Having been crushed militarily and psychologically by the mighty German blitzkrieg in a mere six-week campaign, it could well be said that by the end of June 1940, the French people were suffering from a severe case of collective post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The humiliation of defeat was suffered by the whole French nation from its leaders to ordinary people,” writes Robert Gildea, in his deeply researched, sophisticated new study of the French Resistance, Fighters in the Shadows. It was an unexpected defeat, Gildea explains, because the French went to war fully confident of the military capabilities of their armed forces to repel a German onslaught. “It was a critical defeat because it destroyed the republic that had embodied French democracy and patriotism since 1870, and gave way to an authoritarian regime prepared to do business with Germany.”
And not just cynical, run-of-the-mill wartime business, for the Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Petain proactively colluded in the Holocaust, sending thousands of French Jews to the death camps, and embraced numerous aspects of a Nazi ideology most French people—most civilized people—found utterly repulsive. Given the trauma of defeat and the truly dire threat to French nationhood posed by the four-year occupation, it comes as little surprise that the Resistance movement both during and after the war came to occupy a vital role in French consciousness and identity. Indeed, it still does.
A central premise of Fighters in the Shadows is that the historical resistance—the real resistance—has been obscured by the Gaullist myth “that allowed the French to reinvent themselves and hold their heads high in the post-war period.” That myth, briefly put, is that the resistance was supported by the vast majority of the people from de Gaulle’s initial order to carry on the fight, issued from London on June 18, 1940, through the entire war, and reached its apogee as the imperious general led a powerful column of both Free French and Resistance units down the Champs-Elysees, marking the liberation of Paris four years later.
Although it could not be denied that the French had required the assistance of the Brits and the Americans, the myth had it that the French essentially liberated themselves, thanks to the fighting élan of the French people, and de Gaulle’s ability to unify the Resistance movement’s myriad strands, and coordinate its efforts with those the Free French regular army after D-Day.
The picture of the Resistance movement to emerge in Gildea’s account is far, far more complicated and morally ambiguous than the myth would suggest. First off, active resisters before D-Day constituted not a small minority of the French population but a tiny one—perhaps as low as two percent of the people were actively engaged in publishing underground newspapers, sabotage operations, intelligence gathering, recruiting, or participating in one of the networks designed to rescue Allied fliers. Only another eight percent were passive resisters—that is, they were willing to read subversive publications, celebrate traditional national holidays privately and quietly despite German bans, and provide crucial moral support to active Resistance networks. The vast majority of French people simply tried to muddle through and survive increasingly tough times, while a certain undefined, but uncomfortably large number either supported Vichy in the (forlorn) hope that it would ultimately form a bulwark against German repression, or actively collaborated with the Petain regime.
Gildea is at his best in conveying a richly textured picture of the Resistance as diverse in makeup, motivation, and strategy. Resisters “were always a minority but emerged from a rainbow of different milieu. They had different visions and were fighting for different aims.” They were former soldiers, aristocrats, trade unionists, students and intellectuals, and simple farmers, but interestingly, the professional politicians and business leaders were all but completely absent from its ranks. Politically and socially, resisters came from the extreme Communist left to the extreme right and everywhere in between.
The first six chapters of the book contain perceptive profiles of both individual resisters and their various networks and movements, drawing heavily on first-person accounts, interviews, and recently published scholarly monographs. A surprising number of resisters seem to have been motivated by a need to prove their family mettle in light of a less-than-honorable military record of a father or brother in the previous world war. Others were propelled into what was a very dangerous game, particularly in the German Occupied Zone in the northeast, by the experience of a single humiliating incident at the hands of the dreaded occupiers or the Vichy police, or the witnessing a savage act of cruelty inflicted on an ordinary citizen. Still others, especially university students and intellectuals, had a deep ideological revulsion to Nazism and were compelled to take action, although what they should do, or how they should accomplish it without being tossed in jail or executed, wasn’t at all easy to determine for most of the people chronicled here.
Gildea deftly explores the extraordinary experience of morphing from a normal citizen to an active resister. To join the Resistance meant “entering a world of shadows behind the real world.” Resisters inevitably concealed their identity behind a nomme de guerre, by which they were known only to comrades. This disappearing process—obtaining forged papers, mastering a legend, disassociating oneself from family and civilian work—was what resisters called embracing clandestinité.
“For some,” observes Gildea,” “it seemed as though they were taking part in something unreal, a play, a novel, or a crime story. This might be a good deal more exciting than their ordinary lives, and enabled them to compensate for shortcomings and inadequacies with which they had long felt encumbered. On the other hand it was a shadowland fraught with danger and often reality struck back with brutal effect.”
There was, of course, always the danger of being caught by the authorities with contraband, a pistol, forged papers, a subversive tract. But the more pressing and common fear was betrayal. The great dilemma of resistance work was that every effort to build up strength through recruitment contained within it the potential to destroy the entire enterprise. “We recruited too much to live long,” reflected Germaine Tillion, of the early and influential Musée d l’Homme network in Paris. “When a traitor penetrated part of the organization, like venom, his ambition was to move up the arteries to the heart. This was only too easy to do and when it happened there was one network less and few more deaths.”
