Pros: nearly encyclopedic coverge
Cons: can lose sight of the forest for the trees, a bit of an apologia
I was a teenage Francophile…. long before there was an Epinions, and long before visiting France. And I am a consumer of French culture all year round, though July seems to signal “French finds” even without writeoffs.
I read Robert O Paxton’s history Vichy France when it came out, and have pondered what I’d have done in occupied France while reading Simenon’s Dirty Snow and Alice Kaplan's The Collaborator, while watching “Lacombe, Lucien,” "M. Klein," "Army of Shadows," “This Land Is Mine,” etc. In the preface to Alan Riding’s And the Show Went on: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris he quotes Anthony Eden, Britain’s wartime foreign secretary and later prime minister: “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.”
I guess that Riding does not “pronounce on” what French cultural figures did during the four years of Nazi occupation, though implicit criticism is common (or am I reading in to his reportage?). Especially at the beginning, after the collapse of the French army in 1940, hardly anyone in Europe thought the “thousand-year Reich” had less than half a decade left. Oddly enough, one of the few who did was the virulently anti-Semitic right-wing writer Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, who took over editing NRF, the leading literary journal, and who protected some writers who were in the Resistance rather than in “internal exile.” Drieu La Rochelle was not untypical of rightist French in being French first, rightist second. Enthusiasm for Hitler was rare, though there were some “running dogs” of the Nazis, including writer Marcel Jouhandeau.
Though André Malraux, a bona fide member of the Resistance and one of the most famous of French writers at the time, did not publish during the Occupation, most other writers did, including Jean-Paul Sartre, who not only published Being and Nothingness but had his plays "No Exit" and "The Flies" mounted in major Paris theaters with large contingents of German officers in the audience. A gibe was that Sartre joined the Resistance at the same time the Paris police force did. He became a judge (not just metaphorically) of collaborationists, and part of the myth-making of large-scale French Resistance.
From what I have read it seems to me that France would still be under Nazi Occupation had its fate depended upon internal challenges to collaboration and occupation. Moreover, the French authorities (in the nominally unoccupied zone and in the occupied zone) did not just comply with extermination of Jews but took initiatives to round up and hand over Jews. And this was done against a backdrop of some virulently anti-Semitic French writers, including Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Robert Brasillach (both of whom were condemned to death, though soon enough the former was pardoned) as well as Drieu La Rochelle (who committed suicide) and Jouhandeau (who quivered in fear of being held to account for his going to Berlin in a delegation of French writers).
Riding shows that Jews were removed from theater and movie productions, but that with German encouragement, publication, movie production, and stage production (cabaret as well as classic and modern theater) went on, patronized by Germans (including the anti-Hitler fascist Ernst Junger who was stationed in Paris) and that the desire to see one’s name in print (and to eat) trumped qualms about “collaborating with the enemy” at least until D-Day for most everyone in culture industries in France.
Riding is good on explaining what Goebbels wanted from French culturati and goes through what the leading lights of French arts and letters did, domain by domain. He devotes a chapter to an American, Varian Fry, who got many culturati (French and refugees in France from elsewhere) out. The other hero of the account was also American, African American singer/dancer Josephine Baker who was a more daring and more successful spy than Mata Hari in the First World War.
Riding is also good in cutting through the hypocrisy of those howling for the lives of collaborationists after Liberation, not least the late-in-the-day resistor Jean-Paul Sartre. French women took the lead in stripping and shearing those they resented for “horizontal collaboration” (see “Hiroshima, mon amour” and the Italian parallel “Malèna”). Arletty (Children of the Paradise) said that there were no uniforms in her bed, and was briefly banned from working.
An instance I find especially ridiculous is the ban on film director Henri-Georges Clouzot because “Le Corbeau” (The Crow) defamed the French in the movie that shows a village eagerly making anonymous denunciations to the occupiers. I see the movie as a critique of (and discouragement against) such conduct. Riding points out that the beloved “Les enfants du Paradis” (Children of the Paradise) is exactly the kind of escape into the past devoid of politics that Goebbels wanted form French film-makers. Though released after the end of the Occupation, it was made during it. (I find Riding's claim that "The German Occupation was remembered as a golden age of French cinema" very odd: there were arguably as many as four good movies, including "Le Corbeau": I am confident that there is a consensus among cinemaphiles that the golden ages of French cinema were the late-1930s and early 1960s.)
The book discusses many, many cases. Its organization by cultural domain (theater, movies, cabaret, concert music, publication) blunts any sense of development over time (history in the sense of more than writings about a past time) and I wonder whether its overall narrative would be even more blurry for those who are unfamiliar with the many, many characters whose wartime activities Riding reviews. Those of us who are familiar with French writers and entertainers of the 1930s and 40s (and have familiarity with the background from Paxton, Kaplan, the documentaries by Marcel Ophüls, “The Sorrow and the Pity,” and by Claude Chabrol, “The Eye of Vichy,” etc. already know much of this. Though I am unsure about the audience for the book, I found it quite readable.
©2011, Stephen O. Murray