fighters in the shadows

David Shonfield reviews a major new history of the French Resistance, which reveals the role of immigrant workers and women, and how French identity has been forged and reforged in the years since 1945

Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance (Faber &Faber 2015), xiv, 593pp.

Irma Schwager was 21 when she joined the Resistance in Paris. Her mission, together with her friend Rosl Wolf and a dozen other young women, was to make contact with German soldiers, gather intelligence, sow doubts in their minds and if possible win them to the anti-Nazi cause.

‘I didn’t think of myself as a heroine. We were young and we wanted to make things change. We didn’t think about the possible consequences for a second. You have to understand: we were unhappy with a situation where we were enjoying life and not doing anything.’i

They worked in pairs, seeking to set up encounters that would not arouse suspicion.

‘So I asked how I should go about approaching these soldiers, and Rosl came back at me ‘Don’t you know how to pick up a man?’ That was something new for me!’

Dora Schaul was part of a similar group in Lyon, together with her friend Henriette Dreifuss.

‘We’d go into the department stores, and when the soldiers wanted to buy something and had problems with the language we’d offer to help. As you can imagine they jumped at the chance. Being approached by girls speaking German: that was a real opportunity … After two or three questions we knew whether it was worth continuing. If the contact seemed interesting, we’d carry on the discussion, but it was often very delicate, because they would imagine things. Then you’d have to cope by inventing a jealous fiancé or an urgent appointment …’ii

Travail Allemand, it was called – German Work – and it almost sounds like a game, except that the price of losing was torture and death. It was one of the most secret and dangerous operations of the French Resistance, but as the names of these women indicate, hardly any of those involved were French. They came from Austria, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania. Most of them were Jewish. And in common with many other foreigners their contribution to the Resistance has often been downgraded or even ignored by historians.

The Resistance was foreign as well as French

The most extreme case is the armed resistance in Paris in 1942-43 organised by sections of the Main d’Oeuvre Immigrée (MOI), the communist organisation for foreign workers. It was not until 1989 that a full account appeared, and the history of the MOI itself was largely untold. Even the French Communist Party, the PCF, which set up the MOI in the years before the war, neglected a movement of which it should have been proud. This was largely because of the post-war narrative in which the two main political forces, the PCF and the Gaullists, vied to proclaim themselves as the true representatives of national identity. The role of foreigners in the Resistance was constantly downplayed.

Robert Gildea’s brilliant book goes a long way to redress the balance. As he says, the story is as much about the resistance in France as the French Resistance. As well as the MOI, those who had fought fascism in Spain carried on the fight against the Nazis and the collaborationist Vichy regime. Members of the International Brigades and the Spanish Republican soldiers who were interned in prison camps on the French side of the Pyrenees in 1939 went on to help form the backbone of the maquis after 1942. It was no coincidence that the most radical and effective partisan groups were mostly based in the south west, nor that shortly after his triumphant victory parade down the Champs Elysées, General de Gaulle chose Toulouse to humiliate the partisans and repudiate the idea of national insurrection and social revolution.

For De Gaulle and the French military, the Resistance was about the nation, the state and not least the empire. Defeating the Germans was all-important, defeating fascism was almost incidental. They would much rather have avoided a popular uprising in Paris, so that parade and the liberation of the capital by the French army rather than American forces became more than symbolic.

Yet by an exquisite irony the first units that liberated Paris in August 1944 were driving armoured cars that bore the names of the battles of the Spanish Civil War – Madrid, Teruel, Guadalajara, Ebro. Known as La Nueve (the Ninth Company) they were Spanish republican soldiers who had been drafted into the French army.iii And the reason they ended up leading the drive to Paris was that the French army had excluded their own African forces from the Normandy landings because they were black.

Events in Africa were crucial to De Gaulle’s success. One of the strengths of Gildea’s book is that it goes well beyond the usual accounts of factionalism and labyrinthine politics in explaining the struggle for the allegiance of the colonies and the colonial army. The Allies, especially the Americans, disliked De Gaulle almost as much as they disliked the communists. The feeling was mutual. When De Gaulle was woken by his Chief of Staff on 8 November 1942 to be informed that the Americans had landed in North Africa, he replied: “I hope that Vichy’s men throw them back into the sea. That is no way to enter France, like a burglar” (p.241).

Gildea also reveals the chauvinism, petty rivalries and machinations of the exiles, both in London and Algiers. Their politics in some cases were almost indistinguishable from the Vichy regime. Algiers was swarming with right-wing colonists who disliked Jews almost as much as they disliked the local Arab population. The Americans had no qualms at all about doing a deal with them, but they needed a figurehead who could displace De Gaulle. His big rival, General Henri Giraud, seemed ideal and they courted him with care only to find that Giraud was just as arrogant and personally ambitious as De Gaulle.

All this was in stark contrast to the unity, heroism and self-sacrifice of the men and women who actually carried the fight inside France. Women especially.

