On February 13th 1936, the French socialist leader Léon Blum left the Palais Bourbon in Paris, the site of the lower house of parliament, to travel the relatively short distance to his home on the île Saint-Louis. He was driven by Georges Monnet, a friend and colleague, and they were accompanied by Monnet’s wife, Germaine. As the Citroën B12 turned from rue de l’Université into the boulevard Saint-Germain it found its progress obstructed by a large crowd which had come to attend the funeral of the historian Jacques Bainville, a leading figure of Action française, the largest and most influential of France’s plethora of right-wing, nationalist and antisemitic organisations. Finding it impossible to turn around or reverse, Monnet tried to edge forward along the boulevard, but his fine automobile attracted notice. The crowd may or may not have known the driver, but they could not but recognise the man in the back seat. A socialist, a pacifist, an intellectual, and, not of least importance, a Jew, Blum was referred to as ‘l’homme le plus insulté de France’ (the most insulted man in France). Long designated as the chief enemy of the patriotic nation, he had been singled out by the propagandists of the far right for extreme verbal abuse and the intellectual leader of AF, Charles Maurras, had on many occasions called for his murder.
Action française members, probably belonging to the organisation’s paramilitary unit, the camelots du roi, smashed the back and side windows of Monnet’s car and rained blows on Blum’s head. Insults and threats were heard: ‘Death to the Jew!’, ‘To the gallows!’, ‘Blum murderer!’ Two police officers arrived and Blum was carried from the car onto the street, but the camelots continued to surge forward and kick him on the ground. Eventually some workers who had been renovating the facade of a nearby building brought him, covered in blood, to the safety of an inner courtyard on the nearby rue de Lille, from where he was eventually taken to hospital. The profuse bleeding had resulted from the rupture of a vein rather than an artery, which was lucky for Blum. He was also fortunate to have been rescued from the mob before the attacks became more prolonged and possibly life-threatening. In the event he was soon discharged from hospital but spent several weeks convalescing at home, unable to take an active part in the parliamentary election campaign which followed in April and May 1936. He was sixty-three at the time of the attack.
AF’s daily newspaper provided its readers of February 14th with a version of the events of the previous day that diverged from most other press accounts:
As the [Bainville] ceremony was taking place at the funeral parlour [the funeral was a non-religious one as members of Action française had been barred from receiving the sacraments in 1927; the interdict was rescinded by Pius XII in 1939] a magnificent automobile drove at speed into the crowd … One of the occupants declared that he was a parliamentary deputy and that he insisted on being allowed through … People looked into the car and recognised Léon Blum … From the crowd, already incensed, came a unanimous shout of anger. The windows of the car shattered. Things would have gone badly for the socialist leader if the members of the AF and the camelots du roi who were close by had not intervened.
To which the satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné responded in its edition of a few days later: ‘The odious attack by Mr Léon Blum against Mr Charles Maurras has failed miserably.’
Despite this disavowal of responsibility for the violence, it shortly emerged that Léon Blum’s hat and tie had gone on display as trophies in Action française’s offices. In April, three accused appeared before the courts. Louis Courtois, thought to be the main instigator of the attack, was sentenced to three months in prison; Léon Andurand to fifteen days. The third suspect, Édouard Aragon, threw himself to his knees and begged the court to have a thought for his four children. Germaine Monnet, asked if she could safely identify him as one of the attackers, said she could not be sure. He was acquitted.
The French far right can trace its ideological origins back to the reaction to the revolution of 1789, a convulsion which, it felt, deprived the country of the essential underpinnings of hierarchy and order, replacing respect for authority with anarchic individualism, harmony with competition and quiet obedience to higher powers with defiance of God’s laws and contempt for His ministers. The most influential voice here was Edmund Burke, through his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790. The fatal mistake of the French Revolution, according to Burke, was that in contrast to Britain’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, which had the limited objective of reasserting the liberties of parliament against the arbitrary will of the monarch, the French wished to create a new society ex nihilo, taking nothing from the accumulated traditions and practices which had evolved over centuries and which, in Burke’s view, served the people and the state well. After 1789 the French had attempted to build a new society on abstract principles, not least on the abstraction of ‘man’, an artificial creature whose origins derived from the intellectual speculation of the Enlightenment philosophes: he (never she) was not the flesh and blood man that we know, born into and conditioned by particular circumstances of birth and education, but an intellectual concoction largely composed of political and economic striving and everywhere, in every society and every circumstance, though apparently ‘individual’, in essence the same. A later reactionary thinker, Joseph de Maistre, developing an argument along the same lines, was even more scathing. The 1795 French constitution, he observed, was made in the name of ‘man’. ‘Yet this man does not exist anywhere in the world. I’ve seen in my time French men, Italian men, Russian men; I even know, thanks to Montesquieu [author of Lettres Persanes] that one can be Persian. But as for man, I have to say I’ve never met one in my life; if such a creature exists it is certainly outside of my experience.’
One of the essential bases on which a properly functioning society must rest, according to Burke, was respect for religion, which ‘has, and must have, [a] large mixture of salutary fear’: in other words it must act as a brake on bad behaviour, including, and perhaps particularly, any tendency to act on a desire to enjoy possession of what is not yours (‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house …’). The royalist pamphleteer Antoine de Rivarol, who died in 1801, had written: ‘It is not a question of establishing whether religion is true or false but rather whether it is necessary.’ This idea may bear some relation to the more modern notion that, even if the tenets of revealed religion are not in any literal or empirical sense ‘true’, they may nevertheless, in the microcosm of the rural parish or for the individual believer, have or have had a positive effect in brokering social peace or offering a comprehensive, if largely metaphorical, framework with which to process offence, guilt, forgiveness, loss and mortality. But Rivarol’s perspective is quite different: religion is not to be recommended because it may be beneficial to the believer or the community of believers; rather it is seen as beneficial, indeed necessary, to society ‑ and by ‘society’ here we must surely understand the possessing classes. Voltaire, a deist rather than an atheist, expressed much the same view with his usual zestful cynicism: ‘by all means let us discuss the possibility that God does not exist, but let me first send my servants home lest I have my throat cut in bed’.
Another fundamental objection which the reactionary right had to the ideology of the Revolution was its championing of equality. Equality is against nature, Burke argued: there is no society without elites and there is nothing unjust about according a certain pre-eminence to those whose birth qualifies them for the most noble roles in governance – birth here of course means ‘high’ birth. Burke was perhaps something of a moderate as regards this principle: an important role in society for aristocrats could be justified, but high office should not be their exclusive privilege: if he was himself perhaps the most gifted intellectual of his generation, in his social background he was suspect, the son and brother of practising Irish Catholics, while his father was a mere solicitor. One must of course accord to aristocratic society, with the beneficial continuity embodied in the practice of inheritance, its entitlements; but some allowance should also be made for talent.
The push and pull between those who accepted and those who rejected the changes brought about by the French Revolution was to continue into the mid-century and beyond, with no complete victory for either side but against a background of what seemed to be a general slow ebb of royalist sentiment and a sullen withdrawal of many of the supporters of tradition and religion into more or less impotent exile from political life. A number of circumstances were to come together in the 1870s and 1880s however which again energised the reactionary right, giving it a new ideological orientation and, even more valuably, new enemies.
Defeat by Germany in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the subsequent uprising of the Paris communards and its bloody suppression shocked and demoralised the country. The annexation by Germany of most of Alsace and parts of Lorraine, agreed in the treaty which ended the war, led to considerable migration to Paris and other urban centres from ‘the lost provinces’, much of it from Jewish citizens who felt they would enjoy greater civil rights by opting for France rather than being absorbed into Germany.
In 1881 the Assumptionist order’s journal La Croix (The Cross) wrote: ‘The Jews are not popular in France; their hypocritical tricks have a way of annoying us.’ If Catholic antisemitism was, for the moment, largely a matter of a racial hostility built on top of theological foundations it was soon to merge with other currents drawing on nationalism and xenophobia, or the new pseudo-discipline of ‘racial science’, all of which came together in a great gush in Édouard Drumont’s 1,200-page ‘pamphlet’ La France Juive. ‘Everywhere,’ Drumont told his readers, ‘you will find the Jew attempting to destroy, directly or indirectly, our religion.’ But it wasn’t just a question of religion. Drumont also campaigned, with a somewhat poorer and less religious audience in mind, against ‘the Jewish capitalist’, who was despoiling the ‘honest and hardworking’ Frenchman. Racial science, he wrote, demonstrated that the Jew was physically and morally different, that there had always been a fundamental conflict between Aryan and Semite. The two races had nothing in common, the Semite being ‘mercantile, avaricious, scheming, subtle, cunning’ while the Aryan was ‘enthusiastic, heroic, chivalrous, unselfish, straightforward, confiding to a fault’.
The Dreyfus Affair, involving a Jewish army officer convicted of passing secrets to the Germans, had everything to interest Drumont, who had, from 1892, campaigned against allowing Jews into the army officer corps. The affair dragged on from 1894, when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was found guilty of espionage on very flimsy evidence, to 1906, when he was finally cleared and reinstated in the army. The long-running controversy over Dreyfus’s guilt or innocence – and more importantly the possible guilt of the higher echelons of the army if he had been framed – deeply divided France. When emerging evidence began to make it clear that Dreyfus was indeed innocent, Drumont insisted that evidence was beside the point: ‘It’s a question of race; all the logic-chopping is irrelevant.’ For the anti-Dreyfusards it was politically necessary that the higher echelons of the army be without sin; and therefore it was necessary that Dreyfus be guilty.
The ferocity with which the case against Dreyfus was prosecuted in the press and the patent unwillingness of the anti-Dreyfusards to accept that the army, together with the church a pillar of the nation, could possibly be guilty of duplicity, might have led some to believe that France was a deeply antisemitic society. But the defence of the Jewish officer was conducted with equal vigour ‑ and certainly with greater intellectual distinction. The father of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in Kaunas, a city then in Russia and today in Lithuania, advised his son, who would soon be compelled to emigrate in order to benefit from a university education, to choose France: ‘A country that tears itself apart to defend the honour of a small Jewish captain,’ he said, ‘is somewhere worth going.’
The leadership of the far right in France would soon pass on to two figures who were more intellectually equipped for it than was Drumont. These were Maurice Barrès (1862-1923) and Charles Maurras (1868-1952). Without in any way distancing themselves from any of the pre-existing elements of far-right ideology – its respect for hierarchy, its anti-egalitarianism and antisemitism, Barrès and Maurras were to contribute to the movement taking a strong nationalist turn, which in the case of the former had a distinctly mystical flavour. A new addition to the French language which emerged in the course of the Dreyfus controversy was the word ‘intellectual’ (intellectuel). It was a term of disparagement, which Barrès defined thus: an intellectual is ‘an individual who persuades himself that society should be founded on logic and who fails to realise that it is in fact built on more fundamental necessities, which may well not be amenable to individual reason’. And what were these more fundamental ‘necessities’? In La Terre et les Morts (The land and the dead, 1899), Barrès wrote: ‘This voice of our ancestors … nothing is more valuable than this for forming the conscience of a people. The land gives us a discipline. And we are the continuation of our ancestors. It is on that reality that we should found ourselves.’ This was something that of course ‘intellectuals’ could not grasp. Four years later, Barrès wrote: ‘Certain people think themselves more cultured because they have stifled the voice of blood and the attachment to place [l’instinct du terroir]. They claim to be regulated by laws which they have chosen themselves, laws which, while they may in themselves be quite logical, risk blocking off our deepest energies. As for us, to preserve ourselves from a sterile anarchy, we wish to connect with our land and our dead.’
If Barrès was somewhat sentimental with regard to the French soil and the dead generations it enfolded, he was less so with regard to the living. A line from his novel Les Déracinés (The rootless), published in 1897, can be taken to sum up his feelings about men and women of no property: ‘A primary condition of social peace is that the poor should have a lively awareness of their powerlessness.’ Maurras, who was to become the undisputed intellectual leader of the far right after Barrès’s death, added another two targets to its traditional list of enemies: Protestants and freemasons. He also made Action française officially a monarchist movement, though in practice the poor human quality of the royalist pretenders made the project of restoration something of a dead letter. For the far right ideologues it was not the least of the virtues of the institutional Catholic church – like Barrès, Maurras personally lacked religious faith – that in strong contrast to Protestantism it had drawn the teeth of the Gospel message (its texts composed by ‘four obscure Jews’), chiefly by denying the faithful access to it, substituting instead a web of soporific ritual in a language they could not understand. Words and ideas could be dangerous. The Magnificat (‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble. / He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He hath sent empty away.’) Maurras found a particularly offensive text.
Just like Catholicism and royalism, antisemitism was for Maurras to a considerable degree instrumental, a weapon in the political struggle: the essential cornerstone of his philosophy was nationalism. Michel Winock summarises his tactical thinking:
Antisemitism has another virtue, political this time, which is its ability to federate all the forces of the national revival against the revolutionary society incarnated by the Jews. Antisemitism allows us to rally the Catholics, the bourgeois who are victims of competition, the workers who are victims of Capital; it was a vector of an essential inter-class front, a unifying factor which Maurras in 1911 celebrated in these terms: ‘Everything looked impossible, or frightfully difficult, without this providential antisemitism. Through it, all the problems are sorted, smoothed out, simplified. If one wasn’t already an antisemite for national reasons one would become one out of simple opportunism.’
There is no reason whatsoever to doubt that Maurras was not already an antisemite by conviction. But by the time the far right actually came to power on the back of the defeat of the French army in 1940, he had been to some degree passed out by younger acolytes with even more extreme views than his who ardently admired Nazi Germany and seemed unabashed by the most radical solutions to ‘the Jewish problem’.
The French parliamentary elections of 1936, coming less than three months after the assault on Léon Blum, produced a result that surprised many, probably including the chief beneficiary. First, the election produced a clear victory for the parties of the left, which returned 386 deputies to the right’s 224. Second, within that left grouping, the socialists (formally the French Section of the Socialist International – SFIO) emerged as the largest party, with 149 seats, as against the radicals’ 115 and the communists’ seventy-two. The government that followed, commonly referred to as the Popular Front, was hated and feared by many in France, while its performance in government was to be later assessed by others, particularly those on the more radical left, as at best disappointing.
Léon Blum’s biographer Jean Lacouture makes a number of cogent points about the Popular Front experience, which lasted less than two years. First, the Front was in many ways a defensive alliance against the threat of the far right. The electoral victory of the left may have constituted a defeat for the right but the threat it represented did not go away: the radical right, after all, cared little for elections or democracy. Second, the Front was a coalition, which depended on, and could not survive without, the support of all of its components: socialists, communists, radicals. Third, the relative weight of the parties after the election came as a surprise to almost everyone; what had been expected was a government in which the radicals would have the preponderant role and the socialists, and perhaps the communists, would offer support based on some concessions to their own political programmes. The socialists, not expecting to lead, were not up to speed with the realities of the financial situation. Fourth, the Front took power after a period of austerity and deflation; its Keynesian policies of stimulation of consumption and state sponsorship of large-scale public works were stubbornly resisted by the institutions that controlled credit. Fifth, the international climate, particularly after the nationalist rebellion in Spain, supported by the Axis powers, was extremely dangerous. If France’s reformist phase was to look like developing into a revolutionary one, the consequences could not be foreseen. Sixth, Léon Blum, though a subtle theoretician, perhaps did not adequately realise that being in government did not necessarily mean being in power. In particular, he did not and his government did not after 1936 enjoy a monopoly of the use of force. There were serious reasons to doubt the army’s loyalty to the government (or even to the republic); and the same, to a lesser degree, could be said of the police.
The change of government in May/June 1936 was accompanied by a nationwide wave of strikes and factory occupations. To many it seemed that France was in a revolutionary situation: the left-wing socialist Marceau Pivert indeed gleefully proclaimed that now ‘everything is possible’. The incoming Blum government, formed on June 4th, met with the employers and proceeded to negotiate an end to the occupations based on a raft of concessions that would compensate workers for the severe loss of purchasing power they had experienced under the previous government’s deflationary policies. The Matignon Accords, signed on June 7th and 8th, allowed for union recognition in the factories and the right of the workers to choose their own shop stewards and engage in collective bargaining, a wage increase of 7 per cent for higher salaries and 15 per cent for lower and an undertaking from the employers that there would be no victimisation of workers for their actions during the occupations. Blum added that his government would immediately legislate for a forty-hour week and two weeks’ paid holiday per year. Yet in spite of the Matignon agreement the strikes continued in many places. At this point the communist party (PCF), which was certainly supported by a greater proportion of the industrial working class than were the socialists, threw its weight behind the deal. ‘One must know how to end a strike when satisfaction has been achieved,’ the communist leader, Maurice Thorez, declared. Indeed one might in practice often need to end it even if not all one’s demands had been met.
The explosion of strikes in spring 1936 should be seen not just in the context of depressed wages and the desire of the working class to ‘catch up’. The actions were also a revolt against the system of repression that reigned in the industrial sphere, with workers on the assembly line supervised at every moment, forced to be silent when working and often treated as if they were prisoners performing forced labour. The factory occupations were also marked by a burst of optimism, closely related of course to hopes of reform from the new government. The philosopher Simone Weil, sympathetic to anarchism, who had herself worked for considerable periods on an assembly line, characterised the work stoppages as ‘strikes of joy’. She wrote: ‘I went to see my friends in a factory where I worked several months ago … the joy of being able to walk around the workshops instead of being tied to the machine … the joy of hearing, instead of the pitiless racket of the machines, music, songs, laughter … the joy of walking past the bosses with one’s head held high … the joy of living, among these silent machines, at the rhythm of human life.’ It was true of course, Weil added, that things would soon return to the way they had been, but for the moment the workers did not dwell on that. They were enjoying a holiday from ‘normal’. They may also have been consoled by the prospect of taking, for the first time, an actual holiday as the Popular Front legislated for annual leave and cut train fares to enable workers and their families to taste for the first time the delights of the French countryside. At the same time, the Front’s minister for education, Jean Zay, enlisted the director of the national library, Julien Cain, in an ambitious and imaginative programme of bringing books to a part of society they had not greatly touched before, significantly increasing funding for public libraries, initiating mobile libraries and services for children. The poet Paul Valéry wrote of Cain: ‘He is without doubt the man to whom the organisation of French literature owes the most.’
The prospect that the poor, or the working classes, might lose that ‘lively sense of their powerlessness’ that Barrès had deemed essential to social peace, that they might have the hope that they could improve their lives or their children’s, that they might widen their physical or cultural horizons, was an extremely unwelcome one to the dogmatists of the nationalist right. Indeed figures like Lucien Rebatet, a journalist and critic chiefly associated in the 1930s with the literary-political review Je suis partout (I am everywhere), could be said quite simply to hate the sight of the working class, and particularly its women. Returning to Paris after a short trip just after the elections of 1936 he found a city teeming with joyous proletarians, taking their Sunday stroll from République to Nation, ‘well-fed, tanned, fresh and plump in their silk blouses, flannel pants and sparkly yellow shoes, celebrating proudly the new era of beach holidays, new cars, dining rooms furnished in cheap walnut, lobster, leg of lamb and triple apéritif’. On July 14th he was appalled to see left-wing crowds, including communists, joining in the festivities: ‘the last armoured cars had barely passed before monstrous families of Berlin yids proceeded up the Champs-Élysées exclaiming “Long leef ze popular vront!”’
The far right had two unbudgeable ideas about the Popular Front: first, that it was manipulated by the communists, who were clearly the real power, second that it was not in any way national or French. As regards the former, it might be noted that the communists were not in the Popular Front government but supported it from outside; also that the PCF of 1936 was a different animal from that of a few years previously. Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, which Moscow had not been expecting, had moved the Comintern away from its previous sectarian policy of ‘class against class’ to a model of co-operation with other left-wing parties and centrists to block the path to power of the far right. And if Action française persisted in thinking that the Front was ultimately being manipulated by Moscow they were also sure that its leader was no more than a tool of international Jewry. Léon Blum, whose grandfather came from Alsace and whose father and uncles ran a successful haberdashery shop in Paris, was always denied by his enemies the appellation of Frenchman: he was either a German, or, perhaps worse, an oriental or Levantine. Maurras had once suggested that he should be guillotined, with, as was the custom with parricides, a black veil covering his ‘camel-like features’. Pierre Gaxotte, who performed the function of editor-in-chief of Je suis partout before Robert Brasillach took over, wrote in the review Candide: ‘ … he is ugly, the sorrowful head of a Palestinian mare […] he is the incarnation of everything that revolts our [French] blood and gives us goose pimples. He is evil, he is death.’
In 1904 the young Viennese writer Stefan Zweig visited Paris. He was besotted by the city, experiencing it as a demi-paradise where an absence of constraint on public behaviour was matched by an almost total lack of concern for rank or class, in Zweig’s imagining a kind of anti-Berlin: one could talk, think, laugh or complain just as one wished, live one’s life as one pleased, alone or in company, in bourgeois luxury or à la bohème. One could eat in fine restaurants for two or three hundred francs but equally dine on a tasty bifteck, with a carafe of red and ample bread, for a few sous in the Latin Quarter. A worker in his blue jacket was unafraid to stroll through the streets of the most elegant districts. A pretty girl thought nothing of going to a hotel room with an African or Chinese companion: who in Paris gave tuppence for these nonsensical strictures about race, or class, or origin that were only to become threatening much later?
Zweig’s own young age and happy circumstances may have helped shape his rosy view of the place he dubbed ‘the city of eternal youth’: at the time of the visit he describes he was twenty-three years old and a very wealthy young man; his memories, as set down in Le Monde d’hier (The World of Yesterday), were also formulated three and a half decades later as he looked back across the span of his adult life to a murderous world war, economic depression and mass unemployment, the advent of Bolshevism, rising national rivalries, fascism, Nazism and the political persecution of democrats and socialists, and a further conflict which from the standpoint of 1940/41 seemed well on the way to destroying the traditional pillars of European civilisation.
If Paris was not, for all its citizens, as easy and carefree a place as the young Zweig imagined it to be it did nevertheless constitute a considerable pole of attraction over several decades for many incomers, from those fleeing religious or political persecution, to writers keen to soak up its bohemian atmosphere, to painters and sculptors drawn by the fame of its artists, the excellence of its public galleries and the opportunities to earn a living from their work afforded by its network of dealers and the visits of wealthy foreign collectors. In the city’s dynamic visual arts culture, impressionism and post-impressionism were succeeded by fauvism, cubism and, eventually, surrealism. There were artists too who were less easy to attach to a major school, like the Italian Amedeo Modigliani, the Swiss Alberto Giacometti or the Russians (or Belarusians) Marc Chagall and Chaïm Soutine.
Modigliani was born in 1884 in Livorno on Italy’s Tuscan west coast. His father, a wealthy Sephardic Jewish businessman with interests in wood and coal, had lost his businesses and his money in the 1880s, but Modigliani’s mother, Eugénie Garsin, born in Marseille and of Portuguese Sephardic origin, stepped in to rescue the family’s fortunes by establishing an elementary school, giving private language lessons and working as a translator and literary critic. After periods studying art in Venice and Florence, the young Modigliani moved to Paris in 1906, where his early work showed the influence of Paul Cézanne, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edvard Munch. After a few years in the city his main interest changed to sculpture but the dust generated during the sculpting process, which severely irritated his already tubercular lungs, made it impossible for him to continue. He moved back to painting, though some of the African, particularly Egyptian, influences that had distinguished his sculptures were to surface again in his painted portraits, where the figures were often highly stylised, with elongated necks, long noses, tightly pursed lips and almond-shaped eyes, often lacking pupils.
