Not-So-Gay Paree

By Stan Persky | June 20, 2003

Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper, Paris After the Liberation: 1944-49 (Penguin, 1994)

Paris After the Liberation, by the husband-and-wife history-writing team of Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper, is a book about Nasty Old Europe a half-century ago. U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s recent, grouchy designation of France and Germany (and maybe Belgium, Holland, Sweden and whoever else on the Continent opposed the recent American military adventure in Iraq) as "Old Europe" lends this decade-old popular history new relevance.

Cooper is the granddaughter of Duff Cooper, the former British Ambassador to France during World War II, and Beevor has lately appeared on the charts for his best-selling military histories, Stalingrad (Viking, 1998) and The Fall of Berlin 1945 (Viking, 2002). Their book about Paris is actually a bit more than the title indicates. It is a book about Paris during the German occupation as well as after its liberation by the Yanks, and one of its timely themes is France’s love-hate relationship with the U.S.

The story begins at a chateau to the south of Paris on June 11, 1940, some five weeks after Nazi Germany’s devastating invasion of France. The French government, whose military leadership had already decided to abandon Paris, is conferring with its principal ally, British PM Winston Churchill. But the great symbolic encounter at that meeting is the one between 84-year-old World War I hero, Marshal Philippe Petain, and one of the nation’s youngest generals, the 49-year-old Charles de Gaulle. "You are a general," Petain remarks, noting the stars on de Gaulle’s sleeve, adding, "but what’s the use of rank during a defeat?" De Gaulle replies, "But, Marshal, it was during the retreat of 1914 that you yourself received your first stars." Snorts Petain: "No comparison." Thus, the figures of French collaboration and resistance passed in the night.

Churchill, in his blustery way, had urged resistance, but the French, excepting de Gaulle, had little fight left in them. A few days later, there was one last-ditch effort to avert collaboration with the Nazis, a Churchill-sponsored proposal for an Anglo-French political union. The idea had been suggested by a French economic planner, Jean Monnet, one of the quiet heroes of this book, and much later the founding father of the present European Union. One of Petain’s entourage swiftly dismissed the scheme, saying, "Better to be a Nazi province. At least we know what that means." To which the French PM, Paul Reynaud, replied, "I prefer to collaborate with my allies than with my enemies," and promptly resigned. By then, de Gaulle was on his way to England. The French surrender came days later. The Germans defined an area of "unoccupied France" in the central and southern portions of the country, excluding the Atlantic coast. Petain’s new government selected the spa of Vichy for its seat, thus turning a name associated with no more than mineral water into one of infamy.

Beevor and Cooper indeed find an "Old Europe" here–amid the most fervent supporters of Petain’s regime: "Vieille France–that arch-conservative ‘old France’ symbolized by a ferociously illiberal clergy and a petite noblesse that was both impoverished and resentful–still cursed the principles of 1789. A number of them continued to wear a white carnation in their buttonhole and a black tie on the anniversary of Louis XVI’s execution, and stuck postage stamps with the Republican symbol of Marianne upside down on their letters. In their eyes, the demonic successors of the French Revolution included the Communards of 1871, all those who had supported Dreyfus against the General Staff, the mutineers of 1917, the political leaders of the inter-war years, and the industrial workers who had benefited from the Popular Front’s reforms in 1936. The Right believed that these, not the complacent General Staff, had dragged France down to defeat" in 1940. That’s the real "Old Europe," the one that Rumsfeld might be expected to identify with, and whose remnants still exist today.

The story of the Vichy collaboration that Beevor and Cooper recount is one worth telling, because it’s so thoroughly forgotten today, especially since France ended up on the victors’ side of the table at the end of World War II. But for four years, the "path of collaboration" gave Hitler exactly what he wanted, "a country promising to police itself in the Nazi interest." Thanks to the deal with Petain, for a good part of the war, "the Germans needed little more than 30,000 men–less than twice the size of the Paris police force–to keep the whole of France in order. Vichy bent over backwards to help the occupier–a policy that was taken to appalling lengths when assisting with the deportation of Jews to Germany."

Beevor-Cooper also provide the parallel, but much more tangled story of the French resistance. Although the efficacy of the resistance movement is still disputed (and one has to turn to more scholarly works than this one to sort it out), under De Gaulle’s leadership, which successfully unified the various ideological strands of opposition, it’s clear that members of the French Communist Party were among its principal heroes, and also that the resistance had enlisted a distinguished corps of young intellectuals–Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett and Marguerite Duras among them–who would become the country’s major literary figures in the post-war years. There was a sort of reverse Alphonse-Gaston pushing-shoving match to ensure that the liberation of Paris would appear to be the work of the French themselves rather than the result of the American landing at Normandy in mid-1944. The resistance was soon mythologised and later semi-debunked, but at the moment of freedom on August 25, 1944, as the bells of Notre Dame and the other churches rang out across the city after four years of silence, an exhilarated Albert Camus, editor of Combat, was able to declare in an editorial that "The greatness of man lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition."

The most bizarre episode in this history is that of the lingering death of the Vichy regime. As the Nazis retreated during the final months of the war, Petain and some 1500 functionaries and followers were ordered to Sigmaringen in Germany, a castle and town on the Danube designated by Hitler as the capital of France in exile. "As the setting for the Goetterdaemmerung of French fascism, its position, history and even quasi-Wagnerian name seem fittingly ironic," Beevor-Cooper observe, adding, "But the reality was far from grand opera." It was a charade of claustrophobic squabbling and futile gestures, such as when Petain’s now imaginary state exchanged ambassadors with that "other puppet-theatre of the absurd," the retreating and soon-to-be-executed Mussolini’s Republic of Salo. What gives this grotesque scene a more lasting literary interest is that one of the inhabitants of Sigmaringen was "the brilliantly crazed writer," Louis-Ferdinand Celine, who later chronicled the thrashings of the dying collaborationist camp in Castle to Castle (1957).

