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Das Leben Parisienne

The City of Light in darkest times.

Apr 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 30 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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And the Show Went On
Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris
by Alan Riding
Knopf, 416 pp., $28.95

Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler, Arno Breker, June 23, 1940

Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler, Arno Breker, June 23, 1940

Bettmann / Corbis

May 1940 stunned the world. In a matter of days, Hitler’s panzers scythed across France to the channel and clogged provincial roads with columns of refugees. As the vaunted French Army collapsed, the government abandoned a half-empty Paris to the conquerors. When the army chief of staff rejected a plan to continue fighting from French North Africa, Premier Paul Reynaud stepped down. The aging deus ex machina who replaced him engraved his name on the most ignoble period of modern French history: Marshal Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun, immediately sought an armistice with Germany. Rather than outrage, however, his announcement triggered heartfelt rejoicing throughout a demoralized, defeated nation. In the opinion of most French people, the ignominy came only in retrospect.

All this, in the second decade of the 21st century, begins to sound like ancient history. Perhaps it is. Even so, it still offers enduring object lessons about human frailties, for life went on. In the realm of art, music, the theater, the cinema, and letters, French men and women had to address a new reality. Before populating his glittering cultural stage, Alan Riding limns the broader prewar political context, from the fascist Croix-de-Feu on the far right to obdurate Stalinists on the far left. Then he tells a multitude of stories about artists, writers, and performers across the sweep of French experience during the war, from armistice to liberation, not excluding the shameful expropriation of Jewish art and a worse fate accorded its owners. His is a tale of betrayal and resistance, patriotism, and bold opportunism​—​and in the end, vengeance and forgetfulness.

A British journalist, Riding most recently served as European cultural correspondent for the New York Times, based in Paris, where he still lives. French friends warned him that talking about the occupation was still taboo, but he did not find that true of those aged eyewitnesses to a troubled era he interviewed. He cites with approval the seminal work by Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order (1972), which first dramatically questioned the myths of resistance. Since then, he writes, “the French public also learned that collaboration and self-preservation were stronger instincts than resistance.” Much of France was relieved that Pétain had stopped the fighting and accepted his accommodation with Hitler. The Germans occupied the north and Atlantic coast; Pétain’s regime, based at the spa town of Vichy, governed the unoccupied southern zone. In its early months, Vichy enjoyed widespread public support and foreign recognition. Forty nations, including the United States, sent diplomatic missions there, in effect acknowledging that Pétain represented the whole of France. Vichy derived legitimacy, in part, because ordinary French citizens (and a large swath of the intelligentsia, too) believed the society’s decadence had caused their defeat. To them, Pétain’s vision of a Roman Catholic, rural, and reactionary France promised to regenerate the nation.

The Paris Opera House resumed in August 1940 with the same production being staged when it closed during the war: Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust. Cinemas reopened even more swiftly, with more than a hundred running by July. Nightclubs would enjoy a thriving business throughout the occupation. But the French and the Germans wanted Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier to continue singing for different reasons. The conquerors wanted the French to accept their fate and believe life had returned to its familiar rhythm. For the Germans, “since music halls, cabarets, brothels and restaurants were closely monitored, Paris by night posed neither a political nor a security threat.” The French also desired a return to normal, but it was also a pragmatic matter: The entertainment industry employed thousands of people.

The scope of Nazi art looting depended as much on French informers as on Teutonic efficiency. When the bureau tasked with the job discovered a Jewish collection, “its agents, many of them art historians and young curators,” lovingly inventoried the art objects, which went to the Jeu de Paume, a “museum-turned-depot,” before being shipped to the Reich. Another fate awaited art the Germans rejected. On a summer day in 1943, in the garden of the Jeu de Paume, they burned a host of canvases deemed “degenerate”​—​as many as 600 paintings by Miró, Picasso, and others. Picasso could easily have fled abroad but remained in France and continued to work, keeping a low profile. His fame, however, brought an unwelcome stream of cultured Germans to his studio. After the war, he liked to embellish the story of one such visitor who raised the issue of the artist’s most famous painting, his celebrated protest of the Luftwaffe’s bombing of civilians during the Spanish Civil War. 

Shown a postcard of Guernica, the officer asked the artist, “Did you do this?”

“No,” Picasso retorted, “you did!”

The movie industry flourished. With English and American films banned, French-made movies enjoyed a captive audience eager to escape into the fantasy of cinema. The theater, too, experienced a golden age. For Parisians, watching a play was hardly a sign of collaboration, even if they had to share seats with Germans. Nazi censors routinely approved nonpolitical plays, but more surprising was their occasional toleration of new works, even Sartre’s Huis clos and Anouilh’s Antigone. Actors, painters, and composers could continue to work without commenting on politics. Writers, on the other hand, put their opinions down on paper for all to see. Strident anti-Semitic authors crowed with vindication. For the most extreme, however, “Vichy’s lessons of Catholic piety seemed irrelevant, its aged leader and his mediocre government were clearly incapable of saving the country.” For such writers, it was not Pétain but Hitler’s new order for Europe that promised to realize their particular utopia. They rejoiced in the looming defeat of Britain and envisioned a vibrant, virile fascist France striding alongside the Third Reich. The talented young writer Robert Brasillach had championed this view before the war in a pro-Nazi weekly, Je suis partout (“I am everywhere”). After the fall of France, Brasillach stood out as the most vociferous exponent of these noxious ideas. Though it may seem implausible in retrospect, to many in the summer of 1940, the future​—​modernity itself​—​seemed to belong to the Nazis.

Riding’s most interesting chapter, “Vengeance and Amnesia,” chronicles the settling of accounts that accompanied liberation in 1944. Even before a restored provisional government under Gen. Charles de Gaulle could pass judgment, a wave of spontaneous killings slew 9,000 French citizens accused of collaboration. Gradually the government ended this épuration sauvage (“savage purge”) by creating a mechanism for legal sanction. De Gaulle sought to reunify the nation through the fiction that all had been patriotic resisters, save only a few senior Vichy miscreants. Of these, the French condemned at least 16 to death but carried out only two sentences. The others, including Marshal Pétain, lived out their days in prison. In the end, Riding concludes, “de Gaulle favored punishment but not deep soul-searching.”

The cultural world set up its own comités d’épuration to investigate the sins of each discipline’s members. These tribunals recommended court trials or a ban on the accused’s
publishing or performing. Caprice in the outcomes was unavoidable: The judges and the defendants, after all, often knew one another. In the cinema and the theater, purges were comparatively mild. Those who had openly consorted with the occupiers received special scorn, none more so than the glamorous actress Arletty, who frequented receptions at the German embassy on the arm of her Luftwaffe lover. But after only six weeks in jail, she resumed her acting career. She dismissed the accusation of sleeping with the enemy with the famous retort, “My heart is French, but my ass is international.”

Arletty’s friend, the playwright Sacha Guitry, typified the sort of intellectual who could not resist being part of le tout Paris, even under foreign rule. He stood accused of “intelligence with the enemy,” the umbrella charge made against collaborators. In the end, the indictment was dropped, but not without the sting of a moral condemnation that applied to so many like him who needed publicity “like oxygen” and craved “the adulation and favors of the world.” At first, Albert Camus believed France needed to expunge those intellectuals tainted by the occupation. He acknowledged the purges were chaotic, but he nevertheless argued for them against the plea of Francois Mauriac, a Catholic writer who initially accepted Pétain but later joined the Resistance. Mauriac appealed for mercy in the cause of national reunification. Camus later conceded that Mauriac had been right. Others, noting the fickle range of punishments, wondered whether any writer should be censured for the “crime of opinion.”

Riding argues that it had been easier for visual artists to work without the taint of association with the occupiers. Picasso’s fame drew German officers to his studio, but he did not endorse Vichy. He never claimed to have joined the Resistance, but neither did he support the occupation. Even so, it smelled of opportunism when he joined the Communist party and presided over the committee responsible for “naming and shaming of artists under investigation” for consorting with the Germans. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that, in 1939, he had not wanted to fight because the nation was “a disgusting France, corrupt, inefficient, racist, anti-Semite, run by the rich for the rich​—​no one wanted to die for that, until, well, we understood that the Nazis were worse.” Sartre could fairly argue that it was no reflection on him that German censors had vetted his plays. Indeed, he could point to the subversive content of his work. Still, when he arrogated to himself the role of postwar chronicler of France’s ordeal, he gave himself a prominence in the literary resistance he did not merit. His main essay in this effort was translated and reprinted in the Atlantic Monthly, and with it, Riding slyly notes, “the construction of Sartre’s American image was well under way.”

In assessing the cultural legacy of occupation, Riding names some works of lasting value created during those four years, despite the adversity: a few enduring plays, such as Sartre’s Huis clos, a few musical compositions, particularly by Olivier Messiaen, some sculpture and painting, and “one great work of fiction,” Camus’s L’Étranger. More popular and ephemeral culture diverted the public during the occupation, and art construed broadly, both high and low, demonstrated to the French the resilience of their society. After the war, France’s cultural life revived, but in art, the center of gravity was shifting to New York. Once the most notorious traitors received their due, the French were content to forget Vichy and glorify the Resistance. Artists and writers benefited from this collective amnesia and returned to their work much as before.

Riding describes life for artists and writers during the occupation as 

a constantly evolving drama, a teeming stage where loyalty and betrayal, food and hunger, love and death found room to coexist, where even the line separating good and bad, résistants and collaborateurs, seemed to move with events.

He is, perhaps, too forgiving, too sympathetic to some of those leaders of French culture who trimmed their sails. And his ending is a surprise. France’s main postwar contribution to culture lay in the realm of thought, but because the nation gave an exalted role to theory after the war, just as before, it became “fertile ground for extremism.” In place of the utopianism of the radical right during the early 1940s, there emerged the baleful postwar utopianism of the radical left. The failure of these theories is a good thing, Riding concludes, because “politically speaking, artists and writers may now be less prominent, but they are also less dangerous.”

Nelson D. Lankford, editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society, is the author, most recently, of Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861.

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