If Modigliani in many ways represented the traditional image, almost the caricature, of the bohemian artist ‑ handsome, sociable, exuberant, fond of smocks and broad-brimmed hats and much given to alcohol and hashish, contributory factors no doubt to his early death in 1920 ‑ the same cannot be said for another artistic arrival in Paris to whom he was to offer his friendship, Chaïm Soutine. Soutine came from the impoverished Jewish shtetl of Smilavitchi near Minsk, today the capital of Belarus. He had studied art in Vilna (now Vilnius) and came to Paris in 1913, in the wake of two art school friends, Pinchus Krémègne and Michel Kikoïne. Soutine was shy, yet often fierce: in his reactions to company he reminded some who met him of a frightened animal. He was obsessed by painting and worked at a furious pace but often destroyed canvasses that did not fully satisfy him. In his early Paris years at least he often appeared unkempt and unwashed and he spoke French badly and with a strong Yiddish accent. He never talked about his art or what it ‘meant’ and he never wrote a theoretical treatise. The artist he most admired was Rembrandt, but his painting did not resemble the Dutch master’s, being perhaps closer to German expressionism. In his swaying, swirling landscapes he also recalled Van Gogh, but he took distortion for artistic effect a few steps further.
The warm-hearted Modigliani offered Soutine his friendship and protection and brought him to the attention of useful contacts, notably the collector Jonas Netter and the charismatic Polish poet and art dealer Léopold Zborowski, known to his friends as ‘Zbo’. Zbo acted as intermediary between Netter and the painters, persuading him at first to guarantee Modigliani a fixed income to allow him to work untroubled by financial worries; then, under
pressure from the Italian, he negotiated a similar arrangement for Soutine, though at a lower level of retainer. Netter in return was able to assemble an impressive collection of the works of a group of painters whose stock was rising – Modigliani, Soutine, Krémègne, Kikoïne, the Polish Jew Moise Kisling – and who, though they were all foreigners and mostly Jews – were soon to become known as the School of Paris.
Standing somewhat apart from this group was Marc Chagall, a Belarusian like Soutine, Krémègne and Kikoïne, but an artist with a quite different relationship to his Jewish background. For Soutine, Smilavitchi was a place to be left behind: there was no artistic sustenance to be had from remembering it; its grinding poverty and cultural backwardness offered no matter for art. He told a friend: ‘When you live in a dirty hole like Smilavitchi, you cannot imagine that cities like Paris exist.’ Years later, through being taken up by and mixing with members of the cultured bourgeoisie in France, Soutine learned to appreciate classical music; in Smilavitchi, he said, he did not know that such a thing as a piano existed. Chagall too found good practical reason to leave his native city, Vitebsk. As he wrote in his early autobiography (1923): ‘Well, should I have stayed in Russia? There … I felt at every step that I was a Jew. People made me feel it.’ And leave it he did, in 1911, even if it is clear from the Russian Jewish life so joyously, if often surreally, portrayed in many of his paintings that Vitebsk never left him.
Chagall’s first stay in Paris lasted just three years, but they were fruitful ones. He made influential friends, including the poets Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire, and mounted successful exhibitions in Paris and Berlin. He now felt able to return to Vitebsk and marry the sweetheart he had left behind in 1911, Berta (later Bella) Rosenfeld. He arrived in Russia in June 1914. In the following month Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and in August the system of alliances drew Germany, France, Russia and Belgium into the conflict. Returning to France across enemy territory was impossible. He was stuck. After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 brought Russia out of the war, Chagall was given a state appointment in Vitebsk through the offices of an acquaintance from Paris, Anatoly Lunacharsky, now head of Narkompros, the People’s Commissariat for Education. His representational style of painting did not, however, find favour in revolutionary circles, where the ‘geometric’ Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky was thought to better represent the desired clean break from all previous artistic tradition. In Chagall’s own account, his paintings were received by the revolutionary commissars with a mixture of puzzlement and suspicion: ‘Why is the cow green and why is the horse flying through the sky, why? What’s the connection with Marx and Lenin?’ Chagall found alternative employment painting sets for the Moscow Jewish Theatre. He did not return to Paris until 1923.
At the Café Odéon in Zürich in 1917 a youngish man with a goatee beard and thick glasses was pointed out to Stefan Zweig as ‘a very gifted English writer’. When, some days later, he actually made the acquaintance of James Joyce, ‘he categorically denied any kind of affinity with England; he was Irish. Of course he wrote in English, but he didn’t think, nor did he wish to think, in English. ‘I would like, he said to me then, a language which would be above all languages, which all of them would serve. I can’t express myself in English without at the same time confining myself in a tradition.’ The two men got on well. Joyce presented Zweig with copies of A Portrait of the Artist and his play, Exiles. ‘The more I got to know him, the more I was astonished by his incredible command of languages. Beneath this round forehead … which in the electric light shone like porcelain, were imprinted all the words of all the languages, which he would play with in the most sparkling manner.’
James Joyce had first visited Paris in December 1902, intending to study medicine, but the stay was a relatively brief one: he returned to Dublin in the following April on hearing that his mother was gravely ill; she died in August. The years after 1905 Joyce spent chiefly in Trieste, at the time the chief port of Austria-Hungary, until the outbreak of war forced him to take refuge in neutral Zürich. He returned to Trieste, now part of Italy, in 1919 but found it uncongenial. In summer 1920 he arrived in Paris, in transit, he thought at the time, for London. He was to stay in the city for twenty years. A few days after his arrival, at a party organised in his honour by Ezra Pound, Joyce met the American expatriate Sylvia Beach, who ran the English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company and who in 1922 was to become the publisher of Ulysses. Beach counted among her customers several of the luminaries of Parisian literary life, resident or just passing through, figures like André Gide, Pound, DH Lawrence, Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald, many of whose photographs adorned the walls of her shop. Joyce’s own portrait would later join them.
If Shakespeare and Company had a certain cachet as a literary meeting place it could not compete in terms of prestige with the salon held by Gertrude Stein on Saturday evenings at the apartment she shared with Toklas at 27 rue de Fleurus, which was attended not just by writers like Pound, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson but also by painters such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Francis Picabia. One notable non-habitué was James Joyce. Hemingway offers as an explanation for the coldness with which Stein regarded Joyce that both were engaged in ploughing the same or a similar furrow, that of ‘experimental fiction’ and that Stein did not welcome competition:
In the three or four years that we were good friends I cannot remember Gertrude Stein ever speaking well of any writer who had not written favorably about her work or done something to advance her career except for Ronald Firbank and, later, Scott Fitzgerald … If you brought up Joyce twice, you would not be invited back. It was like mentioning one general favorably to another general. You learned not to do it the first time you made the mistake. You could always mention a general, though, that the general you were talking to had beaten. The general you were talking to would praise the beaten general greatly and go happily into detail on how he had beaten him.
In March 1923 Joyce sent a letter to his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver: ‘Yesterday I wrote two pages ‑ the first I have since the final Yes of Ulysses.’ These pages were the first draft of an ambitious work of which extracts were to appear sporadically over a number of years in avant-garde journals like The Transatlantic Review and transition under the title ‘fragments from Work in Progress’. It would eventually be published, sixteen years later, as Finnegans Wake. Having finished Ulysses, Joyce was now ready to begin mining, in a literary work of a new type, that store of language and languages that he had over the years accumulated and that had so impressed Zweig in the Café Odéon in Zürich in 1917. The result, a book written in ‘a language above languages’, would indeed be sparkling, if to most also rather baffling.
The Austrian journalist and writer Joseph Roth, who in 1923 had been the first to mention Adolf Hitler in a work of fiction, left Germany for the last time ten years later as the Nazis took power. As a journalist Roth had distinguished himself in writing feuilletons, a light, largely continental European form which he interpreted as being simply an invitation to ‘[say] true things on half a page’. Hitler’s accession to power, he was sure, meant war, sooner or later. He wrote to Stefan Zweig: ‘I wouldn’t give a farthing for our lives now. We have opened the door to the rule of barbarism. Don’t be under any illusions: it is the reign of hell.’
