A crucial account of lost voices from the French resistance

May 1, 2016

Fighters in the Shadow: A New History of the French Resistance
By Robert Gildea
Faber & Faber Press, London
593 pages, 2015

Upon his inauguration on May 16, 2007, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited the Bois de Boulogne in Paris and paid homage to 35 anti-fascist resistance fighters shot by the occupying Nazis in August 1944, just before Paris was liberated.

He also read the last letter of Guy Moquet, a 17-year-old Communist, to his parents on the eve of his execution by the occupiers in 1941 along with 26 other Communist resisters.

Since the end of the Cold War, the French government has cast Moquet's sacrifice as a universal one, in which “the greatness of man is to dedicate himself to a cause greater than himself”. The role of Communists in the resistance is de-emphasised.

However, in Fighters in the Shadows, Wolfson History Prize winning author Robert Gildea has used a collection of testimonies by the resisters themselves to tell a much more complex story than the official narrative of “La Resistance” promoted by the French state since 1944.

Instead of the standard Gaullist version of the resistance being a purely national effort, the struggle included anti-fascist Italians, Spanish Republicans escaping Franco's Spain, and anti-Nazi Germans. These forces all contributed to the fight against the German occupation and collaborationist Vichy regime that ruled the southern half of France.

As part of a wider war against fascism, the French resistance also drew in Christians who wanted to rescue Jews from the Nazis as well as Jewish resisters.

After the fall of France in 1940, the country was divided between Nazi Germany and the collaborationist Vichy Regime led by Marshall Philippe Pétain, which ruled the southern half of the country until 1942. Many people willingly supported the Vichy regime in these years.

Colonel Charles De Gaulle, however, fled to London with other French generals who refused to collaborate with the German occupation, establishing the Free French Army (FFI). At first, there was little support for De Gaulle among the Allied leaders. As late as July 1944, the US was still considering the idea of offering a deal to the Vichy authorities, rather than recognise De Gaulle.

Also complicating factors were divisions between the London-based FFI and resistance groups in France and its North African colonies. It was not until May 1943 that all the internal resistance movements came together under the umbrella of the National Council of the Resistance (CNR) led by Jean Moulin, who was arrested by the Gestapo a month later.

One of the central groups involved in the resistance was the French Communist Party (PCF). The PCF also had links with the underground German Communist Party (KPD) and Spanish Communist Party (PCE), of which many German and Spanish anti-fascists were members.

However, Communist involvement in the resistance was complicated by the PCF's support for the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. Until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, it was mainly communist sympathisers and veterans from the International Brigades of Spanish Civil War who were involved in the resistance. Divisions between this group and PCF leaders continued long after the party committed its full support to the resistance.

In Fighters in the Shadows, Gildea emphasises the role of women in the resistance, a role that had been erased in the Gaullist narrative of the resistance told after liberation.

Among women resistance heroes was Marianne Cohn, a courier for a group of Jewish scouts tasked with getting Jewish children from France to Switzerland. On May 31, 1944, she was arrested while smuggling 28 Jewish children out of France.

On the night of July 8, Cohn and five other members of the French resistance were taken to an isolated spot and beaten to death with spades. She refused to be rescued because she was fearful of the repercussions against the children.

In prison she wrote the following poem:

I shall not betray tomorrow, not today.
Today pull out my fingernails,
I shall not betray.
You do not know the limits of my courage.
I, I do.

One important group in the resistance was the PCF's section for foreign workers, the MOI, among which many Jewish resisters fought. As the situation for Jewish people in France worsened after the Nazi occupation, Jews were increasingly excluded from society and then risked being sent to Nazi concentration camps.

Also important in the resistance were the 4000 black African troops who fought alongside General Philippe Leclerc in the liberation of France.

On August 25, 1944, a victorious De Gaulle declared from the Hotel De Ville in Paris after it was liberated from the Nazis: “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.”

It was at this point that the contribution of foreigners, Jews, and Leclerc's African troops began to be airbrushed out of the history of the resistance and liberation and the Gaullist narrative was established.

Of the 1038 people made “Companions of the Liberation” after the war, only 0.6% were women.

After the war, the Stalinist PCF largely ignored the role of the MOI in the resistance, as it was competing with the Gaullist narrative in for the mantle of the true bearer of French national identity. It was only in 1989 that the story of foreign workers in the resistance began to be told.

Gildea tells the stories of the many different people including Jewish refugees, foreign anti-fascist fighters, Spanish republicans, women and others who resisted the German occupation for various reasons. These ranged from refusing to accept French capitulation to German occupation to the desire to defeat fascism not just in France, but everywhere.

This resistance came with appalling risks of capture, betrayal, torture and death. It is for this reason that Fighters in the Shadows is a crucial account of the French resistance.

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