Hitting and running

Eugen Weber

  • In Search of the Maquis: Rural Resistance in Southern France, 1942-1944 by H.R. Kedward
    Oxford, 342 pp, £35.00, March 1993, ISBN 0 19 821931 8
  • Outwitting the Gestapo by Lucie Aubrac, translated by Konrad Bieber and Betsy Wing
    Nebraska, 235 pp, $25.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 8032 1029 9

After the Second World War was over, 220,000 cards were distributed among French citizens to attest that their bearers had been Voluntary Resistance Fighters. Yet André Malraux, talking to Sanche de Gramont in 1970, asserted that ‘we’ Resistants were 17,000, while ‘they’ – French members of the Waffen SS – were 40,000. That begs a question to which I know no answer, though Malraux’s own story may provide some clues.

Busy with his writing and his family, Malraux was sceptical of resistance. In 1942, following the German occupation of the southern zone, he took up residence in a large châteauferme in Corrèze, which he only left in spring 1944, after his brother Roland had been arrested and deported, to die in Germany. Malraux was soon wounded, captured and imprisoned by the Germans in Toulouse, where the Liberation found him. ‘Colonel Berger’, his nom de guerre, was a creation of the post-Liberation fighting. Kedward mentions the writer only once, as unveiling a monument on the plateau of Glières, in Haute-Savoie. The fact is that the maquis which Malraux tried to ‘co-ordinate’ when the spirit moved him sent this newcomer packing. Some resistants knew he had once turned a contact away with the words, ‘When you have arms and men, come and ask again’: a thoroughly sensible view, one might think, but before the Allied drops and even after, the maquis had to rustle up its own arms. In La Résistance sans héroisme Charles d’ Aragon remembers the liberation of Albi: ‘Lorries decorated with flags and full of maquisards paraded through the town. I said to myself: “Had there really been so many?” ’

There is reason to doubt it. A near-name-sake of Malraux, Augustin Malroux, instituteur and Socialist deputy of the Tarn, was one of the 80 who voted against full powers for Pétain in 1940. It took a long time for his electors to stop blaming his unpatriotic action. The general reaction to the Armistice had been stunned relief, but relief all the same. General de Gaulle’s historic message went largely unheard. Quite literally: it would take time before oral transmission and clandestine tracts created a tradition. In October 1940, when Pétain, having shaken Hitler’s hand at Montoire, went on the air urging his people to collaborate, few were particularly shocked, fewer reacted. It’s true that the first acts of resistance had taken place in June 1940: here a distribution of homemade tracts, there an act of sabotage, elsewhere a mayor or sub-prefect refusing German orders to lower the Tricolour. But Charles d’Aragon, looking back, found only solitude: ‘To be an opponent, then, was to dedicate oneself to isolation’ – in the unoccupied zone even more than in the North. Or, as Sartre put it later, ‘the Occupation was intolerable, and we adjusted very well.’

Others would not adjust, or could not: the brave, the foolhardy, the desperate. Spanish and other anti-Fascist refugees knew that Vichy’s National Revolution had no more room for them than Hitler’s New Order. The Poles had their own bones to pick. At the time of the Armistice, about fifty thousand of them had been serving in French or Polish forces. Poles do not appear in Kedward’s pages, their hunting-grounds being found a good deal further north, but there are estimates of eight thousand in resistance organisations of their own, while eighteen thousand Polish immigrants engaged in the Resistance as a whole: 4 per cent of the 450,000 Poles then living in France. Had the same proportion of the French population chosen the Resistance, it would have been one and a half million strong.

