[Marxism] New book on the French Resistance

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Oct 28 17:05:51 MDT 2016

LRB, Vol. 38 No. 21 · 3 November 2016
Wait and See
Richard J. Evans

The French Resistance by Olivier Wieviorka, translated by Jane Marie Todd
Harvard, 569 pp, £31.95, April, ISBN 978 0 674 73122 6

On 18 June 1940 Charles de Gaulle, speaking from London, where he had 
arrived the previous day, denounced the new government led by Marshal 
Philippe Pétain, which had called for an armistice after the 
comprehensive defeat of France’s armed forces at the hands of the 
Wehrmacht. ‘Nothing is lost for France,’ he declared. ‘The war is not 
over as a result of the Battle of France. This war is a world war.’ The 
global French empire could still throw its weight into the struggle: 
‘The flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will 
not be extinguished.’ Pétain, whose authoritarian government had set 
about destroying the liberal institutions of the Third Republic and 
inaugurating a regime of fascist-style national renewal, responded on 2 
August by having de Gaulle condemned to death in absentia for treason. 
Later the same month, French Equatorial Africa and Cameroon declared 
their allegiance to de Gaulle, and he declared himself leader of the 
Free French and the only legitimate representative of the French nation.

In 1944, when the war in France was effectively over, de Gaulle briefly 
took a leading part in French politics. He withdrew from public life to 
write his memoirs after tiring of the fractious parliamentarianism of 
the Fourth Republic, but returned to found and lead a Fifth Republic 
based, unlike its predecessors, on a strong presidency. In his memoirs, 
and elsewhere, he claimed that his speech on 18 June 1940 marked the 
beginning of the resistance movement that triumphed on 26 August 1944 
when de Gaulle entered Paris at the head of the Free French. In an 
attempt to heal the deep divisions of wartime France, where the 
collaborationist Vichy regime had enjoyed widespread support from 
conservative sections of the population, de Gaulle portrayed the 
Resistance as a mass uprising of the French nation against the German 
occupiers and a handful of collaborators. Nobody had to feel guilty, 
because everybody was on the winning side, and France as a whole had 
triumphed against the Nazis and its puppet government in Vichy.

The reality, as Olivier Wieviorka shows in this magisterial book, ably 
translated by Jane Marie Todd, was rather different. De Gaulle had not 
in fact called on the entire French population to rise up in 1940, but 
had tried to persuade officers and soldiers, engineers, armaments 
specialists and other professionals to join him on English territory. 
The Free French army was intended to be a conventional military force, 
located in England, where it would prepare for the invasion of the 
Continent. De Gaulle did nothing to help the French who remained at home 
wage a guerrilla war, engage in acts of sabotage, or organise themselves 
in any way. His radio appeal reached a limited audience in any case, 
since only 6.5 million people in France owned a wireless set, and both 
the German occupiers and the Vichy authorities did everything they could 
to disrupt foreign broadcasts and stop people listening to them. The 
French Resistance did not come about because of de Gaulle’s call to 
arms, but because of developments within France itself.

For a long time the history of the Resistance was written by those who 
had taken part in it. Henri Noguères, a prominent Resistance fighter who 
published a massive Histoire de la résistance en France de 1940 à 1945 
in five volumes between 1967 and 1981, wrote that waiting for the 
archives to be opened would mean ‘giving up the idea that this history 
was not only written but also debated – and controlled – by those who 
lived it.’ The Resistance was portrayed as a universal and united 
movement uninterested in political issues and motivated only by a pure 
sense of patriotism. It is time, Wieviorka writes, ‘to storm these 
Bastilles of memory’ and subject the Resistance to a cool and objective 
process of historicisation; time to cast ‘an ethically remote gaze on a 
mythic – not to say mythicised – page of French history’.

