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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.”1 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 has so absorbed the resistants’ way of seeing themselves—the attitude that the French call résistantialisme—that he has been inhibited from asking some of the most interesting questions about it.

There is no comparison, for example, with resistance movements in any other occupied country, or in Germany itself. Was the French Resistance larger or smaller, in proportion to population and opportunity, than those of other western occupied countries such as Norway or Holland? This was Mr. Schoenbrun’s chance to make a case against those he accuses of attributing far too much passivity to the French under Vichy (he mentions Marcel Ophuls and his film Le Chagrin et la pitié by name) and to take up the fascinating comparison between resistance in the occupied zone, where the direct presence of the German enemy provoked resistance from within the French elite, and the Vichy zone where most of the elite, and even some early resisters, were led by Marshal Pétain into neutralism.

By comparison with Yugoslavia, the French Resistance was clearly both later and smaller, even though Yugoslavia had been more deeply divided than France before the war and provided, in Croatia, some of Hitler’s most enthusiastic collaborators. This comparison suggests one fruitful line of enquiry. The Yugoslav Resistance was able to build upon solid organizational bases: the regular army, around which General Mihajlović grouped his Chetniks, and the Communist Party, around which Josip Broz Tito grouped his Partisans. These two tightly knit structures with their cadres gave the Yugoslav Resistance a substance that few other national movements could match. Similar roots were denied the French Resistance organizations.

Why were virtually no pre-existing institutions available to French opponents of Vichy and the Germans? The army—despite the efforts of a handful of officers—clung to discipline in a time of uncertainty, and discipline tied them to Pétain’s determination to keep France out of the war. The Communist Party was not available in 1940, as it was to be in 1941, partly because the Nazi-Soviet Pact had thrown it into disarray, partly because the Third Republic as well as Vichy had arrested and dispersed its leadership, and because official party policy aimed its fire more at Vichy than at the Germans (the reverse of most of the rest of the opposition), and most of all at the British and Gaullist prolongers of a useless and “imperialist” war. Mr. Schoenbrun deals fairly with the polemical matter of whether some Communist militants also fought the German occupation before June 1941, but he shows no curiosity about why no prewar leadership, whether of party, union, or economic interest group, was available in 1940-1941 to those who wanted to continue to struggle against the German occupation.

This brings us to the question of who formed the first resistance and why. The difficult decision to break with associates, family, and community values is a nonsubject for résistantialistes. For them—with a considerable amount of retrospective telescoping—it was as clear in 1940 as in 1944 what had to be done, and nothing more complicated than courage and determination is at stake. Mr. Schoenbrun shows relatively little curiosity about the nature of early Resistance recruitment so subtly explored by H.R. Kedward.2 It was more than danger that the first resisters faced; it was a web of social and intellectual pressures, particularly in the Vichy zone where awe for Marshal Pétain, dread of a repetition of the bloodletting of 1914-1918, fear of internal disorder, and revulsion against the fruitless cacophony of the Third Republic created a conformist majority. That is why so many of the first resisters, as Kedward was far from the first to point out, were outsiders. Or, if they came out of some sustaining milieu, they belonged often to groups which had been thrust out of the national community of Vichy: Jews, Freemasons, labor leaders, left-leaning schoolteachers.

The resisters came from the nationalist right as well as from the left, as Schoenbrun tells us, but as he does not tell us, they were people without family attachments (like Henri Frenay), people whose absence overseas sheltered them from the full impact of defeat (like every general who joined de Gaulle during 1940), freewheeling personalities and others who had already in one fashion or another been detached from responsibilities and obligations. Since Mr. Schoenbrun dismisses Vichy indiscriminately as fascists and German stooges, he has no way of explaining why quite sincere anti-Germans keep turning up in his narrative who remained loyal for a long time to Pétain.

Another issue which the résistantialiste perspective obscures is the stages by which the Resistance grew. According to the common view, the Resistance steadily grew in size from the first courageous refusals to the point where the resisters formed a strong majority in 1944. On closer inspection, many hold-outs against the armistice in June 1940, led by military commanders in North Africa and the French Levant who had not experienced demoralizing defeat at first hand, were gradually won over by Vichy. Of the commanders, only General de Gaulle was left. Even many of de Gaulle’s early supporters abandoned him after the British seized French ships in British ports and bombarded others in the North African port of Mers-el-Kébir. The Germans were much more nervous about internal opposition in France in the summer of 1940 than they were six or nine months later. A more accurate graph of the size of the Resistance would show a line that descended during 1940, fluctuated in 1941, and turned upward again—with new, more obscure leadership—in 1942 when the push of disillusion with Vichy and harsher German demands matched up with the pull of Allied gains and changing perspectives on the outcome of the war.

Any thoughtful history of the French Resistance ought to look at what its main enemies thought about it: the French and German police, and the German military. That cold bath of realism is not very comfortable. A young German military historian, Hans Umbreit, raised tensions at an international conference on the liberation of France held in Paris in 1974. Mr. Umbreit’s assignment was to trace, from German military archives, the German response to the Resistance. He found that the Resistance was barely visible to the Nazi authorities until late 1941, that they left it largely to the French police until late 1943, and that even in 1944 their eyes were focused mainly on the regular Allied armies. It was only during the retreat in July 1944 that the Resistance interfered significantly in German military operations, according to Umbreit’s reading of German military archives.3

The monthly reports sent in to the Vichy Ministry of the Interior by the prefects of each department would also fill out Mr. Schoenbrun’s map of opinion with a large middle ground between Vichy and the Resistance, composed of people quite naturally absorbed by their personal ordeals and just as naturally reluctant to be “resistanced” by the premature arrival of an armed maquis nearby, guaranteed to call down German reprisals. Mr. Schoenbrun talks often of individual and collective acts of sabotage, and of the gathering of vital intelligence information, but he has left to others the hard task of weighing precisely what military difference the French Resistance made. Henri Michel, who has made the most balanced assessment in his authoritative The Shadow War, concludes that “nowhere did guerrillas score a decisive success” during World War II, and that “in any case the country in which guerrilla warfare takes place pays a high price.”4 Perhaps resistance works better among peoples who are used to consuming relatively little and have less to risk. Americans, who have in their enviable history been occupiers rather than resisters, might be curious to have a more precise assessment from Mr. Schoenbrun of the French Resistance’s share in the liberation. In any event, such an assessment cannot depend on reminiscences unchecked against German archives.

There are other ways in which the French Resistance’s impact must be assessed. It would take a different book to explain why the expectations of the Resistance leaders to preside over deep changes in postwar France were frustrated. In a brief epilogue, Mr. Schoenbrun observes only that they lost their unity—but that they had ever been united was only another résistantialiste article of faith. Claude Bourdet, whose Aventure incertaine is by far the most probing and free-spirited of Resistance memoirs, suggests that Resistance leaders were recruited by chance encounters within a very small pool of available people, few of them singled out already in any way for ability. Indeed, Resistance recruitment was utterly contrary to the traditional French method of selecting elites, with its competitive examinations and its premium on the written and spoken word. How many among them other than de Gaulle himself had the kinds of talent and connections traditionally rewarded in French public life?

Finally, there is the impact of the Resistance upon the French perception of themselves, a matter touched only implicitly by Mr. Schoenbrun. It was in demonstrating the capacity for heroism in otherwise humiliating times that the French Resistance made the most difference, though that in turn explains why it is easier to present it as a series of tales of individual courage and sacrifice than to explore what it meant and what effect it had. Mr. Schoenbrun might well have quoted the Resistance journalist Roger Stéphane:

This refusal allowed us to look at a Russian, British, or American soldier without blushing…. Never have 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.5

  1. 1

    André Dewavrin (Passy), 10 Duke Street, quoted in John Sweets, The Politics of Resistance in France, 1940-1944 (Northern Illinois University Press, 1976), p. 87.

  2. 2

    Resistance in Vichy France: A Study of Ideas and Motivation in the Southern Zone, 1940-1942 (Oxford University Press, 1978), reviewed by Stanley Hoffmann in The New York Review of Books, November 9, 1978.

  3. 3

    Hans Umbreit, “La Stratégie défensive de l’allemagne,” La Libération de la France: Actes du colloque international tenu à Paris du 28 au 31 octobre 1974 (Paris: C.N.R.S., 1976), pp. 243-280

  4. 4

    Henri Michel, The Shadow War: European Resistance 1939-1945 (Harper and Row, 1972) p. 290.

  5. 5

    Roger Stéphane, “La Résistance n’a été qu’un refus,” France-Observateur, August 28, 1952.

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