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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in