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.
Some of the greatest cultural figures, such as Picasso, Matisse, Poulenc, Messiaen, as well as Sartre and Beauvoir, more or less sat the war out, concentrating on their work, and producing some of their best. When Matisse was offered a visa to move to the US in late 1940, he turned it down on the grounds that “if everything of any worth flees, what will remain of France?”
Some might regard this as a passive form of collaboration, since the Nazis wanted to create a façade of normality, especially in Paris. But things were not quite so simple. Hitler and Goebbels did want Paris to continue as a cultural capital, but their vision hardly conformed to what Matisse, Poulenc, or even Cocteau had in mind. The German aim was to promote a version of German culture as the highest ideal, and reduce French culture to a harmless caricature of Parisian frivolity: frothy comedies in the theaters, dancing girls in the cabarets, and mindless entertainment in films. As Goebbels put it: “I have given very clear orders that the French should produce only films that are light, empty and if possible kitsch.”
As far as pushing German high culture was concerned, this policy only worked to an extent in the case of music. People flocked to hear Herbert von Karajan conduct Wagner’s operas. But German films, art, or literature never made much of an impression, despite the fawning reception given to the grandiose Nazi sculptor Arno Breker by much of the Parisian beau monde. The chief fawner was Jean Cocteau.
By hanging on to high standards, even in several movies made for German-run studios, French artists made sure that their culture never descended to the level that would have suited Goebbels. Even in music, much was done to encourage good French composers. Riding quotes a letter from Poulenc to a friend in December 1941: “The musical life in Paris is intense. [Charles] Munch puts on beautiful concerts and everyone tries to keep alive the spiritual atmosphere of our good city.” This was seen by many people at the time as a form of resistance, a small victory for superior French culture over the vulgar German propaganda machine.
Jean Guéhenno, the essayist, was exceptional in his absolute refusal to publish anything in official publications. He even despised writers who continued to publish in their own names, instead of pseudonymously in the clandestine press. “Why write now?” he wrote in his journal. “It is impossible to question how ridiculous it is to pursue such a personal profession. These times call for modesty.” That most French writers did not follow his example has many reasons. One of them is that the Germans deliberately created enough gray areas for French artists and writers to function, without feeling that they had totally sold out. It was possible to produce art of high quality in Paris under Nazi occupation, in a way that would have been inconceivable in Warsaw, or even Berlin.
This was partly thanks to the German policy of seduction. Germans in charge of cultural policy in France, such as Otto Abetz, or Gerhard Heller, who was responsible for literary censorship, were fully committed to the Nazi cause, but they saw themselves as Francophiles of a kind. Abetz was married to a French woman, and was a self-professed lover of French literature. Abetz and others in the German administration did everything they could to purge French culture of Jewish and liberal influences, but this didn’t bother French conservatives such as Jouhandeau or Henry de Montherlant. An air of cultivation, backed by the promise of all kinds of privileges, enabled these German officials to turn French publishers, art dealers, gallery owners, writers, and theater producers into accomplices. Much of the censorship was self-censorship. And the Germans were smart enough to leave talented artists and writers, as long as they were not Jewish or overtly anti-German, just sufficient room to produce decent work.
In fact, the German officers in charge of cultural affairs were often less crude and dogmatic than fascist officials in the Vichy government. For example, a play by Cocteau, La Machine à écrire (The Typewriter), about anonymous hate mail, was banned by the Vichy censor for being immoral. The German propaganda department overturned the ban on the grounds of “artistic freedom.” And besides, Abetz, Heller, and Karl Epting, head of the German Institute in Paris, organized elegant parties and receptions to promote Franco-German understanding with an abundance of good food and wine, commodities that soon became scarce in wartime Paris.
