The French Resistance 
by Olivier Wieviorka, translated by Jane Marie Todd.
Harvard, 569 pp., £31.95, April 2016, 978 0 674 73122 6
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On 18 June​ 1940 Charles de Gaulle, speaking from London, where he had arrived the previous day, denounced the new government led by Marshal Philippe Pétain, which had called for an armistice after the comprehensive defeat of France’s armed forces at the hands of the Wehrmacht. ‘Nothing is lost for France,’ he declared. ‘The war is not over as a result of the Battle of France. This war is a world war.’ The global French empire could still throw its weight into the struggle: ‘The flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.’ Pétain, whose authoritarian government had set about destroying the liberal institutions of the Third Republic and inaugurating a regime of fascist-style national renewal, responded on 2 August by having de Gaulle condemned to death in absentia for treason. Later the same month, French Equatorial Africa and Cameroon declared their allegiance to de Gaulle, and he declared himself leader of the Free French and the only legitimate representative of the French nation.

In 1944, when the war in France was effectively over, de Gaulle briefly took a leading part in French politics. He withdrew from public life to write his memoirs after tiring of the fractious parliamentarianism of the Fourth Republic, but returned to found and lead a Fifth Republic based, unlike its predecessors, on a strong presidency. In his memoirs, and elsewhere, he claimed that his speech on 18 June 1940 marked the beginning of the resistance movement that triumphed on 26 August 1944 when de Gaulle entered Paris at the head of the Free French. In an attempt to heal the deep divisions of wartime France, where the collaborationist Vichy regime had enjoyed widespread support from conservative sections of the population, de Gaulle portrayed the Resistance as a mass uprising of the French nation against the German occupiers and a handful of collaborators. Nobody had to feel guilty, because everybody was on the winning side, and France as a whole had triumphed against the Nazis and its puppet government in Vichy.

The reality, as Olivier Wieviorka shows in this magisterial book, ably translated by Jane Marie Todd, was rather different. De Gaulle had not in fact called on the entire French population to rise up in 1940, but had tried to persuade officers and soldiers, engineers, armaments specialists and other professionals to join him on English territory. The Free French army was intended to be a conventional military force, located in England, where it would prepare for the invasion of the Continent. De Gaulle did nothing to help the French who remained at home wage a guerrilla war, engage in acts of sabotage, or organise themselves in any way. His radio appeal reached a limited audience in any case, since only 6.5 million people in France owned a wireless set, and both the German occupiers and the Vichy authorities did everything they could to disrupt foreign broadcasts and stop people listening to them. The French Resistance did not come about because of de Gaulle’s call to arms, but because of developments within France itself.

For a long time the history of the Resistance was written by those who had taken part in it. Henri Noguères, a prominent Resistance fighter who published a massive Histoire de la résistance en France de 1940 à 1945 in five volumes between 1967 and 1981, wrote that waiting for the archives to be opened would mean ‘giving up the idea that this history was not only written but also debated – and controlled – by those who lived it.’ The Resistance was portrayed as a universal and united movement uninterested in political issues and motivated only by a pure sense of patriotism. It is time, Wieviorka writes, ‘to storm these Bastilles of memory’ and subject the Resistance to a cool and objective process of historicisation; time to cast ‘an ethically remote gaze on a mythic – not to say mythicised – page of French history’.

Wieviorka shows that the Resistance was divided and fragmented from the start, and that the many and varied organisations that constituted it were often driven by political ideology. The large, well-organised Communist Party had been outlawed in September 1939 and did little except issue verbal protests against the policies of the Vichy regime while the USSR remained an ally of Germany (the Nazi-Soviet Pact had been signed shortly before the outbreak of the war). The trade unions remained inactive. In the early phase of the war, most French people adopted an attitude of ‘wait and see’. Resistance would be pointless if, as seemed likely up until the spring of 1941, Germany was going to conquer Britain and dominate Europe for the foreseeable future. Military action was impossible. Groups that opposed the Germans could do little more than keep ‘French values’, however defined, alive in clandestine newspapers and flysheets, and prepare for a future fight by squirrelling away weapons and ammunition abandoned by the defeated French armies. Some groups, including one that was based at the Musée de l’homme and recently featured in the television miniseries Résistance, devoted themselves to helping British prisoners of war to escape.

Initially, the Resistance avoided criticising Pétain and his rule in unoccupied France. Some on the right even dismissed those who had ‘retreated to England’ as ‘a clique of Communist and Freemason Jews’. There were supporters of the Vichy regime who embraced its ideals but continued to oppose collaboration in the northern and western parts of the country. Pétain’s secret service continued to spy on the Germans, monitoring their radio traffic and passing on decrypted intelligence to the British. Between January 1941 and June 1942 the Vichy authorities arrested 194 suspected German agents and condemned thirty of them to death. Senior army officers gathered arms and ammunition and drew up plans for mobilisation against the Germans when the moment came. Their activities were tolerated, and to a degree even encouraged, by Pétain and his entourage. De Gaulle meanwhile seemed indifferent to the early Resistance movement in France.

