Resistance in Vichy France: A Study of Ideas and Motivation in the Southern Zone 1940-1942
The last years of the 1930s were a period of intense confusion for the French. Traditional anti-German chauvinists had become apostles of appeasement. Leftists had found that their pacifism overwhelmed their antifascism. The Popular Front deeply divided the French. It had been at first a tremendous source of hope for its followers; it turned into a fiasco and a bitter disappointment for them. French fascists were split into rival sects arguing over what to do about the threat from Germany. Communists, had moved in a few years from revolutionary defeatism to antifascist patriotism, from class warfare to pleas for national union.
Then in 1939 came the Nazi-Soviet pact, and the war, and more confusion. A nation that lacked enthusiasm for a new bloodletting, twenty years after the massacre in which one and a half million Frenchmen had died, turned its fury on the Communists, whose leaders, at Moscow’s request, had now come out against the war, and were branding as “imperialist” the very conflict that, no later than at the time of Munich, they had called on the French to prepare for.
Thus all the old alignments and beliefs had been undermined. Each group looked for a scapegoat. Whatever political community had existed in the Third Republic dissolved. The period of the “phony war”—between the attack on Poland in September 1939 and Hitler’s invasion of Western Europe in the spring of 1940—demoralized the nation further. The non-Communists were often more eager to provoke Stalin than to confront Hitler, and the Communists were torn between their patriotic instincts and their bitterness at being persecuted as belated appeasers by the appeasers of yesteryear.
Then, in less than five weeks, beginning in May 1940, disaster struck. The French army was destroyed, more than a million and a half soldiers were taken prisoners, ten million refugees from Belgium and France fled in front of the Germans, the Wehrmacht occupied more than half of the country, and the parliamentary regime abdicated into the hands of eighty-four-year-old Marshal Pétain. The armistice he called for and got put the Germans in control of two-thirds of France, left Pétain’s government in charge of the poorest third, and the two zones separated by a formidable barrier.
No wonder that the immediate reaction of most people was, on the one hand, to try to put their daily lives in order again—by returning to their abandoned homes, or by looking for a job, for food and shelter, for news of their relatives captured by the Germans; and, on the other hand, to entrust the nation’s fate to the providential savior, Pétain, who would, many hoped, spare France the fate of Poland and maintain a modicum of French sovereignty. The search for personal survival, plus collective hero worship, in the midst of the ruin of old alignments and beliefs meant in effect that, for a long while, France was no longer a nation of citizens. As one of the early resisters, the writer Jean Cassou, put it: everyone returned home, shell-shocked by the collapse of the national roof over the heads of the French, but also hoping somehow that the war would either end soon altogether (how could Britain do better than France?) or else bypass France from then on, so that the French could rebuild their lives undisturbed. This could only turn out to be the greatest illusion of all, given the nature of the occupier and of the war, but wishful thinking was a psychological necessity.
As Roderick Kedward shows in his interesting book, years of confusion had led to a quest for reassuring simplifications (requiring scapegoats, which Vichy was ready to supply). Illusions of simplicity—blind trust in Pétain, the vain hope of being left to one’s private concerns, the naïve expectation of being able to wait until outside events might perhaps come to the rescue of France (attentisme, as it was called in Vichy)—were what most people found and clung to when they reached the bottom. But a handful of others refused those pieties and groped toward resistance. As Kedward writes, “In so far as Pétainism and attentisme were a simple means of avoiding the complexities of the situation, the history of Resistance is the study of individuals and groups who either perpetuated or reintroduced complexity.” His study is not a history of the early Resistance. It is an examination of the reasons for it in the unoccupied, Vichy-ruled part of France—where Germans did not appear until the complete occupation of the country in November 1942—and of the ways in which “people arrived at Resistance.” Focusing on individuals, Kedward relies above all on the press, on memoirs, and on interviews.
The story he tells is familiar; there are few surprises or discoveries. Some men had been vigilantly anti-German or anti-Nazi for years, and had not been bitten by the bug of appeasement. Several of these were priests or bishops, like old Monseigneur Saliège in Toulouse; others were Christian Democrats; others, like Henry Frenay, were military people; others had been followers of the old monarchist ideologue Charles Maurras, former right-wingers who were disgusted by Maurras’s shift toward appeasement after a lifetime of anti-German warnings. Most of these men reacted as patriots, unwilling to accept the victory of Germany, and especially of Hitler’s Germany; often they remained either neutral toward Vichy or prudently hopeful about Pétain until at least the middle of 1941.
On the other side of the old divide were the Communists. In the year between the fall of France and the German invasion of Russia, they became increasingly violent in their criticism of Vichy, which they saw as the epitome of clericalism and class reaction, and which they felt was persecuting them. But it was only after the Soviet Union was attacked that the French Communist Party ceased denouncing the war itself as a struggle among imperialists, in which Britain and Germany were both villains.
