause. 

In Spain, we see the first indication of what can only be described as her Main Character Syndrome, or the need to play a leading role in whatever she did, no matter how absurd. 

We hear her reasoning for going in a letter to her friend Georges Bernanos. 

"In July 1936, I was in Paris. I don't love war [she was an avowed pacifist]; but what has always seemed to me most horrible in war is the position of those in the rear. When I realized that, try as I would, I could not prevent myself from participating morally in that war - in other words, from hoping all day and every day for the victory of one side and the defeat of the other - I decided that, for me, Paris was the rear...." (2)

Thus motivated, she crossed into Spain on August 8th, 1936, and went straight to Barcelona to find Julian Gorkin, one of the leaders of the P.O.U.M (Party of Marxist Unity), a ragtag militia of anarchists and dissident communists fighting against Franco. (This would be the same group George Orwell joined several months later). She had heard that the P.O.U.M.'s founder, Joaquin Maurin, vanished in enemy territory during the first days of the war. No one knew of his whereabouts or if he was even still alive. 

Enter Simone Weil, a frail 27-year-old woman cursed with crippling migraines, Mr. Magoo-levels of nearsightedness, and extraordinary clumsiness. Add to those physical limitations the uncomfortable fact that she lacked any military experience and training. 

Despite this comprehensive lack of qualifications, she offered a modest proposal for Gorkin. Finding him in his office, she walked right in and pitched a plan that had her going deep into fascist territory to find Maurin. 

After introducing herself, she got straight to the point: "I have a proposal to make to you; I hope that you won't reject it. I offer to go into Franco's territory to find out whether Maurin is dead or alive and, if he is alive, whether there is a way of saving him." (3)

This was all very dramatic, cinematic even, only this wasn't a movie. Gorkin's reply was brutally honest.  "Simone, you don't know what you are asking of me. Your devotion is extraordinary, but you don't speak Spanish, and your physical type is not that of the women of this country. You would be discovered immediately. you are offering yourself as a sacrifice, and not only will you be lost but you may compromise Maurin. I would never take the responsibility of giving you this mission. You would have a ninety percent chance of sacrificing yourself for nothing.(4)

Gorkin was correct: it was a suicide mission with little chance of success. Weil became angry, replying that she had every right to sacrifice herself if she wanted, and spent the next hour trying in vain to change Gorkin's mind.

This minor episode highlighted a recurring theme in Weil's personality that we'll see a lot more of below: that was a compelling need to risk her life on a perilous mission against a dangerous enemy for a worthy cause. 

Her motivation here is perplexing. Why would she expose herself to such risks to learn the fate of a man she had never met who led an organization she wasn't a member of in a country where she didn't speak the language? It doesn't make sense. This wasn't her fight. At best, she was a fellow traveler of the Republican cause.

Even so, she meant to make it her fight, to be one of the main characters, one way or another. She joined a group of journalists traveling to the front. By August 15th, a week after arriving in Spain, she arrived at the left bank of the Ebro, where she ditched the journalists and attached herself to a small band of international adventurers like her who had come to fight Franco. 

This was the nucleus of what later became the International Brigade. However, at this time, it only had around 25 members and fought alongside the much larger C.N.T. militia (National Confederation of Workers) led by Buenaventura Durruti, one of the leaders of the Catalan anarchist unions (5)

On the 17th, her new comrades planned on crossing the Ebro to burn three enemy corpses lying on the right bank for reasons that were never explained. Franco's forces camped nearby, so the mission contained an element of danger, though not much tactical value. 

However, the ones leading it didn't want to take Weil because of her clumsiness and lack of training. Plus, she was new, and they probably lacked confidence in her abilities. This, combined with her nearsightedness, made her a massive liability in an operation that required stealth, silence, and speed. Weil possessed none of these. Yet she protested so vehemently that they relented and let her go. 

In any event, they didn't find the corpses. Their attention turned to a search for melons at an abandoned house along the river. Weil understood this was a lot of risk for little return and that if they were captured, the Fascists would execute them. 

In the end, nothing came of it except frayed nerves and exhaustion. No melons were found, and the group returned to camp. Weil later wrote, "This expedition is the first and only time that I was frightened during my stay at Pina.(6)

On the 19th, the next operation was to blow up a railroad line that supplied the enemy. Weil didn't make the cut this time either but complained that she hadn't come to Spain "as a tourist or an observer but to fight." Again, her protests wore them down, and they agreed to take her. 

The group crossed the Ebro in boats into fascist territory. Once there, several recon teams spread out to clear the area. Weil was ordered to stay behind with the German cook, which she didn't like but didn't protest. When her comrades returned from the patrol, an enemy reconnaissance plane flew overhead. They all dove into the bushes for cover. 

If discovered, they might be cut off and captured. That would have meant death. Weil later described looking up at the gorgeous blue sky and musing to herself, "A very beautiful day. If they capture me, they will kill me....But it is what we deserve. Our troops have shed a lot of blood. I am morally an accomplice.(7)

But was she really?

She had experienced no combat.  She had shot at no one. She had killed no one. She had been there hardly a week.

In her brief time at war, she did little more than search for corpses and melons. She didn't know it then, but this brief, pointless mission - her second - would be her last.

The following day, August 20th, just over two weeks after arriving in Spain and her sixth day at the front, Weil's clumsiness did her in. To avoid giving their position away, the unit's cooks had dug a hole in the ground to better conceal the cooking pot, which they had filled with boiling oil for breakfast. 

She didn't notice it there and stepped right into it, suffering second and third-degree burns on her lower leg. When they pulled off her boot and sock, the skin came with it. It was a serious injury. A dangerous infection and fever soon set in as she struggled to find adequate medical treatment.

Weil received some basic first aid from a barber and got a lucky car ride back to Barcelona, where she had the remarkable good fortune of running into her parents sitting in a cafe on the Ramblas having lunch. Terrified at the thought of their daughter wandering around in a war zone, they'd rushed to Spain to save Simone from herself.

Even more fortunate, her father, Bernard, was a doctor. He took charge of his daughter's treatment until she recovered enough three weeks later to return to Paris, where she spent the next several months convalescing.

As an epilogue to this episode, about two weeks after she departed, her former comrades suffered heavy casualties in fighting at Perdiguera. All the group's women were killed. (8) In a way, her clumsiness saved her; her parents did, too, and her physician father, most of all. 

Back in Paris, Weil planned on returning to Spain once she healed. But as the recovery dragged on, her interest in the Republican cause waned as the ferocity of the Civil War intensified. It became clear that atrocities were occurring on both sides, including the Anarchist militias she had fought alongside. She didn't want to be a part of that. 

"Hitler" by Paul Klee, 1931
"Hitler" by Paul Klee, 1931


The End of Weil's Pacifism

Over the next few years, Weil, an ardent pacifist, devoted her rhetorical energies to keeping France from slipping into another war with Germany. That wasn't proving easy. By 1937, Hitler was rearming and threatening his neighbors. Pacifism was becoming harder to justify in the face of this threat. Nonetheless, Weil tried, oh how she tried, but made some very dubious arguments for appeasement along the way. 

While Germany and Italy had committed troops and arms to Spain, she argued that France should not: it would only provoke a wider conflict. Stay out of it, she advised. When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 and threatened Czechoslovakia later that same year, she remained convinced that it wasn't worth French lives to intervene. France should mind its own business; in any case, it wasn't ready for war. At every step in Hitler's march toward European hegemony, Weil preferred appeasement and peace at any cost. 

In retrospect, this wasn't one of her proudest moments, and she later admitted as much. 

It was only in the spring of 1939, when Hitler tore up the recently signed Munich Agreement and invaded Czechoslovakia, that she realized pacifism wasn't tenable when confronting a threat like Hitler. He would keep taking until someone stood up to him, and standing up to him meant war. 

Weil finally understood this and belatedly concluded that Hitler must be destroyed. 

She later wrote, "that in spite of my pacifist inclinations it had become an overriding obligation in my eyes to work for Hitler's destruction, with or without any chance of success, ever since that day my resolve has not altered; and that day was the one on which Hitler entered Prague - in May 1939." (9)

This transformation from dove to hawk bothered her afterward. 

"My decision was tardy, perhaps; I left it too late, perhaps, before adopting that position. Indeed, I think so and bitterly reproach myself for it.(10) She wasn't alone. Many who had understandably wanted to avoid another world war looked like chumps for trusting Hitler once again. All they got for their efforts was another world war, and one much worse than the first one.

As if to hammer home this point, after he annexed Czechoslovakia, Hitler began his familiar routine of aggrieved belligerent rhetoric that presaged who was next on the menu: Poland. 

So what did Weil's late-blooming and reluctant hawkishness look like? In a way, we saw it before during her time in Spain. Then, she'd set aside her pacifism to fight for the Anarchists against Franco's Fascists. Her anti-Fascist attitude would resemble that, with an all-consuming desire to be actively involved in the war effort. She wanted to go to war, not sit back and write about it. 

Remember, for Weil, thinking had to be followed up by action. If war was to be waged, she wanted to be in the game and not sitting on the sidelines

There was only one problem: she was ill-suited for this new reality, and everyone knew it.

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In any case, Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia marked a new phase. From early 1939 until she died in 1943, Weil began a retreat into religion that coincided with a tendency to seek her own martyrdom. She wanted to do something, anything, to help defeat Hitler and correct the error of her earlier pacifism, about which she constantly berated herself. 

After the Nazis suppressed a student revolt in Czechoslovakia, she drafted a dramatic plan to parachute saboteurs and arms into Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. These volunteer commandos would foment unrest and stir up armed resistance to German rule. Her friend and later biographer, Simone Petrement, says Weil presented her plan to influential political figures and then spent the next few weeks scouring newspapers looking for evidence it would be implemented. 

Sound ridiculous? It gets worse. 

Since this was her idea, she insisted on being one of the commandos who parachuted into Czechoslovakia despite having zero qualifications for doing so. Her six days at the front in Spain hunting for melons counted for little. 

Moreover, she remained just as prone to debilitating headaches as before. Plus, the inherent clumsiness that ended her time in Spain hardly made her a suitable candidate for any covert operation. Let's not forget the most important thing: she had no military training, not with firearms, explosives, or parachuting out of airplanes.

And it's a fair question to pose: Would she have survived that parachute drop into those dark forests of Bohemia? And if somehow she did - what then? 

It was all pure, delusional fantasy on her part to think it might be otherwise, that she might succeed by sheer pluck and determination. But I don't think that mattered to her. Death was acceptable if it came to that. Martyrdom, even better. At least she would be giving her life for something worthy.

Someone she pitched this scheme to was Henri Bouche, an influential figure in the French aviation field. He listened politely and told her the plan was impossible, that it "will kill the very people you wish to help." 

He said she only replied, "So be it, they will die, but they will die with dignity." (11)

And there it is. 

Conducting a successful operation that advanced Allied war aims wasn't Weil's true objective; a glorious death was, if not for her, for the people she was trying to help, whether they asked for it or not. 

Only the dramatic gesture—the hero's sacrifice for a noble cause—mattered, never mind the reason for the mission itself. 

This would not be the last time.

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Weil's Big Idea: Nurses versus Nazis

When her Czech commando plan didn't gain traction, she devised another that would occupy her off and on for the rest of her life. That was to create a corps of volunteer female nurses who would serve alongside frontline soldiers and administer first aid when they were injured. This was important because it would presumably save lives otherwise lost due to a lack of immediate medical attention in combat zones. 

Frontline nurses would also boost soldier morale, reminding them that what they were fighting for was more than territory but humanitarian values that respected the sanctity of life. (12)

It was thus meant to be a symbolic and humanistic contrast to what the Nazis represented, which was maximum brutality and little respect for human life. "The mere persistence of a few humane services in the very center of the battle, the climax of inhumanity, would be a signal defiance of the inhumanity which the enemy has chosen for himself and which he compels us also to practice." (13)

In a 1942 letter to her classmate and friend, Maurice Schumann, we see perhaps her best elaboration on the philosophical purpose of the frontline nurse plan, which was to boost morale by demonstrating "courage not inflamed by the impulse to kill, but capable of supporting, at the point of greatest danger, the prolonged spectacle of wounds and agony, is certainly of a rarer quality than that of the young S.S. fanatics. A small group of women exercising day after day a courage of this kind would be a spectacle so new, so significant, and charged with such obvious meaning that it would strike the imagination more than any of Hitler's conceptions have done. What is now necessary is to strike harder than he. This corps of women would undoubtedly offer one way of doing so.(14)

These nurses would symbolize life and the noble aspiration of preserving it, even amid the brutal violence of war. If the French couldn't match the ferocity of the S.S. and its idolatrous worship of Hitler and the purity of the German race, they might counter it with sheer tenacity by having a constant reminder of "the homes they are defending," - and the wives, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and sisters, too.  (15)

What better demonstration of a society defending itself against evil than to have its men and women serving together at the front, the men to fight and the women to heal? 

It was a bold plan, though impractical to implement. No one could stomach the notion of young women putting themselves so directly in harm's way.  And make no mistake, Weil intended that these nurses should go into battle willing to give their lives. She described what kind of women would be needed for this job.

"They would need to offer their lives as a sacrifice.(16)

They needed  "a certain amount of that cool and virile resolution." (17)

No woman could volunteer for this high-risk job "unless she possesses both the tenderness and the cool resolution, or unless she was unbalanced."  (18)

Weil obviously saw herself as the perfect candidate for such a job, though she did add that the unbalanced ones would have to be weeded out before going to the front.

(One hopes she wouldn't have inadvertently disqualified herself with this last proviso.)

In the early months of 1940, Weil's parents used their connections to arrange a courtesy meeting with a French Senator, asking that he listen to her "in order to calm her anxiety, her great need to participate in the war, to tell her he would present her project" to the Senatorial Army Commission. (19)

In other words, 'Humor our dear daughter, bless her heart, for she means well.' She had her meeting with the Senator who listened politely. That was it. Nothing more came of it before the German invasion and occupation of France in the summer of 1940, which made it moot anyway.

Weil shelved the plan while she spent the next two years living in the precarious and anti-semitic limbo of Vichy, France, where anti-Jew laws forbade her from working. 

During her time in Marseilles, Weil did some work delivering anti-fascist documents for the fledgling resistance. Weil told one of her contacts, a young teacher in the Resistance distribution network named Malou David, to blame her for everything if she were arrested. (20)

Fortunately, it never came to that.

In the summer of 1942, just months before the mass deportations to the death camps began in France, Weil emigrated with her parents and settled in New York City. The Weils rightly sensed that, as Jews, they needed to get the hell out of France as soon as possible. Simone hated America - it was too far from the action - and spent her short time lobbying for a way out and back into the fight.

She dusted off the "Plan for an Organization of Frontline Nurses" and began sending it to anyone she thought could intervene on her behalf. 

This included the well-known French theologian Jacques Maritain, who was then in New York. Weil hoped he might set up an interview with President Roosevelt for her—an unknown and unemployed Jewish refugee in New York—so she could pitch her plan. 

She also sent a letter to Admiral Leahy, the recently returned American Ambassador to Vichy France, with the same goal: finding a champion for her nurses project. Yet there's no evidence any of this outreach elicited a response.

She didn't give up, turning her attention toward her dear old friend Maurice Schumann, who was working for Charles de Gaulle's Free French in London. She convinced him to discuss the plan with another high-level official in the Free French, Andre Phillip. Phillip, who rejected it outright, thought she might serve as a policy advisor on his staff in London. 

Weil was excited about the prospect of getting to London to work for the Free French, but with the following prophetic caveat:

"If it was a job not involving a high degree of hardship and danger I could only accept it provisionally; otherwise I should be consumed by the same chagrin in London as in New York, and it would paralyze me." (21)

Unfortunately, this wasn't going to be a job "involving a high degree of hardship and danger" but an office job, safe in the heart of London and quite far from the action. 

This was going to be a problem. 

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Weil Joins the Free French and Tries to Join the Resistance

She accepted a position at the Free French Ministry of the Interior in London and arrived there in November 1942. There, she analyzed and commented on the flood of political documents from the Resistance Committees in France. She also brainstormed ideas about reconstructing France after the war. This should have been the perfect job for someone of Weil's intelligence and academic background, and for a while, she wrote prodigiously on these themes. 

But she hated it. This wasn't her destiny, sitting behind a desk, reading and writing policy papers. She wanted in the action, to do anything other than being stuck in a sterile office far from the war zone. If she couldn't convince those in power to take her frontline nurses plan seriously, she begged to be inserted into France to join the Resistance. 

Was she more qualified in 1942 than in 1939 when she pitched her crazy Czech commando plan? 

Not at all, and she admits as much. "As to my capacity for action in war, I am extremely lacking in every sort of capacity, in every way, unfortunately.(22)

Why then?

For the chance of a heroic suicide, of course.

In a letter to Schumann, she wrote, "But it should be arranged for me to be in contact with the sabotage organizations, against the day when they may need to win some objective at the cost of a life." (23)

That "at the cost of a life" hints at her true motivation. In the same letter to Schumann arguing why she should be parachuted into France to do undercover work, she goes on (...and on...and on...) for several pages outlining her fortitude in the (highly likely) event she ended up captured and subjected to Gestapo interrogation.

