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Getting By

Sean OHuiginn

And the Show Went on: Cultural Life in Nazi-occupied Paris, by Alan Riding, Duckworth, 432 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0715640678

We have a “near past”, as the Russians have their “near abroad”, a zone whose very familiarity can mask dimensions of strangeness which mean the “near abroad” is still essentially abroad and the “near past” is still another country, where they do things differently.

The Second World War is a period close enough to feel almost contemporary. We regularly see its newsreels and films, hear its sound recordings and to dress in its fashions would leave us looking merely “retro” rather than in fancy dress. It takes a corresponding effort of the imagination to understand how much separates us from a time where the future of Europe, and by extension the world, was open-ended to an extent that has never been the case since, and where the antique laws of military conquest were still seen as a valid basis for political structures. It looms large for many reasons, not least for its extraordinary dramatic and epic qualities, as if the gods who had produced the First World war had decided to outdo themselves in the second act of their tragedy. The sweep of the conflict, the unprecedented depth of evil of the Holocaust and its other atrocities, the morbid fascination of Hitler, who came closer than most mortals to tasting, however fleetingly, the pinnacle of social omnipotence, are crystallised in historical retrospect. But our past was still the future for those who lived then and we who view these events backwards will always be at a remove from those who had to live them forward, in all their as yet unresolved fluidity.

That corrective lens is particularly necessary in the case of occupied France, the theme of Alan Riding’s fine book. We experience occupation in our time generally as an asymmetric matter, as in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan. Modern occupations are usually presented as mere temporary expedients to serve a higher purpose, greatly to the benefit of the occupied if these latter will only summon up the necessary insight and patience. The occupation of France was grounded unapologetically on the traditional rights of military conquest. It involved no even aspirational time limits. It was an engagement between two societies of broadly comparable levels of progress at the forefront of social and technical modernity. Under the exceptional circumstances of the occupation, France became to some extent a social laboratory, and it is one of the many fascinating aspects of Riding’s book to trace how the unwilling French subjects of the experiment reacted to the unprecedented stresses and dilemmas imposed upon them.

The fall of France, after a German attack so risky that even the arch-gambler Hitler was dubious, neutralised in just under a month the largest army in Europe, and reset to zero all political and military calculations on the continent. It ended whatever precarious equilibrium had flowed from the capacity of France and Germany to wound each other so deeply as to inhibit, if not prevent, aggression, and it seemed all too possible that Hitler had inaugurated, if not exactly a thousand-year Reich, at least an era of prolonged German hegemony in Europe.

The France which fell so suddenly and catastrophically had long been a deeply fractured society, a fracture reflected in the political volatility of the Third Republic, often referred to in the unlovely language of the hard right as la gueuse (the tramp, in all pejorative female applications of the word). The fault line between a strongly conservative and Catholic-oriented France and the France of the revolutionary tradition ‑ to simplify two complex rival social and political tendencies ‑ remained unbridged throughout the history of the Third Republic, which was almost equally unloved on the left. Sartre, burnishing, or some might say inventing, his Resistance credentials, invoked the reluctance to suffer or die “for a disgusting France, corrupt, inefficient, racist, anti-Semite, run by the rich for the rich” ‑ until the French understood that the Nazis were worse.

The German occupation of France was unique in that it allowed a more complex interaction between conqueror and conquered than was tolerated in other German zones of occupation. Hitler’s dominant motivation was to make conditions safe for his eastward expansion by neutralising France. Mein Kampf makes clear he could contemplate no partnership with the French arch-enemy, which had to be punished for its inveterate hatred of Germany and its past sins and denied opportunity for the future. His more concrete intentions remain uncertain. He once spoke of reducing France to its borders of the year 1500 and reincorporating the ancient kingdom of Burgundy into the Reich. It is probable that had he prevailed France would indeed have been reduced to some such rump state, carefully rendered harmless by the preponderant Reich and oriented to its purposes. In the shorter term it made sense to run the occupation on the basis that required the least expenditure of precious German manpower, and a vagueness as to ultimate intent kept the French motivated by the hopes of some better accommodation with the Reich. If the same goal was served by some indulgence of France’s decadent ways, then French decadence, as Hitler jovially pointed out to Speer, was so much the better for Germany.

For the French, the search was for some equilibrium in the bewildering circumstance of their sudden and utter defeat. As long as Marshal Pétain incorporated that hope he was idolised to a degree which would be hard to credit were not the evidence so conclusive at every level. The newsreels showing endless processions of schoolchildren being beamed at or having their chins chucked by the marshal were obviously propaganda, but there is no doubt that he, rather than de Gaulle, had the overwhelming support of the French population at the outset (it is ironic that in the wake of the greatest military catastrophe in the history of France it fell to two military figures to embody the nation’s contradictory hopes for salvation).