The situation changed dramatically with the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. Overnight, the Communist Party became a central element in the Resistance. It was well prepared. In the spring of 1941 the Communist International had issued a call for the party in France to form a National Front of Struggle for the Freedom and Independence of France, which would unite all French people in the fight ‘against invaders and traitors’. Now the Communists, some of whom had experience of armed combat in the Spanish Civil War, began following the Comintern’s order to disrupt arms production with acts of sabotage. They staged protests and demonstrations, distributed leaflets, attacked members of the German armed forces, and targeted premises owned by collaborationists. Their aim was in part to trigger German reprisals. ‘With the announcement that five or ten of our people have been shot,’ one Communist admitted, ‘we sign up fifty or a hundred new members.’ De Gaulle’s disapproval of their actions deepened the rift between the Free French and the Communists. They were also controversial within the party itself: Lenin had condemned ‘individual terror’ because he thought it demonstrated a complete failure to understand the forces of history and the role of the masses.

The labour conscription programme initiated by the Vichy regime in September 1941, which sent large numbers of young Frenchmen to Germany against their will, provoked many others into joining the Resistance. The rapidly intensifying persecution of French Jews in both the occupied and unoccupied zones was not a central focus of the Resistance, which remained silent to the end on the genocide, though there were a few cases of individuals or small groups helping Jews go into hiding. But the round-up and deportation of French Jews to the extermination camps in the East certainly incited young Jewish men and women to join its ranks. In November 1942, after the Allied campaign began in North Africa, the Germans brusquely shoved the Vichy regime aside and occupied southern France, sweeping away the dilemmas of pro-Vichy resisters in the process.

More important to the growth of the Resistance than any of this, however, were more general factors about which Wieviorka has relatively little to say. Ruthless German exploitation deprived France of resources in order to sustain the domestic economy of the Third Reich. The petrol supply had fallen to 8 per cent of its prewar levels by 1943, while the British blockade reduced grain supplies by 50 per cent between 1938 and 1940 and the drafting of farm workers to forced labour in Germany further reduced food supplies. The Germans introduced rationing, but nobody could live off the official allowance of 1300 calories a day, so a huge black market quickly emerged – and where there is a black market, there is always resistance to the authorities. Workers went on strike, saying they could not work the long hours required of them on the meagre rations they were allowed. By the spring of 1941 it was clear that there would be no invasion of Britain. In December 1941 the German armies suffered their first serious reversal when they were halted by the Red Army before Moscow. In May 1942 the first thousand-bomber raid on Cologne inaugurated nearly two years of mass destruction of Germany’s towns and cities. Just under a year later came the catastrophe of Stalingrad, where the remnants of the German 6th Army were forced to surrender in February 1943. In July the invasion of Sicily, then the Italian mainland, and then the fall of Mussolini, took Hitler’s principal ally out of the struggle. There was now no need to wait and see: Hitler was clearly going to lose the war.

By early 1943, as Wieviorka notes, ‘the army of shadows, a small minority until late 1942, therefore had hopes of becoming a mass phenomenon.’ Groups of resisters distributed leaflets urging young men to resist labour conscription, helped them evade arrest, provided them with false papers, or took them off to Brittany, the Alps, the Pyrenees or the Massif Central to join the Maquis, a diverse collection of armed resistance organisations based in mountainous areas far from the centres of German control. Efforts to unite the resistance and form it into a national organisation redoubled, and the flood of young men into the Maquis helped broaden the movement beyond its regional bases.

De Gaulle was sceptical of the Maquis: the Communists were reluctant to join forces with groups further to the right, regional loyalties died hard, and the Germans were constantly infiltrating and breaking up resistance groups. Nevertheless, by the middle of 1943 a number of regional and super-regional networks had emerged that were able to pool resources and engage in specialist activities such as forging papers, printing and distributing propaganda, and liaising with the British, who sent about a thousand agents into France as couriers, sabotage and arms instructors, radio operators and organisers, along with some 4000 tons of arms and equipment.

