Freedom, Resistance, and Responsibility: The Philosophy and Politics of Jean–Paul Sartre with Ian Birchall

The importance of World War II to Jean-Paul Sartre’s life and thought is often overlooked.

Top Image: Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the year Sartre won the Nobel Prize. Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Gift of Charles (A.B.’84) and Linda Googe, 2019.17.157.

One risks dramatic understatement in designating Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) as among the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. Between roughly 1935 and 1970, when he was at his most productive, Sartre exerted enormous influence on such currents as existentialism (with which he is most associated), phenomenology, and philosophical anthropology. His works including The Transcendence of the Ego (1936), Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (1939), The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination (1940), Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (1943), and “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1945) are still studied today. Sartre also became a crucial figure in Marxist thought with “Materialism and Revolution” (1946), The Question of Method (1957), and the first volume of Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960). He was extremely active in leftist politics in France and internationally for more than 30 years. Always zealously guarding his independence as an author, Sartre wrote about topics as diverse as American literature (e.g. Faulkner and Dos Passos), jazz, opposition to colonialism, antisemitism, and psychoanalysis. A sharp and incisive essayist and biographer, he also penned some of the greatest texts of twentieth-century literature like the novels Nausea (1938) and The Roads to Freedom series (1947-51), the short-story collection The Wall and Other Stories (1939), and plays such as The Flies (1943), No Exit (1944), The Devil and the Good Lord (1951), and The Condemned of Altona (1959). What is often overlooked about Sartre is the importance of World War II to his life and thought.

To address the centrality of the Second World War in Sartre’s biography, The National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy has drawn on the expertise of Ian Birchall. Birchall is the author of a major study of the philosopher, Sartre against Stalinism (2004), and has written numerous articles and reviews on Sartre’s philosophical and political thought. These works have contributed greatly to the contextualization of his place within the broader history of the French and European Left. Beyond his work on Sartre, Birchall is the co-author (with Tony Cliff) of France: The Struggle Goes On (1968), as well as Workers against the Monolith: The Communist Parties since 1943 (1974), Bailing Out the System: Reformist Socialism in Western Europe, 1944-85 (1986), The Spectre of Babeuf (1997), A Rebel’s Guide to Lenin (2005), and Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time (2011). Birchall has also translated the writings of Victor Serge and Alfred Rosmer.

Ian Birchall


In an interview conducted in May 1975, Jean-Paul Sartre looked back on a “great change in my thinking” that occurred during World War II. What happened to Sartre, who had previously defined himself as an anti-bourgeois writer, in the early years of that conflict and what do The War Diaries reveal about the evolution of his thought?

It is scarcely surprising that the Second World War had an enormous impact on Sartre’s thinking. It thrust him into a succession of new experiences—conscription into the army, detention in a German prisoner of war camp, then return to Paris and involvement with the Resistance. For Sartre, all this brought home the reality that questions he had previously considered as purely intellectual matters involved choices and alignments in the real world. Choices which, under a Nazi Occupation, could be matters of life and death. As he wrote in his essay “The Republic of Silence,” “we have never been so free as under the German Occupation.” What he meant by this provocative paradox was that under a lethally authoritarian regime every choice could have grave implications, every decision about values could bring one into conflict with the existing order.

It was the period of the war that initiated Sartre into the political commitment that would last for the rest of his life. As he put it in a 1969 interview, “I was not made for politics, and yet I was remade by politics so that I eventually had to enter them.” It is important to remember that this period of Sartre’s major work was one of almost permanent war; the German occupation was followed by colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria, so that between 1939 and 1962, France was never at peace for more than a few months.

The War Diaries show how Sartre’s thought was in permanent evolution during this period. The army brought him into contact with a wide range of people from backgrounds he had not previously encountered; in particular he observed the low morale of the troops (a sharp contrast with the nationalist fervour of 1914). And he developed a critical attitude to the whole analysis of the war: “in September 1939 the war was welcomed by the bourgeoisie because the German-Russian treaty had brought Communism into disrepute …. The Communist Party would be dissolved. What ten years of politics could not do, the war would do in a month. Such is, it seems to me, the main reason for bourgeois support for the war. Under the guise of a national war, it is to a great extent a civil war.”