Then there were the Jews, who were among the first to think of opposition. Danger for them was more immediate, humiliation was or threatened to be more painful, the struggle more personal. As Annie Kriegel has put it, ‘precociously cast out of the common law and suddenly constrained to the difficult apprenticeship of illegality, the Jewish world offered a recruiting pool where, relatively, volunteers for clandestine combat abounded.’ There were, as in any other group, a lot of Jews who thought of safety first. But the importance of Jewish resisters is striking: there were Communists and Young Communists, MOE (Main d’Oeuvre Etrangère) some of whom spoke only or mostly Yiddish, Jewish boy-scouts who turned into maquisards, Jewish petites mains from the clothing industries who turned into urban guerrillas. There were also freelance recruits to nascent movements of resistance, soon to provide local leadership: Jean-Pierre Lévy in the Isère, Pierre Kaan in the Allier, Jean-Pierre Bloch in Dordogne, Marc Bloch – the historian, who was to be denounced and executed – come to mind.

The Jewish 35th Brigade in the South-West received no air-drops, and had to rely on liberated revolvers and handmade bombs, yet in 1943 and 1944 it carried out 820 certified guerrilla actions: executions, derailings, destruction of tunnels, electric power, telephone and telegraph-lines, and of planes on the ground. After 1942, the deportation of Jews caused widespread revulsion. There were, and are, plenty of anti-semites in France, but, for most people, handing Jews over to their enemies was not acceptable. As a result, despite Vichy’s policies and its enthusiastic catspawing for the Germans, three Jews out of four on French territory survived, compared to one out of two in Belgium, one out of five in Holland, one out of 30 in Poland.

Some Frenchmen, as well as foreigners, did not join the Resistance until Germany’s invasion of Russia. Janet Teissier du Cros, a Scot married to a Frenchman and living in the Cévennes, noted in her diary: ‘This morning we learned that Russia had been attacked and forced to join the dance. Every face in the streets and cafés was radiant with scarcely-suppressed joy.’ The Communists who now jumped into the fray found a variety of militants already at work: Protestants following their long humanitarian and protestant tradition; Catholics who had first intervened to hide fellow-Catholic refugees and smuggle them out of hostile territory, and who found that one act of resistance led to another; royalists, socialists, syndicalists, Communists at odds with the party line of 1940, soldiers, or simple patriots, revolted by the treatment meted out to Jews and exiles, and exasperated by scarcity, censorship, the police state of Vichy and the servility it camouflaged beneath a punitive morality – all fumbled their way from opposition to resistance.

The movements they joined were as politically heterogeneous as the motivations of their members. Henri Frenay, who drew up a manifesto rejecting the French defeat in July 1940, was an army officer and the son of an army officer. In the late summer of 1940, a group of shopkeepers, clerks and journalists in Lyon – ex-Communists, Catholics, Radicals – laid the groundwork for what would become the network known as Franc-Tireur. About the same time, in the Tarn, resistance seems to have begun with two Socialists (one a local bourgeois, the other a veteran of the Spanish war), a Breton officer, and a legitimist nobleman whose grandfather had ridden off to help the Duchesse de Berri dethrone the impostor Louis-Philippe. When Polish resisters were arrested in the Tarn for planning to blow up the electrical works on which the Carmaux mines depended, the Marquis de Solages, the owner of the mines, and his wife visited them in jail, while Mgr de Solages, a clerical member of the same family, made the Catholic Institute of Toulouse into a centre of resistance activity.

Although it showed the energy, openness and idealism of youth, the first Resistance was no youth movement. It was the STO – the forced labour service – that changed things. Defeats in Russia meant that more men were needed for the Führer’s armies, and more replacement workers in German factories and on German farms. In 1942, Vichy agreed to the relève, a deal by which (in theory, never in practice) one French prisoner would return home for every three Frenchmen going to work in Germany. In September 1942, a Vichy law made the relève conscriptive for all men between 18 and 50 and for single women between 21 and 35. It was this that drove young men into outlawry. Beginning in 1943, as Kedward shows, conscription and deportation became key words, and a hitherto credulous public learned to identify Vichy with the predatory Germans. Voluntarily or else press-ganged, 650,000 Frenchmen and women left to work in Germany. But, as or before they left, many of those who had hoped to avoid making a choice were forced to choose. And a hitherto scattered, thinly-sown Resistance suddenly found new recruits.

