Tag Archives: World War II

What Did She Know?

Heike Görtemaker, Eva Braun: Life with Hitler
Angela Lambert, The Lost Life of Eva Braun


            Goretmaker.1 Lambert

          For reasons which your psychoanalyst might best explain, public interest in the murderous Nazi regime continues to increase, with more and more books on various facets of the regime being published each year. Until recently, the life and role of Eva Braun remained one of the least known facets of Nazism. Braun was Adolph Hitler’s mistress and, for about 36 hours, his wife, having married the Nazi dictator in a Berlin bunker on April 29, 1945 as the Red Army moved in and the Third Reich crumbled. The following day, Braun, like Hitler, took her life. Within the last decade, two books seeking to fill the void on Braun have appeared: Heike Görtemaker, “Eva Braun: Life with Hitler,” translated from German by Damion Searls; and Angela Lambert, “The Lost Life of Eva Braun.”

          The central question for both authors is the degree to which Braun was complicit in Nazi crimes. The historical record is clear that she was a true believer in Adolph Hitler, the man. But was she still another true believer in the heinous causes he championed? Was she aware that the man in her life planned, then aggressively provoked, a war that plunged most of Europe into conflict? Or that the same man was pursuing a comprehensive program to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population? One view is that Braun was entirely apolitical, deliberately kept in the dark about the policies her significant other was pursuing. She obviously knew Hitler was a powerful man, but had little or no idea why; and little or no curiosity to learn about Nazi policies. Roughly stated, this is the position that Lambert adopts. Braun had “as little clue of what [Hitler] did when closeted for hours with the Nazi bigwigs or military men as does a small child who waves bye-bye to its father every morning when he leaves for work,” Lambert writes (Lambert, p.264).

          Görtemaker vigorously rejects this view. She presents a passionately-argued case that Braun was “in no way a victim” (Görtemaker, p.216), but rather understood and fully supported the Nazi vision and German war objectives. The problem for both authors is that there are no contemporary statements of Braun’s political views or how she regarded the Nazi project. Much of the historical record on this aspect of Braun comes from post-war statements of Albert Speer and other former members of Hitler’s entourage who had self-serving motives to dissemble concerning the nature of the Nazi regime and their roles in it. Both authors’ conclusions on the extent of Braun’s knowledge of Nazi atrocities must therefore rest on inference and assumption.

          The two books also offer contrasting approaches to their depiction of Braun’s life. Whereas Görtemaker focuses tightly on Braun, discussing Hitler and the Nazi environment primarily to cast light on her subject, Lambert ranges far more widely. She addresses the rise of Hitler, the conditions in Germany which brought him to power, and how the Nazi regime functioned. There is considerably more detail in Lambert’s book about everyday life in Nazi Germany, both before and during the war; and far more about the day-to-day life at Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof. In conspicuous contrast to Görtemaker, Lambert also delves into the most intimate side of Braun’s relationship with Hitler, and in this sense her book is definitely the juicier of the two. Further, early in her book, Lambert reveals uncanny similarities between Braun’s life and that of Lambert’s German-born mother, Edith Schröder, born one month after Braun.  Lambert also sprinkles her narrative with generous doses of psycho-babble about the attraction between younger women and older, powerful men, along with a tiresome amount of fawning praise for Braun’s good character.

* * *

           Both writers cover the basic biographical record of Braun’s life. Braun first met Hitler in 1929, when the future Führer was 40 and Braun was 17. Braun was working in the Munich photography store of Heinrich Hoffman, then the official photographer for the upcoming National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) party. Görtemaker describes Braun as a “young woman of average abilities from a highly-conventional, lower middle-class Munich family who was noticeably lacking in any political sympathies or interest in current events at all” (G., p. 6). At 17, Lambert writes, Braun was “still very much an innocent but Hitler liked his women young, naïve and compliant, and would have regarded the twenty-three year difference as ideal” (L., p.55). Best of all, she adds, Braun was “utterly uninterested in politics” (L., p146).

