Marshal Pétain
Marshal Pétain; drawing by David Levine

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.

Spontaneous nausea and reactions to Vichy’s specific measures produced, by the middle of 1942, what Kedward calls an ideology of the Resistance, although he warns us that the term is a bit misleading, since emotions and “depth of commitment” mattered more than the coherence of the ideas. Even if the proposals were sometimes fuzzy, the values were clear. They were the will to win the war and to bring about (as de Gaulle put it in a message in June 1942) “a courageous and profound rebirth within”; the desire for a new society that would defend the rights of the individual, but also promote greater social justice, be more fraternal than the selfish, stagnant, and bickering prewar society—the society the great historian Marc Bloch was going to dissect in Strange Defeat before the Germans shot him.

The new society would have leaders drawn from all classes and purified by the ordeal of the Resistance. Such aspirations displayed a mixture of traditional left French ideology (with its emphasis on democratic moeurs, ever since the Jacobins), of socialism, and of Christian Democracy. The enemies may have been the old ones, as Kedward points out: the “two hundred families” of wealthy capitalists, kept unions, censorship and clericalism, the police and the regime’s bureaucrats. But the fact that so many diverse groups, papers, and movements—even if the total membership remained small—came to share the same general beliefs was new, and a triumph, especially in a part of France where the daily humiliation and frequent crimes of Nazi occupation were known only by hearsay, and in a nation where minority groups tend to splinter apart.

Even before the German army marched into Marseille, Lyon, or Toulouse, and before French workers were drafted for labor in Germany (instead of being merely incited to go), the Resistance in Vichy France had found a common language and a common symbol: de Gaulle, who, by the end of 1942, was actively trying to harness the various networks and organizations under his leadership. With de Gaulle’s rise, Mr. Kedward stops. He does not carry the story forward to tell us either about the heroism and enormous losses of the anti-German resistance or its decline, at the time of the liberation, when it was flooded by latecomers, and when thousands of French were summarily killed, not all of them collaborators.

Among the persons whom Mr. Kedward lists as having encouraged him, we find the names of Professors Theodore Zeldin and Richard Cobb, two of the most distinguished English students of French history. Zeldin twice refers to Kedward in the second volume of his original, luxuriant, and eccentric history of modern France,* and Cobb has reviewed Kedward’s book with enthusiasm. Like his two senior colleagues, Kedward is concerned with individual behavior and with what the French would call la base. He shuns the concepts, jargon, and apparatus of the social sciences and of psychoanalysis. He also avoids all generalizations based on hindsight. His book is a work of careful reconstruction of the “basic units,” the “most basic of political structures”: “small groups of likeminded men and women” and of the means they used to spread their influence. His book is no substitute for the numerous histories of specific resistance movements, and it tends to become a little repetitious and to be a bit pedestrian: it is hard for someone who did not live through it to recapture the atmosphere of this period. Mr. Kedward is too close to his cards or to his cases, too controlled and cautious to let the winds of defiance, adventure, and risk ruffle the gray harmony of his painstaking work. But even if he does not do so himself, he tempts the reader into asking some broader questions raised by this extraordinary story.

Does it confirm any of the very few generalizations Zeldin proposes in his great work? The answer is no. Zeldin suggests that politics has been a divisive force in France, but that underneath the political crust, there exists a much more cohesive pattern of common attitudes and beliefs. Kedward’s book does nothing to dispel the notion that politics can be divisive, but a great deal to show the degree to which people’s main beliefs and their attitudes toward social groups, institutions, and events are shaped by their political values and choices. It may well be that some of their private ambitions, their attitudes toward family relations, or toward work and leisure, or their tastes or their anxieties (to use Zeldin’s categories) transcend or ignore political divisions. In the nineteenth century, respect for authority, the cult of thrift, the dislike of mobility, the celebration of rural life were taught in Catholic as well as in lay schools.

But Kedward’s book suggests that the interpretations people had of apparently common preferences—whether for jobs, rituals, neighborhoods, friends—showed the mark of very distinctive political ideologies, i.e., different images of the ideal social and political order. In prewar France, in so far as there was a social consensus that embraced most of the French, and left out only the proletariat, it was above all a negative consensus. When we consider the images of authority, of hierarchy, of social mobility, or ways of preserving the existing order through collective efforts, the responses of the French were shaped by the differing political preferences—and these were anything but harmonious. In so far as the Resistance forged unity out of diversity, it was the unity of shared political values.

