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Culture under pressure

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Is art a moral force in society? How should artistes and writers react to oppression? Where does entertainment end and conscience begin? These questions may be germane today when a variety of attempts are being made to influence or suborn culture in brave new India. But they were issues that wracked Western sensibilities just 70 years ago when the Wehrmacht tanks rolled into Paris in June, 1940 and the city capitulated to Nazi rule.

Alan Riding’s study of the cultural life of Paris under occupation does not provide definitive answers — it doesn’t intend to. But this thoughtful and nuanced book is an important addition to ever-expanding literature on World War II, not least because it reports on a little-examined aspect of the war and raises many discomfiting questions about culture and collaboration.

As the title of the book suggests, for four years under Nazi rule, the “show” did go on in Paris — in theatre, painting, music, movie-making, dance and writing. This was almost inevitable because, as Riding writes, “even in the deepening gloom of the inter-war years, as artistic and intellectual freedoms were being extinguished across Europe, Paris continued to shine as a cultural beacon”. To name very few, among writers, there was Satre, Camus, Gide, Malraux, de Beauvoir; among painters, Picasso, Matisse, Marc Chagall; among musicians and singers Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevaliar, Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhart and the popular Black singer Josephine Baker.

For the French, cultural life, whether mainstream, avant-garde (Surrealism or Diaghilev’s ballet) or risqué (the high steppers of the Moulin Rouge), was an article of faith. “Put differently,” writes Riding, “culture had become inseparable from France’s very image of itself.”

There was also practical side to the whole business. The rich pre-war cultural scene meant that there were thousands of dancers, actors, painters and writers who needed employment after occupation — even after Jews, Jewish sympathisers and opponents of the Nazi and Vichy regimes were systematically purged from their ranks.

This need tied in with the intent of the occupiers to promote an officially-approved culture for a variety of reasons. One was Hitler’s delight in having the French wallow in what he saw as their degeneracy. “Let them degenerate. All the better for us,” his favourite architect Albert Speer recalls him saying.

The other was the classic “bread and circuses” motivation to divert public attention from the brutal realities of Nazi rule and to bolster morale for those responsible for imposing it (although the French got to eat less and less bread as the war wore on). This was under orders from Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s notorious minister for propaganda and public enlightenment. Travelling to Paris to gauge its mood after the fall of France he “pronounced the city sad and ordered more cheer”.

Underlying all this was Germany’s inferiority complex. Over the past two centuries, Riding points out, “Germanic culture had produced its share of great artists, writers and, above all, musicians, yet it was Paris … that defined style and taste for the region.” More to the point, “The Nazis had trouble explaining how all this could be done by a culture that it saw as degenerated by Jews, Blacks and Freemasons.” Thus, as Goebbels decided, no cultural activity taking place in France should radiate beyond its borders so that “it should be possible to strike a decisive blow against this propaganda”.

If the Nazis succeeded in their aim only partially, it had to do with the fact that those who managed to escape occupied Europe, thanks to yeoman’s service offered by such dilettante Americans as Varian Fry and the bravery of many French men and women, were able to practise their arts in the New World.

Obviously, there were many writers and performers – such as Louise Ferdinand Celine and the dancer Serge Lifar – who used the occupation to further their careers and vent their virulent anti-Semitism. Inevitably too, the Resistance had close ties with French writers (one reason it was both glamorised and parodied after the war). There was the cruelly betrayed Musee de l’Homme group, the rebel circle who operated from the Museum of Man. Then there was Albert Camus, who joined the Resistance in 1943 and even edited its underground paper Combat. Others chose to express their opposition to Nazi rule through their art — but so subtly as to escape the censor’s pen in the Propaganda Staffel.

But the lines were not always so clear-cut. There were scores of French artistes who agreed to perform for the Nazis and even visited Germany – such as Edith Piaff – in return for the release of French prisoners. Picasso played a particularly ambiguous role, often selling to German buyers and appearing in their salons but secretly helping Jews.

Not surprisingly, there was mass retribution when the war ended for perceived collaborationists but it was also clear that in the melee of collaboration, resistance and the sheer need for survival, France had lost its cultural pre-eminence. It is no coincidence that the post-War centres of Western culture were New York and Chicago, proving, if nothing else, that the bond between culture and political liberty is a strong one.

Cultural life in Nazi-occupied Paris
Alan Riding
Alfred A Knopf
399 pages; $28.95

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First Published: Thu, August 25 2011. 00:07 IST