This was a calamity for resistance forces across Europe who hoped for an early end to the war. So crushing was the defeat that the French resistance writer Jean Bruller (AKA Vercors) predicted that the Germans might remain in France for a century.
France was divided, the north under German occupation, and the south so-called “Free Zone” administered by a new government based in Vichy under Marshal Pétain. Pétain’s tenure was defined by powerlessness and collaboration, and by November 1942, the whole of France was occupied. Pétain’s armistice was initially greeted with widespread relief. Memories of WWI loomed large, and compared to the savage depredations in the East, the occupation was, in the early days, relatively restrained.
However, life under the Nazi boot soon turned opinion decisively against Pétain. Unemployment was widespread, and the German commandeering of France’s agriculture led to mass deprivation and hunger in towns and cities, stunting children’s growth by up to 11cm. France became a brutal police state, and between March 1942 and July 1944, 75,000 Jews were deported to death camps. In January 1943, the far-right paramilitary group Milice Française formed to hunt Jews and resisters, numbering 30,000 at its peak. Punishments became increasingly harsh, with an estimated 30,000 French killed in anti-resistance executions.
Resistance forces increasingly received support from the French government-in-exile and the Special Operations Executive (SOE)
Against this conflicted backdrop, the diverse, multifaceted and fluid French resistance burst into life. From 1942 onwards, resistance forces increasingly received support from the French government-in-exile and the Special Operations Executive (SOE), who sent over 470 operatives, and air dropped supplies into the country. However, as historian Olivier Wieviorka writes, for the early years, without direction from London, these groups had to “invent the terms of its battle on its own”. In doing so “they invented an original type of organization, the resistance movement”, a force of volunteers engaging in numerous forms of battle.
Such forms included: tens of thousands of armed partisans in the forests and mountains; an underground press, circulating two million newspapers a month; elaborate escape lines that enabled thousands of Allied service personnel to return to Britain; hundreds of thousands marching in demonstrations; intelligence agencies that passed the Allies vital information; and brave individuals who saved Jews.
The French resistance included people of all classes, and many political stripes, and nationalities; for example, Polish coal miners fought alongside the French in the north, and as many as 60,000 Spanish refugees from Franco’s fascist regime resumed their antifascism in a new country. In all, as many as 500,000 uncommonly courageous individuals risked all to actively combat the Vichy regime and the Third Reich.
De Gaulle and the Free French
On 18 June 1940, future French President Charles de Gaulle, then a two-star general, delivered a rousing denunciation of Pétain’s armistice via BBC airwaves, stating resolutely: “the flame of the French resistance must not and shall not die”. De Gaulle would go on to make regular broadcasts during the BBC’s daily French broadcasting slot.
“the flame of the French resistance must not and shall not die”
De Gaulle’s mythologised June speech has since been viewed as the starting point of resistance in France. However, as historians have pointed out, few actually listened to the relatively unknown general at the time, and de Gaulle’s primary aim was not to foster internal resistance movements, but to recruit Frenchmen into the “Free French”, the military forces allied to de Gaulle’s government-in-exile.
Internal resistance movements emerged spontaneously; in the words of Henri Frenay, head of the southern resistance group Combat: “It was not at the call of the General that we rose up”. Such groups were often harshly critical of the Free French for leaving the country.
The internal resistance was too disparate and small to attract the focus of de Gaulle until the end of 1941. In 1942, the Free French began meaningful support of the internal resistance but it was not until mid-1943 that de Gaulle was able to unite prominent groups under his banner.
Post-war, de Gaulle hoped to make himself synonymous with the resistance, but for the internal resistance, as Juliette Pattison writes, de Gaulle was “only ever an external symbol”.
The Early Resistance
Even before the armistice was signed, individuals protested the capitulation. One of the earliest known acts of resistance, in the town of Brive, Edmond Michelet distributed letters calling for readers to fight on. Anti-German graffiti appeared across the country, German tires were slashed and signposts were removed to confuse German troops. Brigitte Friang, a student in Paris, recalled:
"[we] began to slash German propaganda posters, which were all over the city. It was stupid because the result was not worth the risk we took. We were just trying to find some way of contributing to the resistance."
In the autumn of 1940, however, the first groups began to coalesce. Among the most important were:
Musée de l’Homme, one of the very earliest groups to form, began producing the underground newspaper, Resistance, in the occupied zone. The group engaged in intelligence actions, and helped free POWs.
Organisation Spéciale (OS), a communist group including veterans of the International Brigade who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. The group was responsible for an upsurge in sabotage and armed activity after the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union of June 1941. OS would later merge with two other communist groups into Francs-Tireurs et Partisans Français (FTPF), and would become an effective paramilitary force.
Combat, founded by the right-wing Henri Frenay. The group distributed propaganda, gathered information and punished collaborators. Activities included having engineers obscurely alter the measurements of plans and blueprints for equipment to be used by the Axis, rendering the products useless. Whilst anti-Nazi, Combat was to maintain contact with the Vichy government until April 1942.
Libération-Sud, founded in Clermont-Ferrand by Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vierie, a charismatic aristocrat described as an “anarchist in opera slippers” by Free French intelligence chief Colonel Passy. The left-wing group undertook sabotage operations and printed the paper Libération, which grew to a circulation of hundreds of thousands. The group would boast 19,000 members at its peak.
Franc-Tireurs, a left-wing group founded by Jean-Pierre Lévy in Lyon (not to be confused with FTPF). The group published its magazine, Le Franc-Tireur, organised demonstrations, maintained an armed wing, engaged in sabotage and gathered intelligence for the Allies.
Jean Moulin: Uniting the Resistance
The many groups of the internal resistance remained, at the end of 1941, under-resourced, disparate and uncoordinated. The man who would pull together the scattered French resistance was Jean Moulin (codename Max).
Born in 1899 in Béziers, southern France, Moulin joined the civil service and was quickly promoted to prefect (regional administrator). After his sacking for noncooperation with Vichy, he made contact with resistance leaders in southern France before travelling to London in the summer of 1941 to meet with de Gaulle. Whilst Moulin harboured suspicions about the general, he agreed to organise and lead a Resistance High Command that would be loyal to de Gaulle.
Moulin parachuted into France on 1 January 1942, and promptly set about the Herculean task of convincing the independent, rebellious, and ideologically disparate resistance groups of southern France to swear fealty to de Gaulle.
It took over a year of arduous, clandestine negotiations to amalgamate the three major groups in the southern area - Combat, Liberation-Sud and Franc-Tireurs - under the banner of Mouvements Unis de la Résistance (United Resistance Movements), their armed wings merged into the Armée Secrète (AS – Secret Army). Moulin’s envoys also facilitated the unity of the northern groups into their own coordinating committee. Moulin then brought the southern and northern groups together under the Conseil national de la Resistance (National Council of the Resistance, CNR).
The CNR converged in Paris on 27 May 1943, with Moulin and representatives of two trade unions, six anti-Vichy political parties, and eight major resistance movements meeting in what Moulin described as “an atmosphere of patriotic unity and dignity”. Remarkably, these ideologically divergent factions – including communists – together endorsed a provisional government under de Gaulle.
Deep ideological divides remained, and important factions of the resistance – such as Defense de la France, and the FTPF – were absent. However, by uniting many central resistance groups under de Gaulle, Moulin had, extraordinarily, succeeded in his mission.
eight major resistance movements met in what Moulin described as “an atmosphere of patriotic unity and dignity”
The following month, Moulin was betrayed and arrested in a suburb of Lyon alongside other prominent resistance figures. Despite extensive torture by Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon”, Moulin held his silence. He perished from his injuries on 8 July 1943, in transport to Berlin.
Despite the risks of centralisation, the CNR increased cooperation among resistance groups, and opened up channels for which funds, liaisons, and arms from London and Algiers.
On 1 June 1944, the message “l’heure des combats viendra” (the hour of battle will come) was transmitted on BBC airwaves. The following day came the coded line “Les sanglots longs de l’automne” (the long sobs of autumn). Resistance leaders all over France knew exactly what these cryptic words meant. After the four gruelling years of occupation, the Allies were poised to launch their long-awaited invasion of France.
Sure enough, on 5 June 1944, the words “blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone” (wound my heart with a monotonous languor) were transmitted, followed by over 200 coded messages in just 20 minutes, activating different cells towards their pre-arranged missions.
There followed a wave of sabotage attacks on railways, ammunition dumps, power and communication lines, enemy command posts, fuel depots and roads, with the purpose of slowing German troops from reaching Normandy. During three weeks in June there were over 3,000 attacks on the railway network, and with its planned routes useless, Wehrmacht troops were forced to traverse obscure rural roads, experiencing repeated ambush and obstruction from maquis groups. One Allied assessment reported that German troops were slowed to just 25% of their usual rate.
Juliette Pattison writes that resistance sabotage acts “undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands of Allied troops who were gaining a foothold in northern France”. This was recognised by American General and future President Dwight Eisenhower, who claimed: “Throughout France the Resistance had been of inestimable value in the campaign. Without their great assistance the liberation of France would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves”.
Maquis membership soared, and in what turned out to be a tragic misjudgement, some groups abandoned guerrilla tactics to engage German troops in open battle, most famously on the Vercors Plateau in July. The 4,000 strong Maquis du Vercors found themselves hopelessly outgunned, and took heavy losses. Resistance in the summer of 1944 came at a heavy price. During a series of reprisals, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane was annihilated by SS veterans of the Eastern Front. 642 villagers were killed, with only five survivors.
On 18 August, a major insurrection erupted in Paris. One participant recalled that the barricades were “a return to the sacred past of popular insurrections, they represented a miracle, that of the people restored, the brotherly, egalitarian, heroic, fighting people”.
As well as mass jubilation, the liberation also unleashed cruelty against suspected collaborators; roughly 20,000 women accused of fraternising with Germans were abused and publicly humiliated by having their heads shaved. Milice members and collaborators were executed, although Pattison has argued that “the generally restrained nature of the epuration (purges) in comparison to the horrors of the occupation owed much to the resistance, given the total collapse of the judicial and police system”.
On 25 August 1944, after four years of warfare, de Gaulle told the crowds assembled outside the Hôtel de Ville in the liberated capital: “Paris liberated! Liberated by herself, liberated by its people, with the help of the armies of France, with the help of all of France”.
Paris liberated! Liberated by herself, liberated by its people – Charles De Gaulle
Determined to claim liberation as his own victory, de Gaulle downplayed or ignored many of the networks of the internal resistance, and as historian Robert Gildea has argued, the myth de Gaulle imposed was “military, national and male”. Of 1,038 honoured as Compagnons de le Libération after the war, only 0.6% were women. The French Communist Party, for their part, also sought to utilise the history of the resistance for their own purposes.
However, such myths ignored both the legacy of collaboration and the home-grown, diverse nature of resistance, side-lining the variety of political stripes and the contributions of other nationalities. As Pattison states, “the resistance was created inside France, not outside, and was undertaken by ordinary men and women who risked everything to help bring about the liberation of their country”.