Building the French Resistance
The summer of 1940 was one of the most disastrous in French history. On May 10th the German invasion swept over the borders with a boldness and efficiency that flooded the Allied efforts to resist. The Anglo-French alliance, weakened by political wrangling and deep disputes over military strategy, was finally torn apart when the British government moved to evacuate its army at Dunkirk. The French people already viewed the British as an unreliable ally, and it was remarked that the Dunkirk escape was perhaps the first example so far seen of British military talent.
On June 10th the French government fled Paris to Bordeaux in southwest France. Four days later the German army staged a triumphant march through the streets of the French capital. With defeat an undisputed fact the French government moved to sue for peace. On the 16th of June Marshal Pétain, the hero of France's great WWI victory at Verdun, assumed power from the Prime Minister. He immediately announced his intention to sign an armistice, offering himself as a sacrifice for France. Six days later, in the same railcar used to sign the Versailles Treaty, Germany received the French surrender.
France was to be split into two spheres: the North was to be temporarily occupied and administered by German troops and police, while the South was to be administered by a French government located in Vichy, a spa town in the Southern Vosages Mountains. Pétain was given absolute power of rule in the southern zone, officially ending the Third Republic and democratic rule in France.
The French people by-and-large accepted this arrangement for several reasons. The terms of occupation indicated that it was only to take place until the British were defeated, which at the time seemed an imminent event. Once the British were defeated then a true peace could be signed, and Europe would return to normal. The defeat of 1940 was seen in the context of a cycle of French-German contests dating back hundreds of years. This was to be simply another chapter in that rivalry. Pétain too was implicitly seen as a patriot who was working in the best interest of the country, and his actions were not yet being questioned. German propaganda worked to encourage French passivity, implicating a conspiracy of Jewish bankers and British politicians as the instigators of the war. This attitude was aggravated when the Royal Navy sank a French fleet in North Africa when they refused to surrender their ships, resulting in the loss of 1200 French sailors. All of this was combined with a relatively light hand initially shown by the German occupiers that allowed the French people to focus on their day-to-day survival.
The first sparks of resistance began in late 1940 as the people became aware that the German presence was not just an armistice, but an occupation that was working towards the forced change of a culture. On October 24th, 1940, Pétain met with Hitler and shook his hand. For many this was an act of betrayal, and it allowed people to end their unquestioned loyalty to Pétain. Then, on November 11th, the anniversary of the end of WWI, a group of French students attempted to lay a traditional wreath at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. At first French police tried to disperse the crowd, but soon German troops arrived who used machineguns to clear the area. While none were killed and only a few wounded the message was clear, and it was heard throughout the country.
While this event served to begin the resistance movement it was not an example of how future resistance would look. The history of the French Resistance would largely be made by people acting alone and in secret. Only very slowly did the movement begin, and even at its peak active resistance was undertaken by a small percentage of the population (as was the case in all occupied countries in Europe). In these first days no network existed for those who wished to continue the struggle against Germany. It took an extraordinary act of courage to refuse the reality of the defeat and take action as an individual against the most efficient and powerful army in Europe.
Slowly the networks and movements began to take form as individuals searched out others in their local area who shared their beliefs. They were formed by citizens of all types, from clergymen to union organizers, all bound by a common reaction against the occupation. Several regional movements began to appear: in the occupied northern zone, among others, it was the Confrérie Notre-Dame and Alliance, and in the southern zone it was Libération-Sud, Franc-Tireur, and the famous Combat. Only one national movement emerged, the Front National, organized by communists but not a political organization, its membership being open to all and its goal the liberation of France. Most of the networks, large and small, would eventually make contact with either the French government in exile led by General De Gaulle in London, or British agents of the SOE (Special Operations Executive).
General De Gualle
The activities of the early networks were not aimed at violence or open rebellion. One of the major activities of these groups was the publication of pamphlets or newspapers making people aware of the existence of the Resistance and communicating their goals. This tradition of dissention via the press was long established in France and was the primary means of political discontent under authoritarian rule. By no means was this a safe method of resisting the German occupation. If found those involved were arrested or deported to work camps. Other activities of the resistance networks involved smuggling shot-down Allied pilots or political refugees over the borders to Switzerland and Spain, counterfeiting papers, and gathering information on German military dispositions.
Membership in the resistance most often meant the continuation of one's normal life in every respect; participants were ordinary people who in small ways worked to undermine the German occupation. Many of those who were being targeted as 'undesirables' by the Germans lived in cities, and so initially the resistance movement was strongest in urban areas. It was also here that the socialist and communist political parties had their power-base.* Rural areas were targeted by German and Vichy propaganda that stressed traditional conservative values as the ideals in a "new" France. However, the effectiveness of such calls was lessened as Germany began more and more stringent requisitions of food, material, and manpower. As the scarcity of goods began to spread to the countryside, and with the number of forced labourers in the Reich at well over 1.5 million, the people of France as a whole began to resent their occupiers and sympathize with the Resistance.
The Resistance networks and movements were largely non-political in their membership, but a number were associated with the leftist French political parties. This had an important impact on the war in several respects. The Free French under De Gaulle was essentially a military organization, led by men who were more likely to be associated with pre-war right-wing political parties. De Gaulle's main sponsors, Great Britain and the United States, shared his reluctance to trust networks that included communists in prominent positions.
Resistance fighters studying weapons.
