The memory of the French resistance – Prof. Robert Gildea

On 16 March Prof. Robert Gildea of Oxford University spoke at Swansea University on the subject of the memory of the French resistance.  His paper was sponsored by the Conflict, Reconstruction and Memory (CRAM) research group.  Prof. Gildea is author of numerous ground-breaking books on modern France.  His most recent work is Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance.  His paper at Swansea examined the various ways in which the resistance has been remembered since 1945, with a particular focus on three types of memory – a) societal memory; b) group memory; and c) individual memory.

Societal memory – or what we might term the dominant narrative or ‘myth’ (helpfully defined by Prof. Gildea as a ‘story with political traction’)  – was for a long time dominated by the version of history propagated by General Charles de Gaulle.  This was the story of a military and male-dominated resistance led by de Gaulle from London, which ignored or downplayed both the diversity of resisters and the resistance in France itself.  It was reinforced through devices such as public ceremonies and commemorations, reaching its apogee in 1964 with the interment of Jean Moulin at the Panthéon – the Republic’s ‘temple’ for great men and women.

This memory, however, could not bear the weight of scrutiny during the 1970s and 1980s (after de Gaulle’s death) when academics and filmmakers increasingly challenged its version of history.   A history of Occupied France developed now in which the majority of French preferred to ‘wait and see’ which way the war was going before deciding to back either side; this was far from the Gaullist conception of a ‘nation of resisters’.

During the 1990s, resisters attempted to ‘recover their honour’ by associating themselves with other victims of the war – and especially those French and foreigners who were deported.  There was also a refocusing of the definition of resistance to include rescue.  Ideas of ‘Resistance’, therefore, moved from being narrowly masculine and military towards a more humanitarian understanding of the phenomenon.

Prof. Gildea moved on to explain the memory of particular resistance groups; these memories often came into conflict with the dominant narrative.  The communist memory of the resistance as a popular insurrection sat uncomfortably against de Gaulle’s London-led non-communist history of Resistance.  The climate of the Cold War in France ensured that communist memory remained marginal at least until the 1980s.  Likewise, the Gaullist version of history emphasised the Frenchness of the resistance, excluding those foreigners who had fought.  Only during the 1970s and 1980s did foreigners such as Spaniards and Eastern Europeans begin to assert the memory of their role in the liberation of France.

Women also found themselves left in the cold by the myth of the Gaullist resistance.  Far fewer women were decorated after the war for resistance than deserved to be.  In some instances, the civilian and non-violent roles played by women in underground groups were simply not recognised as resistance.  Prof. Gildea suggested, too, that the male-dominated idea of resistance prevented women from telling their story until the 1970s; he also wondered if women were less likely to come forward to talk about their experience than men.

Finally, Jewish memory was largely excluded from the dominant narrative.  For one thing, Jews in France were regarded as victims of Nazism rather than as heroes of the resistance.  Many Jewish French also wanted to assert their own Frenchness and they thus played down the notion of a separate Jewish resistance.  Again, the 1970s and 1980s proved a watershed as historical focus shifted onto the Jewish contribution to the resistance.  Furthermore, the rise of the anti-Semitic Front National in French politics saw some Jewish French begin to tell their own story of how they had risked their lives for France.

The final section of Prof. Gildea’s paper concerned individual memory.  He explained that he is very interested in the use of oral history and testimonies from the past.  The use of these sources for studying the resistance went out of fashion during the 1970s and 1980s when historians privileged the ‘facts’ to be found in the archival records over supposedly unreliable personal stories and memory.  However, Prof. Gildea made a strong case for the use of testimony, stressing that testimony is a way for the individual to make sense of the past – if this changes over time it is because the individual is making sense of the past in a different context.  The paper ended with the fascinating stories of Lecompte-Boinet, Madelien Riffaud and Cécile Rol-Tanguy, and how each of them came to be involved in the resistance movements.

Overall, it was a fascinating paper, and it was great to see so many students in attendance.


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