on The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation, by Frederic Spotts (Yale)

“Everything we did was equivocal. We never quite knew whether we were doing right or wrong. A subtle poison corrupted even our best actions.” This was Sartre’s incisive post-war assessment of the behavior of French artists and intellectuals during the German occupation of 1940-1944. At the beginning of the war, Paris was the unrivaled cultural hub of the West, drawing star power from around the globe. After five years of Nazi rule, its hegemony was dissipated and unrestorable. Frederic Spotts’ The Shameful Peace considers the range of responses among thinkers and entertainers to the daunting ethical and creative challenges they faced.

The worry of many writers and artists today -- a grim and sometimes panicked obsession with the integrity of language and imagery relative to power – issues directly from the Occupation, a traumatic event that also helped to sensitize Western minds to the grief caused by the world’s many other oppressions. But even as Spotts condemns the most nefarious of the French collaborators, he also forces us to recognize the thorny situations of figures we now admire, asking “to what extent should artists and intellectuals be held responsible for their actions?”

paris3.jpgCicero may have entered the book of quotations by saying “inter alia arma silent musae” – “in the face of weapons, the arts are silent” – but German policy called for a pacification of France by keeping the music playing. “Never before in history had a victor framed a cultural policy for a people it had just vanquished, much less one that aimed to make them happy,” Spotts writes. “It seemed too good to be true. And of course it was.” While the Nazis carted off a million French as slave laborers for their factories and detained another 1.5 million captured French soldiers in camps, they hosted susceptible French artists and musicians on celebrity tours of the cultural hotspots of Deutschland. The historian Henri Michel termed the German policy a “vaste enterprise d’intoxication.” A Parisian had no petrol for his car, no permission to travel to the Atlantic coast, no viands for his dinner parties, and an 11:00 pm curfew, but he could attend the theater, opera, museums, and cinemas. Veronique Rebatet, wife of the fascist cultural critic Lusien Rebatet, said “Paris had never been so brilliant culturally.” After the armistice, the social Tout-Paris engaged with the Germans in their salons, Coco Chanel produced enticing new scents for them, and Dior dressed the wives and mistresses of the friendly Fritzes (no longer referred to as the brutal Boches). But is an opportunist as culpable as a collaborationist?

paris4.jpgBrecht had said that poets don’t write about trees when the woods are filled with police, but French publishers were ready to encourage and print properly censored tree poems. “What is shocking is how quickly, easily and unanimously 140 publishers signed an agreement that turned them into major executors of the German cultural strategy for France,” says Spotts. “In return for their willing collaboration, they retained their firms, their staff and their lists, and placed themselves in a position to make solid profits by publishing books acceptable to the Invader.” No Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig or Freud. Just after the armistice, Camus wrote, “Life in France is hell for the mind now … What we are going to experience now is unbearable to think of, and I am sure that for a free man, there is no future, apart from exile and useless revolt.” Jean Bruller, known as Vercours, said famously, “French writers had two alternatives: collaboration or silence.” But soon, in the Unoccupied Zone governed by the French Vichy, underground presses like Éditions de Minuit published Camus, Sartre, Éluard, Gide, Aragon, Mauriac and even Steinbeck.

Spotts begins by describing the overall scene, the procedures and policies of the occupiers, and the politics and antagonisms among the French themselves. The attacks of the French right-wing on certain writers and artists were often more virulent than those of the Nazis. Then, he considers at some length the differing positions of major figures like Picasso, Matisse, Celine, Cocteau, and Gide, as well as the checkered backgrounds of Alfred Cortot, Maurice Chevalier, and Georges Simenon. “Cocteau reveled in the role of enfant terrible, and here were instances of how he could be both infantile and terrible,” Spotts says. When the deportation of Jews began in Paris, Cocteau jotted a terse note in his diary: “Les Juifs partent.” In 1989 Cocteau’s wartime journal was published revealing “to what an astonishing extent Cocteau went on living the same sort of life. Professionally and socially, that he had had before the defeat. Out of the diary emerges a man totally self-absorbed … ‘Long live the shameful peace!’ he once said.” Yet here Spotts is not indicting Cocteau – and in fact, his suspension of judgment while providing compromising evidence puts the reader in the role of jurist. Cocteau comes off as too strange to be regarded as a standard collaborator – but too perversely active to be judged as entirely innocent.

paris3.png“While writers were judged for their work rather than their actions, in the case of painters it was the reverse,” notes Spotts. In the Unoccupied Zone, painters worked more or less as they did before the invasion. Matisse spoke of “the narcosis of work” and wrote to Bonnard, “It is certain that constant worrying is harmful to the unconscious work that generally stays with us when we are not in front of our easel.” Picasso, unwilling to leave Paris, produced 1,473 artworks during the war. Painters seem to interest Spotts more than writers, and though figures like Sartre and Camus thematically frame his narrative, The Shameful Peace is somewhat more invested in the corrosive effects of the occupation on the grand edifice of French painting. But there is Louis-Ferdinand Céline, turning from fiction to pamphleteering the late 1930s, who “brought down his fiery curse on communists and capitalists, Nazis and Jews, Freemasons and Catholics, British and Americans, Léon Blum and the Popular Front, to name a few targets.” Like other pacifists during the interwar years, Céline veered to the right when the Germans arrived, though like Cocteau he behaves so idiosyncratically as to seem self-parodic.

desnos.jpgOne of the strengths of this book is its selectivity of representative material, since there was so much at Spotts’ disposal. But it would have been interesting to hear his take on the contrast between the actions and fates of writers Robert Desnos (photo left, the remarkable poet whose satirical essays and resistance affiliations landed him in a concentration camp where he died) and Maurice Blanchot (the post-war postmodernist darling whose wartime essays included titles like “Terrorism as a Method of Public Safety,” described by Zeev Sternhell as one who “provided a perfect definition of the fascist spirit”). But Spotts comments on many other figures, often noting with irony how they turned out after the war – and how widely punishments varied for those found guilty of treason. He also follows the exodus of artists and thinkers into the Unoccupied Zone – Claude Levi-Strauss, Simone Weil, and Walter Benjamin. Max Ernst, André Masson, and Marcel Duchamp (joined by German artists such as Moholy-Nagy and Albers) arrived in New York to spur American painters towards abstract impressionism -- making New York the vanguard of painting.

“In ways honourable and dishonourable, they sought to survive,” concludes Spotts. Some battled to have enough to eat and a place to hide. Some fought for spiritual and creative freedom. The credulous ones hoped to emerge as leaders in a Franco-German cultural alliance, but “the occupation was merciless in exposing character.” No wonder Camus was intrigued with the figure of Sisyphus. Existentialism emerged as a sort of bleak self-help guide, “advising people to make the best of their predicament” amid nausea, no exit, and no exit visas.

Maurice Chevalier, who like Edith Piaf sang for the Nazis in the bustling night clubs, claimed the proof of his loyalty was that he never spoke the German language during the war. His country people, proud and guilty and ready to forget the war, agreed with him.

[Published January 6, 2008. 296 pages, 20 b/w photos. $35.00 hardcover.]


Contrary to the claim of this article, Maurice Blanchot's piece on Terrorism as a Method of Public Safety appeared in Combat in July, 1936, and can in no way be treated as a wartime text.
--Jeffrey Mehlman

If 1936, then agreed, not

If 1936, then agreed, not wartime. But given Blanchot's politics, it hardly matters, does it?