Zweig and Roth spent much of the summer of 1936 together at the Belgian coastal resort of Ostend, where they were joined at various times by other exiled German-language writers who had for the most part lost their homes, readership and incomes after 1933. At Ostend Roth met the Berlin novelist Irmgard Keun, who was to be his companion over the next two years. The pair were warmly attracted to each other, talked incessantly and worked together on their writing. A further bonding factor may have been a common fondness for alcohol. Keun wrote later: ‘When I met Joseph Roth for the first time in Ostend, I had the feeling that I was seeing a man who was going to expire in the next few hours simply from sadness. His round, blue eyes looked out almost sightlessly in despair and his voice seemed loaded down with grief. But later this initial impression became less completely satisfying when I discovered that Roth was not just sad but also the best and most lively hater.’
Roth certainly had reason to be troubled or sad. Once a high earner, particularly for his contributions to the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung, his income was now uncertain. As a Jew, his work could no longer appear in Germany – or after 1938 in Austria ‑ although he continued to be published by the Dutch-based publishers of exile literature Querido and de Lange and he was still supported by the wealthy Zweig. But his outgoings were also high, partly because of his improvident way of life and partly because of the cost of continuing to support his wife, Friederike Reichler, who was a long-term patient in hospital in Austria, where she was being treated for mental illness. In the later 1930s he channelled the hatred – or anger ‑ Keun had remarked upon into a large number of vitriolic anti-Nazi articles for the German-language exile press, in France and Czechoslovakia.
From 1937, Roth lived chiefly at the Hôtel de la Poste in the rue Tournon in Paris’s sixth arrondissement, spending much of his day working at a table in the Café Tournon below and in the evening receiving guests. Though most of Roth’s friends were, and remained, leftists – he had once signed himself ‘Der rote Roth’ (red Roth) – he had now largely left that politics behind, embracing a faith in the rather hopeless cause of restoration of the Habsburg monarchy and increasingly drawn to Catholicism (while not entirely letting go of his Judaism). In spite of failing health he managed to finish his classic short story The Legend of the Holy Drinker, a fable of debt and redemption concerning a man who is striving, though held back by his weakness for alcohol, to fulfil an important promise he has made. Though Roth was still spending hours at his regular table in the Tournon he was no longer writing very much and often seemed lost in thought. By this stage he was thought to be consuming between twenty and thirty glasses of Suze à la mirabelle, a drink made with gentian and flavoured with plum liqueur, every day.
In late September 1938, Adolf Hitler issued an ultimatum to the government of Czechoslovakia: the Czechs had four days, until September 28th, to agree to the secession to the Reich of the region the Germans called Sudetenland, heavily populated by German speakers but also essential to the security of the Czech state as a mountainous natural barrier to invasion. By way of reassurance, Hitler insisted to the British and French that this was absolutely his last territorial demand in Europe. The British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, wished to appease Hitler and avert war while still obtaining guarantees for the security of the rest of Czechoslovakia. There was no appetite for going to war to defend an ally few Britons knew or cared about. Much the same can be assumed of France. Chamberlain reflected the popular mood when he said in a radio address: ‘How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.’ On September 29th a deal was reached at Munich between the British, French, Germans and Italians, but in the absence of the Czechs. The integrity of the Czechoslovak state would have to be sacrificed for peace. Returning to Britain, Chamberlain told a crowd assembled in Downing Street that ‘for the second time in our history, a British prime minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.’ The French prime minister, Édouard Daladier, who had also approved the Munich Agreement, was less sanguine. Expecting, on his arrival back at Le Bourget airport to be vilified for his, or his country’s, cowardice, he was surprised to be applauded. According to one diplomat present, he muttered, on emerging from the aircraft and seeing the welcoming party: ‘Ah, the fools! If only they knew.’ In his memoirs he merely says: ‘I was expecting to be greeted with tomatoes and I was greeted with flowers.’ On March 15th, the Germans occupied the remainder of the Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia). On September 3rd, after they invaded Poland, both Chamberlain and Daladier declared war.
On June 10th, 1940, as German tanks advanced within sight of the Seine, Léon Blum composed an editorial for the socialist newspaper Le Populaire. The situation was indeed grave, he wrote. But in spite of the disparity in men and matériel between the French and the Germans, ‘resolution’ on the part of the defending French army could still see off the invaders. This, patently, was wishful thinking. In the next few days Paris was declared an ‘open city’ to save it from destruction. The Germans entered on June 14th. The French had lost approximately 60,000 dead in the six-week campaign of the Battle of France.
Léon Blum was reluctant to leave the capital in spite of the repeated pleas of his friends and political allies. On the evening of June 10th he was driven to Montluçon in central France to consult with his close friend Marx Dormoy, a former minister of the interior in the Popular Front government. On the morning of the 11th the two returned to Paris, where Blum visited the empty parliament building and held consultations with the préfet de police and the American ambassador, William Bullitt. On June 14th he received a call from Georges Mandel, the current interior minister, asking him to come to Bordeaux, where the French government and many parliamentary deputies had sought refuge. Mandel had arranged the appointment of the relatively junior officer Charles de Gaulle as undersecretary for war and at an overnight meeting in Tours on June 13th/14th had encouraged him to go to London to organise a force of ‘Free French’ resisters. According to de Gaulle in his Mémoires, Mandel told him: ‘You have great duties to fulfil, General, but you have the advantage over us [politicians] of being uncompromised.’
Like Mandel, Blum had hoped that the parliamentarians assembled in Bordeaux would come to a resolution to embark en masse for North Africa to set up a government in exile and continue the fight against Germany from there in concertation with their British allies. But the will to resist appeared to be crumbling. On June 16th, prime minister Paul Reynaud stood down in favour of Marshal Philippe Pétain, a tactical move perhaps as he may have been hoping to be recalled after Pétain failed to negotiate peace with the Germans. Pétain, however, had already decided that he would accept an armistice at almost any price the Germans demanded. France was already defeated, he believed, and he was convinced he knew why. It had nothing to do with the poor performance of its army in the field or the antiquated military ideas of its generals, deriving rather from his compatriots’ perennial ‘taste for the quiet life’ and their ‘abandonment of effort’ and pursuit of pleasure during the decadent 1930s. It was time now for a period of national contrition and the restoration of the moral order under a new regime, which the marshal, offering his country ‘the gift of my person’, was ready to lead ‑ and dish out the penance.
An assembly of both houses of parliament, deputies and senators, was called for July 9th and 10th in the spa town of Vichy. Pierre Laval, a former prime minister on two occasions in the 1930s who was now hoping to play a prominent role in the post-republican regime, addressed his colleagues with some brutality: ‘We wish to destroy all existing structures … Either you accept to be ruled in the manner of the German or Italian constitutions or Hitler will impose it on you.’ Blum watched with some astonishment the moral collapse of France’s politicians, who had not long before declared their determination to resist the imposition of a dictatorship. ‘The poison that one saw acting derived from fear, true fear and panic … One by one, Laval had – I wouldn’t say persuaded – but infected them all. In all fairness, one would have to say that he is unrivalled in this kind of manoeuvring, of manipulation of men.’ While Blum concluded that his own political career was over, he derived some consolation from the continuing resistance of the British. On September 15th, at 6 am, he was arrested.
