Two political forces dominated post-Liberation France: Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French and head of the provisional French government until January 1946; and the French Communist Party (PCF), at that point the biggest and most popular party in the country. As Robert Gildea explains in his perceptive new book, each constructed a myth about France’s behaviour during the war that served its own political interests; each claimed it had led the Resistance. According to the Gaullist narrative, France went to war in 1939 weakened by internal political struggles. It was quickly crushed in 1940 by the superior weaponry of the Germans and, for the next five years, the spirit of resistance was kept alive by de Gaulle and his Free French forces in London, as well as by the French people themselves. France regained its honour when the Free French, with a little help from France’s allies, drove the Germans out of the country.
As early as August 1944, de Gaulle laid the foundations for this version of the recent past when he declared that Paris had been ‘liberated by herself, by her own people with the help of the armies of France, with the support and aid of the whole of France, of fighting France, of the only France, of the true France, of the eternal France’. De Gaulle, who presented himself as the personification of this France, asserted that resistance had begun on 18 June 1940, when he’d made a broadcast from London calling on patriotic citizens to join him and continue the fight. He dismissed the Vichy regime as an aberration and promised that those who had collaborated – ‘a few pitiful traitors’ (‘quelques malheureux traîtres’) – would face the full force of the law.
This myth of a nation bound together by resistance and heroism under de Gaulle’s leadership underpinned his project of postwar reconstruction; it was a means of bridging the rift between those – far more numerous than de Gaulle was prepared to admit – who had supported Pétain or the occupying forces, and those who had not; and it enabled virtually everyone to identify with victory. De Gaulle was convinced that this picture of a united nation was a vital prerequisite if France was to take its rightful place among the world powers. This desire for national unity was reflected in his government, which, in order to minimise the chance of disruption by the PCF, included four Communist ministers. But de Gaulle very soon became frustrated by squabbling between the political parties, who were each intent on promoting their own interests at the expense of what he perceived to be the national interest. In January 1946, unable to secure the adoption of a constitution that would have enshrined a strong executive (the president) and a relatively weak legislature (the parliament), he resigned.
It was 12 years before he was brought back to power to unify a country now bitterly divided between those supporting Algerian independence and those demanding the continuance of an Algérie française. In 1958, de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic, under a new constitution enshrining the strong presidential executive that had eluded him in 1946. The struggle over Algeria continued even after de Gaulle had conceded independence in 1962. In 1964, he revived the image of himself as the leader of the Resistance: a few months before the presidential election, he ordered that the ashes of Jean Moulin, his special envoy in France during the war, be transferred to the Panthéon. In a passionate speech at the ceremony, which was broadcast to the nation, the late-in-the-day resister André Malraux reiterated the myth that de Gaulle alone had been able to unite the Resistance. But de Gaulle’s reputation was seriously dented by the revolts of 1968. He resigned the following year, having failed to win a referendum on regional reform, and died soon after, on 9 November 1970.
The French Communist Party (PCF) had a different version of the events of ‘les années noires’. The party needed to erase any memory of its support for the Nazi-Soviet Pact and its claim that the war was merely an ‘inter-imperialist’ conflict. After the fall of France, the PCF leadership had called for fraternisation with German soldiers and restricted its propaganda to attacks on the Vichy government, French big business and de Gaulle, whom it described as a lackey of the City of London. In an attempt to find its own equivalent to de Gaulle’s London broadcast, the PCF claimed that its appeal of 10 July 1940 was a call for anti-German resistance. It was nothing of the sort, even if individual Communists defied the official line from the very start of the Occupation. Whereas de Gaulle held that the nation had resisted as a whole, the PCF stressed the role of the working class, calling itself ‘le parti des 75,000 fusillés’. It hailed the sacrifices of its members, drawing parallels between their heroism and that of the Red Army. Unlike de Gaulle, the PCF denounced all those who had collaborated with Vichy or the Nazis, most of whom, it claimed, were bourgeois class enemies.
