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.


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