OTTO ABETZ AND HIS PARIS ACOLYTES: FRENCH WRITERS WHO FLIRTED WITH FASCISM 1930-1945
By Martin Mauthner
Sussex Academic Press. 369 pages. £32.50. ISBN 978-1-84519-788-5
Reviewed by Jim Burns
The degree of fraternisation and outright collaboration in France, and especially Paris, during the Second World War is the subject of a long-running debate. I don’t think anyone would now want to deny that it was extensive, at least in certain areas of activity. The titles of a couple of books on my shelves perhaps sum up the situation. And the Show Went On by Alan Riding (Duckworth, 2011) looks at “cultural life in Nazi-occupied Paris”, and The Shameful Peace by Frederic Spotts (Yale University Press, 2008) is about “How French artists and intellectuals survived the Nazi Occupation”. Otto Abetz appears in both, though he isn’t as central to them as he is to the book under review.
Who was Otto Abetz and why did he have such a significant role to play in persuading so many French writers to not just compromise in an effort to make a living in difficult circumstances, but quite consciously and openly identify with the aims and actions of the supposed enemy of their country. I don’t want to play down the courage of those who did resist in one way or another, nor fail to understand the mood of the many who did what most of us would have done and simply kept their heads down and tried to get along as best they could. Writers and intellectuals, however, might have been expected to fulfil a different role. Common sense may have inclined them to think twice about speaking out, but it should also have shown them that being too friendly with the Nazis was likely to create problems in terms of repercussions should the Nazis be defeated. Unless, of course, someone happened to identify with the Nazis and sympathise with their objectives. It’s Martin Mauthner’s aim to demonstrate that a number of writers did, and not only when the German Army entered Paris. They expressed pro-fascist, if not openly pro-Nazi, opinions long before that.
Otto Abetz was born in Schwetzingen in 1903. He became an art teacher in a girls’ school, had an interest in French culture, and married a French woman. He’d met her through his involvement with youth groups dedicated to developing friendly relations between Germany and France. Mauthner comments, “ideals of world peace, fraternity, and some kind of united Europe” were what interested him. Although he was obviously aware of political events in Germany in the nineteen-twenties he doesn’t appear to have been particularly political or nationalistic until the 1930s and the rise to power of Hitler and his followers. Abetz began to change, particularly after he was harassed by the Gestapo and other organisations because of his French connections. Mauthner says: “Whatever his earlier convictions, however, it gradually dawned on his French friends that he was now busy trimming his sails to the changed winds: he was less and less France’s advocate in Germany and more and more like an eager commercial traveller peddling Nazi wares in France”.
Once he established a foothold among the Nazis he quickly began to
build a career within the framework of the new government. He joined
the staff of Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister,
something that Mauthner suggests had more to do with “Vanity and
ambition rather than ideological conviction”. And he worked hard to
develop relationships with French writers he thought could be relied
on to present a sympathetic view of the new Germany and its social
and political objectives. Abetz cultivated a sense of a Europe in
which Germany and France would be the dominant powers with a shared
vision of the future.
Two of his earliest contacts among French writers he thought would suit his purposes were the journalist Fernand de Brinon and the well-known novelist Jules Romains. Brinon had contacts with many people on the French Right, which was particularly active in the 1930s. The fear of communism, and the rise of the Popular Front among socialists and trade unionists, often caused conservative-minded French people to look favourably at what was happening in Germany. Hitler had suppressed the communists and the unions, and seemingly restored order and stability to his country. It has to be kept in mind, also, that there was a strong persistence of anti-semitism in French society, so there wasn’t widespread condemnation of the policies relating to Jews that were being applied in Germany. As Mauthner says of Brinon, whose wife was Jewish: “He did not praise what the National Socialists were doing, but neither did he categorically condemn their crimes”.
With regard to Romains, he was a household name in France and Abetz made a point of cultivating him as a possible “friend” of Nazi Germany. Romains, in turn, seems to have regarded Abetz as a “reluctant Nazi”. He was invited to visit Berlin where he was afforded celebrity treatment. Mauthner describes how when Romains gave a lecture at the Humboldt University about the supposed affinities, or the potential for them, between the French and German cultures, “it had the touch of a Nuremberg Nazi Party rally”, with uniformed guards and an audience of idealistic Hitler Youth members. They enthusiastically applauded Romains, no doubt following orders. Later, he approved of the Munich Agreement when France and Britain gave Hitler the green light to take over the Sudetenland. But he had his doubts about Nazi policies generally. When the Germans were advancing in 1940 Romains and his Jewish wife wisely left for the United States.
