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Lessons from the Collabo Chronicles By: Lloyd Billingsley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Frederic Spotts, The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation,
Yale University Press, 2008.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who wasn’t around at the time, is on record that the “true France” never collaborated with the occupying forces of the Third Reich. Those inclined to believe that might first have a go at The Shameful Peace, in which Frederic Spotts has unearthed some high-profile collabos, as collaborators were called, whose actual record runs contrary to legend. Take Edith Piaf, for example, the chanteuse whose career took off during the Occupation.

The “Little Sparrow” supposedly worked three shifts for the Resistance helping Jews and resisters escape. In this account, Piaf entertains many German admirers and has an “intimate” relationship with one Col. Waechter, head of the operations sector of Wehrmacht’s Propaganda Department. She also sang for German troops on several occasions. None of that emerges in films such as La Vie en Rose. As for Maurice Chevalier, he was so blatantly pro-Vichy he advertised his loyalty by being photographed swigging from a bottle of Vichy mineral water.

Culture, as Spotts astutely notes, was central to Hitler’s occupation policy. “In the arts, he saw a narcotic to be used to pacify the French and make them amenable to collaboration.” German authorities not only permitted but encouraged a revival of the arts. “Everything back to normal,” was the slogan, and, says Spotts, “to an amazing extent it was true.”

The German National Socialist occupiers were able to exploit “vintage anti-Semitism,” of which The Shameful Peace provides many examples. The occupation also got a boost from pacifism, romanticism, elitism and Anglophobia. Even so, only part of France was occupied, including Paris, but the rest was definitely “preoccupied,” as the poet Fernand Gregh put it. Pablo Picasso, who had been denied French citizenship, initially fled but returned to Paris, where the Germans allowed his celebrity to flourish.

“No painter was sent to concentration camps for their paintings,” Spotts observes. “No French painter was ever arrested for his painting.” Under Nazi occupation, French artists enjoyed a preferred status, and were largely left to themselves. It was more difficult for writers, depending on their politics.

When Hitler occupied France in 1940, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was in effect and the greatest collabos were members of the Communist Party. Spotts does not elaborate on their collaborative duties, perhaps because his subject is artists and intellectuals, but he does note that because of the Stalin-Hitler alliance, “the confiscation of communist literature was limited.” That changed after Hitler invaded his ally in 1941.

Things also changed for poet, dramatist and cineaste Jean Cocteau after the D-Day landing. Cocteau never raised his voice or pen against the occupation, but he did rail against the “anarchy” that followed liberation. “France was descending into the chaos of the liberation,” he said. “The calm of the Germans stands in curious contrast to the panic of the French.” Cocteau also disliked British and American soldiers, as Spotts observes, sentiments he never expressed toward Germans.

During the Occupation, poison-pen letters were pouring into the Wehrmacht headquarters at a rate of 1500 a day. Henri-Georges Clouzot made a film about this, Le Corbeau, banned until 1969. In the Epuration following liberation, the French also enjoyed opportunity to attack each other. Stalinist poet Louis Aragon, for example, used the process to take revenge on anti-communists. A prime target was Andre Gide, who after visiting the USSR wrote that “I doubt that in any other country today, even Hitler’s Germany, the mind is less free, more bowed, more terrorized, more vassalized.”

The Epuration was not exactly a model of justice, according to Spotts. The first to go before judge and jury were not Vichy officials, who had ordered the arrest and deportation of Jews, nor the police who carried out the orders. Nor were they the French manufacturers who had supplied the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe with equipment, or the gangsters who had tortured and killed members of the Resistance. Instead they were writers, journalists and newspaper editors. In Spotts’ estimation, if more than a dozen writers deserved to be sentenced to death, then pianist Alfred Cortot should also have been shot. Cortot had performed more than 15 times as a guest of the Third Reich.

The author also shows how many French transitioned from pro-Nazi to pro-Soviet and anti-American. Author Pierre Drieu la Rochelle easily shifted his support to Stalin. “It will be great to see the Red Army marching down the Champs-Elysees,” he said. “I shall die with a savage joy at the thought that Stalin will be master of the world.”

After the war, the prevailing view in France was that Hitler had been defeated not by Britain and the United States but by the Red Army. Being a member or open sympathizer of the Communist Party became a badge of moral and political righteousness. The author cites Picasso as an example of the phenomenon, and notes that with the growing rivalry between America and the Soviet Union, “most intellectuals and artists sided with the Russians. The far left now took over from the far right leadership of anti-Americanism in culture as much as in politics. From that time on, and for reasons of national pride as well, American culture was viewed as a menace.”

The Shameful Peace is not likely to raise Americans’ opinions of the French, but they were in fact occupied by a totalitarian power. Most French people did not want that to happen, and rode it out as best they could. Contrast that with Hollywood types who willfully promote Stalinist thugs like Che Guevara, now occupying theatres across America. That too is a shameful peace.

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of From Mainline to Sideline, the Social Witness of the National Council of Churches, and Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s.

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