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John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the May 20, 2009 Providence Journal.
Have you ever asked yourself what you would have done if you had found yourself in Paris on June 14, 1940, when the German army rolled into town? Collaboration so quickly became the norm that this fundamental question– would I have run, fought, played ball or just kept my head down?– rarely gets posed in public. Of course, the answer would have depended largely on whether you were Jewish, or French, or both. But whatever your origins, or your politics, the practical and moral choices presented that day still trouble the conscience and demand debate.
Two exhibitions now running in New York describe the different paths taken by French writers– mostly less than admirable– when Nazism swept over a country reputed to be imbued with Enlightenment principles of liberty and tolerance. At the New York Public Library, the ambitious show “Between Collaboration and Resistance” describes the life of the literati under the Occupation; at the Museum of Jewish Heritage we can observe the depressing trajectory of the “French”-Jewish novelist Irène Némirovsky, whose life and death mirror the intellectual evasion so prevalent under Nazi and Vichy rule in her adopted homeland.
As a writer and publisher, I don’t pretend to know what I would have done, much as I like to fantasize that I would have joined the Resistance, or, like Romain Gary, fled to London to follow de Gaulle. My hypothetical moral dilemma is too bound up in the experience of my French mother, who spent the war in the occupied zone in relative comfort though anguished isolation. Her father was anti-German and pro-British, but he nonetheless kept his wood-veneer factory running full tilt to meet the demand of German furniture makers. His justification, in part, was to prevent his employees from being deported to work in German munitions factories (some were forced to go anyway). But I wish he had lived long enough for me to ask why, if he was so anti-German, he didn’t enter into clandestine resistance along with the tiny minority who chose to stay and fight.
My grandfather died when I was six, so I didn’t get the chance. Paradoxically, some of the money he made during the war helped pay for my private schooling in America, and a good education is what enabled me to study with the great historian of Vichy France, Robert Paxton.
But we imagine intellectuals to be more principled, or at least more thoughtful, than ordinary businessmen. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the public-library exhibition (curated by a team led by Paxton) to suggest that French writers behaved any better than other Frenchmen. To be sure, there were notable exceptions, like the novelist Louis Aragon, a communist, and his wife, Elsa Triolet (as well as the French-writing Irishman Samuel Beckett), who actively resisted. Other literary figures of Jewish origin, like Jacques Schiffrin (aided by André Gide) and André Maurois, wisely found refuge in America, where they were able to work for the anti-Nazi cause.
But paradox and hypocrisy were the order of the day. Some non-collaborators wrote for collaborationist journals and, for a time, even Maurois naïvely supported Maréchal Philippe Pétain, the head of the collaborationist Vichy regime that governed the so-called free zone in the south and eventually conducted its own roundups of Jews. As the historian Thomas Christofferson writes, “Purity never existed, not even among intellectuals…. For the most part, the intellectual resistance was a limited, Parisian phenomenon that very few people experienced firsthand.”
One of the most damning pieces of evidence at the library is a short dismissal letter dated Nov. 5, 1940, written by the publisher Gaston Gallimard to Schiffrin to place his company in conformity with Vichy’s anti-Semitic laws: “Dear Sir, Reorganizing our publishing house on new bases, I must end your participation in the production of the collection ‘Bibliotèque de la Pléiade’…. Please be assured, sir, of my sincerest regards.” This odious bit of realpolitik did not, however, prevent Aragon and Camus in 1942, and Sartre in 1943, from having their books published by Gallimard.
Other publishers conducted themselves no more honorably, firing their Jewish employees with little or no hesitation. In muted contrast was Albin Michel, which reluctantly continued to subsidize Némirovsky while she sought safety with her family in a village in Burgundy. But Némirovsky was, like Poe’s purloined letter, hidden in plain sight. If many intellectuals blinded themselves to Vichy’s fraudulent declarations of independence, Némirovsky virtually committed suicide in pursuit of “Frenchness” in the eyes of Vichy. At the Museum of Jewish Heritage, we can read her pathetic letter to Pétain of Sept. 13, 1940, in which she seeks special status by differentiating herself from other, supposedly less desirable Jewish immigrants to France. By now converted to Catholicism, she writes: “I cannot believe… that one makes no distinction between the undesirables and the honorable foreigners who, if they have received royal hospitality from France, are conscious of having done their best to deserve it.”
A very fine writer, Némirovsky, but politically tone deaf. Raised in a monied banking family that fled Russia during the Bolshevik revolution, her snobbery and sense of class entitlement trumped her common sense– she seems literally to have believed that writing well in French, along with her upper-class credentials and religious conversion, would spare her the fate reserved for all Jews by Hitler. Already in 1938, Irène and her banker husband had been denied French citizenship, but she didn’t take the hint. In any event, Vichy’s anti-Jewish laws were applied without prodding from the Germans, so French anti-Semitism was homegrown and citizenship was no protection. Less than two years after she wrote to Pétain, Némirovsky was arrested by the French police inside the occupied zone and deported to Auschwitz, where she was gassed to death.
But as disgracefully as the French responded to Hitler– and as well presented as these two exhibitions are– there’s something disturbing about watching Americans proceed in shocked judgment of foreigners and their moral crimes. In the end, the Occupation is a French story that may continue to fascinate Americans simply because France is more interesting than, say, Holland, where a higher percentage of the Jewish population was deported. It may also be that Americans, in their perpetual innocence, prefer to consider the sins of others rather than examine their own history.
Before we get to feeling too self-righteous, we ought to mount a public exhibition on American policy toward Vichy (where the U.S. ambassador remained until May 1942), Jewish refugees (the Roosevelt State Department turned away convoys loaded with fleeing Jews from East Coast ports and maintained its strict quotas on immigration throughout the war), and the death camps themselves (the U.S. government played down early reports of the growing Holocaust). The exhibit could include a section, drawn from Charles Glass’s forthcoming book, Americans in Paris, on the 5,000 or so Americans who remained in Paris during the Occupation, not all of whom distinguished themselves ethically.
One of those Americans was the very wealthy Florence Gould, a willing collaborator who presided over a Franco-German literary and artists’ salon all through those four dark years. The Florence Gould Foundation is a major funder of the library exhibition, which is to say that some moral questions are very complex.
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”