December 22, 2010
The city of lights at its darkest hour
Adolf Hitler may have been bloody in tooth and claw, but he was enough of an aesthete to understand that Paris was the center of gravity for European culture. On the only visit he made to the city during World War II, he went sightseeing like any other tourist, then or now. Still, the open-mindedness that made Paris so appealing to artists, writers and intellectuals from around the world inspired only contempt in the führer.
“Does the spiritual health of the French people matter to you?” he remarked to architect Albert Speer. “Let’s let them degenerate. All the better for us.”
The story is told by Alan Riding, author of the best-selling “Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans” and former cultural correspondent for The New York Times, in “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris” (Knopf, $28.95), a remarkable cultural history of the City of Lights at its darkest hour. He paints a vivid portrait of the famous figures who found themselves in Paris when the army of Nazi Germany marched under the Arc de Triomphe, and he asks tough questions about what they did and did not do.
“How, I wondered, had artists and intellectuals addressed the city’s worst political moment of the twentieth century?” Riding muses. “Did working under the occupation automatically mean collaboration? Should any writer be sanctioned for the ‘crime’ of an opinion? Do gifted painters, musicians or actors have a duty to provide ethical leadership?”
So Riding puts a whole generation of public intellectuals in the dock and holds them accountable for their words and deeds. “During the occupation, we had two choices: collaborate or resist,” Jean-Paul Sartre said many years after the war, but Riding points out that Sartre was engaging in a self-serving oversimplification. “In truth,” Riding writes, “the options — and dilemmas — faced by individual artists were far more varied, as Sartre himself demonstrated.”
Some artists and intellectuals managed to escape from Nazi-occupied France. Marc Chagall, for example, was one of the beneficiaries of a remarkable American named Vivian Fry, who courageously pried him out of police custody by warning that the collaborationist government of France “would be gravely embarrassed” by the arrest of “one of the world’s greatest painters.” Others tried to but failed — Walter Benjamin famously ended his own life with an overdose of morphine after he was refused entry into Spain. Samuel Beckett actually returned to Paris, “reportedly saying he preferred ‘France at war to Ireland at peace,’ ” and P.G. Wodehouse, interned as an enemy alien, later agreed to participate in propaganda broadcasts from Berlin. Remarkably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, both Jewish, chose to stay in Paris and managed to survive the occupation, perhaps because Stein wrote a preface for a collection of speeches by the collaborationist French leader Pétain in which she compared him to George Washington.
Riding points out how treacherous it could be for artists who remained behind, whether by choice or by necessity. Maurice Chevalier, for example, agreed to sing for French prisoners of war in a camp near Berlin but declined an invitation to do the same in a German theater. The Nazi press ran photographs of his performance without identifying his audience, and, as a result, “he learned he had been sentenced to death by a special tribunal of de Gaulle’s provisional French government in Algiers.” Fearing both the Gestapo and the French resistance, he went into hiding for the rest of the war.
By contrast, we learn that “the dashing young conductor Herbert von Karajan,” whom Riding describes as “a member of the Nazi Party since 1933,” became an “instant celebrity” in Paris when he presented a program of Wagner operas at the Paris Opera during “a trip sponsored by Hitler himself.” One performance was reserved for Wehrmacht officers, but the other one was open to the public — and it sold out, too. “Madame, what you have done for Isolde,” French writer Jean Cocteau wrote in a revealing fan letter, “was such a marvel that I lack the courage to remain silent.”
Indeed, there are precious few examples of heroic conduct by intellectuals in Riding’s account. Andrè Malraux, for example, “had come to personify the intellectual engagé in the ’30s, but declined to join the resistance until 1944 and “spent much of the war in a quiet corner of the Côte d’Azur.” Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir remained “Left Bank celebrities” whose photos appeared in the Nazi-controlled newspapers, and the occupation did not prevent them (as well as Pablo Picasso and Albert Camus, among others) from attending all-night parties where the only risk was a curfew violation.
Riding does not overlook the less-famous intellectuals who engaged more courageously in the struggle against Nazi Germany. “Many writers chose to sting with words, some did so with armed resistance, a few gave their lives for their beliefs,” he acknowledges. “When the liberation came, the world of letters had its heroes and martyrs, too.” But he concedes that “cultural resistance had a limited reach,” and he quotes the remark of one French writer who dismissed the efforts of the more timid resisters: “Poets who wrote a quatrain about Hitler for a confidential sheet — called clandestine — under a pseudonym believe sincerely that they have saved France.”
“And the Show Went On” is a challenging book in more than one sense. It’s a work of intellectual history in its purest form, and Riding is as much concerned with ideas and values as with events, deeds and personalities. He refuses to idealize or demonize any of the artists and writers whom he ponders in its pages; rather, he allows us to see a certain fog of war that affects civilians as well as soldiers and casts them in an uncertain light.