dilluns, 21 de desembre del 2009

'La résistance'

"From Jullian's journals the reader might get the impression that life in wartime Paris was almost normal. Germans are barely mentioned. Food was short, to be sure, but something could always be rustled up at dinner parties attended by a young aesthete with the right connections.

Of course, Jullian was not exactly representative of the French population. But the impression that life went on, and that the horrors that afflicted the Berrs, and many others, could be safely ignored by those who were not marked with yellow stars, is not totally false. Paris, unlike other European capitals under Nazi occupation, was meant to look normal. Nominally, it was under French (Vichy) rule, and German policy was to encourage cultural life there as long as it was not unfriendly to the German cause. Francophile administrators, such as the German "ambassador," Otto Abetz, were sent to Paris expressly to cultivate French writers and artists.

Herbert von Karajan conducted the German State Opera in Paris. Cocteau's plays were performed all through the war. Jean-Paul Sartre published his books, as did Simone de Beauvoir, and German officers were among those who came to see Sartre's plays. Albert Camus was patronized by the German chief of literary propaganda, Gerhard Heller. Film studios thrived under German supervision. And Sartre and Camus wrote for the resistance too. Things were even easier for French collaborators. For them, as Robert Paxton observes in Collaboration and Resistance, "life in occupied Paris was sweet."

When General de Gaulle returned as a French hero in 1944 and told his compatriots that there was only one "eternal France," and that all French patriots had stood up to the Nazi invaders, this myth was gratefully received. The more complicated reality was slow to emerge. It took an American historian, Robert Paxton, to start the flood of literature on Vichy France. But even though the murkier picture of collaboration and compromise, as well as heroic resistance, is now generally accepted in France, a confrontation with the superficial normality of wartime Paris can still come as a shock.

The French photographer André Zucca was not a Nazi. But he felt no particular hostility toward Germany either. And as the historian Jean-Pierre Azéma remarks in his preface to the riveting book of Zucca's photographs, Les Parisiens sous l'Occupation, he "was not a shining example of philosemitism." Zucca simply wanted to continue his pre-war life, publishing pictures in the best magazines. And the one with the glossiest pictures, in fine German Agfacolor, happened to be Signal, the German propaganda magazine. When a cache of these pictures was exhibited at the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris last year, the press reacted with dismay. How could this "celebration of the victor," "underlining the sweetness of life in an occupied country," take place "without any explanation"?

Perhaps there should have been more explanation, but the pictures are only tendentious in what they do not show. You don't see people being rounded up. There is only one blurred image of an old woman walking along the rue de Rivoli wearing a yellow star. There are no photographs of endless queues in front of half-empty food stores. There are no pictures of Drancy, where Jews were held in appalling conditions before being transported east in cattle trains. But what Zucca's pictures do show, always in fine Agfacolor weather, is still revealing. They are disturbing to the modern viewer precisely because of their peculiar air of normality, the sense of life going on while atrocities were happening, as it were, around the corner.

We see nice old ladies doing their knitting in the gardens of the Palais-Royal. We see a café on the Champs-Elysées packed with well-dressed Parisians enjoying their aperitifs. We see young people bathing in the Seine. We see fashionable ladies in elaborate hats at the races in Longchamp (this, in August 1943, when mass deportations were in full swing). The streets, to be sure, are weirdly empty of cars, and there are German men and women in uniform popping up here and there, drinking coffee, entering the métro, playing in brass bands, paying their respects to the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. Still, the overall impression is one of a people engaged in what the French call se débrouiller, coping as best they can.

For some French men and women—perhaps more than we would like to know—the occupation was actually a source of new opportunities. That life was sweet for the "collabos" is clear. But a remarkable new book on the sexual aspects of foreign ocupation, 1940–1945 Années érotiques, the second in a two-volume set by Patrick Buisson, shows that the presence of large numbers of German soldiers meant liberation of a kind for large numbers of French women: young women rebelling against the authoritarian strictures of bourgeois life, middle-aged spinsters yearning for romance, widows, women alone, women in bad marriages, and so on. Buisson does not ask us to admire these tens of thousands of women engaging in "horizontal collaboration," but to comprehend the complexity of their motives.

He is scornful of the movie stars, fashion folks, and social climbers who did better than most, thanks to their German contacts or lovers: Arletty, Coco Chanel, Suzy Solidor, et al. But he is just as hard on the men who took their revenge after the war on the army of unknown women who had strayed into German arms. Such women were stripped naked and paraded through the streets, shorn of their hair, their bodies daubed with swastikas, jeered at by the mob. Buisson writes:

When the Germans were defeated, or about to be defeated, the "Boche's girl" served as a substitute to prolong a battle that no longer held any dangers and affirmed a manliness that had not always been employed in other circumstances...."

Ian Buruma, The New York Review of Books. Occupied Paris: the sweet and the cruel.
(Photo by André Zucca).