Fighters in the Shadows: a new history of the French Resistance, by Robert Gildea
Faber and Faber, 2015
Reviewed in Jewish Quarterly, Winter 2015
When Nicolas Sarkozy became President of the République in 2007, one of his first acts was to pledge that a letter, written by 17 year old Communist resistant Guy Moquet to his mother before his execution by the Germans in 1941, be read out in every lycée in France on the anniversary of his death. Sarkozy’s starkly opportunistic gesture explicitly harked back to de Gaulle’s repeated instrumentalisation of a very specific resistance narrative at various points in the post war years, echoes of which still resonate over seventy years later.
As Robert Gildea shows in his monumental and arguably definitive new study of the French Resistance, Fighters in the Shadows, the narrative that developed out of the deep and lasting trauma of the 1940 defeat (called in French, tellingly, the débâcle, whose meaning is closer to catastrophe than merely defeat), followed by occupation and collaboration, began right as the liberating army of the FFI arrived at the gates of Paris in August 1944.
The mythmaking began when de Gaulle took to the balcony of the Hotel de Ville to declare that France had been “liberated by its own efforts, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the help of all France.”
The unifying myth of resistance that was born out of de Gaulle’s powerful and reassuring rhetoric was, as Gildea notes, “military, national and male.” Of 1038 resistants who were named “Compagnons de la Libération” by de Gaulle, between 1940 and 1946, only six−of whom four were awarded the honour posthumously−were women. Similarly, the role of non French resistance fighters, including Spanish Republicans and eastern European Jews, and indeed that of the Allied armies, was marginalised by a narrative that emphasised the national dimension of Resistance to the Nazi occupation. De Gaulle was determined, not unwisely, to fuel the belief that a huge majority of the French supported the Resistance, in order to unify a country that had been humiliated and deeply scarred by the shame of occupation and collaboration at all levels of society.
The fruit of extraordinary research, Gildea’s book weaves multiple stories of individual heroism and bravery, whilst drawing attention to foreign elements of the Resistance that were eclipsed and forgotten after the war in the service of the greater Gaullist myth of France as its own liberator. In exhausting detail Gildea interleaves a strongly argued re-evaluation of the historical record, including fascinating analysis of the French fury at the Allied landings in French North Africa in late 1942, with individual stories of resistance, as well as accounts of the inevitable power struggles such as that between de Gaulle and the iconic figure of Jean Moulin. A chapter on the long underplayed role of women in the Resistance shows how for many French women the war offered an opportunity to break out of their gendered straightjacket, challenging deeply conservative social conventions (women did not get the vote in France until 1945). The ideological struggle was epitomised by the contrast between Pétainist strategies to keep women at home, and participation in resistance activities that, as so many men were captured and imprisoned, increasingly involved women in the underground and even armed struggle against the Germans.
Even less than that of women, the Jewish role in the resistance was barely acknowledged after the war. Symbolically, Gildea places the story of Jewish resistance at the literal heart (chapter 8 of 15) of his book. “Forty or fifty years after the war,” Gildea explains, “the story told about Jews was as victims or as rescuers; the question of Jews as resisters, which had been a source of legitimacy for them at the Liberation, had been eclipsed from memory.” He goes so far as to argue that the plethora of foreigners, including Jews, who were active in the Resistance demands “a reconsideration” of what we understand the French Resistance to have been. Certainly the story of what the communist Jewish resistant Henri Krischer called the “Yiddishland revolutionaries” turns out to be as complex and impossible to assimilate into a single narrative thread as any other element of that period, when resistance groups were aligned with a variety of political and ideological positions, often rooted in their national origins. The Russian Jews of the Marais tended to be religious and Zionist, whilst the Polish Jews who lived in eastern Paris tended towards Communism, recalling the Jewish-Communist alliance that had been active in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, evidence of how “the narrative of persecuted Jewry and international anti-fascist struggle intersected with each other.
As anti-Jewish legislation was ramped up after 1940, Jewish resistance in both occupied and unoccupied France took multiple forms, from providing welfare for orphaned children to the manufacturing of false papers, the printing and distribution of posters and tracts, and the establishment of armed resistance groups. Some Zionist Jews joined the Jewish Army, with outposts in Nice and Lyon, which answered to the Haganah rather than to any French resistance group. After the rafle du Vel d’Hiv, the huge round up in Paris of foreign Jews, in July 1942, the focus was as much on rescue as resistance. Gildea quotes the Jewish communist David Diamant, who claimed that very act of survival was itself a way of fighting the Nazis. Indeed, rescue became a form of resistance, and Gildea recounts many extremely risky and brave acts of individual heroism.
The truth that the French have had to struggle with since the Gaullist resistance myth began to crumble is that only a minority of French people were mobilised by the Resistance. Some were drawn into active collaboration; most simply “muddled through” with varying degrees of support for Pétain and Vichy. As Gildea says, and as his unravelling of the multiple stories of communists, Jews and other foreigners suggests, “it may be more accurate to talk less about the French resistance than about resistance in France.”
De Gaulle recognised the centrality of the narrative of resistance to the re-establishment of a noble French identity after the frenzy and violence of the épuration that began even before the liberation. Paradoxically, this is one instance of history not being written by the victors, at least not in a straightforward way. By the 1950s former Vichy politicians began to be rehabilitated and some even returned to positions of power, whilst the Cold War offered the opportunity for the Communist resistance to be discredited by right wing politicians. In 1961-2 the Algerian war tore France apart, and again the Gaullist resistance myth was brought into service in order to unify the nation and reinforce de Gaulle’s status as the leader that France needed. Even today, the war’s long shadow still falls, as the Front National’s Marine Le Pen is gaining the popularity necessary to confer political legitimacy on the far right for the first time since 1940 and, terrifyingly, modern French identity seems once again to be up for grabs.