Collaboration and Resistance in World War II


German soldiers parade on the Champs Élysées on 14 June 1940 (Bundesarchiv)


Lecture by Dr. John Merriman / 12.01.2008
Charles Seymour Professor of History
Yale University

Resistance in Eastern and Southern Europe

Members of the Maquis in La Tresorerie / Wikimedia Commons

I want today to talk about collaboration, but above all, resistance in Europe during World War II. I’ll talk mostly about France, because that’s where there’s been so much written about, and also because France coming to grips with the Vichy past was not an evident thing. It was something that took a long time. There was a process of sort of collective and official repression about what had happened. I want to talk about that. Again, histories have their histories. I’ve been around here long enough that I can remember all this happening. Not the war, obviously, thank you, but France coming to grips with its past. I want to talk about that. We haven’t talked about France in a long time. I’m going to talk about that. But first let me just say a couple things.

Other countries had their resistors as well. It was obviously — the most successful case of resistance was that of ex-Yugoslavia. Well before the end of the war, Marshal Tito and his partisans, taking advantage of the mountains of ex-Yugoslavia, were able to pin down entire German divisions, and with weapons parachuted in by the allies, and with entire moving hospitals, were able to launch the most effective resistance, arguably, in Europe. Of course, the case of the Soviet Union, twenty-five million people died. Twenty-five million people died in World War II, most of them in the war, but lots also in Stalin’s camps.

A lot of partisans lost their lives picking off German soldiers, in the case of Poland. In the third edition there will be more on this. They got scarcely a mention. The Polish had a home army, as they called it, of about 300,000 people by the end of the war. The Warsaw ghetto rose up, and was crushed with 12,000 deaths and with thousands of other people sent away to the camps in 1943, then the Warsaw uprising. One of the reasons that Warsaw, where I’ll be on Friday, and where I go fairly often — there was nothing left, because the uprising was crushed, and thousands and thousands of people lost their lives.

I just reviewed a book actually for the Boston Globe called Ghettostadt, which is an interesting book by a man called Gordon Horowitz, who teaches in Illinois. It’s about the Lodz ghetto. It’s a tragic, all-to-familiar tale. It doesn’t have anything to do with resistance, because it was impossible, but it was about the German ideas of creating this Aryan city in Lodz, which was a big industrial town, and still is, in Poland. Of course, what they did is they put all the Jews into the ghetto, which was several kilometers square, and put them to work making uniforms, and ear muffs, and all sorts of things for the German troops. In the story, the most horrific aspect of it is that the people in the ghetto, they don’t really know. There’s all these rumors about what’s happening outside.

Of course, what’s happening is the killing fields, and three million Jews disappear in Poland in World War II, three million, three million. Gradually, and some people, before they are being killed by the Nazis, are forced to write cheery postcards saying, “All is well here in these camps. Everything is just delightful.” Then they’re executed. Gradually, it’s about the mounting horror of the people who live there. They see clothes stacked up outside the ghetto that they could recognize as having been on people they knew, who had been shipped away to the camps. The whole thing is so horrendous. It lives with us today.

Obviously, it was easier to resist in places in which you could hide. When I talk about France, the reason — and I sent this term around — you called the French resistors the maquisards, or even just les maquis, is because they were able to hide behind brush called maquis. More about this later. So, resistance in Belgium, which is in the flat country except for the Ardennes was very, very difficult. There’s hardly a hill that’s more than a hump in Denmark, but yet is was the Danes in Copenhagen who saved the Jews, who got them out, with the help of a German officer, and were able to get them just across the very narrow straits to Malmo in Sweden.

Charles de Gaulle and Memory of the Second World War

Charles de Gaulle / German Federal Archives (Wikimedia Commons)

Other countries had their resistances as well. All those can’t be covered now in this short amount of time — why am I supposed to have this glass here, actually? It has a label on it. I’m not supposed to have this glass here at all — I guess what I’ll do is I’m going to talk about France and about the resistance there. Now, until about 1969, a year that I can remember, Altamont, the Mets win the series, but more important, protests against the war in the United States and mounting dissatisfaction with United States foreign policy. I can remember that very, very well. But until 1969, in France the official line was virtually everybody resisted, a few elites, a few notables, rural elites collaborated, period. The official line was one that was very closely tied to Gaullism. Because Charles de Gaulle, the big guy, his voice crackles over June 18, 1940. He calls on France to resist.

