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France in WW II: The French Resistance

Resistance under the Nazi Occupation in WWII with a focus on Women, Free French Africa, the Church, Jewish Partisans, and the D-Day landings in Normandy. Materials range from underground publications to popular historical fiction and graphic novels.

Overview of the French Resistance

The French Resistance. By Olivier Wieviorka, Translated by Jane Marie Todd. (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016). Library of Congress General Collections.

The Fall of France

The French Resistance is a topic much examined by French historians searching to understand and highlight what was a small but fierce minority in France who operated in secret to actively resist and sabotage the Nazi invaders during WWII. The defeat of the French by the German Army in 1940 surprised the international community and left France stunned. The subsequent capitulation of the French to Hitler's demands was solidified by the armistice signed in June of 1940 by prime minister Marshal Philippe Pétain — a military hero of WWI. Pétain headed the new government from the southern spa town of Vichy, but his authority was limited, and many regarded the Vichy regime as a mere puppet government — particularly after 1942. Pétain's authority was confined to the southern half of a divided France. The Germans occupied the Northern half of France as well as sections of strategic coastline, and also reclaimed eastern territory that had been lost after WWI. The formation of the Resistance was a gradual process. Small independent acts of resistance occurred, but as far as a secret underground movement, the Resistance was still germinating. While the defeat was greeted with disbelief by the French, it was also largely accepted by the population. Questions still linger however: how had the French so miscalculated their defense and why had resistance to the Germans been so lackluster? Many historians point to the fatigue of the French citizenry, who were still recovering from the loss of young men killed during WWI. Others credit the bold strategies of the German military and the shocking "failure" of the Maginot line. Heralded as a technological marvel, the Maginot Line was a 280-mile impenetrable military fortress. It was designed to withstand intense artillery fire, poison gas, and included underground bunkers and gun batteries. Unfortunately, it was entirely avoided by the Germans as their superior Panzer tanks (Panzerkampfwagen) plowed through the "impenetrable" Ardennes forest as part of the Blitzkrieg that characterized early German victories in WWII.

Many contemporary accounts explain a kind of dazed disbelief that afflicted the French after this defeat. Paris was the city most immediately affected by the Occupation and inhabitants soon experienced food shortages and power failures, not to mention a drastic scaling back in cultural activities. Those who lived through the Covid pandemic of 2020 may recall the strange quiet that descended on formerly lively cities. In When Paris went dark : the City of Light under German occupation, 1940-1944 journalist Dominique Jamet is quoted describing this absence of people on the streets: "Paris without light, but Paris without cars, Paris without traffic jams, Paris without pollution, Paris without accidents, Paris without stoplights, Paris without noise...." (Rosbottom, 95). Others have noted the eerie absence of birdsong in the morning hours. In any case, the calm did not last.

Immediately after the so-called "Fall of France," General Charles de Gaulle (in direct opposition to Pétain's capitulation and Vichy government) established what would become the Free French — a government in exile based out of London. On June 18th, he addressed the people of France (though very few heard his initial broadcasts) and anyone in England who had tuned in, that the Free French were resisting the German Occupation. Slowly, the Resistance would begin to take shape as a varied assortment of individuals who worked in small groups (or cells) to protest and sabotage the German Occupation. It did not grow into a single unified organization until, arguably, the final stages of the War when de Gaulle attempted to present the Resistance movement as a more coherent force to the outside world — ultimately by creating the French Forces of the Interior (Les Forces françaises de l'intérieur or FFI). But, at their core, Resistants of all stripes shared the same goal — opposition to the Germans and to the Vichy regime. The Resistance-Nord had fewer members, but they created a more unified front ideologically. The Resistance-Sud had greater numbers, but was fractured into factions, with more Communists and anti-Gaullists. The population of France as a whole was also very polarized after the defeat, and even as time went on, and the sinister nature of Nazi plans became clear, there were still many divisions in French society. As seen in the notorious Affiche Rouge or "Red Poster" affair External, the Vichy government and the Nazis took advantage of these disputes and often made efforts to paint the Resistance as a group of foreign Communist criminals as a way to discredit their heroic efforts in the eyes of the French population.

