Rethinking the French Resistance

I just finished reading (and reviewing) Valerie Deacon’s The Extreme Right in the French Resistance (2016).  The book focuses on a handful of men who participated in resistance activity during the ‘Dark Years’ of the French Occupation.  Each of them had previously been active in the interwar extreme right, which one way or another ultimately sought to remove the democratic Third Republic.  Some had even belonged to the Cagoule, a violent group that launched a failed coup in 1937.  Deacon presents us therefore with a seeming paradox: surely these men would have welcomed Vichy and even its collaboration with Germany – but they didn’t.  However, their resistance activity did not mean that they had come round to the idea of democracy.  Far from it; indeed, each clung fervently to his reactionary beliefs.

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We might wonder how this could be possible.  Surely the French resistance struggled to liberate France from dictatorship and re-establish democracy.  Well, that’s certainly the image presented to us in the post-war years.  Of course, some resisters belonged to the Republican tradition.  Even if they had been disapppointed with the Third Republic, they desired to re-install a form of Republican government in France.  However, as Deacon shows, not all resistance fighters shared the same motives.  The challenge is for us to consider these men and women – whose anti-democratic and often anti-Semitic views we may find otherwise unsavoury – as heroes of the resistance.  They surely were, for they risked as much as any member of the underground.

The Extreme Right in the French Resistance brought to mind two other works.  Robert Gildea’s 2015 Fighters in the Shadows likewise breaks down the myth of a homegenous resistance, in this case one that was overwhelmingly French and male.  Gildea uncovers the centrality of immigrants and women to the struggle for Liberation.  Deacon’s made me think of Simon Kitson’s 2007 The Hunt for Nazi Spies.  Kitson’s research uncovers the measures taken by Vichy to track down German spies in France.  Like Deacon’s work, it presents a counter-intuitive history that serves to complicate our understandings of the war.  For this reason, I’ll be using The Extreme Right in the French Resistance in my teaching.  Anything that gets students to question their own pre-conceptions makes for a good discussion and this book fits the bill.

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