The Liberation of France 1944: An Introduction (1)

With the 70th anniversary of the Liberation approaching, I have posted this essay, intended as part one of an introduction to the topic. It provides a basic overview of the event and the aims of the key players in 1944.

There are many books available that take the Liberation as their focus, or that include sections dealing with the topic.  Good overviews can be found in Rod Kedward, La vie en Blue: France and the French since 1900 (London: Penguin, 2006), 310-317 and Charles Sowerwine, France Since 1870: Culture, Politics and Society (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), chapter 16: ‘Liberated France’.

For a more in-depth treatment of the Liberation, see Milton Dank, The French against the French: Collaboration and Resistance (London: Cassell, 1978); Julian Jackson, France: The Dark Years 1940-44 (Oxford: OUP, 2001); Andrew Knapp (ed.), The Uncertain Foundation: France at the Liberation, 1944-1947 (2007); Megan Koreman, The Expectation of Justice: France 1944-1946 (Duke University Press, 1999); P Novick, The Resistance versus Vichy: The Purge of Collaborators in Liberated France (London: Chatto and Windus, 1968).  I drew on these sources in compiling this essay, which is not the result of my own research.  I have removed most of the notes for ease of readings.

1944: The end of the road for the Vichy regime

The last eighteen months of the Vichy regime were inglorious to say the least. In November 1942, the Germans occupied France in its entirety following the Allied invasion of North Africa. Vichy forces in North Africa, under the command of one-time head of the Vichy government Admiral Francois Darlan, initially fought against the Allied invaders. However, following the Nazi occupation of Vichy, French territories in North Africa agreed to rejoin the war against Germany. However, they remained loyal to Marshal Philippe Pétain, claiming that he was secretly encouraging them. More serious still, Vichy legislation remained in force in North Africa – this included the infamous discriminatory Jewish statues.   The invasion of the southern French ‘free’ zone, rendered Vichy’s claim to be protecting French sovereignty untenable, and the regime’s very raison d’être was thrown into question.  Some Vichy ministers fled France and joined Darlan abroad precisely because they saw him as best placed to continue with the policies of the regime’s right-wing and authoritarian ‘National Revolution’.

With the whole of France occupied, the Empire apparently lost, and an alternative French administration in North Africa, Vichy had lost everything it had claimed to protect. Pétain’s regime now found it increasingly difficult to impose its authority on France. The French resistance had been encouraged by the turn of the tide of the war against Germany and its ranks were swelled by men fleeing the Forced Labour Service (which had drafted men to work in German factories) and defectors from the police and other institutions of the regime. Vichy came to rely relied increasingly on terror to maintain order, mainly through its paramilitary Militia or milice.

The French milice
The French milice

Historians have debated the extent to which France descended into a civil war between the resistance groups and the milice. On the one hand, Robert Paxton estimates that there were as many men in the resistance as in the Militia – about 400 000 in each. These committed fighters fought out a civil war while the rest of the population remained relatively uninvolved. On the other hand historians John Sweets and Nick Atkin argue that, by 1944 there were few French left who were prepared to die for Vichy. Sweets claims that Paxton has overestimated the number of men in the milice. According to Sweets, once the Allies gained a foothold on the continent, only a few die-hards remained on the side of the Germans and Vichy.[1]

But what about those caught in between, that is, the majority of ordinary French? The conditions of daily life rapidly deteriorated during 1944. Germany had drained the country of financial and industrial resources. The physical and economic infrastructure of the country was damaged. Ten thousand bridges had been destroyed, one million people were homeless, prices were rising and the population had been worn down by four years of war. Material conditions and fear about the future were the main concerns for the average French citizen.


Liberation came during the summer of 1944. It is inaccurate to speak of the Liberation as a single event: it was a process. In terms of chronology, the process of liberation lasted for several months. The D-Day landings at Normandy took place on 6 June 1944. The Allies invaded the South only two months later. Only on 25 August was Paris liberated.   Furthermore, in terms of the experience of French citizens, the Liberation happened in different ways and at different times. In the North, the advancing Allied armies liberated towns and villages, with the Free French in tow. In the South, on the other hand, until the Allied invasion in August, the resistance played a greater role in freeing the French from the Germans. There was therefore no ‘one experience’ of the Liberation.

Likewise, there was no single vision for post-war France.

What did the Allies want? The Allies’ main concern was the invasion of Germany. Britain and America wanted to end the war as soon as possible, yet the Western Allies also needed to meet the Red Army as far to the East as possible in order to prevent a Soviet presence in Western Europe. The Liberation of France was therefore only important in so far as it contributed to these broader war aims. As for post-war France, an Allied military government would be installed for the time being. American president Franklin D. Roosevelt disliked leader of the French resistance Charles de Gaulle; he neither trusted the resistance movements (which he regarded as negligible in any case) nor de Gaulle to re-install a democratic regime once Vichy was defeated.