Auvergne Mountains, France. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


The Maquis

In the rural areas, members of the Resistance were called Maquis External (short for Maquisards, a term originating from the island of Corsica). The Maquis were known to be ready for anything, and eager for vengeance against the Germans. Many of the Maquis were Frenchmen who refused to serve in Germany as forced laborers and instead joined the Maquis. There was an upsurge in volunteers after the Allied North African invasion caused the Germans (via the Vichy regime) to initiate compulsory enlistment and deportation of hundreds of thousands of French workers in order to increase manpower for Germany. Many men dodged this Service du travail obligatoire (or STO) and became guerrilla fighters who lived precariously in the mountains and wilder terrain of France. Sometimes, desperate for food, they would raid local farms giving them a bad name in some areas (though some farmers were sympathetic and happy to feed them). As the war went on, downed Allies also often joined the Maquis, sometimes after being rescued, hidden and treated for wounds by Resistants, or after being parachuted into France. These brave Allies often brought not only courage, but often specialized expertise from their elite military training. They were welcomed into the bands of guerrilla fighters. Arguably the most famous and powerful Maquis were the Maquis of Vercors External. Equipped with air-dropped U. S. Army combat gear and supplies, these brave men — including soldiers from the West African colonial troop the — Tirailleurs Sénégalais External — launched the Vercors Uprising in July of 1944 — just shy of the Liberation of Paris.

Resistants performed a wide range of subversive activities. Printing and distributing clandestine newspapers to rally support for liberating France, sabotaging telecommunication networks, providing intelligence to Allied forces, creating false papers that helped Jews escape, rescuing Allied soldiers, and destroying key infrastructure by bombing bridges vital for transport were all vital operations undertaken by the Resistance. More controversial were the guerrilla tactics used, and the assassinations of German soldiers, often by the more militant and better-armed Communists in the Resistance. The Communist Maquis were known as the Francs Tireurs et Partisans and they were known for their finesse and technical skill — as well as their ferocity. Their assassinations brought about violent reprisals from the Germans, who usually shot many innocents as retribution. The Resistance gained considerable traction as the war progressed, especially as the Germans became increasingly aggressive in their tactics. The summer of 1942 saw in increase in deportations as France was pressured to, and in some cases eager to, supply more Jews to meet the German quotas. The most famous roundup of Jews took place in Paris that July 16th: la rafle du Vélodrome d'Hiver External (known as the Vel d'Hiv). This was the largest round up of French Jews during the Holocaust, totaling over 13,000 men, women and children who were placed in a large indoor sports arena. The conditions were deplorable, and as France witnessed the incarceration of entire families, the scale of the atrocities that were occurring under Nazi rule (and even under the Vichy government itself) began to disgust and alarm the general population. French director Roselyne Bosch's film La Rafle External, produced by Alain Goldman in 2010 depicts with heart-wrenching accuracy these unimaginable mass arrests during La Rafle du Vel d'Hiv. This, and other "round ups" in France began to turn the tide of public opinion.

Into the Jaws of Death: United States Troops Wading Through Water and Nazi Gunfire. [1944]. Library of Congress, Wold Digital Library.


Unification of the Resistance

De Gaulle was trying to unite the disparate factions of the Resistance under one name, and under his authority. In 1942 he sent French civil servant and Resistant Jean Moulin as his emissary to try to combine Resistance fighters under his name as the Forces Françaises Combattantes External (Fighting French Forces). By the beginning of 1943, with the war at a turning point and Vichy repression escalating, the Resistance became bolder and Moulin and de Gaulle had some measure of success in coordinating factions. Three networks, Combat, Libération, and Franc-Tireur et Partisans, joined together to form the Mouvements Unis de Résistance External. After the D-Day landings in June of 1944, the Resistance became even more emboldened and was instrumental in the Allied victory. As the Allied forces shifted the balance in favor of the French, the population became more outwardly hostile to the Germans. Making use of Allied forces and supplies enabled the French to play an important role in reclaiming their country from Nazi Germany.