However, neither the British nor the Americans had much faith in the ability of the Resistance to pull off successful military actions, and preferred to send bombers to destroy key targets rather than rely on ground-based sabotage. Up to half of the missions carried out by the Special Operations Executive failed, in any case, because the drops were made in the wrong place, or were intercepted by the Germans. The British did not trust de Gaulle, and they were even more hostile to the Communists. They believed that the increasing centralisation of the Resistance played into the hands of the Germans because it meant that they would be able to destroy the movement’s coherence if they managed to arrest a handful of its leaders – this view came to be shared by the Resistance itself after the arrest of the leading proponent of centralisation, Jean Moulin, on 21 June 1943. For their part, members of the Resistance felt undervalued by the British and complained that bombing, unlike sabotage, cost civilian lives.

German repression had many notable successes, including the deaths of up to sixty thousand members of the Resistance. Wieviorka has little time for the French men and women who joined the Gestapo in hunting down members of the Resistance – they were drawn from the underworld of collaboration or the black market and ‘motivated by a combination of ideology and greed’. But he has some sympathy for those who became double agents after being tortured. Overall the actions of the Germans and the feared special police of the Vichy regime, the Milice, failed to inflict significant damage on the Resistance. Indeed, in 1943 the Resistance managed to put a stop to forced labour deportations, and played a part in saving 75 per cent of French Jews from extermination by the Nazis.

A decisive change in the nature of the Resistance came about in 1944, when the Allies at last began to prepare for the Normandy landings. The British and the Americans, and de Gaulle and the Free French, saw that the Resistance was important because it could use sabotage and subversion to detain German troops and use up resources that would otherwise be committed to repelling the invasion. Military hardware was dropped into France in far greater quantities than before, with 268 successful operations in March 1944, 613 in April and more than a thousand in June. Enough was sent to France, from England or North Africa, between January and late May 1944, to arm 125,000 men. Frightened of German reprisals, or worse, a social revolution, de Gaulle, now working closely with key members of the Resistance, opted for short, targeted operations against the occupying forces, while the Communists favoured strikes and a national uprising.

On 5 June 1944, a few hours before the D-Day landings, 210 coded radio messages launched the sabotage and subversion campaign. Armed with machine guns, bazookas, mines and other weapons, and trained in their use by teams of British agents, the Resistance cut off 950 railway lines in June 1944 alone, reducing traffic by 50 per cent. It took the German 27th Infantry Division 17 days to get from Redon to Avranches at an average speed of just seven miles a day. This is merely one example of the campaign’s many successes. Large numbers of volunteers joined the Resistance. It was never strong enough to confront the Germans directly, but the assistance it gave the Allies during the invasion in 1944 was a significant military achievement.

As the Resistance expanded, so a kind of underground political life began to emerge. Different groups began to jockey for the positions they hoped to occupy after the war. De Gaulle set up a shadow state, appointing forty prefects who discreetly installed themselves in their departments ready to take over. The home Resistance movement established Departmental Liberation Committees that planned to reform the Republic so that it would never again be susceptible to the division and demoralisation that had led to defeat in 1940. De Gaulle and the Resistance co-operated to ensure that the French and not the Allies would take over once the Germans had left. The Communists tried to take charge of the organisational structures required by the liberation process, but they were unable to liaise with the Allied general staff and were mostly confined to Paris, where their core support was located. The hostility of the Gaullists, socialists and other Resistance groups prevented them from launching the national insurrection they desired. Even in Paris, they failed to seize command of the Resistance and controlled only about a fifth of the fighting force that went into action there. Conservative fears that there would be a repeat of the 1871 Paris Commune, when a radical left-wing republic emerged and a brief civil war ensued as it was reconquered from outside, were scarcely justified. When the barricades did go up, and the Resistance fought the occupying German troops with the backing of the Allies, the ultimate victor was de Gaulle.

Most members of the Resistance believed that after the war was over a new and better France would rise from the ashes. Leading members of the Resistance even proclaimed the need for a new French Revolution. In 1946 a new constitution replaced the discredited Third Republic with a new set of institutions. A series of purges carried out at every level ousted ‘collaborators’ from politics and administration. In the elections of 21 October 1945 there was a marked shift to the left, with the previously dominant Radicals and the traditional right suffering heavy losses. But de Gaulle refused to put himself at the head of a party, despite pleas from former members of the Resistance, since he conceived of himself as the leader of the whole of France.

The Resistance was unable to assert itself as a political entity, and the Communists and the Socialists insisted on retaining their separate identities and their old politics. The old right survived, and many of those initially excluded from power eventually returned. The provisional government nationalised industries and brought in new welfare measures, which caused some major social changes but hardly amounted to a revolution. In the end, it was an ‘incomplete victory’ for the Resistance. Before long the political wheeling and dealing characteristic of the Third Republic returned. The biggest problem facing France – what to do with its global empire, from Algeria to Indo-China – remained unsolved. French society seemed largely unchanged: the real transition to modernity did not take place until some years after the war. The political culture was held together by the myth of universal and united resistance led by the Free French. It was not until the 1970s that this myth was finally shattered and critical accounts of the Resistance began to appear alongside works exposing the role of Vichy in the betrayal of the French Jews.

