Tag Archives: French History

Culture: Crisis and Responsibility

Alan Riding, And the Show Went On:

Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris

 
In “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris,” Alan Riding provides an arresting, thoroughly-researched account of intellectual and cultural life in Paris from 1940 to 1944.  During this dark period, the Nazis occupied the City of Lights and much of the rest of France.  Meanwhile, the political capital of unoccupied France ended up in Vichy, under the leadership of 84 year old World War I hero, Marshal Phillipe Pétain.  Although Riding’s story is primarily about Paris, as his title indicates, it is also a story about the unique role which culture plays in French society.  As Riding notes early in his book, culture is “inseparable from France’s very image of itself” (p.5).

Through the medium of culture, Riding plunges into some of the most complex questions generated by World War II and the German occupation of France.  He asks at the outset:  how had artists and intellectuals “addressed the city’s worst political moment of the twentieth century? Did talent and status pose greater moral responsibility? Was it possible to flourish without political freedom?” (p.xi).  In his probing analysis, Riding takes a hard look at the often-blurry lines between collaboration, accommodation and resistance among French artists and intellectuals.  The last portion of the book delves into how the cultural show also went on after the occupation.  Here, Riding highlights the peculiarly French notion that the intellectual bears a particular responsibility to society, beyond those of other citizens.  Riding shows the uneven manner in which post-occupation France applied this notion to its immediate, discomforting past.

Riding treats all the major categories of artistic, intellectual and cultural life: writing, music, cinema, drama, painting, night life, poetry, even fashion.  Beyond purging cultural life of all Jewish influence, the Nazis’ overall approach seemed laissez-faire.  Nazi policy, Riding writes, was driven in part by a “deeply held German inferiority complex toward . . .[French] culture that for the previous two centuries had dominated Europe” (p.51).  Although in some senses allowing the show to go on, the Nazis’ broader goal, coming directly from Hitler and Goebbels, was that “no cultural activity taking place in France should radiate beyond the country’s borders” (p.51).

Music was one area where Germans had traditionally excelled, and thus an exception to the German sense of cultural inferiority.  Parisians found that they enjoyed German bands and concerts.  This created the danger of “humanizing the Nazis: If so many uniformed Germans attended concerts or operas because they, too, loved music, did this make them less than monsters? . . . Was a country that had given the world Bach and the Berlin Philharmonic all bad?” (p.143).  Overall, musical life in this period was intense.  Unsurprisingly, Wagner, Hitler’s favorite, was the “most performed German opera composer in occupied Paris” (p.154).  Herbert von Karajan, a Nazi party member on the rise in Germany, relocated to Paris and became its resident celebrity conductor.

The German occupation is remembered as a good period for French cinema.  The Nazis would allow “nothing anti-German or excessively nationalistic to appear on French screens, but even Goebbels regarded cinema as a good way of keeping the French distracted” (p.188).  “Enemy” films, first British, then American, were banned.  With the exception of German movies, which few French filmgoers wanted to see, “foreign competition largely disappeared” (p.187).  The movie industry thus had a captive audience, “one that was eager to flee the ennui of daily life into the laughter and tears of the screen (and, in winter, into the warmth of a crowded theater)” (p.187).  220 films were made in France between June 1940 and August 1944, but “only a handful were memorable and the most popular of all, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis, was released only after the liberation of France” (p.187).  Most were “light comedies, costume dramas, fantasy films, love stories or thrillers” (p.194).  By 1943, movie attendance was 40% higher than in 1938.

In some ways, the occupation was also a golden age for French theatre.  Here too, the Nazis wished to ensure that the theatre was “cleansed” of Jews and Jewish influence, but otherwise maintained a  hands off policy (p.208).  The “popularity of theatre as an escape mechanism was immense . . . Most productions were straightforward entertainment – historical dramas, romantic comedies or bedroom farces of the kind that had long defined the city’s théâtre de boulevard” (p.207).   Box office revenue jumped by 163% between 1941 and 1943.  One theatre enthusiast who was also part of the resistance quipped that you “can’t be a Nazi in a theatre” (p.207).  Unlike cinema, which lost some leading directors and actors to Hollywood, almost every significant non-Jewish theatrical figure stayed in France.

The Nazi affinity for fine art and absconding with artistic treasures throughout Europe has been well documented.  In Paris, by 1941 the Nazis had turned their art-looting operation into a “smooth-running machine, one all too often oiled by French informers offering tips on where Jewish-owned art could be found” (p.163).  It was striking “how many wealthy French people jumped at the chance to sell family treasures.  Some went out of their way to invite German dealers or buyers to inspect their homes for paintings or objects of interest” (p.170).