The French Resistance was especially key in assisting the Allies after the Invasion of Normandy on D-Day in 1944. They provided military intelligence to the Allied forces, and sabotaged electrical power grids and transport facilities. De Gaulle's newly minted French Forces of the Interior (FFI) had grown to 400,000 members. Resistants were sometimes suspicious, if not outright hostile to one another as trust was a luxury during these years. Informants were rewarded handsomely and Resistants had to be extremely careful about protocol in handling sensitive information including names of other members or plans for an operation or meeting. When a Resistant was captured and released there was often suspicion as to how they gained their freedom, perhaps by betraying their fellow Resistants. Today there is still considerable contention over who made up the bulk of the Resistance, and more importantly — who controlled the narrative of the French Resistance after the War was over. Many accounts, and even historical records, contradict one another. Leaving these contentious questions to the historians, this guide nevertheless attempts to parse out the many identities of French Resistants and supply ample research material for further study.

Jack Downey, photographer. Crowds of French patriots line the Champs Elysees to view Allied tanks and half tracks pass through the Arc du Triomphe, after Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944. [1944]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


Reckoning with the Past

For many, the French Resistance may evoke images of young students bravely protesting along the Champs Elysées as they did in 1940. However, a rigorous examination of France's "dark years" under the Occupation demands a reckoning of the French national consciousness. It must be recognized that there were factions of French society that were sympathetic to the Germans and to the ideology of the Nazis. The National Revolution —Révolution nationale (a conservative ideology embraced by Pétain in France) as well as a sense that French society had been in moral decline since the beginning of the Third Republic opened the door for Nazi rhetoric and propaganda. Lurking antisemitism and old resentments were exploited and coupled with xenophobia to rally many French citizens to the "cause" of "purifying" their country of these influences. The attitude of each French citizen toward the German Occupation was obviously an individual matter, but as a whole many French citizens initially managed to tolerate the German Occupation whether out of fear, tacit approval, or indifference, and a minority actively supported their cause and profited from their actions. The German soldiers stationed in France, at least initially, were instructed to be polite to the average French citizen. Those who could, sometimes simply made the best of what they viewed as a wartime situation. There has been much criticism of France mythologizing and exaggerating the size and effectiveness of the Resistance — presumably out of shame for the degree of active collaboration that occurred. Certainly, accounts of the Resistance were used to create a narrative of redemption, however, that does not diminish the role that the Resistance had in mobilizing increasing numbers of French to rise up against their German Occupiers.

Resistance, Rebellion and Death. By Albert Camus, Translated by Justin O'Brien. (New York: Vintage International, A Divison of Random House, Inc., 1995). Library of Congress General Collections.

Albert Camus, an author and philosopher from French Algeria, describes the evolution of the French Resistance in his "Letters to a German Friend". In 1944, two of these four letters were published in Combat, the underground Resistance paper he edited. He was discussing the "reasons for the delay," meaning the slow response to the German invasion. Initially, these letters read as a justification of Camus' personal evolution from pacifist to Resistant, but they are often also viewed as a justification of the slow and admittedly ambiguous response of the French nation as a whole. This is due to the polarized population of France — especially in the years leading up to the War. The different factions in French society were complex. Those sympathetic to the National Revolution were disgruntled by what they saw as a dissolute lifestyle and advocated for a return to the traditional values of Work, Family and Country (Travail, Famille et Patrie). The French Communist Party or Parti Communiste Français (PCF) were anti-nationalist, and before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, they were loyal to the workers as a class rather than to France as a nation. It was also widely believed that many Communists were Jewish, and possibly foreign-born, which played into the fears of France losing its national character. Many did not support de Gaulle, but in the end the PCF did end up working with de Gaulle's "Free French" force and even participated in the National Council of the Resistance (CNR) based on their common enemy of the collaborationist Vichy regime. These are just the very simplest divisions and they created endless tension and mistrust within the Resistance, and in France at large.


Commemorating the Resistance

While one single unified Resistance never truly formed, the small cells coordinated with one another. In both large and small ways Resistants thwarted the Germans and played a critical role in preserving the modern French republic. Judging from many of the memoires written, it was often the small gestures by anonymous resistants who may not have been official members, that boosted the morale of the citizens and individuals who were under attack during these fraught years. Resistance hero Jean Moulin served as a unifying force for the Resistance due to his truly remarkable courage — even under torture — never betraying his comrades. Jean Moulin's life supplies a seemingly infinite number of inspiring events, but perhaps the most unique, (highlighted in The Resistance, p.84) is how he used his hobby of drawing to taunt the Germans even after his capture. After being badly tortured and beaten by a Gestapo officer he managed to draw a vicious caricature and present it to his captor. It is sometimes these last moments of defiance that can feel vindicating and offer some sense of power to the powerless. While it is rumored the Moulin jumped to his death, many historians believe his captor was so enraged by his refusal to divulge information that he beat him to death — ironically defeating his own purpose of extracting valuable intelligence information.

Of course, not everyone is as heroic and crafty as Jean Moulin, but one of the best ways to study and understand this dark time in French history is to read some of the countless stories of ordinary citizens who risked their lives to hide, help, and save Jews — some of them worked for religious organizations, while others acted covertly on their own terms. This guide points to a wide variety of material including Primary Sources, Biographies & Memoires, and Underground Resistance Newspapers and Publications. Historical Fiction and Graphic Novels can also add a human dimension to this period in history. Looking at the participants — be they American D-Day Veterans, Women, African Colonial Soldiers, Jewish Partisans, Resistants in the Church, or Communists, enriches your overall understanding of the complicated landscape. Any serious study of the material and literature requires a critical eye toward agendas, biases, and inadvertent as well as blatant misrepresentations. It does not make for an easy task or create a simple narrative — which is partly why it is such an interesting topic.

With the Invasion of Normandy imminent, a poem was utilized as a sort of code to the French Resistance. It was broadcast over the radio to convey the upcoming liberation of France from the Wehrmacht (German Army). It is one of the most revered poems in the French language: Paul Verlaine's Chanson d'automne (Autumn Song). This poem signified the long-awaited arrival of the Allied forces on D-Day, and it instigated a enormous surge of activity in the Resistance. Shortly before June 6th, 1944, Special Operations Executive (SOE) broadcast the first three lines of the poem over Radio London. This signaled to segments of the French Resistance that the invasion was coming. When they broadcast the next three lines, the Resistance knew to begin a full-scale sabotage of the German infrastructure. The French Forces of the Interior (FFI) were able to greatly impede German mobilization by blowing up railroad tracks and attacking German Army equipment and garrison trains that were on their way to the Atlantic coast. This poem remains so famous in France that there is a museum dedicated to its significance — Musée du 5 juin 1944 External. The first lines of the poem are below in both French and English. To students of the French language, an audio version External is available online. Another poem that will forever be synonymous with the French Resistance is Le Chant des Partisans External. This was a tune by Anna Marly External that served as the inspiration to poets Joseph Kessel and Maurice Druon, who wrote the accompanying lines that would make this the anthem of the Free French External, French Resistants and the Maquis in particular. The lyrics of the song revolve around the idea of a life-or-death struggle and capture the ardent and desperate fervor of the French Resistance. Both poems are deeply meaningful to those in France who remember these dark — but ultimately defiant years.

Poems of Paul Verlaine. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). Library of Congress General Collections.


Chanson d'Automne

Les sanglots longs

Des violons

De l'automne

Blessent mon coeur

D'une langueur


-Paul Verlaine


Autumn Song

The autumn's throbbing

Drone their dole;

Long-drawn and low,

Each tremolo

Sears my soul.

-Paul Verlaine, translation by Norman R. Shapiro

One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine: A Bilingual Edition, translated by Norman R. Shapiro








Library of Congress Guides to French and Francophone Resources

In addition to this guide to the French collections, staff of the Library of Congress have produced several other detailed guides on French and Francophone resources. They are linked below.