Part of the myth that everybody resisted, or almost everybody, and few people collaborated, had to do with the official Gaullist policy, which is that Gaullists resisted. Charles de Gaulle, this mystical body of Charles de Gaulle, the body being greater than the sum of all its parts, led France, which essentially liberated itself. Of course, that’s simply not true. Also, what that forgot about was the fact that the communists were enormously important in the resistance. More about that in a while. There was a film made, a documentary, I think in about 1953. I’ve never actually seen it. It had to do with the Jews. It had to do with what happened to the Jews in France.

It was conveniently forgotten that the Jews in Paris who were arrested, in the Marais, in the Jewish section of Paris, and in other places, too, were arrested by the French police. The Germans would have been happy to do it, but they didn’t need to, because the French police were so eager to do that. In this film, Jews and other people, communists and other people who were sent away, were packed off to a place called Drancy, which is, if you’ve ever taken the RER in from the airport or to the Roissy airport in Paris, you’ve gone through Drancy. That was a transit camp. In transit camps, rather like Malines or Mechelen, in Belgium, or Westerbok in the Netherlands quite near the German border, these camps were run by French, Belgians, and Dutch, respectively. They were not run by the Nazis. The Nazis would have been happy to do it, but the local populations, the local collaborators were doing that.

In this film made in 1953, in the original, you see a French gendarme who’s guarding the Jews at Drancy, isn’t in the film. In the documentary that was finally released, somebody has reached in and plucked him from the film. He simply disappears. It’s doctored. The French gendarme, with his French gendarme hat, isn’t in the film, because the myth was that the Jews were taken away by the Germans, and that communist resistors were shot by the Germans, and the gypsies and gay people were taken away by the Germans, were arrested by the Germans, and that France resisted and didn’t collaborate.

Now, two events — let me also tell you two stories. I hope I didn’t say this the first day when I was trying to get you interested in learning about World War II. I worked in a place called Tulle when I was doing my research for my dissertation, long ago, and all that. I didn’t have any money, and I’d go down and buy an ice cream cone for lunch every day. I started talking to this guy and I didn’t speak French very well then. But I knew that there were a lot of people hung there. Ninety-nine men were hung. The Germans left. The maquis, the resistors, were very active there. André Malraux, the great writer, was active in a place called Argentat near there. One day the Germans all left, and then everybody came out and started partying, and the Germans came back. They hung ninety-nine men from poles in Tulle.

One day I was there and this guy was telling me this story about how he had hidden. He had gone up — it’s a real windy town in a valley — he’d gone up and hidden. You’ve got a house here and you’ve got room under the house. He was able to hide and escape. Because he was sixteen, he would have been hung. This woman came up and I was eating my ice cream cone. She ordered an ice cream cone. The guy suddenly said, “Madame Dupont, you remember that day, don’t you?” She said, “I sure do. They hung my husband from that pole.” How every day you could live with that and talk about that as if you were discussing where you had bought something at a sale. But the next step to thinking about that is who in France made all those things possible? Who was helping the Germans do that? The answer is that lots of people collaborated.

Lots of people got what they wanted on a platter because of the Nazi victory. The same people who were shrieking “Better Hitler than Blum!” in 1936 got exactly what they wanted. Marshal Pétain, who was a rabid anti-Semite, his national revolution was essentially aimed to do in France what Hitler had done in Germany, and what other petty despots had done in other places, some not so petty, like Hitler. They got what they wanted. So, how did the official line get shaken by reality? How did this happen?

Second story. I have a friend who is still a lawyer in Paris. I’ve known him for a long, long, long time. He was too young to remember, but his older brother, who’s dead now, remembered when the Germans came to his house in the suburbs, a place called Le Perreux-sur-Marne, took away the father, who was a Greek Jew. Of course, he was taken away and was killed. He ended up in one of the camps. They don’t know what happened to him. Now, the Germans just didn’t come to that house by chance. The guy was denounced as a Jew by the policeman in that town. After the war, every Saturday when this lady, the widow, went to the market, she walked by and saw this policeman directing traffic, the same guy. Nothing ever happened to him. Nothing ever happened to him.

