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The New Normal

And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris
By Alan Riding
(Alfred A. Knopf, 399 pp., $28.95)

By the ghastly standards of World War II, the history of France from 1939 to 1944 was a sideshow. Poland, with a smaller pre-war population, suffered at least ten times as many wartime deaths. The Soviet Union, four times larger in 1939, had fully forty times more losses. French cities, in comparison with Polish or Soviet or German cities, survived the war relatively unscathed. The French civilian population experienced hunger, cold, privation, and considerable political persecution, but not widespread starvation, imprisonment, and slaughter. France’s Vichy regime willingly deported seventy-six thousand Jews to the extermination camps—a terrible figure that is nonetheless little more than one percent of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The fact that the war still looms, justifiably, as the most important event in modern French history simply underlines the unfathomably catastrophic nature of what took place farther east, particularly in the East Central European areas that Timothy Snyder has recently dubbed the “bloodlands.”

Yet the fact that France’s war was comparatively fathomable makes it oddly more approachable than the events to the east, or in the Pacific. It inspires less sheer horror, and more empathy and fascination. It is easier to put oneself in the place of a French Jew, caught in a game of cat and mouse with the French and German authorities, than in that of a Polish or Ukrainian Jew, quickly and brutally herded to the slaughter. It is easier to imagine oneself a French Christian, torn between the paths of collaboration, resistance, and passivity, than a Nazi, trained from childhood to the vocation of murder. It is little wonder that even today, even in the United States, so much film and fiction about the war is set not in the places of greatest destruction, but in France (as in Alan Furst’s novels, or Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds). In the imagined moral landscape of that dreadful time, Vichy France occupies a murky, unsettling, and endlessly intriguing middle ground.

Right at the heart of the murk were France’s intellectuals and artists. Even before the war, their German and Soviet counterparts had been largely silenced, imprisoned, killed, or enlisted as totalitarian propagandists. During the war, the Polish cultural elite was systematically murdered by the Nazis. But the French—at least those who were not Jewish—had the luxury of debating at length, in relative safety and comfort, what role to take after the German victory. Should they support the Germans and the collaborationist Vichy state? Join the Resistance? Flee the country? Try, in one way or another, to remain aloof from politics? The occupation presented endless grounds for dramatic confrontation and moral agonizing.

True, for some figures, passionate conviction overrode moral distress. To an openly fascist writer such as the troubled and talented Robert Brasillach, the fall of France was an unmixed blessing that washed away the Third Republic he had notoriously denounced as “an old syphilitic whore, stinking of patchouli and yeast infection.” Now, he believed, the country would finally manage to cleanse itself of corruption—especially Jewish influence. Brasillach had an astonishing capacity to delude himself about fascism, describing it in 1941 as “a non-conformist spirit, anti-bourgeois with an element of irreverence.” On the other side, writers such as Albert Camus joined the Resistance and edited the underground paper Combat. Jean-Paul Sartre published in Combat and contributed to Resistance activities as well, although he spent much of the war writing Being and Nothingness. Like many other intellectuals, including André Malraux, he waited for clear signs of Allied victory before committing himself wholly to the cause.

But most cultural figures could not avoid a constant procession of moral dilemmas, large and small. Was it acceptable to publish an apolitical article in a collaborationist magazine? What about giving a manuscript to a publishing house that had purged its list of Jewish and left-wing authors so as to stay in business? Some insisted that the cultivation of German officials was justified—on the grounds, say, that the connections could be used to protect vulnerable colleagues. Many agreed that theatrical life needed to continue, even though scripts and casts required approval from the German propaganda bureau, which banned Jews from all productions. Sartre submitted to these conditions for the production of his plays The Flies and No Exit, but later claimed (with some justification) that they carried anti-German messages. The writer Jean Guéhenno, who wrote only for underground periodicals until the liberation, commented acidly on the most common rationalization for continuing to publish: “The species of the man of letters is not one of the greatest of human species.... He would sell his soul to see his name in print.... It goes without saying that he is full of good reasons. ‘French literature must continue.’ He believes that he is French literature and thought and that they will die without him.”

Lending it all additional drama was the fact that France’s cultural elite, despite ferocious ideological cleavages, was at bottom a strikingly homogenous and close-knit group. There are no conflicts quite as fraught as familial ones. The small, elite École Normale Supérieure itself counted most of the country’s leading scholars and literary figures among its alumni: Sartre and Raymond Aron; Guéhenno, Brasillach, and Jean Giraudoux; the historian Marc Bloch, the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and so on. In some cases, personal ties trumped ideological cleavages. The fascist writer Pierre Drieu La Rochelle remained friends with the militant anti-fascist and eventual Resistance figure André Malraux throughout the war, intervening with the German authorities to obtain protection for him, and even becoming godfather to his child in 1943. The collaborationist Ramon Fernandez never informed the authorities about the Resistance meetings hosted in his apartment building by his neighbor and fellow writer Marguerite Duras. Such actions helped some collaborators to escape harsh punishment after the liberation—but not in Brasillach’s case. His egregious treason—including denouncing opponents in his collaborationist paper and demanding their arrest—earned him a death sentence.