A second (and somewhat contradictory) hypothesis of Zeldin’s concerns the “cellular” nature of French society—its tendency to divide into self-contained islands. What Kedward shows is that the Resistance began in these islands, which were constituted by “political affinities, the group mentality of refugees and victims, the shared traditions of a particular region, professional loyalties, family ties, the proximities of work”—if these had not already existed, initial recruitment might have been even more hazardous than it was. But what is most striking is the ability, indeed the determination, of these islands to communicate and to connect: the Communists wanted to recruit far beyond their traditional “ghettoes” (hence their use of the technique of organizing “Fronts” that they did not openly control). The Socialists decided not to revive their party but to join new movements where they would appeal to independent leftists and union members.

Some Resistance movements either transcended traditional differences within the left (such as the group called Franc-Tireur) or old differences between “laïcs” and Catholics (such as Combat and Libération), or between prewar monarchists like the flamboyant Jacques Renouvin and Christian Democrats like de Menthon. Ideology was precisely what brought the old fortified islands together: the new creed, based on the double refusal of Nazi victory and Vichy’s fake revolution, filled the old moats. British and American historians tend to see only the destructive effects of French ideological battles or splits; they do not see how much of the social integration of individuals and groups has been made possible by ideological cement and competition.

Zeldin believes that French intellectuals greatly overestimate their own importance. Again, Kedward shows that this is not so. Many of the early resisters were intellectuals—highbrow academics or humble journalists. French university professors had never developed a cult of the separation between facts and values, and never believed that their only function was to provide objective knowledge: “the tradition of intellectual involvement in political and ideological issues…was well entrenched in French academic behavior”—so much so that Vichy hesitated to destroy academic freedom. The proliferation of clandestine newspapers that provided not only information but arguments was another mark of a tradition of intellectual politics. The most persuasive attacks on Vichy racism appeared in the “Cahiers du témoignage chrétien,” written by a distinguished group of Jesuits and a Catholic history teacher from Lyon. As Kedward shows, opposition could even be expressed, if prudently or ambiguously, by poets and writers in publications tolerated by the Vichy censors.

One of the lessons of Kedward’s story is that the rediscovery of community, the climb out of atomization, privatization, “survivalism,” was not and could not be merely a reaction to the inconveniences or inequities of the present, even if it began in this way. Soon, as Kedward shows, the resisters developed both a vision of the future and a link to the past. The French left especially went back to its roots in the Revolution and in the Commune of Paris, and entitled its journals 1793, or Le Père Duchesne, or L’Insurgé. This brings us back to the appreciation of ideology: it can be disastrous when it is either a wholesale repudiation of the past (as in the case of the French fascists) or a misreading of it (as in the case of the Maurrassian ultras around Pétain). But when it is the distillation of what is most inspiring and lasting in the past, it can both prove sufficiently fresh and imaginative to prepare a new future, and, above all, sufficiently resilient and protective to save its followers from the degradations of totalitarianism and the temptations of nihilism. That the French, on the whole, did not turn fascist, and soon deserted Vichy, was owing to two powerful traditions: a humanistic, sometimes liberal, social or democratic brand of Catholicism, and the lay and patriotic democratic faith of the left. Both had been badly battered in the prewar years, but in the ordeal of defeat it became clear that both were strong forces in French society.

Another lesson is one Americans ought to keep in mind: the difference between liberal democracy and majority rule. Majorities can be cowardly, selfish, befuddled, and wrong—and yet this is no justification for elitism and dictatorship. A majority of the French applauded Pétain and, at first, accepted violations of individual rights and the measures of social repression (such as the Labor Charter) prescribed by his regime. But in a nation traditionally divided into factions none of which could long rule by itself, where consensus results not from the “tyranny of the majority” but from the combination of fluctuating coalitions and tolerance for diversity, those who found themselves at first isolated and unpopular were not thereby doomed to orgies of either self-accusation or irresponsibility.