Writing the History of French Collaboration: Developments in the 1970s and 1980s

The Sorrow and the Pity movie poster, directed by Max Ophüls / Wikimedia Commons

So, how did the official version get eliminated by historical reality? Histories have their histories. How did that happen? There are two events that are kind of key. They’re both in what I sent around. One is the movie, The Sorrow and the Pity, which I mentioned in here before, which was described as a two six-pack movie in the old days when I used to show it here, because it lasts four and a half hours. It was a documentary made for French television by Max Ophüls. It was never shown on French television until 1981. Why? Because it was a documentary in which collaborators — there’s sort of a local notable called Christian De la Mazière, who describes in his smoking, his smoking, in his fancy jacket in the château, why he fought alongside the Nazis on the Eastern Front in the Waffen SS. It’s about collaboration and resistance, tales of true heroism but also of repressed memory.

There’s a great scene in which they’re walking through the school. They ask about the teacher, a teacher who disappeared. They don’t even remember about it. They don’t remember it, the guys that are being interviewed. They’ve conveniently forgotten. So, The Sorrow and the Pity was never shown on French TV until 1981. It’s a fantastic thing. It’s too long, and I should have never shown it. I started showing it twice in sections. Also, it’s kind of dubbed and it’s very hard to understand either in French or in English. It’s a monument. It’s a monument not just because it’s a driving, forceful documentary, but it helped France rediscover its past. Fabulous.

Talking about the role of the Communist Party. Again, I’m not a communist, but I’m telling you, the Communist Party had an enormous role in the resistance. Most of it’s about Clermont-Ferrand, the area. It’s based on the Auvergne town of Clermont-Ferrand. There’s this great scene where these two peasants out in the countryside say, “Nous sommes rouge, comme le vin,” “We’re red like the wine we’re drinking.” It’s a fabulous, fabulous, fabulous thing. Of course, there’s the inevitable scene at the end where women who were called, indelicately, “horizontal collaborators,” had their heads shaved and were being paraded through the town. That happened all over the place. Les tondeuses is what you called them in French. It doesn’t matter what you call it in French.

In the end, there’s Maurice Chevalier. Your grandparents will know who Maurice Chevalier was, because he kind of represented, in the American imagination, what France was. He was a crooner. He was a singer who was born in L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer, which is in a proletarian edge of Paris, right near where Edith Piaf, the singer, was, whom your grandparents would have heard of also, people way before my time. But at the end of the movie they have him and he’s wearing his little crooning suit and he says in English, “Well, you know there are zees rumors that I was singing for zeeGermans. But I just want to tell you that I was only singing for zee boys,” that is, for the prisoners of war. He was dealing with his own past as well.

Francois Mitterrand, president of France for fourteen years beginning in 1981, when he was inaugurated, the cameras follow him through the Panthéon. He follows him by where the heart or some part of Jean Jaurès is left. But Francois Mitterrand, when he was dying, he came to grips with his own past. When he was dying, he too, like France, said, “There was a moment when I was not a resistor,” which he became a resistor. But there was a moment that he had celebrated Vichy, and somebody had found a picture of him in a right-wing rally in 1936 or 1937, of which there were many in Paris. He, too, came to grips with his past. This all started, the history of history started in the 1970s.

The second event was a book published by my good friend Robert Paxton. He’s about ten years older than me, probably more than that. He wrote a book called Vichy France, published in 1972. Vichy France could not use French archives, because they weren’t available. There’s a fifty-year rule in French archives. But there’s also a site — talking about the mutinies, that the mutinies weren’t available well after fifty years had passed, after the mutinies in World War I. So, he used captured German documents, not French documents because they weren’t available to him. What he did in this book was to show what Vichy and Pétain’s national revolution thought they were doing, and why many, many people collaborated.