Not surprisingly, French cultural life during the war remains an irresistible subject, not just in France, and not just for professional historians. Recent work on it includes surveys by Michèle C. Cone and Frederic Spotts, Laurence Bertrand Dorléac’s splendid Art of the Defeat, France 1940-1944, and a superb exhibition at the New York Public Library, “Between Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation.” In the 1990s, the wartime filming of Marcel Carné’s masterpiece Les Enfants du Paradis itself became the subject of an excellent play at Minneapolis’s Théâtre de la Jeune Lune. Among the scholars, Bertrand Dorléac in particular has added a great deal to our understanding of wartime France, with her observation that both collaborators and resisters ironically shared a belief in culture as the embodiment of a timeless, essential, national spirit (a belief also advanced, of course, by the Nazis). And much of the art and literature produced in the war remains visible, including Les Enfants du Paradis, plays and novels by Sartre and Camus, Jean Bruller’s brilliant novel Le Silence de la Mer (published under the pseudonym Vercors), and the vivid and tragically unfinished Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, a Jew whose caustic literary portrayals of Jewish life and connections with the French literary right did not save her from Auschwitz.


Alan Riding, a former European cultural correspondent for The New York Times, does not have a major new argument to make in his book. He has read widely in published memoirs and diaries (particularly Guéhenno’s marvelously biting Journal of the Black Years), consulted the most important history books, and conducted some useful interviews with the period’s last survivors. He has not ventured into archives, or done much with the periodical press, or consulted any sources in German. He also has disappointingly little to say about the material conditions of cultural life under the occupation—for instance, the paper shortages that forced the writer Jacques Audiberti to write his novel Monorail on scraps of wallpaper.

Instead Riding smoothly tells a series of entertaining stories—for instance, about the time a German officer visited Picasso’s studio in Paris, and the painter offered him a postcard of Guernica (his masterpiece depicting the Nazi bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War). Did you do this?” the officer asked. “No. You did,” Picasso claimed to have replied. And Riding happily repeats famous remarks, such as the actress Arletty’s justification of her “horizontal collaboration” with German officers: “My heart is French but my ass is international.” Although the book’s subtitle refers to Paris, Riding ranges over wartime France in general, with a chapter on the town of Vichy, and another on Varian Fry, the young Harvard graduate who worked briefly as the literary editor of this magazine and then went off to the southern French “unoccupied zone” to help thousands of refugees escape the Nazis. Riding’s book meanders at times, but overall it is a lively guide to French cultural life in the so-called “dark years” of 1940-1944.

What emerges with particular force from Riding’s account is the way all the participants in the story acknowledged the privileged status of French artists and writers—including even the Germans. Despite the long-standing German disdain for superficial Gallic civilisation compared with profound Teutonic Kultur, and despite the Nazi Party’s often extreme Francophobia, an instinctive respect for French culture still survived among many Occupation officials. Hitler’s ambassador to the Vichy regime, Otto Abetz, had a French wife, spoke the language fluently, and had long taken part in cultural exchanges between the two countries. (Before the war, he had also funneled secret funds to the French extreme right.) Abetz brought with him German experts on French art and music, including enthusiastic Francophiles such as the former literature student Gerhard Heller, who oversaw the censorship of literature and allowed the publication of books by Sartre and Camus, and even by the Communist poet Louis Aragon and his Jewish wife Elsa Triolet. Heller also organized two trips by French writers to Weimar, where they met Goebbels, and this was just one of many attempts to reinforce cultural ties between the two countries. The Paris Opéra performed Wagner more than any other composer during the occupation—fifty-four times. (Mozart came in second with thirty-five.) In the spring of 1941, Hitler himself sponsored a trip by the young conductor Herbert von Karajan to lead the Berlin Staatsoper in Paris performances. And when Hitler visited Paris a few days after its capture, he did so in the company of hand-picked German artists, including Albert Speer and the sculptor Arno Breker.

In keeping with these policies, some French cultural figures enjoyed extraordinarily lenient treatment from the Germans. The actor and director Sacha Guitry had fled south ahead of the Blitzkrieg, but returned to Paris after a German officer recognized him and praised him as a French cultural treasure. Back in the capital, Guitry immediately tried to put on his play Pasteur, and when the German censors insisted on cutting several scenes, including one that involved the singing of the Marseillaise, Guitry appealed directly to the German administrative governor, Harald Turner. Remarkably, Turner complied, and attended the play’s premiere, and led the audience in standing for the French anthem, afterwards paying his compliments to Guitry in the actor’s dressing room.