The growing brutality of the occupation and the ever more voracious demands of the Reich on France’s wealth and manpower made it increasingly obvious, even in Vichy, that this devil’s pact of collaboration was a one-sided affair ‑ as such pacts tend to be. The increasing military pressure of the war on the Reich robbed it of its initial aura of invincibility and further swelled the ranks of the résistants and enhanced the role of de Gaulle.

Riding rightly emphasises the outstanding cultural achievements of France in the early modern period, and the particular prestige it accorded to its writers and artists. Through the prism of culture he encompasses the demeanour of French society as a whole, which, like Caesar’s Gaul, he usefully divides into the three elements of collaborateurs, résistants and attentistes (the great mass of fence-sitters prepared to wait and see). Decades before the occupation, the writer Jacques Rivière claimed that great writers could not be great moral characters, because their necessarily self-centred natures made them poorly equipped for devotion and sacrifice, and since they had to distance themselves from their feelings in order to see them, these were never as genuine as with other people. Jean Guéhenno, a writer free of any taint of collaboration, wrote in his diary in 1940: “The species of the man of letters is not one of the greatest human species. Incapable of surviving for long in hiding, he would sell his soul to see his name in print.”

Not very much happened during the occupation to refute these bleak views. Few writers were to be found in de Gaulle’s entourage in London. Honourable exceptions such as Albert Cohen and Joseph Kessel were less than stellar names in the world of literature (although Kessel and his nephew, the future writer Maurice Druon, gave the Resistance its hugely resonant anthem Le chant des Partisans). For the most part, the luminaries of the French artistic world devoted themselves to personal and artistic survival in the treacherous new world into which they found themselves transported as if by a malevolent spell. Some even tried to use the new circumstances to advance their feuds, as when the painter Maurice de Vlaminck used his good standing with the Occupation to launch a spiteful attack on Picasso.

For writers who stayed in Paris, the circumstances of the Occupation were as strange physically as they were morally. It is harder to imagine a greater contrast than that presented then by Europe’s two great capitals. London was convulsed by the nightly inferno of the Blitz, an interlude which remains a powerful heroic component in British myth and self-image. Paris became a kind of ghost town. Genet thought it was a kind of Pompeii, “a city a burglar dares dream of”. Ernst Jünger, serving with the occupying forces, called it “a dead planet”. The curfew confined night life to those privileged to have passes, leaving the city eerily empty. By day petrol rationing gave the streets back to pedestrians and to bicycles, rickshaws or horse-drawn conveyances which seemed to have materialised from the previous century, lending the city an unwonted stillness. Food rationing led to a novel urban agriculture, with chicken coops, rabbit hutches and vegetable beds appearing in incongruous places. The curfew also led to all-night clubs and parties, including “fiestas” fondly recalled by Sartre, which enabled revellers to make it through the night until the curfew was lifted next morning.

It was common ground between Vichy and the Germans that France’s cultural life should flourish, Vichy wishing to promote one of the few dimensions of French life where an assertion of French glory was still possible, the Germans to demonstrate the normality of occupation. Naturally each envisaged this under their own particular conditions. Vichy, in accordance with its motto of travail, famille, patrie (work, family, fatherland), was determined to present France’s plight as the result of social and political decadence rather than military failure and introduced a range of new moral legislation, for example limiting divorce, tightening the ban on abortion and criminalising homosexuality in France for the first time since the Code Napoléon had, by enlightened omission, abolished legal penalties for it almost a century and a half earlier. These measures were buttressed by a pervasive censorship, or more accurately a system of editorial prescription, combined with a control of printing, drawing all the mass media under a preventive control. German concerns related primarily to negative presentations of the occupation and to the role of the Jews. In some other areas they were sometimes inclined to take a less censorious view than Vichy, occasionally permitting books and productions the collaborationist government wanted banned.

