fter Guderian’s tanks crossed the Meuse River on May 13, 1940, France was subdued by the Germans in just four weeks. The British were able to retreat across the English Channel, but the French were forced to retreat: the disaster was not only for the army but also for the civilian population — 10 million refugees fled from the invading army. It was the largest population exodus in Europe in centuries.
Fight for the People
On June 16, the new head of state, Marshal Pétain, demanded an armistice, a decision that eased many French people. The 84-year-old marshal, surrounded by the myth of the victory at Verdun in the First World War, was then seen as the man who saved France from a nightmare. He came to be compared to Joan of Arc, and his portrait was hung in many churches. But it would not be long before Pétain was blasphemed for his policy of collaborating with the Nazis.
According to the armistice, France was divided into two zones, and Pétain established his government in the unoccupied area, in Vichy, a spa town chosen because the many hotels here could accommodate ministers. From there, the Vichy regime launched an offensive against all Republican elements in France, in a renaissance movement of extremist nationalism known as the National Revolution. It was, in the words of Charles Maurras — the theorist of this far-right France — the “triumph of true France” before the Socialists, Communists, Jews, Freemasons, as well as before democratic and parliamentary traditions, accused of precipitating the defeat of France and led the country to catastrophe.
The French of the Vichy regime sought to find its place in a Europe of Nazism which, some believed, was imminent, if it had not already become a reality. Through Prime Ministers Pierre Laval and Darlan, the regime sought an agreement with the German occupier, and Pétain himself acknowledged that it was a matter of collaborationism. At first, mutual arrangements and benefits were sought, but German applications were accepted — or even anticipated. The culmination of this policy was the action of the new Militia — similar to the Nazi Gestapo — which persecuted French Jews and pursued and killed members of the Resistance, in collaboration with the German police.
On the other hand, the French Resistance rejected the armistice, collaborationism, extremist politics of the Vichy regime and, last but not least, the mythical status and popularity of Pétain, which was not easy given that no one could forget that Pétain — the collaborator with the Germans — had defeated them in the battle of Verdun (World War I).
The Rise of Resistance
The French resistance fought not only for the liberation of the country but also for the minds and hearts of the French. Many members of the Resistance would later declare that, at least for the first two years, their hardest mission was to defeat “Pétainism,” the confidence and support enjoyed by the Marshal. The task was easier after November 1942, when the Germans occupied the whole country, and Pétain remained in charge of what had become a regime subject to Berlin. However, Pétain’s supporters had not completely disappeared.
The difference between the two areas, occupied and unoccupied, was the first significant variable in the history of the Resistance. The presence of the Germans in the north and west was both an impetus and a limiting factor for the Resistance. Instead, the absence of the Germans in the South of France was a vital factor — here, the anti-Vichy resistance experienced a much better organization and a wealth of clandestine publications.
There was also a difference between urban and rural areas. Initially, the resistance movement was par excellence an urban one. First of all, because the Germans were much more present here; then all the facilities for printing newspapers and manifestos were in the cities. Also in the city were much more pronounced the traditions of revolutionary politics, liberalism in high schools, and universities.
But as more and more French people began to feel the burden of the occupation, and many were deported to Germany to secure the Reich’s workforce, more and more members of the Resistance withdrew to the rural areas of the Reich. France and the peasant communities became vital for the survival of the members of the Resistance in 1943–1944.
On the military front, the Resistance was permanently dependent on weapons and ammunition sent by the Allies. But the Allies had their own ideas about the strategic importance of each French region and based on that they chose which group to receive weapons. For example, groups of communists or those far from the main communication arteries were unlikely to receive supplies.
All these variables affected the nature and strength of the Resistance, and to better understand this phenomenon we need an analysis of the elements of class, profession, and personality of the members of the movement.
The first unofficial members of the Resistance were those who refused to accept the Armistice as the end of the war for France. We can name De Gaulle, in London, or those in France: Edmond Michelet, Jean-Moulin, Henri Frenay, Bertie Albrecht, Lucie Aubrac, and others. These are isolated individuals who tried to find ways to continue the conflict despite the disastrous situation.
To these were added the ideological enemies of Nazism: communists, socialists, left-wing Catholics, and Protestants. They all felt that they had to do something to oppose the government’s inertia, which advised the French to take care of their lives and leave important decisions in the hands of Pétain and Laval.
Influence from Great Britain
By mid-1941, isolated individuals began to form small Resistance groups and networks. The most developed of these was the Free French Movement, led by General de Gaulle of Great Britain, which could benefit from BBC support to recruit volunteers from France and to establish a symbolic link between those who continued the war on behalf of free France. But de Gaulle’s movement, although very important, was different from what actually happened on the mainland, in occupied France.
Here, the Resistance movements gradually developed, and some groups did not even know of the initiative of the general on the other side of the English Channel. Along with the Resistance groups, there were also secret networks that transmitted information about the Germans to the British.
Actions of the Resistance
In the first two years of occupation, the Gestapo was not felt equally in all regions of France. The repressive policies of the Vichy regime were not felt in the same way throughout France, with one exception: the Jewish population. It was persecuted not only by the Germans but also by the legislation imposed by the Vichy government. Therefore, the resistance of the Jews was very difficult to assert, and only after the deportations began — in the summer of 1942 — did the Resistance movement as a whole begin to realize the savagery of German anti-Semitism and the extent to which the Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis regarding the arrest and persecution of Jews.
During the process of shaping and developing the Resistance, many people became involved almost by accident: they found a clandestine pamphlet in the mailbox, did a favor to an arrested friend by sending a message, hid someone who was hiding from the Gestapo, saw an arrested neighbor, etc. The ways in which people came to the Resistance were very varied, as were the ways in which people put their talents and skills at the service of this movement.
Before the war, the French had the richest political press in Europe. After the defeat that led to the suppression of freedom of expression, both by German censors and by the Vichy government, it was necessary for the Resistance to create its own media network and they managed to do so in a remarkable way. Clandestine publications obtained information from the BBC, Swiss radio, Moscow, or African radio stations set up by General de Gaulle. Brochures, pamphlets, newspapers, even novels, and collections of poems or essays were published, demonstrating the vitality of the Resistance movement.
Not all members of the resistance acted underground. Many remained at their jobs, using them to uncover important information, to protect the activities of the Resistance, and to sabotage the Germans. It is imperative to remember that not only the Germans were the target of the Resistance’s operations, but also the French considered to be collaborators. These actions against French citizens were severely attacked by the Vichy regime and, after 1943, were classified as terrorist actions.
In essence, the Resistance was a reaffirmation of France’s independence and individuality, as well as a struggle to regain freedom and, above all, national integrity. In military terms, it could have achieved more if it had been more effectively integrated into Allied plans and strategies.
As agent Harry Ree demonstrated at the Peugeot factory in Montbeliard, Resistance sabotage could be much more efficient and resource-efficient than random bombings such as the one in Rennes on March 9, 1944, in which they died. 300 civilians and the military target had barely been reached.
The resistance contributed greatly to the liberation of two-thirds of France, and organized ambushes and sabotages which affected the withdrawal and regrouping of the German army after the Allied landings.