Wieviorka’s​ engrossing book sums up much of this revisionist work and places it in its historical context. His authoritative and readable history is marred only by an excessive use of acronyms (a typical passage describes ‘an agreement between Georges Beaufils (Latour), head of the FTP, Mangin (Marbot), interim DMN … merging the command structures of the AS and the FTP to form a single organisation, the FFI. On 1 February 1944, the CCDMR created COMIDAC, which aspired to take charge of the FFI’s actions. General Revers, representative of the ORA, would hold a seat’). There are some fine passages evoking the everyday life of Resistance activists, some of whom embraced a life of adventure and took hair-raising risks. Those, on the other hand, who thought of resistance as a duty could be cautious to the point of timidity. Some were grimly ascetic; others embraced life to the full since it might come to a sudden end at any moment. For most, life was hard. They covered huge distances on bicycles, stayed in cramped and unheated apartments, travelled constantly on overcrowded trains, and lived in constant fear of being discovered by the Gestapo, always looking over their shoulder to see if they were being followed. Most were cut off from friends and family. Many of them used pseudonyms; the Gaullist secret services adopted geometrical terms and called their agents Hypothénuse Droite, Polygone, Circonférence and the like. A few carried cyanide capsules to use if they were arrested.

For all his declared intention of myth-busting, Wieviorka falls victim to the greatest and most comforting myth of all: that ‘the vast majority of the population rejected collaboration and were viscerally opposed to Germany,’ by 1941 at the latest. He underplays the extent to which Vichy enjoyed popular support and embodied long established right-wing authoritarian and anti-Semitic traditions that went back to the Dreyfus Affair and continued after the war with Poujadism and the Front National. According to Wieviorka, the authoritarian corporatism and reactionary, anti-Semitic politics of Vichy only satisfied ‘a fringe of the general population and of the elites that had long militated for change’ and were supported by ‘a fraction of the political body’. The main effect of Vichy, he claims, was to create ‘a powerful basis for opposition’.

In fact, the creation of the Pétain regime was supported by the overwhelming majority of parliamentarians, who voted for it by 570 to 80 with 20 abstentions. Its true nature was no secret. ‘Parliamentary democracy has lost the war,’ Pierre Laval, Pétain’s prime minister, declared in July 1940. ‘It must disappear and give way to an authoritarian, hierarchical, national and social regime.’ Wieviorka deals with this uncomfortable fact by ascribing the vote to ‘panic’ and to a belief among the political elite that Pétain and his core supporters, such as Laval, were ‘secretly supporting the Allies and even General de Gaulle’. But why should we think their backing of Pétain and his ideas was not genuine? After all, the Catholic Church in France was a strong supporter of the Vichy regime, and its influence was far from negligible.

Abandoning all the careful distinctions he made at the beginning of his book, Wieviorka soon has ‘the French people … taking to the streets’, he describes how ‘the French rose to the challenge’ and writes sweepingly of ‘the French people’, their ‘patriotic feelings’ and ‘the patriotic frenzy’ that ‘took hold of the country’ after the D-Day landings. Writing a history of the Resistance without simultaneously writing a history of the many different levels and varieties of collaboration reinforces the myth of universal opposition to the Germans. Unlike many French historians, Wieviorka makes good use of English-language research, but it is telling that while he lists Rod Kedward’s important books on the Resistance in his bibliography, he makes no mention of Robert Gildea’s subtle exploration of the nuances of ‘resistance’ and ‘collaboration’ in his groundbreaking work Marianne in Chains (2002). Gildea showed that most French people were simply trying to survive and adapted in myriad ways to the reality of German occupation and dominance.

Wieviorka does not deal with the more than 76,000 French people who volunteered for labour in Germany by 1942, or the 40,000 who agreed to work there in return for the release of French prisoners of war, except to say dismissively that these figures were considered disappointing by the authorities. He concentrates instead on the resistance to the labour conscription that resulted in 300,000 Frenchmen being forced to work in Nazi Germany. As Louis Malle implied in his 1974 film Lacombe, Lucien, differences in circumstances determined whether people chose to work with the Germans or fight against them. The difficulty of such choices doesn’t really come through in this book: Wieviorka gives the impression that all people were doing was going along with the overwhelming feelings of the entire French people. By focusing on the organisational history of the Resistance, he evades the wider and more troubling issues of how far it was actually embedded in civil society, and what made so many French people come to an arrangement with the victorious Germans, tolerate their policies, share their ideas or support their actions. The ‘Bastilles of memory’ Wieviorka purports to have stormed are still intact.

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