Vichy lurched from one regulation, intimidation or exception, to another. Confused by so many orders and counter-orders, police and gendarmerie found themselves hopelessly overstretched. The countryside swarmed with defaulting conscripts – réfractaires – in need of shelter, rations, papers, employment, hiding-places. With over a million and a half prisoners in German camps, France was as short of men as Germany: réfractaires were welcomed as labourers in farming and forestry; few of them became active outlaws. Some were amnestied, some returned home, some found non-militant ways to dodge the draft. Too many recruits, in any case, could wreck what Kedward calls ‘the delicate balance of needs and of provisions’ on which these arrangements were based. Even so, the problems of feeding, clothing and equipping the recruits spurred the Resistance into action and, by spring 1943, the maquis had come into existence: ‘an aggressive movement, a combative discourse, a romantic myth of rural revolt’. Its survival depended on mobility, which also gave the valuable impression of ubiquity; and on neighbourly protection and support.

Hopes of an Allied landing ran high in 1943, and accelerated recruitment and repression. In January 1943, the Milice was formed, Vichy’s own SS, whose members took an oath to fight democracy, Gaullish dissent – a euphemism for resistance – and the Jewish ‘leprosy’. The German occupation of the Zone Nono accentuated administrative and economic dislocations. Its exactions, and those of Vichy tax and food inspectors desperate to squeeze the local population for the benefit of their voracious masters, increased disaffection. In June 1943, Lucie Aubrac, visiting her uncle near Mâcon, found him in a towering rage. Vichy officials had inspected his wine stock and that of his fellow vintners with a view to requisitioning it for fuel alcohol. After the inspection, the officials had poured a glass of heating-oil into every barrel to make the contents unfit for consumption. Uncle Carrage and his neighbours did not mind the requisition: they had hidden the best wine. But the heating-oil would ruin the old casks, now fit only for burning. ‘More than any rational argument, more than any patriotic explanation, these glasses of heating oil adulterating a fine Pouilly-Fuissé swung the winegrowers of the Mâcon hills to the Resistance.’

As things got worse, the relationship between maquisards and the surrounding population got stronger. Kedward makes clear that the rural revolt included those who sheltered the maquisards, fed them, clothed them, watched for them, warned them, cared for their wounded, lied to the enemy. Women played an important part, providing shelter, supplies, couriers and liaison agents able to use shopping-bags and shopping baskets, baby-carriages and even babies to convey or conceal messages and weapons. And as the Germans and Milice, increasingly frustrated, turned to terrorising rural communities with arrests and reprisals, the line between home front and fighting front became increasingly blurred.

A particularly intriguing aspect of Kedward’s book is the way his maquisards filch legitimacy from the Vichy state, and then assert an alternative authority. The breakdown of law and order left ordinary people bereft of reliable structures and recourse. There were both official and extra-legal requisitions. There were both maquisards and faux maquisards, who saw the situation as providing a licence to rob and pillage. There was a black market, and there were those who suffered from the extortionate prices. Villagers had to be protected. An alternative discipline had to be imposed, patriotic, moral, social, economic; and, as maquisards took on the task, legitimacy shifted, and maquis discipline ‘inverted the notion of legality and proclaimed the rightness and legitimacy of revolt’. In the countryside that sheltered them, maquisards were becoming the representatives of law and order. Faux maquisards were summarily tried and shot, as were some miliciens and infiltrators. The black market was not suppressed but regulated. Prices were set and increasingly respected; a ‘prefect of the forest’ competed with the one who sat in the préfecture. As women, priests, pastors and schoolchildren protected ‘our chaps’, and collaborated with them rather than with the collaborators, the population was enmeshed in an alternative power network.