          The romantic relationship between Braun and Hitler appears linked to the suicide in 1931 of Hitler’s half-niece, Geli Raubal, with whom Hitler shared an apartment in Munich. Hitler felt strong affection toward Raubal and her death seems to have had a devastating effect upon him. Lambert perceives a sexual relationship between Hitler and his half-niece – “it seems more likely than not” (L., p. 106) — whereas Görtemaker is more circumspect. But the authors agree that the Hitler-Braun relationship took a more serious turn after Raubal’s death, even though they spent much time apart, as Hitler pursued his political objectives.

          Braun herself attempted suicide in 1932, using her father’s pistol. “Although the precise details remain unknown,” Görtemaker writes, “witnesses and historians agree that Eva Braun felt abandoned and calculatedly acted to make the perpetually absent Hitler notice her, and to tie him more closely to her” (G., p.51). Lambert describes the attempted suicide as a wake up call for Hitler. Braun’s desperate act “evoked a rare sense of guilt” in the Führer: he realized he “had neglected her” (L., p.134, Lambert’s emphasis). The suicide attempt clearly indicated that by the time Hitler came to power in January 1933, “despite their unavoidable geographic separation, Eva Braun had become a lasting and crucial figure in Hitler’s life,” (G., p.55) Görtemaker concludes. Braun made a second attempt on her life in May 1935, in Munich, using an overdose of sleeping pills. This incident seems to have also been related to Hitler’s lack of attention to her.

          Through much of the Braun-Hitler relationship, Braun lived with her sister Ilse when she was not with Hitler. In 1935, Hitler provided Braun and her sister with an apartment in Munich, then a house in a posh residential section of the city. During the war, Braun shuttled between Munich, where she work in an art publishing house which Hoffman owned, and the Berghof.

          The authors agree that Hitler erected a ”wall of silence” around his relationship with Braun. Hitler wished to present himself as a celibate who transcended the sexual urges that drive ordinary men and women. Having a girl friend would have been as incongruous for the public image of the Führer as the Pope with a worldly significant other (and I’m sure that has never happened). Although Hitler encouraged marriage and high fertility rates for (non-Jewish) German women, marriage and children with Braun were out of the question. Lambert surmises that Hitler’s personal aversion to childbearing was his fear that given his family background — his “flawed and incestuous genes,” as Lambert states (L., p.85)—he and Braun might produce a child with the “stigma of mental and physical deformity,” unthinkable at a time when Hitler advocated the “use of genetic murder to create a race of perfect human beings” (L., p.125).

          To preserve the wall of silence, Hitler discouraged Braun from mixing with the other Nazi wives, most of whom were jealous of Braun and thought of her as a “silly goose” (L., p.155). He also forbade Braun from reading newspapers. When important or official guests arrived, Braun “had to leave or spend the day closeted in her room” (L., p.197). The Berghof was a “golden cage” for Braun, Lambert writes:

Hitler indulged her every whim, on condition she observed strict anonymity. She could have whatever she wanted, as long as she agreed to keep her existence secret and wore a cloak of invisibility over her fabulous clothes and perfect body. She was anonymous, a non-person (L., p.259).

          Hitler and Braun never made a joint public appearances. “[O]nly once in the twelve years after 1933 were Hitler and Eva Braun seen together in a published news photo, which in fact shows Eva Braun sitting in the second row, behind Hitler, at the Winter Olympics in February 1936 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Nothing in the picture indicates any personal relationship between her and the dictator” (G., p.51). When Braun traveled with other members of Hitler’s inner circle and their wives, she was never “part of Hitler’s official retinue” and her name “never appeared on any list in the record, unlike the names of the wives of other high-ranking Nazi officials” (G., p.176).

          In 1934, the famous German boxer Max Schmeling noticed Braun present at a small reception Hitler held for him. Schmeling asked Hoffman, also present at the reception, about the young woman who “spoke entirely naturally and obviously very familiarly with Hitler” (G., p.90). Hoffman was at first evasive, but then told Schmeling her name and said that she was an employee of his, nothing more. Görtemaker also recounts an incident a few years later in which a young man, dazzled to be visiting the Berghof, heard Braun scolding Hitler mildly about being late for a meal. Shocked that anyone would dare to speak to the Führer in such a manner, the young man asked about Braun. He was told that he should not ask such questions, the best thing to do would be to forget that he ever saw Braun. Even the Führer has a “right to a private life,” he was told (G., p.125).

* * *

          Unlike Görtemaker, Lambert probes the intimate side of the Braun-Hitler relationship, and diverges into the sexual mores of the Nazi elite. Lambert pinpoints the moment when Braun lost her virginity and when Braun “officially” became the Fuhrer’s mistress. She speculates that Braun “must have been fun in bed, innocent and willing.” She describes Hitler’s genitalia and the erotic habits and preferences of other high-level Nazi party members. Lambert also recounts unsuccessful attempts of Hitler’s entourage to arrange a liaison between the party leader and the stunningly beautiful Magda Quant, then the girlfriend and later the wife of Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels. Lambert explains how Hitler’s libido dwindled considerably in 1942, to the point where the Führer authorized Braun to seek a more virile man. And she also discusses how Braun’s menstrual cycles influenced her relationship with Hitler (page references available upon request; price negotiable).

          Lambert’s book has another idiosyncratic feature. Early in the book, she reveals numerous parallels between Braun’s life and that of Lambert’s German-born mother, Edith Schröder. Lambert’s mother was a northerner and a Protestant from Hamburg, whereas Braun was a good Bavarian Catholic girl from Munich. But the two women, born one month apart, came from lower middle class homes with three daughters and no sons. Each was the middle daughter, and in each family the oldest daughter’s name was Ilse. Throughout the book, Lambert shifts the focus away from Braun to Schröder, showing what her mother was doing at the same time (for those wondering, Edith fell for a better man, Lambert’s English father, than did Braun; nonetheless, Lambert is severely critical of her father in her partially autobiographical book).

          In another departure from Görtemaker, Lambert is almost fulsome in her praise for Braun, describing throughout her good character and refuting the notion that she was a “silly goose.” Braun was a “most beguiling woman” (L., p.243), “rock solid” (L., p.402), and “generous” (L.,p.155). She “had beautiful manners, looked nice, did her best to be friendly and was socially adroit” (L.,p.192). In normal times, she would have been simply a “kind, generous, considerate woman” (L., p.283). In the final, chaotic days prior to her suicide, she stood out for her “courage, buoyancy and thoughtfulness” (L.,p.410) and revealed her “character, stamina and fortitude” (L.,p.411). To the end, Lambert contends, Braun continued to “behave with grace and consideration towards everyone. . .She wasn’t heroic but she was steady” (L.,p.444).

* * *

          In addressing the two books’ central question of the extent of Braun’s knowledge of Nazi crimes, Görtemaker contends that Braun shared Hitler’s world vision and should not be absolved of complicity in his crimes. But her case is based on inference rather than concrete evidence. For instance, Görtemaker asserts that we must “assume that Hitler’s adjutants, secretaries, servants, and, not least, Eva Braun, shared without reservation the Jew-hatred of their ‘boss,’ as they called him” (G., p.180, my italics). At another point, she contends that Braun “presumably knew Hitler’s stereotypical racial views and in fact may have, like many Germans, shared them” (G. p.200, my italics).

          At another point, Görtemaker emphasizes that Braun’s life was “like most of the wives of high-ranking Nazi politicians. She led a privileged existence, with trips, expensive clothes, and occasional professional activities” in the service of the Nazi party (G., p.244). “For that reason alone,” Görtemaker contends, Braun “cannot be seen as someone with no involvement in the regime, an entirely apolitical young woman, as Albert Speer among others later claimed” (G., p.244). This seems like an entirely plausible inference, but falls short of an evidence-based conclusion. And even if Braun did identify with the general Nazi world view, Görtemaker concedes that the question whether Braun knew about the Holocaust and extermination of Europe’s Jewish population “remains finally unanswered” (p.245).

          Lambert frames the question as whether Braun was “guilty of complicity for remaining passive in the face of supreme evil, and especially guilty because of her relationship with Hitler” (L., p.324-25, Lambert’s emphasis). Answering this question requires the historian to determine not only what Braun knew but also, “had she made an effort,” what she “could have known” (L., p.325, Lambert’s emphasis). Did Braun, Lambert asks, “ever grasp that her lover initiated and master-minded twelve years of murderous violence, beginning with the euthanasia program in the 1930s; that he wanted the Jews of Europe wiped out and will every death and casualty in a war that killed tens of millions?” (p.326). Lambert acknowledges that there is “frustratingly little first-hand evidence and the truth can only be surmised” (p.325). That Braun shared Hitler’s bed “does not imply that she was well-informed about the hell and damnation enacted in the name of Führer and the Third Reich,” Lambert argues (L., p.283). “Women who love evil men need not be evil themselves” (L., p.352).

          Given the scant historical record of Braun’s actual knowledge, Lambert’s undertakes a protracted discussion of the more general question of collective war guilt, the degree to which average German citizens – especially German women, who were expected to be passive and apolitical – should be deemed responsible for the crimes committed in their nation’s name (collective German war guilt was addressed in two books reviewed here in December 2012). In the end, she concludes, any “verdict on Eva is, in microcosm, a verdict on the German people” (p.357).

          Even in the absence of concrete evidence, this does not strike me as a satisfying conclusion. Eva Braun was not just another German woman. She was not Edith Schröeder. Surely Braun must face history’s judgment in a different posture from that of fellow German citizens whose relationship to the Führer was, shall we say, less intimate. To portray Adolph Hitler’s mistress as a victim is an uphill challenge for any biographer and Lambert may be given credit for a valiant effort. But her case fell far short for me. It seems inconceivable that a woman could be in the thralls of Hitler without knowing and endorsing much if not all of what he stood for.

          Görtemaker’s imputation of knowledge to Braun, however, is not fully convincing either. Absent the discovery of an unanticipated treasure trove of new material by or about Braun, the question of her knowledge of Nazi crimes seems unlikely to be resolved. If study of the Nazi environment and mindset reveals the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt famously wrote, Eva Braun’s life as seen in these two books was more about banality than evil.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
March 10, 2013


Filed under Biography, German History

Wounded Animal

Ian Kershaw, The End:

The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45

In “The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45,” eminent British historian Ian Kershaw, author of a highly-acclaimed two volume biography of Adolph Hitler, details how Germany continued to fight in the second half of 1944 and the first half of 1945, when it was clear that the war was lost.  Kershaw also analyzes why Germany continued to fight to the end, the more enticing aspect of the book for me.  Kershaw begins with the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, led by Klaus von Stauffenberg.  From this point onward, Kershaw contends, there was no realistic possibility of removing Hitler and, hence, no realistic possibility of averting the catastrophic route which Hitler insisted upon.  The book ends approximately 10 months later, after Hitler’s suicide in the Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945, the capitulation of the Nazi regime on May 8, 1945, and, finally, the end of an interim government lead by Admiral Karl Donitz on May 23, 1945.
The details of this 10-month period are grisly.  At times, I wanted to say, enough already, Kershaw; you’ve made your case that the Nazis brought unparalleled destruction and depravity to Germany and her own citizens, in addition to the horrors they inflicted outside Germany.  Please spare me further details, professor.  It could not have been pleasurable for Kershaw to assemble this record of sustained madness, irrationality and brutality that characterized the Third Reich throughout it existence and continued until the very end.  But Kershaw has done so resolutely, like a top-notch prosecutor coldly setting out the facts to make sure that the court understands fully the heinous nature of the charges against the defendant.
By the end of winter 1945, Kershaw writes, the Nazi regime was “like a wounded animal in its death throes” which lashed out wildly at “anyone seen to impair in the slightest the imperative to fight to the last in an obviously lost war” (p.225).  Although on the verge of its own destruction, the Nazi regime retained “its murderous capacity to the very end” (p.331).  Most German deaths in World War II, civilian and military,  occurred during the 10-month period which Kershaw covers.  Intensified Allied bombing caused many civilian deaths, but countless German civilians also fell victim to what Kershaw describes as the “uncontrolled violence” of the Nazi regime during its final months (p.325).   The main targets of Nazi violence were “real or imagined opponents of the regime, defeatists, ‘subversives’, supposed ‘shirkers’, presumed deserters or ‘cowards’, or anyone welcoming the end of Nazism or the arrival of the enemy” (p.327).
Unlike almost all other armies on the verge of defeat – e.g. Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918 and Italy in 1943 – in Germany in late 1944 and early 1945 there was “no danger of mutiny in the ranks feeding into internal collapse” (p.155).   German armed forces were “far removed from the point at which they were unwilling to fight on any further” (p.60).  A deeply inculcated but “utterly warped” sense of duty propelled military officers to fight to the end (p.395), Kershaw writes.  A German cavalry officer in captivity in March 1945 explained to his British captors that in 1918, the year Germany surrendered to end World War I, “we experienced more open revolutionary tendencies.”  As the end drew near in 1918, German soldiers were “already behaving in a very insolent fashion.  They don’t do that now” (p.272).
Away from the front lines, Germany also somehow managed to function to the last.  Throughout the Civil Service, there remained an almost “unthinking loyalty” to the homeland (p.393).  There was “no descent into anarchy” (p.5).  Wages and salaries were still being paid in April 1945.  Civil administration continued and bureaucratic wheels kept turning.  No matter, however trivial, was “beneath bureaucratic attention” (p.162).  As German civil servants “tried to cope with huge social dislocation after air raids, refugee problems, housing shortages, food rationing and many other issues,” they “never lost sight of the need to complete forms and have them officially stamped for approval” (p.162).   A last concert of the Berlin Philharmonic took place on April 12, 1945, four days before the Red Army launched its final assault on the capital.  The last football match took place on April 23, 1945, involving Bayern Munich.
Kershaw’s grimly comprehensive factual record provides the foundation for his explanation of why Germany continued to fight when defeat loomed so clearly.  Much of his explanation can be found in the final substantive chapter, “Liquidation,” and a short conclusion, “Anatomy of Self Destruction.”  But throughout the book, Kershaw doggedly returns to what he terms, quoting a German scholar, the “puzzle” of why Germans who “wanted to survive” nonetheless “fought and killed so desperately and so ferociously almost to the last moments of the war” (p.7).
Kershaw weaves together many strands to explain this puzzle.  He cites “ideological commitment, fanatical loyalty, a sense of comradely duty, fear of consequences of non-compliance and sheer lack of alternative” (p.314).  But the fight to the end, “down to complete defeat and destruction,” may be attributed above all to what Kershaw terms the “charismatic leadership” of Adolph Hitler.  This term refers less to Hitler himself and more to the “character of his rule” and the “structures and mentalities” that had been put in place to uphold his “charismatic domination” (p.400).  These structures and mentalities “continued even after Hitler’s popular appeal was collapsing” (p.13-14).
Although Hitler’s popularity among average Germans was on the decline throughout this period – except for a short upsurge of sympathy in the immediate aftermath of the failed von Stauffenberg plot – it was “impossible to separate support for Hitler and his regime from the patriotic determination to avoid defeat and foreign occupation” (p.14).    The structures and mentalities of Hitler’s charismatic rule lasted until the very end of the war and “precluded dominant elites from preventing Hitler from taking Germany into total destruction” (p.400).  Nazis leaders and, to a lesser extent, average Germans, felt that they had “no future without Hitler.  This provided a powerful negative bond: their fates were inextricably linked” (p.14).  By war’s ending, Kershaw concludes, it was no longer a case of blind faith in the Fűhrer but rather “charismatic rule without charisma” (p.400).
Fear of Bolshevism also motivated German soldiers and civilians, a fear which Nazi propaganda encouraged.  Even when Germans had lost faith in Hitler, they  looked at fighting Bolshevism as a noble cause.  The “conviction that a victory of the Soviets would mean the extinction of life of the German people . . . bolstered the readiness to fight and radicalized intolerance towards those seen to be shirking their ‘duty’” (p.187).  As the Allies closed in on Germany, there was a fundamental difference between Eastern and Western fronts, with brutality noticeably more widespread in the East.  When they crossed into Germany, Soviet soldiers were encouraged to extract maximum revenge for earlier German brutality:
The Germans had shown no mercy as they had laid waste Soviet towns and villages, burning homes and farmsteads, slaughtering innocent civilians.  Red Army soldiers, and their commanders, saw no need for restraint now [that] they were the conquerors, advancing through the land of those who had brought them such misery, raping, plundering, murdering as they went (p.176).

