Having recently returned from a research trip to France, Peter Mahood discusses with us the interesting story of what happened to France following the country’s capitulation in the summer of 1940 and the birth of the resistance.
As General Huntziger applied his signature, on behalf of the French government, to the Franco-German Armistice of 22nd June 1940, the most cataclysmic episode in modern French history, ‘les années noires’, the dark years of occupation and of Vichy came into being. That the signing took place in the same railway car, in the same forest clearing that witnessed the German capitulation, twenty-one years earlier, only served to compound the totality of defeat. The terms of the ‘immutable’ armistice were harsh but not severe, France was to be seduced, humiliated, neutralised and exploited. Dismembering the country into two zones; an Occupied Zone in the north and a Non-Occupied Zone in the south, most of the country’s industrial wealth and the majority of its population were placed under direct German control. The army, mirroring the 1918 armistice, was limited to 100,000 men, the fleet disarmed and confined to their home ports. While, occupation costs were initially set at the astronomic level of 400 million Francs per day. Coming into effect on 25th June, after a separate armistice was signed with an opportunistic Italy, it was a reasonable assumption to make, coupled with the expectation of Britain’s imminent defeat, that Germany would win the war.
It is difficult from a vantage point of seventy-five years removed to, now, fully appreciate and understand the mood that gripped the French population in the summer of 1940. Scenes of intermingled chaos, disbelief, confusion and sheer panic, not so much rippled across France, during the months of May and June, but caused an avalanche of emotion and activity seldom seen in recorded history. Militarily the defeat was total. Not only had the French Army, reputedly the most accomplished in Europe, been comprehensively defeated in a lightning six week campaign. But of the 1.8 million soldiers taken prisoner, more than half, had been captured between June 17th, when the government in a radio broadcast announced its intention to seek armistice terms, and June 22nd when the armistice was signed. Although, many units served with distinction, many down to the last bullet, the call for armistice and a government announcement the next day, declaring all cities above 20,000 inhabitants as open, simply exposed the futility of fighting on. That approximately 140,000 French military personnel escaped from the port of Dunkirk, during Operation Dynamo alongside the remnants of the BEF, seemed, at the time, to be nothing more than a mere postscript to an unqualified disaster.
Moreover, as the panzers carved their way through northern France and as the army retreated toward the coastal town of Dunkirk. Civilians, municipal authorities and even the government followed suit. What instantly become known as the ‘Exode’ (Exodus), the biblical reference deliberately evocative, triggered the near breakdown of civil society. As many as 10 million panic stricken civilians took to the roads in pursuit of a safe haven free from the advancing Wehrmacht. Half-eaten meals left on dinner tables, characterised the haste in which families took flight. Those who owned them loaded cars, vans, bicycles or horse drawn carts, while those on foot used prams and wheelbarrows to transport their belongings. Witnessed from the air, by the pilot Antoine Saint-Exupéry, the slow moving columns, an enticing target for the Luftwaffe, looked ‘like a giant had kicked a massive anthill’, such was the unprecedented spectacle. The lack of any, or at best inadequate, contingency planning by the government, in the event of invasion, intensified the chaos. So much so, that in some areas the municipal authorities were the first to flee, leaving the inhabitants to fend for themselves. Relying on their own resourcefulness to survive, many people felt an acute sense of betrayal by the political elite. In short, France had not only been defeated in military terms but defeated politically, too. The Republic was dead.
The significance of military defeat and the implosion of civil and political order, as barriers to resistance, are in the main self-explanatory. The lack of men and materiel allied to a fractured society under punitive foreign occupation bred a climate of inaction, a climate of insularity, a climate that stunted any type of immediate or organised resistance. Instead, the immediate concerns for the majority of the population was a desire to return home and a desire for news. Accounts of missing children lost to parents in the exode was a common occurrence. One family from Le Mans, for example, posted an advertisement in a local paper in the hope of discovering the whereabouts of ‘Madeleine Dorée, aged six months, Jean Dorée, aged nine years and Francine Dorée, aged ten years’. Soldiers, shipped to Germany to begin five years in captivity, were also subject to sought after information. In many cases nothing was heard by relatives, as to their fate, in the first year. A regular theme found in memoirs of the time, often describe a dreamlike state, a dazed existence where people found it difficult to understand or explain their feelings and where information, in lieu of official government announcements, was largely gleaned from rumour. Against this backdrop, it is perhaps understandable that a search for strong leadership, an authoritative figure to provide protection and guidance manifested itself in the figure of Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain.