Blum was held, together with Georges Mandel, Paul Reynaud, Édouard Daladier and General Maurice Gamelin (one of the few senior army officers whose values were unshakeably republican) at the castle of Chazeron, north of the central city of Clermont-Ferrand. Daladier, Gamelin and Blum were three of five defendants put on trial in the nearby town of Riom in February 1942. The burden of the charge against Blum and Daladier was that, through their acts or omissions of a number of years earlier, they bore responsibility for the French defeat of June 1940. The period the court set itself to examine ran from 1936 to 1940, not reaching back any earlier perhaps because, as Blum pointed out, the minister for war in the 1934 government of Gaston Doumergue, which had presided over a significant cut in expenditure on the armed forces – the Popular Front had increased it – was none other than Philippe Pétain. Through the forty-hour week and paid holidays, the prosecution argued, Blum and Daladier had pampered the workers and undermined French industry, holding back the production of armaments. Blum replied that he thought that improving the morale of workers could only work to the benefit of production. Daladier, who had been responsible for defence in a number of governments from 1936 to 1940, was scathing about the army leadership. He had, he told the court, wished to promote the manufacture and deployment of heavy tanks – an idea whose chief sponsor was one Colonel de Gaulle – but the body charged with co-ordinating the armed forces (vice-president Philippe Pétain) had blocked the initiative, preparing instead for a static war of defence on a long front, as in 1914-18. They had refused to extend the defensive Maginot line to the sea: Pétain had assured the senate that the Ardennes forest was impassible. Yet it was in this poorly defended section that the Germans cut through in mid-May 1940 – circumventing the Maginot Line.
What had been intended as a well-managed show trial, which would demonstrate to the French public the errors and crimes of the accused and the weaknesses of democratic government, could not be said to be going well. The proceedings were reported fully in the foreign press but only very selectively by French newspapers and radio. Pressure now came from the Germans to limit the damage. Hitler angrily told the Vichy regime that what had been required was a trial establishing the guilt of Blum and Daladier in causing the war, not one that tried to prove their responsibility for losing it. Mussolini said the proceedings were ‘a farce typical of democracy’. Certainly affording the accused the right, however circumscribed, to defend themselves was not standard practice for a totalitarian regime. At the same time, Vichy France was not a democracy. On April 14th, 1942, after twenty-four sessions, the trial was temporarily suspended. It never resumed.
The armistice agreed between France and Germany in June 1940 had divided the country in two, with an occupied zone in the north and west and a zone called ‘free’ in the south. Article 19 of the agreement also required the authorities in the unoccupied zone to deliver upon request (livrer sur demande) any named person who had fled Germany and sought refuge there. The establishment of Vichy France, officially l’État français (the French state), no longer a republic, was greeted by the intellectuals of the far right with delight. The poet Paul Claudel rejoiced that France had been ‘delivered after sixty years from the yoke of the Radical Party and anti-Catholicism (teachers, lawyers, Jews, freemasons) … [He now cherished the] hope that we may be delivered from universal suffrage and parliamentarism’. Charles Maurras, for his part, spoke of a ‘divine surprise’.
Meanwhile, on June 18th, Charles de Gaulle, speaking from London, told his compatriots (or those few who heard him on BBC radio) that the struggle was not lost, that France still had her colonies, that it had its ally Great Britain, with its command of the seas, that it could also, when the time came to take back France, depend on the massive industrial capacity of the United States. Of more immediate importance for those who wished to resist Germany was the failure of the Luftwaffe, over the summer and autumn of 1940, to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain. Hitler’s desire to knock Britain out of the war – even to enter London in triumph, as he had earlier boasted of accomplishing by mid-August – was to remain unfulfilled. It might, in the end, turn out to be a long war after all.
French collaboration with the German occupiers came in a variety of intensities: resigned or sullen on the part of the greater part of the population; masochistic and accepting yet not entirely identifying with German war aims on the part of Marshal Pétain; enthusiastic, among those who hoped to progress in their new careers with the Vichy state or who were in the process of abandoning traditional right-wing French nationalism to embrace fascism and Nazism. Many of the writers of Je suis partout came into the last category, particularly after Pierre Gaxotte, insufficiently enthused by Hitler and Mussolini, was replaced by Robert Brasillach as editor-in-chief. Brasillach and Lucien Rebatet, who had come from the Action française tradition, now grew critical of Maurras, and he of them. Maurras was perfectly willing to put his faith in Pétain, but as a French patriot of a traditional stripe, never in the Germans. In 1937 Brasillach visited the Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, where he heard Hitler speak and was introduced to one Otto Abetz, later to be an important contact for him when, during the Occupation, he became German ambassador to Paris and co-ordinated support among the collaborationist elite for the new European order, in which France might be allowed to play a part. At Nuremberg, Brasillach was above all impressed by the youth of almost everyone he met: ‘it would have been easy to forget that there were Germans of more than twenty-five, and indeed that it was they who created national socialism; now the movement is no longer for them; it is for the youth.’
The Nazis had famously condemned entartete Kunst, decadent art, and removed it from their galleries. However, the international prestige of the Fauvist movement was such that they were happy to invite some of its leading practitioners, André Derain, Kees van Dongen and Maurice de Vlaminck among them, on a two-week junket to Germany. There was of course no place in the new cultural order for Jews like Soutine, Modigliani or Chagall. Soutine’s stock had risen significantly in the later ’20s and ’30s on the interest of American dealers and the benevolent sponsorship of wealthy collectors like Marcellin and Madeleine Castaing. But with the German Occupation and the tightening of restrictions against Jews this relative prosperity was not of great benefit to him. Marie-Berthe Aurenche, who was to be the companion of his final years, met him in a café in Montparnasse in 1940 and was surprised by his quiet demeanour and his politeness, much at odds with his former image as wild and unpredictable. But Soutine suffered greatly from stomach ulcers and could drink little but milk and lime tea. For his safety he eventually moved out of Paris and settled in the town of Richelieu in the Loire Valley, where he began to paint again with renewed compulsion. But his illness and acute pain grew worse and it was decided in August 1943 that he would need to be operated on in Paris. The long overnight journey probably took a further toll on him. The procedure took place on August 8th, the surgeon, Dr Olivier, removing parts of his stomach, but he died in the early morning of the following day. He was buried two days later in Montparnasse cemetery.
James Joyce devoted most of his energies in the late 1930s to trying to finish his ‘work in progress’, Finnegans Wake; the doings of Hitler he regarded as an unwelcome and certainly unpleasant obstacle to this important task. He was severely hampered in his work by family troubles – his daughter Lucia’s worsening mental condition – and his severely compromised eyesight, but he received invaluable help with his research from two ‘secretaries’, first Samuel Beckett and then Paul Léon, a Russian exile long settled in Paris. Beckett, however, had become persona non grata when Lucia fell in love with him and he failed to reciprocate. The infinitely patient and cheerful Léon also fell foul of James and Nora when he offered the view that their son, George, was not treating his wife, Helen, who was suffering a breakdown, with sufficient kindness and consideration. This estrangement was not permanent, however, and Paul Léon was eventually to play a part in the Joyce story that was both heroic and tragic.
Marc Chagall was to be one of a large number of distinguished artists and intellectuals whose life was saved through the work of the young American journalist and philanthropist Varian Fry. Fry managed, under the auspices of a New York-based organisation, the Emergency Rescue Committee, which was backed by Eleanor Roosevelt, an undercover operation to exfiltrate significant artists and intellectuals whose lives were in danger from the Nazis. Based in Marseille, Fry and his team – a band of idealists helped when necessary by fixers and forgers drawn from the city’s criminal underworld – succeeded in arranging the escape, usually through Spain and Portugal, of up to 2,000 people, some of the most notable of whom were Marc and Bella Chagall, Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Lion Feuchtwanger, Siegfried Kracauer, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Heinrich Mann, Anna Seghers, Victor Serge and Franz Werfel.
James Joyce eventually succeeded in leaving France for Switzerland. He had experienced considerable difficulty obtaining the requisite papers to emigrate from the Swiss authorities and came to the conclusion that they wrongly suspected him of being Jewish and that this was the root of the problem. He was able to assure them – with his customary inability to resist a pun – that he was in fact ‘not a Jew of Judea but an Aryan of Erin’. This was certainly true of himself but it was not so, according to Nazi race definitions, of his grandson, Stephen, whom he was bringing with him, Stephen being the son of a Jewish mother, Helen Kastor. And as we know, the Nazis had no scruples about killing children. The schizophrenic Lucia Joyce, whom her father was not able to take to Switzerland with him, would also have been at risk, being what national socialism termed a ‘useless mouth’.