There’s a more recent book by a guy called Philip Burrin that I use in the seminar on Vichy that I do from time to time, a junior seminar, which explores more deeply, using these archives that are now available, the whole question of collaboration. But the point that Paxton made is that he demolished the shield argument, the argument that Pétain and the national revolution had saved the French State, and that they were a shield. If it wasn’t for Vichy, worse things would have happened. When Maurice Papon, P-A-P-O-N, went on trial over eighty years of age, went on trial for having signed away the lives of many Jews in Bordeaux where he worked in the prefecture. He made the same argument. He said, “I was a good bureaucrat. My superiors liked me. If it hadn’t been for me, more Jews would have been shipped away to Drancy” or, more directly, to the camps. He was condemned. He died a couple years ago. He was under house arrest. The most amazing part of the whole trial was he managed to escape at age eighty. People drove him to the Swiss border and they found him in a fancy Swiss restaurant and brought him back. But Papon had gone on to a very distinguished career as a bureaucrat in the Fourth and Fifth republics, as did a lot of other salauds, a lot of other bastards, such as René Bousquet, who was a prefecture police.

The argument was the shield argument. “If it wasn’t for us, things would have been worse.” But as Paxton wrote very, very memorably, Pétain might have provided continuity for the French state, but not for the French nation. The French nation, what was and is, I hope and I’m proud to say, based on liberty, fraternity, equality. They take those off the coins and it becomes “family, country, work.” It used to be when I was there when I was a kid, you could see still these little coins from Vichy that they transformed into centimes.

Paxton’s book — I saw him once when I was in Brussels. I saw him on a TV show, my wife and I did. It was one of those typical French shows, where it will be about World War II and they’ll have somebody who remembered the war, somebody who was in the war, somebody who didn’t even know what was going on, and all this stuff, and they interview them. Some guy got up, this sort of rightwing guy, and there was protesting against Paxton’s presence by skinheads. They got up and said, “Mr. Paxton, what could you possibly know about the war? You were only twelve years old during the war?” But Paxton became, this was an important part of the history of history. When he was introduced at the Sorbonne, he was introduced by a historian called Jean-Pierre Azéma. When he introduced him, he said, “Messr. Paxton, dans un certain sens, vous êtes le conscience de la France,” “In a certain sense you, Paxton, are the conscience of France.”

These two events are important in the emergence of what the historian Henry Rousso calls the “Vichy Syndrome.” Vichy was conveniently forgotten, because of Gaullism or because of not wanting to remember the bad things that had happened, the collaborators, the eager anti-Semites. Now, since the early 1970s, people are obsessed with Vichy. There’s all sorts of good work that’s been done on Vichy, and the whole period of resistance and collaboration. Paxton estimated in that book that two percent of the French population resisted. My friend John Sweets, who did a book calledChoices in Vichy France, a great title in which he looked at Clermont-Ferrand, because that was where the movie The Sorrow and the Pity were focused on. He estimates, depending on how you define resistance, people that refused to get off the sidewalk when a German officer passed, or people that whistled in the documentaries, the German newsreels before the movie, and the theater, that something like sixteen or eighteen percent of the population resisted. It’s a more charitable definition of resistance.

The fact is, and I won’t talk too much more about this, but the collaboration was widespread. It was not simply an elite. The elites were more apt to collaborate earlier in the war. Later in the war the kinds of people who joined the militia, which formed in January 1943, which was the French equivalent of the Gestapo, tended to be sort of down and out. They were the kinds of people who in Germany joined the SS, many of them in the 1920s, saw it as a form of social mobility. There’s a really good film called Lacombe Lucien, that I haven’t seen in years, about somebody who — between his ears there wasn’t very much. The resistance doesn’t want him because he’s just kind of an idiot who doesn’t believe in anything. But the militia’s very happy to have him, and it’s about what happens to him in the southwest of France.

During the Papon trial, which was maybe about eight years ago, or something like that, there was one time they interviewed a German officer who was still alive. They said, “Look, what are your memories of Papon and the militia?” He said, “If we got a gar, a guy, if we arrested a French guy and we rather liked him, we wouldn’t turn him over to the militia, because they would torture him so hideously.” Of course, the Germans were capable of and did all over the place torture people hideously, no doubt about that. But the militia were generally bad, bad, bad guys. You saw this inLacombe, Lucien a little bit. That restaurant scene is so crucial in Lacombe Lucien. That is really the essence of that film, in Lacombe, Lucien, the restaurant scene when they’re in there.

