Our God is dead

Richard Vinen

  • The Death of Jean Moulin: Biography of a Ghost by Patrick Marnham
    Murray, 290 pp, £20.00, June 2000, ISBN 0 7195 5919 7

One Monday morning in September 1940, Raymond Aron was lying in bed at a camp for Free French soldiers in Aldershot. His roommate, who had arrived the previous afternoon, asked him the time and, when told, replied: ‘Déjà sept heures moins vingt.’ Aron left the room. When he returned, his companion had shot himself. The inquest was unable to establish any motive for the suicide and Aron never found out who his roommate had been. This bizarre event encapsulates many aspects of the French Resistance. It illustrates the isolation and despair of the few people who opposed the Vichy Government in the months immediately after the defeat of France. No one knew how long they would have to wait for German soldiers to be driven from French soil. Early resisters worked on their own among a population that would probably have regarded them as mad if it had known anything of their activities. Those who chose to pursue the fight from abroad weren’t sure that they would ever see their homeland or their families again.

Even now the Resistance remains shrouded in all sorts of mystery. There are few written records; many witnesses were dead by 1945 and the whole activity involved high levels of secrecy and deliberate deception. The Occupation was a time of dark nights, criminal operations and complicated political double-dealing. The collaborationist writer Robert Brasillach pointed out in 1943 that it was an ideal setting for detective stories, and Patrick Marnham’s gripping book is a detective story of sorts. It recounts the life of a man who was, in himself, particularly opaque. Jean Moulin was ambitious and devious. He exploited every possible political connection to advance his career and by 1937 he had become the youngest prefect in France (of the Aveyron). He was a childless divorcé and an enthusiastic womaniser. He epitomised everything that Vichy and many Resistance leaders despised about the Third Republic. In 1940 his career changed dramatically. As the victorious German Army swept through France, many Frenchmen fled south. Moulin stayed behind and on 17 June 1940 waited outside his new prefecture in Chartres to meet the incoming troops.

Shortly after the Germans arrived, Moulin displayed a spectacular and, in view of his previous career, unexpected heroism. The Germans wanted him to sign a document saying that some black French troops, whom they had murdered, were guilty of rape. He refused and was beaten up. In the early morning of 18 June (about twelve hours before de Gaulle made his ‘call to honour’ broadcast from London), he cut his throat with a piece of broken glass.

The German guards found him in time to revive him. After this, he continued to work for several months as an official of the Vichy Government. In November 1940, he was dismissed from the prefectoral corps. This had nothing to do with his actions in June. The Government approved of everything he had done and an official reported to Pétain that Moulin ‘a fait preuve d’un réel courage civique’. Nor was he forced out by German pressure. The passage à tabac seems to have been an aberration that the German officers regretted, and they came to respect his steadfastness. Indeed they protested at his removal. Moulin had simply fallen victim to a general purge targeted at men who had been associated with the Popular Front Government of 1936. He now moved to St Andiol in the South of France, his native region. It is not clear that he had any precise plans for resistance at this stage – though he does appear to have taken the unusual step of preparing false identity papers for himself even before the defeat of France.

In September 1941 Moulin went, via Portugal, to London, where he spent ten weeks and met de Gaulle. On 2 January 1942 he was parachuted back into Occupied France. He carried a gun and a microfilmed letter from de Gaulle hidden in a matchbox, both items vividly suggestive of the way in which Gaullists in London tried to impose the hierarchies and techniques of the Army on the Resistance. Moulin dumped the gun as soon as he could, and was told to dispose of the microfilmed message after he had shown it to a Resistance leader. His real task was political rather than military. He set about bringing together the various factions of the Resistance that had sprung up in the previous two years. His success was crowned when he succeeded in convening representatives of the prewar political parties and the Resistance movements in the Conseil National de la Résistance, which met in Paris on 27 May 1943. The following month he was arrested near Lyon, where he had organised another Resistance meeting. No one knows exactly how or when Moulin died – he was last seen semi-comatose after a horrific beating at Montluc prison; indeed, it isn’t certain that he did die then and one of the more fanciful theories advanced in recent years is that he was handed over to the Soviet authorities. No one knows, either, how he came to be arrested. René Hardy, a protégé of Henri Frenay, the leader of the Resistance movement Combat, was arrested by the Germans at the same time as Moulin but managed to escape, and on that basis many suggested that he had betrayed Moulin. These allegations were put at two postwar trials, but Hardy was acquitted on both occasions and continued to insist on his innocence until his death in 1984.

Marnham presents himself as Rollo Martins to Moulin’s Harry Lime. He started out in the 1980s, he tells us, on the assumption that he was simply writing the story of a very brave man. It is odd for a journalist who once worked on Private Eye to assume that his subject was exactly as his most unequivocal admirers portrayed him but, in any case, Marnham’s initial innocence has now given way to world-weary scepticism.

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