From Division to Resistance

To this day, every major political grouping in France has had its own account of the opposition the country mounted against the Germans in World War II, leaving it to historians to try to sort things out. Robert Gildea has produced a well-researched and balanced book on the subject, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance.

Fragmentation in fact is the major theme here. As conflict with Nazi Germany loomed, the French were horrified at the prospect of another Great War, and unnerved to the point of military paralysis. So factionalized was the society that it found no unity even against the aggressor. Insofar as most French citizens agreed on anything, it was that their hero of the earlier conflagration, Marshall Philippe Pétain, was right to counsel surrender. In 1940, they gave peace with the Nazis a chance—under their direct rule in the north, under the collaborationist government at Vichy in the south.

Nuclei of resistance to the occupier formed at once, but, as Gildea shows, with little strength or cohesiveness. Except for Charles de Gaulle, recently made a general, no member of the last Cabinet of the Third Republic continued the fight. The handful of parliamentarians who wanted to start a government-in-exile were arrested by the Vichyites in Casablanca, released, and placed under surveillance. Some French communists went underground but they were in the minority—the party line was to take no stand against Hitler, who was in a non-aggression pact with Josef Stalin (until Hitler broke it by invading Russia in June 1941).

Most of France’s North African colonies sided with Vichy—recall Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca—and although sub-Saharan France saw strong pockets of resistance (for black Africans, a new order founded upon Aryan triumphalism looked even worse than French colonialism), how would those colonies be organized as effective fighting units against the German military machine? General de Gaulle made his famous appeal for unity from his exile in London. Few in France heard it; fewer still heeded it, even among the isolated nuclei of resisters.

Although throughout the conflict, the resisters’ numbers grew, the schisms among them continued even as Allied forces gathered, took the war to the enemy in multiple fronts, and weakened the Nazi grip on France. De Gaulle and his “Free France” (later “Fighting France”) organization eventually dominated the field, but the political splinter groups frustrated him then and after the war, and the story of the Resistance itself became a matter of contention in the political fights to come.

Into this historiographic free-for-all wades Gildea, who teaches modern history at Oxford. He holds decidedly Laborite political convictions—at one point he pauses to regret that the French missed their chance, in the aftermath of the war, to form a new Popular Front coalition of social democrats and communists, which might have made for “a French-style Labour party.” But he is too much the historian to give himself over to partisanship. This even-handed book leavens its social and political analyses with stories gleaned from the archival and oral-history sources he so evidently loves.

When honest academic historians sift through competing partisan narratives, trying to figure out what really happened, they sometimes miss what those narratives are aimed at: not historical accuracy but myth-making, and often of an honorable kind. De Gaulle, for example, wrote his War Memoirs (1955) not as history but as a political testament, a means of unifying the French along the lines of a stable republican regime animated by renewed patriotism.

One of my favorites among the many remarkable persons Gildea describes is the French woman résistante who, upon being asked by one of her astonished Nazi captors, why she had taken up arms against the Reich, answered “Quite simply colonel, because the men had dropped theirs.” The men needed to recover from their humiliation after the war if they were once again to become citizens. De Gaulle understood that, writing and speaking with that in mind for the rest of his life. To his great credit, Gildea understands that, too. While carefully separating the poetic from the prosaic, he is a historian who never forgets the indispensable political and therefore human need for poetry. When he quotes de Gaulle’s ringing celebration, in a liberated Paris in 1945, of “One France, the true France, eternal France,” Gildea observes the exaggeration while showing his readers the need for it.

Small in number, resisters nonetheless came from every one of the factions—Left and Right, soldiers and civilians, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant (the word “Resistance” itself alluded to Protestant resistance to Catholics during the sectarian civil wars of the 17th century), and atheistic. Gildea takes care to show how women proved crucial to the Resistance, not so much as combatants but in the dangerous tasks of carrying messages and sheltering fugitives—crimes punishable by prison or death. He also gives full credit to foreign combatants, including veterans of the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, and the many courageous and resourceful Jewish refugees from Central and Eastern Europe who found shelter in Vichyite southern France until late 1942, when the Nazis elbowed aside the French collaborationists and assumed direct rule as in the north.

The fundamental split that emerged, once the defeat of the Nazis and the collaborators was assured (and de Gaulle knew it was, early, telling Churchill so on the day after Pearl Harbor), was between the French republicans, led by the exiled de Gaulle—initially in London, then in Algiers—and the communists. For a short time, the two Resistance wings allied, thanks to the work of one of the really great men the war brought forward, Jean Moulin.

A prefect before the war, displaced by the Vichyites, Moulin (1899-1943) found his way to London and met de Gaulle in October 1941. The latter needed someone to bring the several Resistance organizations together under Free French coordination, and in Moulin he found someone with the courage, organizational savvy, and persuasive powers to do that. Moulin returned to France, where he made contact with key leaders of all factions, many of whom spun their own mythologies, most of them featuring inflated estimates of the number of men they commanded. Through Moulin, de Gaulle hoped to persuade the communist and also the romantic-revolutionary republican factions to delay their quixotic guerrilla actions and await the Allied landing, still two years away. By the beginning of 1943, Moulin had managed to get them all to agree to this, more or less.

This astonishing achievement was almost immediately imperiled by Moulin’s capture, torture, and death at the hands of the Gestapo. (Two decades later, André Malraux said, “He revealed not a single secret—he who knew them all.”) But before he died, Moulin established the innocuously titled Committee for General Studies, eventually headed by Michel Debré, who went on to write the constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1958.

What the committee “studied” was the identities of non-communist French men and women who were qualified to assume the functions of government as soon as the Allies drove out the Nazis. Immediate rule of France by well-vetted Frenchmen would prove indispensable to reestablishing French republicanism because the only well-organized force in what remained of French civil society was the French Communist Party, whose chairman, Maurice Thorez, was spending the war in Moscow, where he received his instructions for the postwar struggle.

For their part, the communists never fully recovered from the infamy of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but it must be noted that many exhibited great courage once they focused on the real enemy. Their own myth, Gildea observes, amounted to an atheist’s version of Christian martyrdom. This never quite convinced most Frenchmen, many of whom suffered the reprisals that followed communist heroics. But there can be no doubt that communists exhibited valor equal to any other group that fought the occupiers.

Meanwhile, in Washington, President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull detested de Gaulle, supposing him to be a would-be Bonaparte intent on founding a dictatorship. Fortunately, the wiser heads of Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower prevailed. The Americans let de Gaulle deal with the communists, the more idealistic but none-too-well-organized republican résistants, and the Vichyites, as U.S., British, Polish, and some French troops (most of them not civilian résistants but men battle-hardened in North Africa) rolled up the Germans on the Western Front, while the Red Army, along with Poles under the command of Soviet officers, closed in from the east.

Gildea handles a substantial mass of facts and competing stories with the deft and practiced touch of a master of the historical craft. The story he tells is far more complex than the one I’ve told here, and he unfolds it with seasoned aplomb. Of course no review should be without its cavils, and mine is that he doesn’t do full justice to de Gaulle’s intention. It is not true that “the only ambition of de Gaulle was to strengthen the state and to secure his leadership role within it.” That was half of the goal, and only the first half. It makes him sound too much like the Bonapartist bogey imagined by FDR, even though Gildea himself disputes FDR’s more sinister interpretation. De Gaulle was equally concerned to restore French republicanism, if in a new form.

Since at least the early 1930s, when he had lobbied the French Assembly for support of his plans for mobile army forces to supplement the passive defenses afforded by the Maginot Line fortifications, de Gaulle had witnessed the chaos, even imbecility, of parliamentary politics in France. Without shading into Bonapartism, he understood the need to establish an independently elected executive. It was especially important in the countries of Europe, where troops could pour across a national border faster than any parliament in an invaded country could act. De Gaulle had longed for such a regime change in the interwar years, and he dedicated his remaining life to founding and perpetuating a French republicanism that could defend itself.

Among the stories told about the Resistance, Gildea seems to favor the more recently told ones: those that lend themselves to a feminist emphasis on “highlighting a devotion to others rather than to their own glory”; those that show Jews as both victims and résistants; and those celebrating the rescuers who sheltered all types of résistants, a perilous thing to do. What he terms the “humanitarian narrative,” I observe, fits better into today’s demi-regime of the European Union than into what he calls “the Gaullist myth of national liberation.” It better fits the EU than “the communist myth of popular insurrection,” too. Socialism in our day is more likely to come in on a blitzkrieg of bureaucratic paperwork in the name of just this sort of soft humanitarianism.

One may prefer the tougher and more forthrightly political myth of Gaullism, as I do. Robert Gildea is nonetheless right to think that all of these stories bring facts to the table, and to give to every résistant some portion of the honors distributed there.