Tag Archives: Night Life in Paris in World War II

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

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