This mutual distrust initially stifled cooperation, and led to a strong disagreement on the use of violence by the Resistance. De Gaulle had asked that networks not use outright violence against the Germans, as this inevitably resulted in the brutal execution of innocent hostages. The communist-based Resistance networks rejected this call, and early on earned a name for their assassinations of German officers and French collaborators, along with acts of violent sabotage. To complicate matters the British and American military (via the SOE) supported and encouraged the use of sabotage and violence by the Resistance as a force to disrupt and tie-down the German military. The combination of these various factors meant that up until 1942 many Resistance movements did not establish formal ties back to De Gaulle in London.
This situation would change dramatically in late 1942 when German troops occupied the southern zone of France, guarding against the threat created by Axis defeats in the North African desert. This move ended Vichy's claim on French sovereignty and clearly placed German troops as foreign occupiers. Throughout 1943 several other factors arose which allowed for a rise in the power and role of the Resistance, as well as its support among the general populous of France.
Large numbers of French troops stationed in North Africa freely came to the Allied cause after Operation Torch began in late 1942, among them several senior French generals who seemed poised to challenge De Gaulle for leadership of the Free French Forces and for the loyalty of those resisting Germany inside occupied France. This motivated De Gaulle to solidify his position by unifying the internal Resistance movements and tying them to his centralized political and military control. Guarantees were made to the various networks that would allow for their inclusion regardless of political leanings. While this helped to coordinate activities and increase the flow of aid, arms and money was still heavily weighted against the communist networks out of fear of post-war civil unrest. Yet regardless of their political persuasion many veterans of the Resistance complained that as a whole the movement was severely under-supplied with weaponry, and generally felt a lack of confidence, communication and support by the Allied governments.
Forced French deportee number 100,000
is welcomed by German officers in 1942.
Other factors emerged in 1943 that increased the population's willingness to actively resist Germany. The first was the creation of the Milice, the Vichy-supported French national police. This fascist para-military force was armed by the Germans and acted in concert with the Gestapo. Under pressure from Germany the Vichy government collaborated in introducing a quota of forced-deportations for the French population. Each region of France was required to send a percentage of their working populations to Germany to work in the war-industries. In concert with the labour deportations were the deportations of French Jews. By 1943 word of the extermination camps had reached France, and yet the Vichy government was openly complicit with administering the deportation of France's Jewish population. In the face of the Milice and the deportations the Resistance was led into a more violent stance, and France was pushed to a virtual Civil War.
The forced-deportations in particular led to the creation of another powerful part of the Resistance, the Maquis. Hundreds of thousands of French citizens fled from the deportation decrees and went into hiding in the countryside. These refugees worked amongst themselves and with the pre-existing local Resistance networks, in essence becoming "full-time" Resistance units, and as such a focus for the activities of the Milice. Several large-scale actions took place between groups of Maquis and the Milice with their German military support. Such actions were usually very one-sided, with several infamous massacres of the Maquisards (members of the Maquis), who were not recognized as soldiers by the Germans. Even with the growing scale of the Resistance it could not yet match the occupiers on a military level.
The power of the French Resistance was harnessed in full once the Allied armies landed at Normandy and Southern France in 1944. Working with the British SAS (Special Air Service commandos) and French Parachute battalions they accomplished an estimated 60% of the objectives assigned to them for the night of June 5-6. General Eisenhower remarked that their presence was worth fifteen divisions in the field. With the bulk of German troops pinned to the fronts the Resistance took control of vast portions of the country, effectively liberating the majority of French soil. As the Allied armies advanced well-organized Resistance networks turned into interim administrations, taking this burden off of the Allied military formations. De Gaulle's work of unifying paid dividends in that the administrators chosen were politically acceptable to the military commanders and prepared to work under a unified command and control.
Announcing the liberation.
The last days of the German occupation were a time for a great many outrages and summary justice. It saw the summary execution of many collaborators who had been taken prisoner by the Resistance, although this was largely limited to members of the Milice. Unfortunately, the German occupiers had made a policy of using the random murder of civilians as a method of reprisal against acts of civilian resistance. This became even more pronounced during their retreat from France, the most infamous incident occurring in Oradour-sur-Glane, where an SS military unit murdered and immolated over 600 men, women, and children in retaliation for the murder of an SS officer in the village.
The French Resistance contributed greatly not only to the war effort but towards the post-war reconstruction. The image of resistance served as a beacon of hope to the future for the people of Europe as they rebuilt their societies. Many members of the French political institutions, military, and civil society had ties back to the Resistance.
* At the time communism was perceived as the antithesis of fascism, a distinction that suffered when the full extent of Stalin's crimes became known, and both ideologies to an extent became associated with dictatorial power in the Western mind. When the terms of Stalin's August 1939 Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler became known the French Communist Party was banned in France, who had itself in April guaranteed the freedom of Poland and was clearly on a path to war with Germany. Most French communists chose to follow Stalin's line and no longer view fascism as their enemy, thus they rejected the war with Germany when it came in September 1939. When the Soviet Union was invaded in 1941 this situation not surprisingly reversed itself, and former members of the French Communist Party, who were considered enemies of the state by the German occupation forces and the Vichy government, were encouraged to join the Resistance.
Sources and Recommended Reading:
Funk, Arthur Layton. Hidden ally: the French resistance, special operations, and the landings in southern France, 1944
Kedward, H.R. Occupied France, Collaboration and Resistance 1940-1944
Schoenbrun, David. Soldiers of the night: the story of the French Resistance
Wellsted, Ian. SAS with the Maquis: in action with the French Resistance, June-September 1944
Wilhelm, Maria. For the glory of France: the story of the French resistance