The moral swamp that was the German occupation of France during World War II is the subject of a fine exhibit at the New York Public Library, Between Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation. Developed in France, and presented in New York with the help of of guest curator Robert Paxton, the great historian of Vichy France, this probing show establishes the clear perfidy of the collaborationist Vichy regime and the murky responses of countless other French people--literary figures included.
As the show makes clear, the ugliness of the Vichy regime had deep and immediate sources. The deep sources were a mix of conservatism, nationalism and anti-Semitism that surfaced in the Dreyfus affair and in rightist attacks on the French left in the years between World War I and World War II. The immediate source was the regime's desire to retain a shred of "autonomy" in the aftermath of the swift French defeat at the hands of Germany early in World War II.
Driven by their own desire to remain at the helm of France, and a deep strain of anti-Semitism, Vichy French officials carried out the Germans' work for them--thereby preserving the illusion that Frenchmen, and not Germans, were in charge of their country. This led to the awful spectacle of French police rounding up Jews for deportation to concentration camps.
Wartime France was a country of heroes and villains. In well-written labels and well-displayed artifacts, the exhibit shows the responses of both. Nakedly anti-Semitic tracts, and Resistance publications are compelling elements of the show. Yet "Between Collaboration and Resistance" also makes the important point, in the ordinary and literary lives chronicled in the exhibit, that most people fell somewhere between.
Neither the collaborators nor the resisters survived the post-war years intact. Collaborators were initially punished with death, imprisonment loss of civil rights or demotion. In the Fifties, however, remaining collaborators benefited from amnesty laws and rehabilitation. Communist activists and literary figures benefited from their reputations as members of the Resistance, but the politics of the Cold War and battles over Stalinism split the broad alliance of the Resistance in the postwar years.
Former members of the Resistance who expected to transform postwar French literature with their idealism were disappointed, the exhibit concludes. That is understandable. It is hard to look at the occupied France portrayed in this searching exhibit, however, and expect much else.
Between Collaboration and Resistance is on exhibit until July 25 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan.