"The German occupation of France from 1940 to 1945 presented wrenching challenges for the nation's artists and intellectuals. Some were able to flee the country; those who remained, including Gide and Celine, Picasso and Matisse, Cortot and Messiaen, and Cocteau and Gabin, responded in differing ways.
This fascinating book is the first to provide a full account of how France's artistic leaders coped under the crushing German presence. Some became heroes, others villains; most were simply survivors. Filled with anecdotes about the artists, composers, writers, filmmakers, and actors who lived through the years of occupation, the book illuminates the disconcerting experience of life and work within a cultural prison.
Frederic Spotts uncovers Hitler's plan to pacify the French through an active cultural life, and examines the unexpected vibrancy of opera, ballet, painting, theatre, and film in both the Occupied and Vichy Zones. In view of the longer-term goal to supplant French with German culture, Spotts offers moving insight into the predicament of French artists as they fought to preserve their country's cultural and national identity."
Review by Max Hastings in the UK's Sunday Times on 23 November 2008 as below:
"The artist's responsibility to society, or lack of it, becomes an especially vexed issue in wartime. Scorn was heaped upon WHAuden and Christopher Isherwood for running away to America to escape the second world war. Yet many people with highly developed aesthetic talents lack heroic ones. This proposition was vividly demonstrated when France was occupied by the Nazis.
Frederic Spotts starts his depiction of French cultural life by asserting that in 1939 Paris was the artistic and intellectual capital of the world, while by 1945 it had forfeited that title forever. What happened in between makes bleak reading and represented, acccording to the author, a moral as well as a creative failure.
In 1940, millions of French people fled south in the face of the German invasion. Serge Lifar, the Ukranian-born dancer who ran the Paris Opera Ballet, compared Paris to “a huge, deserted theatre where the stagehands were busy shifting the scenery and preparing for the next act”.
Fugitives gradually trickled back to the capital, to find the victorious Germans eager to make friends and secure stalls seats for every form of entertainment. Hitler's ambassador, Otto Abetz, was a francophile married to an ambitious Frenchwoman, whose brief was to convince the defeated people, and especially their artists and intellectuals, that life could be jolly within the Nazi empire. Soon, theatres and galleries were booming. At the smartest brothels - le Sphinx, le Chabanais and le One-Two-Two - the likes of Maurice Chevalier, Georges Simenon and actor-playwright Sacha Guitry rubbed shoulders with torturers, according to Spotts, without embarrassment. “Those nights!” Fabienne Jamet, owner of the One-Two-Two, enthused later. “I am almost ashamed to say it, but I never had so much fun in my life.” Spotts, an American now living in France, emphasises his own repugnance towards those who collaborated. French publishers, he says, “disgraced themselves” by acceding to Nazi demands that they should translate and market German literary works.The book's chapters bear such headings as Oh, What a Lovely War! and I Get a Kick out of You. The author recoils in disgust from such literary figures as Alfred Fabre-Luce, an ardent collaborator who wrote in his journal about the British: “They pushed us into war and then did not follow.” He describes how another writer, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, was willing to help save from persecution some Jews, but no pederasts. Louis-Ferdinand Céline led the French intellectual charge against Jews with a boorish energy that amazed even the Germans.
French Vichy government censors were more interventionist and heavy-handed than Abetz's men, imposing rigorous curbs on allegedly decadent art and searching play manuscripts for anti-Nazi double entendres. They even banned publication of a new book on Napoleon's 1812 Russian campaign, in case it should distress Germans even then struggling before Moscow. Many editors and journalists collaborated, not least because they needed to earn livings. However, France's most famous writer, André Gide, published almost nothing during the war years lest he seem to be pursuing business as usual. Though Gide opposed violent resistance, he never concealed his abhorrence of the Germans.
Picasso, like Gide, was protected by fame from much danger of harassment. He and other anti-Nazis such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir would never have dined with Germans. They formed a social circle around Paris's Café de Flore. The world's most famous artist told his companion, Françoise Gilot: “Oh, I am not looking for risks to take, but in a sort of passive way I do not care to yield to either force or terror. I want to stay here because I am here. The only kind of force that could make me leave would be the desire to leave. Staying on is not really a manifestation of courage; it is just a form of inertia.”
Matisse, infirm and living in Vence, was obsessed with his work rather than with the war. The author describes him as blind to the moral issue. Jean Cocteau, by contrast, revelled with defiant cynicism in the occupation experience. When France's leading neurosurgeon despairingly killed himself after Paris fell in 1940, Cocteau shrugged: “I find these days exciting. Too bad Martel was so lacking in curiosity.” Guitry took pride in his privileged status under the Nazis, with a special permit for his car, allowances of petrol and heating fuel. His villas and country house were spared from requisition. He lived high throughout the occupation.
Yet there were also honourable contrarians. The actor Jean Gabin, lover of Marlene Dietrich, went to extraordinary lengths to return from the safety of American exile to serve with a tank unit in 1944. Countess Lily Pastré formed an organisation called Pour que L'Esprit Vive, and devoted her home outside Marseille and considerable fortune to sheltering artistic exiles, especially Jews. At times there were 40 refugees in the Château de Montredon. The Czech painter Rudolf Kundera lived there for three years. The countess funded medical care for the Jewish pianist Clara Haskil, and aided her escape to Switzerland. Especially passionate about music, Pastré offered a 5,000-franc prize for the best rendering of Brahms. She staged a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with incidental music orchestrated by a Jewish conductor. Her remarkable story seems to cry out for a film adaptation.
But good deeds are few and far between in Spotts's book. Most of it records the compromises and treacheries of the intellectual community. The author's slang is often inelegant. He writes of the German ambassador: “If, after the war, he had written an honest CV, it would have listed as his initial activity ‘looting'.” He asserts that the pianist Alfred Cortot, a keen collaborator, should have been shot at the liberation. More than a few people were indeed executed. A string of newspaper editors faced French firing squads in 1944-45, for supporting Vichy. Guitry was spared, but faced social exile. Lifar was banned for a time from Paris ballet, but was eventually allowed to return as a choreographer. A few of the guilty killed themselves, including Drieu la Rochelle. Most were merely allowed to resume their lives. So many French people had cause for guilt that it seemed futile to single out aesthetes for obloquy.
Spotts's judgments on the cultural merits of France's artists seem more convincing than those on their morality. France's wartime experience was the most traumatic of the nation's history. To this day, the most penetrating studies of the period are written by foreigners rather than Frenchmen. The French cherish an overblown legend of resistance, but still shrink from the larger reality of overwhelming collaboration. Yet who dares to say that the same would not have happened here, had Britain been occupied by the Nazis? It is hard for a civilian population to resist subjection by a ruthless military force. Evelyn Waugh memorably told Lord Longford that the war experience should convince artists that they are not cut out to be men of action. Most British and American actors chose to serve their countries by continuing to entertain them rather than by shooting Germans, allowing such notable exceptions as Clark Gable and James Stewart, David Niven and Anthony Quayle.
Cocteau and his friends succumbed to self-pity at dinner one night in 1943, when it had become plain that the allies would win the war, saying: “We will all be considered criminals for having stayed in France and continued our work. Our suffering will not count...Whatever happens, we shall be the victims.” Most French artists and intellectuals simply sought to achieve some accomodation that enabled them to keep roofs over their heads. Spotts's book describes an aspect of French life well worthy of attention. It is hard to dispute his conclusion that cultural supremacy passed out of France in 1945, never to return. But his work is diminished by a shortage of nuance. Some of us feel too uncertain of how we ourselves would have behaved under occupation to pass merciless judgment on France's aesthetes for their dalliances with tyranny."