There had been growing suspicions in France before the outbreak of hostilities about Abetz’s activities in Paris. It had become obvious to the intelligence services, many journalists, and various exiled German writers living in Paris, that he wasn’t just an enthusiast anxious to sustain a relationship between the two countries and help stave off another war. He was, in fact, working on behalf of the Nazis to soften up French opposition to German intentions with regard to expansion into the rest of Europe. His method was to persuade writers he associated with to be inclined towards a positive view of Hitler and his henchmen. They should call for cooperation and not confrontation with Germany. Among the writers more than willing to work with Abetz were Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and Charles Maurras.
Jouvenel, a philosopher and journalist, interviewed Hitler and described the German leader as a polite, amicable type who insisted that he wanted to be ”on good terms with his neighbour”. When Paris was occupied by the Germans Jouvenel continued to write and publish, though in 1943 he somehow fell foul of the authorities and fled to Switzerland. When he returned to Paris in 1945 he was placed on the list of writers who had collaborated but was never prosecuted. Some years later he sued the author of a book which alleged that he had been a fascist in the 1930s. He won a partial victory but it was significant that no court order was made to remove the allegations from future editions of the book. And the damages awarded were derisory.
Jouvenel was luckier than Charles Maurras, an influential conservative intellectual anti-semite, and one of the founders of Action Française, a right wing anti-communist and royalist organisation. Maurras supported the Vichy government and continued to publish anti-semitic articles during the Occupation. When he was put on trial in 1945 he was convicted of incitement to murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Questions were raised about the conduct of his trial. Already in his seventies when imprisoned he suffered from ill-health and died in 1952.
With Drieu la Rochelle we come to someone who, leaving aside for a moment questions about what he had done, is quite an intriguing figure. Mauthner describes him as good-looking but unable to establish permanent relationships with any of the women who were attracted to him. His “relative poverty bedevilled Drieu, instilling in him a feeling of inferiority”. And more significantly, “fascism enthralled him. Before and during the war, he would openly support Nazi Germany’s aims”. It’s also pointed out that “He mixed with Left-Bank bohemians and in many ways shared their outlook”. He appears to have been a mass of contradictions, having at one time been married to a Jewess but becoming “one of France’s most outspoken salon anti-semites”. He was friendly with Louis Aragon (soon to become a committed member of the Communist Party) and others in the Surrealist movement, though he later broke with them. He wrote novels and published poetry and reviews in the prestigious Nouvelle Revue Française. But his extreme anti-semitism and his determined support for both German occupiers and French Fascists inevitably led to him being hunted when the war ended. Some people, including several who were opposed to everything he stood for politically, helped him, but he had no intention of ending up like his associate Robert Brasillach who was executed in 1945. Drieu committed suicide early in 1946.
Abetz had been a presence in the lives of the various people I’ve mentioned, as he was with Jean Luchaire (executed 1946) and Jacques Doriot (killed 1945). I’ve selected only a few writers to focus on, and there were others that Mauthner mentions. He doesn’t have a lot to say about the notorious Louis-Ferdinand Céline, but his writings and activities have been looked at in detail elsewhere. There are still debates about the extent of his collaboration, though few doubts about the viciousness of his anti-semitic opinions which even some Nazis considered counter-productive in their extremism.
Abetz’s career as the German Ambassador in Paris hadn’t just been a matter of encouraging French writers to express support for German objectives. And any notions that they may have had regarding a French-German partnership were soon disabused once the Germans moved in. Vichy may for a time have given the illusion that France might have some say in future plans, but it was just that, an illusion. Abetz played a prominent part in the looting of art treasures from French galleries and, when it became obvious that the Allies would soon liberate France, he departed for Germany and, once the war ended, managed to evade capture for several months. He was eventually arrested in October 1945. Mauthner provides some information regarding what he had with him when captured: “Abetz had fled with a hoard of Reichsmarks, dollars and Swiss francs, as well as gold pieces. He carried away Fragonards and other paintings looted from the French Rothschild family, supplies of champagne and cognac, and sacks of flour and canned goods”.
Transferred to France, Abetz spent three and a half years in prison before being brought to trial in 1949. He was found guilty of looting works of art, dispossessing and deporting Jews, and being involved in the murder by the French milice (a paramilitary police force co-operating with the Germans) of Georges Mandel, a politician, journalist, and Resistance leader. Abetz was sentenced to twenty years in prison, but his conviction was later reviewed and he was reprieved in January, 1954, and returned to Germany. He and his wife were killed in a car crash in 1958.
Abetz probably had a genuine desire, at least in his earlier days, to see the formation of a united Europe with France and Germany in leading roles. Some might argue that, in many ways, his dream came true with the European Union. But it seems clear that he was also ambitious and prepared to go along with Nazi plans in order to further his career and enjoy the advantages membership of the Nazi Party gave him. He was an opportunist, like so many of those he associated with.
Martin Mauthner has written a book packed with information and insights into what made Otto Abetz and his Paris acolytes act in the way that they did. It has a useful bibliography and a selection of relevant photos. I noticed a few typos in the text, though they’re not significant enough to hold up the narrative.