Paul Léon had been with Joyce in June 1940 in his rural retreat in St Gérand-le-Puy in central France but he returned to Paris, partly for family reasons and partly to recover Joyce’s papers from his apartment and safeguard them. He was arrested in August 1941 and interned, first at Drancy then at Compiègne, before eventually being deported to Auschwitz, where he was shot dead by a camp guard in April 1942. A volume that reprints a memoir originally written by his widow, Lucie, and reproduces his touching and tender letters to her from internment has recently been published. On December 4th, 1941, he wrote:
A month has passed since the moment when I should have been released, and I know as little as you do about the reasons behind the opposition to my release. But that said, I don’t want to destroy your life … Think of yourself and think of Alexis [their son] and of how indispensable you are to him. There is nothing more that can be done for me as an individual … For your part you must be prudent, and not take any pointless risks for your life or for your future friendships. You must in the first instance save yourself and save Alexis. My life is over or will soon be over. So let me be.
The outbreak of the war found Samuel Beckett in Ireland, but he returned to France, where, in 1941, he joined the Resistance network Gloria, whose main activity was to relay information to the British Special Operations Executive and to provide stranded Allied servicemen with forged papers. It was run by Jeannine Picabia, the daughter of the Dadaist painter Francis. Beckett’s particular task was to collate information, translate it and type up reports, which would then be photographed and shrunk to the size of a matchbox before being smuggled into the unoccupied zone and then on to Britain. Beckett was eventually evacuated out of Paris to rural Roussillon, where he worked on a farm. Towards the end of the war he enlisted in the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI), for which he received some basic weapons training, though his comrades regarded him as an intellectual and thus unlikely to be prepared for what actual fighting might involve. They may have been right: he seems to have had problems even with the small, everyday brutalities of farm life. A witness related how, when the farmers he was staying with discovered a rat and were about to despatch it, Beckett rushed forward, picked the creature up and ran across a field before letting it run free into a ditch.
In February 1942 Stefan Zweig and his second wife, Lotte, in exile in Brazil, killed themselves by taking an overdose of barbiturates at their home in Petrópolis, not far from Rio de Janeiro. Their motive, it is assumed, was despair about the progress of the war, where the tide did not begin to turn until the Russian victory over the Germans at Stalingrad a year later. After that point, though the human losses were to be gigantic, particularly for Russia, the eventual defeat of Nazism began to look more and more likely. In May 1943, German and Italian troops surrendered in North Africa. In July, the allies invaded Sicily, a prologue to a very slow progress up the Italian peninsula. In June of the following year the Normandy front was opened and in August Paris was liberated. As the Russians advanced inexorably from the east, US troops, in September, reached the Siegfried Line and crossed into Germany.
In the same month the Germans set up a puppet French ‘government in exile’ in the town of Sigmaringen in Baden-Württemberg. More than a thousand of the most hardened collaborators, including Lucien Rebatet, fled there, in the forlorn hope that the course of the war could still, somehow, be reversed. Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval were brought there against their will and refused to co-operate with the ‘government’, presided over by Fernand de Brinon. As the French army advanced on Sigmaringen in the following April. Pétain first sought refuge in Switzerland, then made clear his willingness to be returned to France. He was put on trial for high treason in July and condemned to death in August but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Suffering from dementia, he was released from prison a month before his death in 1951. In May 1945 Pierre Laval fled by air to Spain but was handed over to the French by the authorities there. After a trial for treason he was executed by firing squad in October 1945.
Robert Brasillach surrendered to the French authorities in Paris in September 1944. In January 1945, after a trial that lasted only six hours and a deliberation by the jury for twenty minutes he was sentenced to death for collaboration with the enemy: his most keenly felt crime had been to identify in print enemies of the regime and call for their hunting down and murder. A number of writers and intellectuals banded together to organise a petition for clemency on his behalf to be addressed to General de Gaulle, the head of the provisional government. Albert Camus, who had been engaging in a public dispute with the Catholic novelist François Mauriac over the conflicting demands of justice and mercy – Camus tended to favour justice, though he was gradually to come closer to Mauriac’s stance – received a letter from the writer Marcel Aymé asking him to sign. Camus reluctantly agreed, though making it clear to Aymé that his motivation in this was opposition to the death penalty rather than any regard for Brasillach as a writer, still less as a human being. Camus later also intervened on behalf of Rebatet, stating: ‘Whatever one may say or think, no country in the world can do without pity, and rather than put a man to death, it is more urgent and more exemplary to give him the occasion to think about his offence.’ On that occasion the petition was successful. Brasillach was refused a pardon and was executed by firing squad in February 1945. Many years later, de Gaulle spoke to a journalist about his reasons for refusing mercy.
So many unfortunates were summarily executed at the Liberation because they’d allowed themselves to get mixed up in collaboration. Why should those who dragged them into it … be allowed to run between the raindrops? An intellectual is not less, but more, responsible than others. He is an instigator of the actions of others … Brasillach was intelligent. He had talent. What he did is accordingly more serious. His involvement in collaboration strengthened the Nazis. An intellectual cannot be given more leeway than anyone else. He should be given less, because he is better informed, more capable of critical thinking, and so more guilty. His words are arrows, his fine phrases bullets. He can change the public mind. He can’t be allowed to enjoy the advantages of that power and reject its disadvantages. When the time for justice comes, he must pay.
Léon Blum was rescued by Allied troops from imprisonment in South Tyrol in May 1945. On his return to France, he learned of the death of his younger brother, the art critic and theatrical director René, who had been deported from Drancy to Auschwitz in September 1942 and was murdered on arrival by the SS. In 1945 he published À l’échelle humaine (On the human scale), a meditation on democracy and socialism and a reflection – in part self-critical ‑ on the decisions he had made while parliamentary leader of the SFIO. He resumed his role as a political writer for the socialist newspaper Le Populaire and briefly became prime minister again in a transitional government in 1946/47. He died following a heart attack in March 1950 at his home in Jouy-en-Josas near Versailles. He was seventy-seven.
Blum’s friend and colleague Marx Dormoy was murdered in July 1941 when a bomb with a timing device was placed under his bed, the killing a possible act of revenge for his role as interior minister in suppressing the right-wing terrorist organisation the Cagoule. Three suspects were arrested but were never brought to trial; they were released by the Germans in January 1943.
Georges Mandel, along with Reynaud, Daladier and Gamelin, was condemned to life imprisonment in 1941. In the following year he was taken to Germany, where for a period he was detained in the same special camp for the politicians of occupied countries as Blum. He was later taken back to the Santé prison in Paris, from where he was abducted by the fascist paramilitary force the Milice and murdered in the forest of Fontainebleau on July 7th, 1944.
In January 1945 Charles Maurras was found guilty of high treason and collusion with the enemy and sentenced to life imprisonment. On hearing the sentence he declared: ‘It’s the revenge of Dreyfus.’ At his trial he claimed that he had not realised that identifying political opponents as Jews could lead to their arrest or murder. He also insisted that his numerous incitements to physical violence against his enemies were not meant to be taken literally: they were essentially rhetorical barbs. Maurras’s conviction for treason brought with it his automatic exclusion from the Académie française, but the academicians decided that his seat would not, as per normal procedure, be quickly filled but would remain vacant until after his death. In March 1952 he was granted a presidential pardon on grounds of ill health and he died in November of that year.
Lucien Rebatet, having fled to Germany in autumn 1944, was arrested in May 1946 and in November of that year condemned to death. Following a petition for clemency signed by several writers, including Camus and Mauriac, his sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. In 1951 Gallimard published his novel Les Deux Étendards (The two standards), which was hailed by many critics as a masterpiece. In the following year he was released from prison. Later in the decade he took up professional journalism again, writing for the antisemitic and negationist review Rivarol (named in honour of the royalist reactionary quoted above). In a radio interview in 1969, asked if he was ashamed of his role in the 1930s and during the war, he replied: ‘Not in the slightest. If I was ashamed I wouldn’t be here in front of this microphone. I fought for the cause that I thought just.’ Rebatet died in 1972.