To protect any secrets, she planned on memorizing "an innocuous list of false avowals, carefully prepared in advance, so that they [instead of the true facts of the mission] could be extorted from me during the process of breaking down my self-respect."  (24)

She believed "it is unlikely that the enemy would detect this ruse." And if these tactics didn't work, no worries, Weil was convinced "that the divine mercy would assist," whatever that meant. (25)

Reading this multi-page fantasy of Simone vs. The Gestapo, of how she would die under torture before giving away secrets, is to step into a mind lost wandering in childish fantasies, and not someone focused on the intent of those missions, which was working toward the liberation of France from Nazi rule.

That's strange. Weil possessed enough self-awareness to understand how unqualified she was for such missions. But again, that wasn't the point; accomplishing the mission wasn't the point either. She wanted to sacrifice herself for the cause. 

But as Weil biographer Dorothy McFarland points out, there's a hint of something deeper going on here, an urge to offer herself as a Christlike sacrifice. She referred to herself here as a potential "scapegoat" for the Resistance, willing to die a violent death to preserve its secrets, much like Christ died for our sins. (26)

McFarland writes, "Weil felt called to a sacrificial and redemptive death analogous to that of Christ."  (27)

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This wasn't the first time. Remember, Weil advised Malou David in Marseilles to blame her if she were arrested. Weil would take the fall; she'd be the scapegoat. 

The problem, as she soon discovered, was that her colleagues in the Free French, both those in London and in Occupied France, had far more pragmatic aspirations. They couldn't afford to lose themselves in silly fantasies that didn't achieve any results, and they most certainly didn't want to die. After two years of Nazi occupation, they understood the risks of the work they did and the ruthless efficiency of the enemy they faced.

On the contrary, they wanted to defeat Hitler and then be around to rebuild a liberated France. A glorious martyrdom for the cause, like some character from a cheap spy novel, wasn't what any of them wanted.

Weil begged her immediate supervisor, Louis Closon, to parachute her into France to link up with the Resistance. He turned her down, telling her she'd too quickly be discovered, that her "Semitic features" would give her away at a time when Jews in France were being actively rounded up and deported to the death camps in Poland. 

Her physical limitations and lack of relevant experience doing clandestine work would endanger her and her comrades. In short, she would only be a liability for the Resistance in France. (28)

She didn't give up. She next reached out to none other than Resistance leader Jean Cavailles. He was the real deal, the type of Resistance agent she dreamed of becoming. 

He understood more than anyone how dangerous the work was. He would later die after he was arrested, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo. He died Weil's dream death.  (29)

Cavailles politely listened to Weil as she went through her rehearsed arguments about the tactics she would use to resist torture if captured and her willingness to give her life without a second thought. Cavailles turned her down, believing that she had a naively romantic idea of what resistance work was all about. 

That's an understatement.

Everything the Resistance did with its limited resources went toward the eventual goal of liberating France. That was the big picture. In her delusions of suicidal grandeur, Weil seems to have forgotten this. The Resistance wasn't meant to be the stage for a frustrated young woman to enact her personal martyrdom.

None of her schemes were taken seriously. The leader of the Free French, Charles de Gaulle, dismissed her frontline nurses project with three words: "Elle est folle!" (She is crazy!). Rejected and dejected, Weil grew despondent, realizing she wouldn't play any active role in the war. 

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The End, Sadly

In July 1943, hospitalized and two months from death, she broke with the Free French, not that it mattered by then. She was resentful at what she considered to be the neglect of her work and the persistent refusal to let her do Resistance missions in France. 

By this time, the pacifism that had been such a large part of her identity during the 1930s was long gone. She wanted in on the action, but her massive ego still prevented her from zooming out and seeing the bigger picture, which was the defeat of Nazism and Hitler. 

In the summer of '43, this was beginning to look like a real possibility. And yet, Weil simply couldn't immerse herself in the broader cause unless assigned a starring role. She subordinated herself to no one. 

That might sound like a compliment, but in this context, it's damning. Weil could have been part of something special, the rebirth of France and its society after the traumas of two world wars and one shameful occupation. 

She could have been part of the fierce post-war debate that was coming about the morality of France's colonial empire, something she cared deeply about in the 1930s before anyone else did. Instead, she chose to sulk herself to an early death because she couldn't indulge in masochistic fantasies of martyrdom.

In any case, the breakup from the Free French was mutual. Her immediate supervisor, Andre Phillip, found Weil a poor fit for the unsexy, wonky policy work needed to reconstitute France after the war. 

Frustrated, he once exclaimed, "Why doesn't she tackle something concrete, such as trade union problems, instead of wallowing in generalities?" (30) Why indeed? The one significant effort on this front, her unfinished 'The Need for Roots,' was interesting for its generalizations - people need to be rooted to flourish - but worthless as a blueprint for rebuilding postwar France. 

When it became clear that the Free French wouldn't send her into Occupied France, she declared, "I cannot eat the bread of the English without taking part in their war effort.(31)

And so she literally didn't. 

She let herself starve to death after falling ill with tuberculosis in April 1943, saying she "couldn't eat when she thought of the French people starving in France." (32) Bad as it was, no one starved in France during the Occupation. It was little more than a face-saving rationalization meant to valorize her lifelong pathology with food and eating. 

Shortly before her death in August 1943, Schumann dropped by the hospital to visit her. He had done more for her than just about anyone else. He had gotten her to London and attached to the Free French, encouraged and supported her when she was at her lowest, and used his connections to put her in touch with those decision-makers who could have sent her to France or adopted her frontline nurses plans. In short, Schumann tried very hard to help his friend out.

But none of that mattered. He didn't go far enough. 

She swore never to talk to him again because he failed to get her parachuted into France. It was a cruel response to a loyal and genuine friend, something Weil didn't have many of in those last anguished months of her life. 

Schumann came one last time to visit her in the hospital, hoping for a reconciliation with his ailing friend. As a peace offering, he brought her a copy of Vercor's Resistance novel, 'The Silence of the Sea.' 

That didn't matter either. 

She handed the book back without even looking at it. 

And so their last meeting passed in silence. Weil died at an English sanitarium a few days later.  It was a shame, really, because she could have contributed so much to the intellectual world of post-war France, like Camus, Sartre, Beauvoir, and so many others did. She could have been part of that. But that didn't matter now; she was gone. 

Ten months later, the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy; three months after that, they liberated France; by May 1945, four years after Weil witnessed France being overrun by German armies, the Thousand Year Reich was no more. Hitler was dead, Fascism defeated.

If only she had endured a little longer, if only she could have subordinated herself to a higher cause and played the role best suited to her abilities, if only she had seen the bigger picture, that it wasn't all about her.

But she didn't, or couldn't, or refused, or whatever.

In any case, it all happened anyway, without her, and the world moved on anyway, without her, though it never forgot her, which is probably what she would have wanted, secretly.


Supplementary Material



(1) Susan Sontag. “Simone Weil.” The New York Review of Books, 9 Oct. 2020,

(2) Simone Pétrement. Simone Weil: A Life. Pantheon Books, 1976, 268.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid., 271.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid., 273.

(7) Ibid., 274.

(8) David McLellan. Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil. Poseidon Press, 1990, 123.

(9) Simone Weil. Seventy Letters: Personal and Intellectual Windows on a Thinker. WIPF & Stock, 1965, 158.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Petrement, 355.

(12) Dorothy McFarland. Simone Weil. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 1983, 100.

(13) Robert Zaretsky. The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas. The University of Chicago Press, 2021, 155.

(14) McLellan 222.

(15) John Hellman. Simone Weil : An Introduction to Her Thought, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, 821.

(16) Weil, 147.

(17) Ibid., 153.

(18) Ibid., 147.

(19) McFarland, 100.

(20) McLellan, 179.

(21) Ibid., 232.

(22) Weil, 172.

(23) Ibid., 177.

(24) Ibid., 173.

(25) Ibid., 174.

(26) McFarland, 144.

(27) Ibid.

(28) Francine Du Plessix Gray. Simone Weil. Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, 2001, 190.

(29) McLellan, 260.

(30) Petrement, 530.

(31) Weil, 178.

(32) McFarland, 162.



Du Plessix Gray, Francine. Simone Weil. Wiedenfeld & Nicholson, 2001.

Hellman, John. Simone Weil : An Introduction to Her Thought, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central,

McFarland, Dorothy. Simone Weil. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 1983.

McLellan, David. Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil. Poseidon Press, 1990.

Pétrement, Simone. Simone Weil: A Life. Pantheon Books, 1976.

Sontag, Susan. “Simone Weil.” The New York Review of Books, 9 Oct. 2020,

Weil, Simone. Seventy Letters: Personal and Intellectual Windows on a Thinker. WIPF & Stock, 1965.

Zaretsky, Robert. The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas. The University of Chicago Press, 2021.


Paul Wilke

Watertown NY

June 2024


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