The Resistance in Western Europe 1940 – 1945 by Olivier Wieviorka

The Resistance in Western Europe, 1940–1945

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

I came to Olivier Wieviorka’s history of the famed resistance in Europe during World War II with a great deal of almost-contained enthusiasm. I’d been brought up with stories like Odette and Carve Her Name with Pride; I loved the tales of The White Mouse, although televised versions I found wanting. Behind all the stories was this wonderful force of dedicated souls who chose to put their lives at risk to see the Nazi menace removed from our world. Now, here in my hands, was an authentic history of that movement that trounced the Nazi order while the Allies destroyed them utterly, a book written by one of the world’s great scholars, his words translated into English by Jane Marie Todd, an acknowledged expert in such endeavours.

I read Robert Paxton’s Foreword with increasing dismay. I consulted a reference book of acceptable quality, Words into Type. This authority defines a foreword as a passage, usually written by an eminent person, that deals with the genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness. Paxton is unarguably an eminent person, but has taken the liberty of not only writing a foreword but has gone on to write what is a detailed summary of Wieviorka’s arguments. Words into Type defines an introduction as a set piece that deals with the subject of the book, supplementing and introducing the text and indicating a point of view to be adopted by the reader. The introduction usually forms a part of the text. Frankly, I’m not sure what Paxton has written. It feels like an introduction.

The implications of this difference between a foreword and an introduction are not trivial. I remember becoming increasingly disturbed as I read on and found myself wondering why I would read the book when the ‘foreword’ had it all laid-out before me. If I were Wieviorka I would feel betrayed.

On to the book itself, to those brave souls who put their lives on the line…another disappointment, self-generated in this case. I discovered very quickly that my understanding had been metonymic and misled. What I knew of the work of the resistance movement was accurate enough. There were heroes, but their deeds were more heroic than I had expected, given the poor qualities of the leaders who put them in the field to do such dangerous work. According to Wieviorka, we need to “qualify the view of an irenic alliance cloudlessly uniting Berlin’s adversaries” (3). The coalition formed by the United Kingdom, the USA and the collective leadership of those nations presently under the boot of occupying forces, could not let interwar grievances go and had “diverging, if not opposing, notions of the world’s future” (3).

In his chapter Reinventing a Coalition Wieviorka tells of the clever but differing ways in which Britain strove to milk most advantage out of France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Denmark and Italy. These were nations that faced a common enemy but came up with distinctive, national responses.

With much of Europe ablaze, thoughts turned to subversive warfare. Hugh Dalton, the UK Minister for Economic Warfare, an unashamed leftist, and Colin Gubbins, who joined the special services in 1939, took guerrilla warfare very seriously. Churchill gave the idea official emphasis in creating the Special Operations Executive whose brief was to wage subversive warfare. This meant that a Special Operations Executive would coordinate all subversion and sabotage proposed by the UK. But in response, the Senior Intelligence Service (incorporating MI6) entrusted a Major Lawrence Grand with the brief to consider how the enemy might be attacked by ways of unconventional warfare. There was also a Military Intelligence – Research unit that focused on studying guerrilla warfare. The intention was that the SOE would streamline the activities of these and other agencies. Wieviorka reports that tales of open ambition, squabbling and deliberate sabotage of the efforts of others in the interests of gaining personal advantage were commonplace, and were not squashed by Churchill, who preferred to play one organisation off against another. The author relates the tragic human consequences that arise when one man in authority seeks to gain at the expense of his colleagues. Stories of parachutes that failed to open, of men landing where they should never have been, inside a prison compound in one instance. [The individual concerned landed without being spotted and escaped from the prison without the enemy being aware of his predicament.]

The author reveals that interest in subversive activity remained high despite the inability of senior service personnel to work together. Wieviorka makes a case study of Hugh Dalton who anticipated dispatching enough men and material between September 1941 and October 1942 to form substantial secret armies (31-32). Dalton was not alone. Fortunately for the historical record, his assistant Gladwyn Jebb was a little more practical:

The most astonishing feature today [October 1940], not only in the occupied areas, but also in Germany and Italy, is the spread of apathy and indifference…[which] seems to hold the field…”general uprising’ or ‘revolution’…have romantic connotations and imply a spirit of sacrifice and devotion which appears now largely to have vanished” (33).

Wieviorka has a particularly interesting segment on propaganda, before closing his Set Europe Ablaze chapter with a succinct, summatory paragraph. He concludes that for 1941 the report card was dim. Objective conditions and internecine struggles had each played a significant part. This summarising function at the close of a chapter is a meritorious procedure as it crystallises in the reader’s head what has just been read.

The first five chapters end at or around page 90. Within these pages Wieviorka writes about the European scene exclusive of the United States and the Soviet Union. He recognises conflicts of legitimacy, political differences and mutual suspicion and the fine lines the UK government walked. In doing so it bumped continually against the ambivalence of the war objectives the UK was pursuing:

Was it defending its national interests and British values, or was it leading an international coalition founded on universalist principles? (89)

The entry of the Soviet Union and the United States complicated the situation.

Wieviorka defines the rules of engagement prior to the influx of Russian troops. England did not have the resources that would allow it to put pressure on Europe; suddenly, with the Soviets onside, it did. The dream of inciting revolutions, along with other modes that had been discussed, was rendered obsolete. But this was a change of slight impact when compared to the major differences in Churchill’s thinking, the upsurge of interest among young Germans in fighting for Hitler, and the new power stake of the Communist party. “It also brought to the Resistance experienced militants reputed for their courage, their sense of organisation, and their abnegation – three weighty assets in the fight against the Nazi occupier” (93).

Wieviorka is nothing, if not provocative. But only when it suits him. He makes the point that, although the attacks committed against occupation troops had no overall importance, the British chose not to disavow them. Officially, because the action occurred in a foreign country it was not the responsibility of the British. Wieviorka admits that the British knew this was a facile policy, and that a different rationale lay behind their blanket dictum – the result was vacillation (97).

With the impact of the USA into Allied thinking came massive changes. The SOE scaled back its ambitions but gained respectability (106). The Resistance in occupied countries – the so-called army of shadows – was given the task of identifying, mobilizing, and training the secret troops who would act on D-Day (107). They took on a more active role in terms of establishing information networks and in carrying the fight to the enemy. Wieviorka’s decision to view the Resistance from two points of view – that of the national leaders and of the shadows themselves has proved to be an invaluable one. He canvasses opinions on whether the Resistance forces used their forces as well as they might have done i.e. he queries their deployment. Finally, he provides a balance sheet in which the role of the resistance fighters is said to be tactical rather than strategic.

Hence the reader of this book needs to be prepared for depth of thought, intriguing (even tantalising) analyses leading to scholarship of a world order, combined with a wealth of information, perceived from an uncommon viewpoint, but always of great interest.

The Resistance in Western Europe 1940 – 1945


By Olivier Wieviorka (trans. Jane Marie Todd)

Columbia UP

ISBN: 978-0-231-18996-5

$83.00; 512pp

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