Heroes and Antiheroes of the French Resistance


The review below was recently published in History: Reviews of New Books.  You can access the published version here (this is the ‘post-print’ version): http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/uB6fdfVjqDNwVFJjFAv9/full

The French resistance continues to prove a fertile field of research for historians.  Two significant volumes have appeared recently in English: Robert Gildea’s 2015 Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance and Olivier Wieviorka’s 2016 The French Resistance (an English translation of the 2013 original).  Gildea sought to highlight the contribution of once-neglected resisters, from women to immigrants while Wieviorka’s study offered a comprehensive history of the politics and actions of the resistance movements.  The two books reviewed here complement these works.

Valerie Deacon’s The Extreme Right in the French Resistance focuses on a side of the resistance with which many may be unacquainted.  Certainly, the object of study seems counter-intuitive.  Deacon – who is Visiting Clinical Assistant Professor in History at NYU Shanghai – aims to explore an ‘other’ resistance, which was rooted in the extreme right-wing politics of the interwar years.  The interwar extreme right did not succeed in overturning the democratic Third Republic yet its politics contributed to an incremental shift in French society toward authoritarianism during the 1930s.  When defeat to the Nazis came in June 1940, few French spoke out in favour of the Republican regime from whose ashes the Vichy State emerged.  However, some prominent right-wing extremists subsequently entered into resistance to the Vichy regime and the Nazi occupier.  Deacon recognises the problem that such resisters pose to a historiography – not to mention a national memory – that considers the resistance to have been the embodiment of a Republican antifascism.

The book focuses on members of two extreme right-wing groups: the Comité secrèt d’action révolutionnaire (CSAR), better known as the Cagoule (the Hood), and the Corvignolles.  The Cagoule was founded during 1936 by former members of the violent monarchist league the Action Française.  Qualified by some historians as a terrorist group, the cagoulards made serious preparations to bring down the Republic and install a dictatorship in the style of Mussolini’s Fascist regime.  An attempted coup on 16 November 1937 failed and the plotters were arrested soon thereafter.  The police investigation – which revealed large stockpiles of weapons and a hit list of prominent left-wing personalities – was completed only as war broke out in 1939.  The arrestees were ultimately released in July 1940 by Vichy’s Minister of Justice – and former cagoulard himself – Raphael Alibert.

The second organisation under investigation is the Corvignolles.  This group, headed by Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, a member of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s staff, sought to combat the influence of the communist party within the army.  The Corvignolles operated with the apparent connivance of senior army figures who endorsed its anti-Communist operation, though Loustaunau-Lacau was eventually dismissed from the army for his clandestine activity.  The group did not work to undermine the Republic yet it was sympathetic to the authoritarian and anti-Semitic extreme right that aimed its bile at the democratic regime.  In fact, following his dismissal and the winding up of the Corvignolles, Loustaunau-Lacau worked closely with Jacques Doriot, leader of the extreme right-wing Parti Populaire Français.

Deacon traces the trajectories of several former cagoulards and Corvignolles as they confronted the challenge of the war years, not least the question that posed itself immediately after the defeat: to support Vichy or to resist?  It was a difficult choice.  None wanted to see France subservient to Germany yet few could deny that the Vichy regime had realised much of what they had long desired, not least the destruction of the Republic.

Loustaunau-Lacau chose resistance.  With the help of Marie-Madeleine Méric, he set up the Alliance network.  Initially recruiting operatives from within the Vichy administration, Alliance grew into a large network of 3,000 agents, of whom 500 died during the war.  Alliance gathered military intelligence which was then transmitted to the British – deliberately bypassing the Charles de Gaulle’s London-based Free French – in return for weapons and funds.  Loustaunau-Lacau was an intransigent anti-Gaullist and Méric believed this benefited the group for it meant that Alliance was better able to attract people at Vichy who may not have sided with Pétain’s enemy.

Some members of the clandestine extreme right travelled to London to make contact with the British.  Colonel Georges Groussard, who had connections to both the Cagoule and the Corvignolles, was one such resister.  In the early years of the war, Groussard occupied a plum position at Vichy as founder of both the Centre d’information et d’études police force and the Groupes de protection heavies, which were placed under the leadership of former cagoulard Francois Méténier.  A certain ambiguity characterised the Centre, with some seeing it as a personal protection squad for the Marshall; Groussard claimed that he was preparing for revenge against Germany.  In any case, the Centre was dissolved in 1941 and from then on Groussard set to work establishing the Gilbert network which worked with the British.  He left France in 1942 and continued his operation from Switzerland.