Collaborators were everywhere. At the end of the war probably about 25,000 people were executed after very short trials or simply gunned down. Near where we live in Ardèche, there was a priest in a village not too far away from us. He had Déat — I think it was him — who was a real fascist, to lunch. After the war, they put him up against his own church and gunned him down. I have an acquaintance a long time ago who worked in the archives in Limoges, where I spent a lot of time. He was a young man then, and was a refugee from Lorraine. After the war everybody was celebrating. He lived in a place called Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat, which is near Limoges. They were all partying in this little town that’s twelve kilometers away from Limoges. Somebody said, “Where’s the gendarme who sold people down the river?” Someone said, “He’s got an aunt in Limoges.” So they left all the casts of wine that were left. They marched into Limoges, went to the aunt’s house, got the guy, hauled him out, put him at the beginning of this procession, joyous but also a deadly serious procession, sort of an enraged charivari, and they got him back to where he had done great damage. They put him against the wall and prrrt. Then they went back to partying.

There was lots of settling of scores. Sometimes not everybody who had their score settled deserved it. There were cases of people who were misidentified, or simply there were rivalries, but lots of people got theirs. As for Marshal Pétain, what happened to Pétain, he was put on trial. He was an old, old man. They said, “You can’t execute an old, old man. He’s senile.” He wasn’t at all. But you can’t execute an old man who was the hero of Verdun, can you? So, they put him in house confinement on an island. There were still people trying to get to the island, which is off the coast of Brittany, and bring back his bones to Verdun. That happened only about ten or twelve years ago.

The Work of the French Resistance

Garrigue in Languedoc, Occitanie / Wikimedia Commons

So, France — it took a lot longer than the kind of gunning people down and the trials that went on after the war for France to come to grips with his past. Now, resistance. What do we know about resistance? First of all, obviously it was easier to resist in the south than the north, because of the topography. One of the reasons why the Germans occupied so-called free France in November of 1942 was the fact that resistance had already started. The first active case of resistance with important consequences in Paris was at the Metro stop called Barbès-Rochechouart, which is now one of those places where the police, especially since Sarkozy was elected, they have these raffles, where anyone of color is immediately asked for their ID and made to stand there and be humiliated by the police. Anyway, back then somebody gunned down a German officer, and gradually acts of resistance started.

To repeat what I said before, the word maquis comes from a very thick brush that’s in Corsica and in what they call in French the garrigue, also. It’s a rocky part of the south. We have it around where we live, too. But it was just sort of a metaphor for places that you could hide. You had to be out there hiding. By 1944, by certainly the spring of 1944, and in many places earlier than that, the maquis ruled, at least at night. During the day they didn’t. Only twice in France did they foolishly try to take on German militarized units, big units. One near Clermont-Ferrand and the other is near the Vercors, which is near Grenoble, near the Alps. They were just wasted. They were just destroyed.

In a village near us, somebody denounced people who were up in the hills, up in the Cévennes mountains. One day the motorized units come, and the parachutes come, and they’re toast. That’s the end of it. There were a bunch of slaughters down around where we live. People don’t like to talk about what happened. I wanted to interview somebody who was a resistor in our village, even though our village isn’t where there was a lot of resistance going on. I wanted to talk to him because I was writing a book about our village called Mémoires de pierres. He agreed to come over and talk about it, then he simply never showed up. People didn’t like to talk about things like that. He never did want to discuss it.

Obviously, more resistance was in the south than in the north, though it’s forgotten often that there was a lot of resistance in Paris, that there was Jewish resistance in Paris, too. I met a guy in Australia eight years ago who made a lot of money making cakes, and then went back and got his Ph.D. in history working with a friend of mine, Peter McPhee. He wrote a book on the Jewish resistance published by Oxford, the Jewish resistance in Paris, a guy called Jacques Adler, who is happily still around. But the most famous cases that you all know about are these resistors who are living off the land in Auvergne, or in the Savenne Mountains, or anywhere that you could hide there would be. Often in French cities you can see plaques saying, “Resistors met here to organize resistance.” That’s what they did.