Following the Liberation, the PCF made no attempt at a revolutionary seizure of power. Stalin was keen to advance as far west as possible, but without endangering the co-operation he’d established with Roosevelt and Churchill at the Tehran Conference in November 1943. The last thing Stalin wanted was a Communist-led uprising in France; instead, the PCF sought to increase its influence by constitutional means. Demanding justice for its martyrs, it called for a comprehensive purge of collaborators, especially in the administrative, economic and cultural sectors. The PCF’s hope that its own members and sympathisers would fill the newly vacant posts was short-lived. De Gaulle refused a full-scale purge because it would have shattered his claim that only a tiny minority had collaborated. Thousands of people who had held responsible positions within the Vichy state, along with those who had made fortunes out of business deals with the Germans, or who had worked for pro-German newspapers, were left untroubled. Although there were arrests and a few executions, the legal purges were far less extensive than in other formerly occupied countries. Many of those who were imprisoned were quickly pardoned or freed under armistices; by the early 1960s, no collaborators remained in jail.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s there were serious challenges to both narratives of wartime France. One of the first was Le Chagrin et la pitié (1969), a four-and-a-half-hour documentary directed by Marcel Ophüls that used interviews and footage from French and German newsreels. Centred on the town of Clermont-Ferrand, about forty miles from Vichy, it rejected two pillars of the Gaullist narrative: that de Gaulle and the Free French were the drivers and unifiers of the Resistance, and that the French people as a whole had resisted. Most of the resisters interviewed in the film were either politically unaligned or from the non-Communist left. Other interviewees were anti-Semitic or attentiste – waiting to see how things would turn out. The film was too much for the head of the ORTF, the state broadcasting corporation, who refused to allow it to be shown on TV. The documentary opened at an independent cinema in Paris in April 1971.
Patrick Modiano’s Occupation novels, first published around that time and republished last year as a single-volume trilogy in English translation following Modiano’s Nobel Prize, portray a world in which it is hard to distinguish between collaboration and resistance, difficult to say who is guilty (and of what) and who is innocent. The Night Watch (La Ronde de nuit, 1969) is the tale of a young man involved in the black market who becomes a double agent for a French Gestapo group and a Resistance cell: ‘Two groups of lunatics were pressuring me to do contradictory things,’ he explains. Ring Roads (Les Boulevards de ceinture, 1972), largely inspired by Modiano’s obsessive attempt to understand his own father, describes a Jew who leads a shady existence pursuing black market deals with the Germans. Modiano also co-wrote the screenplay for Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974), which provoked fury when it was released because of its morally ambiguous depiction of life in the south-west of France in June 1944. The film’s protagonist is a 17-year-old country boy who is turned away by the Resistance because he’s too young to join, and is recruited instead to the French Gestapo.
The Gaullist and Communist versions of the war were being challenged in the political arena, too. Georges Pompidou, de Gaulle’s successor, hadn’t been involved in the Resistance and didn’t like the weight put on it. ‘I hate all that business,’ he told an American journalist. ‘I hate medals. I hate decorations.’ In November 1971, he caused outrage when he pardoned Paul Touvier, the head of the Milice in Lyon, who had been sentenced to death in absentia in 1946. ‘This is old business,’ Pompidou supposedly said. ‘I’ll sign.’
The myth that the Resistance was united under de Gaulle meant that any evidence to the contrary was ignored. During the first year of the Occupation, for example, there was little or no contact between de Gaulle in London and the new Resistance groups in France; it wasn’t until March 1941 that the Gaullists publicly accepted that these groups existed. De Gaulle didn’t see resistance to the Germans, unlike them, as a guerrilla war, and the radical rhetoric used by many of the groups was antithetical to his conservative military outlook. Contact was established thanks largely to Jean Moulin, and in May 1943 the Conseil national de la Résistance (CNR) was set up, bringing together all the main Resistance movements with de Gaulle as its head, even if this was something of a marriage of convenience. For the Resistance groups, alignment with de Gaulle brought access to money and weapons (supplied by Britain) and to the airwaves of the BBC; for de Gaulle, having their support strengthened his hand with the Allies.