The military pedigree of de Gaulle did attract some right-wingers to the Free French in London.  Pierre de Bénouvlle was a member of the Action Française and the cagoule.  He made contact with the resistance early in the war and rose to prominence in Henri Frenay’s Combat movement, even deputising for Frenay for a short period.  A committed Gaullist, he finished the war as brigadier general in the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur and went on to have a successful political career.  Likewise cagoulard Maurice Duclos travelled to London soon after the defeat to join de Gaulle.  He undertook a number of dangerous missions in France – including a night-time blind parachute drop in February 1941 – in order to establish and extend a resistance network called Saint-Jacques (after Duclos’s Gaullist codename).  Duclos and his network would be celebrated for decades after the war as among the first examples of the Gaullist resistance.  His comrades were fully aware of his past in the clandestine extreme right; it troubled them little.

Deacon shows that following the war, the simplistic reading of the dark years of occupation – in which a heroic resistance, backed by the nation at large, had defeated the Occupier, its Vichy puppet, and a handful of French wrongdoers – allowed many right-wing resisters to find a place in the post-war political landscape.  Even those punished for their work for Vichy could, at the same time, be recognised as resisters: leading cagoulard Gabriel Jeantet was awarded the Croix du combattant volontaire de la Résistance and simultaneously stripped of his civil rights for twenty-five years for his work for the Vichy State.  Meanwhile, some right-wing resisters, several of whom had been close to de Gaulle, came to oppose the general’s decision, president of France, to withdraw from Algeria in the early 1960s, and they turned to the armed opposition group, the Organsiation de l’armée secrète.

Deacon’s book certainly contributes to historical work on the Cagoule.  Gayle K. Brunelle and Annette Finley-Croswhite’s Murder in the Metro revealed much about the members and operations of this organisation yet it did not address significantly the war years.  Deacon’s chapter on the group provides an excellent summary of its interwar actions, while she traces the wartime trajectories of several members, too.

The most important contribution of her work is that, like Gildea’s 2015 work, it forces us to consider the complexity of the resistance.  It is easier to consider the subjects of Gildea’s work heroes of the resistance because they were the underdogs and outcasts of society who answered the call of a country that had marginalised them.  The subjects of Deacon’s book are antiheroes.  They certainly risked their lives during the war yet their sympathies with the extreme right – not to mention its anti-Semitism – make for uncomfortable reading.  However, good historians should make readers re-examine their assumptions, prejudices and certainties and Deacon challenges us to consider these men as heroes.  But one cannot escape the fact that Deacon’s cast of characters is small.  Consequently, the book simultaneously forces us to reconsider the marginality of these men while underscoring this very marginality.  Some men of the extreme right may have chosen resistance but they were few in number.

Charles Potter’s The Resistance, 1940: An Anthology of Writings from the French Underground is a very different book to that of Deacon.  Potter – who is professor of history at the Institute for American Universities in Aix-en-Provence – has translated four important texts written by early resisters.  Potter’s stated aim is to provide an English-language audience with documents that will help readers determine for themselves the motivations behind resistance.

The centrepiece of the book is a complete translation of Jean Moulin’s First Fight (Premier Combat), authored in spring 1941 and covering the period 14-20 June 1940.  Moulin is perhaps the most famous of all French resisters.  He began the war as prefect for the Eure-et-Loir before cutting ties with the government and choosing a clandestine life, gathering information on the resistance movements in France.  In 1941, he took this information to de Gaulle in London, providing the leader of the Free French with the first reliable details of the movements across the Channel.  Moulin subsequently acted as the General’s liaison between himself and the movements and he was instrumental in uniting the diverse groups.  Moulin is also remembered for his death in June 1943: apparently betrayed he was brutally tortured to death.

Jean Moulin

Potter’s introduction to this text provides a biography of the man himself, a discussion of his post-war memory, and poses certain questions about its quality as a primary source: for whom was it written and is it a reliable account?  For the teacher of undergraduates without French, Potter’s translation of First Fight is invaluable, a treasure trove of incidents and experiences – the exodus of refugees fleeing the Nazi invasion; the arrival of the Germans in Chartres; Moulin’s torture, interrogation, and suicide attempt – that can be exploited in the classroom.  For the casual reader, this dramatic account is horrifying at times and succeeds in conveying the agony of France at its darkest moment.  The appendix contains transcripts of several official communications sent by Moulin as prefect to the German officials in charge of Chartres (where he was based), along with a handful of other accounts of the period, and some posthumous eulogies.

