The French Resistance: Free France during World War II

American officer and a French partisan crouching behind an auto during a street fight in a French city | Courtesy of Wikimedia Common

Winner of the Fall 2017 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “World History”

“We were all absolutely convinced that we were changing the world. It can seem extremely utopian, but a man without utopia has no future. For these courageous people, their faith and beliefs were worth fighting despite the danger.” —Leon Landini1

In 1940, the Nazis invaded France. In just a matter of weeks of fighting, the French army was overrun and the French government was forced to surrender. In Bordeaux that year, 84-year-old Philippe Pétain formally ended France’s Third Republic and formed a government that signed a peace treaty with Germany and became its ally. The armistice divided France in two: the north was occupied by Germany, and the south was considered a free territory to be ruled by the new French government centered in Vichy. In the ensuing panic in the occupied north, thousands of French citizens there migrated to the south.2 Resistance to Nazi rule in the north was suicidal. Individuals suspected of belonging to secret organizations were immediately executed. The Gestapo was everywhere, and they imposed their will on the French people.3 Any opposition in the press was forbidden.4

Resistant prisoners in France, 1940 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Common

However, brave individuals began to raise their heads. One day, a 19-year-old young man cut the communication cables on a German airbase. He was discovered and executed a few moments later. Despite the danger, people discreetly began to challenge the Nazi authorities. Some of them directed trains onto wrong rail lines, or were changing the signals to deceive the train conductors. However, most of the population remained isolated and paralyzed by fear.5

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill felt the faintness of France. He ordered the creation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to help the French resistance fighters. The purpose of the SOE was to regroup the French resistance fighters and help them in their subversive activities. These British secret agents came to France to commit acts of sabotage, find information on the enemy, and contact other potential resistance fighters. According to the SOE, only one out of a hundred Frenchmen was willing to take the risks associated with being a Resistance Fighter.6 Churchill’s SOE was not the only support for the residence. Using the BBC airwaves, on June 18, 1940, General Charles de Gaulle made an appeal to all Frenchmen to join the resistance:

I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who would come there, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the special workers of armament industries who are located in British territory or who would come there, to put themselves in contact with me. Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.7

One of the first resistance groups formed in Paris and established itself in the Museum of Man. The intellectuals who worked there thought that the Nazi ideology of Aryan superiority was inconceivable. They resisted as educated people; the group began to publish anti-Nazi pamphlets, and they developed networks throughout the country, creating shelters. Later, the organization connected with the SOE based in London. However, the intellectuals at the Museum of Man were infiltrated by Nazis and fifteen members were executed.8

The city of Lyon was somewhat freer than Paris. The resistance-led underground press published newspapers to encourage the French population to resist. Leon was also a significant railroad center. Many of the inhabitants of northern France migrated through Leon to get to Vichy or Free France in the south.9

French Resistance fighter Lucien Pélissou’s identity document | Courtesy of Wikimedia Common

In Paris, numerous members of the resistance were ready to fight; many of them were actually immigrants from around Europe who were attracted by the French revolutionary creed Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The Elek family, for example, came from Hungary with their two sons, Thomas and Bela and their little girl, Marthe. They were determined to have a better life, and they didn’t have any illusions about what Nazi occupation meant.10 Without telling their mother, Bela, twelve years old, and his brother Thomas, joined the resistance. At night, they made pamphlets and posters that they would put on the streets, despite the dangers of being arrested, tortured, and killed. Things got worse in 1941. Arrests became more frequent. One of the friends of Bela was deported. He was only thirteen years old. Thousands of Jews and other immigrants were arrested. For the young Elek, drawing graffiti was not enough. At sixteen years old, Thomas sent his younger brother to the Rivegauche Library, the most significant Nazi library in Paris. He told him to draw the plans of the building. As he was a little boy, nobody paid attention to him. He memorized the plans of the building and left as fast he had entered. At home, Thomas hollowed out the inside of one of his father books and placed a bomb inside. The next day, he put the book on a shelf of the library. A few moments later, the window flew to pieces, and the entire place caught on fire. The explosion alerted the resistance and the German police. After this event, Thomas was recruited by the Main Ouvrière Immigrante (MOI)–an organization constituted mostly of immigrant resistance fighters. This group of young foreigners soon had to play an essential role in the history of the French liberation. But the resistance was still weak in France, and England was alone fighting the Nazis forces.11

