The Truth About the Resistance

Histoire de la Résistance, 1940–1945

by Olivier Wieviorka
Paris: Perrin, 575 pp., €25.00 (paper) (A translation by Jane Marie Todd, The French Resistance, will be published by Harvard University Press in April 2016.)

The French Resistance cuts a wide swath in the public imagination, and not only in France. Books and films have planted indelible images of derailed trains and makeshift airstrips at midnight.

Women of the National Front, a resistance organization started by members of the Communist Party in 1941, celebrating the liberation of Toulouse, August 21, 1944
Rue des Archives/Granger Collection
Women of the National Front, a resistance organization started by members of the Communist Party in 1941, celebrating the liberation of Toulouse, August 21, 1944

These images reveal only a tiny part of the fluctuating, diverse, squabbling world of the French Resistance. Encompassing its whole range of activities is a challenge. In addition to sabotage, these activities included carrying two bamboo fishing poles (deux gaules—a visual pun signifying support for Charles de Gaulle), scratching V for victory on walls, radioing intelligence to London before the Gestapo detection team could locate the signal, passing downed Allied airmen along a chain of safe houses to the Spanish frontier, printing and distributing clandestine newssheets, even organizing a “secret army.” No single structure ever brought it all together into one capitalized entity that we could call “The Resistance.” The resisters themselves had widely divergent goals. The boundaries of what constituted authentic resistance were always open to debate.

First of all, who or what was being resisted? De Gaulle and his Free French movement in London adamantly rejected the Franco-German armistice of June 1940, along with the man who negotiated it, the World War I hero Marshal Philippe Pétain, and his new authoritarian French state with its temporary capital at Vichy. By contrast, some of the autonomous resistance groups that sprang up inside France opposed only the Germans. The conservative army officer Henri Frenay, head of the powerful movement Combat, kept contacts within the Vichy government until April 1942. He eventually aligned himself (though fractiously) with de Gaulle. It was not rare to begin working for Vichy and then to switch sides at some point in 1942 or 1943, as did the later French president François Mitterrand. Another contingent secretly performed anti-German actions from within the regime, without ever breaking with Pétain’s authoritarian formula for remaking France. Robert Gildea leaves these Vichysto-résistants out of his Fighters in the Shadows while Olivier Wieviorka features them prominently in Histoire de la Résistance, 1940–1945.

One needs also to ask what the main purpose of resistance was. De Gaulle took a predominantly military view of it. He wanted the movements to prepare a secret underground force within France whose aid to an eventual Allied landing would be so important that France would emerge from the war as a significant power, with Free France as its undisputed ruling force. The general, who always looked ahead, was determined to prevent the German occupation from being replaced by either an American or a Soviet protectorate. But this strategy, in the judgment both of de Gaulle and of the Allies, required the “secret army” to lay low until the Allies arrived.

The Communist Party, by contrast, favored immediate action, to prepare a national revolutionary insurrection at the moment of liberation. But the Party did not come to this position right away. Between the outbreak of the war in September 1939 and the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, the French Communist Party was, as a result of the Nazi–Soviet Pact, a de facto ally of the Germans. Communist propaganda called for fraternization with German soldiers and for immediate peace, since it should not matter to workers whether the Germany of Hitler and the Krupps or the Britain of Churchill and the City won the capitalist duel.

This policy was immensely unpopular with the Communist rank and file, whom Vichy pursued even more vigorously than did the Nazis. The Party could later claim to have resisted Vichy from the beginning, but only some individual Communists engaged in anti-German activity in these early days; their high point was a great strike in the northern coal fields in May 1941. The Communist leaders expected in 1940 to be tolerated by the Germans, and notoriously tried to publish their newspaper L’Humanité in occupied Paris. Wieviorka, always more interested in the political story than Gildea, treats this complicated and controversial matter with authority.

