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The only thing irresistible about the World War II French Resistance was Hollywood’s romanticizing of the small, secret, disorganized, movement.

Blame Ernest Hemingway.

Ever since he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), the popular image of the wartime partisan has been one of T-handles shoved down into detonator boxes, of bridges blowing and railway tracks pretzeling, of snipers taking out troops that stumble into their sights. That image has also shaped modern-day impressions of the French Resistance, the multifaceted, misunderstood World War II movement that eventually coalesced among brave civilians after Germany steamrolled France in 1940.

But the Hemingwayesque view of resistance in For Whom the Bell Tolls (set during the 1936–39 Spanish Civil War) bears little semblance to the real-life French Resistance. The truth, however, is hard to determine—what the Resistance was, what it accomplished, who its members were, how big and effective or small and ineffective it was—because the France of World War II had one large piece of dirty linen waving in the wind: Alone among the countries of Europe overrun by the Wehrmacht, France chose to collaborate actively with the enemy, and the French people became deeply ashamed of that choice as soon as the Allies liberated them. The country compensated for that shame by sometimes exaggerating the accomplishments of those partisans who did propagandize, spy upon, sabotage and even openly fight the Germans.

“The French, understandably, reacted [after liberation] to their ordeal by retreating into a myth,” writes Ian Ousby in Occupation: The Ordeal of France, 1940–1944. “A myth of a people united in hostility to the Nazi occupiers, of a nation of résistants.” In truth France was far from a nation of resisters. Anti-Nazi partisans in Yugoslavia, Poland and Greece were far more effective and constituted a substantially higher percentage of the population of each country. As Time described Marcel Ophul’s Resistance-debunking 1969 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, the film “tries to puncture the bourgeois myth— or protectively askew memory—that allows France generally to act as if hardly any Frenchmen collaborated with the Germans.”

Fully 90 percent of France’s population either supported the collaborationist Vichy regime or were too frightened to have anything to do with the underground. Most civilians evidently no longer wanted to be part of any war, and many French soldiers lacked the will to continue the fight. German soldiers were stunned when some of the French they captured in June 1940 danced jigs and sang folksongs, delighted to be done with warfighting.

A considerable number of French men and women were outright collaborationists, and those who weren’t were content to simply coexist with their conquerors. To many, collaboration meant making the best of an awkward situation, sharing space (and sometimes beds) with fellow Europeans, albeit ones in gray Wehrmacht and black SS uniforms. After all, the thinking went, national socialism at least looked preferable to the communism that was already a powerful force among French workers. The Germans did their part by being polite to the French populace, giving up Métro seats to old people, handing candy to children and spending freely at Paris cabarets, restaurants and couturiers. Some Frenchmen went so far as to fight on the German side: more than 7,000 Frenchmen volunteered for the Wehrmacht and eventually formed the Charlemagne Division, which fought on the Eastern Front and in Berlin.

So the French Resistance grew slowly. Paris and much of the rest of occupied France flew swastika flags on every hotel and public building until the August 1944 liberation. By contrast, when the Germans invaded Greece and flew their garish banner from the Acropolis, resisters tore it down within days. Initially, at least, the French were far more interested in getting along with the Germans than in challenging them.

The Resistance first revealed itself as underground publishers of anti-Nazi broadsides and mimeographed mini-newspapers. It was an offense that could get one arrested, jailed, tortured or even executed, so this was indeed resistance. Clandestine publishing also made good use of the talents of these early French partisans, for many were intellectuals and had no idea how to fire a gun. This remained a problem for the Resistance. The movement eventually comprised wellmeaning anti-Fascist activists, especially communists; a relatively small number of the bourgeoisie and intellectuals; the inevitable young thugs, malcontents and outcasts who gravitate toward the action; and a core of men and women who despised what the Germans had done to France.

What the Resistance didn’t have was military professionals; most of the French army had been captured and imprisoned—1,540,000 men were in German captivity. A few had fled to England to join Brig. Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s fledgling Free French forces, but among those few remaining in France, guerrilla warfare was something they neither understood nor wanted any part of. So the Resistance was an amateur “army,” ready and able to produce anti-Nazi propaganda and gather intelligence but not do battle.

Small groups of Resistance fighters did harass and annoy the German occupiers, but whenever larger bands gathered to fight the occasional skirmish, Wehrmacht firepower, armor and air support quickly destroyed them. The Resistance initially had few weapons—obsolete World War I pistols, a few hunting rifles and shotguns—and even fewer people who knew how to use them. Nor was there any way to get more guns until the British began air-dropping weapons, ammunition, explosives and other supplies in 1943.

