A willed amnesia has a way of overpowering even the ugliest history. After 65 years, both the citizens and leaders of France still try to forget the moral squalor of the dark years, 1940 to 1944, when their parents and grandparents lived under German occupation. The people of Vichy, for instance, can still be heard complaining that what the world knows best about their spa town is that it was chosen as the capital of a puppet regime that governed part of the country while submitting to German direction. Vichy officials handed over about 76,000 Jews to the Nazis and sent 650,000 non-Jews into slave labour in Germany. The locals, understandably, would prefer to be known for Vichy water and the restorative baths famous since Roman times.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, for his part, doesn't like to hear about collaboration and seems to believe that on some spiritual level it didn't even occur. Only last spring he remarked that in wartime "The true France was not at Vichy, the true France never collaborated."
In his dreams, he's rewriting history. As historians have explained in recent decades, many of the French collaborated, some grudgingly, some enthusiastically. The surrender of the French army was only the prelude to millions of individual surrenders by French citizens, including many artists.
After many of the best painters and writers left the country, those who remained had to decide whether they could operate under Nazi control. André Gide and a few others fell silent but for most artists it was business as usual. Writers published, actors acted, musicians played, all of them submitting to the genial and often flattering supervision of the Nazis.
One artist who plunged onward with his career was Jean Cocteau, a writer as well as a painter and designer. He was heard offering a toast in a cafe: "Long live this shameful peace." His flippant remark provides the title for the most recent book-length study of this subject, The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation (Yale University Press), in which Frederic Spotts provides a detailed, intimate account of French artists in nervous co-existence with the Nazis.
The Germans, Spotts says, set out to breach the Maginot Line of French musical life by seizing its key stronghold, the Paris Opera. In no time, the opera became the showcase of collaboration. Sometimes, German officers filled half the seats. On special occasions, such as a performance of Die Fledermaus with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the audience was entirely German.
But the conquerors wanted to get far beyond the performing arts. They brought lists of books that were to be turned into the authorities for destruction, and began censoring new books, newspapers, magazines, radio shows, films and plays. They supervised museums and private art galleries. They appointed spies to monitor schoolteachers and university professors, on the alert for anti-German or pro-Jewish opinions.
"The Occupation was merciless in exposing character," Spotts points out. Jean-Paul Sartre, nothing if not practical, submitted his plays for censorship, a form of collaboration that he later tried to excuse. "Everything we did was equivocal," he said after the Liberation. "We never quite knew whether what we were doing was right or wrong. A subtle poison corroded even our best intentions." Of course, they had to bear in mind that the Germans might be there forever.
This co-operation wasn't enough for Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi boss of culture as well as propaganda. He wanted to see French and German artists appreciating each other. Spotts publishes a picture of French artists gathered at the Gare de l'Est, ready to leave for a tour of Nazi Germany's cultural accomplishments. They include two much-admired painters of that period, Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain. The photo suggests that the only happy campers were German officers, celebrating the occasion in dress uniform, complete with miniature ceremonial swords.
When the Occupation began, Harold Rosenberg, then a young art critic, wrote, "The laboratory of the 20th century has been shut down." But it was more than that. Paris was both Mecca and Vatican to modern culture, the place everyone gathered and everything was judged. Other cities were national capitals; Paris was the international centre, a magnet for artists from everywhere.
After 1945, cultural values shifted and competing cities replaced Paris; the focus in painting, for instance, shifted decisively to New York. The Occupation and its morale-eroding compromises destroyed what had seemed to be the world's greatest city. Definitely not the sort of event that the French want to recall.