The Communist Party (as distinct from some of its militants) began armed resistance on August 21, 1941, when Pierre Georges (later known as “Colonel Fabien”) assassinated the German naval cadet Alfons Moser in the Barbès-Rochechouart metro station in Paris. Other Communist activists killed senior officers in Nantes and Bordeaux soon after. The Party worked very effectively underground. It had already been declared illegal by the Third Republic after the conclusion of the Nazi–Soviet Pact in August 1939, and its militants were accustomed to operating outside the law. The Communist resistance exerted a powerful attraction on the non-Communist movements, who also wanted the gratification of tangible results. The non-Communist movements thus acquiesced in an outsized Communist role within the coordinating bodies eventually formed by the Resistance, despite the hostility of those groups to the Communists’ ultimate aims.

The main drawback to immediate action was its high cost. The Germans reacted savagely to their soldiers’ assassination. Hitler ordered the execution of fifty French hostages for every German victim. The Vichy authorities, substituting themselves for the conqueror in an effort to make their state appear more fully sovereign, chose to designate the hostages themselves. They handed over prisoners for this purpose, mostly Communists or Jews who had been sentenced for black market or other noncapital offenses. Vichy, the Resistance, and the Germans all suffered moral damage in this episode: Vichy for doing the conqueror’s dirty work, the Resistance for making attacks that brought down reprisals on innocent heads.

The German supreme commander in France, General Otto von Stülpnagel, recognizing that executing hostages only inflamed matters, shifted to the deportation of Communists and Jews, which he thought would arouse less anger in France. In February 1942 he chose to retire from military service. De Gaulle denounced the assassination of German soldiers, and it can be doubted that such killings really helped the Allied cause. But after the war the Communist Party staked out a major position in postwar commemoration by portraying itself as the “party of the 75,000 martyrs [fusillés].”

A third major issue is who the resisters were. Both authors agree that they came from every segment of French society. None of the classic criteria of age, class, opinion, or faith apply conclusively. During the year of Communist neutrality, the Resistance had a conservative nationalist tinge, starting with General de Gaulle himself. The Communist Party’s activation in summer 1941 shifted the social profile of the Resistance toward workers and intellectuals.

The next major influx came in February 1943 when Vichy instituted an obligatory labor service that sent French workers to factories in Germany. Thousands of réfractaires took refuge with resistance camps in remote forests and mountains. Wieviorka treats this familiar tale with admirably fresh scholarship. He shows that only a minority of the young men threatened by labor conscription actually joined a maquis (the word referred to the brushy vegetation of Mediterranean slopes). Further, the resistance movements never really managed to feed and shelter their new recruits, let alone shape them into a potential fighting force.

The Vichy government helped drive people into resistance by taking hostile measures against them, whether as Communists, Jews, Freemasons, or partisans of the Popular Front of 1936. So there was a push as well as a pull in resistance recruitment. Even contingency could play a role, as in Louis Malle’s disturbing film Lacombe Lucien (1974). Nevertheless the great majority of French people remained unengaged, as they coped with hunger, cold, and the absence of loved ones. So we lack any workable general theory of just what caused people to resist. We are left with personal character traits, such as force of conviction, inner-directedness, or impetuousness. According to a famous offhand remark by the Resistance leader Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie, one had to be a misfit, but neither author accepts this theory. It may have helped to be independent of family or professional responsibilities, but Wieviorka shows that the proportion of married men among resisters was about average.

Foreigners had a larger part in the French Resistance than native-born resisters ever wanted to admit, an omission that both authors repair generously. Foreign resisters were often those whose bridges had all been burned. Veterans of the International Brigades who had fled from Spain in 1939 were more important than their number because of their guerrilla experience, their ideological commitment (they hoped to tackle Franco after finishing off Hitler), and the unpleasant options that Vichy France offered them—either forced repatriation or enrollment in labor battalions.

The tanks bearing Spanish names that follow immediately behind General de Gaulle in the film of his march down the Champs-Élysées on August 26, 1944, have puzzled many. They belonged to the Spanish volunteers of La Nueve, the ninth battalion of the Second French Armored Division. According to a persistent legend, they were there partly because the other battalions of the Second French Armored Division contained large numbers of African troops, and someone on Eisenhower’s staff didn’t want the victory parade to look so black. Which brings us to another category of liberation fighters—if not of classical resisters: between 50 and 60 percent of the soldiers of the new French units formed in North Africa and armed by the United States during 1943 for later action in France came from French colonies in the Maghreb and in sub-Saharan Africa.