One could choose to stay away from all this, of course, and many did. But distinctions could be fine. The composer Henri Dutilleux said it was a duty to fight collaboration, but one had to make a living: “We said it was all right to play in front of Germans, but not for Radio Paris.” For Radio Paris was the propaganda station run by Nazis. A wartime ditty went: “Radio Paris ment, Radio Paris ment. Radio Paris Allemand” (“Radio Paris lies, Radio Paris lies. Radio Paris is German”).
The gray areas were seductive, however, especially for men and women who found it hard to forgo their places in the limelight. Maurice Chevalier, among others, had no problem performing for Radio Paris. The Ukrainian-born dancer Serge Lifar delighted in dancing at the German embassy, and even traveled to Berlin to meet Hitler. Poulenc explained this “infantile imprudence” by pointing out Lifar’s “taste for publicity.” Successful authoritarian regimes rely less on terror than on exploiting human vices, such as greed and vanity. In this respect, the German seduction of the French intelligentsia was certainly a qualified success.
Riding also raises the issue of sex, about which he might have said a bit more. Occupying armies often carry an allure of masculine glamor, the uniforms, the power, the smell of victory. This was not lost on many French women, or indeed men. The Nazi policy of turning French culture into a showcase of dancing girls and sexy froufrou was not just designed to offer rest and recreation to German troops. That was certainly a bonus. But the main purpose was to stress the virility of German culture in contrast to feminine French decadence. Some French writers, who had wallowed in the self-image of national degradation anyway, got an active frisson out this. Montherlant, who had written against the Nazis in the 1930s, took a different line after German troops ran all over France. In a book of essays published in 1941, he blamed the French defeat on national weakness and corruption, and welcomed, in Riding’s words, “the conquering Germans as if they were virile medieval knights.”
At least Montherlant refused to join an official writers’ delegation to Germany in late October 1941. Jouhandeau did go, along with Abel Bonnard, Brasillach, and others. He justified this trip by claiming that “I would like to make my body a fraternal bridge between Germany and us.” As Riding says, Jouhandeau was speaking metaphorically. Others took this sentiment more literally, however. For homosexuals, occupied Paris was at once a risky place and a vast playground of opportunities. Official Nazi ideology was venomously opposed to homosexuality, and the French fascist press often hounded Cocteau and other well-known homosexuals for being “degenerates.” A gay man could end up in a concentration camp. Yet the writer Roger Peyrefitte, for one, claimed that he had never had such a good time as in Paris during the war, with thousands of young men, in or out of uniform, running around. Riding mentions the “numerous gay bars” that were “popular with German soldiers.”
Could the fact that Cocteau, Jouhandeau, Brasillach, Montherlant, Lifar, and Bonnard all happened to be homosexuals have had anything to do with their rather too flexible relations with the occupiers? Jean Guéhenno thought so. Riding quickly drops the subject. To claim that gay collaboration can be explained simply through an attraction to tough guys in shiny boots would be trite. Jouhandeau’s anti-Semitism, for example, probably had more to do with his Catholic conservatism than with a taste for leather and uniforms. Some homosexuals may, however, have been drawn to the occupiers less for sexual than for social reasons.
Cocteau was more afraid of French bigots than of the Germans he frequented. The real enemies in the eyes of some French homosexuals might well have been the beady-eyed French bourgeois, the middle-class family men, ready to persecute a person for his deviant sexual preferences. This is how Brasillach defined fascism:
It is above all a non-conformist spirit, anti-bourgeois with an element of irreverence…. It is the true spirit of friendship, which we would like to raise to a national friendship.
Male camaraderie, in this type of fantasy, was elevated to a social ideal. Some notable gay men might have been attracted to Communist cells for similar reasons.
