Occupied Minds: French Culture Under Nazi Occupation

Cover00Robert Paxton in bookforum:

Artistic and intellectual life in France under the German occupation (1940–44) presents a paradox. On the one hand, there were stultifying pressures: censorship, aggressive cultural agendas, and the exclusion of Jews, Freemasons, and leftists. On the other hand, the authorities—both Vichy and Nazi—encouraged the arts, each for their own reasons, and even some Resistance artists felt a duty to keep French cultural expression alive. The result was a surprisingly active artistic and cultural scene, though distorted in ways that are fascinating to explore.

In The Shameful Peace, a zesty book that has seduced many reviewers, Frederic Spotts, a retired diplomat who has published other historical works, including studies of the Wagner shrine at Bayreuth and Hitler’s aesthetic sensibility, presents a diverting (if depressing) rogues’ gallery of art-world self-seekers, compromisers, and outright Nazi sympathizers who survived and even thrived in occupied France. The book consists largely of corrosive portraits, based on diaries, letters, biographies, and memoirs. There are ideological pro-Nazis like journalist Alain Laubreaux (dubbed by Spotts a “supreme rat”); novelists and essayists Lucien Rebatet, Robert Brasillach, and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle; social butterflies like Jean Cocteau, director Sacha Guitry, and actress Arletty; crafty entrepreneurs like novelist Georges Simenon; power-seekers like pianist Alfred Cortot; and those, like the great French Wagnerian soprano Germaine Lubin, who craved German applause.

Spotts, however, underrates dissenting and resisting artists and intellectuals. No one would want him to revive the pious image, demolished long ago, of an almost universally resisting France. But he takes his reasoning too far in the opposite direction, declaring that resisters were “exceptions.” For all its profusion of lively detail, The Shameful Peace simply omits whole realms of French artistic and intellectual endeavor.