By Christmas 1940, almost all of the “extraordinary array of music halls, cabarets, nightclubs and bordellos” which had flourished in Paris in the 1930s were once again open for business (p.91).  This nightlife remained “part of the city’s identity, it provided a sense of normality and it gave jobs to many thousands of actors, singers, dancers and strippers, as well as to seamstresses, furriers, cooks and waiters” (p.107).  In many music halls, it was possible for Parisians to enjoy themselves “without having German uniforms beside them because stand-up comics and chansonniers performed their numbers in French, often peppered with argot, which view German soldiers could understand” (p.91).  Keeping the Parisian nightlife scene alive was one way Parisians could demonstrate to themselves – “and perhaps also to the Germans – that all was not lost.” (p.107).

Poetry “proved best suited to the conditions of the occupation” (p.278).  Poetry denouncing the occupation and extolling the resistance “could only circulate secretly.  Its function was different.  Direct, emotional, patriotic, often violent, it was not written for posterity; it was closer to agiprop than art” (p.340).   A poem required “little paper, it was easily remembered and recited, it could be copied by hand and left on a café table, it could be broadcast by the BBC and above all, it carried a sharp emotional punch.  Further, resistance poetry enjoyed a monopoly since no collaborationist writer ever tried to express his Fascism in verse” (p.277-78).

But the complexity and ambiguity of artistic and intellectual life in occupied Paris is best examined through France’s writers.  Few abandoned writing and most seemed “all too eager to continue publishing, even if that meant bowing to censorship” (p.67).  Publishers agreed on principles of auto-censorship that precluded publication of new books by Jewish or anti-German authors.  Sale or circulation of many previously published books was also banned.  Oddly, these included Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which “suddenly recovered its nineteenth century reputation for immorality” (p.239), Riding wryly notes, and Hitler’s own Mein Kampf, because a French translation had been published in 1934 without the authorization of the Führer’s German publisher.

In Riding’s view, Jean Bruller’s Le silence de la Mer, published clandestinely in 1942, was among the best works of fiction to appear during the occupation, portraying the “pain of defeat in a refined literary form” (p.340).  Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was a “still finer example of fiction in time of war” (p.340).  Although written in 1941 and 1942, it was not published until 2004.  Better-known works also appeared during the occupation, including  Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Etre et le néant and Les Mouches;and Albert Camus’ L’Etranger and Le Mythe de Sisyphe.   Camus’ publisher asked him to cut out references in Le Mythe de Sisyphe  to the Jewish Franz Kafka, to which Camus agreed (p.243), while Sartre cleared Les Moches with Nazi censors (Les Mouches was a play that first appeared on the Parisian stage on June 3, 1943; I note this date solely for personal reasons: on the other side of the Atlantic, my parents were married that day).

Sartre, even then France’s celebrity philosopher, was a special case.  He took a teaching job in 1941 at a well-known Parisian secondary school, le Lycée Condorcet, manifesting no misgivings in replacing a Jewish teacher who had been dismissed a few months earlier.  Despite his concessions to the realties of the occupation, Sartre was able to reinvent himself after liberation as the archetypical resistance writer and intellectual.  Even though Les Mouches had been approved by Nazi censors, he contended after the war that the play was a resistance piece, written to convince the French that “to murder a German is to be guilty of murder, but morally it is the right thing to do, though he who does commit murder will find no moral solace in the act” (p.221).

Sartre went further after the occupation to suggest that intellectual resisters were more important than saboteurs.  “Our job was to tell all the French, we will not be ruled by Germans.  That was the job of the resistance, not just a few more trains or bridges blown up here and there”  (p.343).  With the passage of time, Sartre saw French citizens as having two choices in the 1940-44 period, collaborate or resist.  “So every French person had the free choice to be part of the resistance, in their heads anyway, even if they actually did nothing, or to be an enemy” (p.343).  In truth, Riding writes, the options and dilemmas facing individual artists were “far more varied,” discounting Sartre’s role in the intellectual resistance as “minimal” (p.336).

After the liberation, all disciplines set up comités d’épuration, literally purification committees, which were part of an overall campaign of épuration culturelle, or cultural purification. The comités were authorized to investigate and interrogate collaborationist artists and writers.  They could also recommend cases for trial by civil courts and issue professional sanctions, such as a ban on performing or publishing for up to two years.  Such trials could be “incestuous affairs” since the judges and the judged often knew each other and may have worked together before and even during the occupation (p.320).   Among the various comités d’épuration, that for writers was the “best organized and most radical” (p.321).

In September 1944, the writers’ comité named 12 traitors, among them Robert Brasillach.   Virulently anti-Semetic and pro-German even before the war, Brasillach expressed his views from the mid-1930s onward in a wide-read weekly tract Je suis partout (“I’m Everywhere”).  He enlisted in the French Army when the Nazis invaded France, was captured and ended up in a German POW camp.  The Nazis quickly recognized that Brasillach was a kindred spirit and released him to return to Paris so he could continue as a German propagandist among the French.

