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 the carnage of World War I either. Nor had the Germans ever made a similar attempt, during the occupation, to seduce the Dutch cultural elite by flattery, social promotion, or even particularly good parties. Amsterdam was not Paris.
Most of the stories in Riding’s book are not new, but he places them skillfully in a historical context broader than the occupation alone. It would be misleading to begin the narrative in 1940. As the fascist writer and Nazi collaborator Pierre Drieu La Rochelle observed with some justice in December 1939: “The war has changed nothing…. The French are more divided than ever.” Riding sketches a bleak picture of those divisions. They flared up dramatically during the Dreyfus case in 1894. And the anti-Semitic right was especially vicious when the Jewish liberal Léon Blum became prime minister in 1936. Charles Maurras, founder of the right-wing Action Française, called for his death in case he “leads us into the godless war he dreams of against our Italian comrades-in-arms.” The Catholic conservative writer Marcel Jouhandeau, later a fixture of wartime literary salons attended by Jean Cocteau and other artistic luminaries, wrote: “M. Blum is not one of ours and…no European can ever know what an Asiatic is thinking.”
The Germans were already cultivating French public figures who held such views some years before the occupation began. The journalist Robert Brasillach, among others, was invited in 1937 to attend the Nazi rally in Nuremberg, and came back so impressed with all the drum-beating, flag-waving, goose-stepping Hitler-worship that he compared the event to the Eucharist. Perhaps you had to be a French reactionary to see the body of Christ in the Führer. Otto Abetz, later the German plenipotentiary in wartime France, was paying French editors before the war to write pro-German articles.
In fact, anti-Semitism in France was in no need of German boosting. Brasillach was already editing the pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic publication Je suis partout in 1937, and continued to use this journal to denounce Jews and Communists throughout the occupation. In that same year, Céline published a pamphlet, Bagatelles pour un massacre, blaming the all-powerful “vermicular” Jews for “blocking a Franco-German alliance.” His publisher was the eminently mainstream Robert Denoël. It sold 80,000 copies.*
The reasons why French intellectual and political life was poisoned by Nazi sympathies were not necessarily because of Germanophilia. Maurras, for example, detested Germany, and Céline’s loathing of the Jews (as well as Communists and Freemasons) was much stronger than his love for the Germans. The roots of all this go back to the French Revolution. Right-wing radicals hated the French Republic because it was secular, democratic, and egalitarian. Many longed for a restoration of Roman Catholic authority. Others were animated by a detestation of anything that spoke of British, let alone American, influence. The shock of World War I, from which France had not yet recovered, played a large part too. Any confrontation with Germany raised terrifying specters of massacres in Aisne or Verdun.
So when Marshal Pétain, as the great French father figure, sued for peace with Germany in June 1940 and set up the abject, quasi-independent French state of Vichy, this was met with a sense of almost universal relief. At least France would be spared the sacrifice of another million war dead. And a sacrifice for what? France suffered more than 100,000 dead in the defeat of 1940 and not many people wanted to go on defending the nation. Those of the left, such as Sartre himself, were disgusted by what they saw as a corrupt, reactionary, bourgeois country. And fascists, such as Drieu La Rochelle and Robert Brasillach, were grateful to the Germans for destroying the decadent old order, dominated, as they saw it, by Jews, liberals, and Freemasons. Indeed, Vichy was an excellent vehicle for settling old scores. The damage wrought by the French Revolution would finally be undone. Purged of Jews and other corrosive elements, the God-fearing, pure-blooded France profonde would rise again behind the benevolent shield of the Great War hero Pétain. As the song went: “A sacred flame rises from the native soil…Maréchal, nous voilà!”
Some more moderate conservatives, such as Paul Claudel, were just as happy to see a “restoration of authority,” as he put it, after having suffered for “60 years under the yoke of the radical and anti-Catholic party (teachers, lawyers, Jews, Freemasons).” The key word of opprobrium was “decadence.” Many on the right, the left, and in the middle believed that the Third Republic, wracked by scandals, mob violence, and political cowardice, had become so rotten that a dose of discipline would do France good, even if it had to come from German domination. After all, the “Anglo-Saxons” were still detestable, and the behavior of German soldiers was, at least initially, admirably correct.
Lest readers be tempted to moralize too easily about the French, Riding, quite rightly, points out that many French people, including conservatives such as Claudel, fairly quickly changed their minds, and concluded, with Sartre, that whatever the problems with France might have been, “the Nazis were worse.” There were pockets of resistance from the first days of the war, notably among men and women associated with the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Amateurs in underground resistance, these brave scholars and writers, led by the ethnographer Boris Vildé, were soon arrested, and in most cases executed. Their pamphlets and meetings did not bring the war to a speedier end. At a time when German victory in Europe seemed assured, and the voice of Charles de Gaulle was barely heard, let alone heeded, their activities might have been seen as quixotic, even foolhardy. And yet, as Riding points out, they did something important, for they
believed that long before an armed struggle was viable, the French had to learn to think resistance, to reject open collaboration, to believe that opposition to the occupation was possible.
It should also be remembered that, despite French anti-Semitism, nearly 75 percent of the Jews in France were spared from deportation and almost certain death. (Some 90,000 out of 350,000 were killed.) In the Netherlands, where Jews had suffered less anti-Semitism than in France, about 75 percent of the Jewish population perished. Vichy France instituted race laws already in the summer of 1940, without any particular German pressure. French high functionaries, such as Prime Minister Pierre Laval and his top man for police affairs, René Bousquet, were personally responsible for the arrest and deportation of thousands of Jews, including many children. And they were not even known to be especially anti-Semitic. That so many Jews were still alive in 1944, however, was owing to the courage of countless French men and women—teachers, priests, nuns, resistance fighters, doctors, farmers, and others.
Some French artists and intellectuals such as Jean Paulhan were active in the resistance, but for the most part the cultural elite made no special contribution. Should more have been expected of them? This is the question running through Riding’s book. The fact that writers were more harshly treated after the war than collaborating businessmen or bureaucrats suggests that it was certainly seen that way by many people in France. Sartre, for one, believed that intellectuals had a higher calling than other people. De Gaulle seemed to agree. He refused to save Robert Brasillach from execution (even as real killers, like René Bousquet, went on to enjoy successful careers in government), because, as he put it, “in literature, as in everything, talent carries with it responsibility.” Unlike Americans, the French have traditionally treated their writers and thinkers with reverence. Was this trust betrayed?
Riding concludes that most of France’s best writers were not among the collaborators: not Gide, not Claudel, or Sartre, Camus, Mauriac, Éluard, or Aragon. He also points out that the only decent poetry was written by resisters. There was no good fascist poetry. Céline was indisputably a great writer who subcribed to vicious Nazi views, but he was too self-obsessed to actively collaborate with anyone, including the Germans. Most cultural collabos may indeed have been literary men of the second rank, but Drieu La Rochelle; Abel Bonnard, Vichy’s minister of national education; Paul Morand, who became the head of Vichy’s commission for movie censorship; and Brasillach were more than mere hacks. It would be a naive mistake to conflate talent with virtue, and see collaboration as proof of artistic mediocrity. For there were highly gifted artists—the dancer Serge Lifar, the pianist Alfred Cortot—who actively collaborated. And others—Jean Cocteau, Maurice Chevalier, Marcel Jouhandeau, Sacha Guitry—who operated in a gray zone, collaborating a bit here, helping out the odd Jewish friend there, while also consorting with the more sophisticated Germans in town.