By Matt Perry
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The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis

This article is over 14 years, 7 months old
Matthew Cobb, Simon & Schuster; £17.99
Issue 338

The heroic view of the French resistance has faded. Histories of France in these years focus on the complexity of French public opinion, the collaborationist Vichy regime of Philippe Petain or challenge the resistance myths of Charles de Gaulle and the French Communist Party. Cobb’s book tries to buck this trend with a demythologised but sympathetic account of the French resistance, attempting to demonstrate its “power to inspire”.

The two dominant post-war voices about the resistance were de Gaulle and the Communist Party. De Gaulle presented himself as the embodiment of the true France and of the resistance. The French Communist Party forgot the period before the German invasion of the Soviet Union when they did not engage in serious resistance activity. What both had in common was that they presented the resistance as an expression of the entire French nation.

Matthew Cobb does an excellent job of stripping away these myths. Rather than being a nation of resistors called to action by de Gaulle’s first BBC broadcast, initially resistance emerged slowly, in a fragmented and confused fashion. Although at the time of the liberation of France it was a mass movement, with 500,000 fighters and 100,000 having lost their lives, it was always a minority. De Gaulle’s war was conducted from London or Algiers and his experience was very different from those who built resistance networks in France itself. On his return to France, he treated those in the irregulars of the internal resistance with contempt. He disarmed the resistance as quickly as he could; he imposed prefects across France ending the role of the liberation committees; he tried to limit the workers’ seizures of the factories. In short, he was determined to make sure that the liberation would not turn into revolution. In this regard, he was assisted by the French Communist Party, whose leader, Maurice Thorez, had sat the war out in Moscow and supported de Gaulle in his efforts to reconstitute the state and stabilise French capitalism.

Matthew Cobb’s enjoyable book is well written and accessible for those unfamiliar with this story. It is a welcome contribution at a time when the historical debate about the resistance focuses in a distorted manner upon the head shavings of women at the liberation, or bloodthirsty score-settling of the purge. Although Cobb makes the point that the resistance resonates to the present, I found it frustrating that he does not draw out these connections explicitly, either in terms campaigns against the French fascist Le Pen or in recovering the promise that the liberation fleetingly seemed to offer to transcend a world of inequality, slump and war.

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