Thursday 17 June 2010

De Gaulle and the Myth of Resistance

Tomorrow is one of the most famous days in French history. It marks the anniversary in 1940 when Charles de Gaulle appealed on BBC radio in London to his countrymen urging them to continue to resist the Germans, even though the government of the day had formally surrendered to the invading army. Famous, yes, an event being marked by commemorations across the land. President Sarkozy himself will attend a ceremony at Mont Valereien near Paris, where a memorial to the French Resistance is situated, before flying to London to visit studio B2, from where de Gaulle made his broadcast, saying, in noble words, that "Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not and will not be extinguished."

There is only one small problem: it’s a myth. Oh, not the broadcast; that's real enough, something that happened because Winston Churchill, the prime minister, allowed it to happen in the face of opposition from the rest of the war cabinet. It's a myth because de Gaulle was probably heard by enough people to fill a village hall. The chances are, moreover, few of those who did listen on that bleak day in French history, when a great part of the nation was on the road fleeing from the German advance, had ever heard of this figure, a senior soldier but a minor politician. It's a myth - and here is the uncomfortable truth -because the vast bulk of the French population were relieved by the call for the armistice. The vast bulk of the French population rallied behind another soldier altogether and were to remain behind him for years to come. He was Philippe Petain, the new Prime Minister and subsequently head of the French state established at Vichy.

But history is often made retrospectively. De Gaulle, in the end, was on the side of the winners and Petain, Petain, whose side was he on? The losers, the answer has to come because he was tried and condemned as a traitor in 1945. But Petain was not Pierre Laval, who did more or less take the side of losers he believed were to be winners; Petain, rather like de Gaulle, took the side of France, though there are few now who would admit to this, preferring to sweep Vichy into a shameful oblivion. There is much about the Vichy regime that is shameful but the shame is not Petain's it is not even Laval's: the shame is France’s

No matter; in the end the obscure figure in London, stiff, totally lacking in humour, unimaginative and uncompromising came like a new Joan of Arc to save the conscience of the nation. He came in time to create the myth of resistance passing into shameful memory the realities of collaboration. Thus is history born; thus are nations made.


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  2. No, Adam, I don't think I have.

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  5. I did my Ph.D. on the thought of Louis Rougier who met Churchill in London as a secret emissary of the Vichy regime in the latter part of 1940. Rougier hated De Gaulle, and, though it wasn't the topic of my research, the story of his secret mission and his time in New York with other exiles is a fascinating one. He was a friend of Simone Weil. He was rehabilitated in the 1950s, but remained pretty much in the shadows because of the Vichy link.

  6. I must say that I find such retrospective judgementalism distasteful. It seems to me to be coloured by chauvinism.

    How would the British have behaved had they shared a land border with Germany and been overrun by the Nazis? It is too easy for us, in comfort and ease, to say what others should have done in extremis, in another time and place.

  7. Adam, thanks for that link.

    Mark, yes it's a fascinating story. Was your thesis published? I would like to have a look.

    Brendano, I don't think I'm being the least bit judgemental and I certainly can't trace any chauvinism. I'm a historian by training and instinct and I try to look at these issues in clear objective term. Here I've made a series of inferences on the basis of some clear empirical facts, inferences that I think would be generally accepted by those working in this particular field of French history. I'm not at all interested in dealing with speculative what ifs, and this is not an exercise in national or political one-upmanship. Nations exist by myths of one kind or another; it's the task of a scholar to subject them to some detailed scrutiny.

    If you want to deepen your understanding here you could do no better than have a look at France: the Dark Years, 1940-1944 by Julian Jackson, one of the best English language texts available on the subject.

  8. brendano7 ( has left a new comment on your post "De Gaulle and the Myth of Resistance":

    Ana, you say 'the shame is France’s ... the myth of resistance passing into shameful memory the realities of collaboration'. I can't see that assigning 'shame' to other present-day nations on the basis of past events is in any way scholarly.

    I think it's fair to say that you've posted blogs on MyT that were patent exercises in national or political one-upmanship ... retaliation, you said, against a France-based Englishman. Retaliation isn't very scholarly either, especially when misplaced.

    Brendano, this is not My T! Sorry, I seem to have removed you latest post by accident in attempting to edit my own, so I've added it back under my name. Sorry for the confusion.

