Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

French Catholic Intellectuals during the Occupation

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

French Catholic Intellectuals during the Occupation

Article excerpt

Among the images of chagrin and pitie, the tales of bravery and treachery, little is to be heard of the French Catholic intellectuals. Even in the post-war polemics which intermittently summoned one or other of them to declare 'dans quel camp etes-vous?'[1] there is no resounding myth of their war-time record, and no convenient summary account of their actions during the period. The starting point of this study is therefore to ask: what did French Catholic intellectuals do during the Occupation? The question appears simple enough, but on examination the simple answers appear misleading and the others are frustratingly complex. Perhaps that is why it has so rarely been addressed. But in addressing it, I hope to draw out other unspoken questions which lay beneath it.

If the question were posed to a French Catholic intellectual, a likely response would be to ask a question in return: who wants to know and why? It would be a reasonable response in the circumstances, not merely to raise a general question of ulterior motives, but to remind the inquirer that the question has a history.

What people did during the Occupation, or what their forebears did, has been a matter of controversy and polemic in France since 1944. Although the heyday of honours and punishments is long past, the events of fifty years ago still arouse public controversy and even still reach the courts, most notably with the trial of Klaus Barbie. To a remarkable extent, the history of the period is still viewed through the polarity of Resistance and Collaboration. This provides the basic structure for polemic in France (for or against), as well as for much of the interest these events still hold for foreign commentators. The difference lies in what is at stake. For the French it is a matter of political importance, involving the constitutive narrative of their post-war national identity. For the rest of us it is a matter of curiosity, involving a moral tale of good and evil. In either case, the historical analysis, however painstaking and complex, subserves moral or political judgement, which in this context is disarmingly simple.

The extent to which historical analysis can avoid partisanship is a perpetual question, but the history of the Occupation period is especially exposed to it. Every French account of the 'annees noires' contains both passion and, implicitly or explicitly, the judgments which derive from it. The excellent standard history of the period by Jean-Pierre Azema begins by recognizing the problem:

L'auteur avait trois ans en 1940, il se refuse a etre un donneur de

lecons ou a se transformer en procureur; il n'entend pourtant pas se

poser en spectateur desincarne, car il a, lui aussi, son mot a dire.[2] Having largely avoided the pitfalls of settling scores, Azema nonetheless concludes with a moving homage to the militants of the Resistance, including a quotation from Stanley Hoffman remembering his own personal debt to one of their number, and incidentally reminding us that English-speaking historians of the Occupation may also speak with more than usual passion.

The opposition between Resistance and Collaboration was a crucial characteristic of the Occupation period. Since 1944 it has exercised such emotional and imaginative power that it has dominated all other aspects of the history of the period. Consequently, an apparently simple question like 'what did Catholic intellectuals do?' inescapably implies the more specific question 'did they resist or collaborate?'. Posed in this way, there are potentially simple answers, of course: that they mostly entered the Resistance, or that they mainly supported Vichy, or that they were mainly divided on the matter. In respect of particular individuals, such issues were vigorously argued in the early post-war period and have been intermittently refined since that time. The same cannot be said of Catholic intellectuals as a group, and it will be more productive to suspend such matters of judgement for a time at least, in order to be able to see other, less peremptory dimensions of the question. …

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