Wait and See

Richard J. Evans

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.

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