The Myth and Meaning of Resistance

What Drove France’s Army of Shadows?

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.


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.


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