The French Resistance is often presented as a national liberation struggle. Both Communists and the followers of right wing General de Gaulle saw it as a nationalist movement against German occupation. It is only relatively recently that historians have written about the non-French fighters.
So Robert Guédiguian’s new film Army of Crime is to be welcomed. It tells the story of a Resistance group headed by Missak Manouchian. It consisted of east European Jews who had escaped Hitler, and anti-fascists from Spain and Italy.
Manouchian’s parents had perished in the Armenian genocide.
The film is a powerful depiction of their struggle. Guédiguian shows that the resisters were not bloodthirsty fanatics but ordinary people, much happier singing, reading or making love than engaging in armed struggle.
Once, they refuse to plant a bomb in a brothel because they are unwilling to kill innocent young women.
Army of Crime gives an honest portrayal of this time. Perhaps it can help us understand why people in Iraq and Afghanistan fight against an army of occupation.
But it also leaves unanswered questions. The film opens with the names of 23 members of the group executed in 1944 – we are told that each “died for France”.
But did they? As the film makes very clear, a big chunk of France was very happy to support the Nazis against the “Jews and Bolsheviks”. Much of the upper and middle classes collaborated, actively or passively.
The French state machine worked closely with the occupying army.
Thousands of Jews taken to the Drancy concentration camp were rounded up by the French police without any German assistance. A German official in the film admits they need the French police to track resisters because they know the terrain.
We see the sickening hypocrisy of a policeman who seduces a Jewish teenager with false promises to help her family.
The French Stalinist doggerel poet Louis Aragon wrote a tribute to Manouchian’s group which claimed “twenty-three shouted France as they died”. This seems unlikely.
The last letters of 16 of the group, written just hours before their death, have been preserved (see the Marxists Internet Archive via tinyurl.com/manouchian).
They are a moving testimony to the courage of their authors, but very few mention France. Manouchian and his comrades died for freedom – for a better world where people could pursue their aspirations without meeting repression.
Here is another bitter irony. Early in the film Manouchian tells his wife their sacrifices mean that their daughter will never see war. France was liberated from the Germans, but the old imperialist ruling class returned.
For two decades after 1945 France waged bitter colonial wars in which Vietnamese and Algerians were treated with the same brutality that the Nazis had used against French resisters.
There are also questions about the methods of Manouchian’s group. A favourite device was to ask a German soldier in the street for a light, then shoot him. This led to reprisals – 10 or 20 resisters executed for each soldier killed.
But the Communist-led Resistance, under instructions from Russia, carried on, hoping repression would provoke resistance.
Nobody will mourn the assassinated German general. But most victims were young working class conscripts.
There were revolutionary socialists in France who argued that the Resistance should fraternise, not gun down. For them, “the terrorist act creates a barrier between French workers and German soldiers, but no victory is possible without unity between them”. But that is another film, one which remains to be made.