A French 'maquis' resistance group
A French ‘maquis’ resistance group

However, Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower allowed French General Leclerc’s Second Armoured division to enter Paris on 25 August 1944, before Allied forces, so giving a huge boost to French morale. De Gaulle arrived in the capital on the same day, claiming that Paris had liberated itself with the help of the French army. Was there any truth in this? Resistance leaders in Paris had begun an armed insurrection on 19 August. But de Gaulle vastly overstated the contribution of the French armed forces. The resistance movements had helped to disrupt German communications as the Allies invaded, but only half of their men were actually armed. In fact, the invasion of northern France was almost entirely devoid of French military participation.


What did the Resistance want? Given the diversity of the resistance we cannot speak of one resistance plan for post-war France, yet we can say that there was a resistance ‘point of view’. This was embodied in the charter of the National Council of Resistance or the CNR. The CNR was formed in May 1943. It included representatives of the resistance movements, political parties and trade unions. The CNR Charter was agreed on 15 March 1944 and in it called for a complete social, economic and moral renewal of France – and for the punishment of the guilty.

What did de Gaulle want? De Gaulle’s main concern was to bring the resistance groups to heel and put the country under his authority. He faced several challenges to this. Firstly, large parts of the North were under Allied control. Secondly, de Gaulle had to compete with the resistance on the ground. As Vichy’s local leaders and administrators fled, so-called Liberation Committees (CDLs) were set up in towns and villages. Of these Committees, communists made up 26% of their membership in the former occupied zone (the North) and 35% in the former unoccupied zone (the South).

Yet De Gaulle was able to counter successfully these challenges. How did he do this?

Firstly, he appointed his followers to the post of what he called ‘Commissars of the Republic’. Some of these Commissars had infiltrated France before the Liberation, while others followed the Allied Armies as they moved deeper and deeper into France. The Commissars were therefore perfectly placed to assume power in town halls and prefectural offices in the wake of the Allied advance and where Vichy authorities had only just been removed. De Gaulle gave the Commissars unlimited power to establish their authority; they were ordered to arrest the guilty but above all their mission was return things to normal as soon as possible and thus to avoid Allied intervention.

Secondly, de Gaulle needed to deal with the Liberation Committees. He intended that they should have power only until the structures of State could be re-established. In some cases there was a duality of powers between the Commissars and the local resistance committees – they existed side by side in some towns, but more often than not the two worked together. Nevertheless, as Gaullists assumed power in local areas, so resisters lost it. This had always been de Gaulle’s plan as he sought to assert his authority over the country. On 27 August 1944, two days after the Liberation of Paris, he wrote to the CNR, thanked the resistance organisations for their help, and told them that their role was now over. He subsequently dissolved the resistance groups. This coldness left many resistance leaders feeling disillusioned. They felt that the general’s claim that France had been liberated by her own people depicted resistance as a national activity so belittling the contribution of real resisters.

De Gaulle was thus able to present the Allied authorities with a fait accompli: the general and his men were the de facto authority in France. Furthermore, his victory parade in Paris had given him an ostensible popular legitimacy. De Gaulle’s French National Liberation Committee was recognised as the provisional government of the French Republic on 23 October 1944.

De Gaulle at the Liberation of Paris
De Gaulle at the Liberation of Paris

However, there still remained one threat to de Gaulle’s power: the communists. The communist party had a massive potential power base – it had 205 000 members in September 1944, and its newspapers accounted for 21% of the national press. The communists did support De Gaulle’s provisional government but they also developed a counterweight to de Gaulle’s authority through the Liberation Committees. This was because the communist party believed that the provisional government’s legal and moral basis was the resistance. But how serious a threat to de Gaulle’s power was the communist party? On the surface of it, it appeared that the party would not acquiesce to the government especially when Communist militias paraded through the streets of Paris on Armistice Day 1944, just weeks after de Gaulle assumed power.

But in January 1945 communist leader Maurice Thorez declared that the CDLs should be replaced municipal and departmental administration. In doing this, the resistance was to cede power to the new State. So why the change of tactic? Though the communist party was large and a potential threat, its leaders did not think that a revolution would be successful. They believed that the mass influx of new recruits were unreliable, and had only joined the party as so-called ‘eleventh hour resisters’. Moreover, any revolution in France would have come up against the presence of Allied troops on French soil. It is also important to remember that in 1944, the war was not yet over, and it was not in Stalin’s interests to disrupt the war effort in the West when the war against Germany had not yet been won in the East.[2]

To be continued….

[1] See Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order (1972) and John Sweets, Choices in Vichy France (1986).

[2] Julian Jackson, France: The Drak Years (OUP, 2001).


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