Saturday 20 June 2009

The Resistance, Alibi of a Nation

A second bite at French history, war-time history, in one session: there is simply no stopping me!

Anyway, I’ve been skimming through Matthew Cobb’s recently published The Resistance: the French Fight Against the Nazis. Interestingly enough, considering the importance of this topic, considering how much it has entered the popular imagination through visual media, there is very little published material in the English language.

I commend this book; commend it, for blowing away some cherished myths: that the Resistance made an important contribution to the Allied victory-it did not; that most French people were in favour of its actions-they were not. The Resisters, like the arch collaborators, were in a tiny minority. Most people simply wanted to be left alone, to get on with life; most people identified with Petain and Vichy until there was no more point in identifying with either. As Arthur Koestler put it as long ago as 1942;

When the scales of success turn in favour of England, the barricades will emerge from the pavements of the towns of France, the snipers will appear behind the attic windows and the people will fight in the old days. Not before.

Many of those in the Resistance were Communists, traitors before June 1941, and ‘patriots’ after. The fighting, such as they did, was often more against each other, in murderous fratricidal disputes, rather than against the Germans. Only Jean Moulin, a true patriot, gave the overall movement a degree of coherence, and then only temporarily. If there had to be resistance then the Germans could have wished for no better enemy. Right up to the Liberation the Gestapo had no difficulties in recruiting French spies to penetrate the various groups.

It’s often said that reprisals, the kind of savage reprisals the Nazis specialised in, had an effect contrary to that intended, drawing in ever greater degrees of opposition. Well, in the case of France, they did not: the harsher the reprisals, the more people began to hate and resent the resisters who had occasioned them. When Jacques Bingen, a French SOE agent, escaped from the Gestapo in Clermont-Ferrand, a woman stopped a passing German lorry and pointed out where he was in hiding. And this was in May 1944, while the nation was on the frontier of liberation.

Cobb writes well. More important, he writes with authority and objectivity. One cannot but admire the courage of a few selfless people, tremendous courage in the face of the most ruthless enemy. But, in the end, the Resistance did not raise France from the ashes. That honour belongs to Charles de Gaulle, the greatest patriot of all.


  1. Hello! I admire your work and I want to tell you something:an historian have the responsibility to go back to the source of an event.On your post concerning the French resistance, you wrote about the different point of vue.You are partly right,I suppose;except on the understanding of the period:You need to study how the frenchies felt their life;how they have been astonished for them, to be crushed by the German army, which was supposedly defeated in 1918! And supposedly to have an invicible army (the "Front Populaire government",the alliance of Communist party and Socialist party assured people to have an invincible army).In France, you can see in every village a war memorial(or in every churches) with names on the three sides, sometime several in the same family!(World War I)
    I want to remind you the absolute disintegration of the government. I’m 54 years old and I was born in an old French family, and know my relatives and some elders,some friends who were veteran, who lived this period, and I listen to them told me their history. Concerning this period,I like the books of Henri Amouroux a passed French historian :" le peuple du désastre.1939-1940".Ed.Robert Laffont S.A.,Paris 1976.(In English,I suppose:"the people of the tragedy") and the six others books he wrote on this period.Because, now, many want to rewrite the History,with a malicious intention to sully the memory of the Field marshal Pétain which was the only choice of the French National Assembly:569 votes in order to accept Him. They delegated their responsibility, to the "winner" of Verdun (WWI);The Field Marshal accepted to: « don't move abroad...and to accept the suffering which will be imposedto the homeland and its sons(...)I shall remain with the French People tomorrow to share their struggles, their sadness and their suffering.(...)"La signature de l'armistice" is necessary to ensure the France survival and its durability ».And the only one who don't accuse Him after the German's capitulation was le General De Gaulle!
    I don't agree with Vichy's Government but it is another tale!

  2. That's great, Ortho, thanks. Yes, there is so much more that needs to be said about this whole period, especially in the English-speaking world. I personally feel that a great disservice was done to the memory of Marshal Petain. There are also some things to be said in favour of Vichy, heretical as that may sound. Please keep watching: I don't think you will learn anything you do not already know, but I think you may find my perspective-an English perspective-intriguing!