The story of this struggle for self-definition and counter-definition is awash with hunting terms: chases, beaters, tracking, driving, baiting, trapping. Gradually, the hunted became the hunters. The outlaws learned to assert a law of their own – of legitimate self-defence. ‘No, it is not we who are the terrorists.’ As 1943 turned into 1944, most people came to accept that view. Vichy conventions had been successfully inverted. Vichy had called for a return to the land, the maquis took to the farms, the woods, the hills. Vichy had appealed to regional patriotism and local tradition; these, too, were turned around. Historical memory contributed appropriate references: insurgent Camisards in the Cevennes, Mandrin’s rebellious gang in Dauphiné, Cathar resistance in the Aude, White Catholic anti-Jacobin réfractaires in Ardèche and Gard. And there was always the folklore of the cinema. As one participant remembered, ‘it was very much like Robin Hood’ – in French, appropriately, Robin des Bois. ‘Our achievement,’ one Hérault veteran commented, ‘was to create a climate of insecurity and panic for the Germans.’ German terrorism testified to then success.

The maquis system was to hit and run. Faced with superior force, evasion was the better part of valour. Whenever maquisards faced Germans in pitched battles or challenged them with token gestures they could not follow up, disaster followed, especially for the civilian population. In summer 1944, the massacres of the Vercors of Tulle where 99 men were hung from balconies, of Oradour where 630 men, women, children, were slaughtered by elements of a German armoured division including numerous Alsatian conscripts showed what an enemy at bay could do.

Henri Michel, the grand old man of Resistance history, estimated that there were 22,000 Resistance fighters in the southern zone at the beginning of 1944. Kedward thinks that by mid-August that number had been multiplied by five. Harried on all sides, the Germans retreated or struck out, left an obstructed route for one they hadn’t prospected, expended petrol and ammunition they could ill afford. Some localities were actually liberated by what had become the FFI (Forces Françaises de L’ Intérieur), some were simply evacuated by the Germans, while in others German units withdrew after negotiations or agreed to surrender. Kedward rightly rejects ‘tendentious and sterile arguments’ over who liberated what, and insists on the multitude of rural skirmishes and battles that history does not bother to record. He reminds us that the Resistance cleared the Route Napoléon; and that American forces which had planned to fight their way to Grenoble up the Durance valley in 90 days made it in seven because the Resistance cleared the way, thus saving countless lives. ‘No account which plays down the decisive role of the Allied débarquements and no account which minimises the guerrilla successes of the FFI can stand as a valid history of the Liberation.’

Libération and épuration then meshed. Injustice, idiocy and cowardice took their toll. Yet, before denouncing the score-settling, it is well to remember the cruelty of the Milice, which had continued through the late summer of 1944. The body of one Resistance leader who had been tortured to death in Montpellier was found in September: ‘disfigured with beatings, his limbs scarred with burns, his genitals smashed’. One among many. Nor had the Milice been alone. Thirty thousand French agents had worked for two thousand gestapistes, not counting freelance traitors and informers. Vichy and its collaborators were directly responsible for the conviction of 135,000, the internment of 70,000 suspects, the deportation of 76,000 French and foreign Jews, of whom three in a hundred survived, the export to Germany of 650,000 forced workers. This was the context in which the FFI, impatient with a ponderous legal process, exacted retribution, its discipline diluted by a lot of last-minute volunteers with guns. Recent studies show a total of 8700 executions for collaboration, seven out of eight of which were extra-judicial. Of 7037 people condemned to death in French courts of law, nearly nine out of ten were pardoned. There were 767 executions. In 1990, history teachers in the Aveyron asked local ex-Resisters what they thought about the épuration. Of 96 replies, Kedward records that four found it had been excessive, 18 sufficient, 56 insufficient. ‘They should have shot more of them!’ one woman told Kedward.

Lucie Aubrac’s lively and absorbing book was first published in 1984, but is only now made available in English. Outwitting the Gestapo reproduces the diary that she kept from May 1943 to February 1944, and includes her account of a Resistance exploit in Lyon in October 1943, when she herself led a groupe franc that held up a German army lorry carrying her husband, Raymond Aubrac, and 13 others, shot the German escort and released the prisoners. This was one of three occasions on which she managed to secure her husband’s release from captivity, by persuasion, bribery or the gun. Her book interweaves the everyday experience of incredibly hard times – finding food and clothing, keeping a household and job going – with Resistance activities.