Psychologically, the French nation was captivated by Pétain. A man of wisdom, honesty and simple morals, who spoke in clear, uncomplicated terms, struck a chord with those left reeling from the effects of the exode and defeat. A reputation forged on the dual achievements of Verdun in 1916 and ending the army mutinies in 1917, gave the 84 year old, at the time of the debacle, an aura of paternal benevolence. An aura that elevated him above the political maelstrom, as potential saviour and source of national salvation. As a result, the subsequent ‘cult of personality’ that sprung up around the ‘victor of Verdun’ was both genuinely spontaneous and contrived. A government department, the ‘Art Maréchal’, was set up to produce images on an industrial scale; postcards, handkerchiefs, tapestries and many other items bore his portrait. Busts of Pétain replaced Marianne, the symbol of the republic, in every town hall. While, newspapers, such as the conservative ‘Le Temps’, lauded the Marshal as ‘the restorer of eternal France’, as others proclaimed him ‘the sign of hope, the promise of new tomorrows’. The twin buttresses of Maréchalisme and attentisme, a wait-and-see temperament, contributed significantly to sustaining the initial expectation that Vichy would protect the population from the excesses of German demands. In fact, the double game mentality, the ‘Vichy shield’ myth, lasted well into the occupation, even after the extent and nature of collaboration was better recognised. Consequently, before a collective determination to resist could be developed, Pétain’s own façade of legitimacy had to be exposed in order to show the regime was simply an illusion.
Resistance to occupation began, largely, as an act of individual revolt. One of the most important and enduring challenges to Pétain’s legitimacy, albeit seen retrospectively, came in the form of Charles de Gaulle’s ‘Appel du 18 Juin’, broadcast on the BBC. Calling on all French forces to continue the war by joining him in London, the appeal, despite its grandiose pretentions, barely registered. Seldom heard and acted on even less, few took the opportunity to leave France and join de Gaulle’s fledgling ‘Free French’ movement. In fact, such was his obscurity that many prominent French figures already in London chose to return to France or make their way to North America. The failure to attract any notable politicians or senior officers to his cause, cast de Gaulle as an isolated, peripheral figure throughout the summer of 1940. Even amongst those who had answered the call, his broadcasts seemed overly conceited and more than a little absurd in challenging the authority of Pétain. Although, a pioneering voice of resistance, the problems encountered by de Gaulle were no less problematic than those encountered in France itself. Drawn from diverse backgrounds with varying political values, those who refused to countenance defeat, to submit to the seemingly inevitable but instead sought to continue the fight, found themselves as a distinct minority. While, instances of minor sabotage, anti-German graffiti daubed on walls and stray shots fired at German patrols in the occupied zone, punctuated the early stages of occupation. These acts represented the last vestiges, the final paroxysms of the Battle of France, rather than, the flowering buds of what came to be known as ‘the résistance’. In truth, few had any idea how to start or of what would be effective against an all-powerful Reich. For the pioneers, creating resistance, involved creating the idea of resistance.
The absence of the large organisations (the church, the army, the political parties, the trade unions) as a bulwark, a familiar source of continuity, forced individuals to act alone and set their own parameters for the struggle ahead. Unaware of de Gaulle’s ‘Free French’ movement in London and ignorant of other nascent knots of resisters, those prepared to oppose the status quo entered a clandestine world. A world, according to Marc Bloch, in which the occupation meant ‘the impossibility of knowing what our closest neighbour thinks’, a life ‘surrounded by monads’. To those concerned with the moral consequences of defeat, the temptation to embrace collaboration, ‘résistance’ meant propaganda, with newspapers, pamphlets and tracts as their vehicles. Targeting the population at large, the priority, as Claude Bourdet, a leader of the ‘Combat’ movement later explained, ‘was to raise awareness and to organise the people as broadly as possible’. However simplistic in appearance or summarised in content, a newspaper suggested a future, a tangible proof of existence and a means of recruitment. Despite, being slow and arduous to produce, the first issue of ‘Valmy’, for example, took a month to complete using a toy printing set, while ‘Libération-Nord’, composed by Christian Pineau on a typewriter, only managed seven copies of its first issue. These early publications, reflective of the material shortages and limited availability of professional printers, nevertheless, helped cement attitudes, create lasting structures and build confidence amongst the early resisters. Left on trains, at post offices or delivered by hand, the newspapers provided an important alternative to the official, propagandized Vichy press.
