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Couldn’t Resist

French artists and Nazi rule

Adam Kirsch
January 12, 2009

When Paris fell to the Wehrmacht in June 1940, Robert de Rothschild, the French scion of the famed Jewish banking family, managed to escape to New York. His mansion on Avenue Marigny, like many of the choicest properties in the city, was commandeered by the invaders—in this case, by General Friedrich-Carl Hanesse, an officer in the Luftwaffe. In his wartime diaries, Jean Cocteau recalled visiting the former Rothschild mansion for one of its new master’s parties, and finding that the same butler was still on duty. “I am not unhappy here with Monsieur le baron—excuse me, General Hanesse,” the butler confided. “He receives all the same people as Monsieur le baron.”

The anecdote perfectly illustrates Frederic Spotts’s damning thesis in The Shameful Peace, his new history of French cultural life under the Nazi occupation. Drawing largely on published records—histories and newspapers, memoirs, letters, and diaries—Spotts shows that, in the sphere of art and culture at least, the cherished myth of French resistance is just that. For the majority of writers, artists, and performers, including some of the most illustrious, it was as easy to adjust to the new rulers—the Germans in the occupied north of France, the puppet regime of Marshal Petain in the south—as it was for Rothschild’s butler to change masters. Indeed, Cocteau’s story damns no one more than himself: One of the leading figures in the Parisian literary world, he saw no problem with going to a German officer’s soiree.

True, there were a few French writers who actively worked against the German occupation—Albert Camus, who worked on the resistance newspaper Combat, is the most famous example—and a few more who entered a kind of internal exile, refusing to have any dealings with the Germans or Vichy. Jean Guehenno, a journalist and professor, refused to even look a German in the eyes, as he wrote in his diary: “When you get on the Metro, we press together to make room. You are untouchable. I lower my head a bit so that you cannot see where I am looking, to deprive you of the pleasure of an exchange of glances.”

But as Guehenno recognized, to his chagrin, few of his countrymen were willing to make even such pitiable gestures of resistance. “Already we are accepting servitude,” he observed. “Perhaps few people really need freedom.” And while we tend to assume, sentimentally, that “creative”types are most in need of freedom, The Shameful Peace shows that the opposite is the case. Actors and singers and dancers, novelists and painters and composers, all need recognition more than independence. They can handle being censored more easily than being ignored or silenced. Even Camus, Spotts remarks, did what was necessary to publish his books during the Occupation, submitting them to German censorship and receiving an official license. When the censors told him to remove a chapter on Kafka, that notoriously decadent Jewish writer, from The Myth of Sisyphus, he agreed to do so. “Very few writers of note—only six or seven come to mind—refused categorically to submit to German censorship,” Spotts writes.

Such compromises with the Invader or the Occupier—as Spotts generally refers to the Germans, in keeping with his idiosyncratic style—were inevitable for anyone seeking to participate in French cultural life during 1940–44. But there was a great temptation to move beyond compromise to active collaboration, in part because the Nazis made it a deliberate policy to kill French culture with kindness. “‘Glittering Paris’ was the Invader’s paramount propaganda stratagem,” Spotts writes. “It would create the impression that in France—in the cultural sphere especially—nothing had essentially changed, that life was as exciting as ever and that the material hardships could be compensated for by aesthetic pleasures.”

In the East, the German occupiers were butchers, murdering millions of Jews and Slavs to make way for a new Aryan empire; in the West, they were tourists, shopping and sightseeing their way through France. This meant that there were great opportunities for French artists to shine under the Occupation, if they could free themselves from Guehenno’s scruples about socializing with the enemy. There were receptions at the German Embassy, where the ambassador, Otto Abetz, fancied himself a Francophile. There were lectures at the German Institute, where Frenchmen could study the language and culture of the conqueror, to prepare for their subsidiary role in the new Europe. There were even tours of Germany for a select few artists: the painters Derain and Vlaminck took advantage of the Third Reich’s hospitality, while the soprano Germaine Lubin, a famous Isolde, sang at Bayreuth and made a fan of Hitler himself.

Yet a collaborator like Lubin—vain and reckless, but essentially trivial and apolitical—seems innocent compared to Alfred Cortot, the great pianist. Cortot too reveled in German applause—Albert Speer had fond memories of listening to him play Chopin and Debussy at parties—but he also had a lust for power, which the new regime at Vichy was happy to gratify. Cortot became, in Spotts’s words, “in effect musical dictator of France,” with the power to grant or deny licenses to all professional musicians in the country. The Cortot Committee became a French version of Germany’s Reich Music Chamber, a tool for controlling the nation’s musical life. No wonder that, at a Chopin concert in 1947, Cortot was booed off the stage with shouts of “Do you dedicate this to your friend Hitler?” Yet as Spotts shows, his bad reputation faded with time, and by the 1950s “once again he was national treasure.”

In general, collaborators had an easier time of it after Liberation if they were plastic or performing artists than if they were writers. This seems only just: Writers are meant to be keepers of the word, of a people’s language and memory, and so they are responsible to the community in a way that other artists are not. Not that most of the literary collaborators deserved the name of artists. Perhaps the only one who did was Louis-Ferdinand Celine; but the novelist was so intractable, so bizarrely excessive even in his anti-Semitism, that he was of no use to the Nazis as a propaganda tool. More useful was a man of letters like Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, a long-standing Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite whom the Germans selected to take over the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, the prestigious literary journal. To their credit, the best French writers of the day refused to contribute to Drieu’s version of the NRF, which was “derisively known as NRBoche.” After the Liberation, Drieu committed suicide, thus avoiding the fate of his fellow collaborator Robert Brasillach, an unutterably vile right-wing journalist who was sentenced to death.

Spotts’s book is powered by indignation, and he takes an unscholarly pleasure in berating and mocking his subjects: Cortot “should have ended his days before a firing squad,” he writes, and Planet Drieu was an odd place.” These jibes, while surely deserved, mean that The Shameful Peace offers more heat than light, more shocking anecdotes than sober analysis. It is easy to ridicule the collaborators of 1940–44, but it is by no means certain that the writers and artists of any other society, including our own, would perform any better under a similar trial.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.