The case against Brasillach, Riding emphasizes, had nothing to do with his anti-Semitism but whether he had supported the enemy.  Brasillach had “gone beyond opinion to finger people who had ended up jailed or deported” (p.324).  The government commissioner trying the case explained that Brasillach’s treason was “above all a treason of the intellectual” (p.324).  The written record Brasillach had created as a writer did not give him wiggle room to reinvent himself in the manner of Sartre and, after deliberations of six hours, the comité condemned him to death.

Brasillach was the only writer or cultural figure whose death sentence Charles De Gaulle did not commute.  Prime Minister of France’s Provisional Government from 1944 to 1946, De Gaulle endorsed the French view that writers had special responsibilities.  He later explained that he had commuted sentences on principle where the writer or artist had not served the enemy directly and passionately.  “In the opposite case – the only one,” he said, referring to Brasillach, “ I did not feel I had the right to pardon.  For in literature, as in everything, talent carries with it responsibility” (p.328).

During the occupation, De Gaulle had looked with suspicion on the resistance as a threat to his power and played down its significance.  In his strategy to reunify the country after the liberation, however, he portrayed France as a “nation of resisters, with only a small number of genuine collaborators” (p.318-19).  If it is urgent to punish true traitors, De Gaulle said in a speech in October 1944, it is nonetheless “not a good idea to remove from French society those people who, in the name of legality, were misled to follow the marshal [Pétain]” (p.319).  As Riding sums up the General’s view, De Gaulle “favored punishment but not deep soul searching” (p.321).

The French Communist Party (PCF in French) complicated De Gaulle’s effort to avoid deep soul searching, and was a force to be reckoned with on the comités d’épuration.  The PCF emerged enormously strengthened from the occupation, winning 27% of seats in a new Constitutional National Assembly in October 1945 and participating in coalition governments until 1947.  The PCF espoused hardline positions on punishment for collaborators, working to “impose its thinking on a new generation of artists and creators” (p.345).  Given PCF influence on the comités d’épuration, many, not surprisingly, “began to resemble a Stalinist purge” (p.327).

No consensus ever emerged on how severely “intellectual treason” should be punished.  Rather, France’s épuration culturelle was “rife with inconsistencies; among artists, writers and journalists, with comparable records of collaboration, some were sanctioned, others jailed, a handful were even executed, while a good many were never arrested” (p.321).  Only in hindsight did one pattern appear: “the longer an arrest, trial and sentence could be delayed, the lighter the punishment” (p.321).

Outside Communist circles, the thirst for revenge against writers gradually began to ease.  “One important factor was the recognition that writers and journalists were being punished far more severely than, say, many industrialists who had profited from doing business with the Nazis” (p.327).  By the early 1950s, the sins of cultural collaboration had “largely been forgotten” (p.344).  Most French people seemed “happy to embrace the myth of the resistance, to bury the memory of their own ambivalences and to forget the occupation.  Artists and writers were among the beneficiaries.  Few were those who, within a few years, were not again performing or painting or publishing” (p.337).

Riding ends by asking whether the mixed record of artists and intellectuals during the occupation lowered their general esteem within French society and undermined the principle that the intellectual has a special responsibility to society.  Certainly, he contends, there were fewer who could pretend to be moral guides for the country because so many had “failed the test during the occupation” (p.350).  But Riding nonetheless makes clear that there was a résistance culturelle, driven by acadre of artists and writers who “refused to accept the occupation and felt the need to do something about it” (p.342).  Their main achievement, Riding writes admiringly, was to “preserve a core of decency among practitioners of the arts . . .they remained true to what they believed were the responsibilities of artists and writers” (p.342). One of Riding’s many achievements in his absorbing book is to remind us of this cadre, as he untangles still blurry lines between collaboration, accommodation, and resistance among French artists and intellectuals during the dark years of Nazi occupation.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

August 26, 2012

5 Comments

Filed under France, French History, History, Politics

Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France


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This book was my parents’ 2011 selection from my annual Christmas “wish list.” It is really two short books in one, approximately equal in length. The first half depicts France under German occupation and the rise of the French Resistance movement. The second takes place outside occupied France, in hellish Nazi prison camps, first Birkenau, part of the Auschwitz complex, then Ravensbrück. Both halves revolve around 230 women who were part of the Resistance before being deported East in January 1943 on a “Train in Winter,” le Convoi des 31000. Forty-nine of the 230 survived a twenty-seven month ordeal, liberated in the spring of 1945. “Those who came back to France in 1945 owed their lives principally to chance,” Moorehead writes, “but they owed it too in no small measure to the tenacity with which they clung to one another, though separated by every division of class, age, religion, occupation, politics and education” (p. 7).