Wieviorka shows that the Resistance was divided and fragmented from the 
start, and that the many and varied organisations that constituted it 
were often driven by political ideology. The large, well-organised 
Communist Party had been outlawed in September 1939 and did little 
except issue verbal protests against the policies of the Vichy regime 
while the USSR remained an ally of Germany (the Nazi-Soviet Pact had 
been signed shortly before the outbreak of the war). The trade unions 
remained inactive. In the early phase of the war, most French people 
adopted an attitude of ‘wait and see’. Resistance would be pointless if, 
as seemed likely up until the spring of 1941, Germany was going to 
conquer Britain and dominate Europe for the foreseeable future. Military 
action was impossible. Groups that opposed the Germans could do little 
more than keep ‘French values’, however defined, alive in clandestine 
newspapers and flysheets, and prepare for a future fight by squirrelling 
away weapons and ammunition abandoned by the defeated French armies. 
Some groups, including one that was based at the Musée de l’homme and 
recently featured in the television miniseries Résistance, devoted 
themselves to helping British prisoners of war to escape.

Initially, the Resistance avoided criticising Pétain and his rule in 
unoccupied France. Some on the right even dismissed those who had 
‘retreated to England’ as ‘a clique of Communist and Freemason Jews’. 
There were supporters of the Vichy regime who embraced its ideals but 
continued to oppose collaboration in the northern and western parts of 
the country. Pétain’s secret service continued to spy on the Germans, 
monitoring their radio traffic and passing on decrypted intelligence to 
the British. Between January 1941 and June 1942 the Vichy authorities 
arrested 194 suspected German agents and condemned thirty of them to 
death. Senior army officers gathered arms and ammunition and drew up 
plans for mobilisation against the Germans when the moment came. Their 
activities were tolerated, and to a degree even encouraged, by Pétain 
and his entourage. De Gaulle meanwhile seemed indifferent to the early 
Resistance movement in France.

The situation changed dramatically with the German invasion of the 
Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. Overnight, the Communist Party became a 
central element in the Resistance. It was well prepared. In the spring 
of 1941 the Communist International had issued a call for the party in 
France to form a National Front of Struggle for the Freedom and 
Independence of France, which would unite all French people in the fight 
‘against invaders and traitors’. Now the Communists, some of whom had 
experience of armed combat in the Spanish Civil War, began following the 
Comintern’s order to disrupt arms production with acts of sabotage. They 
staged protests and demonstrations, distributed leaflets, attacked 
members of the German armed forces, and targeted premises owned by 
collaborationists. Their aim was in part to trigger German reprisals. 
‘With the announcement that five or ten of our people have been shot,’ 
one Communist admitted, ‘we sign up fifty or a hundred new members.’ De 
Gaulle’s disapproval of their actions deepened the rift between the Free 
French and the Communists. They were also controversial within the party 
itself: Lenin had condemned ‘individual terror’ because he thought it 
demonstrated a complete failure to understand the forces of history and 
the role of the masses.

The labour conscription programme initiated by the Vichy regime in 
September 1941, which sent large numbers of young Frenchmen to Germany 
against their will, provoked many others into joining the Resistance. 
The rapidly intensifying persecution of French Jews in both the occupied 
and unoccupied zones was not a central focus of the Resistance, which 
remained silent to the end on the genocide, though there were a few 
cases of individuals or small groups helping Jews go into hiding. But 
the round-up and deportation of French Jews to the extermination camps 
in the East certainly incited young Jewish men and women to join its 
ranks. In November 1942, after the Allied campaign began in North 
Africa, the Germans brusquely shoved the Vichy regime aside and occupied 
southern France, sweeping away the dilemmas of pro-Vichy resisters in 
the process.

More important to the growth of the Resistance than any of this, 
however, were more general factors about which Wieviorka has relatively 
little to say. Ruthless German exploitation deprived France of resources 
in order to sustain the domestic economy of the Third Reich. The petrol 
supply had fallen to 8 per cent of its prewar levels by 1943, while the 
British blockade reduced grain supplies by 50 per cent between 1938 and 
1940 and the drafting of farm workers to forced labour in Germany 
further reduced food supplies. The Germans introduced rationing, but 
nobody could live off the official allowance of 1300 calories a day, so 
a huge black market quickly emerged – and where there is a black market, 
there is always resistance to the authorities. Workers went on strike, 
saying they could not work the long hours required of them on the meagre 
rations they were allowed. By the spring of 1941 it was clear that there 
would be no invasion of Britain. In December 1941 the German armies 
suffered their first serious reversal when they were halted by the Red 
Army before Moscow. In May 1942 the first thousand-bomber raid on 
Cologne inaugurated nearly two years of mass destruction of Germany’s 
towns and cities. Just under a year later came the catastrophe of 
Stalingrad, where the remnants of the German 6th Army were forced to 
surrender in February 1943. In July the invasion of Sicily, then the 
Italian mainland, and then the fall of Mussolini, took Hitler’s 
principal ally out of the struggle. There was now no need to wait and 
see: Hitler was clearly going to lose the war.