The first violent act of armed resistance to the occupation of France is generally thought to have been the shooting of Alfons Moser, a low-level German naval adjutant, in the Paris Métro on Aug. 21, 1941. The shooter was Pierre Georges, a communist. The Parti Communiste Fran- çais was at the core of much of the early Resistance movement. Experienced agitators, skilled at organizing strikes and rabble-rousing, the communists gravitated toward the Resistance, especially after Adolf Hitler broke his nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union and attacked on the Eastern Front on June 22, 1941. At that point the communist resisters took it upon themselves to commit as much mayhem as possible, particularly in metropolitan areas, and force the Germans to deploy additional troops against them, thus diverting soldiers from service in war zones.”

Jews were another major group of resisters, for obvious reasons. Accounting for just 1 percent of the population in an infamously anti-Semitic country, they were said to comprise 15 to 20 percent of its Resistance. The Vichy government had handed over to the Germans all foreign Jews who had fled to France as refugees, most of whom died in concentration camps and forced labor. It went even further in its 1940 Statute on Jews, denaturalizing several thousand French-born Jews and then rounding them up for deportation to concentration camps.

The murder on the Métro elicited from the Germans a brutal but effective response: reprisal executions. For every German killed by the Resistance, the Nazis would kill dozens, even hundreds, of civilians. At first the Germans chose victims from among existing prisoners—communists, anarchists, Gaullists and other categories of offenders. Eventually, however, they became less discriminating about whom they shot or hanged. In such reprisals the Germans killed an estimated 30,000 innocent French men and women by the time of the liberation. Resisters ultimately had as much to fear from countrymen-turned-informants as they did from the Nazis.

The most valuable work the French Resistance did was to provide, for the British and later the Americans, pre-invasion intelligence about German troop movements and coastal defenses, as well as accurate maps and photos to be used by D-Day planners. After the war, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe General Dwight D. Eisenhower grandly estimated the French Resistance had been worth “an extra six divisions.” It was a rare bit of Eisenhower hyperbole likely foisted upon him by de Gaulle, but Ike certainly never meant the resisters were the equal of 90,000 fully armed and trained troops. It was the intelligence they provided he felt was priceless.

Some of the intel made its way to England in the hands of British agents, picked up at night in pastures and fields by slow, black-painted Westland Lysanders of the Royal Air Force. Much more was transmitted by radio. Given the diligence with which the Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo, sought to ferret them out, Resistance radio operators were reputed to have an average life expectancy of just six months. They weren’t particularly skillful amateurs, and their radios were bulky, hard-to-hide units. Mobile German radio direction finders could triangulate their positions as the French made their slow transmissions, virtually ensuring their capture.

The British and Americans dismissed much of the Resistance intelligence, however, as amateurish, useless or just plain wrong. “As late as the first months of 1943,” wrote historian Douglas Porch in his thorough book The French Secret Services, “40 percent of Resistance broadcasts were on frequencies which only the Germans were capable of listening to.”

In England, de Gaulle, who had controversially and single-handedly established the Free French government in exile, claimed credit for instigating the Resistance, but that was a considerable exaggeration. In a June 1940 BBC speech broadcast to France, de Gaulle had urged “resistance,” but what he clearly meant was for ablebodied Frenchmen to make their way to England to join the Free French army to resist the Germans. Homegrown resistance, especially not under his command, was not his intent.

A measure of enmity also existed between the Free French and the Resistance. Frenchmen who made their way to England often discounted resisters as those who had cravenly “stayed behind,” while the resisters considered the expatriates Frenchmen who had “fled to safety.” Few understood or respected the other’s motive.

Regardless, few early resisters ever heard the de Gaulle speech. Entirely separate cells and cadres formed spontaneously among such disparate groups as Paris museum curators and angry café esthetes. They initially served as propagandists, intelligence gatherers and couriers to return downed Allied airmen to England. The latter network comprised safe houses and trekking guides who would deliver the downed airmen to Allied submarines off French beaches or to safety in neutral Spain and Portugal.

While some Resistance mythologizers have compared this network to the 19th century Underground Railroad, others say it bore more similarities to the “coyotes” who today prey on illegal immigrants, as many of the passeurs who guided the escapees over the Pyrenees were well paid for their work. Some collected fees twice—once from their clients and again from the Germans to whom they turned over the airmen. The Resistance also sometimes charged fees for its intelligence, saying “the cause” needed the money.

Whatever its initial shortcomings, the Resistance was substantially strengthened when in early 1943 the collaborationist Vichy government made a fateful concession to the Germans—agreeing to the Service du travail obligatoire (STO), new work rules requiring the forced labor in Germany of virtually all able-bodied Frenchmen. Almost immediately, thousands of young men—especially in the south—fled to the countryside, living in the scrubland that covered much of the south. They called themselves the Maquis, a word that loosely translates to “the bush.”