Moorehead’s story of the growing solidarity between the women prisoners begins with the early phase of German occupation in 1940. To the great relief of the French, this phase was relatively civil, not marked by the savagery that had accompanied the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Indeed, the Nazis were initially “astonished by the French passivity” (p.13). The French government ended up in Vichy, a spa near Clermont-Ferrand in the heart of the Auvergne. Led by World War I hero Marshal Phillipe Pétain, the Vichy regime embarked upon a path of collaboration with the German occupiers. Pétain and his followers – “Catholic, conservative, authoritarian and often anti-Semitic,” as Moorehead describes them (p.15) — believed that collaboration would lead to a France:

purged and purified, returned to a mythical golden age before the French revolution introduced perilous ideas about equality. The new French were to respect their superiors and the values of discipline, hard work and sacrifice and they were to shun the decadent individualism that had, together with Jews, Freemasons, trade unionists, immigrants, gypsies and communists, contributed to the military defeat of the country (p.15).

Not all French adhered to Pétain’s vision of what he called la France éternelle. The resistance to the Vichy government and Nazi occupation included every class and ideology within French society. But members of the French Communist Party (PCF in French) were in the forefront of the movement, a useful reminder that, whatever else its failings, the PCF was way ahead of much of the rest of France in seeing the existential threat that Nazism posed to French civilization. 119 of Moorehead’s 230 women were PCF members or supporters and as such “already knew a good deal about survival and the clandestine life” (p.25).

In 1940, when the occupation began, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies, confusing the French Communists who nonetheless rallied to the cause of the Resistance. But when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the confusion ended and everything changed. In the summer of 1941, the chasse aux Juifs, the hunt for Jews, began in earnest, “so zealously pursued by the French collaborators that it was said that even the Nazis were impressed” (p.75-76). The final portions of the first part of Moorehead’s book reveal strong and heroic acts of resistance, along with betrayal of many of the resistants by their fellow countrymen. As the first half ends, the 230 women were placed in Romainville, a camp in France, before being sent East to Birkenau on the train in winter, le Convoi des 31000.

Throughout the second half of the book, Moorehead expounds upon how the solidarity among the French women imprisoned in the camps deepened and became a key to their survival. The French women “took pride in their closeness” and were “as kind, helpful and polite towards one another as they would have been back home” (p.212). They were helped by their “particular skills as women, caring for others and being practical,” making them “less vulnerable than men to harsh conditions and despair. Adaptability was crucial, resignation fatal” (p.220). The women became so cohesive, “so attuned to each other’s frailties, so watchful and protective, that planning how to keep the group alive had become a way of life” (p.215).

Nonetheless, two and a half months after reaching Birkenau, the initial group of 230 French women was down to eighty. “A hundred and fifty of them had died, from typhus, pneumonia, dysentery, from dog bites and beatings, and gangrenous frostbite, from not being able to eat or sleep, or from being gassed” (p.218). The ones still alive were the stronger women, “those neither too old nor too young, those sustained by belief in a new world order; or, quite simply, because they had been very lucky” (p.218).

Fifty-two of the 230 women survived the ordeal in Birkenau before being transported in early 1944 on another train in winter to Ravensbrück, north of Berlin. At Birkenau, the “primary goal had been to exterminate the inmates, with the majority being gassed as soon as they arrived, and the others worked to death” (p.254). Ravensbrück, although hellish, was set up as a commercial enterprise to fuel the German war machine, with death being “simply a by-product and not an end” (p.254).

There were 5,000 French women at Ravensbrück. Those who came from recognized groups, Moorehead writes, communists, Catholic Bretons, the intellectual bourgeoisie, were “team players, and the easiest to get on with” (p.255). As a national group, the French were more cohesive than the other nationalities, more prone to look after their own” (p.255). The friendship between them “stronger than anything they had known in their previous lives, had become their credo; it defined them” (p.254).

In addition to luck and solidarity, there were unanticipated keys to survival:

Discussion groups were started, on everything from raising rabbits to esoteric questions of philosophy. Despite the lack of books and paper, there was a huge hunger for knowledge, particularly the learning of languages, though very few women chose to learn German (p.250).

Forty-nine of the fifty-two who went from Birkenau to Ravenbrück lived to see the end of the war, thirty four of them communists (with four of the forty-nine still alive as Moorehead’s book went to press). Fourteen were widows, their husbands shot by the Nazis or dead in the concentration camps. The forty-nine went home “emaciated, haunted, grieving for the dead companions, but alive” (p.278). In their two years and three months in the camps, the survivors had:

witnessed both the worst and the best that life had to offer, cruelty, sadism, brutality, betrayal, thievery, but also generosity and selflessness. Their reserves of strength and character had been pushed to the very far limits of endurance and every notion of humanity had been challenged (p.288-89).

