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Frederic Spotts. The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008. 288 pp., 20 b/w ills. $35, $22 paper.
Laurence Bertrand Dorleac. Art of the Defeat, France 1940-1944, trans. Jane Marie Todd. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2008. 44-8 pp., 32 color ills., 15 b/w. $39.95.
If sixty-six years after the liberation of Paris, the process of coining to terms with the past still remains largely unfinished, the narrativization of franco-German collaboration seems to have entered a new phase. This, at least, is what one gathers from two recently published books dedicated to clarifying the roles artists and intellectuals played during the Nazi Occupation of France during World War II. Though the scholarship on this period in French history is vast, only a handful of English-language studies specifically address the relations between the cultural and sociopolitical spheres--and even fewer attempt to construct rigorous methodological frameworks for this analysis. By and large, these accounts have provided autobiographical (or "experiential") insider testimony about the French artistic scene during the war years, (1) presented monographic excavations of the singular experiences of prominent figures such as Jean Fautrier, Alberto Giacotnetti, and Pablo Picasso, (2) subsumed divergent art practices within an all-encompassing philosophical Zeitgeist, (3) polarized the aesthetic landscape between villains ("the avengers of decadence") and heroes ("the scapegoats of decadence"), (4) undertaken systematic research to recover artworks looted by the Nazis, (5) or formulated structural frameworks to situate the emergence of postwar practices in relation to a universal experience of the Occupation. (6) In contrast, the British independent scholar Frederic Spotts and the French historian Laurence Bertrand Dorleac turn their attention to the artistic particularities of a collective history-generated within the extraordinarily vexed conditions of military, political, and cultural occupation. Though their books differ greatly in tone, scope, and ambition, both authors set out to reconstruct the mechanisms of subjugation that emerged during the Vichy regime's alliance with the occupying German forces. In doing so, they suggest that a critical shift occurred in the historical field between 1940 and 1944, one that needs to be understood as a "slate of exception" that gave rise to specific aesthetic and cultural possibilities and prohibitions. In the context of profound economic and social crisis, the Nazi and Vichy regimes espoused traditional values, symbols, and artistic genres, while denigrating modernism for its "degenerate" tendencies and driving its practitioners into artistic, geographic, and psychological exile. It is important to consider whether and how modernist visual paradigms, newly under siege in this "minoritarian" position, at once constituted and disputed the reactionary (and highly enforced) sociopolitical order, and what transformations these paradigms underwent in this process.
Despite this welcome expansion of the scholarship, certain issues inevitably trouble any writing of the history of the Occupation. Most notably, the period is clouded by all the moral and political ambiguities that haunt the question of collaboration. As is well-rehearsed, after a six-week battle that devastated the French forces, German troops marched into Paris on June 14, 1940. France signed an armistice with Germany on June 22, 1940, a capitulation that definitively ended the Third Republic and ushered in a government, located in Vichy, led by Marshal Henri Philippe Petain. Thanks to the intensive research of Robert Paxton, Robert Gildea, Julian Jackson, Ian Ousby and Henry Rousso, to name just a few prominent scholars, we now know that the Vichy government effectively annihilated France's democratic institutions and directly collaborated with Germany to persecute Freemasons, Jews, and Communists. Though the statistics vary, one account suggests that six-hundred-fifty thousand civilian French workers were forcibly drafted to work in German factories; seventy-five thousand French Jews were murdered in Auschwitz; thirty thousand French civilians were shot as hostages or for their …