For years French politicians pushed a myth of liberation from the Nazis that was miltiary and male. The truth is somewhat different
Seventy years ago, in a dramatic combat that began on 18 August and finished on 25 August 1944, Paris was liberated from Nazi rule. Charles de Gaulle, head of the new provisional government, told the French people that – with a little help from the Allies – they had liberated themselves. But how true was this? Might it have been merely a myth designed to restore honour and unity to a country that had been defeated, occupied and divided against itself?
The liberation of Paris wove together two scenarios: a military campaign and a revolutionary movement. The first French column into Paris was the Second Armoured Division commanded by General Leclerc, who had won over France’s colonies in Equatorial Africa and fought his way north against the Axis forces in Libya and Tunisia. Rearmed and retrained in Yorkshire, his division did not land on the Normandy beaches until 1 August 1944, eight weeks after D-Day. Allied Supreme Commander Eisenhower wanted to drive the Germans back north of the capital and it was only General de Gaulle’s obstinacy that secured Leclerc his role in the liberation of Paris.
Photo: AP Photo/Constance Stuart Larrabee
One week before, on August 18, an order had been given for insurrection by the Paris Liberation Committee, which coordinated resistance activity there. It was chaired by André Tollet, an artisan in the sans-culotte tradition of 1789 and a trade unionist who had escaped from the camp where he had been interned as a communist. Its military arm was the French Forces of the Interior, or FFIs as they were known, commanded by Henri Rol-Tanguy, a communist metalworker and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, but it was desperately short of weapons and initially had only 600 people in arms. The muscle of the insurrection was a general strike that swept up the railways, utilities, cinemas, restaurants, the Galeries Lafayette and even the Paris police.
But not every part of the resistance was grateful. De Gaulle’s supporters in Paris feared either a communist seizure of power or a mirror of the bloodbath that was befalling the August 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Through the Swedish consul they negotiated a truce with the German military governor on 20 August, but this was not observed by the insurgents who threw up barricades in a revolutionary reflex and continued guerrilla warfare, seizing weapons from the panicking Germans.
Nor was the liberation of Paris even a purely French affair. Indeed, many saw resistance against the Germans as part of pan-European anti-fascist struggle that began with the Spanish Civil War against Axis-backed Franco in 1936 and ended with the Greek Civil War in 1949. Urban guerrilla fighting in Paris had been developed by foreign exiles – Spanish republicans, Italian anti-fascists, Polish, Hungarian, and Romanian Jews and even German anti-Nazis – operating in the Immigrant Worker Movement (MOI) of the communist partisans. Most had been rounded up and shot in February 1944 by the Germans, whose propaganda, discrediting the resistance as run by Jews, foreigners and communists, was in this case not far wrong.
Six months later, the first column of Leclerc’s soldiers to liberate Paris was the Third Chad Infantry Regiment, whose ninth company was nicknamed “la Nueve” because it was mainly composed of Spanish republicans whose tanks were daubed with slogans commemorating the battles of the Spanish Civil War: Guadalajara, Teruel, Ebro, Madrid.
This all gives a very macho version of the liberation of Paris. But women too played a crucial role. Cécile Rol-Tanguy, Henri’s wife, acted as one of his couriers, carrying messages by bicycle from one unit to another or weapons in her baby’s pram. A few women took up arms themselves. Madeleine Riffaud, a student nurse and communist partisan, shot a German on the banks of the Seine on 23 July 1944 to avenge the death of a comrade and to incite the Parisians to revolt. Narrowly escaping execution and deportation herself, she was released with other resisters under the truce and led a three-man commando that immobilised a German train at Les Buttes-Chaumont.
Photo: AP Photo/Peter J. Carroll
Order was restored by Leclerc’s division, which arrived on August 24. And only two days later, de Gaulle himself paraded down the Champs-Élysées cheers of the crowd. It was his apotheosis, communing with what he called “eternal France” – but it was also the beginning of a myth of resistance and liberation that was military, national and male.
De Gaulle made no mention of the contribution of foreigners. When summoned the leaders of the Paris resistance to the ministry of defence to thank them, and tell them that his job was over, Cécile Rol-Tanguy recalls that they were not even offered a glass of wine. With that, the party was over, and the role of revolutionaries, foreigners of women long forgotten. It is now past time to hear their story again.
Robert Gildea’s book on the French Resistance, Fighters in the Shadows, is out next month (Faber: £20)