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Nazi occupation, when the City of Light had its darkest hour

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By Michael Dirda
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 6, 2011

AND THE SHOW WENT ON

Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris

By Alan Riding.

Knopf. 399 pp. $28.95

Alan Riding is an esteemed journalist, long a European cultural correspondent for the New York Times and, before that, the author of what is still the best modern introduction to Mexico, "Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans." Since 1985 the book has sold nearly half a million copies. "And the Show Went On" deserves a comparable success. It is certainly one of the finest works of serious popular history since the heyday of Barbara Tuchman. If you're a Francophile or a Francophobe, this is the holiday present you should have received.

Like Tuchman's "The Proud Tower" and "The Guns of August" - her portraits of European society and politics in the years leading up to World War I - Riding's account of "cultural life in Nazi-occupied Paris" is actually larger than its announced subject. As he writes in his preface, "How, I wondered, had artists and intellectuals addressed the city's worst political moment of the twentieth century? Did talent and status impose a greater moral responsibility? Was it possible for culture to flourish without political freedom?" Riding's triumph lies in refusing to affirm any simplistic answers. Instead, he plunges the reader into the French cultural scene of the 1930s and '40s and shows us how real men and real women dealt with the devil.

"On June 14, 1940, the German army drove into Paris unopposed. Within weeks, the remnants of French democracy were quietly buried and the Third Reich settled in for an indefinite occupation of France." Many French fascists and anti-Semites, including the important novelists Cline and Robert Brasillach and public intellectual Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, welcomed the Nazis. A few writers and artists elected silence (essayist Jean Guehenno), exile (surrealist Andre Breton) or cunning (Picasso). But most chose various forms of accommodation. Where, though, did accommodation leave off and collaboration begin?

Despite the Wehrmacht uniforms on many members of their audiences, French artists still wanted to make movies and music, mount plays and ballets, publish poems and novels. Between 1940 and 1945, Albert Camus brought out "The Stranger," Colette created "Gigi," Jean-Paul Sartre presented "The Flies" and "No Exit," and Marcel Carne directed his epic film "Les Enfants du Paradis." Was it not, after all, essential to maintain French cultural institutions at such a dark hour? Or was it simply that, as Guehenno acidly observed in his journal, the Parisian man of letters was "incapable of surviving for long in hiding, he would sell his soul to see his name in print. . . . 'French literature must continue.' He believes that he is French literature and thought and that they will die without him."

Marshal Philippe Petain similarly justified the Vichy regime, in which the southern half of France was permitted limited autonomy in return for pledging loyalty to her conqueror: Thus, Gallic culture and traditions would survive, perhaps even be reinvigorated. The Nazis, of course, simply wanted the French pacified or co-opted: It made ruling them all that much easier. As Hitler once told Albert Speer: "Let's let them degenerate. All the better for us."

Then, again, even Aryan warriors need occasional R & R. So the Reich also wanted Paris to remain Paris - the world's favorite playground. Educated Germans, like the novelist Ernst Juenger, could enjoy its salons, theaters and dining at Maxim's. Gerhard Heller, who oversaw cultural activities for the Propaganda Staffel, soon counted distinguished novelists, critics and editors among his new best friends. The actress Arletty and the couturier Coco Chanel took German lovers; the playwright Sacha Guitry preened for Teutonic attention; and the frivolous genius Jean Cocteau enthused about the monumental sculpture of Arno Breker, Hitler's favorite artist. Meanwhile, goose-stepping foot soldiers could visit those other high-kickers at the Folies Bergere, or shop for silk underclothes for girlfriends back home. And not all of these were back home. It's been estimated that "collaboration horizontale" resulted in 100,000 to 200,000 children with German fathers.

All in all, life in Paris could continue with a degree of normality - if you weren't a Jew. In short order, all Jewish businesses were Aryanized, art collections seized (Hitler liked Old Masters), and innumerable scholars, teachers, actors, musicians, writers and intellectuals banned from working. Later came the yellow stars and the "rafles," in which undesirables were rounded up and sent to a camp at Drancy before being loaded onto cattle cars bound for Auschwitz. The government actively assisted their new masters in this loathsomeness. And yet, as Riding reminds us, "the record of the French as a whole was more heartening. Three-quarters of the Jews trapped in France in 1940 escaped deportation and . . . most survived because they were in some way protected - or at least not denounced - by their French neighbors."

Various chapters in "And the Show Went On" focus on the movie industry, publishing, the art trade, nightlife, opera and ballet, magazines and newspapers, as well as Nazi cultural events. It's nonetheless shocking to learn of the questionable performances, in all senses, of pianist Alfred Cortot, soprano Germaine Lubin, actor Maurice Chevalier and chanteuse Edith Piaf. Each had his or her reasons, and Riding seeks to understand them.

Still, there were clear heroes and heroines. Dina Vierny, a very young model for Maillol, Bonnard and Matisse, guided escapees through the mountain passes to Spain. The waspish diarist Jean Galtier-Boissiere recorded every aspect of the betrayal of the intellectuals. Jean Paulhan, the longtime editor of the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, led a Scarlet Pimpernel existence as an habitue of salons and a leader of the resistance. Rose Valland, a nondescript employee of the Jeu de Paume, risked her life to keep a secret record of the art - more than 20,000 works - looted from Jewish collections.

One entire chapter chronicles the birth of organized resistance by the long revered "Reseau du Musee de l'Homme," that is, the Museum of Man network, so called because many of its members were, believe it or not, ethnologists. Twenty-eight of them were killed by the Nazis. Riding notes that "at a time when most of the French were coming to terms with the occupation, they were almost alone in acting on their belief in the idea of resistance." That idea, however, spread. Eminent poets, including Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, organized underground movements; Rene Char commanded an army of 2,000 maquis.

In the end, Parisians were judged by the company they kept, and sometimes saved by whom they knew. During the occupation the fascist Drieu La Rochelle told Gerhard Heller to "make sure nothing ever happens to Malraux, Paulhan, Gaston Gallimard and Aragon, no matter what allegations are brought against them." These may have been ideological enemies, but they were also friends and former classmates. In 1945, after Drieu La Rochelle committed suicide to avoid being tried for treason, nearly all of them came to his funeral.

Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Post.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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