They took big, big chances. When they, for example, blew up railroad tracks — there were so many communist resistors, and the Communist Party had a big hold on cheminots, the railroad workers. When you go to railroad stations, Rouen, Lille, anywhere you go you see huge lists. Any railroad station you go to in France, huge lists of people who were killed during the war, either fighting the resistance or were shot because they were involved with sabotage. It doesn’t take much to blow up a track. They did it all the time, down in the Rhone Valley constantly.

Xavier Vallat / Bibliothèque nationale de France

There was this woman who was a big-time collaborator in the northern part of the Ardèche, where the awful Xavier Vallat came from, too. He was minister of Jewish affairs, totally unrepentant. That meant that he was shipping Jews away to be killed. That’s what he was doing. She was a collaborator. One day she walked across the bridge to go shopping on the other side of the Rhone, and they blew her head away. But when you did that, you knew that they were going to pay you back so much. It’s when Heydrich — I went to see where Heydrich was assassinated near Prague. When Heydrich was assassinated by Czech resistors in 1942, they took an entire village and killed everybody in the village, a place called Lidice, everybody in the village, hundreds and hundreds of people were massacred. They were capable of doing anything. But the point is that in all these countries there were people who were very, very happy to see that happen.

If you go to Budapest, when you see the shoes of all the people that were pushed, shot, or just thrown into the swirling water of the Danube, it was Hungarians pushing the Jews there. It was the Hungarians shipping the Jews off to Auschwitz. There were people in every place who were happy to see these things happen. The big lie in Germany is people didn’t know. Of course, people knew. They knew. And they knew in France, too. They knew, absolutely. It fit into the xenophobia. It fit into Vichy’s vision of what France would be, a vision in which the Catholic Church would have a much greater role. There were two people executed for abortion during the time, a corporatist ethic, where like Mussolini’s corporatism, you’d eliminate class struggle by having everybody in vertical organizations. Everybody’s happy to be French, or happy to be Italian, or happy to be German, and you forget the fact that your employer makes ten times more than what you do. The kind of embrace of “peasantism,” the resurgence of Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc became identified with Pétain, as saving France and all of that. It’s all very familiar stuff. They had a plan and the national revolution was something they wanted to do.

My good friend, Eric Jennings, who teaches in Toronto, wrote a fantastic book called Vichy in the Tropics. He looked at Guadalupe, Indochina, and Madagascar. In those places, you couldn’t say, “The Nazis made us do it,” because there weren’t any Nazis there. There were no German troops in those places. In Vietnam there were twenty-seven Jews, and they are desperately trying to find these twenty-seven Jews to send them to the death camps so far away, or to kill them themselves. The shield argument doesn’t work. They collaborated. In the end, a lot of them got what they wanted.

As so far as the resistance, we’ve always focused on males, because the idea is you’ve got all these Spanish refugees from the civil war, from Franco and you’ve got all working-class people and you’ve got peasants and there are all these males. Yes, they were there, but somebody had to darn their socks. Somebody had to provide them with food. Somebody had to carry messages. It’s more than just one of these old movie things of the very young, attractive woman is carrying a message, and charming the guards so they don’t frisk her or stop her at all. But that happened. You had to never be so stupid as to have a written message, but you were carrying verbal messages. In places you could hide food, such as where we live, or out near where we live. Somebody has to take these people food.

Also, another thing is the Catholic Church, this business about the pope helping Jews is just sheer nonsense and nobody should ever be tricked by that. But the complicated role of the Catholic Church in France, there was the archbishop of Toulouse, who was a very courageous guy who said, “Don’t hurt anybody,” who was encouraging really resistance implicitly. The archbishop of Albi, which is only an hour drive if that from Toulouse, he seemed an outright collaborator. In many places, Catholic clergy who are opinion leaders in their village, along with the schoolteachers, were very, very important in helping give a moral kind of stamp to acts of resistance.

