The French Resistance
By Olivier Wieviorka
Translated by Jane Marie Todd
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £29.95
It can hardly be said that during World War II the resistance was preoccupied with rescuing the Jews. Its indifference fuelled and continues to fuel suspicion. Are we to consider silence the price to be paid for the primacy of the political or armed struggle waged against the occupier? Or are we to read it as the sign of the ideological proximity of a portion of the underground forces to the Vichy regime? In either case, the Jews of France could only rarely count on the army of the shadows to save them from death, even as the Germans and the French State, beginning in 1940, unleashed a racial persecution campaign targeting that community, which in 1939 was estimated at 330,000 members.
(‘Response to Persecution of the Jews’)
Regardless of how, and what one feels about the role of the French Resistance during the Second World War, the movement (somehow) never truly relinquishes to be firmly embedded, if not stained, by gross ambiguity. A very fraught ambiguity, which to this day, remains just as equally complex and romantic, as it was back in the day: a wide-simmering-synthesis of deeply entrenched beliefs.
Were this not the case, then how on earth could it have lasted for as long as it did within the most murderous parameters as those regulated, and set in place, by the Nazi regime?
Belief, if not spirit, was surely the burgeoning clarion call – as triggered and so clearly set forth by Charles de Gaulle within the ending of his (in)famous radio address to the French nation in June 1940: ”Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and will not go out.”
He was invariably right.
The flame of French resistance was never (ever) extinguished, but its reasoning was oft brought into quintessential question.
Was it spiritual?
Was it political?
Was it ideological?
Or was it merely national?
If primarily the latter, then the above opening quote resonates just that little louder – does it not?
At the very outset of this overtly compelling and rather brilliant book (Chapter One, ‘The Call’), author Olivier Wieviorka – in a round-a-bout sort of way – nigh asks the very same question(s): ”By what means might resistance come into being?”
That France was only partly occupied during World War II, which in and of itself was roughly demarcated by the north and south of the country, does go some way in answering such means. As do the eighteen chapters of The French Resistance, a most concise, no bars held account of that which it’s title suggests (and wholeheartedly pertains to).
Beginning with four pages of comprehensive Abbreviations (from ACP – Assemble Consulative Provisoire d’Alger/Provisional Consultative Assembly of Algiers – to VdL – Volontaires de la Liberte/Voluteers for Liberty), Wieviorka’s book presents a most comprehensive history of the French Resistance, defiantly synthesising it’s social, political as well as military aspects.
In so doing, a number of fresh insights become known; which, without wanting to give too much away, defies conventionality.
Especially in so much as the aforesaid romanticism of the Resistance is (inexorably) concerned.
For instance, in returning to the chapter ‘Response to Persecution of the Jews,’ such embraced thinking and conventionality becomes ever more resonant: ”the deeply distressing scenes that unfolded in the occupied zone and then in the southern zone moved the population. The terrible ordeals imposed on very small children, victims of an incomprehensible obduracy, erased many prejudices or relegated them to the shadows […]. That distress was expressed, relayed, and amplified by four prelates in the southern zone, who vigorously protested the anti-Semite persecution.”
Suffice to say, these 471 pages (excluding Notes, Chronology, Selected Bibliography and Index) do, in almost every way, warrant the most acute of further investigation.
As Michael S. Neiberg, author of The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944 has since made abundantly clear: ”Wieviorka brings important insights into a critical and often misunderstood topic. Going beyond the myths and partisanship surrounding the Resistance, and World War II more generally, this book will help set the tone for future work on the period.”
Such is most indeed the case – although don’t necessarily take my or his word as being gospel. In years to come, The French Resistance will still probably be referred to as if something of a landmark within the genre.