Sunday, April 19, 2009

By Frederic Spotts
Yale University Press, $35, 283 pages

In May 2008, at a ceremony commemorating the end of World War II, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said, “The true France was not at Vichy. The true France never collaborated.” A very interesting point, Mr. President, and one far beyond the mere semantic, but there were in fact very many Frenchmen and women who did collaborate with the enemy. And their having done so was a stain on the national reputation that left, as Gen. Charles de Gaulle put it, “a dull pain in the depths of our national consciousness.”

In this intriguing and rewarding book, independent scholar and historian Frederic Spotts shines a revealing light not on the government or the military or the hoi polloi, but on the country’s intellectuals, its poets and painters and playwrights and musicians and philosophers and actors and directors — that diverse and exciting group that has more to do than with giving the country its characteristic vitality than any other segment of France.

To collaborate or not to collaborate was most definitely the question, followed by to stay or to flee. And those who chose to stay, or had no choice but to do so, had to come to grips quickly with how they would interact with the occupiers if they expected to remain “free” to produce new works of art.

Many refused to leave, some famously like Picasso who, although a Spaniard, remained in France throughout the war. But then, as the author points out, by that time Picasso’s fame and renown were so great that the Germans didn’t dare mistreat him. Others, like Sacha Guitry, the actor-director-screenwriter-playwright, “went along to get along,” and got along quite well.

All the bold face names are here — Gide, de Beauvoir, Cocteau, Celine, Sartre and Matisse — but so are so many others whose names are less familiar but whose deeds are no less heroic or, as in some cases, shameful. Frederic Spotts’ point, however, is not merely to tell the reader what the various cultural leaders did, but how they did it.

For that, he says, is the untold story: “If you want to know how artists and intellectuals survived, worked and adapted, or if you want to have some idea of what cultural life was like and what policies were followed by German and Vichy authorities, you will have difficulty finding answers. … There is no single book offering some idea of what daily life was like for individuals across the range of arts and letters.”

And why not? Because, he writes, “Culture makes academic historians nervous. They like to deal with documents and quantifiable data. They think of the arts as entertainment, not as a quintessential part of the fabric of a nation, central to its sense of identity. ‘Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts,’ Ruskin observed, ‘the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art.’ Most scholars study the first — the seemingly more macho topics of politics and economics.”

If you find that statement both opinionated and provocative, be warned that Mr. Spotts’ book is full of such statements. And that’s but one of the reasons why “The Shameful Peace” is a more engaging read than what he derides as “academic” histories.

It may surprise some readers to learn, as Mr. Spotts reports, that instead of squelching French culture, Hitler encouraged it — within certain guidelines — as a way of pacifying the French and keeping them from rising up. In addition, he had another agenda — didn’t he always? — which was to assert German cultural predominance, especially over France. Hitler apparently believed the French, along with the rest of Western Europe, would eventually come to realize that German culture was so superior they should willingly allow their arts to be subsumed into the German.

In service to this goal, concert halls and opera houses and theaters remained open - and full — during the five years of the Occupation. Of course, there was no way knowing if the people in these audiences would have attended had they been given a truly free choice. For, as the author goes to great lengths to elucidate, despite what the immediate postwar tribunals may have held, it was far from easy to say what was, and what was not, collaboration.

“Was it accepting German hospitality to visit or perform in Germany, attending a reception hosted by a German official or even just seeking German approval to publish a book, perform a play or exhibit a painting? And what was resistance — fleeing the country, refusing to publish, to exhibit or to perform?

Or was it just the opposite — staying to fling French culture into the face of the Occupier? Deciding how to react posed excruciating moral and political choices. Jean-Paul Satre was blunt: “Eveything we did was equivocal. We never quite knew whether we were doing right or wrong. A subtle poison corrupted even our best actions.”

Mr. Spotts has less trouble than the famed philosopher-writer in deciding who did and who did not collaborate. He devotes half of the book’s ten chapters to specific artistic endeavors — publishing, painting, writing, and performing in several different areas — and leaves little doubt as to how he feels about individuals artists.

A spirited writer who occasionally crosses the line between clever and too-clever-by-half, Frederic Spotts is a mean man with an insult. Here’s his take on Serge Lifar, the Russian-born dancer who reigned for three decades as the head of the Paris Opera Ballet: “Such chutzpah was typical of this self-infatuated man who successfully slithered his way through life.” (Ouch!)

But the author’s occasional meanness is offset by his ability to choose “le quote juste” to make his point. For example, just days after the armistice in 1940, the Opera-Comique performed Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande,” and the soprano, Irene Joachim, was startled when she walked on stage for the first time.

“[I fell] into a panic on seeing that three-quarters of the audience were grey-green — German officers and soldiers. It was horrifying! I had to prove through Debussy’s music that we were here, still capable of living for the greatest music, and to do my best for Debussy. And when Melisande is pummeled, dragged on the ground by Golaud who seizes her by the hair and when Arkel finally says, ‘If I were God I should have pity on the hearts of men,’ I can say that the emotion was such that all [the French] in the audience, all the musicians and all us singers on stage — we were all in tears.”

For those with an interest in this period, Frederic Spotts has mined this vein before, recently with his “Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics” and 15 years ago in “Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival,” also published by Yale. The fact that he has written a book on that iconic festival gives even more punch to his comment, in the chapter on music and musicians, that “Wagner can corrupt, and Wagner at Bayreuth can corrupt absolutely”.

“The Shameful Peace” is a book filled with such gems, all of them set against the grim backdrop of an artificial peace amid a very real war. It’s not the easiest book to read — he’s overly fond of large seldom-used words and decidedly inconsistent as to which foreign phrases he chooses to translate — but you’ll never be sorry you took the time to read it.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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