Month: May 2017

Review: Robert Gildea’s Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance

Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015).

For a work that is not a history of memory, Robert Gildea’s Fighters in the Shadows is still very much conscious of the way the French remember the Resistance movement of World War II. The introduction of this book is concerned almost exclusively with the emergence of the “central myth” of Resistance that was perpetuated by Charles de Gaulle and how it later succumbed to competing narratives. De Gaulle’s nationalist myth claimed that 1) the story of the Resistance could be traced in a straight line from the point when de Gaulle made his famous 1940 BBC radio address (where he called upon the French to continue resisting after their armies had been defeated) to the liberation of Paris and his famous march down the Champs-Élysées in 1944; 2) the vast majority of the French had supported the brave few who had taken up arms (and pens) against the German occupation; and 3) while the Anglo-Americans had provided valuable assistance, France had liberated itself and thus “restored national honour, confidence and unity” (3). While this myth persisted for some time, others grew alongside it or eventually supplanted it. The Communists, who had played an important role in the Resistance, always had their own myth that stressed their significance, the terrible suffering they had undergone during the occupation, and the kind of world that they had fought for. After de Gaulle’s death, another narrative emerged that emphasized the importance to the Resistance of foreign anti-fascists and especially foreign Jews (6). Other narratives that saw light of day in these years included those that highlighted the degree to which most Frenchmen had been “time-servers and cowards if not traitors” (5) or those that depicted Jews in France as victims rather than resisters. Most recently, one of the more influential fables has portrayed the French as a people moved by the Enlightenment, the rights of man, and humanistic values to support the small minority who rescued Jews from persecution. At the end of the introduction, Gildea clearly expresses a desire to right the balance of memory so that it more accurately reflects the past:

The dominant narrative of resistance today is a humanitarian and universal myth of the struggle for the rights of man, which allows a greater role for women and rescuers of Jews, and a lesser role for freedom fighters with Sten guns. The memories of resisters of dissident communist, foreign and Jewish origin survived as group memories but not as dominant narratives. One of the aims of this study is to bring these back into the mainstream. (19)

For these reasons, Gildea is far more interested in the politics and experience of the Resistance than he is in the Resistance’s military effectiveness or contribution to Allied victory. Fighters in the Shadows, then, speaks more to French history than the history of World War II. At the same time, the main themes of this work revolve around the diversity, divisions, and difficulties that characterized the Resistance throughout the war. What Gildea seems to indicate is that one should not be surprised by the bitterly contested leadership battles, the arguments over military strategy, the disputes over the movement’s political direction, and the overall lack of military effectiveness. Rather, what is truly astonishing is that the Resistance accomplished as much as it did, de Gaulle made an almost seamless transition to power in 1944, and France was able to contain civil discord as much as it did in the aftermath of the liberation.

