Resistance: a genre of history, by Professor Rod Kedward

Rod Kedward 2

Professor Rod Kedward has made his mark on French history, and it is with great pleasure that we can post a piece about his latest projects and passions: the resistance. Rod Kedward has written extensively about the resistance in France, and he has been heavily involved in setting up a centre for Resistance Studies at the University of Sussex. He recently gave a lecture on the French Resistance: Myths, Lives and Videotape, reminding us of the relevance of resistance studies and oral history. 

On VE day, 2015, there was a page of quotes and stories in the Guardian from around Europe on how individuals now see, or remember, the victory over Nazi Germany. Angelique Chrisafis, the brilliant French correspondent for the paper, whose interests are always grass roots, local, and individual, quoted 94 year old Marie-Catherine Bovis who had been a student in Aix-en-Provence in May 1945: ‘At the time,’ she said, ‘I didn’t know the full horror of the death camps…but we were aware of the terrible fact of Jewish people being denounced and deported. I had a Jewish uncle who only just escaped deportation. It was only down to a village post-lady that he survived. She came across a letter to the authorities from a villager denouncing him as a Jew and she destroyed it.’

This was not a military memoir of 8 May, not a national one, but a local and individual memory of an act of resistance.

Why do I call it that? And not just say it was a humanitarian act?

One of the first series of decrees of the Vichy state made Jews into second-class citizens or worse, and in many areas they were pursued by the authorities relentlessly. The French police were used in round-ups and arrests, and collaborated in the first mass deportations. Where the Jews, mainly immigrant ones, were being taken to, in appalling conditions, was unknown, but Vichy, and Laval in particular, made no attempt to find out.

The act of the post-lady near Aix-en-Provence was subversive. It defied Vichy legality. But it had its legitimacy in civil and human rights, a vital ingredient of the internal resistance.

Just how important it is to compare resistance to the norms of soldiering, is captured by Sébastien Albertelli the historian of the Gaullist network and agents, who writes tellingly: ‘Just like the internal resistance, agents sent into France had to accept the idea of transgressive behaviour, different from open military campaigns. Their acceptance was accompanied by an acute recognition of the specific risks implied in clandestine combat, such as torture and suicide. Like volunteer resisters inside France, they were conscious of a greater freedom of manoeuvre than experienced by combatants in regular units.’ This is well put, and refers equally to agents sent by the British SOE and the American OSS.

Resistance was, and still is, a form of combat, a type of struggle, that is linked to Protest, Revolution, and War, but is a genre of history in its own right with its own distinctive characteristics. It is clandestine, underground, whichever word you prefer: it is subversive and illegal in the eyes of occupying forces or the repressive powers of an unacceptable regime such as Vichy; it is a struggle for freedom, and it was, and is, a fight to protect or extend human rights. French Resistance, always a minority of French people, was all these things, often ineffective, often failing in its own ideals, often helpless against overwhelming odds. Always creative.

Imaginative thinking, subversive action, gathering intelligence, mobilising others, secretly writing, printing and distributing; these formed the creative bedrock of l’armée des ombres. Liberation was the keyword, and republican liberté its legendary inspiration; sabotage was its signature; dissimulation, covering tracks, was its artistry; interlocking urban streets, known in Lyon as trabouless, and the rural maquis, were its habitat; providing sanctuary and means of escape were its ethical core. Four thousand allied aircrew, downed in combat, were given refuge and were taken across the country and over frontiers to safety. Men and women teachers in small schools hid material in their desks, civil fonctionnaires forged identity cards in préfectures. The places, such as le Chambon-sur-Lignon, known for collective refuge and the survival of Jewish children, are among the acknowledged ‘hauts-lieux de la Résistance’, resilient citadels of struggle and subversion.

The comparative history of Resistance across time and place falls within and outside military history. It highlights civilian history at the grass roots. We need to argue about its rationale, to ask ourselves what we might have done in the face of occupation and oppression, and remember the dead, the deported, the defiance of torture. The research is there to be pursued globally: media stories, novels, videography, the audio interview and the archival document are all voices to be heard at all levels of education and in all communities.

Stéphane Hessel, French resister, concentration camp survivor and one of the architects of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, ended his best-selling booklet, Indignez-vous! with the words, Créer c’est résister, résister c’est créer. An interview with him by Martyn Cornick has been lodged with many others in the new Archive of Resistance Testimony at the University of Sussex. His epigram will start endless arguments. But what a start.

Rod Kedward

Special thanks to Rod for his piece!


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