Nicholas Shakespeare welcomes a sweeping account of the French Resistance that gives credit to those previously overlooked by de Gaulle
Thirstily swallowed by a humiliated France, the dominant narrative of the French Resistance was cooked up by General de Gaulle – “Joan of Arc in trousers”, Churchill testily called him – when he addressed the crowds outside the Hôtel de Ville on August 25, 1944. “Paris liberated! Liberated by its own efforts, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the help of all of France.”
Yet, as Robert Gildea exposes in this comprehensive survey of the French Resistance, the myth that the French freed themselves is largely poppycock, like de Gaulle’s boast that only “a handful of scoundrels” behaved badly under four years of Nazi occupation. (One example: by October 1943, 85,000 French women had children fathered by Germans.) Most of the population didn’t engage with their revolutionary past until the last moment, when the chief thing they recaptured was their pride. The first French soldier into Paris was part of a regiment “called ‘la Nueve’ because it was composed mainly of Spanish republicans”.
[Order Robert Gildea‘s book “Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance” from Amazon.com]
The magnitude of the French defeat in June 1940, after a mere six weeks, compelled the writer Vercors (Jean Bruller), author of that celebrated novella of passive resistance, The Silence of the Sea, to predict that the Germans might stay on in France for a century. This being a very real possibility, it is not hard to see why the Resistance, in Gildea’s estimation, “mobilised only a minority of French people. The vast majority learnt to muddle through under German Occupation and long admired Marshal Pétain.” Attentisme – “wait and see” – was the most obeyed order of the day. It took until 1971 for a counter-narrative to surface, in the documentary Le Chagrin et la Pitié, which suggested that the French, instead of behaving honourably under the Occupation, “had been supine, cowardly, and only too frequently given to collaboration”.
It bears repeating that an astonishing one and a half million French soldiers remained POWs in Germany until 1945, putting pressure on political activists back home, notably communists, to form the opposition. But French Communist Party bosses, answerable to Moscow, “always controlled an agenda that had little to do with the Resistance”. One contemporary observer sneered: “The PCF led its resisters to the Rubicon – to go fishing.”
Neutralised for the first two years of the war by the Nazi-Soviet pact, which made Hitler their ally, the French communists were led by Jacques Duclos, “who lived a quiet life disguised as a ‘country doctor, 1900 style’ ”. Meanwhile, their general secretary, Georges Marchais, worked in a German factory as a volunteer. Hardly models of heroism.
Not until Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941 did a more convincing resistance emerge, gaining pace with the Relève of June 1942, in which Vichy’s chain-smoking Prime Minister, Pierre Laval, promised the release of one French POW for every three volunteers to work in Germany; the following February, the Service du Travail Obligatoire turned this into a compulsory order, directed at all men of military age. The result: up to 40,000 young men – the Resistance was 80 per cent composed of those under 30 – joined the maquis rather than go to Germany (although 650,000 did end up going). But as Gildea points out, the maquis were beset by problems – lack of weapons, training and leadership – which led to a succession of disastrous setbacks and reprisals. Read the rest of this entry »
An emboldened Beijing clamps down on civil liberties
promote a host of social and political causes.
“Even though the so-called ‘Feminist Five’ were released from custody in April, they say they are still being treated as criminal suspects.”
“Just as President Xi Jinping prepares to attend a U.N. summit in New York in September to mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark women’s conference, his administration has begun to clamp down on independent women’s groups for the first time since the NGO Forum.”
Tibetan activists set up stalls. Amnesty International, in China for the first time, rebuked the Chinese government over its human rights practices at a news conference. Then U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton, one of the celebrity attendees, made herself popular with the women by lecturing her Chinese hosts about free speech and assembly after they withheld visas for some of the delegates.
They never looked back—until now.
Ironically, just as President Xi Jinping prepares to attend a U.N. summit in New York in September to mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark women’s conference, his administration has begun to clamp down on independent women’s groups for the first time since the NGO Forum.
The restrictions underscore just how far Mr. Xi is turning back the clock on civil liberties in China—all the way to the days of harsh political repression that followed the crushing of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
They also reveal a transformation in the mind-set of the government, still fearful of organized political opposition but so confident in China’s elevated place in the world that it no longer feels much compulsion to make concessions to its international critics. Read the rest of this entry »