Gildea is at his best in describing the experience of resisters—the motives that inspired them to join the Resistance, the institutions that served as the foundations for their organizations (“trade unions and businesses, universities and museums, churches and refugee groups”), the various forms of resistance they engaged in, the political objectives they sought to attain, and the means by which they sought to achieve these objectives. Chapter 7 (“In and Out of the Shadows”) is especially interesting in probing the ambiguity of Resistance, where there was always a “tension between appearance and reality, trust and treachery, and the absence of laws apart from those dictated by circumstance” (179). This theme meshes well with the confusion and conflict that characterized the Resistance from the beginning. Many of those who were appalled by German victory and determined to resist the occupation were perplexed about what to do. Those on the right stayed their hand for the moment because they thought (or hoped) that Petain was playing a deep game against the Germans and would eventually find a way to eject the occupiers from the country. Those on the left, especially Communists, did not wish to take up arms against a state that was an ally of the Soviet Union. Even after it became clear that Petain was incapable of using his power as a shield to protect the French people (as he had promised) and even after Germany invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941), the Resistance was plagued by divisions rooted in its miscellaneous composition. Aside from their important ideological disagreements, resisters came to the movement from diverse backgrounds (e.g. conservative army officers, leftist veterans of the Spanish Civil War—foreign and native, women seeking to stretch gender norms, and Jews, many of whom were foreign nationals). These people displayed variegated temperaments and expressed divergent aspirations. They also performed a wide variety of duties—collecting intelligence, leading protests, producing propaganda, conducting attacks, sabotaging industry, rescuing Jews, and smuggling downed Allied airmen. Gildea notes that the different circumstances in the Occupied Zone (nominally ruled by the Vichy government but run by the Germans) and the Free Zone (administered by Vichy alone until November 1942, when the Germans occupied the rest of the country) produced movements that applied themselves to contrasting tasks (in the former, the Resistance undertook “practical” jobs like collecting intelligence, while in the latter, it was more involved in propaganda). Not surprisingly, the various Resistance groups were divided over strategy, organization, and leadership. Broadly speaking, Communists aimed at sparking a national insurrection when the time was right so that they could eject the Germans from France and install a leftist regime. Many to the right of the Communists objected to this plan because they saw such a move as suicidal (the Germans were much better armed than any Resistance group) and had no wish to further the Communists’ objectives. Arguments about strategy (which were heavily influenced by politics) often intersected with those about leadership. Many Resistance groups understood the advantages of coordinating their efforts through some sort of national association. However, they were reluctant to lose their autonomy and expose themselves to extensive German infiltration. Those who led the larger movements had leadership ambitions of their own. Even resisters who had no such ambition felt trepidations about serving any overseas master, including de Gaulle. Some feared that he was a stooge of the British while others worried about what kind of plans a conservative, Catholic general might have for France’s future.

The story of the Resistance, of course, is inextricably tied to that of de Gaulle and the Free French. Gildea also covers De Gaulle’s story which is nothing short of remarkable. In June 1940, he was a mere brigadier general and former junior minister in the Reynaud Cabinet—without friends or following in Britain. In August 1944, he marched through Paris, the uncontested leader of the French nation. De Gaulle had to overcome a number of opponents and obstacles to achieve this goal. Although they recognized him as the leader of the Free French very early (in late June 1940), de Gaulle’s relationship with the British was always strained, and Churchill often wondered if the Frenchman was worth supporting. The Americans, who always seemed inclined to make a deal with Vichy authorities rather than replace them (particularly in North Africa), expressed much hostility toward de Gaulle. Meanwhile, at least in the early years, de Gaulle struggled to attract soldiers to his Free French force which was always smaller in number than Vichy’s armies (i.e. the Armistice army and the Army of Africa). Once the Allies conquered North Africa (Operation Torch, November 1942), and the Free French were merged with the Army of Africa, de Gaulle faced competition from General Henri Giraud for overall leadership of the Resistance. Finally, de Gaulle’s efforts to subordinate the Resistance to the Free French enjoyed a brief success before suffering a calamitous reverse in June 1943 when his intermediaries with the Resistance, Jean Moulin and Charles Delestraint were captured by the Germans (shortly thereafter, Moulin was either tortured to death or committed suicide after undergoing a terrible ordeal, while Delestraint was held in captivity until he was executed at Dachau in April 1945). De Gaulle’s links to the Resistance never recovered from this disaster.

The only partial reestablishment of ties between the two accounts for the behavior of the Resistance during the Normandy invasion—all groups more or less “went their own way” with only some obeying orders from the Free French (378). The results were often catastrophic as poorly trained and badly armed maquisards were shot to pieces by battle-hardened German troops. In spite of these problems, de Gaulle proved a masterful politician who outmaneuvered his opponents and manipulated the Allies. Most important of all, he fashioned a myth about his relationship to the metropolitan Resistance that had just enough of an air of verisimilitude to convince both the French and the “Anglo-Saxons” of his indispensability. It is this myth, which formed the basis of a post-war consensus in France, that Gildea seeks to counter by stressing the claims of others to pre-eminence, namely those “resisters of dissident communist, foreign and Jewish origin.”

