A row has erupted among Jean-Paul Sartre scholars over a new book which claims that the French philosopher did too little to defend Jews during the Holocaust.
Ingrid Galster, a German Sartre expert, suggests that not only was Sartre unsympathetic to the plight of Jews, he actively profited from antisemitism in France by taking a post at a school when its Jewish incumbent was removed.
The Sartre scholar Professor Jonathan Judaken at Rhodes College in Tennessee rebuffed Ms Galster's views.
"He was a critic of all forms of anti-Jewish discourse and discrimination," he said.
Mr Judaken, who wrote Jean Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question, said that Sartre "condemned antisemitism as the ultimate form of bad faith". He added that evidence could be found in Sartre's plays and work for resistance newspapers.
He was hailed as an icon of resistance to Nazism
In the immediate post-war years, Sartre was hailed as an icon of resistance, as existentialism became increasingly fashionable. In 1946, he published Antisemite and Jew, an analysis of antisemitism.
However, in Sartre Under the Occupation, Ms Galster suggests that Sartre felt guilty over his attitude towards the Jews, which explains why his post-war work appeared more sympathetic.
Dr Eran Dorfman at Tel Aviv University's French Studies department agreed that Sartre's philosophy "dramatically changed after the war, to a large extent because he realised what his indifference had led to, but this does not mean that we should dismiss his intellectual efforts to respond to the events of the time".
However, Mr Judaken wholly disagreed. "He was utterly consistent.This was in no way a post-war compensation for his failed engagement or political commitments during the war."
Sartre himself later remarked that he was more a "writer who resisted than a resister who wrote," which Mr Judaken said "largely holds up" as a verdict. However, Mr Judaken conceded that Sartre's actions under the German occupation of France could invite criticism - for example, his decision to publish Being and Nothingness with the Nazi censor's imprimatur. Also, his 1943 play The Flies was put on in an Aryanised theatre and advertised in the collaborationist press.
But while "he may not have been a resistance hero who sacrificed everything", Mr Mr Judaken said, "he clearly condemned Vichy ideology, fascist intellectuals, and Nazi racism".
Ms Galster's suggestion that Sartre had knowingly benefitted from the sacking of Henri Dreyfus-Le Foyer from the Lycée Condorcet has already been disproved, said Mr Judaken, because the post "was technically turned over first to Ferdinand Alquié before Sartre took the position".
Ms Galster's views have seen her ousted from "Sartrelogue" circles.
Comment by Jonathan Judaken, Spence L Wilson Chair in the Humanities at Rhodes College in Tennessee:
The new book by Ingrid Galster, which I have yet to read, sounds the same drumbeat that she has pounded since at least 2000 when she wrote an article (followed by a couple of books) that first raised all of the issues once more ignited by her most recent work.
It is perhaps because she is so unremitting in her claims that she has annoyed some in the camp of French Sartrelogues. They argue that she does not provide a balanced judgement on Sartre’s position. But their wholesale defence of Sartre, likewise, does not stand up to close scrutiny.
I address this debate and argue that “The time has come to situate Sartre beyond the dichotomies of guilt or innocence, armed resistance or collaboration” (pg. 51) in my book, Jean-Paul Sartre and the Jewish Question: http://tinyurl.com/qb6dtjz. The third chapter of the book goes into great detail, situating what Sartre said and did with respect to Jews and anti-Semitism under the German occupation in terms of the ambiguities and ambivalences of life under the German occupation.
While Sartre was hailed along with Albert Camus as an icon of resistance in the immediate postwar years, as existentialism became the intellectual fashion of the day, Sartre later claimed about the war years that he was more “a writer who resisted than a resistor who wrote.” This self-verdict largely holds up. What he wrote about Jews and anti-Semitism was clear and consistent, however. He was a critic of all forms of anti-Jewish discourse and discrimination.
Sartre was way ahead of the curve when it came to actively critiquing antisemitism and the politics of fascism. This was in no way a post-war compensation for his failed engagement or political commitments during the war. Indeed, I have suggested that this was Sartre’s first major engagement and it was one that continued for the rest of his life.
His longest short story in his collection The Wall, published in 1939, was called “The Childhood of a Leader” and it was a straightforward, biting critique of a young boy who becomes a member of the Camelots du roi, the street fighters of the anti-Semitic and right wing Action Française. Sartre continued to reflect on the Jewish Question throughout the war years in terms that clearly anticipated his famous analysis of anti-Semitism published in 1946 and titled in English, Anti-Semite and Jew (Réflexions sur la question juive).
His stance on the issue was utterly consistent: he condemned anti-Semitism as the ultimate form of bad faith, a way to avoid responsibility for our existential freedom. He repeatedly condemned Vichy ideology and fascist ideologues both covertly in his plays and explicitly in what he wrote for the underground, resistance newspapers.
The matter of the position at the Lycée Condorcet that was held by Henri Dreyfus-Le Foyer before he was removed from the job by the first anti-Jewish statute, which, contra-Galster, the Sartrean scholars Jacques Lecarme and Michel Contat established was technically turned over first to Ferdinand Alquié before Sartre took the position, is a fact of the matter.
The big question of Sartre’s choices under the German occupation require a very careful contextual examination. Here the wholesale defence of Sartre by the Sartrelogues has its problems. The claims about Sartre’s careerism and willing complicity to advance himself even at the cost of collaboration does not hold up. Nor does Winock’s statement that Sartre didn’t care about the fate of the Jews than the majority of French people, as the ink he spilled on the subject testifies. But Sartre did make choices to publish his philosophical magnum opus, Being and Nothingness with the Nazi censor’s imprimatur.
His first major play on the French stage, The Flies, was put on in an Aryanized theater and advertised in the collaborationist press. He did take the position at the Lycée Condorcet, which had become available as a result of the purge of Jewish teachers.
I have argued that the kinds of contextually specific judgements about these kinds of choices that people made during the war and in its immediate aftermath are actually more nuanced than our post-Holocaust perspective, which is shaped by not only the clarity of hindsight, but also a clear sense of right and wrong, good and evil that we want to believe was apparent in the murkiness of the period, but alas this was often not the case in the messiness of fleeting time.
All told, Sartre’s claim about himself holds up: he was more “a writer who resisted than a resister who wrote”. In sum, he may not have been a resistance hero who sacrificed everything in the cause of denouncing Vichy and fighting against the Nazis. But he clearly condemned Vichy ideology, fascist intellectuals, and Nazi racism. He did this during the war and he extended this critique in his postwar commitments, which when elaborated became some of the most powerful and influential indictments of racism in all its forms to date.