The U.S. may be fighting two wars, but according to Alan Riding, it would be hard to tell judging by the response of artists alone.
“Did we hear from American or British artists or writers on the morality of our involvement?” asked Riding, a journalist and author of And the Show Went On: Cultural Live in Nazi-Occupied Paris. “The answer, of course, is barely.”
Riding conceded that “being in Los Angeles, I suppose artists include Hollywood movie stars,” among whom a few have spoken on the war, and others take up human rights causes. “Are we ready to heed them, or any others, on healthcare reform in the U.S. or massive budget cuts in the U.K. or indeed wars?” Riding asked. “Apparently not.”
That has not been the case in other countries in other eras, Riding went on to explain, and particularly not in France during World War II, when Parisian cultural life thrived even as artists fled, collaborated, resisted, switched sides, and faced criticism, repression, or worse as they lived and worked through the German occupation.
Behind the question of whether artists have a moral responsibility in war is another question of whether we’re willing to give artists moral authority. “In the pragmatic cultures of the U.S. and Britain, the answer, all too often, is, why should be? What do they know that politicians don’t know?” Riding said.
But in other parts of the world artists and writers as well as intellectuals from a variety of fields speak out, and find audiences to hear them, particularly in times of war, political stress, dictatorship, and other political stress or stripe – from the American Civil War to Sri Lanka’s recently ended one. “In times of moral breakdown, there’s evidently a need for moral guidance. This is unlikely to be provided, let’s face it, by politicians with special interests to defend,” Riding said.
But Riding did defend Britain’s lack of artistic response to strife, at least compared to the rest of Europe. “Perhaps Britain is something of an exception – probably because it hasn’t had a decent dictator since Oliver Cromwell, unless you include Margaret Thatcher,” he said.
Close to power
Prior to moving to Paris, Riding spent two decades in Latin America, covering Central and South America and the Caribbean for The New York Times. During that time, he said, much of the region was under right-wing military rule, or in the case of Cuba, under communism. Artists and writers there faced an obligation, in part beacuse they enjoyed social and sometimes political stature before governments fell. “The roots of this tradition are not that different from Europe’s,” he said. “Writers or artists often depend on the goodwill of the king or the viceroy or the president or perhaps the cardinal.” Velazquez, Rubens, Monteverdi and Mozart, Riding said, all stood close to power – “for it or against it, but close to power.” Writers often entered Latin American politics, even if they lost or didn’t last long (“Such are the risks of writers going into politics,” Riding joked). Others enjoyed plum diplomatic posts, including Pablo Neruda, Carlos Fuentes, and Octavio Paz, who did ultimately resign his Mexican ambassadorship to India in protest of a massacre in Mexico City in 1968.
When things got ugly in Latin America, Riding said, artists and writers faced stern choices about how they would respond, and were expected to speak out, “to live up to their responsibility to act as witnesses to mounting horror.” They could stay and endorse military regimes – which few did – stay and remain silent, stay and take up arms against the regime, or leave and campaign against a regime abroad, which, Riding said, many of the best known names did, like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Ariel Dorfman and Isabel Allende. Exile was often the difference, Riding said, between life and death. “Several friends of mine did not take the warning and were absolutely with clockwork assassinated,” he said.
Artists in some cases also reacted against left-wing regimes, Riding noted. Even though most artists initially cheered the Cuban revolution, by the early 1970s, leading figures like Mario Vargas Llosa and Octavio Paz broke with Cuba, and were immediately dubbed rightists. Gabriel Garcia Marquez stayed faithful to the country, saying, Riding said, “he had more influence as a friend than as a foe. Who knows if he did.”
Approaching the question of Nazi-occupied Paris and how artists there reacted, Riding said that in Latin America he was fortunate because he “did at least enjoy the protection of my accreditation and association with The New York Times.” He added that he found himself asking, even though he found no answer, “What would I have done? Would I have been a hero or a coward? Or like so many French would I have simply kept my head down and my mouth shut and waited for better times?”
