The French Resistance between myth, memory and narrative

This project is an exploration of the French Resistance using a mass of individual testimonies collected after the war. These were cast aside as unreliable and partisan by so-called  ‘scientific’ historians who privileged the use of archival sources which were gradually made available to researchers from the 1980s, although such archives often give an institutional and depersonalised version of events. The publication of Irene Nemirowsky’s Suite française in 2004 ushered in a ‘subjective turn’ in studies of wartime France. The aim of the current project takes up the challenge of the subjective turn to explore resistance through individual testimonies. These often extraordinary accounts are analysed not as truth but as narratives that make sense of experience: how individuals took the step of involvement in resistance which exposed them to arrest and deportation; the camaraderie, conflicts and (too often) betrayal that existed within and between resistance networks, and the logic of trajectories followed through and after the war.


Danielle Casanova, Communist resister who died at
Auschwitz, 1943, image © Musée de la Résistance, Champigny.

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Spanish republicans in the Alpine maquis of Oisans, 1944, image © Musée de la Résistance, Champigny.

After the war a myth was developed of ‘la France résistante’, a dominant narrative constructed as a response to the need to restore a sense of unity and pride to the French nation. Multilayered and rival versions of resistance – the Free French in Britain and the French colonies versus metropolitan resistance, Communist and non-Communist resistance, that of French nationals and foreigners, men and women - were ironed out in a single entity - ‘la Resistance’. Within this, however, some resisters sought to define themselves as an activist elite separate from the population at large and other groups that had suffered hardship, such as deported workers and Jews. This study will highlight the diversity and complexity of forms of resistance: agents who linked the two worlds of the Free French and internal resistance, Christians who were involved in removing Jewish children from concentration camps and getting them to safety, Jewish resisters who might also be Communists or Zionists, women who remained within traditional gender roles but also stepped out of them, Spanish republicans, Poles, Czechs, Romanians and even Italians and Germans who took part in French resistance as part of a transnational anti-fascist struggle between the Spanish Civil War and Cold War.

Finally, the project will examine the dialogue between individual memory and collective memory – both group and societal – of resistance and how it has been modified and used in different ways over time. The Cold War, for example, drove a wedge between Communist and non-Communist versions of resistance. The Algerian War divided former resisters between defenders French Algeria and partisans of Algerian independence. Around 1968 young radicals saw themselves as ‘new partisans’, identified with wartime resistance heroes and even linked up with them. In the 1970s and 1980s a new awareness of the role of foreigners and Jews emerged while after the end of the Cold War the paradigm shift which caused the Second World War to be seen through the lens of the Holocaust replaced the heroic image of the resistance fighter by that of the Just among Nations who had saved Jews from Auschwitz.

Professor Robert Gildea
University of Oxford

Robert was awarded a Major Research Fellowship in 2011; providing £97,464 over 24 months.

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Pierre Brossolette, key intermediary between London and the resistance in France, d. 1944. Image courtesy of Archives Nationales, France.