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Two French states. Division and collaboration.

Published on August 14, 2012 by: in: Society

Anti-fascist attitude of the French Communist Party belongs to one of the most common myths. It is unquestionable that before the WW II, the French Communists were involved in the anti-fascist movement and the activities in favour of “the world peace”, according to the Comintern’s orders. However, the Communists became natural Nazis’ allies after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

picture: wisegie

France was a deeply divided society and country before the WW II. On one hand, the right-wing French Action, and on the other Popular Front, the alliance of major and minor socialist and Communist parties. The situation created favourable conditions for violence, and the possibility of Spanish dissolution arose in the contemporaries’ heads. Raymond Aron, the outstanding sociologist, said many years later that he was three times afraid of the civil war in his country. The first time was when the government was assumed by the Left Front before the war, the second time was just after it, being afraid of the communist revolution, and the third time was during the Algerian War. In the period under discussion, France agreed that no-one, no political group wanted war with Germany. Maybe even not so much war as they did not want to fight.

The 1940 lost campaign moved the pre-war political divisions to the occupied French land. The country was divided into the north zone being under the German occupation and the south “free” zone governed by the government from Vichy under the truce. This division appeared to be not only administrative but it got to the bottom of the pre-war political conflict. The forms of resistance were different in particular zones, but the ways of collaboration were various more often. They concerned practically all the circle elites; bankers, industrialists, lawyers or salesmen. However, the collaboration of the pre-war intellectual elites had particular dimension. Those who did not agree with it, could choose to be silent, join the “Free Frenchmen” in England and later the Resistance Movement or end up in concentration camps.

National Revolution under the invader’s eye

The situation of Vichy was quite clear. Marshall Petain derived the right to his power from the legal president’s and parliament’s acts. France of Vichy was the country that had a lot of the independence attributes at its disposal and kept independent diplomatic relations. It also controlled the overseas colonies. Revolution national and implementation of the truce provisions were supposed to be the response to the pre-war problems. The right-wing party deeply divided but gathered around the marshall, used centralist and statism tendencies, which existed strongly in the French society, in its activities, being driven by social conservatism and socialism in the economy. According to the French historian J.D. de Bayaca “there was a community of hatred for Jewish people, democrats and Communists between Vichy and Nazis”. Agreeing with these words, it is also worth remembering that Petain’s government fought equally doggedly the Nazi radicals from Paris, who created the French Anti-bolshevik Legion or the French Waffen SS groups.

National revolution was like a red rag to a bull for the leftists and majority of them returned to Paris, recognizing the Nazis and their censorship as more liberal than the one prevailing in the South of France. Such a situation was inasmuch understandable as according to Lucien Scheler – the poet of the Resistance Movement, mentality and political views of some authors were better known in Vichy. What appeared in Paris, was very often forbidden in the South.

Petain’s government was not alone and also had intellectuals on its side, whose collaboration was expected yet before the war. The poet and prose writer Robert Brasillach, Charles Maurras – the philosopher and writer as well as Pierre Drieu la Rochelle – the editor-in-chief of “La Nouvelle Revue Française” should be counted among the head names in this group. The last mentioned name is particularly interesting. The writer and the poet born in 1893 was one of the leading intellectual figures of the Left Bank. He published six novels in the thirties only. He was a Communist and pacifist like majority of his friends – writers. He experienced a change in 1933 after his stay in Germany. His fascination for Nazism was appreciated by the managing people of Nazi Party and they invited him to their great Nuremberg Rally one year later. La Rochelle returned the favour with the political manifesto “Fascist socialism” published by a prestigious publishing house – Gallimarda. He became one of the most influential collaborator during occupation. His contacts in the Nazi movement paid off. He became the head of the reissued “La Nouvelle Revue Française” of the pre-war Mecca for literary Paris. He still published a lot, supporting the idea of international fascism as a political response to communism. However, he slowly lost hope and after the landing of the allied in Normandy, he tried to commit suicide many times, effectively in March 1945.

Resistance – a communist myth

Anti-fascist attitude of the French Communist Party belongs to one of the most common myths. It is unquestionable that before the WW II, the French Communists were involved in the anti-fascist movement and the activity in favour of “the world peace”, according to the Comintern’s orders. However, the Communists became natural Nazis’ allies after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Yet before the attack in May 1940, the communist propaganda focused on the fight against bourgeois Great Britain and proving that it is pointless to declare war on Germany in defence of Poland. R. Aron describes that in such an atmosphere it was difficult even for the leftish Jews to express their views, because it was generally believed that the Jewish problem was the reason for international tensions. Jews were afraid of speaking about current affairs, because they would be suspected of lobbying their persecuted compatriots in Central Europe at once.

The defeat in 1940 did not disillusion the Communists, who appealed to German authorities to renew publishing the “L’Humanite” journal just after occupying Paris, stating in their petition that the publishing house’s objective will be “continuation of the European peace policy and defense of conclusions resulting from the agreement on the German and Soviet friendship”. The German liked the idea, but a sharp protest of the government bodies from Vichy got into the way of the journal’s reactivation. Right after liberation in 1944, political commissars from KPF started to fabricate the old numbers of their journal to show that they were on the side of the Resistance Movement from the very beginning.

