How French artists and intellectuals survived the years of Nazi occupation is hardly a new subject. In the immediate aftermath of those four years, 1940-44, a number of French witnesses published their memoirs, explaining their less-than-perfect behavior under extremely difficult circumstances, and denying for the most part having “collaborated.” As Simone de Beauvoir summed it up in her memoirs, il fallait bien vivre (one had to survive), by which she meant accommodate to a changed daily reality. France was no longer a sovereign country, due to the armistice signed by Marshal Pétain; Paris was now occupied by the Nazis; and France, or what was left of it, had ceased to be a democracy, since the Marshal took advantage of the country’s disarray to impose a quasi-fascist regime in the so-called Free Zone, with Vichy as its new capital.
During the François Mitterrand presidency of the 1980s and early ’90s, texts on various aspects of cultural life under Vichy began to appear in French, authored by historians trained to avoid anachronism and to judge situations and personalities solely according to what was known, or rather unknown, at the time—above all, the outcome of World War II. Since France had been defeated and there was little hope that de Gaulle in London would manage to liberate his nation from the Nazis and reestablish democracy, governmental cooperation with the occupiers, particularly at the beginning of the Occupation, was widely viewed as excusable. For French citizens living through those days (one of them a young Mitterrand, who later changed his shirt from pro-Vichy to pro-de Gaulle), “the period was complex, the situation ambivalent, the choices ambiguous,” according to René Rémond, long considered the most influential French historian of Vichy.1 This rhetoric of ambiguity is convenient for French honor, since it tends to mitigate the actions of opportunists like Mitterrand.
On the artistic front, another French historian, Jean-Pierre Rioux, goes along with that line of thought. In his review of Laurence Bertrand Dorléac’s 1993 book on French art during the Occupation—recently re-issued in English translation as Art of the Defeat2—he argues that “we [the French] were saved from an artistic disaster by the very ambiguity of true creators.” Rioux, quoting Dorléac, gives credit to a May 1941 show at the Braun gallery in Paris called “Young Painters in the French Tradition” as having shown the example by “exhibiting their admirable refusal to surrender.”3
What this “admirable refusal to surrender” was about is indeed ambiguous. The show held at Braun was most notable for its exclusion of academic artists, its inclusion of little-known French-born artists and its susceptibility to the influence of the Vichy cultural organization Jeune France (Young France). Not until 1943, after Jeune France was disbanded, did the French Tradition group define itself via strident patriotic colors and semi-abstract forms. By then, some of the artists had decided to call themselves bleu blanc rouge (blue white red, the colors of the French flag), a nationalist propaganda label that the Nazis saw no reason to censor. “Let them degenerate if they want to! So much the better for us!” was Hitler’s comment after being informed of their presence at the Salon d’Automne of 1943.4 Could an art group that endorsed specifically French traditions, practicing a type of middle-of-the-road formalism not censored by the Nazi occupiers, truly save France from artistic disaster?
Recourse to ambiguity is not what one finds in Frederic Spotts’s The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation. Instead, the author points out that Jews were routinely weeded out of exhibitions of modern art along with other “foreign influences”; he applies the term “artful dodger” to artists like Matisse and Braque who carefully avoided trouble, and uses the word “collaborator” liberally. The “shameful peace” of the title refers to the survival strategy of those who acted as if peace between France and Nazi Germany had come when Pétain signed an armistice in June 1940, and to the disgrace those collabos brought to France by treating the occupiers as friends. Far too many French artists and intellectuals, the author intimates, were in that boat.
Spotts, an independent scholar, worked in the American foreign service and is now living in France. His publications, aside from a 1989 edition of Leonard Woolf’s letters, have mostly dealt with 19th- and 20th-century German esthetics and politics.5 It is thus likely that his ideas on French collaboration are shaped by his research on Nazi Germany and by testimony from the heirs of the emissaries of the Third Reich who were stationed in Paris during the Occupation years. Often a distillation of research that other scholars have published in English, French and German, The Shameful Peace is not an original contribution to the historical literature on the Vichy years, but its point of view is refreshing.
A number of French texts have already examined the subject of collaboration in detail. Using categories established by the Harvard historian Stanley Hoffmann,6 La Collaboration (1984), by Dominique Veillon, sorts out the different facets of the phenomenon, ranging from state, economic and mercenary complicity to social fraternization, especially in Paris. Les Collaborateurs (1976) by Pascal Ory identifies many French collaborators and also names some of their key German interlocutors. One was the German ambassador, Otto Abetz; another was the director of the Institut Allemand, Karl Epting. Then there was the German sculptor Arno Breker, a champion of heroic (read Nazi) figuration, who was embraced by Vichy and well connected even among avant-garde French artists. All three had lived in France prior to WWII and spoke French. Curiously, Gerhard Heller, the censor of French literature, is not found in Ory’s book, although he is later discussed by both Dorléac and Spotts. Heller played a key role throughout the Occupation years, and was as much an anti-Semite as the other three.