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‘And the Show Went On’: French Culture During Nazi Occupation

France fell to the Nazis in 1940, yet in a way the French were lucky. In the East, Germany waged a war of annihilation against Poland and the Soviet Union; France was spared such a fate. The experience of occupation would be a harrowing ordeal for French Jews, of course, and those who challenged the new regime, but with Germany in control of Paris and the North, and a French puppet government in charge of the south, a kind of peace prevailed.

In And the Show Went On, Paris-based journalist Alan Riding, former European cultural correspondent for The New York Times, looks at how France’s cultural figures responded to the occupation. The Germans admired French culture but at the same time wanted to subjugate it. A propaganda office, under the direction of Joseph Goebbels, monitored what could be written, performed and painted.

“Despite the taxing circumstances,” Riding writes, “France’s performers and creators kept remarkably busy, offering the public a rich fair of art and entertainment.” Nightclubs and cabarets throbbed. Picasso stayed on in Paris and continued to work. Albert Camus published The Stranger, and Irene Nemirovsky, who would perish at Auschwitz, wrote Suite Francaise, while Jean-Paul Sartre staged No Exit, Directors Henri-Georges Clouzot and Robert Bresson made their marks in the cinema.

Riding devotes chapters to music, dance and opera; film; theater; art; the literary world, and the politics of the French collaborationist government. His book, with its rush of names and works, sometimes has an encyclopedic, survey-course feel. But he sharpens his narrative with pointed anecdotes. The occupation was an extremely divisive experience for French men and women: Those on the far right welcomed the destruction of the prewar government, while others resisted Vichy, whose guiding principles were “travail, famille, patrie” — work, family, fatherland.

Yet in the cultural world, strange dynamics prevailed. Andre Malraux, the epitome of the anti-fascist intellectuel engage, remained friends with Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, notorious fascist and editor of France’s most prestigious literary journal. Then, there was the odd situation over in Marguerite Duras’ apartment building. Duras’ neighbor, a collaborationist writer, did not report the resistance meetings she hosted, while Duras ignored his fascist get-togethers. (“They even shared a cleaning woman,” Riding notes.)

“Collaboration” and “resistance” are tricky terms, and Riding does justice to the ways the French responded to the occupation “successively with anger, despair, resignation, and accommodation.” Many artists needed simply to make a living, and Riding is an able guide to the uncertain moral terrain they had to navigate.

Postwar France was founded, in part, on the myth that the French people were all resistants; historians, over the last few decades, have chipped away at that notion. Certainly, much about the profoundly anti-semitic Vichy — which did not need German encouragement to persecute French Jews — was loathsome. Yet, as Riding shows, there were rarely any easy moral choices during the occupation.

RATING 7 / 10
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