There’s a good book on the resistance by a guy called H.R. Kedward. He’s got two books about the resistance, one about resistance in urban areas, particularly Lyons and Montpellier, and how people kind of got together. You had to be careful about who you talked to. You’re waiting for a train, the train is late because it’s the war, you’re kind of feeling each other out. But you’d better be damn careful you’re not talking to some denouncer. You’re toast if you talk to the wrong person. But it’s about how you can make resistance happen. It’s about, for example, printing out just little type scripted things that say, “Do not come and hear the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra when they play in Lyons.” All you do is you get on a bus with those things, and you’re in the back seat, and the bus turns the corner and you just let them go. The wind takes them.

His other book that’s really good is called In Search of the Maquis, which is about precisely what I’m talking about. It’s about the resistance in the south, and looking at people who resisted. He has an interesting story. There were a lot of villages that were Protestant villages that suffered greatly during all the wars of religion. A couple were noteworthy in that after the wars of religion, the king had these huge mission crosses, huge crosses of conquest put up over the village, which were essentially Protestant and remained Protestant villages. Did those signs help identify the Catholic Church that had been the enemy of those Protestants in the old days with Vichy? Quite possibly. But it’s what John Sweets called “choices in Vichy France.”

Things happened that made you take a choice. What was one of those things? The most important was the STO, the service du travail obligatoire, the “obligatory work service.” The deal was basically that if you agreed to work in a German factory, they would let prisoners of war go and all that. It doesn’t work out like that. These people were fools. Two people from our village went. One was dead drunk. Someone told him he was going to a party. So, he got on the bus. The next stop is the Rhineland. Of course, those people are wasted by the bombing, because the Allies are the masters of the air for the last couple years of the war. They systematically devastate those factories.

A lot of those people in the STO that went were killed, left the earth. What the STO did is it made people take a choice. If you didn’t show up on the 9th of February, or you pick the date, 1944, you didn’t go. If you’re sitting in your village, they’re going to come and take you. At that point — choices in Vichy, France — “I’m going to go in the resistance,” big choice. You go in the resistance. You live off the land. Sometimes just a couple people, sometimes lots of people, international mix. Lots of Poles were there, lots of Spaniards, but most of the people were French. One of the interesting things is that the resistance itself did not, unlike almost every big political event in France since the Revolution to 1981, did not follow traditional lines between right and left. Leftwing regions did not have a monopoly on the resistance. There was tons of resistance in Brittany. There was tons of resistance in Normandy.

Eisenhower after the war said the French resistance was worth an entire division, or two divisions, I can’t remember exactly what he said. Of course, they helped prepare the way in Normandy for the invasion of June 6, 1944. That old left-right dichotomy does not work in terms of regions. It does work in terms of what people were more likely to resist. Working people were more likely to resist, because their unions had been broken by Vichy, because they were more apt to have supported the Popular Front. “No to the France of the aperitif” was the cry of the right in 1936. “No to the France of drinking before lunch,” and all of this. “No to the France of the Jew Blum.” “Better Hitler than Blum” over and over again.

Communism and Resistance

Monument to Jean Moulin / Photo by Djampa, Wikimedia Commons

Working people and peasants, like the ones who said, “Nous sommes rouge, comme le vin,” that I mentioned before, are more apt to resist. Now, why does the Communist Party have such a privileged role in the resistance? After the war, they called themselves the party of 75,000 martyrs. That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Whenever there was a shooting, whenever there was a Nazi gunned down, whenever there was a railroad track blown up, carrying munitions, carrying soldiers, carrying whatever, whenever they couldn’t get through, who were the ones who are first, when they go to the mayor and say, “Who do you want shot?” The communists would be the first to go, always.

The forts around Paris and these other places, there were communists put up against the wall all the time. They were the most likely to resist, along with other Gaullists. Jean Moulin, the prefect of the Eure-et-Loir who was hideously tortured without revealing any secrets, was one who was sent out to try to unify the resistance. Why were the communists so effective? Because the Communist Party are organized into cells. We still get little notices in our mailbox saying that the Communist Party, the cell of Balazuc where we live, all four people in the Communist Party are going to meet together and to drink illegal wine, to drink a wine called Clinton. I was once asked to describe the fall of capitalism. I had to say, “It’s really not falling yet.”

