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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.

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