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Grand Illusion

The Third Reich, the Paris Exposition, and the Cultural Seduction of France

Franco-German cultural exchange reached its height at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, where the Third Reich worked to promote an illusion of friendship between the two countries. Through the prism of this decisive event, Grand Illusion examines the overlooked relationships among Nazi elites and French intellectuals. Their interaction, Karen Fiss argues, profoundly influenced cultural production and normalized aspects of fascist ideology in 1930s France, laying the groundwork for the country’s eventual collaboration with its German occupiers.

Tracing related developments across fine arts, film, architecture, and mass pageantry, Fiss illuminates the role of National Socialist propaganda in the French decision to ignore Hitler’s war preparations and pursue an untenable policy of appeasement. France’s receptiveness toward Nazi culture, Fiss contends, was rooted in its troubled identity and deep-seated insecurities. With their government in crisis, French intellectuals from both the left and the right demanded a new national culture that could rival those of the totalitarian states. By examining how this cultural exchange shifted toward political collaboration, Grand Illusion casts new light on the power of art to influence history.

296 pages | 95 halftones | 8 1/2 x 10 | © 2009

Architecture: European Architecture

History: European History

Media Studies


“Many histories of the French 1930s mention in passing the Paris International Exposition on 1937 and the huge publicity generated by the German pavilion, designed by Hitler’s favorite architect Albert Speer. No one before Karen Fiss, though, has had the excellent idea of studying in detail the story of this pavilion and the controversies it generated. The result is a well-researched and superbly illustrated book which provides both a rich history of Franco-German cultural exchange in the 1930s and an intriguing pre-history to the Franco-German collaboration which was to take place during the Nazi occupation of France. Using an extensive range of German and French sources, she analyses the planning and gestation of the German pavilion, the political and aesthetic values it sought to promote, and the way that those values were ‘received’ in France. The book offers interesting insights on the cultural seductions of fascism in 1930s France and novel perspective on the cultural politics of the left-wing Popular Front government. In short, it is a model of perceptive and archivally grounded cultural history.”

Julian Jackson, Queen Mary, University of London

“In the World’s Fair of 1937 and its attendant cultural programs, Karen Fiss has found a wonderful vehicle for exploring bilateral relations between France and Germany at this critical historical junction. Her careful analysis of cultural products—starting with a masterful explication of Jean Renoir’s classic film La grande illusion, extending through treatments of the German and French pavilions, and culminating with a study of three German films—enables her to ground her original arguments in specific and important examples. This is a marvelous book.”

Jonathan Petropoulos, Claremont McKenna College

Table of Contents



1          The Cultural Politics of Rapprochement

2          The Production of the German Pavilion

3          The Reception of Nazi Culture

4          Franco-German Relations in the Cinema and the 1937 Exposition

5          The Visual Pleasure of Mass Ornament

Epilogue: Vichy and the Legacy of the 1930s




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