Patrick Marnham

Liberating Marianne

In Fighters in the Shadows, Robert Gildea dares to suggest that the struggle in France against the German Occupation — so central to French identity — was too disparate even to be called ‘the French Resistance’

In Marianne in Chains, his last book on Occupied France, Robert Gildea offered an original view of life in that country between 1940 and 1944, arguing that outside the cities it had not always been as bad, nor had the Vichy regime always been as reactionary, as was subsequently claimed. Confining his research to three departments in the Loire valley, Gildea also suggested that for most people most of the time the Resistance was a dangerous irrelevance, to be avoided wherever possible. These conclusions were presented at a conference in Tours where they caused a minor uproar among French specialists.

Gildea, professor of modern history at Oxford University, now turns to a much bigger subject. Fighters in the Shadows covers the whole of the wartime period and the whole of France and concludes with an analysis of the role that post-war myths have played in the history of the Occupation.

The history of the French Resistance is usually concerned with a movement inside France that was disorganised and isolated, composed of numerous mutually hostile groups struggling against the occupying forces. They were united in nothing except a determination to carry on the fight and defeat the German invaders. The main currents within this movement were the FTP — a communist network intent on starting a national insurrection — three centrist movements — Combat, the largest non-communist organisation; Libération; and Franc-Tireur — and on the right the ORA, formed by army officers who were sympathetic to Marshal Pétain, the Vichy head of state.

The ORA resisters accepted the armistice of 1940 but were reactivated by the German invasion of the unoccupied zone in November 1942. For the purposes of liberating France, all these groups eventually agreed to unite in support of the Allied landings. They accepted the leadership of General de Gaulle — who had succeeded in imposing a degree of authority on the ‘resistance of the interior’ through the action of his personal delegate, a retired departmental prefect called Jean Moulin.

In place of this familiar picture Gildea proposes a different model.

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