Resistance leaders soon realized these maquisards were not only numerous but desperate, brave, trainable and useful. These weren’t Parisian café- sitters or underground newspaper editors but rough-hewn, would-be saboteurs and fighters, and they became the Hemingwayesque public image of the Resistance—those cinematic guys in berets with Sten guns slung from their shoulders and Gauloises drooping from their lips.

The Resistance came to maturity in the months just before and after the June 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy. The intelligence, maps, photos and reports they sent to England were helpful to invasion planners and would have been even more useful had the Allies fully trusted the resisters. There had always been a strong undercurrent of doubt, particularly among the Americans, regarding the veracity of the intel the amateurs provided. Despite Ike’s “extra six divisions” valuation of the Resistance, his Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force wouldn’t even provide de Gaulle with the D-Day date, a snub the French commander never forgave.

But for the first time, the Resistance had planned specific, well-coordinated sabotage campaigns against railroads, power networks, highways, fuel and ammunition depots, command centers and communications lines to aid the invasion they knew was inevitable. The Resistance reportedly destroyed 1,800 railway targets in the months before and after the invasion, versus 2,400 hit by Allied bombers. The resisters also learned they didn’t even need explosives and the accompanying danger. They simply removed the bolts holding track lengths together. Although the Hollywood image is one of vast derailments, with entire trains and their cargoes tumbling down mountainsides, such sabotage was more annoying than disruptive to the Germans, who usually made repairs and resumed service within hours.

With the August 1944 Liberation of Paris, spearheaded by General Philippe Leclerc and his Free French 2nd Armored Division, the work of the Resistance was essentially finished, yet it also augured its darkest hour: Resisters were not the only citizens to indulge in the orgy of lynchings and summary executions that followed the liberation, but many were enthusiastic participants. Accustomed to being a law unto themselves, resisters and others took out their fury on everybody from acknowledged collaborators—particularly women who had slept with Germans—to innocents on the wrong end of an informant neighbor’s grudge. This lawless, post-liberation purge was called l’Épuration légale (“the legal purification”). Some 10,000 suspected collaborators were sentenced to death, though officials carried out fewer than 800 executions.

“In countless postwar films and novels, shadowy agents whispered information vital to the war effort, while resisters intrepidly derailed trains, machine-gunned convoys of sinister, Gestapo-stuffed Citroëns or sent motorcycles of the Feldpolizei and their sidecar passengers careening into ditches along lonely French roads,” wrote Porch in The French Secret Services. “So powerful was the Resistance myth, so important did it become to French self-esteem, that only gradually, and not without controversy, have historians been able to assess its size and significance.”

Citizen resistance works well, Porch points out, when a populace is deeply committed to the cause. But in France, “a handful of German police backed by Vichy authorities and the ruthless reprisals of the Wehrmacht and SS were enough to keep the population acceptably docile until the very eve of D-Day and beyond.”

So, was the French Resistance effective? Perhaps, in some places at some times, but its value was often grossly exaggerated. The Resistance, for example, claimed it had killed 6,000 members of the vicious Das Reich Division. British historian Max Hastings, however, examined the unit’s records for his book Das Reich: The March of the Second SS Panzer Division Through France, June 1944 and concluded the French were responsible for the death of approximately 35 soldiers out of the division’s 15,000. The French have long boasted the Resistance so harried that division that it took the Germans more than three weeks to move from Strasbourg to Caen after the Normandy Invasion, normally a three-day slog for an armored division. The truth, however, was that the German unit had been ordered to move deliberately and pulverize the Maquis in the region through which it passed, which it did.

Such mythmaking abounds in French, British and American postwar accounts. Resistance records claim that ultimately there were 400,000 resisters. But official French government numbers say 220,000, while Porch’s research shows 75,000. The truth may never be known.

Among the most caustic comments on the Resistance was uttered by German Reichminister for Armaments and War Production Albert Speer. When asked by British economic historian Alan Milward to comment upon the effectiveness of the Resistance in hampering German wartime efforts, Speer responded, “What French Resistance?” And when General Alfred Jodl, operations chief of the German Armed Forces High Command, in November 1943 outlined for Heinrich Himmler the military situation on the Western Front, the only guerrilla group Jodl saw fit to mention was the Yugoslav partisans. To Jodl, the French Resistance was irrelevant.

Still, for those of us who have never experienced enemy occupation or ill-equipped, marginal guerrilla warfare—criticism comes too easily in retrospect. If anything, the inflated mythology that today surrounds the French Resistance only profanes the memory of those who really did serve bravely.


For further reading Stephan Wilkinson recommends France: The Dark Years, 1940–1944, by Julian Jackson, and Occupation: The Ordeal of France, 1940– 1944, by Ian Ousby.

Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.