Jonathan Sumption

Pointless but necessary

The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis, by Matthew Cobb

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The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis

Matthew Cobb

Simon & Schuster, pp. 403, £

For 20 years after the war, the Resistance was the presiding myth of French society. No one would say that now. A generation that never experienced occupation and respected no icons, began to ask awkward questions.

The claim of the résistants to have made a serious contribution to the military balance was the first thing to go. The early demonstrations, minor explosions and assassinations of prominent Germans were mere fleabites on an enormous elephant. Only when it was clear that Germany would lose did the Resistance become a more significant force. Even then its achievements were modest: a handful of sabotage operations against war production facilities and a useful but minor contribution to the disruption of German communications during the D-Day landings. Arthur Koestler’s prediction in 1942 that the French would be fairweather friends, turned out to be uncannily accurate:

When the scales of success turn in favour of England, the barricades will emerge from the pavements of the towns of France, the snipers will appear behind the attic windows and the people will fight as in the old days. Not before.

The Allies themselves had misgivings. The United States only tardily abandoned its faith in Vichy. The British thought that irregulars were at best a source of intelligence and occasional support for clandestine operations by their own forces. Even General de Gaulle, who needed the Resistance to reinforce his bargaining power with the Allies, regarded them with contempt and fear. They were unmilitary, undisciplined, and mainly interested in imposing their own political solutions once the war was over.

All this has been known for a long time. A more recent and serious blow to the reputation of the Resistance has been the progressive revelation of its divisions. Except in 1942-3 under Jean Moulin, there was no effective central organisation. Fissiparious groupuscules acted on their own initiative, separated from the rest by security, by political disagreements and by the vanity and ambition of individuals. Even the Communist Resistance organisations, which once seemed monolithic, have recently been shown to have been riven by internal feuds, many of them settled by brutal gang warfare and murder. Right up to the Liberation, the Gestapo had no difficulty in recruiting French spies to penetrate Resistance groups. Virtually all of them were sooner or later betrayed by their own. The trial of Klaus Barbie in 1983 revealed some uncomfortable ambiguities about the loyalties of even the most prominent Resistance heroes.

The fundamental problems were the apathy and political divisions of the French population. Only a tiny minority had the slightest interest in resistance. The savage German reprisals which followed most incidents turned many people against it, as of course they were intended to. The pointlessness of most Resistance operations alienated others. Most Frenchmen were desperate for a semblance of normality after the catastrophe of 1940. Until the Germans, with Vichy assistance, began to conscript large numbers of ordinary Frenchmen for war production in Germany, in 1943, the mass of the population regarded the Resistance as a disruptive and anti-social interference with normal life. When the French SOE agent Jacques Bingen escaped from the hands of the Gestapo in the streets of Clermont-Ferrand, a French woman hailed a passing German lorry and pointed out the doorway in which he was hiding. This was in May 1944, just a month before D-Day.

It is difficult for a Frenchman to be objective about these things, although that is changing. Hence the large contribution to the history of occupied France which has been made by outsiders, mainly British and American. Matthew Cobb is the latest in this distinguished line. He writes a good narrative. He offers a sound history of events, basically chronological, with all the famous tales but also much that is infamous or little known. He has read widely in the immense corpus of Resistance memoirs, and dipped a toe into the administrative records.

Cobb is a realist. He makes few claims for the military record of the Resistance. His chronicle of jealousies, rows and betrayals speaks for itself. Yet he comes perhaps closer than any other historian to explaining why the Resistance matters in spite of all this. However ineffective militarily and however counter-productive politically, the desire of a handful of people to do something in the face of barbarism, and be seen to do it, reinforces one’s faith in the human spirit. The extraordinary courage of their lives, brief and suicidal as they often were, deserves to be known and is alone enough to justify a book like this.

Is this just the self-indulgence of a later generation? I do not think so. In the affairs of nations, honesty is not always the best policy. For France, the Resistance has been a necessary myth. The country’s recovery of its self-esteem enabled it to rebuild itself internally after the war and reclaim its place as a stable polity, a major economy and a big player in European affairs. This depended at least in part on the pretence that it had made a significant contribution to the defeat of Germany. Roosevelt’s desire to dismember the French empire and impose an Anglo-American military administration on the country may have reflected the realities of power politics, but no one can seriously suggest that we would have been better off if it had happened. De Gaulle’s opposition was the main reason why it did not. And that was largely down to his ability to present himself as the representative of a great movement within France and its Mediterranean colonies. Only now can we afford the truth. q