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When chronicling a country’s history and civilization, should the period of Occupation by a rival country be included?  As I stated in my last blog, the history of France during The German Occupation  (1939-1945)  was omitted from lectures and textbook from my civilization and history courses at the Sorbonne university.  I did not realize this until I recently began compiling information from these lectures into this blog series of “L’Histoire et La civilisation de la France: au Moyen Age à Nos Jours” (The History and Civilisation of France from the Moyen Age to the Present).  Therefore, my most recent Frenchquest has been to research all aspects of French life during this time period to understand what life was like during the occupation: literary, spiritual, intellectual, cultural, and political.  I will begin this series with the French Literary establishment in the years leading up to and during the Occupation of France by German forces.

It has been a challenge to find information from this period in my French textbooks and sources; therefore, the first source I will reference is ironically an American history textbook used by Yale University , A New History of French Literature, which my daughter Kalie found for me at a Half-Price book store. (Thanks K!)

As the years leading up to WWII actually marked the beginning of the “American Novel”, the first translation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary appeared in France in 1931 to great acclaim. Soon following would be translations of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel, and Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre. American literature became a national phenomenon and the French literary establishment began to question the continued interest in the novelistic tradition.  Just as the French literary giants of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire, Maupassant, had greatly influenced American writers in style, imagery and composition, now the American novel was “a veritable revolution in the art of telling a story,” according to Jean-Paul Sartre in 1946 (“American Novelists in French Eyes”, 116).  French readers were attracted to the American writer’s style of phenomenological text , narrative discontinuity, impersonal style, simultaneity of action, and dialogue/monologue which expressed thought and sentiment rather than specifics of setting and finely drawn characters as found in French novels of the same period.


These great American novels began appearing in translated anthologies in the French colleges (high school equivalent).  French readers were now being introduced to the southern dialects, idioms, and democratic ideas of the American society.  In fact, Faulkner and Hemingway novels sold better in France than in the United States pre WWII.  This was in part due to the Anglo-American literary community already being established in Paris in the early twentieth century—including Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and James Joyce.

As a consequence, many French writers of this time were also trying to distance themselves from the Proustian legacy of a “narrative voice through which human experience was filtered “(910).  An example of this is found in Malraux’s L’espoir which has a series of dialogue scenes by telephone in which the reader is not explicitly told who the speaker is and has to infer by contextual clues.  Stendhal also used this technique of leaving readers to their own devices a century earlier (1839) in La chartreuse de Parme, but had been abandoned soon after.  The French writers were now leaving a mystery of characters motives and designs in their stories.

At the start of the German Occupation in France, there was an important question asked : “Comment la littérature est-elle possible ?” (How is literature possible at this time?) In Jean Paulhan’s essay La Terreur dans les lettres (Terror in Literature), he addresses this question by discussing that after the French Revolution, or la Terreur, French language and literature have been challenged.  There is more of a search now for “authentic, original expressiveness”(Les fleurs de Tarbes, 119). This time of terror is “the precedence of thought over language and Rhetoric of language over thought…the author is freed from a constant preoccupation with language precisely by submitting to the authority of commonplaces”(119).

Jean-Paul Sartre also addressed this question with one of the most revealing novels to exhibit the French literary community during the German occupation, Qu’est-ce que la literature?(What is literature?) ,which he began in 1939 and completed then published in 1947, two years after the liberation of French citizens.  In this essay, Sartre describes how the writers of his generation “met the obligation to integrate history into the novel” (911). For example, John Dos Passos includes in his novel Le Sursis the signing of the Munich pact on 23 September 1938.  This was also a period of mobilization swept by rumors of imminent war. Dos Passos includes the narratives in London, Biarritz, and Marseilles during this merciless time.  According to Sartre, “the threat of war is not simple an issue that confronts each character at a given state in his or her trajectory; it modifies the very grounds on which the self exists” (912).

Sartre remarked of the Occupation, “Never have we been so free” (La republique du silence, 11), referring to the unity and new voice of French writers and citizens.  Under German Occupation, just to utter a sentence in French was a proclamation of freedom in the face of tyranny, but also of solidarity.  Many French writers turned from writing novels to writing poetry.  It was important to keep French tradition, nationality, and voice alive.  Many poets published anonymously to keep from being arrested for treason.  One of the most famous poems published during the occupation was “Le conscript des cent villages” (The Conscript from a Thousand Villages” 1942) in which the names of French villages were listed in remembrance:

Adieu Forléans Marimbaul
Vollore-Ville Volmerange
Avize Avoine Vallerange
Ainval-Septoutre Mongibaud

Many poets began to organize after the Vichy armistice and print underground journals which were learned by heart all over France and recited in their homes.

Several writers also became part of the Resistance.  Sartre wrote for the Resistance press and his essays give the most compelling account of the occupation and anticipation of the Liberation.

After the Germans abandoned Paris in August 1944, many people began to read escapist novels, understandably so.  Jean Giono’s translation of Moby Dick was a big success.   I just finished reading Melville’s masterpiece and was humbled to think about those under Occupation who read about the adventures of Moby Dick and Captain Ahab to escape the atrocities of everyday life.

The German Occupation of France, 1940-1944 also brought in the existentialist sensibility which influenced philosophy, literature and the arts over the next two decades. This period of four long years allowed much introspection and reevaluation in the literary community in France, allowing French writers to step back and identify their true purpose for writing.  The postwar literature engage (committed writing) was led by Sartre, André Gide, Gallimard, and Albert Camus (The Stranger).  Through this new genre of literature in a newly freed society,  French authors began to tell the truth about the world and about their lives.

Hollier, Denis. A New History of French Literature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 909-912.

Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (