Between Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation

 At the New York Public Library (nypl.org), Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, New York, New York, through July 25, 2009.

 Powerful, evocative, nuanced, and fair-minded, “Between Collaboration and Resistance” examines how the Nazis and Vichy government affected France’s leading intellectual lights across the political spectrum. Set in the sumptuous Gottesman Exhibition Hall, its clever design invites you into a dense but well-crafted sweep of hundreds of artifacts, most of which have never been seen in the United States.

You enter interwar France, desperately afraid of war with Germany. Its vicious politics, heavily laced with anti-Semitism, fascism, and socialism, paralyze government after government and fragment its people. And so the French, like the British, revel in Munich’s apparent relief— until Poland, which reignites political infighting and military blundering until the collapse of what was thought to be Europe’s finest army.

Turn left down the first of three long corridors lined by marble pillars that soar to the carved wood ceiling. These are cunningly broken into “boxes” with rich subthemes: occupied vs. unoccupied France; the moral crusades of Philippe Pétain and Charles DeGaulle; smuggling clandestine people, weapons, papers, and food; why the Nazis made Paris their playground; how and why many Frenchmen became German forced labor; how paper shortages and censorship drove resistance ingenuity; how French intellectuals colonized American colleges like the New School; even how existentialism arose in the midst of this.

The displays are packed with hundreds of documents, clandestine publications, Vichy newspapers and films, postcards, diaries, film posters and clips, and photos. The cast includes, among others, Jean Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Marguerite Duras, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Louis Aragon, Claude Lévi-Strauss—the crème de la crème. Essentially chronological, the exhibit’s shrewd layouts and spatial arrangements shape a thought-provoking portrait of how the French coped, struggled, stood by, plotted, fled, sabotaged, goose-stepped, and died on their individual ways to the liberation of Paris.

 

Originally published in the July 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here