Gildea goes to considerable pains to demonstrate that foreigners, both those who’d come to France after the dislocations of the First World War, and more recent arrivals as refugees of both Nazi and Soviet conquests elsewhere, played a role in the Resistance all out of proportion to their numbers. Prominent among these groups were Polish Jews, a colorful array of Eastern European Communists, and Spanish fighters for the lost Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War whose commitment to the worldwide fight against fascism remained strong.
“With less to lose and fewer hiding places, Communists, Jews and foreigners had greater incentives to resist than the average French person.” It was the Communist Party, with its penchant for creating clandestine organizational structures in support of political programs, that provided a kind of umbrella organization for these diverse non-native groups. Many foreign networks worked under the direction of the armed struggle wing of the French Communist Party, the Franc-Tireur Partisans, and were “engaged in highly dangerous urban guerrilla warfare. Meanwhile, Zionists who rejected Communist leadership formed the Armée Juive, which enjoyed strong support from the Hagenah in Palestine.
Polish Jews in and around Paris formed an exceptionally effective umbrella organization of intelligence cells and rescue networks for Jews slated for roundups by the Vichy police and Gestapo. It was called Solidarity. The arrest of foreign Jews in Paris reached a hideous climax on July 16-17, 1942, when 13,000 were rounded up and placed in local camps in preparation for deportation to the east. Yet, it could have been much worse. Thanks to the assiduous and daring work of Solidarity, some 14,000 targeted Jews escaped the roundup.
In April 1942 a dozen former Republican Spanish Civil War officers founded the XIV Corps of Spanish guerrillas. For the remainder of the occupation they conducted extensive sabotage operations and raids on German installations within France. Meanwhile, the Travai Allemand network of the German Communist Party worked effectively to infiltrate and win over elements of the German occupation forces within France. “All this,” writes Professor Gildea by way of summing up, “suggests that it may be more accurate to talk less about the French Resistance than about resistance in France.”
The first six chapters of Fighters in the Shadows do indeed “underline the breath and diversity of those who became involved in the resistance both inside and outside France,” and provide the reader with a subtle understanding of their different motivations for doing so. Yet these chapters all suffer from a kind of breathlessness in presentation. Gildea’s rhetorical strategy in each chapter is to string together a great many loosely-related vignettes, thumbnail biographies of key players, and snapshots of incidents, crises, and operations against the oppressors, and then to conclude with a terse summing up. The writing is lucid and lively as it goes, but virtually no attempt is made to impose a narrative arc the material.
The text contains scores of references to major movements and networks, front organizations that are constantly splitting off or conflating into other movements and networks, or simply taking on new names to avoid detection or announce some change in mission. We move backward and forward in time, seeming at the whim of the author. Scholars in the field might well be able to keep up with all this organizational and chronological turbulence, but even general readers with a solid grounding in Resistance history will find it devilishly hard to see the forest for the trees. I found myself wondering, “which among these networks and movements ultimately proved most effective, and why? “ Regrettably, Gildea has almost nothing to say by way of an answer.
Not until May 1943 did General de Gaulle’s agent in France, the unflappable and resolute Jean Moulin, mange to bring the major strands of the indigenous Resistance movement together under de Gaulle’s control through the vehicle of the Conseil Nationale de la Resistance (CNR). It had been a long, long time in coming. Leaders of the largest movements had squandered a great deal of time and effort attempting to gain dominance over their rivals. Oversize egos were one of the few things not in short supply in the Resistance movement.
By that point, almost three years into the occupation, the illusion that Petain or another Vichy general might rise to challenge German domination from within in the face of increasingly draconian measures against the French people had finally faded. So too had the lingering, slightly paranoid notion among the Resistance leaders that de Gaulle and his British hosts were pursuing their own selfish agenda. Finally it dawned on the key players within the movement that it was only through de Gaulle and the Allied resources he could bring to bear that the vast number of intelligence-gathering operations and paramilitary groups in France could be utilized effectively once the liberation effort got underway in earnest.
But as events made clear in the wake of D-Day, the effort to impose command and control on so many dispersed Resistance organizations—many of which had only the most perfunctory military training—was only partially successful. The story of the Resistance in the 10 weeks after the D-Day landings is largely one of pandemonium, leading to a flurry of disastrous confrontations with a still-powerful and committed adversary across the length and breadth of France.
Local resistance groups simply could not constrain themselves from picking up their guns and Molotov cocktails in the face of the torrent of emotions triggered by the reality of the Allied landings. De Gaulle had ordered that action behind enemy lines should be linked closely as possible to the front line of Allied operations, but this did not happen, at least not for a while. Thousands of Resistance fighters died in futile attacks against the Germans, and thousands of civilians were executed as a result of these “terrorist” assaults on German authority.
Mysteriously, Gildea provides only passing references to the Resistance movement’s contributions to the ultimate success of the D-Day landings. I found this something of a letdown, for those contributions were substantial and many. Happily, Gildea’s concluding narrative chapter on liberation operations after the Allies’ second amphibious landing in southern France on August 15, 1944 is riveting, well-paced, and generally succeeds in capturing the heady drama of the German retreat before the combined forces of the Free French regular army and the Resistance forces, which the Allies and de Gaulle referred to as the French Forces of the Interior. Gildea’s masterly account of the liberation of Paris, and of de Gaulle’s crafty work in outmaneuvering the Communist effort to spark a people’s uprising, is one of the highlights of this fine contribution to our understanding of World War II’s most important resistance movement.