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The art of collaboration

In occupied France, how did artists and intellectuals respond to the presence of the enemy? And woul

The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation

Frederic Spotts

Yale University Press, 283pp, £25

What happens when artists, writers and intellectuals are looking down the barrel of a gun? How should the members of what Frederic Spotts calls the "artistic community" behave if and when they find themselves under occupation by a hostile enemy conqueror? The question is no doubt being asked now in Baghdad, but it was last posed most directly in western Europe in Paris in 1940, when an entire generation of artists and intellectuals who, until then, had prided themselves on leading the intellectual capital of the world found themselves under Nazi occupation. So, what to do? Publish what you think and possibly be shot? Stay silent and be accused of passive collaboration? Or collaborate and simply be damned?

It is somewhat reassuring to discover, as The Shameful Peace shows, that there were no easy answers to this dilemma. Part of the problem at the time was that no one quite understood what the consequences of the occupation would be. Many of the hardcore avant-gardists, such as the surrealists, fled at the German advance, fearing immediate execution for their communist sympathies. Interestingly, no surrealist text was ever proscribed by the Nazis. However, it was made clear by those right-wing intellectuals who now rose to prominence under the New Order, such as the novelist Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, that the likes of the surrealists had contributed to the atmosphere of "moral degeneracy" that had led to the fall of France. André Breton, the erstwhile surrealist leader, was uncomfortable in exile in New York - but at least he was still alive.

Spotts points out in his introduction that the survival of French culture as we now know it was never guaranteed during the war years. It was put under a threat that was potentially every bit as lethal as the real war of bombs and bullets, as the Germans fought a cultural war in Paris against French ideas. The cause of French culture was almost fatally undermined from within by home-grown fascists such as Robert Brasillach, who dreamed of a German solution to the messiness of pre-war left-wing politics in France and across Europe. Brasillach was, above all, an aesthete, with a taste for Greek poetry and neoclassical design. He was not the only Frenchman of his generation to acquire these tastes and argue that French culture in its pre-war form had run its course, and that it was time to undo the republic of liberty, equality and fraternity. All of this was, in the most literal sense, a question of life and death.

Fascists like Robert Brasillach dreamed of a German solution to the messiness of pre-war French politics

Spotts also reveals that the most common responses among what he calls "the artistic community" were a series of squalid compromises with the occupiers. These ranged from grudgingly continuing to publish or to put on plays (such was the case of Jean Cocteau, for example) to courting German funds and approval. Disgracefully, this was the case of the distinguished Bernard Grasset, who, even before the armistice was signed, was ordering his editor to accept German censorship. He was not alone in this, but simply the first. As the German troops rolled into Paris, Grasset went off to Vichy to petition for money and support, signing a declaration that, in the interests of preserving "French thought", he would willingly to submit to all German demands. Even the Germans were taken aback and slightly embarrassed by such abject grovelling.

But this was not yet "active collaboration". That was a job which called for some really nasty bastards who had no qualms about acting as agents for German propaganda. And there was no shortage of volunteers at all levels of Parisian society. The most exalted were those writers and artists who frequently accepted the invitations of Karl Heinz Bremer, deputy consul to Paris, to glittering receptions at the German Institute. Chief among them were the names of the sculptor Charles Despiau, the poet and novelist Abel Bonnard, the pianist Alfred Cortot and Monseigneur Jean Mayol de Lupé - the priest who liked to conclude Mass with an ear-piercing "Heil Hitler".

Bremer was a Francophile who spoke the language fluently and knew the literature well. Yet he was also a dedicated disciple of the Third Reich who made no bones about his mission to destroy everything "inferior" about France - Jews, homosexuals, communists and so on. With his Aryan good looks and his stern demeanour, he was also wildly attractive to many in the Parisian homosexual milieu, which he wished to "eradicate from the face of the earth". They included not only Brasillach, but also the likes of the ridiculous and revolting Serge Lifar, one of the leading dancers with the Paris Opera Ballet. Even at the Liberation in 1945, Lifar used to boast that he had had a physical relationship with Adolf Hitler. He used to enjoy gently stroking the arms of his boyfriends and murmuring, "Only two men have caressed me like this: Diaghilev and Hitler."

Lifar was a hard collaborator, but this was exceptional. The "artistic community" of Paris proved itself no different from the public at large by opting for the grey area of accommodation with the enemy. This is the main thrust of the story that Spotts tells, in an admirably forensic and entertaining manner. It is hardly uncharted territory in English or French. Spotts's own scholarly work is based on very few archives and very familiar secondary sources.

It would have been interesting to have conducted an investigation into the pre-war Germanophilia of so many Paris intellectuals. This was a generation which, throughout the 1930s, had attended the lectures on Hegel by Alexandre Kojève at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. Kojève was hardly a Nazi, but his lectures, which argued for a "world-historical genius" to "transform the world", could easily sound like Third Reich ideology.

For an indecently long time, Nietzsche and Heidegger enjoyed a degree of prestige on the Parisian revolutionary left similar to that of Hegel. As far back as 1938, the philosopher, novelist and pornographer Georges Bataille had undertaken the project of "taking back Nietzsche from the Nazis". Bataille's book Sur Nietzsche lay unfinished several years later as German troops advanced through fields surrounding his house.

What Spotts brings to the story is a set of refreshing opinions on familiar figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and the rest of the crowd clustered around the cafes of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. He is not impressed by the résistante rhetoric and instead is keen to show how far most of these intellectuals really were from the working-class Parisians they theorised as the revolutionary subject, but whom they rarely met in person.

Among those Parisians was Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who had first become famous in 1932 with his novel Journey to the End of the Night. This scabrous, epic (and very funny) tale of lowlife in the poorer parts of Paris is still a bestseller in France and regularly outranks Proust and Camus in lists of the most important French novel of the 20th century. Certainly, Céline is a great writer. He was also a notorious anti-Semite whose widely promulgated views frightened even the Germans. Throughout the 1930s, he published a series of "pamphlets" (over several hundred pages long in each case) in which he ranted against the Jews, calling for their extermination.

Spotts describes Céline as suffering from difficulties with "anger management". This is, to say the least, to underestimate Céline's murderous rage wildly. There is, however, little surprising about the novelist's opinions: his hatred of the Jews is in keeping with a long tradition of Parisian anti-Semitism as old as the city itself. These days it flourishes out in the wretched suburbs of northern Paris, among the immigrant groups whose anger has recently flared into regular riots - the so-called French intifada.

The youths who form the ranks of these rioters proclaim a hatred of France, Israel and America that Céline would have recognised: it is the angry voice of a dispossessed class that needs an easy target for its revenge. Little, it seems, has changed the political prejudices of Paris since the 1930s. From this point of view Spotts has written an excellent book: but the story he tells is not quite over yet.

Andrew Hussey's documentary "France On a Plate" will be broadcast on BBC4 on 29 November (9pm) and 1 December (7.30pm)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?