Former New York Times European cultural correspondent Riding (Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, 1984) explores a troubling issue in modern history: the behavior of French artists, performers and writers during the Nazi occupation of Paris.
The author begins in June 1940, when “the German army drove into Paris unopposed,” then provides a quick explanation of how Paris became a magnet for artists and intellectuals in the aftermath of World War I—and how the unstable French governments softened the soil for fascism. Returning to the Nazis, Riding describes how the French scrambled to hide, sometimes successfully, their art treasures from the invaders. He notes how Joseph Goebbels and others believed that keeping Parisian culture alive would help pacify the French—and he proved prescient. Throughout the occupation, plays, operas and concerts continued; poets and novelists and journalists wrote; painters painted; dancers danced; filmmakers filmed—all with a deadly difference, however. Jews were erased, anti-fascists were arrested, and sometimes executed, and publications and productions had to submit to Nazi censorship. As Riding demonstrates in this startling cultural history, many writers and artists sold their services to the fascists for reasons ranging from simple survival to solidarity with the Germans (after the war, the French dealt harshly with most of the latter). He examines a plethora of individual cases, including Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Josephine Baker, Chevalier, Piaf, Cocteau, Sartre, Genet, Camus, Saint-Exupéry and the collaborating Céline. The author also retells the heroic story of American Varian Fry, who struggled to save French artists; examines underground publications; and reveals that the resistance was never as pervasive as postwar mythology maintained.
A stark account of how we act when evil enters our door.