By early 1943, as Wieviorka notes, ‘the army of shadows, a small 
minority until late 1942, therefore had hopes of becoming a mass 
phenomenon.’ Groups of resisters distributed leaflets urging young men 
to resist labour conscription, helped them evade arrest, provided them 
with false papers, or took them off to Brittany, the Alps, the Pyrenees 
or the Massif Central to join the Maquis, a diverse collection of armed 
resistance organisations based in mountainous areas far from the centres 
of German control. Efforts to unite the resistance and form it into a 
national organisation redoubled, and the flood of young men into the 
Maquis helped broaden the movement beyond its regional bases.

De Gaulle was sceptical of the Maquis: the Communists were reluctant to 
join forces with groups further to the right, regional loyalties died 
hard, and the Germans were constantly infiltrating and breaking up 
resistance groups. Nevertheless, by the middle of 1943 a number of 
regional and super-regional networks had emerged that were able to pool 
resources and engage in specialist activities such as forging papers, 
printing and distributing propaganda, and liaising with the British, who 
sent about a thousand agents into France as couriers, sabotage and arms 
instructors, radio operators and organisers, along with some 4000 tons 
of arms and equipment.

However, neither the British nor the Americans had much faith in the 
ability of the Resistance to pull off successful military actions, and 
preferred to send bombers to destroy key targets rather than rely on 
ground-based sabotage. Up to half of the missions carried out by the 
Special Operations Executive failed, in any case, because the drops were 
made in the wrong place, or were intercepted by the Germans. The British 
did not trust de Gaulle, and they were even more hostile to the 
Communists. They believed that the increasing centralisation of the 
Resistance played into the hands of the Germans because it meant that 
they would be able to destroy the movement’s coherence if they managed 
to arrest a handful of its leaders – this view came to be shared by the 
Resistance itself after the arrest of the leading proponent of 
centralisation, Jean Moulin, on 21 June 1943. For their part, members of 
the Resistance felt undervalued by the British and complained that 
bombing, unlike sabotage, cost civilian lives.

German repression had many notable successes, including the deaths of up 
to sixty thousand members of the Resistance. Wieviorka has little time 
for the French men and women who joined the Gestapo in hunting down 
members of the Resistance – they were drawn from the underworld of 
collaboration or the black market and ‘motivated by a combination of 
ideology and greed’. But he has some sympathy for those who became 
double agents after being tortured. Overall the actions of the Germans 
and the feared special police of the Vichy regime, the Milice, failed to 
inflict significant damage on the Resistance. Indeed, in 1943 the 
Resistance managed to put a stop to forced labour deportations, and 
played a part in saving 75 per cent of French Jews from extermination by 
the Nazis.

A decisive change in the nature of the Resistance came about in 1944, 
when the Allies at last began to prepare for the Normandy landings. The 
British and the Americans, and de Gaulle and the Free French, saw that 
the Resistance was important because it could use sabotage and 
subversion to detain German troops and use up resources that would 
otherwise be committed to repelling the invasion. Military hardware was 
dropped into France in far greater quantities than before, with 268 
successful operations in March 1944, 613 in April and more than a 
thousand in June. Enough was sent to France, from England or North 
Africa, between January and late May 1944, to arm 125,000 men. 
Frightened of German reprisals, or worse, a social revolution, de 
Gaulle, now working closely with key members of the Resistance, opted 
for short, targeted operations against the occupying forces, while the 
Communists favoured strikes and a national uprising.

On 5 June 1944, a few hours before the D-Day landings, 210 coded radio 
messages launched the sabotage and subversion campaign. Armed with 
machine guns, bazookas, mines and other weapons, and trained in their 
use by teams of British agents, the Resistance cut off 950 railway lines 
in June 1944 alone, reducing traffic by 50 per cent. It took the German 
27th Infantry Division 17 days to get from Redon to Avranches at an 
average speed of just seven miles a day. This is merely one example of 
the campaign’s many successes. Large numbers of volunteers joined the 
Resistance. It was never strong enough to confront the Germans directly, 
but the assistance it gave the Allies during the invasion in 1944 was a 
significant military achievement.

As the Resistance expanded, so a kind of underground political life 
began to emerge. Different groups began to jockey for the positions they 
hoped to occupy after the war. De Gaulle set up a shadow state, 
appointing forty prefects who discreetly installed themselves in their 
departments ready to take over. The home Resistance movement established 
Departmental Liberation Committees that planned to reform the Republic 
so that it would never again be susceptible to the division and 
demoralisation that had led to defeat in 1940. De Gaulle and the 
Resistance co-operated to ensure that the French and not the Allies 
would take over once the Germans had left. The Communists tried to take 
charge of the organisational structures required by the liberation 
process, but they were unable to liaise with the Allied general staff 
and were mostly confined to Paris, where their core support was located. 
The hostility of the Gaullists, socialists and other Resistance groups 
prevented them from launching the national insurrection they desired. 
Even in Paris, they failed to seize command of the Resistance and 
controlled only about a fifth of the fighting force that went into 
action there. Conservative fears that there would be a repeat of the 
1871 Paris Commune, when a radical left-wing republic emerged and a 
brief civil war ensued as it was reconquered from outside, were scarcely 
justified. When the barricades did go up, and the Resistance fought the 
occupying German troops with the backing of the Allies, the ultimate 
victor was de Gaulle.

Most members of the Resistance believed that after the war was over a 
new and better France would rise from the ashes. Leading members of the 
Resistance even proclaimed the need for a new French Revolution. In 1946 
a new constitution replaced the discredited Third Republic with a new 
set of institutions. A series of purges carried out at every level 
ousted ‘collaborators’ from politics and administration. In the 
elections of 21 October 1945 there was a marked shift to the left, with 
the previously dominant Radicals and the traditional right suffering 
heavy losses. But de Gaulle refused to put himself at the head of a 
party, despite pleas from former members of the Resistance, since he 
conceived of himself as the leader of the whole of France.

The Resistance was unable to assert itself as a political entity, and 
the Communists and the Socialists insisted on retaining their separate 
identities and their old politics. The old right survived, and many of 
those initially excluded from power eventually returned. The provisional 
government nationalised industries and brought in new welfare measures, 
which caused some major social changes but hardly amounted to a 
revolution. In the end, it was an ‘incomplete victory’ for the 
Resistance. Before long the political wheeling and dealing 
characteristic of the Third Republic returned. The biggest problem 
facing France – what to do with its global empire, from Algeria to 
Indo-China – remained unsolved. French society seemed largely unchanged: 
the real transition to modernity did not take place until some years 
after the war. The political culture was held together by the myth of 
universal and united resistance led by the Free French. It was not until 
the 1970s that this myth was finally shattered and critical accounts of 
the Resistance began to appear alongside works exposing the role of 
Vichy in the betrayal of the French Jews.


Wieviorka’s engrossing book sums up much of this revisionist work and 
places it in its historical context. His authoritative and readable 
history is marred only by an excessive use of acronyms (a typical 
passage describes ‘an agreement between Georges Beaufils (Latour), head 
of the FTP, Mangin (Marbot), interim DMN … merging the command 
structures of the AS and the FTP to form a single organisation, the FFI. 
On 1 February 1944, the CCDMR created COMIDAC, which aspired to take 
charge of the FFI’s actions. General Revers, representative of the ORA, 
would hold a seat’). There are some fine passages evoking the everyday 
life of Resistance activists, some of whom embraced a life of adventure 
and took hair-raising risks. Those, on the other hand, who thought of 
resistance as a duty could be cautious to the point of timidity. Some 
were grimly ascetic; others embraced life to the full since it might 
come to a sudden end at any moment. For most, life was hard. They 
covered huge distances on bicycles, stayed in cramped and unheated 
apartments, travelled constantly on overcrowded trains, and lived in 
constant fear of being discovered by the Gestapo, always looking over 
their shoulder to see if they were being followed. Most were cut off 
from friends and family. Many of them used pseudonyms; the Gaullist 
secret services adopted geometrical terms and called their agents 
Hypothénuse Droite, Polygone, Circonférence and the like. A few carried 
cyanide capsules to use if they were arrested.

For all his declared intention of myth-busting, Wieviorka falls victim 
to the greatest and most comforting myth of all: that ‘the vast majority 
of the population rejected collaboration and were viscerally opposed to 
Germany,’ by 1941 at the latest. He underplays the extent to which Vichy 
enjoyed popular support and embodied long established right-wing 
authoritarian and anti-Semitic traditions that went back to the Dreyfus 
Affair and continued after the war with Poujadism and the Front 
National. According to Wieviorka, the authoritarian corporatism and 
reactionary, anti-Semitic politics of Vichy only satisfied ‘a fringe of 
the general population and of the elites that had long militated for 
change’ and were supported by ‘a fraction of the political body’. The 
main effect of Vichy, he claims, was to create ‘a powerful basis for 

In fact, the creation of the Pétain regime was supported by the 
overwhelming majority of parliamentarians, who voted for it by 570 to 80 
with 20 abstentions. Its true nature was no secret. ‘Parliamentary 
democracy has lost the war,’ Pierre Laval, Pétain’s prime minister, 
declared in July 1940. ‘It must disappear and give way to an 
authoritarian, hierarchical, national and social regime.’ Wieviorka 
deals with this uncomfortable fact by ascribing the vote to ‘panic’ and 
to a belief among the political elite that Pétain and his core 
supporters, such as Laval, were ‘secretly supporting the Allies and even 
General de Gaulle’. But why should we think their backing of Pétain and 
his ideas was not genuine? After all, the Catholic Church in France was 
a strong supporter of the Vichy regime, and its influence was far from 

Abandoning all the careful distinctions he made at the beginning of his 
book, Wieviorka soon has ‘the French people … taking to the streets’, he 
describes how ‘the French rose to the challenge’ and writes sweepingly 
of ‘the French people’, their ‘patriotic feelings’ and ‘the patriotic 
frenzy’ that ‘took hold of the country’ after the D-Day landings. 
Writing a history of the Resistance without simultaneously writing a 
history of the many different levels and varieties of collaboration 
reinforces the myth of universal opposition to the Germans. Unlike many 
French historians, Wieviorka makes good use of English-language 
research, but it is telling that while he lists Rod Kedward’s important 
books on the Resistance in his bibliography, he makes no mention of 
Robert Gildea’s subtle exploration of the nuances of ‘resistance’ and 
‘collaboration’ in his groundbreaking work Marianne in Chains (2002). 
Gildea showed that most French people were simply trying to survive and 
adapted in myriad ways to the reality of German occupation and dominance.

Wieviorka does not deal with the more than 76,000 French people who 
volunteered for labour in Germany by 1942, or the 40,000 who agreed to 
work there in return for the release of French prisoners of war, except 
to say dismissively that these figures were considered disappointing by 
the authorities. He concentrates instead on the resistance to the labour 
conscription that resulted in 300,000 Frenchmen being forced to work in 
Nazi Germany. As Louis Malle implied in his 1974 film Lacombe, Lucien, 
differences in circumstances determined whether people chose to work 
with the Germans or fight against them. The difficulty of such choices 
doesn’t really come through in this book: Wieviorka gives the impression 
that all people were doing was going along with the overwhelming 
feelings of the entire French people. By focusing on the organisational 
history of the Resistance, he evades the wider and more troubling issues 
of how far it was actually embedded in civil society, and what made so 
many French people come to an arrangement with the victorious Germans, 
tolerate their policies, share their ideas or support their actions. The 
‘Bastilles of memory’ Wieviorka purports to have stormed are still intact.

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