    For years after the war the French tried to pretend the collaboration was a minority activity, tried to disguise the very active role they played in the Holocaust, more active even than the Italian fascists. When Louis Malle released Lacombe Lucien in 1974, a film that depicts an aspect of wartime collaboration, it was to prove hugely controversial. The Former president Fran├žois Mitterrand, himself a minor Vichy functionary, always refused to apologise for the infamous Vel d'Hive round up of French Jews in 1942. It goes on like this. Still, things are changing bit by bit, a new understanding of historical realities setting in. That particular incident was even the subject of another movie recently, much bette received than Lacombe Lucien.

    Returning to My T I'm an unashamed polemicist there but a lot of my so-called frog blogs were a tongue-in-cheek broadside against that moron and racist Richard of Orleans, whom I note that you entertain on your own site.

    Brendano, I think you mean well but you are out of your depth here. Besides it's a really bad idea to attempt to patronise me. I do hope you understand. :-)

  9. Sorry, a point of clarification : I do not mean out of your depth on this blog but on this particular subject. Now you have been matronised. :-))

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  12. Ana, I wrote a blog about De Gaulle on MyT about six months ago which included this summary:

    De Gaulle despite his faults, his pride, his sometimes apparent absurdity, remained the bedrock of France. He alone represented a French dream and an idependent French identity. Gaullist certainly. But as a Catholic, De Gaulle was anti-Communist and under no illusion what this atheist regime stood for. Yet, De Gaulle also found a friend and the future of France in 1960’s Moscow. This is politics. It was and possibly still is the French way of finding influence in the world.

  13. Ana, After reading BLGF I thought being judgemental a fine thing. More often than not it all depends on how much insight and intelligence a person has :-)

  14. That's OK, Ana.

    I freely admit that I am out of my depth in terms of knowledge of the Second World War, but what I say does not depend on such knowledge (if it did I wouldn't say it) ... I'm pointing to what I see as chauvinism in the here and now.

    I disagree with a lot of what Richard says, and have often told him so. However, he did manipulate you in becoming a kind of mirror image of him at times.

    He never says any objectionable stuff on my blog, perhaps because there's nobody there that would rise to it (or, a lot of the time, there's just nobody there :-)). If you do happen to go there, say hello.

    And be careful whom you matronize; some might enjoy it overly. :-)

  15. Ana, you asked if the thesis was published. No though it's available online - but it's not really history but rather history of ideas. You would not be out of your depth so much as plain bored I think. :-) Jeffery Mehlman has a chapter on Rougier in his Emigre New York: French intellectuals in wartime Manhattan, 1940-1944 (Johns Hopkins UP, 2000). [Thesis is at]

  16. Nobby, that's an excellent summary. On your latter point, yes, I think you are probably right. West is judgemental as all hell. :-)

  17. Brendano, chauvinism might be in the now but it is not in the here!

    Actually, that was quite intentional. Too many people were taking the ludicrous man seriously, arguing on his own blogs, which I never did, arguing on his terms, which I never did. Instead I decide to throw him on the defensive, in part to pull his tail, in part to show up his remarkable ignorance of aspects of French politics, history and culture. Do you read French at all? His syntax and comprehension is terrible. I don’t think he lives in France at all, or if he does he does not get out much.

    I do come to your page and I’ve enjoyed reading your posts. I would have said something on the O’Connell piece but not only is Dickey on your blog, so too is that awful inverted snob Cymbeline. I know you have good relations with that person, so I won’t say any more other than she/he is deeply resentful of me, as I think you may have noticed. I for my part, so far as I am aware, have never engaged with her/him in any way.

    Oh, I really enjoyed the Kevin Meyers article, a superb piece of straight-talking and no nonsense journalism. I intend to write a spin, though I suspect you may not entirely approve. :-)

  18. Mark, I enjoy philisophy and the history of ideas so I will certainly have a look. Thanks for letting me know.

  19. Hello again Ana. My French is of schoolboy level and largely forgotten ... my Irish is a bit better. :-)

    I've been reading Myers and off for 30 years ... he used to write a column in the Irish Times. I sometimes had letters disagreeing with him published in that paper. His politics would be similar to yours, i.e. libertarian, and he has always been a stern critic of 'PC' and of the 'Republican Movement'. He did see a lot of the outrages of the early Troubles at first hand.