A large part of my Frenchquest over the past decade has been to examine causes and effects of World War II on France. There are many reasons for this particular study: 1) my ancestors are from Alsace, France, a borderland whose nationality volleyed between France and Germany; 2) my Dad fought in World War II in the Pacific, 3) it is the main historical intersection in which I share a passion with my husband (his area of interest lies in the Normandy conquest).
Over the years, I have read many historical texts and biographies about the German Occupation of France, particularly Paris, from May 1940 to June 1944. For this post, I will examine one French writer, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), who lived in Paris during the Occupation, became a voice of the people, and would change French literary culture.
Nobel Prize winners Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus had already established themselves before World War II as great influences in the philosophy of existentialism and Marxism. These writings continue to influence these disciplines today. Sartre’s partner and fellow existentialist, Simone de Beauvoir, would also become a great feminist writer for this time.
In their writings, Sartre (Huit clos, Les Mouches) and de Beauvoir (Les Mandarins: winner of le prix Goncourt, like our Pulitzer) developed the main themes of the opposition to the bourgeois world and solidarity with the working class and communism. Camus (L’Etranger) would also examine these themes and focus on morality in modern times.
Ironically, before the war, Sartre was heavily influenced by German philosophy and created a particular style for his writings which challenged French philosophy and the French language itself. (Literary, 167). This, of course, would change over the next decade.
Sartre would serve in the French army as a meteorologist until his capture by German troops in 1940 where he would spend nine months as a prisoner of war. According to Priscilla Parkhurst Clark in Literary France: “The war confronted Sartre with a palpable enemy of a different order than the bourgeoisie…Sartre entered the ‘socialistic’ stage of his life (174).” Sartre was no longer attacking the bourgeoisie as an outsider; he now became an “insider” of French literary culture.
Upon Sartre’s return to France in 1941, during German Occupation, he founded an underground group “Socialism and Liberty” along with other writers. Sartre would continue to write throughout the Occupation of the moral corruption and behavior of the Germans. This living on a day-to-day existence, “aided in the ‘New Order in Europe’ which depended upon the passivity of ordinary people to accomplish its goals (Ousby, 41).” Sartre placed the writer squarely in the midst of society, having daily conversations at the Café de Flore with other intellectuals.
There are hundreds of books written about this horrific time in France’s history [see post on “Is Paris Burning?]”. However, what better lens and perspective to observe Occupied France than from a writer and statesmen who lived in this societal prison. Sartre renounced French literary culture with such passion because he was so much a part of it. He was the voice of the people in this languid existence where Parisians waited obsessively for the one weekly arrival of food trucks from the German troops. Sartre and de Beauvoir would live on a diet of rabbits sent to them from a friend in Anjou (45).
In his essay “Paris under the Occupation”, Sartre wrote that the “correct” behavior of the Germans had entrapped too many Parisians into complicity with the occupation, accepting what was unnatural as natural:
The Germans did not stride, revolver in hand, through the streets. They did not force civilians to make way for them on the pavement. They would offer seats to old ladies on the Metro. They showed great fondness for children and would pat them on the cheek. They had been told to behave correctly and being well-disciplined, they tried shyly and conscientiously to do so. Some of them even displayed a naive kindness which could find no practical expression (127).
Sartre would write two of his greatest works during the Occupation: Les Mouches (1943) and Huis clos (1944), one of the first works of French literature that I read. It is amazing that none of his works during this time were censored by the Germans and were published in literary magazines.
When I first read Huis clos (No Exit) in 2004, I was not considering the context of WWII. This chilling story, which was developed into a play in May 1944, is the depiction of the afterlife in which three deceased characters are punished by being locked in a room together.
According to Sartre, “Hell is other people” which is the idea of the struggle of being caused to see oneself as an object from the view of another. So intriguing. These characters at first are expecting to be physically tortured. After all, they are in Hell with damnation, fire and eternal misery! But to their surprise, they are locked in a pleasant room furnished in the style of French “Second Empire” with two other strangers who seem very cordial. It doesn’t take long, however, for them to realize that there is no accident that they have been placed together. On the contrary, they have been placed together to make each other miserable and will become one another’s torturers; a fitting commentary on the French world under German occupation.
After the Liberation of Paris in 1944, Sartre and several colleagues founded the journal Les Temps modernes in order to redefine what it meant to be a writer, to counter French literary culture and the traditions of the bourgeois in France. Les Temps contained “’trinkets of sonorous inanity” while living within twin ideologies of aestheticism and scientism, according to Sartre (176). Many have criticized Sartre’s role as a writer during the Occupation instead of resisting the enemy. Camus defended his friend stating, “Sartre was a writer who resisted, not a resister who wrote (151).”
In order for Sartre to become a new writer after the war, he would have to destroy the old ways of harsh criticism of French literature. Sartre would now have to practice a literature that long ago, before the hardships of war, declared its mission: to live in a culture that no longer compelled belief. The previous credo of Victor Hugo that “words are the Word, and the Word is God” no longer applied. Sartre would now wrestle with the questions: “What then is literature” “What is writing?”; “Why write and for whom? (Tableaux culturels de la France, 156)?” Great questions! Don’t we, as bloggers, as these questions before every post?
Sartre’s freedom to answer these questions came by the blood and sacrifice of the young men in World War II who faced down evil in its tracks.
Copyright 2019 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Priscilla Parkhurst Clark. Literary France. Oxford Press. 1987.
Ian Ousby. Occupation: The Ordeal of France, 1940–1944. New York: Cooper Square Press. 2000.
Suzanne Ravise. Tableaux Culturels de la France. Illinois : NTS Publishing. 1995.