Women made the difference

Marguerite Gonnet from Grenoble was aged 44, married and the mother of nine when she joined Libération-Sud, the left-wing grouping which coordinated resistance in the southern parts of France that the Nazis left in the hands of the Vichy regime. By the time she was arrested in April 1942, she was head of the organisation for the Isère. Asked by the German military prosecutor to explain why she had taken up arms, she replied: “Quite simply, colonel, because the men had dropped them” (p.131).

Madeleine Riffaud was from a village near Amiens, the daughter of two schoolteachers. She decided to join the fightback at the age of seventeen when a German officer picked on her in the street and kicked her into the gutter. She ended up in Paris, first as a courier and liaison officer for the FTP (the communist partisan organisation) then as the leader of a fighting cell. She was captured after shooting an SS officer, was savagely tortured by the French police (at least as vicious as their German masters) but happily was freed in a prisoner exchange before she could be executed. This allowed her to take part in the final insurrection and lead the capture of a supply train carrying eighty German soldiers. It was her twentieth birthday.

Madeleine Riffaud was – is – an exceptional individual. She went on to become a writer and worked as a war correspondent for the Communist Party paper L’Humanité in both Algeria and Vietnam. Few women took a direct part in armed actions as she did, but from the earliest months of the occupation in 1940 women were actively involved, not only in resistance but as organisers. Three women were prominent in one of very first clandestine movements, in reality a collection of loosely linked different groups, known as the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) network. Among them was the anthropologist Germaine Tillion, honoured only this year with a tomb in the Pantheon.

In France as in Italy, women were excluded from formal politics until 1945, but that had never excluded them from political action. ‘The street, after the home, was their domain, as it had been since the Revolution of 1789,’ writes Gildea, and the endless queues for food, outside shops or in the markets, were the focal points for agitation (p.64).

By 1942 the Communist Party was to develop such protests into propaganda actions against the regime, with armed militants providing cover for lightning demonstrations. These confrontations, notably at the rue de Buci and rue Daguerre in Paris, were intended to raise the stakes and they did. By openly carrying the fight to the enemy, the Resistance achieved a huge propaganda boost. The actions were reported by the BBC and Radio Moscow alike. German soldiers could no longer swan around as if they owned the place. Nevertheless, Nazi and Vichy repression increased dramatically in response. Hundreds of hostages were taken and executed, activists were rounded up and deported, and thousands of Jews were interned and sent to the death camps in the East.

Role of the PCF

The communists had to overcome not only repression – the party had been banned in 1939 – but also the huge confusion within their own ranks caused by the Nazi-Soviet pact. The PCF was a large organisation with around 330,000 members on the eve of the war, plus tens of thousands in the MOI, but it virtually ceased to function in 1940. The leadership caved in, despite huge misgivings, to the Moscow line of conciliation with the Nazis, even to the extent of approaching the Germans to allow L’Humanité to publish legally. The vast majority of members and supporters were naturally opposed to this, for both patriotic and class reasons, even though many were eventually prepared to rationalise the pact as a trick to buy time.

Rebuilding party organisation was not easy. André Tollet was a central committee member and later head of the Paris trade-union confederation in 1944, but in 1940 he was having to regroup party members in the most rudimentary manner imaginable; walking the streets of the working-class districts where he could be recognised. Politically the PCF leadership had put itself in an absurd and unsustainable position, but its members were able to recover credibility and influence by campaigning on basic economic issues, against the employers and the Vichy regime. Some of the leadership, notably Charles Tillon, also opposed the official party position.

Communist policy was of course turned on its head overnight when Germany declared war and invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. In reality it was already dead in the water. In the mining areas of the Pas de Calais, directly subject to German military control from Brussels, any talk of peace and ‘opposing imperialist war’ would have been ludicrous. Local people and Polish immigrants alike were united in opposition. On May Day 1941 red flags and the tricolour were flying side by side in the mining villages. Banners demanding higher wages were raised alongside the slogan ‘Vive Staline’. At the end of the month a huge strike broke out, spreading from pit to pit and eventually involving 100,000 workers.

The Resistance was born out of many different strands of resistance. Some of the early activists had been radicalised during the Popular Front period before the war, others were right-wing patriots sickened by the capitulation, and others were communists who simply rebelled against the party line. Whatever their politics, what they had in common, as Gildea explains, was non-conformism. Whether they were patriots or monarchists, liberals or communists, they were all dissidents.

They were also people who in many cases went through an ‘identity crisis’.

‘To enter into resistance meant not only taking on a new character and a new role but entering a world of shadows behind the real world. For some it seemed as though they were taking part in something unreal, a play, a novel, or a crime story … The idea that they were entering a fictional world was commonplace among resisters’ (p.157).