The second document in the book is Germaine Tillion’s article entitled ‘First Resistance in the Occupied Zone’.  Tillion is the only woman included in the collection.  Tillion was an anthropologist and ethnographer and it was her work that drew her into the resistance network established at the Parisian Musée de l’Homme.  When the group was ultimately rounded up, Tillion was deported to Ravensbruck, arriving there at the end of October 1943.  She survived the camp and lived until 2008, having become one of the most famous resisters in France.

The translation in Potter’s book is an article that Tillion authored in 1958 for the journal Histoire de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale.  Potter provides a good introduction to this text, which is very different to that of Moulin.  He prompts the reader to consider its content, its aims, and the context in which it was written, namely the Algerian war and the fall of the Fourth Republic.  Tillion examines the beginnings of the resistance in the Occupied Zone, with frequent reference to her own experiences found in the translated footnotes.  It provides too a useful summary of the extent of knowledge of the resistance in the late 1950s, with a note on sources that will interest students and teachers.

The third source in the book – and the shortest – is Henri Frenay’s ‘National Liberation’.  Frenay was a right-wing officer of the French Army who led Combat, a resistance movement in the southern zone.  Frenay wrote the document presented here in July 1940; it was a statement of his intention to resist.  The content of the document is not what one might expect from a resister; therein lies its value.  Frenay was a right-wing resister whose politics chimed with aspects of Vichy’s political programme.  Indeed, Frenay makes little effort to hide his like for Pétain in the text.  Furthermore, while we could not class Frenay as being on the extreme right (like Deacon’s protagonists), he leaves the reader in little doubt that he shares some of its prejudices: anti-Communism, a suspicion of Jews and international finance, and an opposition for Freemasonry.  The document thus helps further to problematise the issue of resistance.  It challenges the readers assumptions about who resisted and their reasons for doing so.

The book concludes with Jean Garcin’s memoir, We were terrorists.  Garcin was raised in a Republican household in the Vaucluse.  His family were members of the Radical party and Garcin himself had supported the left-wing Popular Front government elected in 1936.  For men like him, committed to the centre-left values of the Republic, resistance to the Vichy regime was immediate and natural.  He preferred action over words.  Not content to resist through the spread of propaganda, Garcin’s desire to ‘do something’ ultimately saw him lead the groupes francs paramilitaries in Marseilles.

The text here is an excerpt from his memoirs, written fifty years after the war.  The account begins with a candid and violent story of a resistance attack on collaborators which leaves Garcin feeling no remorse.  Potter includes the first five chapters of the memoir which recount Garcin’s first contacts with the resistance and his active participation until the mid-point of the Occupation.

Potter’s book concludes with a thoughtful afterword on the points of comparison between the texts and a broader discussion of the factors that motivated some French to resist from the beginning of the Occupation.  Included at the end of the book is a useful timeline of major developments in the Vichy regime and the resistance.  There is also a glossary of ‘Places, People, Organizations, and Terms’ and a bibliography that contains online sources, too.

The French Resistance, 1940 is one of a number of recent works to bring primary sources on the French resistance to an English-language audience.  In 2014, Jean Guéhenno’s celebrated Diary of the Dark Years was for the first time published in English, while in 2016, Charles Rist’s wartime diary Season of Infamy appeared.  Both texts brought the reality of the occupation to life for the reader.  The advantage that The French Resistance, 1940 has over these works is its desire to reach a student audience.  Potter’s introductions to each text are clearly written with an educated reader in mind, yet one who is unfamiliar with the specifics of the resistance.  The texts may be used in the classroom for what their content tells us about the resistance.  They present, too, a number of historiographical challenges for discussion, such as the memory of the resistance.  One might have wished to have seen a text from a communist author or from a non-French resister included here.  Nevertheless, Potter’s book is truly an invaluable source for teachers of France and the Second World War.

The Extreme Right in the French Resistance and The French Resistance, 1940 are very different books.  Deacon’s work will appeal to specialists and researchers in the field.  It is based on in-depth archival study and provides some fascinating material for readers already familiar with French culture and politics at the time.  Potter’s anthology of long-overdue translations is a text for teachers and students.  It is accessible to the casual reader, too.  Both books underscore the complexity of the resistance and of those people who risked everything for a future France – no matter what they desired that to be.


Valerie Deacon. The Extreme Right in the French Resistance: Members of the Cagoule and the Corvignolles during the Second World War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. 240 pp., $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8071-6362-7

Charles Potter. The French Resistance 1940: An Anthology of Writings from the French Underground. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. 262 pp., $35.00, ISBN 978-0-8071-6392-4



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