The return to France “proved as hard and as unhappy as anything they had known. Return, they said, was a time of ‘shadowy places, silences and things not said’” (p.289). The survivors had to face questions about how to remake their lives, and how to convey to their families what they had been through. The camps were “so extreme, so incomprehensible, so unfamiliar an experience, that the women doubted that they possessed the words to describe them, even if people wanted to hear; which, as it turned out, not many did” (p.293). When the women did talk about why they survived, they asked themselves repeatedly:

what it was in their particular story or character that enabled them to live, whether it was their optimistic nature, or because they had been able to use their skills as women, caring for others. In the end, they always came back to the same two reasons: they had lived because each of them had been incredibly lucky, and because of the friendship between them, which had protected them and made it easier to withstand the barbarity” (p.313-14).

The second half of Moorehead’s book is difficult to read, but a poignant reminder of the brutality and depravity which characterized the camps. With its emphasis upon the role of women in the Resistance and the camps, the book is a useful supplement to much of the literature on the subjects, heavily concentrated on men. Throughout the second half, I asked myself whether Moorehead might be overstating the extent to which friendship and solidarity were the women’s keys to survival; whether, in the end, it all came down to raw luck. But I was moved by her depictions of the “worst and best that life had to offer,” and understood how the valiant women who survived felt wiser, “in some indefinable way,” because they comprehended, as Moorhead writes, the “depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise” (p.314).

Thomas H. Peebles
Washington, D.C.
March 26, 2012

5 Comments

April 8, 2012 · 2:29 pm

David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

 “Good Americans when they die go to Paris”

Thomas Gold Appleton

Every year, I prepare a “wish list” of recently-published books which I would like to read, and send that list to my parents for them to select a Christmas gift. It’s a system that has worked well over more than two decades. This year, I shared the list with my daughters, who went to one of a handful of English language bookstores in Brussels and came up with David McCullough’s “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.” They could not have made a better choice, selecting one of my favorite authors, David McCullough, writing on one of my favorite subjects, Paris.

McCullough is truly a national treasure, the rare author who uses jargon-free prose to tell spellbinding stories about serious historical subjects. On Paris, I am close to Thomas Gold Appleton’s view, quoted above. Perhaps a little more skeptical than Appleton about an afterlife (but still wishing and hoping), I would modify his quotation to say, “When they go to Paris, good Americans think they’ve died and gone to heaven.” McCullough’s book was thus a natural for me, and he didn’t disappoint.

Most Americans know that Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and John Adams spent formative and productive years in 18th century Paris. After that, we tend to fast forward to the 20th century, to Papa Hemmingway holding court in Montparnasse cafés and Gertrude Stein demonstrating to her compatriots that Paris was most unlike Oakland, with lots and lots of there there. Not many of us know much about Americans in Paris between Jefferson, Franklin and Adams’s time, and that of Hemmingway and Stein.

McCullough fills that gap, shedding much new light on the City of Lights. “The Greater Journey” concentrates on the period 1830-1890, showing convincingly that Paris held a similar magnetic attraction for 19th century Americans. In the early portion of the book, McCullough focuses on Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph but then an upcoming artist affectionately known as the “Lightning Man;” and James Fennimore Cooper, already a well-known novelist who somehow found inspiration to write frontier stories while in Paris. Most prominent at the end are the painters John Singer Sargent, considered the leading portrait painter of his generation; and Mary Cassatt, one of the few women associated with Impressionism. But luminaries such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Charles Sumner, Henry James, P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb all had stints in Paris, which McCullough ably recounts.

In terms that still apply today, McCullough describes the transcending spell of Paris for 19th century Americans, “derived from light, color, and architecture” (p.46). The great appeal of Paris then, as now, was “what man built there. There was nothing stunning about its natural setting – no mountain ranges on the horizon, no dramatic coastline. . . The ‘genius of the place’ was in the arrangements of space and architecture, the perspectives of Paris” (p.206). Paris was a “continuing lesson in the enjoyment to be found in such simple, unhurried occupations as a walk in a garden or watching children at play or just sitting observing the human cavalcade” (p.44).

But if Paris was, as Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, an “immense panorama of art and architecture – life, motion, enterprise, pleasure, pomp, power” (p.214), it was also home to new ideas and practices which had not yet reached American shores. Charles Sumner, who became a leading anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts, observed that a small number of blacks and mulattoes in his philosophy course at the Sorbonne were “well received” by the other students. With his American perspective, this natural coexistence “seemed strange” to Sumner, prompting him to conclude that the “distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things” (p.131). McCullough terms this a “stunning revelation” for Sumner, a moment of epiphany and arguably the most important of the many new ideas which young Americans would bring back to the United States in the 19th century (p.131-32).

American artist Emma Willard was delighted to see many young women artists in Paris. Women were not confined to the periphery of the Parisian art world; they produced works “much esteemed” and bearing a high price (p.42; Willard was, however, much embarrassed by the extent to which the “female anatomy in its natural state was so conspicuously glorified on canvas and in sculpture,” a view the French found “absurdly squeamish;” p.43). Nathaniel Willis was even more delighted to find himself greeted by “only attractive women” in men’s apparel shops. “No matter what the article of trade . . .you are waited on by girls always handsome and always dressed in the height of the mode” (p.34), Willis wrote home.

