The Magazine

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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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.”

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