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.

The substance of his argument seems to be that Moulin was a supporter of the Communist Party from 1936, but kept his affiliation secret so that he could serve the Party more effectively by remaining a senior civil servant. The notion that Moulin was a secret Communist would reverse the heroic view of his life, making him a servant of Moscow rather than of the Republic or de Gaulle. It would also cast a different light on his confrontation with the Germans in 1940. This is usually presented as the beginning of Moulin’s Resistance career. But it was also the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and Marnham points out that Moulin’s serious involvement in the Resistance dates not from the invasion of France in June 1940 but from the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 – indeed he comes close to dismissing the apparent suicide bid in 1940 as a piece of self-dramatisation. Finally, if Moulin was a secret Communist his Resistance activity could be explained in terms of division and conspiracy rather than unity and integrity. To complicate matters, Marnham hints that he was perhaps betrayed by a Communist, even though he believes that Moulin’s own Communism lasted until his death.

It is possible that Moulin was both an agent for the Communist Party and that he was betrayed by a Communist, but no one has produced documentation to prove this. Frenay, who described Moulin as the ‘Communist Party’s man’, admitted that there was no hard evidence that he was either a card-carrying Party member or a Comintern spy. More recently, the journalist Thierry Wolton has claimed to have evidence from archives in Moscow of Moulin’s Communist affiliation but has produced only unsourced quotations to support his case. A more plausible interpretation might be that Moulin worked with Communists in the late 1930s when he was an aide to the Air Minister Pierre Cot, who became an open supporter of the Party after 1945. He would then have become less enthusiastic about Communism after the fall of the Popular Front Government (which put an end to Cot’s capacity to advance his career) and, more important, after the Hitler-Stalin Pact (which made a mockery of the Party’s pretensions to lead an anti-Fascist front ). The breach may not have been total. Moulin was a calculating man who recognised the importance of having contacts of many different persuasions. The Communist Party became useful when he began to contemplate underground activity in 1940 and when he returned to France in 1942, by which time the Party was playing a major role in the Resistance. Moulin’s willingness to work with Communists does not, however, mean that he worked for them. On the contrary, he seems to have been keen on countering Communist defeatism during the Battle of France.

If Moulin had broken with the Party, would supporters of the Party have had reason to betray him? Again the evidence is slim. In 1943 the Soviet Union was fighting a war for survival. Its agents in France had no reason to want to undermine anti-Nazi unity. Marnham tends to overestimate the clarity of Communist Party policy in Occupied France. The blurb asks whether Moulin was ‘a French Philby’ and, though Marnham never puts things so crudely, he seems to assume that French Communists, like their British counterparts, formed a small, tightly-knit conspiracy obeying orders from Moscow. In fact, the French Communist Party was a large movement that attracted many sympathisers who were not paid-up members – particularly when it formed broader alliances, as in 1936 or 1943. There were times when such alliances created opportunities for manipulation by the Party, but there were also times when the PCF found itself caught up in events it did not control. Such confusion was rife during the Occupation when the constraints of clandestinity made it difficult to transmit clear orders.

Without hard documentary evidence, speculation that might undermine the legend is futile. It is more interesting to ask why Moulin came to play a role in the national mythology in the first place. He was not always at the forefront of French historical memory. Immediately after the war, accounts of the Resistance barely mentioned him. He only became recognised as its emblematic figure in 1964, when his remains (or what SS records said were his remains) were placed in the Panthéon, an occasion attended by de Gaulle and almost all the major survivors of the Resistance and marked with a speech by Malraux.

Moulin came to represent the Resistance partly because he transcended certain divisions in it. He was not thought to have been a member of the Communist Party but neither, unlike many Resistance leaders, was he a vociferous anti-Communist. He had spent most of the war in France as part of the Résistance de l’intérieur, but, as the personal emissary of de Gaulle, he could also serve as a symbol for those who had spent the war in London. Being dead was a crucial aspect of his appeal, not only because martyrdom was essential for anyone who was to be beatified by the Resistance, but also because no one still alive could have continued to appeal to so many mutually hostile constituencies.

Imagine the career of a Jean Moulin who had survived beyond 1945. It’s hard to see him leaving public life and living in obscurity as a retired prefect. He might have joined the Communist Party or one of its satellite organisations, and this alone would have prevented him from becoming a symbol of national unity. He would not even have remained a hero for Communists: resistance was considered to be the role of the Party itself, not of individuals. Monuments were erected to dead heroes such as ‘Colonel Fabien’, but live Resistance leaders were considered liable to elevate their own judgment above Moscow’s – most of them were purged from official positions in the Party in 1950.