Disgracefully, the treatment of the Jews was not an issue which caused any particular tensions between Vichy and the Germans. Riding does full justice to this shameful dimension, where incidentally Catholic writers such as François Mauriac and Paul Claudel and even the frivolous Jean Cocteau emerge with greater credit than Sartre and de Beauvoir, who carefully avoided any protests on the subject which might have damaged their careers. It is no longer disputed that the notorious deportations of the Jews to the Reich were organised and executed by French people. Indeed the efficiency of the French security apparatus exacerbated the problem. Its register of enemy aliens compiled at the outbreak of the war later served as an excellent database to round up the large Jewish component of German nationals living in France. As with so many other aspects of collaboration, Vichy officials probably saw themselves as opting for the lesser evil, believing that a propitiatory offering of non-French Jews to the Reich would give some space for less savage treatment of French-born Jews, of whom about a quarter of a million survived the war. As in Germany, banal bureaucratic considerations often played an incongruous role. Pierre Laval’s notorious decision to deport Jewish children with their parents was probably intended to plump up the quota but also to avoid the administrative headache of dealing with thousands of parentless children.

Rather as abusive relationships are said to be most paralysing for the victim when cruelty coexists with some measures of kindness, the German occupation could also show an amenable side, the better to entice influential artists and intellectuals into its orbit. Francophiles such as the German ambassador Otto Abetz (married to a French wife) and Gerhard Heller, the influential head of the literature department of the Propagandastaffel (the 1,200-strong bureaucracy intended to make French opinion fit for Joseph Goebbels’s purposes) fancied themselves in the role of patrons of French culture. They were helped by the official German acceptance that there was a role for French culture, even if it was to be culture of the frivolous kind, to which the manly seriousness of the Reich would offer an edifying contrast. The protection of Abetz or Heller was often crucial for French writers and the benefits of their patronage could include supply of the vital ration of paper necessary to print a book or, on a less basic level, luxury fare at dinners and receptions, greatly coveted in a half-starved Paris. The intricacies and paradoxes of their interaction with French cultural life are a fascinating part of Riding’s narrative, although it would take another Balzac or Proust to do the story full justice.

Riding’s book goes beyond the purely cultural remit of its title and examines the impact of the Occupation on almost all sectors of French life, with many fascinating sidelights. He recounts that the theatrical hit of the entire occupation was, improbably, Claudel’s Soulier de Satin (The Satin Slipper), a Wagnerian-scale epic of eleven hours dealing with redemption through renunciation in baroque Spain. Jean-Louis Barrault, who directed and acted in the play, browbeat the very reluctant Claudel into reducing the Comédie-Française production to a mere five hours, overruling aesthetic objections with the imperative of the last metro. In spite of its demands on the endurance of the audience the play had seventy-seven sold-out performances in 1944, garnering the plaudits of occupier and occupied alike.

Riding’s account of French cinema under the occupation is no less interesting. Motivated perhaps by the desire to eliminate the Jewish role in the art form and to ensure influence on such a popular medium, the Germans were the improbable patrons who enabled and in some cases financed several masterpieces of French cinema, including Le Corbeau (the Raven), Les Visiteurs du Soir (The Evening Visitors), and Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise). French cinema in those years clearly benefited from the elimination of its Hollywood competitors. In spite of the double censorship of the Germans and of Vichy (it was the latter who took the scissors to what would have been French cinema’s first nude shower scene, featuring Arletty and an outsize sponge) the popular nature of the art shielded it from the crasser forms of pro-German content which would have repelled French cinemagoers and allowed for at least subtexts which were assertively French, even bordering on resistance.

In terms of the behaviour of individual artists, great narcissists such as Colette and Cocteau, or the dancer Serge Lifar, remained great narcissists, treating the occupation as just another backdrop to the central drama of their personalities but making the necessary adjustments. Colette had to hide her Jewish husband in the attic (a Jew who doesn’t know he is one, as she described him). Cocteau benefited from his association with his touchingly loyal former lover Jean Marais, then taking his first steps towards stardom as a popular film actor, an association which helped to balance his insouciant networking with Germans such as Arno Breker, Hitler’s favourite sculptor, whose Paris exhibition in 1942 was the high point of Franco-German cultural cooperation. For the most part the “great beasts” of French culture remaining in Paris continued an existence which remained enormously privileged ‑ even if in reduced circumstances ‑ compared with what was endured by their compatriots.

Riding deals also with prominent Frenchwomen who had difficulty in grasping the difference between the French and German subsets of the male tribe. Coco Chanel had always had a decidedly horizontal component to her business strategies, and she merely adapted this tried and trusted approach to the new challenges of the Occupation, sharing a suite in the Ritz with a Wehrmacht officer thirteen years her junior and probably deploying her charms also on Hitler’s foreign intelligence chief Walter Schellenberg. (Her attempt to exploit Aryanisation measures to recover control of her firm from the Jewish Wertheimer family was thwarted, as they had prudently installed an “Aryan” owner, but that saga ended happily in a reconciliation after the war, when the Wertheimers’ retailing clout made Chanel one of the richest women of her time.) The actress Arletty also became notorious for her German lover. Her famous defence that her heart was French but her ass international is probably apocryphal but entirely typical of her sassy style. In fact her affair with her German “Faun” as she called him, was a genuinely passionate one, and even survived the war. Her career never recovered, although her head was never, as popular legend would have it, shaven. Her lover went on to become German ambassador to the Congo, where he drowned in a swimming accident in 1960.

