Anyone who has followed the tragedy of the German occupation has heard of the young bicycle couriers who fearlessly bluffed their way past checkpoints while carrying secret messages for the Resistance. The girls, especially, brought flirtation and coquetry to bear on the Occupation soldiers who were sometimes only a few years older.
Time compresses as it fades. From early in the occupation we remember the couriers and other parts of the soft Resistance. Then came the brave publishers of underground newsletters, then newspapers, and finally the occasional assassination of a German soldier, which always brought heavy penalties. Hitler pushed the occupation forces to more and more intense retribution, so that an assassination brought the execution of 50 hostages — and anyone unlucky enough to be picked up for violating the curfew became a hostage. In 1944 came extensive sabotage in support of D-Day.
Ronald C. Rosbottom’s fascinating new book Sudden Courage follows the deepening involvement of the youth of France after the German invasion of 1940. Rosbottom establishes clearly how betrayed they felt when the pride of the old military establishment, the Maginot Line, proved hopeless as a defense against an invading power with enough creative energy to simply bypass it. One by one, they determined to do their part to reverse the tide.
Preparing for the last war
It was proof of the old aphorism that soldiers prepare for the last war, not the next one, and the feckless French government did exactly that, to the extent of naming the hero of World War I, Petain, to head the new État Français, the collaborationist government the Germans established in Vichy.
When the Germans dissolved Vichy and occupied the south later in the war, the Resistance became more serious there, but the acts that spawned dozens of postwar films — railroads sabotaged, bridges blown up — were mainly acts in cooperation with the Allied governments in preparation for the Normandy landings of 1944.
In any discussion of the Resistance, the elephant in the corner is communism. The Resistance was in many ways started by the communists, who dominated many trade unions and thus could bring their existing organization to bear quickly. They always had a fraught relationship with the government in exile, which like Degaulle himself leaned on the tradition-bound ideas of Old France, which was Catholic, conservative, and patriarchal. In other words, the essence of anti-communism.
In fact, it struck me as odd that so many French parents would tolerate, much less support, their daughters’ work for the Resistance. They were nervous about it, as Rosbottom makes clear, but they saw past the straitjacket of the old mores to the absolute need to combat the Nazi threat to their existence.
Sudden Courage is a masterful followup to When Paris Went Dark. I hope a third one is in the works.
RONALD C. ROSBOTTOM is the Winifred L. Arms Professor in the Arts and Humanities and a professor of French, European Studies, and Architectural Studies at Amherst College. Previously he was the dean of faculty at Amherst. His previous book, When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944, was long listed for the National Book Award in Nonfiction.
SUDDEN COURAGE: Youth in France Confront the Germans, 1940-1945. Custom House, an imprint of William Morrow. Publication Aug. 13, 2019. Available in ebook, hard cover, and audio editions. Buy it on Amazon at https://amzn.to/2KrnLzl
PICTURES of young maquisards and the cover courtesy of the publisher, which provided an advance copy for review.