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,…

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