Alan Riding's meticulously researched and documented account of what happened to the French cultural scene under the German occupation and Vichy regime (1940-mid-1944) presents a vast amount of information about the intellectual movers and shakers of the period. More interestingly, it lays out at least two major historic points about the French and German societies of the time. Riding's detailed account of French high culture and its leading figures is framed by well-explained descriptions of the political and military realities of the same period.
French cultural heavyweights reacted to the swift defeat of the French Army in 1940 in one of several ways: they fled the country, laid low or tried to function within the new political context, or actively and openly collaborated with the occupying Nazi forces. A surprising number were in the latter category. But Riding points out that, in fact, collaboration often had its basis in a vigorous anti-semitism which had been strong in France even before Hitler and the Nazis adopted it as a national policy akin to religion. Which is also one of the reasons so many prominent cultural figures were in the first category and left the country to save their lives. Much of Riding's book is devoted to the collaborators who shared the Nazis' political philosophy and the fence-sitters who tried to carry on as though the occupation were a temporary state of affairs.
A second interesting idea that the author argues in "And the Show...", is that the conquering Germans actually felt, in general, culturally inferior to the French, and worked assiduously throughout much of the occupation period to get the French elites and intelligentsia to accept and extoll the merits of German culture, if not its superiority. A strange position for the conquerors to be in, but a sentiment shaped by a long history of relations between the Germans and French.
"And the Show..." chronicles the reaction of each cultural form to the occupation, including classical music, film, ballet, literature, painting and criticism exhaustively in individual chapters. There is somewhat less information on popular culture, perhaps because music hall performers, jazz musicians, radio actors, comics and writers of middle-brow fiction left less of a written record of their personal adjustment to the political climate to research. (In this context, I was disappointed not to know more about just how American popular music remained so widely performed and recorded during the occupation; and how did someone like guitarist Django Reinhardt with a gypsy background survive the racial purges; and why Georges Simenon's wartime Maigret detective novels were so completely absent any reference to the war or occupation.)
Author Riding includes chapters on two Americans who were important figures to the wartime cultural scene in France. One was literary journalist Varian Fry, who came to France after its partition in mid-1940 at the head of an Emergency Rescue Committee and managed to help more than 2000 imperiled French and other European "cultural" personalities escape the country. Many of these refugees were Jewish or had dangerous political associations. A second American of importance, in Riding's estimation, was Florence Gould, wealthy Franco-American, who set up a literary salon in Paris that brought together French intellectuals of all political stripes, as well as members of the occupying Nazi administration.
The book concludes with the observation that the war and the experiences of the occupation served to move the center of artistic innovation out of Paris and France permanently, with much of it winding up in New York. Whatever the more lasting effects, the war period certainly smoked out the extreme right-wing elements in French culture and robbed anti-semitism of any sense of public respectability to this day
"And the Show Went On" is quite an achievement as a piece of wonderfully detailed modern history. It isn't without a few missing pieces (in my opinion), but its massive assembly of facts and insights by a learned observer, makes it an important and interesting chronicle of a painful period of European history.