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Pas de Deux

February 17, 2011 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

Until the release of Marcel Ophuls' four-hour documentary The Sorrow and the Pity in 1971, the conventional wisdom about France during World War II was that it may have been a country swiftly defeated by the Nazis, then brutally occupied, but no matter what, it never grew complaisant -- nor did it ever misunderstand its true mission under such circumstances. In fact, the popular myth went on, France's valiant populace resisted its most hated enemy with every resource at its disposal. Ophuls' relentless film dismantled the myth categorically, thereby causing the French long bouts of anxiety and soul-searching for decades after.

Re-evaluations of that troubled patch of mid-20th-century history hardly stopped with Ophuls. Fast on the heels of that unforgettable film came a string of books that indicted the French for collaborating with considerable fervor. These works included Vichy France and the Jews by Michael Marrus and Robert O. Paxton; Paris in the Third Reich by David Pryce-Jones; The Left Bank by Herbert Lottman; and From Dreyfus to Vichy: The Remaking of French Jewry by Paula Hyman, to name only the tip of a voluminous academic iceberg.

Now joining this ever-burgeoning field of inquiry comes Alan Riding's And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris, recently published by Alfred A. Knopf. For 12 years, Riding was the European cultural correspondent for The New York Times, and he also served as the paper's bureau chief in Paris, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City. He is the author of another book, Distant Neighbors, which deals with Mexico, and still resides in Paris.

Riding's proximity to all things French, and specifically things Parisian, gives his retelling of this story an added tang. Because he's done it now as opposed to 40 years ago, there's more in his narrative about people like rescuer Varian Fry and Jewish novelist Irène Némirovsky, two important figures whose lives and deeds were rediscovered in more recent years. The general outline of the story may not be much different from other such classic works, but Riding's journalistic skills give his version a velvety surface and an evident propulsion while never skimping on detail.

An interesting point is that, at least in his introduction, Riding, an obvious Francophile, strives to be even-handed. He writes that in composing this book he's kept in mind the words of Anthony Eden, Britain's wartime foreign secretary, who's famous for saying: "If one hasn't been through the horrors of an occupation by a foreign power, you have no right to pronounce upon what a country does which has been through all that." Yet, despite this observation, Riding then goes on to deliver, in the dispassionate manner of all good historians -- and by merely sticking to the facts -- a harsh indictment of French behavior during the period.

As his title suggests, the author strives to keep his eye on culture and what people did in the theater, in literature, on film and in the art world, but each chapter always gets back to the tragic tale of how the French treated the Jews. And that's because, no matter what avenue you use to make your way into occupied France, the story inevitably ends up being about what became of the Jews, both French- and foreign-born. And it isn't a pretty picture, especially for a people who take pride in their long championing of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The Arts Would Flourish

Shortly after the Nazis marched in on June 14, 1940, the country was bifurcated. The northern section, with Paris as its center, was occupied by the Germans, while the southern two-fifths became a "free zone," with Vichy eventually chosen as its capital. The region was governed by Marshall Pétain, the French World War I hero.

Riding demonstrates how this division was actively promoted by the Germans. Hitler hoped that the establishment of Vichy would help the French people save face. And Pétain, who favored armistice over combat, joined right in, since he believed that he was rescuing some portion of his country from national collapse.

But Pétain, who conceived of himself as the savior of France, hoped also to create a new country, through what he called a "National Revolution," as Riding writes, "designed to build a new and stronger France" based on family values, work and strict morality. Discipline and sacrifice were also much touted by the Vichyists.

Though such ideals smack of fascism, Riding, like many chroniclers before him, considers the true spirit behind the Pétain government to be homegrown, an extension of the ideologically conservative right wing in France, which also suited the Nazis perfectly.

Because of his affection for the French way of life, stemming from his student years, Hitler let life return to normal, especially in Paris, which was declared an "open city" (immune from enemy bombardment).

Riding shows that, within weeks after the Nazis marched in, the cafes, the restaurants and the theaters were back in operation. People who had fled the capital in fear of the advancing Germans returned from the countryside and began enjoying life again, barely taking note of the German soldiers in their midst.

With this benign policy in place, Hitler hoped the arts would flourish again, despite the reality of occupation. And flourish they did, as Riding shows in extensive detail. The years 1940-44 are considered some of the most fertile in French culture. Even a brief list of the writers, painters actors and musicians who march through the pages of And the Show Went On would have to include Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, his lady love Simone de Beauvoir, Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Colette, Jean Cocteau, and composers Francis Poulenc and George Auric.

A Matter of Indifference

But despite Riding's emphasis on culture, most of his chapters deal, as well, with the fate of the Jews. The book demonstrates yet again that wherever the French resided in wartime France, whether north or south, they were willing to help the Germans solve the Jewish question. The fate of the Jews was a matter of indifference to the bulk of French citizens, while Vichy officials were excessively callous in carrying out what they believed was their duty.

Anti-Semitic laws began appearing within weeks of the establishment of Vichy, instituted without prodding from the Nazis. According to Riding, since the mid-1930s, it had been the objective of Xavier Vallat, eventually head of Vichy's General Commission for Jewish Questions, to remove "Jewish culture" from France.

In July 1940, 6,000 foreign-born Jews were denied French citizenship by Vichy. By October 1940, Jews were forced to register. Statutes were then passed authorizing the police to arrest foreign Jews in both parts of the country.

Though Vichy never forced Jews to wear the yellow star in the south of France, they did insist that all their important documents be stamped with the word "Juif." In the long run, this proved of far greater assistance to the Germans in their efforts to annihilate Jews. A star, after all, unlike the imprint of a stamp, could be removed at dangerous moments.

Not for nothing has Vichy been characterized as the "Revenge of the Anti-Dreyfusards," a phrase that refers to the Dreyfus Affair, which erupted in France in the 1890s, lasted for a decade, and involved an innocent French Jewish officer accused of spying for the Germans. Many of the French in the early 1940s were bent on teaching the Jews a lesson at last and, by doing so, reversing all of the societal and cultural advances that the left wing had instituted in the wake of the infamous "affair." Riding shows that, as they enjoyed the finer things in life -- music, cuisine, literature -- French citizens, mostly through indifference, managed to take their revenge -- with pleasure.


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