Jun 2001 Journal

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White (and Black) washing

When dictatorships are set up artists take flight. Toscanini fled Mussolini’s Italy, Rachmaninov and Chagall Soviet Russia, and Thomas Mann, Hindemith and Beckmann Nazi Germany. To offset this palpable loss of their cultural substance, authoritarian regimes occasionally seduce selected exiles into returning. Stalin induced Sergei Prokofiev to resettle in Russia in the mid-thirties. A little earlier a Goebbels emissary had tried to lure Erich Maria Remarque back to Germany from California. When the author of All Quiet on the Western Front rejected this overture the emissary predicted that homesickness would plague him for the rest of his days – to which Remarque retorted “What do you think I am, a German Jew?”

Goebbels had more success with the film Director WG Pabst – of Dreigroschenoper fame – who returned to Germany from French exile in 1939. When, barely a year later, France collapsed its cultural elite faced the same challenge as their German colleagues had done in 1933. Sad to relate, they did not acquit themselves any better. Collaboration with the occupier was widespread – alike in the spheres of high and popular culture. The situation in the latter was characterised by an incident involving the singer-songwriter Charles Trenet (who happened to look rather like Harpo Marx). When a newspaper carried a false report of Trenet’s death, the singer sent out thousands of cards bearing the legend ‘I am not dead – and neither am I a Jew’.

The writer Colette, revered as a national symbol already in her lifetime, churned out pernicious Pétainist literature. She subsequently claimed she had cultivated close contacts with Vichy and its German puppet-masters to protect her Jewish husband (which she, indeed, managed to do).

The view posterity takes of leading personalities of the Nazi era, particularly in Germany and France, is in a process of constant revision and manipulation. A good example was Taking Sides, Ronald Harwood’s play about Wilhelm Furtwängler. In it the playwright, anxious not to appear judgmental at any cost, depicted the conductor as an apolitical artist insulated from events, and only intent on presenting music of the highest standard to the German public. (In consequence Harwood took a more lenient view of Furtwängler than the better informed Thomas Mann, for instance.)

Another Nazi era celebrity to benefit posthumously from exculpation by a British playwright was Werner Heisenberg (of ‘Uncertainty Principle’ fame) whom Hitler had put in charge of the Nazi nuclear bomb project. Theatregoers watching Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen may be forgiven for thinking that the Nobel laureate had deliberately retarded the German atomic programme. The dispiriting truth is, however, that Hitler’s Nazi A-bomb had remained on the drawing board for no other reason than that a major error had crept into Heisenberg’s mathematical calculations.

French culture heroes have been subjected to a different process of obfuscation. The influential Picasso lobby has long endeavoured to distract attention from the painter’s less-than-honourable conduct under the Occupation. There is the apocryphal story about Wehrmacht officers visiting his Paris studio, catching sight of Guernica and asking ‘Did you do that?’ and Picasso returning the courageous answer ‘No, you did!’

In reality he failed to intercede on behalf of his Jewish friend, the poet-painter Max Jacob who was at Drancy en route to Auschwitz. Given the Nazis’ stake in projecting occupied Paris as the European city of culture, such intercession would not have had drastic consequences for its first citizen. A member of the Picasso lobby must also have alleged that the blameless Henri Matisse was a Gestapo collaborator – a canard presumably intended to divert attention from Picasso’s wartime record. (Readers of the quality press may remember that John Mortimer had originally repeated the canard, but speedily published a full retraction.)

Last but not least, in 1945 Picasso joined the French Communist Party still trailing clouds of résistance glory, and a little later he painted the Dove of Peace, emblem of the worldwide peace movement. Under the circumstances, how can Matisse’s real record compete with Picasso’s fake one?
Richard Grunberger

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