Alan Riding’s new book, And the Show Went On, portrays in a winningly detailed manner the resistance and collaboration of those involved with French culture – the stage, the screen, visual arts, writing and music -- during the Nazi occupation.
After the fall of France, the Germans wanted Parisian cultural institutions reopened for several reasons. First, if Parisians were “kept entertained,” they might be less troublesome. But there was another reason, found in the words of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels: “the result of our victorious fight should be to break French domination of cultural propaganda, in Europe and the world.” The Germans had a cultural inferiority complex regarding the French and now felt they were in a position to vanquish French cultural dominance permanently.
To accomplish this goal, Goebbels set up the Propaganda Abteilung (Propaganda Department) in France, comprising a staff of approximately 1,200 people and
containing the Propaganda Staffel and its 50 bureaus (love that bizarre Nazi organizational mindset) in the occupied zone of France, which micromanaged French culture during the occupation.
Vichy, anti-Semitic to the core, was eager to collaborate with the Germans in almost everything. This created confusion for some Frenchmen, and Riding recounts scads of collaborators whose behavior ranged from enthusiastic collaboration to complete indifference - i.e., those who cooperated with but ignored the Germans as much as possible and focused primarily on their craft.
One particularly appealing but unapparent hero of the cultural resistance featured in the book is Rose Valland, a dowdy art curator who, for her efforts to track and save Jewish-owned stolen art, was granted numerous awards, including the Medal of the Resistance by France and the Medal of Freedom by the United States.
She was one of the only heroes in the arena of stolen Jewish art, however. Vichy’s official stance on this looting was blatantly anti-Semitic. Riding notes many Frenchmen who assisted in this enormous robbery. Really, for every notable culturally-inclined French hero Riding mentions, he also names at least a handful of either passive or active collaborators. The unified French Resistance was a complete myth, as Riding clearly illustrates again and again by highlighting scores of collaborationist profiles.
One of the chapters focusing on writers, ‘On the Side of Life,’ is uniquely inspiring, particularly its section on resistance poetry, which - as Riding points out - “enjoyed a monopoly since no collaborationist writer ever tried to express his Fascism in verse.” Poet Pierre Seghers, who was able to work openly, published French poetry mailed from German prison camps, while other poets secretly wrote and distributed fiery Resistance verse.
In addition to the multitude of profiles included, each one ranging from a single paragraph to several pages, Riding also presents general information on the war, setting the profiles solidly within their historical context, so that And the Show Went On is a highly illuminating read on the subject of Nazi-occupied French cultural life.