Just after the war, when it was safe again to speak and write freely, Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that the French, especially French writers and artists, had only two choices under Nazi occupation: to collaborate or to resist. He had chosen the latter, naturally: “Our job was to tell all the French, we will not be ruled by Germans.”
In fact, Sartre’s behavior during the occupation, though he was never a collabo, was less heroic than his immediate postwar views might suggest. Alan Riding, whose judgment of the French intelligentsia under occupation is neither moralistic nor indulgent, places Sartre very much on the periphery of the resistance. Sartre’s plays, such as Huis Clos (No Exit), were read by some admirers (and certainly by Sartre himself, in hindsight) as veiled expressions of anti-Nazi protest. But they were passed without problem by the German censors, and German officers were happy to attend first nights, as well as the postperformance parties.
Sartre was surely being more truthful, about himself at any rate, in an interview given more than thirty years later. “In 1939, 1940,” he recalled,
we were terrified of dying, suffering, for a cause that disgusted us. That is, for a disgusting France, corrupt, inefficient, racist, anti-Semite, run by the rich for the rich—no one wanted to die for that, until, well, until we understood that the Nazis were worse.
When I grew up in postwar Holland, painful memories of the German occupation were still fresh. The story we were told was very much in the spirit of Sartre’s earlier pronouncement: people had either been “good” or “wrong,” resisters or collaborators. Needless to say, all our teachers, relatives, and family friends had been “good,” and we knew which shops to avoid, because they were run by people who had been on the “wrong” side (the woman selling candy in the tobacco store at the end of our street, for example, was rumored to “have been with a German soldier”; a reason not to buy candy from her, even twenty years on). We were also avid readers of boys’ adventure stories, celebrating the derring-do of war heroes. It took a few decades for us to find out that this image was false, that these categories of good and wrong had been far from straightforward, that most people had been neither especially good nor egregiously wrong, and that heroes and villains had been relatively few.
The situation in France was, if anything, more complicated. Unlike the more placid Netherlands, France had been torn since the nineteenth century between liberal republicans and radically anti-Semitic, antidemocratic movements. Having remained neutral in 1914, the Dutch did not lose more than a million lives in …