In the early decades of the 19th century, moreover, Paris was the cutting-edge center of medical research and training, far ahead of the United States. Women were well integrated into the medical profession, which was largely closed to women in America. Not surprisingly, the first woman doctor in the United States, Elizabeth Blackwell, studied medicine in Paris. Further, in the United States, with its puritan traditions, “most women would have preferred to die than have a physician – a man – examine their bodies” (p.115). Not so in France. A Philadelphia surgeon, Augustus Gardner, wrote that the French woman “knows nothing at all of this queasy sensibility. She has no hesitation, not only to describe, but to permit her [male] physician to see every complaint” (p.115).

McCullough does not flinch from covering one of the darkest periods in Parisian history, 1870-71, when France lost the Franco-Prussian War, at great cost to the city and the country; followed by a round of unfathomable pillage, burning and destruction, the Paris Commune uprising. American Ambassador to France Elihu Washburne wrote that both sides in the uprising committed “acts which disgrace human nature” (p.325). The “vandalism of the dark ages pales into insignificance before the monstrous crimes perpetrated in this great center of civilization in the last half of the nineteenth century” (p.324), he despondently informed the American Secretary of State.

Washburne was the only major diplomat to remain in Paris during the madness of the Franco-Prussian war and Commune uprising, steadfastly seeking peace and working to end the carnage. McCullogh credits Washburne’s copious diary entries as critical in preserving the historical record of the dark period, “substantial in quality” and written “so extremely well, with clarity, insight, and such great empathy for the human drama at hand” (p.328-29). If Washburne’s decision to stay had resulted only in his diary, McCullough concludes, he nonetheless “would have made an enormous, singular contribution” (p.329).

Befitting our national character, American commerce and trade were instrumental in helping Paris and France rebound in the 1870s after the war and the Commune. A Paris newspaper wrote:

It is generally acknowledged that the trade of Paris is now manly sustained by American visitors who spend more money among the shopkeepers than all the rest put together . . . we only wish there were more of them, for this is about the best and most effective way in which Uncle Sam can aid the new French Republic (p.334).

One of the most interesting aspects of McCullough’s book is the extent to which the experience of young Americans in Paris sharpened their sense of what it means to be an American. The American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (thoroughly American despite the French-sounding name) wrote that his time in Paris had been a “wonderful experience, surprising in many respects, one of them being to find how much of an American I am.” (p.423). Nathaniel Willis, when he wasn’t gazing at pretty girls in men’s apparel shops, found he could always pick out fellow American men in Paris. The distinguishing feature, he observed, was the “independent, self-possessed bearing of a man unused to look up to anyone as his superior in rank, united to the inquisitive, sensitive, communicative expression which is the index to our national character” (p.67). An irate Samuel Morse vigorously defended his friend James Fennimore Cooper when Cooper came under attack for being “boastful, even bombastic about being an American” (p.92). The Lightning Man declared his admiration for his friend’s “proud assertion of the rank of an American . . . for I know no reason why an American should not take rank, and assert it, too, above any artificial distinctions that Europe has made . . .There can be no condescension to an American. An American gentleman is equal to any title or rank in Europe, kings and emperors not excepted”(p.93).

One side of Paris that appears missing is Franco-American romance. McCullough notes artist Mary Cassatt’s “open friendship” with her fellow impressionist painter Edgar Degas, “but apparently no more than that” (p.352). Mary Healy, the daughter of the American painter George Healey, married a French writer and professor (p..336). But there do not appear to have been many liaisons dangerouses between Americans and Parisians in the 19th century (unless, of course, the wily McCullough is holding a treasure trove of information on this tantalizing subject, which he is saving for what would surely be a blockbuster best-seller).

In “The Greater Journey,” David McCullough has produced a work about 19th century Americans’ experience in Paris that bears his trademark, rich in little-known facts and incisive observations, pieced together into a typically engaging narrative. Vive Monsieur McCullough.

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C.

February 27, 2012

10 Comments

Filed under France, French History, History

The Matter of Dreyfus

Ruth Harris, “Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century”

Frederic Brown, “For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus”

Louis Begley, “Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters”

I was surprised when two books on the Dreyfus affair, by Ruth Harris and Frederic Brown, came out within a short time of one another in 2010. This is a subject that I have wanted to understand better, so I decided to jump in and read both in 2011. When I ordered the Harris and Brown books on Amazon.com, through a “pop up” mechanism, Amazon kindly suggested that people who had purchased the two books might also be interested in reading Louis Begley’s “Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters.” I try to resist these pop ups but, after being severely tempted on many previous occasions, this time I succumbed. I really did want to learn why Dreyfus matters in the 21st century.