The Resistance militants knew that opinion can change, that their task was one of forging a majority favorable to their views, that events, action, and persuasion could do the job. And while most of them were democrats, most also believed in individual and collective rights—the right to free speech or safety, or the right to form unions, or to a minimum of social security—that must be beyond the whims of any temporary majority, of any coalition of interests and classes. Opinion did indeed change (especially after Laval’s return to power, in April 1942), precisely because the violations of rights reached a degree which most of the French had never empowered Vichy to attain, and which they even hoped Pétain would be able to prevent.

Another lesson is the deep effect of the Resistance epic on the thought of some of the great writers who took part in it. Malraux was disenchanted by Communism in the late 1930s, disillusioned with the myth of revolution. He had seen in Spain that if revolution is left to spontaneity, it will be crushed, but if it is too well organized it loses its soul. He was to find in the Resistance a way of marshaling spontaneity successfully to a cause, rediscovering the national community at the same time as most of his compatriots, and making it his new cause. Camus, struggling to formulate an ethic that would arise out of the evidence of the absurd—the evidence of death, and that of human misunderstanding—found in the Resistance precisely the ethic of rebellion that he was later to describe in The Rebel. Against total ideologies that in the name of revolution sacrifice man’s present happiness to a distant future of millennial fulfillment, he celebrated the rebel who says no to whatever debases the human condition, and who in doing so rediscovers his links to other human beings, and asserts both the need for limits and the duty of solidarity in his refusal: I refuse, therefore we are. And when, later still, Sartre developed a cyclical anthropology in which he contrasted spontaneity and the “pratico-inert,” and distinguished between mechanical “series” and groups formed by human beings spontaneously brought together by a common project, was he not also generalizing from the exhilaration of the Resistance?

In Sartre’s view, every group tends to ossify; for Sorel and for him, spontaneity enriches, organization sterilizes. In its later years the Resistance did indeed get caught in the dilemma Malraux had experienced in Spain. Many of its survivors, having fulfilled their mission, returned to private life; the others tried to provide new leadership for France. At that point, their fragile unity broke down, and the divisive effects of ideology prevailed again. This is the plight of any revolutionary movement—to die from exuberance (remember May 1968) or to die from what the Mexicans have called institutionalization. That this should have been particularly the plight of the French Resistance was caused by two factors which Kedward does not stress but which are implicit in the story he tells.

Most members of the old political class had been wiped out—destroyed by Vichy or self-destroyed by their acceptance of Vichy. The non-Communist resisters were often new to politics. Their feelings and thoughts were naturally opposed to what the Vichy state was doing; this inclined them to dream about a new society and, above all, a new spirit for the new society, rather than about a new state and political system. When it came time for them to think about that, they were both divided and unprepared.

The Communists, needless to say, knew what they did not want the state to be, but they also knew that they had no chance of seizing the state from de Gaulle and the rest of the Resistance, and they turned to reconsolidating their dispersed apparatus and to encouraging their colleagues to think above all not about a new state but about a new society. A new state, more efficient than the prewar parliamentary regime, might succeed in isolating or containing the Communists; but a new society they could hope to shape or manipulate. The Catholic dislike of the centralized state, as opposed to organic communities within society; the traditional syndicalist suspicion of the state; the liberal conviction (shared by Socialists and independent leftists) that the state should be merely the servant of society—all of these also contributed to the failure of the Resistance to found a new, reformed state, to prevent its own disintegration into separate parties, and to become more than a new political class rather helplessly occupying untransformed power.

A second factor was the split between de Gaulle and the Resistance. What they shared was the spontaneous No, the repudiation of Vichy, the desire to build a new France. (Indeed, de Gaulle, unlike either the Communists or the more moderate resisters, never had to go through a gradual merger of patriotic and domestic political motives for resistance, since in his eyes Pétain’s very acceptance of defeat made all of Vichy illegitimate.) But the resisters were trying to rebuild France from the bottom up, and de Gaulle, almost at once, saw himself as the incarnation of the state, whose duty it is to subordinate all fragments to the common good and to the common goals—defined by the state. Between “fragments” intent on defining these goals themselves, but not sufficiently concerned with the state, and a leader obsessed with the need for a strong state capable of harnessing all those disparate bits and pieces, a conflict could not fail to break out. And the dialectic of unity and conflict between de Gaulle and the resisters has provided the thread of both the Fourth and the early Fifth Republics.

This Issue

November 9, 1978