Paris during the war stood out in part because of Paris before the war, when the city was home to the greatest concentration of artists and talent, Riding said, perhaps since 15th century Florence. Artists and writers weren’t great fans of the prewar French government, which, he noted, was a democracy but “the principle objective of the political class was to serve itself.” Between 1918 and 1940 the French formed 34 governments, made of the same rotating cast in a “messy, corrupt, unstable, unrepresentative” system. Many French sympathized with Mussolini – “the trains ran on time” – and others looked to the Soviet Union and the “mirage of a worker’s paradise.” When Hitler came to power in 1933, French rightists were impressed. For students of the time whom Riding interviewed, “the choice was Fascism or Communism, not only in terms of which student group or gang they joined…but also in terms of what utopia they embraced.”
France fell within days of Nazi tanks rolling in. “I think it’s hard for us to understand what it felt like for the French in 1940 to wake up to the immensity of their defeat,” Riding said. For the Fascist journalist and writers who immediately celebrated the event, Riding said, the supposed enemies of France – Jews, Communists, Freemasons, the British – had been defeated. These artists, he said, “were not really collaborators. They were true believers.” Communists, the other “true believers,” didn’t join the resistance because Hitler and Stalin were allies for the first year of the occupation, until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
Artists faced the same immediate choice, Riding said, that many Latin American artists did more recently. Some quickly fled the country; others went to unoccupied France, under the control of the Vichy Regime; others hid in the south of the country or changed their names or faced up to arrest, deportation, and execution. The head of the Vichy government, Marshal Pétain, was not considered a collaborator by most artists. “For most of them he was the only game in town,” Riding said, even if he ultimately failed to stand up to the occupation.
The worst year of the occupation was 1942, Riding said, when there was no sign of an allied victory, and the French stopped believing in the Vichy government. The resistance began to take shape, Riding said, even as Paris also hosted a lively cultural scene. The Nazis wanted Parisians to see the occupation as “no big deal, that life was largely normal, that there was plenty of distraction,” Riding said – movies, operas, musicals, cabarets, theaters, new books. The Vichy too saw it as a way of keeping up morale and claiming that cultural life had suffered no defeat.
Making a living, taking meetings
Artists, Riding pointed out, reasonably wanted to continue making a living. Performers like Edith Piaf kept taking the stage. The publishing industry compromised – letting anti-Nazi books and books by Jewish authors be burned, and promising self-censorship – so it could keep in business, and writers as esteemed as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus published. (One German censor later bragged about securing extra paper for The Stranger.)
Some – mostly journalists – openly praised the Nazi regime. And others socialized with the Nazis, which was more controversial than simply continuing to work. “Goebbels was eager to show he had tamed French writers and artists,” Riding said, by inviting them to Germany. A troop of musicians went to Vienna for the anniversary of Mozart’s death; visual artists, movie stars, and writers all traveled to Germany. Some were sympathizers, some were impressed, others regretted going, or were tricked into agreeing by German officials who promised an exchange of prisoners of war.
Still others, Riding said, simply went to where the power was. Jean Cocteau, he said, may have tried to save some arrested artists, but he also attended the opening event for Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker. “I wouldn’t call these characters evil,” he said. “They were basic opportunists drawn to who was powerful and who could promote their work.”
One of the most celebrated artists of the era had a response that might seem muted but, Riding said, was “an act of defiance.” Pablo Picasso stayed in France despite the U.S. and Mexico offering exile, maintained a low profile, avoided the company of Germans, and kept working.
All artists, Riding noted, faced constantly changing circumstances during the war, particularly as the tides turned against the Nazis. And the French were simply, Riding said, “hypnotized by ideas and theories. For this reason they have long adopted a lexicon on isms….after all, these isms offer answers to all problems. But alas, only in theory.”
After the end of the war, as Charles De Gaulle established the official myth that there were only a handful of bad collaborators, the French let many Nazi-sympathizing artists and writers go free, like Celine, but punished others. “Even some former resistance leaders thought it unfair. Writers were jailed or shot for opinions when industrialists who profited enormously from the occupation were let free,” Riding said. “Perhaps the moral failure of writers was greater. After all, do we expect industrialists to personify morality?”
As Riding noted in Q&A, we expect writers and artists to stake moral claims because they seem to have “some sort of degree of genius, some sort of spiritual calling, something mystical that we don’t have.”
“They can raise moral issues, force politicians to raise uncomfortable truths, and they don’t speak in soundbites,” Riding said. “The question is, is anyone out there listening?”
*Photos by Sarah Rivera.