In parallel to the larger civilian movements, smaller, tightly knit networks (réseaux) took their lead from Britain’s decision to fight on. Confining activity to the military domain, the collation of intelligence and the repatriation of Allied airmen, became priority objectives. Procuring links to the outside world, either through the Allied or Free French intelligence services, was of fundamental importance to a networks effectiveness and existence. Similar to the evolution of movements, many initiatives were born out of the ingenuity and persistence of individuals. The emergence of passeurs, locals with an intimate knowledge of the terrain and customs, were amongst the first to create conduits by delivering stranded servicemen into neutral territory. Predominantly, situated along the Spanish and Swiss borders, their motivation, in most cases, stemmed from a sense of human solidarity. In conjunction with the passeurs, other individuals, such as Louis de la Bardonnie, a landowner living near the demarcation line in the occupied zone, took it upon themselves to start collecting information on German troop and military installations. Sharing a sense of outrage at the Armistice, de la Bardonnie and a group of friends began relaying information, as early as July 1940, through the British embassy in Switzerland. Despite the lack of an initial response from London and in testament to de la Bardonnie’s persistence in continuing to provide intelligence, Gilbert Renault (Rémy), one of the few to answer de Gaulle’s call, eventually made contact with the group in November. Formally adopting the coded title ‘Confrérie Notre Dame’ (CND) in December, the group, after its tentative beginning, developed into the largest Gaullist information network operating inside of France. Totalling around thirty members by December, the CND and many other embryonic networks, intimately associated with the local terrain and customs, became integral to establishing areas, outside of provincial towns, as centres of resistance.
As the visibility of resistance groups increased, so too did the level of surveillance and repression of the occupying and Vichy authorities. Threats of infiltration, denunciation, arrest, torture and death were constant reminders of the tenuous position the resisters now inhabited. An overheard conversation in a café or the distribution or possession of an illegal tract, carried the potential for torture and death at the hands of the Gestapo. Even popular demonstrations, displaying patriotic intent, were ruthlessly suppressed. One episode, occurring on 11th November 1940, involved a student led protest along the Champs Elysée to commemorate the national holiday. Representing the first act of collective resistance, the German response was unequivocal. Charging the assembled crowd with bayonets and firing stun grenades into the mass, a hundred and forty-three students were promptly arrested before being beaten and kept in custody until December. Magnified through the proximity of German forces, the precarious nature of survival was ever present in the occupied zone. The Paris based ‘Musée de l’Homme’ group, for example, after forming in the summer of 1940, were decimated by a wave of arrests beginning in January 1941. Culminating in a trial twelve months later, with sentences ranging from execution to deportation, the group had been comprehensively destroyed. Led by the charismatic anthropologist Boris Vildé, the group of intellectuals, evolving from a network to a movement by collecting information, creating an escape network and eventually producing a newspaper entitled ‘Résistance’, were fatally compromised by an informer in the pay of the Gestapo. The risk of informants, infiltrating the most security conscious of organisations, was considerable. Seen as being on the side of the victors, the motivations of informants or collaborators were manifold. Ranging from a simple intent to accrue wealth or to settle personal vendettas, other motivations were fashioned by fascist sympathies that carried anti-Semitic undertones. Whatever the rationale of the individual, in the early days, weeks and months following defeat, the dividing line weighed heavily in favour of Hitler’s ‘new order’.
Thank you to Peter for speaking with us in what I am sure you will agree, has been a fascinating insight into the fledgling start of the French Resistance.
If you wish to find out more about Peter and his research into the French Resistance, you can follow him on Twitter : @PeterMahood
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Photo Credits (all images kindly provided by Wikimedia Commons): General Charles Huntziger signing the armistice (22.06.40) in Compiegne, French POWs being marched off by German troops (1940), British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo, French Refugees flee the German advance (19.06.40), Marshall Petain shaking hands with Adolf Hitler in October 1940, General Charles de Gaulle, Members of the Maquis in La Tresorerie, Pierre Laval with the head of German police units in France.