Although I read Harris’ book first, it would have made more sense to reverse the order. Brown emphasizes the background of the Affair. In the first 174 pages of his 265 page book, he treats the social, political and intellectual climate in which the Dreyfus Affair arose. At about the two-thirds mark, he begins to recount the story of a French cleaning lady emptying her wastebasket at the German Embassy in Paris in September 1894 and finding pieces of a torn-up, unsigned document containing low-level military secrets. This discovery set in motion the matter that would ensnare Alfred Dreyfus, a promising young Jewish Army officer from Alsace. In contrast, Harris starts with the cleaning lady in the German Embassy. The two books work well together, presenting a comprehensive and balanced view of the Affair.

Begley’s book, published a year earlier in 2009, covers succinctly the background and details of the Affair. Although eager to learn why someone versed in the Affair thinks that it might matter for us today, over a century later, I was disappointed by Begley’s book. I am skeptical of this genre (and learned that Begley’s book on Dreyfus is part of a Yale University Press series on why various people, places or things matter). Explaining why an historical figure or event matters appears to involve a search for the most pertinent contemporary analogy. Begley analogizes Dreyfus’ case to those of terrorist suspects held by the United States at Guantanamo Naval Base. He failed to convince me that this is the best analogy, and I found his argument jarring and out of place in his narrative.

The hard and cold facts of the Dreyfus Affair hide the polemical debate which it generated and the fissures in French society which it revealed. Shortly after finding that shredded document in the wastebasket in the German Embassy in September 1894, the cleaning lady, herself a spy for French intelligence, turned the shreds over to her superiors. They pieced it together, concluded that it was evidence of a spy for Germany within the French army, and quickly determined that Dreyfus was the culprit. Dreyfus was arrested for treason shortly thereafter, summarily convicted in a secret court martial, and stripped of his rank in front of a crowd screaming, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.” Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana in early 1895.

In 1896, a new chief of French intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Picquart, found evidence that the real traitor was Major Ferdinand Esterhzy and that Dreyfus was innocent. Picquart was silenced by a military cover up. In 1899, after a passionate campaign by the “Dreyfusards,” led by Emile Zola and his famous J’Accuse, Dreyfus was pardoned and released from prison, then given a second trial in which he was again found guilty despite evidence strongly supporting his innocence. It was not until 1906 that a military commission officially exonerated Dreyfus.

Brown’s book is excellent in laying out the background to the affair. As his sub-title indicates, that background involves French cultural wars dating back to the French Revolution of the previous century, in which conservative institutions, particularly the Catholic Church and the military, considered themselves and the traditional France they represented to be under siege by a republican France, cosmopolitan, secular and fused with the values of the 18th century Enlightenment. In this climate, a virulent anti-Semitism flourished as the pervasive common denominator which drove the frenzy against Dreyfus.

In wide swaths of late 19th century French society, Jews were considered to be outsiders even when born on French soil, “created by God to serve as a spy wherever treason is afoot,” as one Catholic publication stated (Brown, p.216 n.*). Brown discusses a “fortress-France nationalism,” defending the country against the forces of modernity, especially the democratic and liberal Third French Republic — often termed a “Jewish, Masonic Republic” (Brown, p.208). But, Brown observes, “beneath the political agenda one observed a spiritual reaction against decadence by people who understood that defense of French interests to be that of a completed civilization at war with the new mobility of things and beings” (Brown, p.208, quoting historian Michel Winock).

Brown’s story begins in 1870 with Napoleon III’s abdication and the Franco-Prussian War, which ended with the humiliating loss of Alsace and parts of Lorraine, a loss many on the political right attributed to the Enlightenment and the forces of modernity. Among the immediate predicates to the Dreyfus Affair, the most critical in Brown’s view was that involving Georges Boulanger, a general in the French Army who, in 1889, led an unsuccessful movement of French conservatives threatening to take over the state and restore the monarchy. According to Prime Minister Léon Blum, who would become France’s first Jewish Prime Minister in 1936, one “cannot understand the Dreyfus Affair unless one remembers that it broke out less than eight years after a failed [Boulanger-led] revolution. The Boulangists sought revenge . . . and the discrediting of institutions and parties” (Brown, p.123).

Construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 was another factor fueling the French cultural wars. Conservatives regarded the tower as a sacrilege to traditional France, a sign that “mercantile fantasies” were in the ascendance and France was becoming “more American than America” (Brown, p.147). Lording over the French past and future, the tower was a “cosmopolite aspiring to universality, a potential instrument of treason. As such, it could only be the invention of ‘Israel’” (Brown, p.151). The Sacré Coeur basilica, which faces the Eiffel Tower from Paris’ highest perch in Montmarte, was constructed a few years later to serve as the counterpoint to the Tower: a “sanctuary for refugees from Babylon, a Parisian home for a devotion of specifically French origin, a monument embodying allegiance to the pope . . .” (Brown, p.35).

