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And the Show Went On

  And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris Alan Riding Alfred A. Knopf New York

Any leftist is sure to feel somewhat squeamish about quoting Charles de Gaulle, but Le General was surely right when he wrote bitterly in his memoirs that, “not a single public figure raised his voice to condemn the armistice” between France and Germany. Although the Germans did a bit more than walk around the Maginot Line, the French did not put up much of a fight, much less start to organize a resistance, against their invaders. There were a few heroic, doomed exceptions, some of whose stories Riding recounts, and a couple that he unfortunately neglects: a conspiracy of museum curators and ethnologists who sought to take on the Third Reich with their passion and a mimeograph machine, only to be quickly rolled up and executed; Capt. Henri Frenay's newspaper Combat, which would eventually become a major organ of the resistance, but which, at the start, was a voice in the wilderness; and Le General's voice on the BBC from London.

Why did the French cave in so cravenly to the German invasion and, on the whole, welcome the Germans, while, just across the Channel, the Royal Air Force was gearing up to knock the Luftwaffe permanently out of the skies?

Riding does a good job of setting the stage for the rogues' gallery of collaborators, compressing a substantial slice of history into a relatively few lucid pages. One thread traces back to the almost incredible casualties that the French suffered in the Great War – a million dead, millions more wounded, mutilated. Another thread was the failure of successive Popular Front governments to deliver services effectively and control splinter parties and militias on the left and right, of which the most notorious was the far-right Action Francaise. A third thread was the failure – or, perhaps in fairness, the impossibility – of any of the multiple Popular Front governments to rearm in the face of the looming German menace. And not to be ignored was the unifying force of French anti-Semitism, which gave the right something to share and which also expressed itself on the left.

But having said all of this, which is certainly historically correct, it is also true that British casualties in the Great War matched those of the French. British leadership was only somewhat more stable than the French, with Number 10 going back and forth like a metronome between Conservative and Labour. Britain did start to rearm in time, with the crucial development of radar and the superior Spitfire. And, although the British ruling classes were no lovers of the Jews, anti-Semitism was not as deeply rooted as in France; Riding is quite mistaken that French anti-Semitism began with the Dreyfus Affair, which was only a symptom of a more deeply rooted cancer. The British even had fascist organizations and gangs of thugs, most notably Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. But – another difference – when the time came, the British security services rounded up the domestic fascists, including not a few lords and ladies, and locked them up in Britain's very unwelcoming prisons for the duration. So, perhaps it is best left to the psychohistorians (and the geographers?) to sort out why one country stood alone against Germany and the other willingly sold its soul.

France found itself a new seat of government: the sleepy spa of Vichy. And it anointed a new leader: Marshal Pierre Petain, Hero of Verdun. It is difficult to understand the almost universal veneration that was bestowed on Petain, a traitor who very nearly wound up in front of a firing squad. Editorialists gushed over their savior; poets wrote patriotic verses to him. Perhaps none was quite so ardent as entertainer Maurice Chevalier, but he captures the temper of the times in a 1940 interview: “Since we are lucky enough to be able to venerate a man and fully understand what he expects of us, I involve him privately in all the decisions I'm compelled to make. I ask myself: What would he say if he were in my shoes? How would he behave if he were beneath my straw hat? That's why, for the coming year, I can only make the same wish that our great man among the Greats would make.”

Though the Great Man drowsed through his trial after the Liberation, and was acknowledged to be senile a few years later, there was nothing senile about him when he joined the Germans in ruling France in 1940 at the age of 84. He was very much in command of his scheme for a national revolution. In place of the venerable “liberte, egalite, fraternite,” the petainetes had a different slogan: “travail,” “famille,” “patrie” – a promise of hard work and patriotic family life. And, as soon as Petain came to power, ever more draconian restrictions on Jews were enacted, until, in 1942, Petain's enforcer, Pierre Laval, started handing large numbers of Jews over to the Germans; by the time they were through, the French would deliver 12,000 French Jews for shipment “east.”

Starting in 1940, Jews were forbidden to participate in all cultural activities. The cinema was hardest hit because, as in the United States, some of the most successful movie producers were Jews. Fortunately, most of them were able to flee in time, perhaps most notably Max Ophuls, whose son Marcel directed the documentary, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” about the German occupation. Though it was quite tepid compared with Alan Riding's book, “The Sorrow and the Pity” was banned from French television until 1982 – almost a decade after it was made. Non-Jews replaced Jewish producers and ground out 220 films that by and large expressed the spirit of “travail,” “famille,” and “patrie.” The Germans even set up their own production company, Continental, and French directors and stars made the pilgrimage to Germany to make films for French consumption. One curious example of a Continental film is Henri-Georges Clouzot's “L'Ecran Francais,” which deplores the moral turpitude of informers, who were rife in France. After the liberation, Clouzot (who would go on to make a masterpiece in the 1950's, “The Wages of Fear,” which has a distinctly anti-American subtext) was banished from the film world for two years because “L'Ecran Francais” was deemed to cast France in a bad light.

