Rupert Christiansen

Hall of mirrors

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.

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.

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.

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