The rape of German women, “young and old, often many times over – a mass phenomenon and act of revenge through inflicting maximum humiliation on the defeated male population by the degradation of their wives and families – was a terrible hallmark of the first encounter with the Soviet conquerors” (p.181).


Kershaw gives limited credence to the view that the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender prolonged Germany’s participation in the war and was counter-productive.  The Allies’ demand marked the first time in modern warfare that a sovereign state had “formally been offered no terms short of total and unconditional capitulation” (p.87).  The approach plainly played into Nazi propaganda, contributing, “at least initially, to strengthening the will to hold out” (p.362).  But the demand for unconditional surrender “cannot be regarded as the decisive or dominant issue in compelling the Germans to fight on” (p.362).  Attributing blame to the Allies for a “mistaken policy of ‘unconditional surrender’” amounts in Kershaw’s view to little more than a “flimsy excuse” (p.362).
Kershaw’s analysis of why Germans continued to fight for a hopeless cause shades into the provocative question of collective guilt, the degree to which average German citizens and soldiers bore responsibility for the crimes committed in their nation’s name.  Kershaw does not let average German citizens off the hook, refusing to buy into the notion that they were also victims of the Third Reich’s monstrous crimes.  Kershaw agrees with recent studies that have “increasingly tended to place the emphasis upon the enthusiastic support of the German people for the Nazi regime, and their willing collaboration and complicity in policies that led to war and genocide” (p.9).
Kershaw notes that German citizens at all levels, with a few honorable exceptions, clearly bought into the demonization of Jews.  “However much Germans saw themselves, increasingly, as victims of Hitler and the Nazi regime, many of them were not ready to extend their sympathies to concentration camp prisoners, least of all Jews, or to embrace the true victims of Nazism as part of their ‘community’” (p.334).  Conceding that German citizens were “indisputably also victims of events far beyond their control,” especially in the final stages of the war, Kershaw notes that “few stopped to consider why they had allowed themselves to be misled and exploited” (p.383).  For the most part, average German citizens did not wish to:
dwell on what horror their own fathers, sons or brothers had inflicted on the peoples of eastern Europe, let alone ponder the reports (or rumors bordering on hard fact) they heard of the slaughter of the Jews.  The gross inhumanity for which Germany had been responsible was suppressed, forced out of mind.  What remained, seared in memory, was how the Third Reich had gone so tragically wrong (p.384).
A survey taken shortly after the war found, revealingly, that 50% of Germans thought that National Socialism had been in essence  a “good idea that had been badly carried out” (p.382).
The Third Reich ended definitively on May 23, 1945, when Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower ordered Donitz and his cohorts of the interim government arrested as prisoners of war.  The debts of the Third Reich for crimes against humanity, Kershaw concludes, “would not, and could not, ever be repaid.”  But a  “long process of reckoning was about to begin” (p.379).  Kershaw’s comprehensive account of the war in Germany between July 1944 and May 1945 lays bare the extent of the Nazi regime’s crimes against humanity during this 10-month period and presents an entirely plausible explanation as to why Germany continued to fight so fiercely when faced with certain defeat.  In addition, Kershaw’s account demonstrates the moral enormity of the reckoning process that was to follow.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

December 2, 2012


Filed under German History, 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


Filed under France, French History, History, Politics

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


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


April 8, 2012 · 2:29 pm