During the years immediately after the 1944 liberation of France from four long years of Nazi occupation, journalists and social historians pretended that the French had been united in their opposition to the Nazis and their major French collaborators such as Marshal Philippe Pétain and his henchman Pierre Laval, and in support of General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French Forces. In a thoughtful and well-researched book, Mehlman has shown that reality was more complex than previously thought. As its very title suggests, Mehlman’s book examines how specific French intellectuals reflected on World War II during their self-imposed exile in Manhattan. The word “French” in the title refers not solely to writers of French citizenry but also to Swiss and Belgian authors who wrote in French and were well known in French prior to the Nazi invasion of France in June, 1940.
Mehlman places the writings of these French-language exiles within the correct historical context. The generally accepted belief is that Marshal Pétain, a war hero from World War I, and Pierre Laval were traitors who collaborated willingly with the Nazis. This is clearly correct, and both men were properly convicted of treason after World War II. Laval was executed, and Charles de Gaulle commuted Pétain’s death sentence to life in prison. In this thoughtful historical study, Mehlman indicates that there was a full range of collaboration and resistance among French exiles in wartime Manhattan, from Louis Rougier, who was an unapologetic defender of French collaboration with the Nazis, to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who died in 1944 as a pilot for the Free French Forces. Most of the French intellectuals whom Mehlman discusses were neither active collaborators like Rougier nor heroic resistance fighters like Saint-Exupéry. They were largely ordinary people who were doing their best to adapt to life in wartime New York while their major concern was with their friends and families in occupied France.
The two most influential French leaders during World War II were Charles de Gaulle, who led the Free French Forces, and his former mentor Philippe Pétain, who was the puppet head of the Nazi-controlled government in Vichy. Although in 1929 de Gaulle was Pétain’s ghostwriter for the book La France et son armée (1938; France and its army), which he later published under his own name, he gradually came to distrust Pétain, whom he considered to be weak and unpatriotic. Many French intellectuals, such as Charles Maurras and Robert Brassilach, praised Pétain’s decision to collaborate with the Nazis, whereas others strongly condemned such capitulation as treasonous. Like Pétain and Laval, Maurras and Brassilach were both convicted of war crimes after the liberation of France.
Soon after the Nazi invasion of France in June, 1940, Cordell Hull, who was then the American secretary of state, decided that it was in America’s self-interest to maintain contact with Pétain’s puppet government in Vichy lest the extensive French colonies in Africa also fall under Nazi domination. Mehlman explains that the American government’s attitude toward Pétain changed drastically after the United States entered World War II in December, 1941. Before World War II, Louis Rougier had been a professor of philosophy at the University of Besançon. He was viciously anti-Semitic. He made the preposterous claim that Pétain’s active collaboration with the enemy actually represented hidden resistance, which gave the allies time to strengthen their armies for the eventual defeat of the Nazis. Rougier had difficulty explaining how Pétain’s signing of laws that permitted the deportation of French Jews to concentration camps and of French citizens to forced labor in Germany where so many died constituted resistance to evil. For understandable reasons, Rougier profoundly alienated his fellow French exiles in New York, who justly considered him to be a traitor. After the war, he was permanently excluded from teaching in French universities because of his active collaboration with the enemy.
The eldest of the French-language émigrés of the time whom Mehlman discusses in his book is Maurice Maeterlinck, who had received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1911. Like his fellow Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, Maeterlinck had been...
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