Riding’s book is a comprehensive overview rather than one which breaks new ground. The watershed in that respect was Max Ophüls’s 1969 film Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity) which demolished the myth cherished by both the Gaullist right and the Communist left that France had been overwhelmingly a nation of résistants, whose indomitable spirit had been temporarily eclipsed by German military might. Sartre too showed the same deep need to conjure dignity from an essentially inglorious interlude. In a text which is as eloquent as it is implausible, he wrote:

We were never more free than during the German occupation … Because the Nazi venom seeped even into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest … Thus, in darkness and in blood, a Republic was established, the strongest of Republics. Each of its citizens knew that he owed himself to all and that he could count only on himself alone. Each of them, in complete isolation, fulfilled his responsibility and his role in history. Each of them, standing against the oppressors, undertook to be himself, freely and irrevocably. And by choosing for himself in liberty, he chose the liberty of all. This Republic without institutions, without an army, without police, was something that at each instant every Frenchman had to win and to affirm against Nazism. No one failed in this duty, and now we are on the threshold of another Republic. May this Republic to be set up in broad daylight preserve the austere virtue of that other Republic of Silence and of Night.

Riding’s book makes all too clear that the austere virtues of Sartre’s ideal were not so prevalent but Ophüls’s film features the wise observation of Sir Anthony Eden, which Riding quotes and which to some extent serves as the epigraph for his book: “If one hasn’t been through the horrors of an occupation by a foreign power, you have no right to pronounce upon what a country does which has been through all that.”

In retrospect it is clear that few of France’s first rate cultural talents were decided collaborators. Writers such as Robert Brassilach and Pierre Drieu de la Rochelle were zealous converts rather than opportunists, and they were in a minority. Riding’s book has its share of villains, and its share of heroes, such as the inconspicuous Rose Valland at the Jeu de Paume museum, who meticulously and at considerable risk chronicled the art the Nazis were looting. For the most part, the French intelligentsia was guilty of accommodation rather than collaboration, and in fact developed a rough and ready code of behaviour of its own, on a spectrum from writing for a French collaborationist publication (an unfortunate professional necessity) to a promotional visit to Germany (decidedly reprehensible).

After the liberation, the sins of France’s cultural elite arguably received more scrutiny and censure than those of many other even more collaborationist strands of French life, such as the business sector, but it was the obverse side of the coin to their prestige. De Gaulle, on being congratulated on drawing a massive rally of support so soon after Pétain had been able to muster his own enormous crowds, was supposed to have remarked “Ils sont les mêmes” (They are the same people). Much as de Gaulle felt his “noble lie” about resistance was a necessary therapy for France, he was also wise enough to realise its fragility, and he used his influence to keep the settling of scores within reasonable bounds. (The post-liberation exchanges between Mauriac and Albert Camus on the issue of forgiveness remain a document of permanent value, Camus ultimately conceding that Mauriac, the champion of forbearance, was right.)

After the war, the cultural leadership once exercised by France, like the political leadership exercised by Britain, was assumed by the New World, perhaps relativising in the broad sweep of history the very diverse experiences and roles of the two countries in the war. No amount of revisionism could make the Occupation anything other than an inglorious interlude in French history, but Alan Riding’s book is a salutary reminder that this strange period had its splendours as well as its miseries and the human resilience he chronicles cautions us against summary judgments.

Jean Paulhan, the influential critic who used his impeccable credentials as a résistant to oppose the witch-hunts of the Liberation perhaps came nearest to anticipating the likely future French consensus on the occupation, when, in defiance of all the prevailing rhetoric, he allowed a role to both “… the resistant and the obedient: the first to save our principles, the second to save, as far as possible, the people and land of this country”. Hypocrites français, nos semblables, nos frères!

Sean OHuiginn retired from the Irish diplomatic service in 2009. His most recent foreign postings included service as Ireland's Ambassador to Washington, Berlin and Rome. He also served in various capacities in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, including as head of the Department's Anglo-Irish Division between 1991 and 1997.

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