But two other points should be made. If Sartre developed in the war period, it was on the basis of what had gone before. A recent book by Sam Coombes—The Early Sartre and Marxism (2008)—has shown that Sartre’s thought before 1939 was closer to Marxism than has previously been recognized. And it is clear that Sartre was much influenced by figures from the political left before 1939. Paul Nizan, who until just before his death was a loyal member of the Communist Party, was an important point of reference. His significance is widely recognized, but far less attention has been given to Colette Audry (perhaps because she was a woman). Audry was a formidable intellectual—as early as 1934 she wrote an essay demonstrating the fascist elements in Heidegger’s thought. But she was also a tireless activist—in 1939 she helped to rescue some of the POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) leaders from Spain after Franco’s victory. (I met one of them some 50 years later and he still remembered Audry with gratitude). His pre-war discussions with Audry undoubtedly helped to orient Sartre in the choices he made after 1939.

Sartre’s role in the Resistance was real but modest, and mainly of a literary nature. Claude Morgan, the Communist editor of the clandestine Lettres françaises recalled: “Sartre was a tremendous guy. …. He was ready to do anything for the Resistance.” In recent years his conduct during the Occupation has been criticized by writers like Michel Onfray. It was a difficult period and he may well have made misjudgements. But the harshest criticisms have come from a younger generation of writers (like Onfray) who have no first-hand experience of the realities of life under the Occupation. At the time, activists who had suffered under the Nazis were happy to cooperate with Sartre. I’m thinking of David Rousset, who survived a Nazi camp, and Jean-René Chauvin. Chauvin was a remarkable individual who survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen. In the post-war period he worked closely with Sartre in the RDR (see below). If anyone had a right to criticize Sartre it was he. I interviewed him in 1997 and, though he had political differences with Sartre, he spoke of him with affection.

Many commentators singled out Sartre’s 1938 novel, Nausea, some of the early short stories (e.g. “Intimacy” and “Erostratus”), the sections of Being and Nothingness on “others,” and the 1944 play No Exit—the often quoted phrase “Hell—that is other people”—that a fundamental pessimism about relations between human beings ran through Sartre’s thought. How do you respond to this claim?

In “Existentialism Is a Humanism” Sartre said of his critics: “their excessive protests make me suspect that what is annoying them is not so much our pessimism, but, much more likely, our optimism.” I would largely go along with that. Sartre’s reputation for “pessimism” derives from the fairly superficial fact of his preoccupation with some of the bleaker aspects of human experience, and the fact that he was an atheist.

The line “hell is other people” (spoken by a character in a play and not necessarily Sartre’s own opinion) is often cited. It is important to remember the context of the play as a whole. It is often summarized as being the interaction of three people confined to a room, all equally guilty of bad faith. A more careful reading of the play shows that one of the three, Inès, a working-class Lesbian, comes across as the most positive character and clearly has Sartre’s sympathy. Sartre’s developing views on class and oppression cannot be reduced to a mere statement about “hell is other people.”

But if Sartre was an optimist, it was not a facile optimism. He believed that human beings were free to change the world. But he recognized that this was a formidable responsibility and that it was certainly not guaranteed success.

Thus, Sartre did not go along with the rather superficial statements about working-class unity that came from the Communist Party. He recognised that there was no automatic unity between the French working class and the victims of colonialism. There were elements of conflict very deeply rooted in human relationships; hence the fact that many years later he was still grappling, not wholly successfully, with the concepts of “seriality” and the “fused group.”

And history held no guarantees. As he put it in “Existentialism and Humanism”: “Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish fascism, and others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us.” This stands very much in the tradition of Rosa Luxemburg’s alternative of “socialism or barbarism” and Marx’s warning that class struggle must produce either “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or …. the common ruin of the contending classes.” His play, The Condemned of Altona, suggests that in the thirtieth century there will be nobody to judge our history except a “court of crabs”—the only surviving species. Sartre was thinking of nuclear war, but in our epoch of climate change it is a very apt image.

Jean-Paul Sartre in uniform, ca. 1935-45. Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.


After his release from a German prison camp and return to Paris in 1941, Sartre helped form Socialism and Liberation. Can you describe the composition and aims of this organization? What was Sartre’s role in it?

Socialisme et Liberté was Sartre’s first involvement in a political organisation. He developed it from an earlier group Sous la Botte (under the jackboot). The significance of Socialisme et Liberté should not be exaggerated. It had perhaps 50 members, mainly young intellectuals from the same milieu as Sartre. There were one or two Trotskyists (their own organisations were in disarray) and other non-Communist leftists; Maurice Nadeau, who would become well-known as a publisher and critic, attended one meeting. It was essentially a discussion group with very little practical activity. One of its members, Nathalie Sarraute, recalled: “It was supposed to be a resistance group. In fact, we were writing essays about the France of the future!”

It is important to put this in political context. In the first year of the German Occupation, the French left was in complete disarray. The Communist Party, which had spent five years calling for an anti-fascist Popular Front, had been totally disoriented by the Hitler-Stalin Pact. It had lost many of its members and was seeking legal publication of its paper under Nazi rule. The Socialist Party (SFIO) was divided—a majority of its deputies had voted for Pétain. The left split from the SFIO, the PSOP (The Workers and Peasants’ Socialist Party), had disintegrated; the Trotskyists who had worked within it were isolated and divided into small groups. The most serious journal of the non-Communist left, Pierre Monatte’s La Révolution prolétarienne had ceased to appear. The anarchist organizations were not functioning. In this situation the left was, in effect, starting from scratch and had to think through its basic positions.

A few months later Hitler invaded Russia, the Communist Party entered the Resistance, and everything was changed. There was now no place for a marginal organization like Socialisme et Liberté and it wound up. Some of its members joined the Communist Party because that seemed to be the place where effective action could be pursued. (Jean Kanapa, later a leading Communist Party bureaucrat, was briefly a member). Others, like Sartre himself, had reservations about the Communist Party but worked with the Resistance.

In 2008, I attended a meeting in Paris addressed by two surviving members of Socialisme et Liberté (see report here). Since no documents survive, it is difficult to establish a proper history of the organization. One interesting point was Dominique Desanti’s recollection of leafleting German soldiers. The first-class carriages on the métro were reserved for German soldiers, and she would get into the carriage, hand out leaflets, and rapidly disappear. This is significant because it anticipated the Trotskyist strategy of trying to fraternise with German soldiers rather than the Communist position of “chacun son boche”—i.e. assassinating rank-and-file German soldiers.
Recently, Ronald Aronson argued that Sartre both helped “to construct the postwar myth that all of occupied France engaged in some form of resistance against the Germans” but also “indicated this narrative’s mythic dimension.” Do you think Aronson’s assertion captures Sartre’s attitude toward the French Resistance?

I’m not familiar with this particular argument by Aronson, who is generally a very shrewd and fair judge of Sartre’s positions. It is most certainly a myth “that all of occupied France engaged in some form of resistance against the Germans.” But the myth was encouraged by both the Gaullists and the Communists, who were trying to present themselves as the true heirs of the Resistance. Among other things, the myth tended to obscure two fundamental facts about the Occupation. Firstly, that a significant group within French society not merely acquiesced in the Nazi Occupation but actively encouraged it; Vichy’s first antisemitic laws were introduced without any pressure from the Germans. And secondly, the Resistance contained many people of non-French origin, notably veterans of the Spanish Civil War and anti-Nazi Germans. (See for example Merilyn Moos & Steve Cushion, Anti-Nazi Germans—2020.) It has only recently been acknowledged that a key role in the liberation of Paris was played by Spanish troops—veterans of the Spanish Civil War.  

