And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-occupied Paris Alan Riding

Duckworth Overlook, pp.399, 20

After the Nazi occupation of Paris was over, Sartre famously said — somewhat hypocritically, given his own slippery behaviour — that the only possibilities had been collaboration or resistance.

After the Nazi occupation of Paris was over, Sartre famously said — somewhat hypocritically, given his own slippery behaviour — that the only possibilities had been collaboration or resistance. Alan Riding’s new study of the episode forcefully reminds one that it was never that simple: objectively researched and soberly balanced though the book is, navigating its moral maze leaves one queasy with mixed feelings.

Where should the line be drawn, what constitutes collaboration or resistance, were the Pétainistes craven defeatists or merely right-wing nationalists — and would our own intellectuals and artists have done any better? There are no clear answers, as the tragic farce of the post-war épuration and its attempt to apply some judicial measure to the chaos of unverifiable accusation and counter-accusation miserably proves.

The Nazis regarded Paris as ripe for the picking, a city mired in its own degeneracy, both moral and political, weakened by 34 governments in 22 years and ‘infested’ with Jews, Bolsheviks and perverts. Hitler knew that he was unlikely to face mass insurrection. He could count on a lot of passive support among the French right-wing, with its post-Dreyfusian tendency to anti-Semitism and fear of Bolshevism.

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So Paris was not something he needed to crush and lay waste. Rather the opposite — it was also a glittering prize, a treasure trove which the Nazis treated with a mixture of rapacity and respect. Works of art were brazenly looted, but Hitler approached its monuments in a spirit of envious awe too, exemplified by his only visit to the city — a secret morning’s tour of the sights in the company of Speer and Breker, during which the Führer oohed and aaahed with almost childish naivete.

Goebbels understood that the best way to secure the Occupation was to keep everyone concerned happy, and to rule with a relatively light touch. Some of the Nazis’ marginally less vicious cronies, such as Otto Abetz and Gerhard Heller, were put in charge, and apart from a strict (but not absolute) code of Aryanisation, the level of submission required was relatively unexigent. You could go about your daily business, and it wasn’t hard to avoid trouble. Writers continued to publish, actors to act and dancers to dance, their horizons and activities more limited by self-censorship than the threat of the jackboot. Comedians and chanteuses could get away with satirical doubles-entendres in the night clubs, and the forces of the Wehrmacht were encouraged to relax and enjoy the glamour of la ville lumière, from its brothels to its opera houses.

Among the French intelligentsia, outright collaboration was rare, but a degree of accommodation common. At one end of the spectrum were a few avowed fascists such as Robert Brasillach and Drieu La Rochelle, who in effect joined the Nazis; at the other end, heroes of resistance such as René Char (who survived) and Marc Bloch (who didn’t).

Riding is more interested, understand-ably, in the great majority who inhabited the large grey area in between, where a sort of shrugging of shoulders was the norm, and attentisme, the vague hope that the Americans would come to the rescue, the nearest most people got to resistance. Old-school Catholics such as Montherlant thought that France’s defeat was her own fault, while Cocteau dandyishly quipped that ‘at no price should one let oneself be distracted from serious matters by the dramatic frivolity of war’. They duly carried on regardless, allowing their plays to be performed in collaborationist circumstances and attending receptions and salons where they would rub shoulders socially with ‘civilised’ Germans.

Stars with a high popular profile such as Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, Serge Lifar and Sacha Guitry were later excoriated for their contact with Boches and in some cases their sponsored and publicised visits to Germany. Their defence, often justified, was that they had thereby managed to protect Jewish colleagues and even negotiate the release of prisoners of war. Whether those who remained silent were any less complicit, let alone heroic, is another unanswerable question.

Riding provides a useful encyclopedia rather than a fresh interpretation of the story, although he incorporates material from interviews he has conducted with various late survivors. His perspective is broad, perhaps too broad — the scope of the book extends way beyond Paris into Vichy, and there are times when one begins to weary of so many names and so much information. But the impression of muddle and confusion isn’t misleading; Riding makes it all too plain that for the cultured class, the Nazi Occupation was a sort of Hall of Mirrors, where the pulling of a few influential strings could turn a Romanian Jew like the Comédie-Française tragedian Jean Yonnel into a honorary Aryan and where Sartre’s clearly subversive Les Mouches and Huis Clos played to audiences packed with German officers out to enjoy themselves at French expense.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, France, Nazi, Non-fiction, Occupation, Paris, War, Wartime, Wwii