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Friday, September 4, 2009

Reading List: The Shameful Peace

Spotts, Frederic. The Shameful Peace. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-300-13290-8.
Paris between the World Wars was an international capital of the arts such as the world had never seen. Artists from around the globe flocked to this cosmopolitan environment which was organised more around artistic movements than nationalities. Artists drawn to this cultural magnet included the Americans Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, e.e. cummings, Virgil Thomson, and John Dos Passos; Belgians René Magritte and Georges Simenon; the Irish James Joyce and Samuel Beckett; Russians Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Vladimir Nabokov, and Marc Chagall; and Spaniards Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dali, only to mention some of the nationalities and luminaries.

The collapse of the French army and British Expeditionary Force following the German invasion in the spring of 1940, leading to the armistice between Germany and France on June 22nd, turned this world upside down. Paris found itself inside the Occupied Zone, administered directly by the Germans. Artists in the “Zone libre” found themselves subject to the Vichy government's cultural decrees, intended to purge the “decadence” of the interwar years.

The defeat and occupation changed the circumstances of Paris as an artistic capital overnight. Most of the foreign expatriates left (but not all: Picasso, among others, opted to stay), so the scene became much more exclusively French. But remarkably, or maybe not, within a month of the armistice, the cultural scene was back up and running pretty much as before. The theatres, cinemas, concert and music halls were open, the usual hostesses continued their regular soirées with the customary attendees, and the cafés continued to be filled with artists debating the same esoterica. There were changes, to be sure: the performing arts played to audiences with a large fraction of Wehrmacht officers, known Jews were excluded everywhere, and anti-German works were withdrawn by publishers and self-censored thereafter by both authors and publishers in the interest of getting their other work into print.

The artistic milieu, which had been overwhelmingly disdainful of the Third Republic, transferred their scorn to Vichy, but for the most part got along surprisingly well with the occupier. Many attended glittering affairs at the German Institute and Embassy, and fell right in with the plans of Nazi ambassador Otto Abetz to co-opt the cultural élite and render them, if not pro-German, at least neutral to the prospects of France being integrated into a unified Nazi Europe.

The writer and journalist Alfred Fabre-Luce was not alone in waxing with optimism over the promise of the new era, “This will not sanctify our defeat, but on the contrary overcome it. Rivalries between countries, that were such a feature of nineteenth-century Europe, have become passé. The future Europe will be a great economic zone where people, weary of incessant quarrels, will live in security”. Drop the “National” and keep the “Socialist”, and that's pretty much the same sentiment you hear today from similarly-placed intellectuals about the odious, anti-democratic European Union.

The reaction of intellectuals to the occupation varied from enthusiastic collaboration to apathetic self-censorship and an apolitical stance, but rarely did it cross the line into active resistance. There were some underground cultural publications, and some well-known figures did contribute to them (anonymously or under a pseudonym, bien sûr), but for the most part artists of all kinds got along, and adjusted their work to the changed circumstances so that they could continue to be published, shown, or performed. A number of prominent figures emigrated, mostly to the United States, and formed an expatriate French avant garde colony which would play a major part in the shift of the centre of the arts world toward New York after the war, but they were largely politically disengaged while the war was underway.

After the Liberation, the purge (épuration) of collaborators in the arts was haphazard and inconsistent. Artists found themselves defending their work and actions during the occupation before tribunals presided over by judges who had, after the armistice, sworn allegiance to Pétain. Some writers received heavy sentences, up to and including death, while their publishers, who had voluntarily drawn up lists of books to be banned, confiscated, and destroyed got off scot-free and kept right on running. A few years later, as the Trente Glorieuses began to pick up steam, most of those who had not been executed found their sentences commuted and went back to work, although the most egregious collaborators saw their reputations sullied for the rest of their lives. What could not be restored was the position of Paris as the world's artistic capital: the spotlight had moved on to the New World, and New York in particular.

This excellent book stirs much deeper thoughts than just those of how a number of artists came to terms with the occupation of their country. It raises fundamental questions as to how creative people behave, and should behave, when the institutions of the society in which they live are grossly at odds with the beliefs that inform their work. It's easy to say that one should rebel, resist, and throw one's body onto the gears to bring the evil machine to a halt, but it's entirely another thing to act in such a manner when you're living in a city where the Gestapo is monitoring every action of prominent people and you never know who may be an informer. Lovers of individual liberty who live in the ever-expanding welfare/warfare/nanny states which rule most “developed” countries today will find much to ponder in observing the actions of those in this narrative, and may think twice the next time they're advised to “be reasonable; go along: it can't get that bad”.

Posted at September 4, 2009 00:36