French President Emmanuel Macron attends a ceremony in front of the statue of Charles De Gaulle in Paris, May 2018 
Etienne Laurent/REUTERS

Seventy-five years ago, Charles de Gaulle, leader of France’s provisional government, returned to Paris. For four years, he had lived in exile in London. Now he made his way through an exuberant crowd at the Hôtel de Ville, the site at which France’s earlier revolutions and republics were consecrated, greeting the leaders of the nation’s resistance movements. De Gaulle had not planned or rehearsed the speech he gave on this occasion, but it was perhaps his greatest. “Do not let us hide this deep and sacred emotion,” he said. “There are moments that go beyond each of our poor little lives. Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the support and the help of the whole of France, of France that is fighting, of France alone.”

De Gaulle’s words cemented an idea of the French Resistance that has endured—that of a rebellious nation united under his command. Over the decades that followed, historians burnished the fairy tale that the general offered to a grateful and exhausted nation. As Paris prepares to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its liberation, the convenient myth and inconvenient truth of the Resistance bears revisiting, both for its own sake and for the parallels it offers in our own time.

SHADOWS AND PENUMBRAS

The man now acclaimed as the leader of the Resistance began as the obscure leader of the Free France movement, a small and motley collection of civilians and soldiers. On June 18, 1940, in a broadcast that would later become famous and that gave the anti-Nazi movement its name, de Gaulle called upon the French to maintain “the flame of resistance.” At that moment, millions of panicked civilians and soldiers surged southward ahead of the German advance. Few citizens took the time to listen to a radio broadcast by an unknown French officer who seemed to have fled to safety across the Channel.

One remarkable exception was the entire male population of the tiny Breton island of Île de Sein. Upon hearing de Gaulle’s call, they took to their fishing trawlers and joined Free France in England. And in the weeks and months that followed, scattered others, alone or in groups, sought ways to resist. Some hailed from the military—for example, Henri Frenay, a founder of the clandestine movement and newspaper Combat; others, from the academy, as was the case for a group of scholars and researchers who gathered around the Musée de l’Homme; and still others from the churches, led by Protestant pastors and a smattering of Jesuit priests. The traditional political parties were missing in action: the Communist Party, for example, paralyzed by the mutual nonaggression treaty between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, while leading socialist and radical figures had either been arrested or fled into exile.

It was in this rocky soil that the French Resistance took root. While the movement has a name, historians have nevertheless struggled to fully explain what it was, how it happened, and why it matters. The difficulty is hardly surprising given the clandestine and complex character of the Resistance. As to its nature, one leading French historian, Pierre Laborie, has more or less thrown up his hands. He observed that the Resistance is little more than a catch-all phrase, indicating “a web of intertwined engagements and singular paths that find their true meaning only in the collective dimension of action and in the solidarity formed through a shared experience. That experience was without peer for those who lived it and will remain in great part inaccessible and intransmissible.”

While the French Resistance has a name, historians have nevertheless struggled to fully explain what it was, how it happened, and why it matters.

Today a growing consensus among specialists holds that the Resistance was, as the French historian Olivier Wieviorka puts it, a “minority movement whose perilous and multifarious existence long unfolded within an environment marked by the majority’s incomprehension and hostility.” Far from the Gaullist gloss of “the whole of France,” the Resistance was the work of the few. How few is not known. After all, how can one count heads in what was known as the “army of the shadows”? The official number of slightly more than 250,000, based on those men and women officially recognized as “combattants volontaires de la résistance,” has by this light the same status as a medieval scholastic’s guess as to the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin.

For that matter, how does one map these shadows? The criteria for official status as a combattant privileged cloak-and-dagger activities like gathering information, sabotaging rail lines, printing clandestine newspapers, or assisting the escape of Jewish and foreign refugees. But others perhaps served in less obvious ways. François Marcot has suggested that a “penumbra” extends just beyond the shadows, formed by those who, say, painted Vs on walls or wrote plays that could be interpreted as calls to resistance. But is “penumbra” just another name for what the Swiss historian Phillipe Burrin calls accommodation? Most French, in countless ways in their everyday lives, came to terms with the German occupiers and their French collaborators. How should historians distinguish between such citizens, whatever their private feelings, and those who took risks of varying degree to express or act upon their objections?

FROM INDIGNATION TO ACTION

Just as historians take recourse to metaphors to capture the nature of the Resistance, they are confounded in their effort to offer a unified field theory for why some individuals chose to resist. It seems those who refused accommodation felt an urge to “faire quelque chose.” But do what, and to what end? As another Combat founder, Claude Bourdet, remarked, “To embark on that adventure, where the reasons for hope were hardly solid, was already a difficult choice. But you also had to have the sense that you could in fact achieve something real, do so something useful and effective. At the beginning, however, nothing seemed less certain.”

