Fighters in The Shadows

Title:                      Fighters in The Shadows

Author:                 Robert Gildea

Gildea, Robert (2015). Fighters in The Shadows: A New History of The French Resistance. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

LCCN:    2015018188

D802.F8 G465 2015


  • Introduction: remembering the resistance — Awakenings — Faire quelque chose — ‘Titi has been avenged!’ — London calling — Une affaire de femmes — In and out of the shadows — God’s underground — The blood of others — The hinge: North Africa — Apogee — Rupture — Skyfall or guerrilla — D-day — Liberation — Afterlives — Conclusion: battle for the soul of the resistance.


Date Posted:      June 15, 2016

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

In August 1944, General Charles de Gaulle thrilled a Parisian crowd by declaring, “Paris liberated! Liberated by its own efforts, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the help of all France, that is France in combat. The one France, the true France, eternal France!”

As historian Robert Gildea scathingly documents, seldom has so much nonsense and misinformation been crammed into one oration. But de Gaulle piled lie atop lie with a reason. He laid the foundation fora myth that permeates France to this day: that the country freed itself of German occupation on its own, without the aid of any other power. Doing so “duly allowed France to reclaim its identity as the country of liberty and the rights of man.”

Gildea, a professor at Oxford University, explores the origins of the myth through a meticulous exploration of the evidence, and his book documents an entirely different France than that extolled by de Gaulle.

France surely suffered national shame with its capitulation to Nazi invaders. The country fought off Germany for four years from 1914-1918; in 1940, it-collapsed in six weeks. A puppet government was created in Vichy under Marshal Phillipe Petain. Remnants of the defeated French army in colonial North Africa sided with Vichy (i.e., the Nazis), fighting against American and other Allied troops who invaded Africa in 1942 as the first step towards defeating Germany.

Then a relatively obscure general, de Gaulle hastened to London to claim leadership of the “Free French.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill permitted him to make “an address to the French people” over BBC in which he called for French soldiers on British soil to rally behind him. But few French even heard the broadcast; many of those who did questioned anointing de Gaulle as the leader of a government in exile.

So, to Gildea, the question became, What does “resistance” mean in the French context? He offers a dual definition. “…In a word, it meant refusing to accept the French bid for armistice and the German occupation, and a willingness to do something about it that broke rules and courted risk.” But he also cites Resistance with a capital R, “providing intelligence for the Allies, escorting downed airmen to safety, spreading propaganda against the Germans or Vichy, sabotage, and in the last instance, armed struggle.”

As Gildea stresses, occupied France can be understood only if pre-war politics are considered. A leftist coalition that rightists claimed was dominated by “Jews and communists” ran the government through the time of invasion. And any wartime “resistance” was carried out against that continuing backdrop.

Gildea’s evidence, elicited through oral histories and documents, argues strongly that many persons in France were more concerned with who would dominate the country after peace rather than opposing the Germans. The communists emerged the main opposition to the rightists. Roughly aligned with the communists, for practical reasons more than politics, were Jewish groups trying to save co-religionists from Nazi death camps, and others seeking refuge.

Gildea writes, “The French Resistance mobilized only a minority of French people. The vast majority learned to muddle through under German Occupation and long admired Marshal Pertain…” To be sure, any person who offended the German occupiers paid a horrific price. The mere ownership of a firearm—even an ancient shotgun in a barn—brought a death penalty. The Germans slaughtered entire villages as reprisals for guerrilla actions.

What passed for a “capital R” Resistance began only after the Allies invaded in 1944, and the Nazis seized young men as slave labor. Threatened youths formed a plethora of guerrilla bands, which were supplied with tons of air-dropped armaments. But the brave Frenchmen who rose to the challenge were handicapped by lack of leadership and military experience. And intensified German reprisal killings took an awful toll.

The Allies froze de Gaulle out of invasion plans, Roosevelt dismissing him as “an egotistical troublemaker” who “harboured Napoleon fantasies about seizing power in France as a dictator.” Military plans were to bypass Paris as an insignificant target and concentrate on driving out the Germans. FDR thought of putting France under a military government. He feared that communists could make France a Soviet camp satellite.

In the end, American divisions seized Paris, and de Gaulle was granted the favor of having his troops be first into the city. Even in the face of Gildea’s damning evidence, an objective observer must feel sympathy for the French. The pre-war government fumbled the nation’s defense, and the German occupiers were brutal beyond words. A complex read that is worth the effort.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp. 106-107). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

This entry was posted in France and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s