The facts behind France’s most potent modern myth
In Fighters in the Shadows, Robert Gildea dares to suggest that the struggle in France against the German Occupation — so central to French identity — was too disparate even to be called ‘the French Resistance’
In Marianne in Chains, his last book on Occupied France, Robert Gildea offered an original view of life in that country between 1940 and 1944, arguing that outside the cities it had not always been as bad, nor had the Vichy regime always been as reactionary, as was subsequently claimed. Confining his research to three departments in the Loire valley, Gildea also suggested that for most people most of the time the Resistance was a dangerous irrelevance, to be avoided wherever possible. These conclusions were presented at a conference in Tours where they caused a minor uproar among French specialists.
Gildea, professor of modern history at Oxford University, now turns to a much bigger subject. Fighters in the Shadows covers the whole of the wartime period and the whole of France and concludes with an analysis of the role that post-war myths have played in the history of the Occupation.
The history of the French Resistance is usually concerned with a movement inside France that was disorganised and isolated, composed of numerous mutually hostile groups struggling against the occupying forces. They were united in nothing except a determination to carry on the fight and defeat the German invaders. The main currents within this movement were the FTP — a communist network intent on starting a national insurrection — three centrist movements — Combat, the largest non-communist organisation; Libération; and Franc-Tireur — and on the right the ORA, formed by army officers who were sympathetic to Marshal Pétain, the Vichy head of state.
The ORA resisters accepted the armistice of 1940 but were reactivated by the German invasion of the unoccupied zone in November 1942. For the purposes of liberating France, all these groups eventually agreed to unite in support of the Allied landings. They accepted the leadership of General de Gaulle — who had succeeded in imposing a degree of authority on the ‘resistance of the interior’ through the action of his personal delegate, a retired departmental prefect called Jean Moulin.
In place of this familiar picture Gildea proposes a different model. He defines Resistance as ‘refusing to accept the French bid for armistice and the German Occupation, and a willingness to do something about it that broke rules and courted risk’. This definition allows him to include in the ranks of the Resistance the ‘Free French’ in London, army officers in the French empire who rejected Vichy orders and signed up with the Allies and even the Pétainiste leaders of the ‘Army of Africa’ who changed sides in 1943 after the Allied landings on the north African coast. Among the many squabbling bands making up the ‘resisters of the interior’ — who regarded themselves as the only ‘real’ resisters — he identifies Catholic groups, German Communists, non-Communist Marxists, Spanish Republicans, other assorted foreign networks and, importantly, immigrant Jewish resistance fighters. The last were organised by the FTP into an affiliated network, the FTP-MOI, which —unlike most communist resistance organisations — took heavy casualties. In 1985 survivors of this force accused the wartime communist leadership of first allocating the most dangerous operations ‘such as attacks on German columns and German generals’ to the Jewish fighters of the FTP-MOI, and then betraying them.
Gildea rightly emphasises the importance of women in the Resistance and the way in which their role has frequently been overlooked or undervalued. Of the 1,038 holders of the Order of the Liberation, the highest Resistance honour, only six were women. Initially, women resisters were sometimes spared immediate punishment and were occasionally released or deported when they were caught, rather than being shot (though when one considers the slow death that frequently followed deportation into the Nazis’ ‘Night and Fog’, this was not much of an advantage). Women in France during the war had more immediate problems than blowing up the odd electricity pylon. In July 1940 over a million mothers became single parents overnight with 1.5 million French soldiers taken as prisoners of war. Children and elderly relations became their sole responsibility; they often faced shortages of food and fuel and none had any military training. They did not even have a vote. Nonetheless, they were frequently among the earliest volunteers.
One of the novel aspects of Gildea’s account is his decision to accord equal legitimacy (or illegitimacy) to Gaullist patriots and Communist rank-and-file resisters, even though the latter were not fighting in defence of France but were intending to use insurrection as a means of establishing a revolutionary order under the direction of Moscow. He writes of the Gaullist ‘seizure of power’ — intended to re-establish the authority of the French state — and the opposed Communist desire for national insurrection, ‘to usher in popular government and far-reaching reform’.
In a life of Jean Moulin (published in 2000 and recently reissued as Army of the Night) I suggested that the ultimate aims of the Communist resistance were so different from those of the patriotic movements that the Communists should not be regarded as part of the Resistance at all. Gildea takes this argument further. He concludes that the disparity of the component parts of the ‘resistance of the interior’ suggests that ‘it may be more accurate to talk less about “the French Resistance” than about “resistance in France”.’