A group of resistants at the time of their joining forces with the Canadian army at Boulogne, in September 1944 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Common

In 1941, the assassination of a German officer on a railroad platform in Paris intensified the state of war in France. The aggressor was a member of the Francs-tireurs et partisans (FTP). A street battle against German soldiers began. Later on, the MOI joined the FTP. But German revenge was terrible: ten French civilians were killed for the death of one German officer assassinated.12 The MOI and the FTP then became the primary opponents of the Nazis. After the attack on the library, Thomas Elek quickly rose in the ranks of the MOI. He became a lieutenant of a unit that specialized in the derailment of trains and attacks on German staff. The FTP and the MOI had to perfect a technique of guerrilla fighting. They were looking for German officers, which they targeted in groups of three: a leader scout, another in charge of the diversion and the back protection, and a third to carryout the attack. For safety reasons, the members of the resistance never carried weapons when they were patrolling. They would meet a young woman in a specific place, who would hand them weapons and then get the weapons back after the attack.13 Marthe Elek, Thomas’ sister, often filled this role. At only twelve years old, she would place grenades and firearms in her violin case and deliver them to the resistance. The children were hardly noticeable by the Nazi policemen.14 However, despite a strict vigilance, the MOI was infiltrated. Thomas and twenty of his companions were arrested and forced to attend a trial that they knew was lost in advance. Separated from Thomas, Bela and his family went into hiding, afraid for their lives. Everywhere in France, posters were showing the Resistance fighters’ photos being tortured and killed. The propaganda, however, didn’t impact the French people as the Nazis had anticipated. On the contrary, it brought a wave of support for the prisoners of the MOI. Unfortunately, ten days after the trial, Thomas and his companions were executed. Their death shocked the French people and gave them more reasons to fight in the years to come.15

“Nicole Minet”, a French Partisan who captured 25 Nazis in the Chartres area (August 1944) | Courtesy of Wikimedia Common

The Resistance fighters’ sabotage of German factories increased as well as their attacks on Nazi soldiers. The FTP and MOI sent more troops to the region. For a Resistance fighter, life expectancy was thought to be only three months, and the fight was rough every single day against the occupiers. They lived in rooms isolated, far from their families and friends, while they were waiting to be called for assignments. One of the most offensive actions was to patrol in town.16 Leon Landini, a resistance fighter in the MOI stated, “The stress is inexplicable. You see a German man or a militiaman arriving in front of you. At the moment that you arrive at about a meter-fifty from the man, you step aside to block him, take out your pistol and fire three times in the stomach. Then when he falls on the ground, you fire once in the head, so he doesn’t suffer.”17 Then, the Resistance fighters would steal the identity papers of the soldier they had just killed, and take his weapon and disappear.

The MOI had no relation with the SOE. Killing Germans became its only source of supply of weapons. To protect itself from potential infiltration, the MOI established a security system by grouping together with only three people. Every team was built on a pyramid base. Only the leader knew the address of the two men who were under his orders. Therefore, if a Resistance fighter spoke, he could denounce no more than two people, and at no time would anyone be in a position to give information about the hierarchy. This security system was so efficient that Germans had to apply extreme torture to obtain information from members of the resistance. The resistance had become a reality because the Nazi occupants oppressed more and more French.18 Toward the end of 1942, German forces in France weakened because of their need for forces for their attack against the Soviet Union. Thus, they decided to establish a mandatory work force in France. The MOI responded. A group of three unidentified men attacked Riter, a close friend of Hitler’s. And Hitler spent months looking for the author of his friend’s death. Hitler would never know that the murderers were three Jewish immigrants from the MOI.19

Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division parading after the Battle for Paris, August 1944 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Common

On June 5th, 1944, London sent a coded message through the BBC channel to the French Resistance. The message stated that the arrival of the US troops would be the next day. Thus, the Resistance fighters increased the number of sabotage attacks. Traffic and communications had become impossible for the Germans. More than 5000 railroad tracks were sabotaged, preventing the provisioning of men and weapons supposed to aid the Germans. For the Allies, this help was vital.20 As France became liberated, General Eisenhower said that the contribution of the Resistance was equal to having five army divisions.21 It had sprung from the ground and from defeat and had grown with those who shared a particular idea of France, patriotic and free, the democratic country of the Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

  1. Léon Landini, Réponse a Michel Onfray. et Autres textes sur la Résistance (Delga, 2015), 34.
  2. Encyclopédie multimédia de la Shoah, L’invasion allemande de l’Europe de l’ouest, mai 1940 Mémorial de la Shoah (Paris, France, 2017) 26-27.
  3. François Marcot, Dictionnaire historique de la Résistance – Résistance intérieure et France Libre (Robert Laffont, Bouquins, 2006), 41.
  4. Pierre-Marie Dioudonnat, L’Argent nazi à la conquête de la presse française (Jean Picollec, France, 1981), 9.
  5. Jean-François Muracciole, Histoire de la Résistance en France (PUF, Que sais-je, 2003), 12-17.
  6. Jean-François Muracciole, Histoire de la France libre (PUF, Que sais-je, 1996), 35.
  7.  Élie Barnavi, La Politique étrangère du général de Gaulle (Presses Universitaires de France, 1985), 63. The original French text reads: “(…) Moi, Général de Gaulle, j’entreprends ici, en Angleterre, cette tâche nationale. J’invite tous les militaires français des armées de terre, de mer et de l’air, j’invite les ingénieurs et les ouvriers français spécialistes de l’armement qui se trouvent en territoire britannique ou qui pourraient y parvenir, à se réunir à moi. J’invite les chefs, les soldats, les marins, les aviateurs des forces françaises de terre, de mer, de l’air, où qu’ils se trouvent actuellement, à se mettre en rapport avec moi. J’invite tous les Français qui veulent rester libres à m’écouter et à me suivre. Vive la France libre dans l’honneur et dans l’indépendance !”
  8. Julien Blanc, Du côté du musée de l’Homme. Les débuts de la Résistance en zone occupée (1940-1941) (Thesis, Lyon, University Lumière-Lyon II, 2008), 13.
  9.  Voix de la France, illegal newspaper edited from July 1940 to 1941.
  10. Laurence Thibault, Les Jeunes et la Résistance (La Documentation Française, 2007), 23.
  11. D. Peschanski, Le Sang de l’étranger – Les immigrés de la M.O.I. dans la Résistance (Fayard, 1989), 55-56.
  12. Albert Ouzoulias, Les Fils de la Nuit (Grasset, 1975), 19.
  13. Charles Tillon, Les FTP, soldats sans uniforme (Ouest-France, 1991), 6-8.
  14. Hélène Elek, La Mémoire d’Hélène (François Maspéro, 1977), 29.
  15. Adam Rayski, L’Affiche rouge (Mairie de Paris, 2003), 31-33.
  16. Stéphane Courtois, Le sang de l’étranger, Les immigrés de la M.O.I. dans la Résistance (Fayard, 1989), 48-52.
  17. Marc Levy, Les enfants de la liberté, l’histoire de la trente-cinquième brigade FTP-MOI (France, 2007), 17.
  18. Greg Lamazères, Marcel Langer, Une vie de combats. 1903-1943. Juif, communiste, résistant… et guillotiné (Toulouse, Privat, 2003), 24-25.
  19. Annette Wieviorka, Ils étaient juifs, résistants, communistes (Denoël, 1986), 51-52.
  20. Azéma, Jean-Pierre, L’historisation de la Résistance (Esprit, 1994), 19-35.
  21. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Rapport sur les opérations en Europe des forces expéditionnaires (Lavauzelle, 1948), 12.
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100 Comments