The lack of certainty and means deterred even those who had already proved their courage and audacity. For example, when Bourdet approached the novelist and adventurer André Malraux, the man who had bravely fought alongside the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War sent him packing with the following words: “Come back and see me when you have money and weapons.” Even those who did act struggle to explain why they did so. In Marcel Ophüls’ celebrated and controversial documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie declared that early resisters like himself “were basically maladjusted.”

Historians dismiss d’Astier’s sally as empty bravado. Most resistance members were not social marginals but successful professionals who were widely respected and often married. They became outlaws not because they had nothing to lose but because they had everything to lose. Among those things was their dignity.

Dignity is one of those terms that social scientists cannot quantify. Time and again, however, it is the word chosen by those who resisted: indignation at France’s defeat and the Nazi occupation, indignation at the antidemocratic, anti-Semitic, and anti-secular Vichy regime, and indignation at the passivity of most of their fellow citizens. This sentiment not only inspired the late diplomat and writer Stéphane Hessel to join Free France as a young man but also led him to write the best-selling pamphlet Indignez-vous! (Time for Outrage) as an old man of 93 in 2011. Hessel insisted that indignation was only a beginning, and a useless one at that, unless it led one “to construct something else.”

Most resistance members were not social marginals but successful professionals who were widely respected and often married.

Why, then, resist? In practical terms, the choice hardly seemed to matter in the case of the France during World War II. Not only would France have been liberated without the Resistance but the Allied leaders mostly wished to be liberated from the obdurate and obstreperous leader of the Resistance. Just ask Dwight Eisenhower, who had planned to bypass Paris in his push eastward. A popular uprising in Paris on August 19 forced his hand. If only to placate de Gaulle, he agreed to send a French armored division to Paris in order to support the resisters. 

De Gaulle’s peroration got the scene only partly right. French resisters and French soldiers did liberate Paris. But not all Parisians manned barricades or heaved Molotov cocktails. Some, as Simone de Beauvoir reported, sunbathed along the Seine or cast their fishing lines while others, cradling rifles, crouched behind the river’s embankments. Moreover, most Parisians were less outraged than out of gas, both literally and metaphorically, having spent four years foraging for scarce food and fuel. Finally, as residents of devastated cities like Caen or Le Havre recall, Paris was not at all broken but gloriously intact. The Champs-Elysées that welcomed the French resisters in 1944 had not at all changed from the one that hosted the German troops in 1940.

As for building something new after the liberation, the Resistance again fell short. In a radio address, Albert Camus, the young and dashing editor of Combat, declared that “having started with resistance, the French want to finish with revolution.” Rather than a revolution, though, there was a resurrection. The Fourth Republic, a carbon copy of the unlamented and uninspiring Third Republic, replaced the Provisional Government. The postwar government did nationalize some banks and industries, and it passed some progressive social legislation, but these reforms were driven by the revived political parties, which paid lip service, then mostly put paid, to the ideals of the Resistance.

THE RESISTER'S MYSTIQUE

Looking back on the Dreyfus Affair, the French intellectual Charles Péguy once tried to measure the distance between the early idealism and later pragmatism of the movement in which he took a leading role. “Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique,” he said. He might have said the same of the French Resistance: everything began in mystique and ended in politics.

But the true legacy of the Resistance is not easily measured. Women played an important role in the Resistance, and although they may not have ultimately made the difference in liberating France from the Germans, their work certainly helped to liberate the French from gender stereotypes, and in so doing, to liberate an entire category of human beings. By dynamiting deeply entrenched cultural and economic obstacles, women won the right to vote in 1945. French Jews, stripped of their rights and often their citizenship by the collaborationist regime in Vichy, played a vital role in the resistance movement. Indeed, foreigners from nearly every part of Europe filled the movement’s ranks, literally embodying the universalist claims of the French Revolution of 1789.

The nature of the Resistance lends itself to a certain kind of liberation theology. Not the sort, mind you, that was all the rage in South America half a century ago—rather, one that reminds us that the space between knowing and acting cannot be fully measured or plumbed. We can’t fully explain those men and women who acted despite the vast asymmetry between their paltry means and principled ends. But they inspire boundless respect, reinforcing our faith that in dark times, there will always be carriers of light.

An early resister, Roger Stéphane, acknowledged that while his decision to engage was absurd, “it was by such absurdities that we restored our dignity as men.” For the realists, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Paris is thus the occasion to recall that what begins in mystique almost always (and necessarily) ends in politics. Idealists might take away a different, if more elusive lesson—namely, that any politics worth the name does not lose sight of the mystique that gave it birth.