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.On the subject of who attended the official soirées and concerts at the Institut Allemand, Spotts contributes little new information. He relies heavily on Epting’s widow, whose memoirs feature amateur photographs of some of the habitués of the Institut. All the figures mentioned by Spotts—among them Breker, the sculptors Charles Despiau and Paul Belmondo, Monsignor Mayol de Lupe (“who concluded mass with a rousing ‘heil Hitler’”), and writers Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Jean Cocteau and Alfonse de Brédenbec de Chateaubriant (organizer of the cultural-exchange organization Groupe Collaboration)—are also found in Ory’s book. Less well known is the fact that author and journalist Robert Brasillach (who was sentenced to death after the Liberation) had a crush on Karl Epting’s deputy, Karl Heinz Bremer. On the other hand, Spotts points out, anti-homosexual bias was a factor in the collaborationist activities of Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, a literary figure who committed suicide in 1945.
Some of Spotts’s nastiest reportage concerns Parisian society women:Their salons and soirées offered a discreet way for the gratin of the Occupation to meet the gratin of cultural collaboration. This is the way it worked. At one of her soirées, the marquise de Polignac, for example, might introduce the collaborationist editor Ramon Fernandez to Gerhard Heller, the officer responsible for censoring books, who would in turn be introduced to Marie-Louise Bousquet, who would invite the German officer to a private recital in her residence on the Place du Palais-Bourbon, where the collaborationist cellist Pierre Fournier would play to a collaborationist audience. There Heller would meet, among others, the collaborationist Marcel Jouhandeau, who would introduce him to his close collabo friend Florence Gould, who would incorporate him into her collaborationist “literary” salon. This is almost exactly the way Heller infiltrated Parisian high society.7
Fond of juicy gossip, Spotts tells us that American multimillionaire Florence Gould “enjoyed the pleasures of the bed, a bed that [writer Ernst] Jünger and other German officers came to know well.”
Not mentioned in this passage is the presence at Gould’s events of someone ethically above board, the resister Jean Paulhan. It was apparently at one of her dinners that Heller warned Paulhan, an editor and writer, of his imminent arrest.8 If nothing else, the story suggests that the word “collaborator” ought to be used sparingly in regard to people like Gould, and that even the most collaborationist salons had some moral usefulness.9
Having personal contacts with Hitler’s emissaries in Paris and with collaborators as intermediaries proved beneficial not only for Paulhan but for other French personalities who needed help. The French sculptor Aristide Maillol called on his longtime German friend Breker (who was close to Hitler) to help free his young model, Dina Vierny, interned at the Drancy transit camp and about to be deported to Auschwitz. Cocteau and playwright Sacha Guitry, both frequently seen at parties at the German embassy and thus tagged as collabos, approached Heller to intercede on behalf of the poet Max Jacob. He did so, but Jacob was already dead by the time the release order came. In his autobiography, Guitry mentions being solicited by the painter Demetrios Galanis, a friend of Henri Matisse, to save from deportation Matisse’s wife, arrested for Resistance activities.10
Such acts, however compromised the milieu in which they arose, are vastly different from those of the French corbeaux (poison-pen “crows”) who denounced neighbors to the Gestapo or were themselves members of that dreadful torturers’ corps. Yes, as Spotts rightly points out, the chief goal of German cultural initiatives in France, and of the Nazis who befriended French intellectuals, was to turn as many leading personalities as possible into allies of the Third Reich and its racist ideology. But socializing with the enemy did not, in itself, necessarily put one in the league of those who—admiring the Nazi regime, its ideology and its artistic politics—filled collabo publications with anti-Semitic venom and anti-decadence rhetoric,11 nor equate one with the artists who publicized positive views of the Third Reich in the official French press after their propaganda trip to Nazi Germany.12 Clearly, collaboration needs to be deconstructed even further than has been done by Hoffmann, Veillon and Ory.
Spotts notes that following the Liberation, a purge of collabos resulted in “an estimated 1,600 summary executions.” Today, weighing the ambiguity paradigm used by French historians looking at Vichy against the more severe guilt-by-association standard, most thoughtful writers are inclined to favor a relativistic approach—one acknowledging that guilt and innocence are not absolute categories, and that judgments of behavior during the Occupation will continue to be revised.
For example, public opinion on Picasso has lately changed for the worse. While his friends, including Matisse, always said that he behaved with dignity during the war—he helped comrades with money and hiding places, never attended parties at the German embassy and advised against taking propaganda trips to Germany—he has in recent times been unfairly maligned. Detractors point out that he was visited by Heller and other Nazi officers, and did not try to save the life of his friend Jacob. In fact, however, Picasso was in no position to deny the Germans access to his studio, lest he be made to pay with surveillance and possible arrest, and he held no power to rescue anyone because he was himself suspect in the eyes of the occupiers. Picasso’s accusers obviously don’t know what it means to live in a police state, in which to display one’s opposition to the regime exposes one to arrest, deportation and probable death.
MICHÈLE C. CONE teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
1 René Rémond, Vichy et les Français, Paris, Fayard, 1992, p. 14. (All translations are by this reviewer.) During Mitterrand’s long reign as French president, this line of thought prevailed among French historians of Vichy, contradicting the view propagated during the de Gaulle presidency (1958-68) that France had resisted the Nazi enemy from the very start. In the recent past, presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy have taken stands to rehabilitate the Resistance in France and to keep alive the memory of French suffering under the Nazi boot. No doubt this attitude will prompt yet a new French take on that period, shifting all blame—even for collaboration—onto the Nazi occupiers. 2 Art of the Defeat: France 1940-1944, trans. by Jane Marie Todd, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, 2008; originally published as L’art de la défaite, 1940-1944, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1993. Works covering subjects relatively neglected by Dorléac include Kirrily Freeman, Bronzes to Bullets: Vichy and the Destruction of French Public Statuary, 1941-1944, Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press, 2008, which deals with the Vichy government’s surrender of French bronze statuary to the Nazis for use as armament, and Hector Feliciano, The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art, New York, Basic Books, 1997, identifying the French beneficiaries of art stolen from Jewish collections. 3 Jean-Pierre Rioux, “La culture du mal,” Le Monde, Apr. 16, 1993, p. 29. 4 Quoted in Michèle C. Cone, Artists under Vichy, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 54-55. 5 Frederic Spotts, The Churches and Politics in Germany, Wesleyan, Conn., Wesleyan University Press, 1973; Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1994; Hitler and the Power of Aesthetic-s, New York, Overlook Press, 2002. 6 Stanley Hoffmann, Decline or Renewal? France Since the 1930s, New York, Viking, 1974. 7 Frederic Spotts, The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation, p. 49. 8 Gilles Cornut-Gentille and Philippe Michel-Thiriet, Florence Gould: Une Américaine à Paris, Paris, Mercure de France, 1989, p. 102. 9 For more information on the subject of social life under Nazism, see Fabrice d’Almeida, La Vie mondaine sous le nazisme, Paris, Perrin, 2006. 10 Sacha Guitry, Cinquante ans d’occupations, Paris, Presses de la cité, 1993, p. 860. 11 See Michèle C. Cone, “Lucien Rebatet: Antisemitic art criticism during Vichy,” in her French Modernisms: Art Before, During, and After Vichy, New York and Cambridge, U.K., Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 63-88. 12 Examples include the enthusiastic report of the sculptor Henry Bouchard in l’Illustration as well as interviews with two of the trip-takers, Dunoyer de Segonzac and Charles Despiau, published in Comoedia. See Cone, Artists under Vichy, pp. 155-56.