It’s more likely that Moulin would have joined the Rassemblement des Gauches Républicaines – as a member either of the Radical Party, his prewar affiliation, or of the newly formed Union Démocratique et Socialiste de la Résistance (Mitterrand’s party). The RGR was an intensely anti-Communist alliance caught up in the hatreds of the Cold War. It was also the formation most closely associated with the instability and ‘politique à petite semaine’ of the Fourth Republic. He would have held office in a few short-lived governments (presumably as Minister of the Interior, a post that provided rich opportunities for making oneself unpopular). After this he would have been swept into oblivion by the tide of Gaullist success in the 1958 legislative elections. With luck, he might have lived long enough to enjoy a brief rehabilitation in the early days of the first Mitterrand Government.

As it was, his death allowed his admirers to advance mutually exclusive interpretations of his life. Premier Combat, the book he wrote in 1941, was published posthumously with a preface by de Gaulle; but an agency associated with the Communist Party also asked to publish it, without the preface, in 1948, at a time when de Gaulle was the leader of the most aggressively anti-Communist movement in France. Similarly, in the early Fifth Republic, Moulin’s status owed much to de Gaulle’s sponsorship but also to the support of anti-Gaullists. The Club Jean Moulin, formed in 1958, was an association of Resistance veterans who opposed de Gaulle’s return to power; some of them were initially willing to do so by force.

Yet none of this is enough to explain Moulin’s status. Other Resistance martyrs had similar qualifications, and, immediately after the war, Pierre Brossolette, who had killed himself in Gestapo custody in 1944, rather than Moulin, seemed to embody the image of the Resistance. But like all new regimes, the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958, wanted a new history to legitimise itself, and the fact that Brossolette had been so celebrated by organisations – such as the Socialist Party and the Freemasons – that were associated with the old political order made him an unlikely candidate for hero of the new regime. Moulin’s comparative obscurity was an advantage. The fact that he had been a civil servant suited de Gaulle’s republic. De Gaulle believed in an eternal French state, rather than any short-lived government (or even short-lived republic). This was an era when experts and technocrats were brought forward to replace the apparently bankrupt political parties. Moulin had never held elected office and could be portrayed as untainted by party politics. Brossolette, by contrast, had been a leader of the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière and was so painfully aware that his political affiliation would alienate many of his compatriots that he wondered whether it might be counterproductive for him to broadcast on the BBC.

It is ironic that Moulin’s memory should triumph because of his perceived separation from party politics, because he was a very political civil servant. His career was built on ministerial patronage. He was closely associated with the Radical Party and made no secret of his left-wing, anticlerical sympathies. Brossolette wanted new parties to emerge out of the Resistance and for everyone to identity themselves with Gaullism. He sought to prevent the parties of the Third Republic from being represented on the Conseil National de la Résistance. Moulin overruled him.

Moulin’s position on the pedestal of Resistance hagiography has never been secure. Resistance veterans were, almost by definition, rebels who could be relied on to challenge an orthodoxy as soon as it was established. Jean Nocher, who became involved in the early disputes surrounding Moulin’s betrayal, often settled political debates with his fists (the last political duels to be fought in France involved Resistance leaders) and published a series of ‘atomic pamphlets’ with titles such as ‘Messieurs les grands: c’est un petit qui vous dit merde’. Paranoia was another common characteristic of veterans: indeed, a propensity to distrust everyone often accounted for their survival, and the ambiguities with which Moulin had transcended the divisions of the Resistance provided much scope for suspicion. Most important, the divisions in the Resistance were real, and Moulin’s attempts to present himself as a uniter meant that he was often thought by one side to be a supporter of the other.

In particular, his reputation has been caught in the crossfire between two partially overlapping disputes, of which the first was between the Communists and their enemies. Many leaders of the early Resistance were, like Frenay, drawn from the nationalist Right, in whose eyes the Party had first betrayed France, then attempted to take over the Resistance movement after the German invasion of the Soviet Union and, finally, tried to exploit the memory of the Resistance after the Liberation. The second dispute is between de Gaulle and his enemies. Many non-Communist Resistance leaders hated de Gaulle: he was an eminently hateable man and some of them had had the dubious pleasure of meeting him. Those who had taken horrific risks to reach London or Algiers were treated to long lectures by a charmless army officer who did not bother to disguise his opinion that they were utterly insignificant. The very fact that de Gaulle claimed leadership of the Resistance enraged those who had built up the movement in France, and they took their resentment out on his delegate – Moulin. Anti-Communist and anti-Gaullist attacks on Moulin’s memory sometimes come together thanks to a current of opinion which has it that de Gaulle owed his triumph as leader of the Free French to Communist support. In this interpretation, Moulin is the sinister manipulator of an alliance designed to eject de Gaulle’s American-backed rival, General Giraud, from the leadership of the anti-Vichy forces.

Moulin’s reputation has not been seriously damaged by any of these attacks. It has benefited from two indefatigable defenders: his sister Laure Moulin, who wrote a biography of her brother, and Daniel Cordier, who was parachuted into France in 1942 and acted for a few months as Moulin’s secretary. He loved Moulin and reported his capture with the words: ‘Notre dieu est mort.’ In recent years, Cordier has become Moulin’s principal champion and has produced several volumes of a very detailed biography, in which he responds to Frenay’s allegations by drawing attention to Frenay’s right-wing origins and the extent to which his political vision in 1940 overlapped with that of Vichy.

Where do French historians stand in these debates? Initially two eminent scholars – Annie Kriegel and François Furet – seemed to find the assertion that Moulin was a Communist credible. However, they belonged to that group of intellectuals who moved from loyal Stalinism in their youth to ferocious anti-Communism in middle age. Younger historians have been almost unanimously dismissive of the recent attacks on Moulin – particularly of the highly polemical work of Thierry Wolton – and have received Cordier’s defence of him with (slightly condescending) sympathy. Breaking with the tradition of Resistance writing, Cordier relied less on the memories of individual activists and instead located an unexpected number of archival documents. The result is a book that, groaning under the weight of quotations from primary sources, often reads like a parody of an old-style thèse d’état. Cordier’s neo-positivist approach contrasts oddly with the work of younger historians, who tend to be more concerned with memory and representation than with the événementiel reconstruction of precise chronologies.

In some ways, the latest episode in the Moulin controversy marks an important shift in the balance of power between Resistance veterans and professional historians. Once the former held all the cards. In the apparent absence of written documents, their recollections were often the only sources of information. They wielded institutional influence through bodies like the Comité d’Histoire de la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale and had a special moral status, particularly marked with regard to the soixante-huitard generation, who were often painfully aware that some of their elders had lived through a real version of the anti-Fascist struggle. Resistance veterans appeared as witnesses at big conferences on the Occupation and wrote prefaces to academic books. Some of the most powerful historians of the Resistance, such as Henri Noguères, were themselves former members. The grip of the veterans on the historical record would have been weakened by the passage of time, but the process has been speeded up by the Moulin controversy. The fact that they disagree so violently among themselves has damaged their claim to be guardians of the truth. In particular, the savage denunciations of former comrades as Communist or Pétainist fellow-travellers has undermined their moral hegemony. It is now the veterans who seek the imprimatur of historians rather than vice versa. Raymond and Lucie Aubrac endured a very bruising encounter with a panel of historians convoked by the newspaper Libération to assess whether their account of their activities in Lyon was credible.

The changing status of the Resistance has coincided with a switch of attention from heroes to victims. Heroes – at least as defined in the years immediately after the war – were adult, male and French. Their lives, and deaths, were governed by conscious choice and fitted into a clear-cut patriotic and ideological conflict. Victims, on the other hand, were largely women and children, and often did not have French nationality. Their lives were buffeted by forces beyond their control and their suffering cannot be attributed simply to foreign occupation or authoritarian government. Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974) dealt with a teenage peasant boy who ended up, almost by chance, being shot for collaboration. Other writers and film-makers have focused on women who were humiliated after the Liberation for having had sexual relations with German soldiers or on foreign refugees whose treatment by Third Republic officials (including Jean Moulin) anticipated their later treatment by Vichy.

Most of all, French perception of the war years has come to revolve around the fate of the Jews. Immediately after the war almost all commemoration of ‘deportation’ referred to deported résistants. As late as 1970, a colloque on the Vichy Government was held in which the word ‘Jew’ was not mentioned once. This would be unimaginable now. The trials of Klaus Barbie and Maurice Papon both centred on the role that they had played in the deportation of Jews (especially Jewish children). The fact that Papon had also rendered services to the Resistance was not considered to be a mitigating factor. At first the prosecution in the Barbie trial proposed to concentrate exclusively on Barbie’s crimes against Jews (and hence against humanity) and not to deal with his anti-Resistance actions. It was Barbie’s defence lawyers who, partly to discomfit the French establishment, insisted on discussing his role in the fate of Jean Moulin.

The circumstances in which Moulin’s remains were placed in the Panthéon no longer obtain. The divisions engendered by the Communist Party and de Gaulle do not need to be transcended. Politicians no longer need to base their legitimacy on references to the Resistance – the current Socialist Prime Minister has never hidden the fact that his father was a Pétainist. The recent controversy about Moulin has only helped to preserve his place in the national memory. The repeated attacks on him have kept his name in the public domain and the fact that they have come from the Right has encouraged left-wing intellectuals like Pierre Vidal-Naquet to speak in his defence.

Have all the books and articles solved the mystery of Jean Moulin? They have certainly shed much light on the political circumstances of the Resistance; and of Moulin himself, we know that he was very discreet and slightly duplicitous; that he sometimes did incomprehensible things (he spent ten days skiing in Megève shortly after being parachuted back into Occupied France); and we know that he did not talk under torture (or, at least, that none of his comrades was arrested after his capture). We do not know what he thought he died for. All the characteristics that are usually listed to explain his heroism – patriotism, loyalty to the state, attachment to the Republican tradition – might equally well be listed for, say, René Bousquet or Maurice Papon. It was an uncharacteristic moment of self-revelation when Moulin explained his failed suicide attempt of June 1940 by saying that he feared that he would not hold firm under further beatings. Perhaps he did not understand the nature of his commitment.