At times, Gildea’s discussion of obscure figures (or those not widely known in the United States), particularly in Chapter 1 (“Awakenings”), can be both exhaustive and exhausting. This kind of detail, however, is obviously a product of his intense interest in the topic. Moreover, it helps convey the diversity of backgrounds and motives that characterized the Resistance throughout its short existence. In investigating both the low (the experiences of individual Resistance members) and the high (the machinations of de Gaulle along with those of his allies and competitors) as well as describing the links between the two, Gildea has done a great service. Surveys of the French Resistance written for an English-speaking audience are far and few between (the only recent work that comes to mind is Olivier Wieviorka’s The French Resistance, which originally appeared in French back in 2013 before being translated and published in the United States in 2016). Americans hoping to learn about the Resistance may find Fighters in the Shadows challenging because of its extensive cast of characters (and the lengths to which Gildea goes to represent their thoughts and experiences). However, Gildea carefully keeps the reader on track, especially in the conclusion of each chapter where he summarizes his arguments. Those who read to the end will be rewarded with a nuanced understanding of the French Resistance in both history and myth.

Hugh Dubrulle

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

New Orleans and Its Disappearing Confederate Statues

One Thing after Another has noticed over the last several months that national politics has crowded just about everything else out of the news. Stories about history’s contemporary relevance or impact are sometimes difficult to find these days. So if you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed the saga now taking place in New Orleans.

In July 2015, in the wake of the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, asked his city council to remove four monuments from the city. Five months later, after much public debate, the city council voted 6-1 to do so. Three of the monuments celebrated Confederate heroes: Jefferson Davis (president of the Confederacy), Robert E. Lee (commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia), and P.G.T. Beauregard (a prominent Confederate general born outside of New Orleans). The fourth, the Liberty Monument (erected in 1891), memorialized the so-called Battle of Liberty Place (1874). This armed struggle pitted the Crescent City White League, which sought to settle a disputed election by seating a Democratic governor by force, against the metropolitan police (along with elements of the state militia) which fought to defend a Republican regime associated with racial equality. An inscription added in 1932 explicitly celebrated the battle as a step in the direction of white supremacy.

On Monday, April 24, the Liberty Monument was disassembled. Over two weeks later, on Thursday, May 11, the statue of Davis was removed. The workers who took away the Davis statue wore flak jackets for protection and masks to conceal their identity. Such precautions should come as no surprise; the whole exercise has been incredibly controversial, and the statues have been the scenes of protests as well as counter-protests.

What position should one take on the removal of these statues? One Thing after Another believes that the following interview of Professor David Blight (an expert on the history of slavery and the American Civil War who teaches at Yale while directing the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery) in Slate contains a great deal of good sense:

Yes, One Thing after Another understands what its readers have come to expect—that this blog usually refers to articles only to criticize them. This case, however, is different. Blight makes a number of thoughtful points throughout his interview. Anybody who has read this blog’s discussion of Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic will be familiar with several of the ideas that emerge from this exchange. The three most important and relevant ones are as follows.

First, the Confederates fought valorously (much—if not all—of the time) but for a bad cause that was inextricably tied to slavery. One Thing after Another ought to remind readers that such is not merely the verdict of contemporary historians. This blog recalls Ulysses S. Grant’s verdict in his Memoirs (1885), which describes the preliminaries preceding Lee’s surrender at Appomattox:

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

Blight argues, then, that those inclined to defend the memorials ought to admit that the Confederate cause was “deeply flawed or terrible.” However, they ought to also realize that the contemporary South should feel neither shame nor pride for what Southerners did over 150 years ago. As Professor Randy Sparks (a scholar at Tulane University whom the interviewer refers to and with whom Blight agrees) asserts, Confederates were “men of their time and place.”

Second, people need to see, as Sparks argues, that now “is our time, and our place.” We cannot change what our ancestors did, but we can influence the world that our descendants inherit. Much of the controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate statues really has to do with contemporary issues (an argument that Horowitz also makes). For sure, a number of these issues are rooted in the legacies of slavery and the war (e.g the underprivileged position of African Americans today). Still, when people argue about, say, the Confederate battle flag, more often than not, they are projecting today’s concerns on the past. Such debates are often truly about present-day disputes concerning inequality, race, economic opportunity, identity, the basis of community, the limits of government authority, and so on. We ought to have conversations about these issues without making inapt, ahistorical, or anachronistic references to the Civil War.

Third, having recognized these points, we can’t and shouldn’t destroy every Confederate memorial. Attempting to stamp out such memorials would pose to communities questions that admit no easy solution (e.g. Is this or that a memorial? What does it commemorate?). Such a policy would also come to feel oppressive as localities fell under the shadow of a memorial police. As Blight points out, iconoclasm is dangerous because no one quite knows where it will lead. American history without Davis, Lee, and Beauregard would be incomplete, so we cannot erase them from the past. But we can, as Blight suggests, erect “tasteful, important, meaningful new memorials” that show how history has moved on from the Lost Cause fable. In this fashion, we can bring memory and history closer together, an achievement that would prove a public service. Blight refers to the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Memorial on the edge of Boston Common (a patinated plaster cast of which is pictured above) as a possible model for future monuments, and rightly so. If we are compelled to remember Confederate leaders like Davis, Lee and Beauregard, justice demands that we do a better job of representing the complexity of the American Iliad. That task involves publicizing the stories of those who have been pushed to the margins by traditional memorialization of the war (e.g. African Americans, poor Southern whites, and women) but who played such an important role in the conflict.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Wars are Not Always Won by Military Genius or Decisive Battle, But Attrition is not the Answer

Cathal Nolan, who teaches military history (among other things) at Boston University, recently wrote an essay entitled “Wars are not Won by Military Genius or Decisive Battles” in the online journal Aeon.

In this piece, Nolan criticizes traditional military history for focusing on battles—something that misleads the public into thinking that wars are won “in an hour or an afternoon of blood and bone.” Such a view of war also entices “generals and statesmen with the idea that a hard red day can be decisive, and allow us to avoid attrition” which many see as “morally vulgar and without redemptive heroism.” If we begin to understand that wars are a matter of “joining weight of material to strength of will,” we come to comprehend that victory is attained less by military genius than by “grinding,” “resolve,” and “strategic depth.” Having recognized that war is about attrition, we must embrace that fact. As Nolan puts it:

With humility and full moral awareness of its terrible costs, if we decide that a war is worth fighting, we should praise attrition more and battle less. There is as much room for courage and character in a war of attrition as in a battle.

Before writing anything else, One Thing after Another must concede that Nolan is correct about a number of things. Clearly, as he argues, there is much more to war than battle. There are the operational, strategic, and political dimensions of war, and these involve areas as diverse as culture and economics. He is also on the mark in arguing that, quite frequently, wars are drawn-out affairs in which the defeated party is vanquished as much by material exhaustion as by anything else. The spirit behind this essay, which requires us to accept that there is no short-cut to military victory, is commendable. In the same way that one cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs, one cannot win a war without a commitment that involves many soldiers getting killed. Finally, every military historian must, as Nolan does, give the Tolstoyan view of warfare its due; fighting is a chaotic enterprise over which generals find it difficult to assert control.

One Thing after Another also understands that Nolan probably seeks to offer a kind of intellectual provocation. Even so, in responding, the blogosphere must do its best to keep him honest. And honesty compels this blog to disagree with Nolan’s argument on a number of grounds. To start with, Nolan’s terms are often ill-defined and his argument overdrawn when he discusses the current state of military history as well as the public’s understanding of war. What literature is he referring to when he mentions “traditional military history” which presents battles “as fulcrum moments where empires rose or fell in a day”? What exactly is the “drums-and-trumpets style,” and with what frequency are “popular histories” written that way? Which historians celebrate “even failed campaigns as glorious”? One Thing after Another does not recognize the current state of military history in these statements. Are academic and professional military historians implicated in Nolan’s charges? If not, he should make that point clear. If so, he is wrong. Nolan’s charges concerning war movies also seem problematic. Are they universally about “raw courage and red days, the thrill of vicarious violence and spectacle”? This blog can think of numerous and substantial exceptions to this claim. And on what basis does Nolan assert that “most people” still think wars are won “in an afternoon”? In light of current events, such a claim appears questionable.