The Germans also permitted Jean Yonnel to continue performing and directing at the Comédie-Française despite his Jewish Romanian origins. (In an interview with Riding, the actor Michel Francini quipped that “the Germans named [Yonnel] an honorary Aryan.”) Most striking of all was the tolerance shown by the Germans to the unhinged anti-Semitic novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. He accused Heller of being an agent of the publishing company Éditions Gallimard, and in conversation with the German writer Ernst Jünger attacked the Germans for not proceeding ruthlessly enough with the extermination of the Jews. At a dinner at the German embassy in early 1944, Céline supposedly spoke openly of the coming German defeat, and bizarrely claimed that Hitler had been replaced by a Jew. Despite his anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies, it is hard to imagine the Germans allowing Céline to insult them so brazenly—but all Abetz did was to ask his servants to leave the room.

To be sure, the leniency was hardly consistent. The German authorities proscribed long lists of books by Jewish, German émigré, and left-wing authors. They took a strong stand against “immoral” literature, even fulfilling the wishes of French nineteenth-century censors by banning Madame Bovary. And as Gerhard Heller recounted in his memoirs, they seized and burned no fewer than 2,242 tons of books. Where French and French-owned works of art were concerned, the Germans had the most sincere compliment of all to pay: theft, with Jewish collections predictably suffering the most. The Nazi organization responsible for the principal operations reported in August 1944 that it had confiscated 203 collections, for a total of 21,903 art objects, including priceless furniture, antiques, jewelry, and paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Hals, Vermeer, Velázquez, Murillo, Goya, and Fragonard. A German official, for once telling nothing but the precise truth, boasted that “this collection can compare with those of the best European museums.” Furniture from no fewer than sixty-nine thousand French Jewish homes was shipped to the Reich.

Meanwhile, although the fascist writer Drieu La Rochelle managed to have the Germans release his friend Jean Paulhan, whom they had arrested as part of a Resistance network, most other figures in Paulhan’s situation could not count on similar luck—especially the Jews. After arresting Marc Bloch, the Vichy police turned him over to the Gestapo, who tortured and shot him. The Gestapo also arrested Maurice Halbwachs and deported him to Buchenwald, where he died of dysentery. The most famous Resistance network of scholars and writers, based at the Paris Museum of Man, was broken up, with many of its members tortured and killed. The museum lost twenty-eight members of its staff during the war, including seven executed together in 1942. Yet in a sign of the influence attributed to intellectuals, these seven hoped for reprieves until the very end, because of appeals by Paul Valéry and two other writers.

Overall, as Riding notes, the German policies only reinforced the already large sense of self-importance among French artists and intellectuals, and helped them to justify virtually any decision in the name of their duty to French culture. The wholly admirable resolution by Guéhenno not to publish during the occupation—or even to look at a German soldier—was itself a deeply literary gesture. And if he did not consciously write his famous private journal for postwar publication, he composed it in a highly literary manner (“I am going to bury myself in silence. I must keep quiet all that I think”), and published excerpts soon after the liberation. Sartre went so far as to claim, in an unwittingly damning interview in the 1970s, that his writing had done as much for the Resistance as acts of anti-German sabotage: “Our job was to tell all the French, we will not be ruled by Germans. That was the job of the resistance, not just a few more trains or bridges blown up here and there.” On the other side, a collaborationist writer such as Marcel Jouhandeau could justify his visit to the First European Writers’ Congress in Weimar with the words, “I would like to make my body a fraternal bridge between Germany and us.”

Such words were pompous. They were not, however, entirely delusional. Writers and artists did indeed have an extraordinarily prestigious and important place in French society, and their actions mattered for the country’s self-image in a way that the actions of businessmen, say, did not. (Not surprisingly, the sordid story of French business under the occupation has received far less attention than the story of French culture.) Despite Riding’s title, illustrated on the cover by a photograph of music-hall dancers, everyone knew that cultural life in occupied France amounted to much more than a “show.”