The point is that they were already organized. These networks were not destroyed by the war, were not destroyed by it. They existed, the comradeship. If you were a communist, you’d been a communist since the 1930s, you trusted those people. You were apt to fall in with them. There were two people, one of whom is still alive. He spent a lot of time in prison in Paris, a painter. He’s now ninety-five. He’s a friend of mine. He and his wife, the first vacations, they took a double bike. They pedaled all the way from Paris down to our village, which they had subsequently made their home. They joined the Communist Party in 1933 and 1935. He was a big time resistor. He was damn lucky to escape with his life. He was scheduled to be executed and he wasn’t. He painted people in the prison. I’ve seen his paintings.

The socialists weren’t organized in that way. Sometimes after the war the communists said, “Aha! The socialists weren’t the big resistors.” Well, many did, individually. Léon Blum was lucky not to have been executed. He survived the war in prison. He was put on trial at a place called Riom, right near Clermont-Ferrand. He survives the war. But there was a Catholic resistance. I have very old friends, much older than me, who went from the leftwing Catholic resistance into the Communist Party, into the Socialist Party, kind of the normal trajectory of those things among militants. They were resistors also. Protestants are more known for having resisted because of some very famous events. But remember, only five percent of the French population is Protestant.

There’s a village called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which in Haute-Loire, but near Ardèche. They had a cottage industry of making fake IDs for Jewish children from Lyons and Saint-Étienne who were kept in this small village and who were saved, who were saved because of these people. Whenever the Germans would come through, which wasn’t that often, they would hide the children, or the Germans would go through and say, “My god, there are a lot of children. Well, these are practicing Catholics, aren’t they?” They weren’t. They were practicing Protestants. Those are the more famous cases, but lots of people resisted. Lots of people resisted, but lots of people collaborated, and many other people were indifferent. That’s the way it is.

I want to close with a story of Oradour-sur-Glane, because somebody who wrote this book called Martyred Village, both in French, chez Gallimard, and in English with Cal Press, was somebody who took this course with me a long time ago, and was in Ezra Stiles College, Sarah Farmer. There was a village near Limoges where, when the Germans were leaving, they were leaving, getting the hell out, going north after this massacre in Tulles that I alluded to. Suddenly they show up in the village and they shoot all the men, and they put the men, and the women, and the children, in a church and they kill them. They blow the church up. One woman escaped through the little window. A very thin lady escaped through the little window behind it.

They destroyed the entire village. People who had taken the tram to the market in Limoges came back and there was nothing. Everybody was dead, dead. They left this village standing the way it always — it’s still there. Now there’s a center of memory. One of my friends is the director of it. Sarah Farmer wrote a book about it. But what’s important about it is that this was the site chosen, the site chosen to commemorate the war. Why? Because it was virgin, no collaborators supposedly, no resistors supposedly. Martyred Village. It turned out more complicated than that. It’s a wonderful book,Martyred Village, Sarah Farmer. But what shows the complexity of it is what happened afterwards.

The people in this village were gunned down. The women and children were killed by some Germans, but lots of them were Alsatian, who were brought directly into the German army. So, they went on trial in 1953. There were riots in Colmar, in Strasbourg, that they should ever be put on trial. They called themselves the malgré nous, the “in spite of ourselves.” There were riots in Limoges that the penalties were so mild. Some of them were let go if they had not joined voluntarily. The others went to jail. The man who apparently ordered the massacre, a guy called Franz Lammerding, they were various attempts to kidnap him from Germany and bring him back to France, but he died a natural death in the 1970s or 1980s. This was the enormous, ironic complexity of the whole thing, of getting into the history of history, of trying to understand what happened during those years, that some of the murderers in this case were Alsatian, and therefore French, until Hitler invades in 1940.

So, collaboration and resistance. Great subjects for study, but heartbreaking, just absolutely tragic. The Nazis would be happy to do all of the stuff on their own, but the xenophobia, the anti-Semitism led to those cases of the guys going up the stairs in Paris, and in other cities, and all the patrons signing lives away were French. So, France, as in other countries, it’s happening in Belgium, too, are coming to grips with their past. So, it’s been a sad pleasure to talk about that.

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