Fighters in the Shadows

Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance
Robert Gildea 
Faber & Faber   608pp   £20

PARIS! OUTRAGED PARIS!
Broken Paris! Martyred Paris, but liberated Paris, Liberated by the people of Paris with help from the armies of France, with the help and support of the whole of France, of France which is fighting, of the only France, the real France, eternal France.

Charles de Gaulle’s pronouncement at 5pm on August 25th, 1944 in the Hôtel de Ville, Paris is one of most famous in French history. With these words, spoken with force and passion, he wished to underline that Parisians had liberated themselves. This is why he was so insistent that French forces were the first into Paris, even though as General Bradley commented wryly: ‘Any number of American divisions could more easily have spearheaded our march into Paris. But to help the French recapture pride, I chose a French force with the tricolour on their Shermans.’   

De Gaulle’s speech was brilliant politics and instant myth- making. After the humiliation of four years of Nazi Occupation, he knew that he had to project a sense of national power and unity through an image of self-liberation, albeit one that carefully avoided any sense of revolutionary insurrection.   

This mythology quickly took root post-1945, leading to a highly selective interpretation of the Occupation period. In the early 1950s, primary school textbooks made no mention of the pro-Nazi regime led by Marshal Pétain, based in the spa town of Vichy, let alone how this regime participated in the Holocaust. Instead, the story was a simple one. France fell in 1940 and then the Resistance began, leading to the Liberation in 1944; a seamless, heroic narrative that was military, masculine and French. The contribution of foreigners within the Resistance or colonial troops was ignored, while the role of the Allied forces was downplayed. 

However, myth-making and selective memory were not just the preserve of the Gaullists. Post-1945, the Communist Party became the most powerful political movement on the Left, in large part because of its claim to be the anti-Nazi Resistance force par excellence. Yet, while the crucial role of Communists was undeniable, this image conveniently forgot how the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 meant that the Communist leadership was initially ambiguous about the Occupation, not entering fully into anti-Nazi Resistance until the German invasion of the USSR on June 22nd, 1941. Similarly, although the Communist Party maintained that Communist resisters suffered the most from repression – hence the slogan the ‘party of 75,000 martyrs’ – this figure was condemned as an outrageous exaggeration by opponents. 

One of the many strengths of Robert Gildea’s gripping new history of the French Resistance, Fighters in the Shadows, is the way that he has cut through this myth-making. He has gone back to the historical sources, drawing upon oral testimony, memoirs and diaries to create a bottom-up view that tells us how the Resistance felt from the inside. So we learn how resisters coped with cold, hunger and fear. We learn, too, about how resistance activity produced a spectrum of emotions, ranging from joy and exhilaration through to confusion and frustration.

Gildea is excellent on women. Outlining why their participation was marginalised at the Liberation, he puts them at the centre of the story, explaining how women of all backgrounds became involved in intelligence, propaganda, sabotage and armed action. He is excellent, too, on the role of foreigners, such as Spanish Republicans, Italian anti-Fascists and German anti-Nazis, thereby placing the French Resistance within the wider international ideological conflicts of the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, in one telling phrase, Gildea ponders whether it is ‘more accurate to talk less about the French Resistance than about resistance in France’. He is also strong on the political in-fighting within the Resistance. He clearly outlines how de Gaulle won out over his rivals despite the opposition of President Roosevelt, who thought him a dictator in waiting.  

This, though, is very much a political and military history. There is little on culture. There is no real engagement with the role of underground poetry and literature or the clandestine press, all of which were crucial in creating alternative, Resistance identities. Equally, more needs to be said about the Resistance as a reassertion of imperial power, which led to the clampdown on Moroccan nationalists in early 1944, as well the incredibly violent repression of Algerian nationalism in May and June 1945. However, this is still a major contribution to the historiography of the French Resistance in particular and Resistance studies in general.     

Martin Evans is the co-author (with Emmanuel Godin) of France since 1815 (Routledge, 2014).

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week