  • France was overtaken by Germany in World War Two but while their army was defeated the people of france would not stay down. It’s very interesting to learn about the French Resistance during World War Two. Who they were made up of and how the acted during the war. While they did get help for their ally Britain they still were able to keep fighting.

  • This is such a great article! I really enjoyed this article because as an American the only perspectives you really actively learn about from World War II are the American but not really the other Allies and the Nazis. I really did enjoy this because we learned about the French Resistance aspect and I mean a large portion of the European theater did take place in France. The French Resistance truly showed the resilience of the French people.

  • Very interesting article, I had known a fair amount of the French Resistance before, but, was good to read more about the subject. I found it interesting how the French government, in the South, had surrendered to the Nazis in order to remain “free.” The resistance movement helped in the liberation of France and the French army, lead by de Gaulle, allowed for Paris to be “liberated” instead of conquered by the Canadian, United States, and Great Britain.

  • This is a really interesting piece of history, thank you for sharing! You are able to tell the story of The French Resistance and how it contributed to the bigger picture well. You set up to capture the audience with a little bit a vagueness in the beginning and then execute the rest well. This is usually difficult when to learn to change to more detail and cut to the storyline, however you were able to find this middle ground right before it was too long.

  • Very, very interesting. For me this piece did a few things. A short back story is needed. Already in my possession I have a book on French resistance during the Nazi era. Unfortunately, I have not read it yet. Que in this story. So well written. More than anything, this entire story was an exposition in that it gave me just enough to hold on to until I find the time to get to my book. So much went into this piece that I didn’t know, and all was very well structured so that I as a unknowing reader could follow along.

  • It’s a very good example of how to use a quote to encapsulate what the entire article is about. The narrative arc gives us everything we need: the stage is set with a description of Nazi Occupied France, and then we read about the risks people, which emboldens many, and then we read about the repercussions, and finally, we get hope. Good job.

  • Amazing story of a very brave and heroic group of people. It’s hard for me to even imagine the horrendous living conditions of Nazi occupied France. The fact that stuck with me was the three month life span of a resistance fighter. That is terrible and so sad, but speaks volumes of the lengths these individuals were willing to go to protect their people and country. Joining the resistance was almost an assurance of death, but this courageous group of people pressed on. Wonderful tribute to these heroes, cheers!

  • I personally haven’t been the most interested in history until recently much less into world history but stories of people and their past for a greater cause is something that peels my eyes wide open. The topic you chose is important for many reasons. This post reminded me to continue to fight for those who are not represented and who may be forgotten. The people were proud, strong, and determined. Just as a side note, nice sources; it looks like you really took the time to research this topic.

  • The beginning quote sets the stage for your whole article. I enjoyed how you framed your article by starting large and speaking of the separation of the nation, then rebels and then you narrow the perspective by speaking of one family. It gives one a broader perspective of what is going on and a personal story into the context of the war. This type of Guerrilla warfare by children is something that I had never heard before and the author gave a wonderful general history in who they were, how it was done, and how it affected the war effort.

  • An amazing story of extraordinary people caught in horrific times. These people put everything on the line to fight the evil oppressors occupying their country. Each one of them, martyrs and survivors, were heroes even if history has forgotten their names. No matter how hard the Nazis tried, they could not break the spirits of these proud people. I can not imagine living in a time like that. Having to choose between wanting to fight and wanting to protect my family. I am glad I’ve never had to make that decision.

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