June/July/Aug 2009

Occupied Minds

French culture under Nazi rule remained surprisingly vibrant

Robert O. Paxton


Artistic and intellectual life in France under the German occupation (1940–44) presents a paradox. On the one hand, there were stultifying pressures: censorship, aggressive cultural agendas, and the exclusion of Jews, Freemasons, and leftists. On the other hand, the authorities—both Vichy and Nazi—encouraged the arts, each for their own reasons, and even some Resistance artists felt a duty to keep French cultural expression alive. The result was a surprisingly active artistic and cultural scene, though distorted in ways that are fascinating to explore.

In The Shameful Peace, a zesty book that has seduced many reviewers, Frederic Spotts, a retired diplomat who has published other historical works, including studies of the Wagner shrine at Bayreuth and Hitler’s aesthetic sensibility, presents a diverting (if depressing) rogues’ gallery of art-world self-seekers, compromisers, and outright Nazi sympathizers who survived and even thrived in occupied France. The book consists largely of corrosive portraits, based on diaries, letters, biographies, and memoirs. There are ideological pro-Nazis like journalist Alain Laubreaux (dubbed by Spotts a “supreme rat”); novelists and essayists Lucien Rebatet, Robert Brasillach, and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle; social butterflies like Jean Cocteau, director Sacha Guitry, and actress Arletty; crafty entrepreneurs like novelist Georges Simenon; power-seekers like pianist Alfred Cortot; and those, like the great French Wagnerian soprano Germaine Lubin, who craved German applause.

Spotts, however, underrates dissenting and resisting artists and intellectuals. No one would want him to revive the pious image, demolished long ago, of an almost universally resisting France. But he takes his reasoning too far in the opposite direction, declaring that resisters were “exceptions.” For all its profusion of lively detail, The Shameful Peace simply omits whole realms of French artistic and intellectual endeavor. Active combatants like poet René Char and Stendhal scholar Jean Prévost (alias Captain Goderville; he was shot in the Vercors Resistance redoubt on August 1, 1944) go unmentioned. The Surrealists who remained in France after André Breton’s emigration to New York in 1941 and who kept French Surrealism alive by publishing La Main à plume appear merely as recipients of Picasso’s help. And although the two most important writers who died in concentration camps—Robert Desnos and Max Jacob—are mentioned briefly, neither rates one of the miniportraits that form the core of this book. Indeed, Gide and Picasso are the only dissident artists or intellectuals given full portraits, plus a few pages each for André Fougeron and Jean Cassou. Society hostess Florence Gould gets seven times the space of such central figures of the literary Resistance as Jean Paulhan and François Mauriac.

Although relatively few artists and intellectuals joined active Resistance movements in the first days (as Paulhan did), dissidence grew substantially as German victory became uncertain and the occupation hardened. Spotts’s static image of these years makes no allowance for this evolution. By the end, such artists were far from exceptions: If one goes down the list of major poets, for example, almost every one—Desnos, Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Pierre Seghers—was actively dissident. It is hard to think of a major poet on the collaborationist side. In her excellent Art of the Defeat, Laurence Betrand Dorléac publishes a list of twenty-one painters who were invited to join a Vichy arts council; from that group, only four were charged with collaborationism during the postwar purge. On the other hand, five of the twelve sculptors on the same list were accused, a discrepancy that may be traceable to the influence of Arno Breker, Hitler’s favorite sculptor, who had studied with Aristide Maillol and whose impact in France Bertrand Dorléac dissects brilliantly. Working out with some empathy the choices by which French artists and intellectuals picked their way through this period’s mine fields and arrived at different destinies should be at the heart of a book like Spotts’s. Yet he judges that “the products of culture more than anything else” allowed the French to “preserve some sense of self-respect.” Evidently, he does not give the artistic and literary Resistance the same significance.

As Bertrand Dorléac argues, Resistance in the arts was widespread, but its results were meager. A few artists were active in dangerous Resistance action. Fougeron, for example, permitted his Montmartre studio to be used for printing important Resistance papers, such as Les Lettres françaises and L’Université libre, until the arrest of a courier required the press to move. Picasso, Kandinsky, and Matisse continued to show privately (even sometimes to German collectors) works that were forbidden in Germany as “decadent.” On the other side, some writers, painters, and sculptors accepted invitations to visit Germany on official junkets. Collaborationist authors were invited to Weimar in November 1941 for a congress of European writers, and painters (including André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Kees van Dongen) and sculptors (Charles Despiau, Paul Belmondo, and others) went on a gala tour of Germany that same month. This was the collaborationist activity most resented in those years of penury. Perhaps not coincidentally, the painters and sculptors who participated in this trip were also those who, according to Bertrand Dorléac’s list, were considered collaborationists after the war.