Riding notes that some critics regard the '40s as the golden years of French cinema. He does not find this a particularly convincing assertion, except quantitatively. It's true that some filmmakers, actors, and writers cut their teeth during these years, and some, like Robert Bresson, would one day go on to make great films, but Riding can point to very few made during the occupation, of which he considers Marcel Carne's “Les Enfants du Paradis” to be the greatest.

If the French were indignant about Clouzot, they shrouded the figure of Irene Nemirovsky in a scrim of silence. Her great novel, “Suite Francaise,” which recounts the early days of the occupation, does not reflect generously on the French people of any social class. It was not published until 2004.

Nemirovsky was a tragic figure, the daughter of a wealthy White Russian family that fled to France to escape the Communists. She converted to Catholicism and became a frequent figure in the French literary scene between the wars, where she had many right-wing friends, though she married another Jew, Michel Epstein. Nemirovsky's biography is somewhat more nuanced than Riding allows. Her early novels have been criticized because she indulges in anti-Semitic caricatures, and during the Occupation (as Riding notes), she published four stories in a fascist magazine that was also a venue for Celine. Nemirovsky and Epstein died in concentration camps, but their two daughters survived, hidden during the war by a French woman.

In 1898, Charles Maurras, a poet and critic, founded the Action Francais, the anti-Semitic, anti-German newspaper of the fascist, chauvinist political movement of the same name. Maurras eventually found himself in fear of the Gestapo because of his antipathy to Germans, but three of his disciples earned notoriety for their complicity with the occupiers. Abel Bonnard, a novelist and member of the French Academy, ended up in Spain; Lucien Rebatat, another novelist and propagandist, was sentenced to death, but ended up serving only a few years in prison. The third member of the trio, Robert Brasillach, did end up in front of a firing squad. In his memoirs, de Gaulle alluded to the reason he did not pardon Brasillach, considered by many to be a brilliant writer: “In literature, as in everything, talent carries responsibility.” As for Maurras himself, the trial was a sensation. He could hardly be charged with collaboration, since he hated Germans, but he ended up with a stiff jail term because of the damage his fascist views had wrought.

The worlds of music and theatre were no less shameful than literature, film or cabaret. The art world in the years of the occupation was even more marked by the intersection of ambition, treachery and money. Well-known artists like Maurice de Vlamink and Andre Derain, perhaps the most prominent, made their pilgrimage to Germany. Hitler and Hermann Goring had a special interest in French art treasures, which they looted from museums and the collections of affluent Jews. Remarkably, a German officer, Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, who was charged with organizing the looting, actually sought to protect French collections on the basis that the theft was a violation of the 1907 Convention of the Hague. His brother officers in the Wehrmacht tended to cover for him, until Hitler grew impatient with the slow flow of booty to Germany and personally intervened to ensure that his wishes were obeyed. The artwork survived the journey to Germany and its dispersal in the waning days of the war, but many of its rightful owners did not.

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The various culturati found ways of surviving the occupation – or not. Jews fled or, more frequently, were killed. Fascist intellectuals enjoyed a heyday, while most of the rest collaborated to varying degrees or tended their own gardens. Many of the figures in “And the Show Went On” are forgotten today. Among the more interesting personages to become culture heroes of the left in the 1960's – Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvior, writer-philospher Albert Camus, writer Andre Malraux and writer-filmmaker Marguerite Duras – some have question marks in their biographies. Malraux, for example, was anointed a hero of the resistance before it emerged that he had nothing to do with the resistance, though in fairness he fought the Germans in 1940 (when he was wounded) and again in 1944 with the Free French. Sartre did not fight, but rather worked on his dense existentialist writings and put on two plays in Paris, which he claimed had a message of resistance. There were culture-minded Germans in his audience, so perhaps the message of resistance was lost in translation. Camus' resistance work was also restricted to writing, albeit more convincingly as a driving force in the now-vigorous Combat. Duras' personal history is much more dubious. She worked for a Vichy-created publishers' association, graduated to secretary to its arm that regulated the distribution of paper (a precious commodity in wartime France) and met the collaborationist writer Ramon Fernandez, with whom she shared an apartment. This part of her life remains something of a mystery, although what is known is that she changed lovers and at some point became involved in hiding resistants. The story gets even murkier, Riding notes, because Duras may also have had another lover – an informer for the Gestapo. She was always understandably reluctant to elaborate on her adventures.

