Even 70 years on, the liberation of Paris on Aug. 25, 1944, evokes powerful images: men and women firing at German tanks from behind barricades, girls in flowery dresses embracing arriving French and American soldiers, General de Gaulle proclaiming with no little chutzpah that Paris had liberated itself. How could Parisians not be celebrating? After 50 months of German occupation, their war was over.
But when the morning after came, the notion that France was now happily united seemed illusory. Just as in 1940, when Jews, Communists and Freemasons became scapegoats for a humiliating defeat, the hunt began for those who had supported the Nazi enemy and the collaborationist Vichy regime. The violence, fear and misery of the occupation had awakened a strong thirst for revenge.
Reprisals began even before Paris was freed, with resistance bands summarily executing members of a fascist militia, black marketeers and informants across France. A more orderly purge then followed, with many leading collaborationists eventually brought to trial. Marshal Philippe Pétain, the octogenarian head of the Vichy regime, was jailed for life; his prime minister, Pierre Laval, was among 791 convicted traitors who were shot.
But punishing collabos was not de Gaulle’s top priority. Having personified French honor in exile, he was determined that France should end the war as a victorious ally — even if this meant tweaking history. Thus, by claiming that few French were Nazi sympathizers and most were active or silent resisters, he successfully argued that France never stopped fighting Hitler and that it deserved its place alongside the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union.
But in one high profile arena, that of media, culture and entertainment, the myth of la France résistante was harder to sustain because so many well-known writers, artists and singers had worked under German rules in full view of the public. And this in a country where intellectuals and artists have long claimed the right to pontificate on all topics from the moral high ground.
What every Parisian knew — and usually applauded — was that within months of the fall of France, the city’s cultural life was once again buzzing (albeit with Jewish artists first excluded and later persecuted). This was encouraged by the Germans, who wanted life to appear “normal;” by Vichy, because it showed that culturally France was not defeated; and by artists who wanted — and needed — to work.
Taking the German side, many fascist journalists and a few prominent writers, among them the evil genius Louis-Ferdinand Céline, used the collaborationist press to denounce Jews, Communists, Freemasons and other writers outside their fold. But France’s prestigious literary world was also eager to return to print and it went along with the self-censorship accepted by the publishing industry as a condition for resuming business.
The glittering list of writers who published books or articles included four later Nobel laureates — André Gide, François Mauriac, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre — as well as the novelists Colette and Georges Simenon. Not to overlook Sacha Guitry, Jean Giraudoux, Jean Cocteau, Paul Claudel, Jean Anouilh, Sartre and Camus, whose plays were also presented with German approval.
The movie world was no less active, with 220 new French films produced during the occupation. The Paris Opera and the Opéra Comique kept busy, while the music fare was enriched by German orchestras and star conductors like Herbert von Karajan. Popular singers like Maurice Chevalier, Charles Trenet and Edith Piaf in turn had many German fans in their audiences.
The striking thing is that, except for a handful of writers, everyone in the world of culture chose to work, even those who in 1942 formed a resistance movement. Writers took the lead, publishing an underground monthly, Les Lettres Françaises, and founding a clandestine publishing house, Les Editions de Minuit. Resistance poems also circulated: The poem “Liberté” by Paul Eluard was even reprinted in London on sheets of paper later scattered over France.
Then, after D-Day, resistance groups of writers, musicians, moviemakers and artists organized their own purge committees with a view to judging their peers. But when the time came, beyond cases of blatant Nazi propaganda, collaboration proved hard to define. Did it mean sleeping with the enemy or singing before German soldiers, publishing a book or making a movie? Indeed, was it a crime to offer an offensive opinion?
The ensuing debate, which was carried out noisily in the now-uncensored press, resulted in confusing and inconsistent verdicts: Some artists were jailed for a few months and banned from working for two years; others walked free. However, soon it became apparent that bitter arguments about past culpability had more to do with shaping the future. And here the Communists seized the initiative.
The French Communist Party had dominated the resistance, including that of the cultural world, but it put aside sectarianism during the occupation. After the liberation, though, it again took its orders from Moscow, which in turn recognized the importance of writers and artists, not least Picasso, who joined the party in late 1944. It was not long before the equation Resistant = Communist had become dogma.
In hindsight, then, it seems clear that the left’s sway over French intellectual and cultural life throughout the Cold War had its roots in the occupation and the ideological coup that followed the liberation. Few were the writers or artists who did not spout anti-Americanism and find excuses for Soviet totalitarianism. And even after Moscow lost its appeal, cults to Chairman Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro flourished on the Paris Left Bank.
Today, the French left has run out of steam and both the Communist and Gaullist takes on the occupation have been replaced by a more nuanced verdict, one that shows the great majority of French as simply trying to survive. But there were also genuine heroes. And on Monday, along with an outdoor dance to mark the anniversary of the liberation, some will be remembered more soberly with bouquets of flowers below plaques carrying their names on walls across the city. They all died fighting in the final days before Paris was once more free.
Alan Riding is a former European cultural correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author, most recently, of And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris.