Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance by Robert Gildea

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Reviewed by Falaise

Back in the ancient mists of time – or, at least, 1986 – a youthful version of me (think a bad David Bowie hairstyle perched on top of big glasses and a mass of acne) was packed off to France during the school holidays on a language exchange trip. One of the more interesting episodes of the stay was the day I spent in the local French lycée and, in particular, the history lesson I attended. This comprised a video documentary about D-Day and the subsequent liberation of France. The film portrayed France as having been freed by a combination of General de Gaulle’s Free French forces and the sabotage efforts of the French Resistance. Scarcely an American was to be seen and, as for us Brits, one would have been forgiven for thinking that we’d all stayed in bed on June 6, 1944.

That difference in perception has nagged away at me ever since and is neatly explained in Robert Gildea’s fascinating new history of resistance in France during the Nazi occupation. In order to protect France’s position as a major power with a seat at the victor’s table and to cement de Gaulle’s legitimacy as head of state, a national myth had to be created and embedded into both French and international consciousness. France needed to be seen to have liberated itself and the French people had to be perceived as having resisted the German occupiers, with any collaborators to be isolated as an unrepresentative minority and made an example of. Once established, this foundational story of the Fourth Republic had to be maintained and made part of the core of French national identity.

Of course, as Gildea points out, the truth was quite different. The armed internal resistance in France was always relatively small in number and the Free French forces similarly limited, with de Gaulle’s standing as the leader of France in exile being regularly threatened by America’s contemplation of a deal with Vichy France all the way up to the middle of 1944. Further, especially in the early part of the Occupation, the overwhelming attitude of the French appears to have been one of attentisme – waiting and seeing. Even the French Communist Party, which might well have been expected to lead internal resistance was supine in the face of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. In his earlier book, Marianne in Chains, Gildea exploded the myth that collaboration was a minority sport during the Occupation and he repeats the point again here, noting that by October 1943, some 85,000 French women had borne babies with German fathers.

But not only was the level of resistance itself neither as widespread nor as forceful as Gaullist legend would have it, it was also much less French and much less male than was convenient for the new French state. For possibly the greatest thing that Fighters in the Shadows has achieved is to shine a light on the groups of resisters that official French narrative had, until recently, ignored – Jews, women and foreigners.

The archetype of the internal French resistance fighter is that of the domesticated Frenchman who, on hearing the code word over a BBC broadcast, takes up his gun to attack the occupier, emerging from his house or from his hiding place in the maquis. Certainly, and especially after the Relève of 1942, there is some truth in this, but it is by no means the whole truth. Most of these fighters were young (some 80% of Resistance members were under 30) and with no, or very little, military training. They tended to be brave but limited and many of the more effective Resistance fighting units were led by, or composed of, foreigners – veteran anti-fascists from the Spanish Civil War, Eastern European Jews who had emigrated to France in the face of the German invasion of their homelands, British SOE operatives parachuted in to occupied territory and even a few German resisters.

The second group of resisters that was originally airbrushed from history comprised Jews – both French and foreign. This, of course, not only fitted the Gaullist narrative, but also worked well with the growth of the post-War idea of the Jews as victims, which took hold as the full story of the Holocaust became clear. In defining resistance not just as the use of military force but also as sabotage, rescue and symbolic refusal of occupation, Gildea allows Jewish resisters to take more of the limelight not as victims but as protagonists, organizing rescue lines, taking to the maquis to fight and helping Jewish internees escape from Vichy’s camps.

Finally, and possibly most outrageously, post-War French orthodoxy whitewashed the huge contribution that women made to the Resistance, both in fighting and non-fighting roles. With many Frenchmen either being held as POWs, hiding out in the maquis, or demoralized by the ease of German victory in 1940, women took up a central role in Resistance activities, enjoying (if ‘enjoying’ is the right word) much greater freedom of action than in the pre-War years. As Marguerite Gonnet said before a German military court in Lyon in 1942, when asked why women had taken up arms, ‘Quite simply, colonel, because the men had dropped them.’

Yet, shamefully, as soon as the Free French had landed in 1944, women resisters were pushed away from the front line and completely overlooked by de Gaulle when it came to the award of honours. That mistreatment lasted for decades and it was only earlier this year, 70 years after the end of the War, that two leading female resisters, Germaine Tillon and Geneviève de Gaulle (his niece) were interred in the Panthéon, resting place of French heroes, alongside several of their male colleagues.

Amongst the individual stories that illustrate the broad nature of resistance and the diversity of the resisters, Gildea does an admirable, if somewhat dry, job of teasing out the complex interrelationships and power struggles, both amongst internal resistance groups, between internal and external resistance and between de Gaulle’s Free French and the Vichy Armée de l’Armistice, many of whose members participated bravely in the liberation of France but were also eradicated from history in the name of de Gaulle.

Overall, it’s not a story that believers in French resistance orthodoxy will enjoy and Gildea’s exposition of the shaping and nurturing of the Gaullist narrative demonstrates both the internal rivalries of the different resistance groups, the lengths which were gone to in pursuit of a new foundation myth for France reborn and also the post-War travails of those resisters who did not fit into that myth.

This is a serious and important book that shines a forensic torch onto a central part of modern French identity and restores those who did not fit the mould of Gaullist myth to their rightful place in French history. If for nothing else, and there is indeed much else here, Fighters in the Shadows deserves a reading.

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Falaise blogs at 2606 Books.

Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance (Faber: London, 2015). 978-0571280346, 608pp., hardback.

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