The argument that all wars are more or less won by attrition also seems like something of an overstatement. Every conflict witnesses a degree of attrition, but if one claims that they are all won through this process, the category of attrition ceases to be a particularly useful category of analysis. Moreover, insisting that attrition is central to all wars would iron out the uniqueness of each conflict, and as historians we are bound to recognize this uniqueness. Most important, though, is the fact that many wars clearly are not won by attrition. Off the top of its head, One Thing after Another can think of several conflicts that more or less consisted of a single major battle (e.g. Hastings, Jena-Auerstedt, and Königgrätz). In many more cases, there are wars that were decided by a great battle (e.g. Gaugamela) or wars that were in no way won by attrition (e.g. the Falklands War).

Even if the notion that wars were won by attrition was entirely correct, we would still be justified in studying battles (although not to the exclusion of all else). It is, after all, through battle that attrition often takes place. In this context, one recalls Friedrich Engels’ paraphrasing of Carl von Clausewitz (which appeared in John Keegan’s The Face of Battle—a book, by the way, that completely reconfigured the approach to battle history for the better over forty years ago): “Fighting is to war what cash payment is to trade, for however rarely it may be necessary for it actually to occur, everything is directed towards it, and eventually it must take place all the same and must be decisive.” Even if it is not decisive in an afternoon, battle is decisive nonetheless. One thinks in this context of William Philpott’s Three Armies on the Somme (2010). This battle history argues that the Somme was an attritional fight that played a major role in hollowing out the Germany army and paving the way for Allied victory during World War I. In other words, by attriting the German army, the Somme contributed to decision and is worthy of study.

Of course, if battle is significant, so is generalship. After all, one of the reasons our armed forced study military history—and particularly battle history—is to cultivate leadership to fight future wars as well as we can. Nolan counsels, however, that we should not worship “military genius”; instead, we must value “sound generalship.” The distinction is not entirely clear. One Thing after Another is put in mind of Clausewitz’s famous statement about friction that appears in On War: “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Is Nolan advising, then, that we should give up on brilliance and hope for nothing more than military leaders who can execute simple operations in the name of attrition?

The problem is that deliberately embracing a classic strategy of attrition (that is, where attrition is preeminent—for attrition is always present) leads to significant ethical problems. For one thing, it places us on the path of reducing humanity to an instrument or an object rather than treating human life as an end in itself (think of Immanuel Kant here). For another, as scholars operating in the Just War tradition have pointed out, attrition often leads to violations of the criterion of proportionality in jus in bello. By its very nature, generals employing attrition as a strategy are inclined to unleash violence of great intensity on an enormous scale that can be inordinate when compared to the aims sought. Such an approach to war is wasteful of human life and is therefore condemnable, especially when other strategies are available. Of course, Nolan’s point seems to be that, generally speaking, no other strategies are truly available; despite our best efforts, wars are de facto about attrition, so we may as well call a spade a spade and get on with it. There is perhaps some merit in such honesty, but this kind of truthfulness places us on a terrible and slippery slope.

After Waterloo, which capped almost a quarter century of continuous fighting in Europe, military men became enamored of Napoleon. They studied Napoleon through his leading interpreter, Antoine-Henri Jomini, in an attempt to understand the secret of attaining decision on the battlefield, and they largely reconceived military history as the story of decisive battles. Since 1945, more often than not, the United States has found itself involved in frustrating “protracted” wars (to use Mao Zedong’s phrase) in which the enemy has often targeted this country’s will to sustain the struggle. Indeed, at this moment, America still finds itself mired in wars of long duration in Central Asia and the Middle East. Considering these circumstances, is it any surprise that a contemporary scholar is willing to throw up his hands, claim that the age of decisive battle never was, and tell us to embrace attrition? In his prescriptions, Nolan is very much unlike Napoleon’s successors; the former counsels attrition, the latter sought decision on the battlefield. Where they are similar, though, is in their tendency to recast the past in the image of their own time. Admittedly, to quote Benedetto Croce, “All history is contemporary history.”  Yet if we allow our current preoccupations to color our view of the past too much, we run the risk of producing ahistorical interpretations.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.