The French Resistance is a term used to describe the loosely-connected French freedom fighters who conducted secret raids and sabotage attacks against the occupying Nazi forces during World War II. For many years, they’ve been celebrated for their heroic sacrifices and efforts to help the Allies defeat the Axis Powers. But not everyone believes this portrayal. Was the French Resistance nothing more than a myth?
Was the French Resistance just a Modern Myth?
In 1997, military historian Douglas Porch published The French Secret Services: A History of French Intelligence from the Drefus Affair to the Gulf War. His book blew a gigantic hole in the legend of the French Resistance and caused tremendous controversy in France. A review published by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996 prior to the book’s publication sums up a few of its arguments as follows:
“Those few French who helped downed airmen often did so for the money. The standard reward for getting an escapee into Spain was about $50,000 in today’s money.”
“Contrary to the myth, the French Resistance didn’t rise up after D-Day, June 6, 1944, to attack Germans behind the front lines. Sabotage of the Nazi war machine 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.”
How Large was the French Resistance?
I first learned about the heroics of the French Resistance many years ago. So I found the revelations in Porch’s book surprising to say the least. But as I read more on the subject, I learned that his statements weren’t that unique. In fact, many historians today believe that the movement was quite small and ineffective. That’s not to say that resistance fighters didn’t exist in France nor that some of them didn’t take great risks. But still, the image of the French Resistance propagated by popular media and even many text books appears far different than what actually occurred. As “Old Werther” wrote…
“for most of the war, the 30—50 German occupation divisions took no part in anti-resistance activities…the number of actual anti-resistance security forces in France (the Feldsicherheitsdienst) probably did not exceed 6,500 at any stage of the war. That in a country of over 40 million!”
According to Porch, the myth of the French Resistance originated with Charles de Gaulle. While serving as the leader of the Free French government and the French Communists, de Gaulle worked to create a certain image of the French citizenry in order to improve his own position with the Allies. But if Porch is right, then how do we explain President Dwight Eisenhower’s opinion?
“Throughout France, the Free French had been of inestimable value in the campaign. They were particularly active in Brittany, but on every portion of the front we secured help from them in a multitude of ways. Without their great assistance the liberation of France and the defeat of the enemy in Western Europe would have consumed a much longer time and meant greater losses to ourselves.” ~ President Dwight Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe
Porch claims that Eisenhower deliberately inflated the value of the French Resistance as a favor to de Gaulle. Apparently, he felt bad for how other wartime leaders treated de Gaulle and wanted to make amends.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
The true value of the French Resistance remains a subject of some debate. However, it seems clear that its general worth has been greatly inflated over the years. As for whether the media or popular history will ever reflect that fact, well, we will have to wait and see.