Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance by Robert Gildea - review by Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs

Occupation Hazards

Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance


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From the moment of liberation in August 1944, Charles de Gaulle made Resistance the hallmark of Frenchness. Freedom, he proclaimed in a moment of high emotion (and perhaps shrewd calculation), had been won by ‘the people’ of France, ‘with the aid of the armies of France, with the support and help of the whole of France, of fighting France, the only France, the true France, the eternal France’. Even before this mythmaking apotheosis, Resistance (always with a capital R) was a much-contested idea, and so it remained. What forms should it take? What were its goals? Who controlled it? Who were its enemies? And retrospectively, who were its heroes, villains and heirs? Robert Gildea’s new book gives answers to all these questions and shows how and why those answers have changed over the years. During and immediately after the war, the principal claimants of the Resistance mantle were the Gaullists and the communists. Later, new heroes were discovered, such as women, foreigners and Jews. Now, suggests Gildea, as the Holocaust dominates public memory of the war, in place of the drivers of tanks and blowers-up of railway lines we honour those who sheltered fugitives from the gas chambers. His own picture of the Resistance follows these historiographical changes, emphasising divisions, ambivalences and changing memories and interpretations. He makes extensive use of individual diaries, memoirs and oral interviews, many from the French and British national archives, aiming to ‘lay bare individual subjectivity, the experience of resistance activity, and the meaning that resisters later gave to their actions’.

This emphasis on subjectivity means that the book’s most gripping chapters are kaleidoscopes of events and people – there is a ‘cast list’ of six and a half pages. Gildea makes no Olympian attempt to force individual accounts into an overall narrative, to correct or confirm their accuracy, or to assess the importance of people or organisations. Instead, he gives us fast-moving and vivid vignettes that communicate not only the hardships, dangers, disasters and occasional exhilaration of Resistance, but also its uncertainty and often its ambivalence. The latter is a major theme. There were some with Resistance in their genes – Spanish Republicans, German communists, Jewish refugees. There

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