Pierre Gaxotte had become convinced at a quite early stage that the Axis powers would lose the war. Though he remained an antisemite, he was not attracted to fascism and he did not support Pétain: thus he was not pursued at the end of the war. Largely abandoning politics, he concentrated on his work as an historian. He was elected a member of the Académie française in 1953. The academy, founded in 1635, admitted its first woman member, the novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, in 1980. For Gaxotte this was a retrograde step: ‘If we elect a woman,’ he said, ‘we’ll end up electing a negro.’ He died in 1982.
In June 1940 Simone Weil fled with her family from Paris to Marseille in the unoccupied zone, where she soon became involved in Resistance activities. Excluded from university by the new antisemitic racial laws of 1940 and 1941, she found work as an agricultural labourer, spending what free time she had in the intense study of philosophy and Christian and other religions. She accompanied her parents when they emigrated to the United States in 1942 but came back later that year to work with the exiled Free French administration in London. Frustrated in her desire to return to France to take an active military part in the Resistance, she became ill with tuberculosis and died in a sanatorium in August 1943, aged thirty-four. She is buried in the Catholic cemetery in Ashford, Kent.
Marc Chagall returned from his American exile in 1948 and settled in Vence. His work, in painting, stained glass and illustration, was celebrated worldwide and he enjoyed a high reputation that was not just critical but popular. He died in 1985 aged ninety-seven in St-Paul-de-Vence, where he is buried.
Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, Jewish, lesbian and avant-garde, seemed likely targets for arrest by the Nazis, but they survived the war largely undisturbed in their rural retreat near Lyon, at least partially due to the protection of an influential Vichy figure, the historian Bernard Fäy, who had been Stein’s French translator. At Fäy’s suggestion, Stein prepared and wrote an introduction to a selection of Marshal Pétain’s speeches for publication in the United States, but the manuscript, though delivered to the New York publisher Random House, never became a book. Fäy was appointed administrator of the Bibliothèque nationale in succession to the sacked Julien Cain, who had worked with Léon Blum on the cultural front during the Popular Front period. Cain, a Jew and a suspected Gaullist, was imprisoned in 1941 and eventually deported to Buchenwald. He survived the war, returned to his position at the library and died in 1974. Fäy was arrested in 1944, tried for his collaborationist activities, in particular his identification of freemasons to the German Sicherheitsdienst (SD), and sentenced to penal servitude for life, but he escaped from hospital disguised as a priest in 1951 and fled to Switzerland. He received a pardon from President René Coty in 1959 and returned to France, where over the following decades he published a number of books on literary and historical subjects. His funeral Mass in Paris in 1978 was attended by the leader of Tridentine Catholicism, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Gertrude Stein died from stomach cancer in 1946. Alice B Toklas, who converted to Catholicism in 1957, died ten years later and was interred, like Stein, in Père-Lachaise cemetery.
James Joyce escaped France in December 1940 and travelled to Zürich, where he had spent the years from 1915 to 1919 sheltering from the First World War. His second exile in the Swiss city did not last long. On January 10th, 1941 he was admitted to hospital suffering from stomach cramps. An X-ray showed a duodenal ulcer. He died in the early hours of the morning of January 13th and was buried two days later in Fluntern cemetery. Nora remained on in Zürich. One of her chief recollections of her husband was the pleasure he took in sounds. She would sometimes take visitors up to the cemetery, which adjoins the zoological gardens: ‘My husband is buried there,’ she would tell them. ‘He was awfully fond of the lions – I like to think of him lying there and listening to them roar.’ Nora died ten years later and was buried beside her husband. In 1951 Lucia Joyce was transferred to St Andrew’s mental hospital in Northampton, England. She died there in 1982. George (Giorgio) Joyce died in Germany in 1976 and is buried with his parents in Fluntern. His first wife, Helen Kastor, later Fleischman, returned to the United States in 1940, where she recovered her health. She died in 1963.
Success finally came to Samuel Beckett, who had worried that he would always be overshadowed by Joyce, with the production of En attendant Godot in 1953. His winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969 was dubbed by his wife, Suzanne, as ‘a catastrophe’: henceforth her intensely private husband would be ‘damned to fame’. Beckett died a few months after Suzanne in 1989. The two are interred together in Montparnasse cemetery beneath a simple headstone which Beckett had prescribed should be ‘any colour so long as it’s grey’.
Otto Abetz was condemned to twenty years’ penal servitude by a military tribunal in Paris in 1949 for his role in organising the deportation of Jews from Drancy to extermination camps in the east. He was pardoned in 1954 and died four years later in a car accident in Langenfeld, between Düsseldorf and Cologne. Not everyone believes it was an accident.
Joseph Roth denied his Nazi enemies the satisfaction of arresting and murdering him on their entry into Paris in June 1940 by dying in May of the previous year, aged just forty-four, from the probably inevitable consequences of his massive consumption of alcohol. He was buried in the Thiais cemetery outside Paris following a modestly Catholic ceremony ‑ a burial ritual but no Mass ‑ attended by a huge crowd which included socialists, communists, Galician Jews and official representatives of the pretender to the Austrian throne, Otto von Habsburg. His wife, Friederike (Friedl) Reichler, who had been a long-term patient in a number of mental institutions in Austria, where she was being treated for schizophrenia, was murdered, in accordance with national socialist policy on the mentally ill, in July 1940.
Irmgard Keun slipped back into Germany under a false name in 1940 after the invasion of the Netherlands, where she had been living. She survived the war, living under the radar, and attempted, without great success, to re-establish herself as a writer in the postwar era. Towards the end of the 1970s her work began to attract attention again, particularly from feminist critics. She died in 1982. Several of her short satirical novels have recently been republished in English translations in Penguin Modern Classics.
Note on reading
The above essay has drawn on the following material. Some of these works have been published in more than one edition and more than one language. I have given the publishers and publication dates of the particular editions I consulted. Where there are translations, they are mine. Images: Léon Blum, the great survivor; Maurice Barrès, who believed that ‘social peace’ depended on the poor being deprived of hope; Chaïm Soutine, painted in his characteristic style by his friend Amedeo Modigliani; workers head off for holiday in 1936: joy and new experience for some, chagrin for sections of the resentful bourgeoisie.
Jean Lacouture, Léon Blum, Éditions du Seuil, 1977
Léon Blum, Mémoires, suivis de À l’échelle humaine, preface Pierre Birnbaum, Archidoc, 2021
Eugen Weber, The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996
Michel Winock, Le Siècle des Intellectuels, Éditions du Seuil, 1997
Michel Winock, Histoire de l’extrême droite en France, Editions du Seuil, 1994
Pierre-Marie Dioudonnat, Je suis partout 1930-1944, La Table Ronde, 1973
Robert Brasillach, Notre Avant-Guerre: Une génération dans l’orage, Mémoires, 1941, Amazon reprint no date
Stanley Meisler, Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse, St Martin’s Press, 2015
Martina Padberg, Chaïm Soutine, Éditions Place des Victoires, 2017
Jacky Wullschlager, Chagall: Love and Exile, Allen Lane, 2008
Volker Weidermann, Ostende: 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft, btb Verlag, 2015
Stefan Zweig, Le Monde d’Hier, Le Livre de Poche, 1993
Richard Ellman, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, revised and corrected paperback edition, 1983
James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997
Alexis Léon, Anna Maria Léon and Luca Crispi, James Joyce and Paul L. Léon: The Story of a Friendship Revisited, Bloomsbury Academic, 2022
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, Arrow Books, 1994
David Bronsen, Joseph Roth, Éditions du Seuil, 1994
Wilhelm von Sternburg, Joseph Roth: Eine Biographie, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2010
Soma Morgenstern, Joseph Roths Flucht und Ende, Errinerungen, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2008
Alan Riding, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Occupied Paris, Vintage, 2011
Varian Fry, Livrer sur Demande, J’ai Lu, 2023
Enda O’Doherty is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.