Harris dwells only in passing on the background to the Affair, concentrating on the moment Dreyfus was fingered as a traitor. She agrees with Brown and most other historians of the period that at one level, the Dreyfus debate was a “struggle over the legacy of the Enlightenment” (Harris, p.8). The Anti-Dreyfusards:

Rejected the universalism of the Rights of Man in favour of a conception of French identity that was based on language and race. They believed that a “true” French morality had to exclude Jews, Protestants and Freemasons in order to preserve a unique national community (Harris, p.8).

On the other side, the Dreyfusards “retained a belief in a universal moral code and trusted in rationality as a guide to ethical conduct. Correct judgments, they held, could be made only on the basis of evidence, and they maintained that Catholicism and anti-Semitism were roads back to a pre-Enlightenment obscurantism” (Harris, p. 8-9).

Harris excels in exposing the complexities underlying both sides, showing that the Affair was far more than a Manichean struggle between monolithic blocks. There was “neither a single, unified Catholic vision, nor a single, unified ‘secular’ response” (Harris, p. 373). Dreyfusards were Protestant, Catholic and Jewish, all trying to overcome backward elements within their own religions, but plagued by their own fears, animosities and inflexibilities. The more radical Dreyfusards, she contends, “abandoned much of their liberal humanitarianism and cemented their victory through an all-out assault on the Church, closing down congregations, expelling orders of priests and establishing an iron grip over the educational system” (Harris, p.9). They were “as emotionally vested in their ideology as the anti-Dreyfusards. . . They insisted that their opponents alone were guilty of muddled thinking and obscurantist tendencies. This belief was central to creating, and intensifying, the gulf between the two sides” (Harris, p. 168).

Harris closes with her own observations on why the Dreyfus affair might matter today. She cites the “widespread anxiety about how to integrate a large immigrant – and predominantly Islamic – minority” (Harris, p.385). Despite the very altered circumstances in twenty-first century France:

The debate resonates with the ferocity (and many of the same ideological oppositions) of the earlier [Dreyfus] period. Today right-wing nationalists keep company with some members of the left outraged by the incursion of religious symbolism into secular education. Where else in the Western world would the wearing of headscarves produce such ire and even national legislation . . .As much as in the early stages of the Dryefus Affair, the debate surrounding headscarves does not fit neatly into a tidy left/right divide. Even if, in time, the headscarf issue fades from view, Muslim resistance to the values of laïcité [secularism] means that many French citizens will continue to face the problem of living comfortably with multiple identities. This tension is one of the many aspects of French political culture that were strengthened, and, in some measure created, by the Dreyfus Affair (Harris, p.385).

Harris’ view of why Dreyfus might manner in the 21st century is more convincing than that of Louis Begley. About halfway through his first chapter, Begley jumps from a factual summation of the Affair to a 17 page digression on United States treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Naval Base, including discussions of some of the key Supreme Court decisions addressing the legality of maintenance of the base as a prison for detainees captured in the war on terror. Citing a poll taken around the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008 that showed that 44% of the respondents did not favor closing the prison, Begley concludes: “Just as the outset of the Dreyfus Affair the French found it easy to believe that Dreyfus must be a traitor because he was a Jew, many Americans had had no trouble believing that the detainees at Guatánomo – and those in CIA jails – were terrorists simply because they were Muslims” (p.43). Begley does not return to the Guatánomo theme in any meaningful sense until the final paragraph of his book.

Begley’s elevation of Guatánomo as the most pertinent contemporary analogy to Dreyfus strikes me as a stretch. In a recent Washington Post article, Karen Greenberg writes that Guatánomo is a “ready symbol of the country’s willingness to allow national security to trump the rule of law,” (Karen Greenberg, A World Without Gitmo,” Washington Post, January 15, 2012, B2), a view I accept. Dreyfus’ flagrant mistreatment within the French legal system was justified by some as necessary to defend the security of a civilization thought to be under siege, and in this sense there may be superficial similarities to the detainees at Guatánomo. But few of the detainees are United States citizens, whereas one of the core themes of the Dreyfus Affairis is the insider as outsider. Born French and a loyal and patriotic citizen serving in his country’s army, Dreyfus threatened traditional institutions because he was a Jew and in the eyes of many of his countrymen could never be French in the true sense of the term.

But the question why Dreyfus matters does not have to be a search for the most pertinent contemporary analogy. One could argue that the Affair matters because it is crucial to any understanding of late 19th and early 20th century French history. These three books contribute significantly to this understanding. My guess is that scholars would contend that Harris breaks the most new ground, providing an iconoclastic view of the Dreyfusards, with their own warts. Brown sets forth a richly detailed picture of the environment in which the Affair arose. Although his discussion of Guatánomo seems misplaced, Begley offers a solid summation of the Affair. That three English language books on the subject were published within a two-year period demonstrates that the matter of Dreyfus continues to matter.

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