For Riding, as for most previous writers on the topic, the prestige of French culture matters above all because of the moral burden it imposed: we are back to Vichy as morality play. “The real question, then,” he writes, “was not if but how these influential voices exercised their power.” And while not as sharp in his verdicts as some of his predecessors, Riding ends up taking a critical tone throughout most of the book, highlighting his subjects’ least admirable behavior. Most of them did behave less than gloriously. There was the actor Maurice Chevalier, who gave the Nazis a propaganda coup by performing in Germany, and who, in Paris, ostentatiously got onto the Métro so as to share Parisians’ burdens but rode just five stops and then returned to his chauffeured car. There was Coco Chanel, who took a German lover and schemed to regain control over her company from the Jewish family that had taken a majority interest in the 1920s. And there were Guitry and Jean Cocteau, who happily socialized and cooperated with the Germans. Cocteau even wrote a fatuous essay that compared Hitler’s tame sculptor Breker to Michelangelo. Riding also traces the expertly serpentine strategies followed by Sartre as he struggled to remain free of the taint of collaboration while still promoting his career and keeping his skin intact. Riding criticizes Sartre for the “simplistic” and “romanticized” position, expressed in a later interview, that “every French person had the free choice to be part of the resistance, in their heads anyway, even if they actually did nothing, or to be an enemy.”

Yet Riding ends up making some fairly broad and simple judgments himself. The judgments are certainly defensible. But in the end it is hardly surprising that France’s cultural elite behaved as they did. After the twentieth century, no one should still need to be disabused of the notion that artists and intellectuals are moral exemplars. Sartre, in one of his more introspective moments, remarked after the war (in contradiction to the passage that Riding cites) that “the whole country both resisted and collaborated. Everything we did was equivocal; we never quite knew whether we were doing right or wrong; a subtle poison corrupted even our best actions.” Like Sartre’s other musings on the war, this one is self-serving—and also insulting about the genuine heroes of the Resistance, such as Marc Bloch. Still, it points to the obvious fact that most French artists and intellectuals operated throughout the war in a fog of fear and confusion, and were guided mostly by self-interest.

The more interesting question is the way their story relates to the overall history of the war and the occupation. Here, unfortunately, Riding falls back on a cliché: “Probably no other country better illustrates the perils assumed by a population that is educated to revere theories: it becomes fertile ground for extremism.” Familiar and comforting as the idea will be to an American audience, it gets the story almost entirely wrong. To state the obvious but often overlooked point: the French Third Republic, undermined though it was by the ideological struggles of the 1930s, did not fall victim to French extremism. It fell victim to German extremism. In fact, throughout modern times, for all the attraction of French intellectuals to the ideological extremes, French politics have been defined just as much by competing attempts to occupy the ideological center. The French historian Pierre Serna has keenly observed that in fact, since the end of the French revolutionary terror, nearly every single French regime has tried to position itself as a centrist one, representing order and security against ideological passion. The largest exception is the regime brought to power not by the French themselves, but by an alien invader: Vichy. It was Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union—and not France—that proved “fertile ground for extremism.”

Even among the intellectuals, few remained under the spell of the extremes throughout the war. Before 1939, faced with the spectacle of the corrupt and deeply ineffective Third Republic, artists and writers had flirted readily with the competing totalitarian ideologies—arguably, advocacy of the extremes gave them a way to attract attention and followers, and thereby enhance their cultural and political prestige. This, too, is an enduring feature of French culture. But during the occupation, selfish motivations quickly trumped most ideological ones. As Riding notes, genuine and shameless fascists such as Brasillach were more the exception than the rule among collaborators. And Communist intellectuals did not fully engage with the Resistance until after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, at which point the party line demanded common cause with the “bourgeois democracies.” Only after the war, under a new self-proclaimed republic of the center, could French cultural life reclaim its vocation as a theater for the performance of ideological extremism, this time with a heavily communist tinge.

But, in the end, the most noteworthy thing about France’s cultural elite during World War II was not the group’s unremarkable moral shortcomings, or even its shifting ideological strategies, but its simple good luck. It was good luck that France occupied a different place from Poland in the Third Reich’s plans; good luck that enough Germans still saw enough value in French culture to accord it a place in Hitler’s new order; good luck that France was a battlefield for a matter of months, in 1940 and 1944, rather than for years on end. Tempting as it is to tell the deeply fascinating French story on its own, it needs to be set in this broader context. As historians such as Timothy Snyder have been urging, the events of the 1930s and 1940s in Europe must be seen as part of a single history.

So let us not forget, even while charting the moral dilemmas faced by figures such as Sartre and Guéhenno, that across much of Europe in this period the most common fate of artists and intellectuals was a bullet in the back of the head. French artists and intellectuals hardly escaped from the war unscathed. They had to contend with the chaos of the invasion in 1940, the material privations of the occupation, and the multiple dangers Riding describes. The Jews among them suffered terribly, and disproportionately. But overall, more than a few of these men and women prospered. Some of them produced masterpieces. And most of them, unlike their counterparts farther east, survived to argue another day.

David A. Bell is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article ran in the March 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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