Cocteau’s reaction to postwar accusations of collaboration was revealing. He was never a Nazi, nor was he guilty of actively assisting the Nazis in any crimes. But he was certainly unprincipled in his choice of friends, who included prominent Nazi officials. Perhaps he too, like Lifar, couldn’t bear to be obscure, or “modest” in the sense prescribed by Jean Guéhenno. He was an artist. To shun the company of cultivated Germans struck him as vulgar. If he wished to cultivate Arno Breker and promote his absurd sculptures of outsized Aryan musclemen, he should be free to do so. And so he accused his accusers of petty bourgeois prejudice:
Why should the destiny of a poet change? My realm is not of this world and the world resents me for not following its rules. I will always suffer the same injustice.
Was he speaking here only as a poet, or also as a poet who happened to be gay?
Cocteau’s self-pity was not attractive, but he had a point about the petty spirit that often drove postwar vengeance. If life under foreign occupation, or dictatorship, tests a person’s character, so does life immediately after. When it became clear to almost everyone that Germany would surely lose the war, the number of soi-disant resistance fighters grew apace. Some left their resistance to the very last minute, when the Germans were already on the run. Some even made claims to resistance after the Germans had left. And the victims of these late resisters were often the least harmful, but most visible, collaborators, such as women who had had affairs with German soldiers. This is when the vengeance of the good family man, precisely the kind that Cocteau feared, was given free rein.
Many were killed in political purges by the left, often organized by Communist resistance groups. Communists, including former resisters, such as Louis Aragon, behaved in a manner that was not always so different from the Vichyistes they had opposed. The old French divisions were still intact in 1944. Indeed, despite the many gray areas of occupied Paris, Vichy rule and German occupation had made them even sharper.
This doomed some collaborationist writers, such as Brasillach, whose publicly aired views were more conspicuous than the often more damaging deeds of Vichy officials and businessmen. Drieu La Rochelle killed himself before he could be put on trial. Brasillach was sentenced to death in 1945. His mentor, Charles Maurras, was arrested and tried, despite his hatred of Germany. Although he had favored a purge of collaborators in the name of justice at first, Camus soon had doubts about the épuration intellectuelle. Was it right to sentence people to death just for holding reprehensible views?
It was often the writers who had behaved most bravely during the occupation, such as Camus, Paulhan, and Mauriac, who advocated charity and reconciliation. De Gaulle realized that France could not afford a civil war, and brought the purges to a halt. He promoted the fiction that Paris had liberated itself, and that the majority of French citizens had been brave patriots during the war. As a last show of justice, however, at least two very public figures had to be executed, after somewhat hasty and dubious trials. One was Pierre Laval. Pétain was too old, and too grand, to execute. And Laval was the more odious figure in the public eye. The other, despite protestations from Mauriac, Claudel, and Valéry that his death would be “a loss to French letters,” was Brasillach.
How unfair was this? Could the crimes of a pro-Nazi writer even be compared to those of a politician with blood on his hands? This depends on how one views the writer’s role. The journalist Jean Galtier-Boissière, who had behaved impeccably during the war, thought that a person who lived by his pen should not be judged differently from a man who worked in a factory. He wrote:
Does one reproach the workers at Renault for making tanks for the Wehrmacht? Wasn’t a tank more useful to the Fritz than an item in Le Petit Parisien?
But of course this is not how writers are traditionally viewed, least of all in France. Alan Riding ends his fascinating book by claiming that even in France the reverence for writers has faded, that “politically speaking, artists and writers may now be less prominent,” which also makes them “less dangerous.” He ascribes this loss of prestige to the failure of utopian visions, to the fact that writers “no longer believe that ideas alone can resolve life’s problems.”
I’m not so sure about this. If so, it may well be a temporary phenomenon, a lull between the age of twentieth-century totalitarianism and different but perhaps equally lethal ideologies that will shape our future. Besides, Brasillach, among others, was doing more than spreading noxious ideas; he publicly fingered Jews for arrest, and worse. If the history of occupied Paris teaches us anything, it is not that utopianism has ended but the illusion that writers and artists, even some of the best of them, have any special claim on courage, virtue, or morality. In that sense, they are no better or worse than the man building a tank in the Renault factory.