Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2016-084
10 Aug. 2016
Review by Valerie Deacon, New York University
Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance
By Robert Gildea
Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 593. ISBN 978–o–674–28610–8.
Descriptors: Volume 2016, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

In 1944, as Charles de Gaulle was announcing that Paris had been liberated by the people of France alone and elaborating the myth of résistancialisme that would become central to his, and others', sense of modern France, the rightist philosopher Charles Maurras was proclaiming that his conviction for collusion with the enemy was "the revenge of Dreyfus." Although not so intended, these two infamous statements created a very specific version of the French Resistance that cast elements of the right and extreme right as collaborators and nearly everybody else as resisting the German occupiers. Such discrediting of the fringes of the political spectrum gave a republican legitimacy to the resistance and thus eased the path toward a new government at war's end.


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This image of the resistance was almost immediately contested by the French Communist Party and has undergone modifications since 1945, but until recently, readers who do not know French have done without a comprehensive scholarly overview of the resistance and its history. British and American historians, while making significant contributions to the field, have usually focused on discrete elements of the resistance; and, by and large, studies of Vichy France and collaboration have dominated Anglophone scholarship. This lacuna in the literature is slowly but surely being filled by recent books,[1] including now Robert Gildea's Fighters in the Shadows.

Gildea (Oxford Univ.) has written several authoritative books[2] about France in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Fighters in the Shadows, he deals with subjects familiar to scholars of the resistance, using published memoirs and interviews with resisters that have been accessible to historians for some time. But general readers and specialists alike will appreciate the author's lively discussion of resistance in France and enjoy his resurrection of individual reminiscences. Like earlier historians of his subject, he leans heavily on eyewitness testimony, giving a voice to dissident communists, foreigners, and Jewish resisters in France. In so doing, he often sets aside some of the complexities of memory and the challenges of writing history based largely on testimony and allows the reflections of (some) individuals to shape our conception of resistance. This approach opens itself to criticism, as historians will undoubtedly demand a more explicit assessment of the political nature of resisters' memories.

Gildea depicts the resistance as comprising people from all over Europe, that is, as the "resistance in France" as opposed to the "French Resistance" and part of a larger struggle against fascism, in which the liberation of France was one goal among many. Thus he focuses on foreign activists, particularly people who had fought during the Spanish Civil War as well as Jews and other Eastern European refugees: "with less to lose and fewer hiding places, communists, Jews and foreigners had greater incentives to resist than the average French person" (239). Though he offers no empirical support for this assertion, he correctly asserts that the memory of the resistance has been nationalized in ways that have pushed foreign involvement to the margins of history. In the same vein, Eric Jennings has recently told the sad story of the "whitening" of de Gaulle's Free French Forces, which included at least twenty-seven thousand men from Cameroon and French Equatorial Africa fighting within a force of roughly seventy-three thousand.[3] The participation of these men in various European campaigns, including the liberation of France itself, was deliberately obscured. Unsurprisingly, a similar process of nationalization elided foreigners from the story of internal resistance as well.

Resisters, Gildea writes, were motived by anti-fascism, Zionism, communism, patriotism, a sense of humiliation, and familial influences. They carried out various military functions—gathering intelligence, sabotaging vital transportation and communication networks, and assisting the Allies. They also sheltered persecuted people and Allied aircrews, made false identity cards, helped individuals escape into Spain, and engaged in various activities that have sometimes been seen as humanitarian, rather than military, resistance. Unlike some other historians of the period, the author also records small acts of dissent that, "since the Germans prohibited all symbolic manifestations of patriotism, … became in themselves acts of resistance" (62). The drawback here is that Gildea's extremely broad definition of resistance problematically conflates a wide range of actions that required different degrees of commitment or incurred different consequences.

By incorporating nonmilitary acts of resistance into his study, Gildea also takes into account of the many roles that women played during the war. Women undertook a wide variety of activities, ranging from espionage to sheltering refugees; from transporting weapons to serving as radio operators; from sabotage to liaising among various resistance networks. Gildea devotes one chapter to the women, French and foreign, who participated in these ways. The work of scholars like Paula Schwartz or Juliette Pattinson, both of whom delve deeply into the gender dynamics of resistance, as opposed to simply writing about women, seems not to have informed Gildea's discussion in any meaningful way.[4] Readers familiar with the history of women's resistance during the war might also be surprised to find that Gildea does not discuss the role of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, who led the largest intelligence network in France. This may reflect Gildea's exclusion of vichysto-résistants, who fought the Germans without necessarily breaking with the Vichy regime. As Fourcade's network, Alliance, was created in that milieu, Gildea does not touch on her extraordinary wartime career.

The author vividly describes the motives of the men and women of the resistance, their experiences fighting the Germans, and their ultimate disappointments at the end of the war, when de Gaulle and the external resistance effectively ruled out any revolutionary activity in France and re-established a republican government with little sympathy for the goals of Gildea's resisters. Quoting the well known resister Jacques Lecompte-Boinet, Gildea laments the "silent and almost effortless hijacking of the revolution by the servants of the state" (403). But his discerning discussion of the lost dreams of the resisters does not address the underlying political exigencies. Readers get no sense that de Gaulle and the external resisters had to cope with the pressures of an ongoing war, maintain good diplomatic relations with the Allies, and meet the expectations of a public far less revolutionary than the communist resisters.

There is certainly much to celebrate in Fighters in the Shadows, not least that it offers English-speaking readers a chance to learn more about the resistance in France and its postwar afterlives. Its resurrection of the voices of communists, foreigners, and Jews adds important nuance to our understanding of resistance, though the focus on left-leaning resistance means that readers will still have to read more broadly for a detailed picture of the resistance as a whole. While this lengthy book offers the general reader a great deal of information about people who came to resistance from a very specific milieu, scholars will likely be familiar with its cast of characters—the Aubracs, "Colonel Fabien" (Pierre Georges), Agnès Humbert, Léo Hamon, Henri Rol-Tanguy, and many more. But Robert Gildea's concentration on people who were politically motivated to join the resistance, having already fought at home and abroad, means that the subjects of his study are not the unknown fighters whose stories have been overshadowed by competing narratives of the resistance.

[1] See, e.g., Matthew Cobb's popular histories: The Resistance: The French Fight against the Nazis (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2009), Eleven Days in August: The Liberation of Paris in 1944 (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2013), and Olivier Wieviorka, The French Resistance (Cambridge: Harvard U Pr, 2016).

[2] E.g., Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800–1914, 3rd ed. (NY: Oxford U Pr, 2003), France since 1945, 2nd ed. (NY: Oxford U Pr, 2002), France 1870–1914, 2nd ed. (1996; rpt. NY: Routledge, 2013), among others.

[3] Free French Africa in World War II: The African Resistance (NY: Cambridge U Pr, 2015).

[4] See, e.g., Schwartz, "Partisanes and Gender Politics in Vichy France," French Historical Studies 16.1 (1989) 126–51; Pattinson, Behind Enemy Lines: Gender, Passing and the Special Operation Executive in the Second World War (Manchester: Manchester U Pr, 2007), and "Passing Unnoticed in a French Crowd: The Passing Performances of British SOE Agents in Occupied France," National Identities 12.3 (2010) 291–308.

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