Did the Resistance Matter?

Soldiers of the Night: The Story of the French Resistance

by David Schoenbrun
Dutton, 512 pp., $15.95

David Schoenbrun begins his panorama of the French Resistance of 1940-1944 with a memorial celebration: a gathering in September 1977 at a remote clearing in the Corrèze which British courier aircraft had been able to use thirty-five years earlier to ferry Resistance leaders in and out of half-occupied France. It is an appropriate beginning. The book, too, is a celebration and a memorial. It represents a resistant’s view of the Resistance with all the uncomplicated piety of a French village monument aux morts.

There would not be many in France or elsewhere to quarrel with that intention. Vichy’s most fervent partisans claim to have resisted the German occupation in their own way. The French Resistance is secure in its pantheon. Mr. Schoenbrun could have done it just as much honor with a grain more of curiosity, irony, and reflection.

For one thing, not everyone was invited to the celebration. A correspondent and writer in France for many years, Mr. Schoenbrun has had long conversations with a number of the best-known survivors, each one the keeper of a sacred flame. Among the various clans and families of the internal Resistance, he is closest to Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, head of what was probably the most significant intelligence network communicating with the British, the “Alliance” network that smuggled General Giraud out to North Africa in November 1942, and to Jean-Pierre Lévy, founder of Franc-Tireur, one of the “Big Three” movements and clandestine newspapers in the southern zone. The emphasis would have been quite different if, given other friends with other experiences, he had centered the narrative instead on the main Catholic clandestine newspaper Témoignage chrétien, which is mentioned only twice, or the Organisation de Résistance de l’Armeé, or the Communist Party.

At another level, between the internal Resistance and the external Resistance around General de Gaulle, Mr. Schoenbrun is clearly a man of the interior. He could never envision the interior Resistance, as did de Gaulle’s intelligence chief Passy, as “an abundance of desires to do good, of courageous thoughts, exalted imaginations expressed through disorderly acts without any real effectiveness.” In the quarrel between the whole Resistance and the Allies, Mr. Schoenbrun finds the Allies far too little aware of the military capacity of interior Resistance (for pinpoint sabotage, for example, instead of the notoriously ineffective “precision” bombing), and he blames Roosevelt for coming around so reluctantly and so late to de Gaulle as the only possible leader of postwar France.

By nature dispersed and protean, the French Resistance was a bit like the elephant and the blind men. Each author can describe the part he felt. That is one reason why there is still no commanding book about it. It is hard to quarrel with most of what Mr. Schoenbrun has had to say about his part of the elephant. The trouble is not merely that he has not described the whole beast; indeed this is the fullest account of the French Resistance in English. But Mr. Schoenbrun …

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