January 20, 1996 in Nation/World

French Couldn’t Resist Romantic Version Of War Resistance Never Existed, Says Historian In New Book

Bernard D. Kaplan Hearst Newspapers
 

Another of history’s myths has just gone down the tubes. The heroic French Resistance, the underground movement against the Nazis in World War II that we recall from countless movies, never really existed - at least, not the way Hollywood had us believe.

According to a new book, “The French Secret Services,” by the historian Douglas Porch, even those few French who risked their lives to gather military information for the allies or helped smuggle downed American and British airmen to safety often did it more for the money than out of patriotism.

The standard payment for getting an escaped allied prisoner out of France, across the Pyrenees and into Spain was $5,000, or about $50,000 in today’s money. A number of people grew rich from the Resistance.

The romantic image of selfless French men and women in berets and leather jackets blowing up bridges and ambushing columns of German soldiers on lonely country roads has become one of the most persistent wartime legends.

Porch contends almost nothing of the sort actually happened. Porch’s account has set the French seething.

Porch notes that, contrary to the myth, the French Resistance didn’t rise up after D-Day, June 6, 1944, to attack the Germans behind the front lines. Sabotage of the Nazi war machine, he adds, also was minimal.

Only about 5 percent of the French were even nominally members of the underground. Of these, scarcely any ever fired a shot in anger, dynamited a train or sent a clandestine radio message to the allies.

When Albert Speer, who headed German war production, was asked after the war about the effect of the French Resistance, he replied, “What French Resistance?”

Porch’s work is significant because the yawning gap between wartime reality and myth is at the center of the self-doubt that has been nagging at the French psyche for the last 50 years. This is why many outsiders find France hard to handle and frequently a nuisance.

To reassure themselves about their national merit and importance, the French have deliberately become extremely tough customers.

They are especially that way when dealing with Americans. As onetime U.S. ambassador to France Charles Bohlen remarked, “The French have never forgiven us for liberating them.”

The overblown Resistance legend was almost entirely the work of Charles de Gaulle, the wartime leader of the Free French government in London, and of the French Communists.

De Gaulle needed the Big Lie to help build up his otherwise weak position in the eyes of the allies. The Communists vastly exaggerated their own Resistance role in order to attract postwar political support.

Porch says it was de Gaulle who persuaded Dwight Eisenhower, the allied supreme commander, to praise the Resistance as worth an “extra six divisions” in the struggle against Germany.

Both men knew the claim was false, the historian contends. He says Eisenhower issued his statement to please de Gaulle, who he felt had been treated roughly by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

As for the French Communists, they coined a slogan after the war calling themselves “The party of the 70,000 martyrs” - the number of Party members who, they said, had been executed by the German as Resistance fighters. The true figure, according to Porch, was under 350.


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