On June 14, 1940, German tanks rolled into a silent and deserted Paris. Eight days later, a humbled France accepted defeat along with foreign occupation. The only consolation was that, while the swastika now flew over Paris, the City of Light was undamaged. Soon, a peculiar kind of normality returned as theaters, opera houses, movie theaters and nightclubs reopened for business. This suited both conquerors and vanquished: the Germans wanted Parisians to be distracted, while the French could show that, culturally at least, they had not been defeated. Over the next four years, the artistic life of Paris flourished with as much verve as in peacetime. Only a handful of writers and intellectuals asked if this was an appropriate response to the horrors of a world war. The American Library in Paris is thrilled to have author Alan Riding present his latest book And The Show Went On. Please join us Wednesday, November 10th at 19h30 to hear more on this fascinating topic. In the meantime, Alan tells us about his inspiration for the book.
I have always liked to imagine Paris as a gigantic stage with an unchanging décor where powerful dramas routinely take place. This has been true throughout French history and it is no less the case today. Certainly, there is something richly theatrical about the way demonstrators regularly march up – and down – the boulevard Saint-Michel, just a few steps from my office. Naturally they have good reason to yell, but they are also playing their assigned roles of protestors. It is as if the very act of stepping onto the Paris stage turns us all into performers.
This thought nourished me as I was writing my new book, And The Show Went On, about the cultural life of Paris during the Nazi occupation. Whenever I left my office, I found myself in the setting I was describing – on the boulevard Saint-Michel with its many plaques recording those youngsters who died during the Paris insurrection in August 1944; beside the French Senate, turned 70 years ago into the Luftwaffe headquarters; a few metro stops away, at the Paris Opera where Nazi music-lovers filled the boxes and wept over Wagner; or on the Champs-Élysées, where units of the Wehrmacht paraded each day around noon.
Still, what prompted me to write this book was not only to imagine how the Paris stage was peopled between 1940 and 1944. It was also to ask how artists, writers and intellectuals responded to the affront of a foreign occupation. The obvious question was, did they collaborate or resist? And yet, as my research advanced, the answers that emerged were far more nuanced than my initial question. Among my elitist group, there were few absolute collaborators and resisters and many whose position adapted to changing circumstances, moving from support for Marshal Pétain to disillusion with Vichy to active opposition to the occupation.
Why was it important to track their behavior? In France, more than in most countries, certainly more than in the United States and Britain, artists, writers and intellectuals enjoy singular prestige. During times of peace, their genius is toasted, their opinions are heeded. For me, then, the corollary is that during difficult times – of oppression, of war, of foreign occupation – they also have a duty to occupy the moral high ground, to serve as ethical role models to a confused population. Between 1940 and 1944, they were tested as never before.
Ah yes, one other question accompanied while writing this book: what would I have done?
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