The problem of selection in Spotts’s narrative is exacerbated by his relentless condescension. He thinks everyone behaved badly: “dishonor, betrayal, rampant opportunism, greed and all the other sins . . . raged like an epidemic throughout French society. . . . The Occupation brought out the worst in people.” Friends deserted the soprano Lubin “as most friends . . . normally do.” Spotts’s conclusion—“how awful human beings could be”—is dispiriting. He is ever ready to detect the ambiguous, but he sees ambiguity as a moral fault rather than as the burden of a situation that offered only unpalatable choices. We remain unsure whether the author addresses his scorn to all humanity or to the French in particular. Would other peoples have reacted better to national calamity? The author never says so outright, but one wonders.

To be sure, a few decent people inhabit his book. There is the universally admired teacher and writer Jean Guéhenno, who tried to avoid all contact with the Germans and their collaborators. Spotts’s heroes are not Resistance activists but rebellious free spirits like the jackanapes nonconformist journalist Henri Jeanson, who described himself as “against everything,” and, above all, the journalist and diarist Jean Galtier-Boissière, for whom “the term joie de vivre might have been coined.”

The most serious problem is Spotts’s anecdotal approach. He recounts stories while leaving context little analyzed and, one suspects, little examined. “Few reliable generalizations” are possible, he declares, because forty million French people lived unique lives. In practice, of course, the solution is not to avoid generalizations, which are as inevitable as breathing, but to scrutinize them. Spotts is careless with terms like fascist (the Vichy youth movements were not fascist but Catholic and conservative, and there was no single official group, as in Germany) and communist (the main underground literary publication, Les Lettres françaises, was founded jointly by the Communist Jacques Decour and the staunchly non-Communist Paulhan and contained contributions by the gamut of dissident writers, including the Catholic Mauriac; it became Communist only after the war). Spotts does get two major generalizations right: the relative leniency of the Germans in the arts field (as we will see below), and the postwar decline of Paris’s international artistic preeminence. Beyond that, he seems to have accepted without thinking the Vichy view—still commonplace today—that France fell in 1940 because it was defeatist and decadent.

Bertrand Dorléac’s Art of the Defeat is a far more sophisticated work and will be of enduring importance. Published in French in 1993, the book now receives a long-overdue English translation. Featuring an abundance of color and black-and-white plates, it is published unchanged, as far as I can tell, except for an updated bibliography and a new foreword by Serge Guilbaut (best known for his contentious work on how New York “stole the idea of modern art” from Paris).

Bertrand Dorléac starts with the Germans, who wanted to use the arts as a bauble to pacify the French and, in accord with Hitler’s personal views, were prepared to let the “decadent” French produce modern art. This leniency presented a conundrum to anti-Nazi artists: If they continued to work, even in styles contrary to those permitted by Germany, they were abetting the conqueror’s plans. The Germans further impacted the French art scene by looting private and public collections. Museum staffs tried valiantly to obstruct the removal of art but were undercut by Vichy leaders Pierre Laval and François Darlan, who yielded treasures in order to win concessions elsewhere (with paltry results). A major instance was Laval’s cession to the Germans in August 1942, over the protests of the Vichy Ministry of Foreign Affairs, of Jan van Eyck’s altarpiece Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, sent from Ghent by the Belgian government for safekeeping in southern France. Laval got nothing in return.

Whereas Spotts focuses on the social whirl and careers, Bertrand Dorléac addresses the more interesting and difficult subject of how a highly ideological occupation affected artistic style and form. Vichy’s moralizing “national revolution” offered traditionalists assistance in their long-running campaign against modernism. The French government encouraged a notable revival of religious art, and an astonishing amount of energy and money went into producing images of Marshal Pétain. The Communist Party devoted its artistic efforts to counterpropaganda and condemned modernist styles as being too remote from the people. The “jeunes peintres de tradition française” (Jean Bazaine et al.) tried to reconcile tradition with the avant-garde and were viciously attacked by the Paris collaborationist press for it, but also suffered later for being perceived as semiofficial Vichy artists.