The PCF had always acted independently of de Gaulle and continued to do so after the creation of the CNR. In 1941, after Hitler’s invasion of Russia, the PCF secretly endorsed a policy of assassinating German soldiers in the Occupied Zone and ignored de Gaulle’s calls for ‘patience, preparation and resolution’. The Communists, along with some of the other Resistance movements, didn’t take any notice of his insistence that he should be the one to decide when the time was ripe to attack the occupying forces: in August 1944, for example, his representatives’ appeals for caution during the Liberation of Paris were widely ignored.
Another challenge to the claim that de Gaulle had headed a unified Resistance came in the 1970s, when Henri Frenay and Claude Bourdet, key figures in the leftwing non-Communist Combat movement, both insisted in their memoirs that they had always been independent of both de Gaulle and the Communists. In 1977 Frenay repeated an earlier claim that Moulin, appointed by de Gaulle to liaise with the various internal Resistance movements, had been a closet Communist. Daniel Cordier, Moulin’s secretary and confidant, embarked on a mission to defend his master’s reputation. This he achieved, after a decade of meticulous archival research, with the publication in 1989-93 of a massive three-volume biography.
Meanwhile, the PCF’s claim that it had been opposed to the Nazis from the start of the Occupation was undermined in 1977 by an article in Le Monde. It claimed that in 1940 the Comintern had instructed the party to try and obtain permission from the German authorities to publish its newspaper, L’Humanité, legally. This was strenuously denied by the PCF leadership, until evidence turned up showing unequivocally that the allegation was true. This evidence included notes for possible articles, one of which referred to Georges Mandel, a former minister of the interior, as ‘the Jew Mandel’. Awkward questions were now being raised about the PCF’s behaviour after June 1941 as well.
After the German invasion of the Soviet Union that month, the PCF ordered members of its youth battalions in Paris to assassinate German soldiers on the streets of the city. The Germans responded by decreeing that all prison inmates would be classed as hostages, and that they were liable to be executed in reprisal. The assassination strategy was deeply unpopular, even with Communist militants, and for a long time the PCF didn’t admit its responsibility, often attributing attacks it had sanctioned to disputes between members of the occupying forces. The young Communists were vulnerable because they were largely untrained in urban guerrilla warfare or basic security. Most of them were soon tracked down by the police, tried and shot.
The crumbling of the Gaullist and Communist narratives allowed new accounts to surface. In the 1970s and 1980s there were claims that the FTP-MOI detachments – groups made up of foreign Communists, many of them Jewish – had been written out of the story. In particular, the PCF was accused of crediting French detachments with actions carried out by an FTP-MOI unit led by an Armenian militant called Missak Manouchian. In a 1985 documentary, Des ‘Terroristes’ à la retraite, former members of the group also accused the PCF of abandoning Manouchian and his comrades in 1943. De Gaulle, too, had ignored the contribution made by foreigners, such as ‘La Nueve’, a unit in Leclerc’s tank division made up of Spanish anti-fascists.
The 1987 trial of Klaus Barbie, the (German) Butcher of Lyon, drew attention once again to the complicity of the Vichy government and its police force, headed by René Bousquet, in the deportation of French Jews. François Mitterrand, president from 1981 to 1995, made clear his distaste for pursuing Vichy officials: France, he insisted, shouldn’t waste time settling old scores. In Une Jeunesse française, published in 1994, Pierre Péan revealed that Mitterrand had worked for Vichy before joining the Resistance, and, sensationally, that he had been on friendly terms with Bousquet well into the 1980s. Mitterrand repeatedly refused to apologise for the behaviour of the French state during the war; ironically, he justified his refusal by using the argument of his arch-rival, de Gaulle, that legitimacy during the Occupation rested not with the nominal state but with the Republic. In 1995, scarcely two months after succeeding Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac delivered an official apology for the active complicity of ‘some French people and the French state’ in the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews.