This morning as I grew increasingly weary of the wall-to-wall coverage of the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landing, including on Al-Jazeera, I longed for an alternative take. Just at that moment, I remembered that I had James Heartfield’s “Unpatriotic History of the Second World War” on the bookshelf behind me. A while back I had read up through page 345 with a review in mind but got sidetracked as happens so often with an intellectual dilettante like myself. I was sure that James had a good take on things. As you can see below, a section from the chapter “The Second Invasion of Europe”, I was not to be disappointed. James’s book is not the only “revisionist” history of the war (I have also read versions written by Ernest Mandel, Mickey Z. as well as the chapter in Zinn numerous times) but it is certainly the best.
In the planning of the invasion of France, the Allies saw no role for the Resistance. France was to come under the Allied Military Government of the Occupied Territories. For the Resistance, though, Overlord was universally welcomed as a blow against the occupiers, and they rallied to support it.
On the evening of D-Day, de Gaulle broadcast to France warning against any ‘premature insurrection’, fearful that the Resistance would take the initiative but they ignored him. When Overlord began, the entire French railway network was closed down by more than 1000 acts of sabotage — at a time when nine tenths of the German Army were transported by rail or horse. At the same time the miners of Toulouse struck, and declared the Republic from the Town Hall of the town of Annonay.85
Emboldened, Resistance fighters of the Francs Tireurs et Partisans under Jean-Jacques Chapou attacked German and Milice forces in the town of Tulle in Limoges. Fifty Germans were killed in the liberation. Shocked at the blow to German prestige the SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’ of 15,000 men took the town back. Twenty six maquisards and seventy Germans were killed in the fighting, but overwhelming force won out. The following day 3000 were brought out into the town square, and 99 were executed, hung from balconies and telegraph poles. Three hundred were taken away, and 149 of them deported to Dachau. Shortly afterwards the ‘Das Reich’ division attacked Oradour-sur-Glane where 649 were killed.86
The savagery of the German reaction gave some weight to the demands of the Allies to stop the uprising. On 10 June General Koenig of the Free French set the message ‘put maximum brake on all guerrilla action’. The aim though was not to save lives, but to stop the Resistance from liberating France before the Allies arrived.
On 8 June Colonel Marcel Descour, leader of a large Maquis group in the mountain plateau of Vercors ordered that the plateau be defended — making it the first liberated French territory. Four thousand fighters set up their own republic, with its own newspaper and courts. Soon, though, the Vercors liberated zone was surrounded. Political leader Eugene Chavant sent a desperate message to the Free French leadership in Algiers. ‘If no aid we and population will consider Algiers criminal and cowardly’. The Germans, understanding who their real enemy was, sent 10,000 troops to attack. On 22 July 200 SS troops landed in gliders and the struggle to take back Vercors began. In the fighting German atrocities were shocking, with 326 maquisards slaughtered after being hunted down, and 130 civilians also killed.87
While they counselled caution militarily, the Free French had been very active recruiting civil servants to take over when the Vichy officials left. New local leaders, Commisaires de la Republique were appointed for every region, backed up by Comites Departmentaux de la Liberation, to control the local Resistance groups. Though Roosevelt had cold-shouldered de Gaulle throughout the war, fearing that he was too close to the Communists, once the Allied troops were on French soil Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery realised they needed the Free French to rein in the Resistance. In thirty major cities there were insurrections that pitted Resistance lighters against the German occupiers.88
Initially Eisenhower had no plans to liberate Paris ‘until a spontaneous rising in the capital forced his hand’.89 US General Omar Bradley explained that the Allies were afraid the demands of the starving Parisians would derail the conquest of Europe
Logistically, it could cause untold trouble, for behind its handsome facades there lived four million hungry Frenchmen. The diversion of so much tonnage to Paris would only strain further our already taut lines of supply. Food for the people of Paris meant less gasoline for the front.
Once again the Parisians were to be abandoned to the logic of war — except that they took matters into their own hands. Comites de Liberation were formed in town halls across the capital and barricades put up in the north and east of the City. The Resistance had 20,000 fighters ranged against an equal number, though much more heavily armed, German army. On 20 August a group led by Leo Ramon entered the Hotel de Ville and declared a provisional republic, and arrested the Vichy prefect. With revolution in the air, the Free French brokered an agreement to give the Germans 24 hours to leave the city. The Communist leader of the Resistance in Paris, Henri Rol-Tanguy saved the honour of the Allies and the Free French, by inviting them into the city as liberators: ‘open the road to Paris for the victorious allied armies and welcome them here’.90
Not everything went well with the ‘liberators’. General de Gaulle’s Military Cabinet discusses the problem of sexual attacks after the Normandy landing:
In the regions occupied by the Americans, women no longer dare to go to milk cows without being accompanied by a man. Even the presence of a man does not protect them. In the Manche a priest has been killed trying to protect two young girls attacked by American soldiers. These young girls were raped. In the Seine Inferieur a woman was raped and killed after her husband had been assassinated.
Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) stopped French newspapers reporting a number of rapes at the hands of US servicemen. In December 1944, a directive to all US Army and Air Force Commanders said that rapes and burglar should be punished promptly and with ‘appropriate severity’.91
In Paris, the surrender of German Commander von Cholitz — who had the foresight not to carry out Hitler’s orders to raze Paris —signed by von Cholitz, the US General Leclerc and the Resistance leaders Rol-Tanguy and Maurice Kriegel-Valmiront. De Gaulle, who arrived two hours later complained that Rol-Tanguy had been allowed to sign. The following day de Gaulle was urged to announce the re-establishment of the Republic, replied ‘the Republic has never ceased to exist’. His provisional government was recognised by thi Allies in October 1944.92
Within days of the liberation of Paris de Gaulle set about to disarming the Resistance. After some protest the Resistance leaders in the Comite d’Action Militaire accepted the proposal that the resistance fighters be fused with the Army —l’amalgame — though in the process the officers of 1940 were allowed to keep their rank whatever they had done during the occupation, while the Resistance men were carefully selected. The whole process put the traditionaI order back in charge. The activist workplace committees that had sprung up to organise factories were suspended after an agreement to include two communist ministers in de Gaulle’s government, George Bidault and the communist FTP leader Charles Tillon. The self-organised police forces of the Milices Patriotiques that took over day-to-day organisation of localities between the fall of the occupation and the establishment of the new state were disarmed, and later disbanded. The communist leader Thorez, who had been amnestied by de Gaulle allowing him to return from Moscow, promised his support for ‘one army, one police, one administration’ ‘We want the revolution, tomorrow’, he promised his supporters, and promised de Gaulle that ‘meanwhile today we want the capitalist regime to function according to its own laws, which must be left intact.
De Gaulle’s victory over the militant Resistance was helped along by the Parti Communist Francais. Also, de Gaulle spoke clearly to that large constituency that feared the social change that the Resistance threatened. After all, many more people did not join the Resistance than did. De Gaulle’s great advantage was that he could count on the support both of Vichy France, and also of the Resistance. De Gaulle’s appeal to La France Profonde, the enduring France that lay beneath the hurly-burly of everyday political squabbles was quite similar to Petain’s traditionalist outlook. Where Petain had promised order, he had in the end delivered more conflict. Only de Gaulle had the authority to rein in the runaway militancy of the Resistance, and for that La France Profonde was deeply grateful. De Gaulle faced down the left’s ambitions for a Sovereign Constituent Assembly, and got the country to vote instead for an authoritarian presidency in a referendum on a new constitution. Even then, he balked at the prospect of ruling alongside the different political parties, and left the stage.
Conflict between the Allies and the Resistance happened in every country. In 1944, the allies opposed strikes planned by Central Dutch Resistance Council – this time to coincide with the invasion. In retrospect, British commander at Arnhem R.E. Urquhart admitted that an unwillingness to cooperate with the Resistance contributed to major setbacks in the winter of 1944-5.94 In Belgium Max Nokin, an official of the Societe Generale de Belgique, had written in 1942 that ‘we would certainly compromise the success of our economic recovery if we turn to a regime of economic and industrial liberty after the war’. Repression, though had provoked resistance, and the Belgian jurist Rene Marq described the mood of the final months of the occupation as one of ‘virtual civil war’. The German Military Administrator’s report of June 1944 noted that ‘the national-conservative opposition movement is … trying to unite all forces to preserve order, in hopes of providing a counterweight to the communist effort, which, because of the difficult economic situation is finding ever more support among the workers’. The Belgian Government-in-exile was hostile to the Front d’Independence which they feared was ‘perhaps entirely communist’.95 With the Allied invasion, the exile Government had the solution to the problem of a people in revolt. In November 1944 armed members of the wartime resistance were given two weeks to hand over their weapons. On 25 November there was a protest rally in Brussels. The police opened fire injuring 45 people.96