Bertrand Dorléac expertly links artistic trends under occupation with those before and after, noting that there were more continuities than breaks. French public life became sharply polarized in the ’30s in a way that prefigured the collaboration-Resistance division of 1940. On February 6, 1934, right-wing activists tried to invade the Chamber of Deputies to protest the alleged weakness and corruption of parliamentary democracy. Sixteen people were killed, and prominent writers like Brasillach and Drieu publicly placed their hopes in a fascist France. Fearful that these events portended a fascist “March on Paris,” the French left—Communist, Socialist, Radical—united in a Popular Front. With massive support from left-leaning intellectuals and artists, the Front won elections in May 1936 that brought Léon Blum to power as France’s first Socialist and first Jewish prime minister. The Front’s 1936 innovations in bringing art to the people were taken up in another key by the Vichy cultural group Jeune France, which presented plays in provincial towns and taught traditional crafts to unemployed young workers. After the Liberation, a painfully divisive and arbitrary purge inhibited the recovery of the French arts scene.

In a third book on art in this period, Bronzes to Bullets, Kirrily Freeman manages to extract a lot of meaning from an apparently secondary matter: the French government’s harvesting of bronze statuary to supply its own, and Germany’s, copper needs. The collection of the statuary was only one of several metal drives conducted by Vichy, but this one was different: It was administered not only by the Ministry of Industrial Production, like the others, but also by the Fine Arts Section of the Ministry of National Education and Youth. In two waves, the first starting in October 1941 and the second in the summer of 1942, as many as 1,750 bronze statues were taken from public places in French cities and towns and melted down. Most of the metal went to the German war effort, though the French people were told that it supported French industrial and agricultural needs such as copper sulfate used as a vineyard fungicide.

The destruction of statues was not a direct German action, as most people believe, but a Vichy initiative that the government used to bargain against increasing German demands. Some effort was made to exempt statues of historical and artistic significance, and Vichy did manage to save church bells, for example, as did Denmark and Norway, unlike most occupied countries. Freeman makes clear that the appropriation of statuary was not intended primarily as a form of iconoclasm directed against the Third Republic’s “statuemania.” Although some republican icons were taken, republican statuary of stone and other nonstrategic material was untouched. Nevertheless, some traditionalists, including Louis Hautecoeur, general secretary of fine arts in the Education Ministry and the official directly in charge of the selection process, were delighted to get rid of what they regarded as inferior art.

The loss of familiar statuary aroused sharp objections from mayors and even prefects who were not otherwise opposed to the Vichy regime. Their vehemence demonstrates, according to Freeman, the symbolic importance of public statuary as an expression of civic patriotism. What’s more, Vichy’s actions were in flagrant contradiction to its own regionalist propaganda. For instance, the government selected the Occitan poet Frédéric Mistral as a symbol of regionalism but then removed his statue from Arles. The empty plinth had a powerful emotional impact, and the citizens of Arles put wreaths on the bare pedestal. Freeman argues convincingly that the first round of seizures, which ended in May 1942, contributed greatly to Vichy’s loss of public support, a slide that accelerated as the Americans landed in North Africa a few months later, the Germans occupied the southern zone of France, and the Russians began their epic defense of Stalingrad.

Freeman ends with an enlightening account of the ways this matter was subjected to obfuscation and mythmaking after the war, and she demolishes two widespread beliefs: that the Germans destroyed the statues themselves, without French assistance; and (contradictorally) that Vichy demolished Third Republic commemorative statuary out of revanchist iconoclasm. This book is carefully documented and argued and contributes to a detailed understanding of how the Vichy regime functioned. If the story appears to reinforce, as Freeman says, a gray rather than black-and-white interpretation, it is because the destruction of statues never intersected with Vichy’s darkest actions: racial exclusion and police collaboration.

The cultural world under the double dictatorship of Vichy and the German occupation was not so much gray as multicolored: Some resisted, some collaborated, and many pursued their art in spite of everything.

Robert O. Paxton is Mellon Professor of Social Science, Emeritus, at Columbia University.

rstephen

June 10, 2009
11:51 am

Please let no one forget that Marc Bloch, one of the greatest medieval historians of the 20th. Century, actively participated in the Resistance, and was shot by the Germans in 1944.

Martica Sawin

July 14, 2009
10:37 am

Surprisingly Professor Paxton makes no mention of Michele Cone's Artists Under Vichy, (Princeton, 1992), the pioneering work on the subject. Based on extensive archival research,Cone's book not only details the various political agendas in play, but gives a vivid account of the tendency toward the production and exhibition of "safe," uncontroversial (and bland) art during the Occupation, as a part of Vichy's overall policy of fostering an impression of life in France continuing as normal. Martica Sawin

judithweingarten

September 22, 2010
2:33 pm

Interesting that in the Netherlands, too, the sculptors were far more collabo than the painters. The split between them exists a bit still, reflected in their different clubs.

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