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Culture Watch

Page Three

And Consider This

The New York Public Library has launched an online exhibition, Between Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation. Some quotes from the text accompanying the exhibit:

"French writers were on the front lines of the debate about the causes of France’s troubles. Well before the defeat of 1940, intellectuals argued bitterly about France’s problems, many of them already aligned in what would become the camps of collaboration and resistance."

"Some restrictions were particularly hard for writers, editors, and publishers to endure. The freedom of expression to which they were accustomed was swept away in a moment. Both Vichy and the Nazis censored publications. Both manipulated scarce paper supplies in order to silence dissidents and to promote official ideologies. Both opened letters and intercepted telephone conversations at will. It was forbidden to listen to the BBC."

"The Occupation turned ordinarily straightforward cultural activities into a moral conundrum. Should one participate in the brilliant theatrical scene in occupied Paris? Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, put on two plays, and the public debated whether this amounted to collaboration or subversion."

"By 1944, a simple denunciation could send a dissident writer like Robert Desnos or a Jewish poet like Max Jacob to his death in a German camp."

"Although the United States was grudging with entry visas, New York became a center for French exile intellectual life. Particularly important were the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes, housed within the New School for Social Research (today The New School), and several publishing ventures in French, including Jacques Schiffrin’s Pantheon (which later become a major New York English-language publisher) and the Editions de la Maison française."

"Writers and publishers were particularly likely to be punished for collaboration. Their printed opinions made them conspicuous. Only leading Vichy politicians and police auxiliaries (the notorious Milice) were treated more harshly. Five well-known writers were sentenced to death. Robert Brasillach (editor of Je suis partout), Paul Chack (a naval officer and historian who helped recruit French volunteers for Hitler’s anti-Bolshevik crusade), and Georges Suarez (editor of Aujourd’hui) were actually executed. The death sentences of Lucien Rebatet and Henri Béraud were commuted to life at hard labor. Drieu La Rochelle committed suicide on March 15, 1945. Some compromised writers such as Céline fled abroad. As the purge impulse waned, amnesty laws in 1951 and 1953 rehabilitated the surviving former collaborators."

The exhibit and its text as well as artifacts of the occupation are illuminating and troubling, as much of what transpired with the intellectuals' struggles with political movements of the day and the reality of the regimes that embodied those movements. It's a look at a time that, in some cases, we look away from even now.


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