Thus, the fusion of patriotism and rebellion against Vichy’s internal politics took time. And resistance was always a matter of individual choice: the prewar parties and labor unions were not only dissolved by Vichy, they had effectively ceased to function. The Communist Party itself, with its leader, Maurice Thorez, in Moscow, and the scars of the Nazi-Soviet pact unhealed, lacked coherence and had, for once, to allow its local secretaries to take initiatives. The old political and social leaders, corroded by cynicism, driven out by failure, or marked for arrest—or busy demonstrating their moral blindness and their foolishness in Vichy—had mostly succeeded only in weakening social bonds and their own authority. Left to themselves, new men and women tried to rebuild the nation.
The Resistance began with the spontaneous self-assertion of strong personalities, who were determined not to tolerate defeat and shame. Kedward quite rightly stresses that the resisters “discovered and expressed, as if for the first time,” some fundamental values, “even when there was a long background of commitment to them.” A kind of moral instinct asserted itself, a “donnée immédiate de la conscience,” as Bergson might have called it—a reaction which was not purely emotional, but somehow even deeper, and certainly far more than intellectual.
Kedward rightly shows the extraordinary diversity of the early resisters. Some, like the subtle and complex Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie, “the black sheep of his aristocratic family,” were outsiders—either to their class or, like the Christian Democrats, to the Republican regime and its well-established alignments. But others were well-integrated in their milieu: union militants, academics, journalists, civil servants. The experience of refusal and disgust came early to some, provoked by the very trauma of defeat and occupation. But it could also come later, through bitter experience with Vichy. Some resisters, even if they were cautious in evaluating Pétain, had few illusions even at the outset about Vichy, an assemblage of reactionaries, elitists, and technocrats. Others, such as the founder and editor of the Catholic journal Esprit, Emmanuel Mounier, and the staff of the “leaders’ training school” at Uriage, believed for a while that since Vichy shared their criticisms of liberal democracy, atomistic individualism, and the parliamentary regime, maybe something good could come out of Pétain’s “national revolution.” Then they realized that it was hopeless.
The last chapter of Kedward’s book, the most suggestive, is a set of eighteen profiles of resisters he interviewed. This gallery of portraits shows the variety of the early Resistance, whether one looks at prewar political affiliations, religious beliefs, social class, or reactions to Munich and to the Nazi-Soviet pact. We find, among others, a conservative anti-Nazi property-owner fed up with Maurras and the pro-appeasement right, and an aging “red priest” who had been a militant of the left-wing Catholic movement, le Sillon, in the early part of the century. An orthodox young Communist farmer and an engineer who had lived in Latin America and sympathized with the “personnaliste” philosophy of Mounier. A pro-monarchist journalist disillusioned by Maurras and an anti-Munich Socialist civil servant, who worked with that journalist—both were wounded veterans. A pro-Munich radical civil servant, disgusted by Pétain’s willingness to collaborate with Hitler, and a formerly pro-Munich radical intellectual and civil servant who had read Mein Kampf. A labor union militant who became a Communist after the armistice, and his friend, a Socialist metal worker. A Communist engineer, suspected by his comrades because he had refused to endorse the Nazi-Soviet pact, and an anti-Munich teacher, rebelling against the pacifism of the teachers’ union.
How dispersed and spontaneous actions by such people led to genuine organizations, how atoms formed cells, how fragments recreated an embryonic national community—this is what Kedward documents. At first, each resister spoke to his friends, heard about people with the same disposition, sometimes within the same profession, union, or party, sometimes not. Gradually, contacts were established, visits paid, networks founded, actions undertaken with increasing specialization and professionalization. Kedward shows the particular importance of the clandestine press: it was an opportunity for self-expression, a way of communicating with and mobilizing dispersed sympathizers, a means of strengthening emerging groups because of the need to find people to distribute the papers. Vichy often behaved as if a century of universal suffrage could be erased. The resisters rediscovered what the Socialists and the Republican Democrats had practiced under the Restoration and the July Monarchy, the formidable alliance of the Word and of clandestine action.
Indeed, Vichy itself proved to be the best recruiter for the Resistance. It seemingly accepted Germany’s annexation of Alsace-Lorraine; it jailed, indicted, and condemned (before a trial was even held) prewar leaders like Blum and Daladier. It purged schoolteachers and labor union militants, persecuted French Freemasons and Jews, handed over foreign Jews to the Nazis. Pétain’s regime thus provoked the opposition of countless Socialists and radicals, of union members from the dominant CGT and from the Catholic CFTC, of refugees from the lost eastern provinces, of Protestant officials and Catholic priests appalled by the fate of the Jews. The history of the period, says Kedward, is also that of “the potentiality of Vichy that was lost or thrown away.” Since Vichy, behind the façade of “apolitical” national unity for recovery, was nothing but a mélange of political, ideological, or class minorities seeking revenge against the very forces that had shaped French history in the recent, and even not so recent, past, this potentiality was bound to be wasted, if it ever existed—which I doubt.