The myth of mass resistance was followed, in 1969, by Marcel Ophüls’ movie Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity), which encouraged an alternative myth that collaboration had been widespread. The reality, I would argue, was more accurately presented in David Drake’s Paris At War: 1939 – 1944 (2015), in which he argued that there was a small minority of courageous Resisters, and an equally small minority of collaborators. The majority simply aimed to “survive increasing hardship and deprivation while making as few compromises as they could.”

Sartre may at times have helped to support the myth of mass resistance—for example in “The Republic of Silence” (referred to above), where he said “we have never been so free as under the German occupation,” it is somewhat vague as to who the “we “ referred to.

But on the other hand, Sartre often challenged the myths. Just a couple of examples. In his 1946 book Anti-Semite and Jew he focused his main attention on the antisemitism that had deep roots in French society (going back to the Dreyfus case and beyond). He hardly mentioned the Holocaust and certainly gave no support to the view that antisemitism was something primarily imposed on France by German occupiers.

Secondly, in his 1946 play Men Without Shadows, Sartre explicitly dealt with an episode from the Resistance, with a drama centering on five Resisters facing torture and death. Two things stand out very clearly. Firstly, the people responsible for the torture and death threats were not Germans but Miliciens, that is, members of the French organisation set up to crush the Resistance.  And secondly, the most articulate and determined of the Resisters was Canoris, who was not French at all, but a Greek Communist. Sartre was acknowledging that the Resistance was not simply a national struggle, but had an internationalist component.
In Paris in October 1945, Sartre gave the famed lecture, “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” How would you characterize for our audience the philosophy of freedom and responsibility presented in that talk and why do you think it attracted so many people at the time?

In France at the Liberation there was a considerable audience looking for a radical perspective independent of the Communist Party. There were two daily papers, Combat and Franc-Tireur which offered a far left, indeed revolutionary, position (Combat used to carry the slogan “From the Resistance to the Revolution”). Their combined print run was higher than that of the Communist L’Humanité.

Within this milieu there was considerable interest in Sartre, who had acquired a certain celebrity thanks to his literary works and various articles. There was curiosity as to exactly what “existentialism” was. But Being and Nothingness was not an easy read. So for Sartre to offer a popularization of his own philosophy was very welcome. There are vivid descriptions of the crowd who packed out the lecture and almost suffocated. It was published in book form a few months later.

In a sense it was a hostage to fortune. Many of Sartre’s critics based their polemics on “Existentialism is a Humanism,” without making the effort to engage the rather more sophisticated arguments developed in Being and Nothingness.

Nonetheless it was a tour de force. Sartre was both dramatist and philosopher, and he succeeded in presenting his philosophy in concrete and vivid terms. The central argument was that we are free and that freedom entails responsibility. Our choices are always choices of values so that our decisions always involve implications that stretch far beyond the individual context.

Sartre illustrated his argument with some striking concrete examples. For example, the story of the young man who was undecided as to whether to stay with his mother or leave France to join the struggle against the Nazis. He sought Sartre’s advice—but the choice had to be his.

The lecture was also notable for the confrontation in discussion between Sartre and Pierre Naville. Naville was a surrealist who had become a Trotskyist (he played a key role in organizing the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938). He counterposed to Sartre’s philosophy of freedom a Marxist view (accusing Sartre of individualism and liberalism)—but the argument was conducted in a calm and fraternal tone, very unlike Sartre’s various confrontations with members of the Communist Party.

This is Part I of the interview on Sartre with Ian Birchall conducted entirely by email in February 2021.


Jason Dawsey

Jason Dawsey, PhD, is Research Historian at The Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, where he researches the service records of ...
Learn More