The day of reckoning, when it came, was a distinctly nuanced affair, for the epuration, as it was called, was very much a matter of whom you knew, or where you were when you got caught. While Robert Brassilach was executed, Celine, whose crimes were no less grave, managed to escape from France; when he returned ten years later, he picked up his French medical and writing careers. Artist and writer Jean Cocteau was not a virulent fascist, just an avid collaborator with a thriving career, but he got off the hook by claiming (accurately) that his boyfriend was in the resistance. Other episodes are equally incredible. Darrieux escaped retribution because her ex-husband – a collaborator – had clout with the tribunal that was hearing her case. And all over the country, personal scores were settled in the name of epuration.

Such a state of affairs set off a lively debate between Camus and the conservative Catholic novelist (and resistant) Francois Mauriac. The latter, writing in the pages of Figaro, asked whether, in a world of “pitiless cruelty,” human tenderness and mercy should be discarded. Camus, writing in Combat, acknowledged that justice was not being served, but argued that a genuine purge was needed if France were to be reborn. Mauriac's insistence on national reconciliation and judicial impartiality won him the name Saint Francis of the Assizes. But in a footnote to this exchange, Camus acknowledged – four years later – that Mauriac had been right all along.

Riding has written a lucid and well-documented cultural history that is all the more important because it often draws on primary sources – interviews with men and women who lived through the occupation and are now in their late 80's, or even older. Darrieux is one of them.

Having made three trashy films for Continental, she went into retirement with her lover for the duration, possibly because she was getting worried about her coziness with the Germans. This is how she describes her life in the latter part of the occupation: “We had a chalet, we gave parties, we drank, we ate, we played bridge, we were completely relaxed.” There are plenty more stories like this to be found in Ridings's book, but this snippet from Darrieux illustrates how a cultural elite could escape the hardships of wartime France if they were prepared to make a Faustian pact with their occupiers.

Two years before Riding's book was published in 2010, there appeared a title, “The Shameful Peace,” by the cultural historian Frederic Spotts. Spotts' book did not get the recognition it deserves, perhaps because it was apparently published in London by a sluggish university press. The first question to be dispensed with is: Did Riding poach from the earlier title? Almost certainly not: had he done so, he would have spared himself a couple of bloopers – for example, that the singer Edith Piaf daringly helped to facilitate the escape of British airmen from Nazi prisoner of war camps – and what is more, the structure of the two books is totally different. Riding aims for a comprehensive, if rather journalistic, survey of cultural collaboration in France, punctuating his narrative with some devastating interviews. Spotts, on the other hand, tells his story by focusing on just a few “worst of the worst” in the arts, literature, theatre, and so on. (The title comes from a quote, astonishingly, by Cocteau, whose avid collaboration certainly does rank among the worst of the worst).

As a good journalist, Riding largely keeps his opinions to himself and gets on with the story. Not so Spotts, whose refreshingly cynical, sardonic, take-no-prisoners narrative leaves the likes of Sartre and Picasso supine in his wake: not for Spotts the excuse that this or that play or painting had a “resistance” subtext. And when he gets to Celine and Cocteau, he is devastating (the issue of whether Cocteau's lover did indeed fight in the resistance seems to be more of an open question than Riding believes).

The greatest strength of Spotts' book over Riding's is that Spotts is not hesitant to deplore, to condemn, to make moral judgments about the behavior of the French culturati, and the French in general, before, during and after the occupation. Not surprisingly, Spotts is an unabashed Anglophile; through the mists of apologia for the execrable conduct of France, we can discern the towers of Westminster and hear the squeaky, unrelenting voice of Churchill insisting upon victory and only victory over the Axis powers. By far, Spotts has the more astute political judgment of the two authors; indeed, Riding barely skims the surface of European politics, a disappointing deficiency of his book. While Great Britain, like any imperial power (including the United States) has much to answer for at the bar of history, it remains a fact that Britain between the wars was politically comparatively moderate, whether the governing party was Labour or Tory, while France was torn apart by conflicts between left and right; even true heroes of the resistance like Mauriac initially flirted with the notion that Petain would bring stability to France. Across the Channel, the British intelligence arm, MI5, was closely watching the domestic fascists, and they quickly scooped them up when war was declared.

If Spotts casts a cold eye on the various francophone excuses for collaboration, he is equally cynical about the epuration that followed the Liberation. Aside from the probable thousands of killings across the country, there was the matter of the way that France dispensed justice for the crime of treason. Riding's book is severely deficient on this subject, if not blinkered. Spotts, on the other hand, documents how punishment fell heavily – disproportionately heavily – on the culturati: that is to say, upon the most visible figures. This is not to say that the collaborators deserved everything they got, but Spotts rightly questions the justice of magistrates and prosecutors – themselves having served Nazi law for four years – pointing the finger at writers and singers. Judges, prosecutors, civil servants, policemen (who rounded up France's Jews for their Nazi friends), all took a walk and, in fact, many of the culturati themselves took a walk, as Riding and Spotts both document – the most egregious example being Celine. The statute of limitations for the crime of collaboration would prove to be remarkably short, and Le General was apparently content that such would be the case: more important for France to get on with the business of being France.