A figure of Louis Aragon is a classic example of this attitude type. This man born in 1897, a poet, writer and literary critic joined the Communist party in 1927 and three years later took part in purges for the first time, stigmatizing his former companions and friends from the surrealist circle. In 1934 he participated in the French delegation for the Soviet writers convention. This trip resulted in organizing the Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture on his own initiative, which aimed at agreement between the French and Soviet writers under the anti-fascist banner. Such well known writers as A. Gide, A. Malraux or P. Nizan also took part in this pro-communistic farce beside of course Aragon. During one of the sessions Aragon sermonized: “only proletariat and its allies have the right to appeal to realism that is assuming the features of social realism, which the writers in USSR appeal to”. His servility towards Stalinist political commissars was simply incomprehensible. As an organizer asked to enable another writers and a friend from young days – Andre Breton, being in conflict with Ilja Erenburg, to take part in the congress and said that the matter is in the Soviet policy-makers’ hands. The indirect effect of this refusal was the suicide of Rene Crevel – the French communist writer, who confused his reality with the Soviet dreams about freedom and equality.

In 1939 Aragon became a eulogist of the Soviet and German alliance, publishing the panegyric “Long life for peace” in the “Ce Soir” papers. Because of this the newspaper was closed and the author was called up into the army. It was not any extraordinary coincidence because all the communist publishing companies were closed two weeks before the war, and new Hitler’s allies together with the local fascists were sent to the army by force or were detained. In this situation the fact of Arthur Koestler’s detainment, the anticommunist and antifascist, only because he was a German, sounds like an irony.

Aragon took part in the French campaign, and then, like majority of literary Paris, he went to sunny Nicaea, which was under control of the government from Vichy as a part of a ceasefire. A double career opened before Aragon; the poet of the Resistance Movement on one hand, and a collaborator on the other hand.

Aragon hid himself, however, it did not prevent him from publishing his novel “Passengers from a stagecoach” in Paris under occupation already in 1942. As it seems, the change of one’s own characters from nasty Germans for Dutchmen and a commentary unfavourable for Dreyfus’s affair, this is a little sacrifice for participating in collaboration literary life. The changed version of the book appeared after the liberation but its first edition is a white raven of the French bibliophiles. Aragon was not disgusted with the cooperation with Vichy either, he published his poems in the local press there, admittedly under pseudonyms.  Anyway what one can do for poetry, especially that 125 titles appeared in Lyon itself with a total monthly circulation of 12 millions at that time. It also has its quite original confidants there. D. la Rochelle, the mentioned collaborator, suggested the Germans releasing the writers from prisons, e.g. Sartre and protecting the others, including Aragon “irrespective of the accusations against them” in return for their support.  According to the historian H.R. Lottman “Malraux and Aragon, although they committed resistance acts (…) they both were exceptionally unpunished”.

Aragon’s collaboration was not isolated. According to the Nazi ambassador in Paris, more books appeared in France than in any other country in the world during the German occupation. Even if it is not fully true, then almost thirty three thousand of titles appeared in France according to the association of publishers in 1940 -1944, where only 318 were translations from German, and 466 from English. It was supported by the invaders’ agreement with the Publishers Professional Association from September 1940, which stated that publishing companies would accept responsibility for publishing books, not the German censorship. This was the way how the list of banned books was created, where antifascist and anticommunist works were found. The right-wing as well as the left-wing publishing companies initialed the agreement in this way. Can anyone imagine something like this in occupied Poland?

Such giants of the French literature as A. Gide, A. Malraux, Paulhan, F. Mauriac publish officially their works. Albert Camus – the aspiring writer published his “Alien”. J.P. Sartre published and staged two theatrical plays, and Simone de Beauvoir, after the approval of the Union of Writers, hedged around with a ban on giving interviews (sic!), decided to publish his first novel “The Invited”, he accepted the Goncourt Prize controlled by Nazis and the work in collaboration broadcasting station.

The Resistance Movement arises in pains. These are mainly intelligence rings, including British and Polish people, in the first years. An outbreak of the Soviet and German war changed the situation. New directives of the communist International were clear – fight with a common enemy. This is how a myth of communist underworld, counterbalanced by the activity of the “Combat” groups from the south of France, arose. However, the communist elites played a double game. During the day in official newspapers, broadcasting stations and publishing companies. During the night printing the underground papers with solemn patriotic phraseology. The Resistance Movement looked like some hoary old joke in the first two years of occupation. So, three veterans meet; a Yugoslavian, Pole and Frenchman. Yugoslavian says; I killed 10 Germans during the war, the Pole says – I killed fifteen, and the Frenchman with melancholy in his eyes says: that sounded good, it was not in fashion in our country.

After the war only Brassilach from intellectuals was sentenced and killed, la Rachelle hid himself at first, and then committed suicide, Maurras served a prison sentence, and Celin, who published anti-Semitic satires, was surrounded by the environmental ostracism for some time. Leftists were in much better situation. No one already wanted to remember about their collaboration, so they felt glorified as the heroes of the Resistance Movement. Liberation did not close the spheres of conflict. Only a strong American policy prevented from a communist coup. However, the pre-war social cracks were visible for the following decades and were appeased only in the eighties. At that time France was supposed to be facing another two colonial wars, student protests, leftist terrorism, unprecedented degeneration of political parties as well as centralisation and state etatization implemented in Vichy, which suited all principal political powers.

Can historical experience of Europe from the first half of the twentieth century teach us something today? Radical political divisions led to the Spanish Civil War, fight between the leftist tribes of Nazis and Communists, with a passive resistance of democrats led to seizing power by Hitler, and politically broken Italy knelt down before the Mussolini’s demagoguery. France is a classic example here. Its existence was not directly threatened by Nazism – one can notice from the above mentioned that you could reach an agreement with it – but the pre-war rejection of the republicanism idea, weakening of the country and a deep political division. Only American and British coalition brought freedom to France, because Frenchmen themselves got used to the existing status quo, cultivating their lifestyle and their political hatreds in those dark times for them. Will “free Poles” on one hand and “young, educated from big cities” from the other hand draw any conclusions from this history?

Translation: Sylwia Syposz

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