The passions and politics of culture in wartime France


BOOK OF THE DAY: Eamon Maherreviews The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupationwritten by Frederic Spotts and published by Yale University Press 285 pp, £25

THE SECOND World War and the Nazi occupation are divisive, painful topics for the French. How a once powerful military force could have succumbed so easily to German forces called into serious question the moral fibre of a nation.

The scars of that capitulation are still evident today. As recently as last May, speaking on the anniversary of the end of the second World War, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced: "The true France was not at Vichy, the true France never collaborated." The pianist Lucienne Delforge once remarked in a similar vein: "If someone were to ask me to define collaboration, I would say, 'It is Mozart in Paris'."

In this book, Frederic Spotts argues convincingly that France's proud cultural heritage was of huge psychological importance in the wake of its ignominious military defeat: "To ignore cultural life is . . . to overlook that in the arts the French had a weapon - their only weapon - to continue the war."

Great guile was necessary, however, to resist the Wehrmacht's determination to attain cultural as well as military supremacy. While they were willing to acknowledge the virtues of German literature and music, the French were also keenly aware of their own intellectual reputation throughout the world.

There was a number of French intellectuals who viewed positively Hitler's scheme for a united Europe. Drieu la Rochelle, for example, was won over by what he saw at the Nuremberg Nazi party rally in 1935. Ten years later, disillusioned with the Allies' imminent victory, he would take his own life rather than face trial and certain death.

Drieu was close to another notorious collaborationist, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. A decorated first World War hero, Céline's Voyage au Bout de la Nuit was a savage indictment of French society during and after that conflict. He was overjoyed at the demise of the Third Republic and a vocal supporter of Hitler's anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, Céline's stance in relation to collaboration is complex. In return for making paper available for his books and other favours, he addressed "a steady torrent of criticism" at German benefactors.

During the occupation, there were not many writers whom one could categorise as out-and-out collabos: Brasillach, Châteaubriant, Drieu la Rochelle, Monterlant and Rebatet. Gide, Genet, Cocteau and a host of others fall into a more nebulous zone. Gide had denounced Hitler within weeks of his coming to power and remained resolutely opposed to Vichy and the Germans. Tricked by Drieu into submitting two articles to the Nouvelle Revue Française, which had been transformed into a collaborationist journal, it took some time for his reputation to be rehabilitated after liberation.

Spotts does not confine his discussion to writers and intellectuals. There are interesting sections devoted to painters Picasso and Matisse, pianist and composer Cortot, singer Germaine Lubin, head of the Paris Opera, Jacques Rouché, and opportunist Serge Lifar, of the Opera Ballet.

I am surprised that de Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus and François Mauriac are not foregrounded more. Cocteau does feature, to illustrate how theatre was more difficult to control than other art forms, because of how it relies on gestures and intonation as much as on text.

Why was such rapt attention paid to alleged collaboration by artists and intellectuals in occupied France? Spotts claims that it is because intellectual and cultural life in France has always been intensely politicised.

His book points to some of the reasons why this is so, and makes compelling reading for anyone who is even vaguely interested in France and things French.

Eamon Maher, co-ordinator of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in IT Tallaght, also lectures there in humanities