Celine, author of Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan–proof that art can come from the pen of, if not a full-fledged fascist, at least a devout misanthrope–escaped with his wife, crossing Nazi Germany in its death throes, and eventually arrived in Denmark, where he was promptly arrested and jailed. The other Vichyists would find even harsher post-war fates in the French epuration, or purge trials. Several would face the firing squad, including one fascist writer-journalist of note, Robert Brasillach. (Readers interested in more detailed accounts of this grim but fascinating historical cul de sac can turn to Frederic Vitoux, Celine: A Biography, Marlowe, 1988, and Alice Kaplan, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach, University of Chicago, 2001.)

Post-war Paris quickly flowered into a hothouse of culture, fashion and cafe society, but on the ground it was cold, hungry, and far from gay. Beevor-Cooper tend to be rather weak when it comes to the substance of the cultural material. Oh, all the names are there, from performers like Juliette Greco, and painter Pablo Picasso, to fashion leaders Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, the literary lions and all the stars of stage, screen, and salon, but this social history doesn’t give us much of an idea of what the excitement was all about. "The upstairs room of the Cafe de Flore often looked like a classroom," they note, with Sartre writing a book at one table, Beauvoir writing one at another table, and various epigone doing likewise. One anecdote serves to point up the weakness. The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wanted Sartre to read his new manuscript, as a philosopher and not just as a friend. When Sartre glances at it in a cursory way and makes some congratulatory noises, that isn’t good enough. Merleau-Ponty beards Sartre at home, and Beevor-Cooper recount Sartre’s version of the exchange: "’I agree with what you say,’ I babbled. ‘I’m very glad,’ he said, without moving. ‘You should still read it,’ he added patiently. I read, and I learned, and I ended fascinated by what I was reading." Well, it’s a nice anecdote, but we never find out what Sartre was in fact reading or what Merleau-Ponty had to say.

Beevor-Cooper are better on the post-war political story, although again serious readers will need to turn to more scholarly accounts to get a full understanding of the events that marked the opening of the Cold War. The main story is the one about how close the French Communist Party, the most powerful political organization in the country–with a third of the national vote and seats in the cabinet–came to achieving a place as the legitimate, duly-elected government of France in 1946. Its bulky, rubbery-faced, former miner and leader, Maurice Thorez, who had sat out the war in Moscow, came within a hair’s breadth of becoming prime minister. A combination of de Gaullean tactics, honourable old French socialists, and U.S. moneybags staved off the spectre of communism that had been haunting Western Europe for a century, ever since Marx and Engels announced it in their notorious Communist Manifesto. Eastern and Central Europe would not be half so lucky.

The U.S. Marshall Plan–a massive economic reconstruction scheme named for the American Secretary of State of the day–was the crucial device in the American counter-Soviet strategy. "On Saturday 7 June 1947… General Marshall made a speech at Harvard on receiving an honorary degree," Beevor-Cooper report. "Never has a short reply of thanks at a university had such significance. Marshall, without fully warning his officials, had decided that this was the moment to make the most important foreign policy statement of the post-war era." It was timely, as well as important. "The terrible winter of 1946 had revealed Europe’s inability to raise itself out of penury. Economic collapse was imminent, with political disaster almost certainly close behind." The governments of the Allied-controlled parts of Europe were quick to grasp the significance of the American offer.

What galled the Gauls and De Gaulle–multiple bad puns intended–and triggered France’s ambiguous, tetchy relationship with the U.S. was the recognition that "Germany, not France was to be revived as the motor for European recovery. The next step was not hard to guess: Germany would become the centrepiece of America’s counter-Soviet strategy." Indeed, as the German "economic miracle" of the 1950s and 60s demonstrated, that’s exactly what happened.

Nonetheless, the economic and political stability produced in post-war Europe thanks, in part, to the American rescue, also opened the way for the most interesting socio-economic experiment in European history. As Beevor-Cooper put it, "Jean Monnet did not waste a moment once the Marshall Plan began to achieve its objective of reviving commercial activity." Although Monnet’s "vision had always stretched beyond France’s recovery to a united Europe," his first, more limited move in mid-1950 was a Franco-German-based European Coal and Steel Community. The British remained aloof and its "pretension to leadership on the Continent was finished." Ever since, as the European Community has flourished, the Brits have continued to sulk at its edges, and even at this date are outside the generally successful Euro monetary unification inaugurated a couple of years ago.

Beevor and Cooper’s portrait of occupied and liberated Paris is an entertaining survey of one part of the crucial few years after World War II, a time when the political landscape was established for the next half-century. It sharpens our understanding of the peevish shallowness of Secretary Rumsfeld’s gripe about "Old Europe." More important, that half-decade at the end of the 1940s provided the context in which all of us born during or just after the war were formed, on both sides of what was known until 1989 as the Iron Curtain.

In that sense, reading Beevor and Cooper’s Paris and other, deeper, histories is to encounter our largely unknown political and social autobiographies. Many people remain unaware that their lives contain such a dimension. They imagine that their lives are their own, as they sentimentally recall familial childhoods, songs and movies from their youth, first loves and the like, all unattached to a larger world. History, even in this lite version, teaches us otherwise.

Berlin, June 20, 2003


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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