For some this may have fulfilled a psychological need, but often it was a means of survival, or a way to avoid betraying comrades if they were captured. The ability to play a part – or rather, live a part – was a matter of life and death. You had to work with and trust people you had never met, whose identity you did not know, and who you might never meet again. Small wonder that militants were haunted by the fear of betrayal, or that the search for traitors continued for decades after the end of war – notably in the case of Jean Moulin, De Gaulle’s envoy, who was betrayed to the Gestapo in June 1943.

It was obviously easier to adapt to the secret world, or to a world of double identities, for those who had already had to work clandestinely such as the Italians or the Polish Jews in the MOI. The pressure on individuals working in isolation could be enormous, and they were facing a police system that was experienced and sophisticated as well as savage. The Gestapo and their French counterparts the Brigades Spéciales employed networks of informers and agents and would allow a resistance organisation to continue to function, revealing more and more contacts, before rolling it up and arrested dozens of militants rather than one or two. Fortunately, there were some within the French police force who would tip off the Resistance that a raid was imminent. Tragically they too had to live a double life and their tip-offs were not always believed.

There is no way to cover such a rich and complex history in a single volume and it is sometimes frustrating that Gildea has had to devote a lot of space to the divisions and machinations of the leadership and cut short his accounts of resistance from below. However, one of the joys of this book is that it enables the reader to go out and discover more. The notes, bibliography and ‘cast list’ at the end are a great encouragement to follow up crucial parts of the history such as the strikes against the relève (forced labour for the Germans) in 1942 and 1943, and movements such as Action Ouvrière which included both communists and non-communists and show how the Resistance in action overcame political barriers. There is now a huge amount of material instantly available on the internet, including film and interviews. You can hear Madeleine Riffaud telling her own story on You Tube or see how Paris finally paid proper tribute to the Spanish republicans on the seventieth anniversary of the Liberation.iv

Battle for the soul of the Resistance

In his final chapters Gildea carries the story on beyond the Liberation, and in a way this is the best thing about the book, because his explanation of the ‘battle for the soul of the Resistance’ is a tour de force explanation of the way history gets written and rewritten. The story of the Resistance is central to modern French identity, symbolised above all by the remarkable ceremonial occasion when the supposed remains of Jean Moulin were transferred to the Pantheon on a bitter December day in 1964. You can read the extraordinary peroration by André Malraux translated into English, but it is a pale shadow of the real thing, which can be seen in grainy black and white on You Tube.v Just the sound of the words is riveting, even if you don’t speak the language.

This battle for the soul continued throughout the war in Algeria when Resistance heroes such as Germaine Tillion and Jacques de Bollardière denounced the horrors perpetrated by the army and the colonists. It arose again after the rebellion of May 1968, when some of the rebels rediscovered forgotten heroes and some former Resistance fighters such as Charles Tillon broke with their Stalinist past. Later the PCF was to come under scrutiny for the way it had buried the story of the foreign fighters, while some of its national leaders had lived out the war in secret locations or abroad. In turn, the right wing was confronted by the campaign to expose the persecution of the Jews and role of the Vichy regime in the Holocaust. So the Resistance came to be seen more as an anti-fascist movement rather than just as movement against the German invasion. And there are re-interpretations and changes in emphasis that continue to this day.

Which brings us in the end to the title of this book.

The fighters in the shadows have often remained there – or have been shoved back into obscurity – even though official France celebrates and commemorates their struggles and their sacrifices. This is indeed a ‘new’ history of the Resistance in that Gildea’s aim is to preserve and cultivate what he calls the ‘group memories’; the stories of the individuals, and the groups of individuals, that have been forgotten or have never been told. ‘Only by heeding these voices and tracing the groups that gave rise to them,’ he explains, ‘can the historian offer an authentic picture of the breadth and diversity of resistance activity’ (p.480).

And, one should add, these are the voices of the present as well as the past.

Almost to the day of her death last June, Irma Schwager was speaking out against war and racism, campaigning for women’s rights and social justice. She could be seen at every demonstration and public meeting in her native city of Vienna. Madeleine Riffaud is another who has retained her determination and commitment into her 90s. Earlier this year, on the anniversary of the formation of the unified resistance movement on 27 May 1943, she said in an interview with Le Parisien – the newspaper born as Le Parisien Libéré on the eve of the city’s liberation:

‘Today there are signs that the black times can come back: racism, hatred, terrorism. We can only get out of this by coming together and devising a way … We do not have the right to discourage people. We have to stay dedicated to life. That is the spirit of the Resistance.’


i The quotations from Irma Schwager at the start of this article come from an interview (in German with French subtitles) which can be seen on You Tube.

iiDora Schaul describes her part in the Travail Allemand in Taupes Rouges Contre SS (originally published in German as Resistance: Errinerungen deutscher Antifaschisten).

iii The story of La Nueve and the liberation of Paris is hereand here.

iv There are several You Tube videos about and by Madeleine Riffaud, and see here also.

v André Malraux’s address about Jean Moulin and the Resistance at the Pantheon on 19 December 1964 can be found here.

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