Foreign Jewish immigrants formed an important part of the Resistance. Many young men among them, eager to fight Hitler, had joined the Foreign Legion in 1939. In 1940, however, Vichy offered only harsh options to demobilized Jewish veterans without other resources: service in labor battalions or internment. Communists among them went underground with the Main-d’Oeuvre immigrée (MOI), one of the Party’s most aggressive paramilitary groups. Most MOI fighters were caught and executed, and the Communist leadership seems not to have helped them much at the time, or recognized their contribution later. Zionists had their own organizations, such as the Armée Juive, that started with relief work and education and became radicalized as loved ones were taken away (a process repeated within many resistance movements).

Female resisters were underestimated in the first postwar summings up, but their contribution is a staple of the new Resistance scholarship. They protested at empty markets, transported messages, radios, and even weapons in the bottom of baby carriages, distributed clandestine newspapers, and sometimes participated in combat. A few (Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, Berty Albrecht) filled leadership roles. Gildea devotes a whole chapter to the accomplishments of women who resisted, while Wieviorka, always more analytical, provides some numbers and relates their engagement to wider trends toward female entry into the professions and public life.

How many authentic resisters were there? The most official number, those awarded the coveted postwar Carte de combattant volontaire de la Résistance that entitled one to veterans’ benefits (262,730 as of 2008), is too low: it includes few civil resisters and almost no women. At the other extreme, if we count those who read the approximately 1,200 clandestine newspapers, we find a broader circle of several million sympathizers willing to take some risks. If one defines authentic resistance as including some degree of illegal action, as one must, the best estimates lie between 300,000 and 500,000 active resisters. The numbers started small, of course, and grew as hope returned and as the occupation grew harsher.

An anti-German poster by P. Sainturat saying ‘Out with this Swabian Junk’ and showing a French broom, with a tricolored handle, sweeping away Nazism after the liberation of France, 1945
Rue des Archives/Granger Collection
An anti-German poster by P. Sainturat saying ‘Out with this Swabian Junk’ and showing a French broom, with a tricolored handle, sweeping away Nazism after the liberation of France, 1945

General de Gaulle made a long and arduous effort to unify all resisters under his leadership. The movements in France, however, having arisen spontaneously, resented the pretensions of this “émigré” in London (referring to the French aristocrats who idled in Germany or England during the Terror of 1793–1794). De Gaulle needed their support in order to be able to demonstrate to the Allies—particularly the doubtful Americans—that he had sufficient popular backing in France to be the country’s legitimate postwar leader. (Roosevelt wanted to wait until the French could elect their leader.) The internal resistance movements, in turn, needed weapons and money from Free France. So they grudgingly entered a National Council of the Resistance under de Gaulle’s delegate Jean Moulin.

When the Germans captured Moulin on June 21, 1943, however, and tortured him to death, the movements reasserted themselves. De Gaulle’s authority emerged clearly only in summer 1944, when power changed hands upon the arrival of the Allied armies. Local Vichy officials yielded their posts quietly to de Gaulle’s handpicked replacements, who were well received by a public won over to the general by four years of BBC broadcasts. The Communists, surely with Stalin’s acquiescence, turned in their arms without a peep. Wieviorka gives a fuller account of these political maneuvers than Gildea.

The Allies, and especially the Americans, never come off very well in Resistance historiography. The British operated their own intelligence and sabotage networks in France in competition with the Gaullist ones. The Allied commanders had little faith in the resisters’ military potential, and never supplied as many weapons as the movements wanted. The question remains whether the Resistance might have contributed more to the liberation of France if the Allies had given them more equipment.

Roosevelt notoriously refused to recognize de Gaulle’s Free French as the legitimate government of France until after D-Day, and actively backed other French leaders such as the supreme commander of Vichy forces, Admiral François Darlan, who happened to be in North Africa when the Allies landed in November 1942; after Darlan’s assassination, Roosevelt turned to the reactionary General Henri Giraud. Gildea suggests, without evidence, that Roosevelt still wanted to deal with the Vichy leaders as late as 1944, while Wieviorka attributes Roosevelt’s actions more plausibly to realpolitik. In November 1942, notably, he needed Admiral Darlan to order Vichy armed forces to stop firing at Allied soldiers coming ashore in North Africa.

Writing the history of the Resistance poses particular problems. For a long time the survivors controlled the story, aided by the relative scarcity of documentary evidence: resisters wrote down as little as possible, and swallowed papers if apprehended. Now most of the veterans are dead, and the time of the historians has come. Monographs on individual movements and leaders have recently put the subject firmly into the hands of scholars and their sources.

These two books, the work of seasoned scholars and energetic researchers, give us at last authoritative general surveys. They approach the subject differently. Gildea has chosen, somewhat against current trends, to center his narrative upon numerous personal recollections and interviews recorded after the liberation. Despite the evident problems of memory, particularly where emotionally charged subjects are concerned, he has wanted to recapture authentic feelings. His narrative is vivid and powerful, and he has not neglected current scholarly findings. Wieviorka has included more quantitative data, more political and social analysis, and gives us generally a more comprehensive work. The two could very usefully be read together.

The ultimate question is what difference the French Resistance really made. Wieviorka considers this matter most fully. It is inescapable that most resistance actions within France failed. They resulted in the capture or death of those responsible and, even more regrettably, in harsh reprisals against nearby villagers who not infrequently took a dim view of resisters. Every attempt by the Resistance to establish control over some French territory in advance of the Allied landing was crushed by German forces, aided by the French supplementary police, the notorious Milice: the Glières plateau in the Alps and Mont Mouchet in the Massif Central, for example. The most substantial such base set up after D-Day, in the Alpine redoubt of the Vercors, was overrun by German troops and the Milice after both the Allies and de Gaulle declined to send serious reinforcements.

Some Resistance units, excited by the news of D-Day, took control of some French towns prematurely, at heavy cost. The main street of Tulle, for example, was lined with the bodies of ninety-nine resisters hanged from lampposts by returning German forces. The Resistance was never able to liberate definitively any French territory on its own except in association with Allied armies, as in Brittany in July 1944, and in the Rhône Valley after Allied forces landed on the Mediterranean coast on August 15, 1944.

Other Resistance contributions affected military outcomes more tangibly. Information supplied by resisters about the location and strength of German military units was invaluable. Sabotage could sometimes achieve better results than Allied bombing, and without civilian casualties. Resistance advocates claim that the Allies used them too little. But in some cases, as with the heavily reinforced German submarine pens on the Atlantic coast, they lacked sufficiently heavy explosives. Rescuing downed Allied airmen clearly helped. A major contribution of resisters was sabotaging roads and railroads so successfully during the Normandy landings that German reinforcements were delayed for days and sometimes weeks. The bottom line is that the Resistance did not change the war’s outcome. The Allies were going to win, whether the French Resistance helped them or not.

Comparison helps weigh the achievements of the French Resistance. Resistance movements had less military impact in France than in Yugoslavia or behind the lines in the Soviet Union, though probably more than in Italy. On a more positive note, power was transferred smoothly in France at the liberation, without the bitter conflicts that occurred in Yugoslavia, Belgium, and especially Greece. The feared civil war never took place.

Wieviorka shows that Resistance leaders had a curiously small part in postwar French political life. They adapted poorly to electoral politics. Unlike the immovable Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia, de Gaulle withdrew early from public life (temporarily, as it turned out) in January 1946. The memory of the Resistance, by contrast, continues to be reworked. On May 27, 2015, the ethnographer Germaine Tillion and de Gaulle’s niece Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz were reburied with great pomp in the Panthéon, along with Pierre Brossolette, Jean Moulin’s rival as de Gaulle’s main agent in France, and Jean Zay, a former Popular Front minister murdered by the Milice in 1944. The two doubled the number of women in that very masculine national shrine.

Quite possibly the Resistance’s principal legacy was emotional recovery from the humiliation of 1940. It “allowed us to look at a Russian, British or American soldier without blushing,” recalled the journalist and resister Roger Stéphane in the 1950s. “Never had so many men consciously run so many risks for such a small thing: a desire to bear witness. Perhaps it is absurd, but it was by such absurdities that we restored our dignity as men.”


The Free French, Black and White March 17, 2016