Monday, November 18, 2013
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE DEATH OF JEAN MOULIN – Biography of a Ghost” by Patrick Marnham (first published in 2000)
The legend of Jean Moulin is inspiring, heroic and easy to state. According to the legend, Moulin was the perfect French patriot, and one of the first to plan civilian resistance when the Nazis invaded in 1940.
After spending a year diligently cultivating underground networks, Moulin made it to London in 1941 and was given an important job in de Gaulle’s Free French. He was to coordinate the various competing resistance movements into one credible fighting force. Parachuted back into occupied France, Moulin proceeded to do just this. But he was captured by the local Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie at a clandestine “summit” meeting of resisters that he had set up just outside Lyon.
Moulin was tortured repeatedly by the Gestapo, gave nothing away and was eventually shot.
In 1964, twenty years after the Liberation, Moulin’s ashes were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris at a ceremony attended by de Gaulle. Andre Malraux gave a moving oration in which he described Moulin as an inspiration to democratic France. Many people have seen the ceremony as more of a canonisation than a memorial – de Gaulle and his government were honouring, and in a way creating, a single, unifying symbol of French Resistance. Moulin could be seen as a national figure above politics, and hence his canonisation could wipe out the controversies that continued to dog popular French memory of the wartime years.
Up until the time of the 1964 ceremony, Moulin was hardly remembered. Books on the war had only a few cursory references to him under his code name “Max”. Today there are a host of uncritically heroic biographies, literally hundreds of streets in France named after Moulin, postage stamps which feature him and no fewer than three museums in France dedicated to his memory. School textbooks devote adulatory chapters to him.
Unfortunately, this patriotic version leaves much unexplained.
British journalist Patrick Marnham knows that Moulin was far from an exemplary figure and that his real life and career are imperfectly known – hence his book’s subtitle “Biography of a Ghost”. In his private pre-war life Moulin, after a brief and unsuccessful marriage, was something of a philanderer. His pre-war political career seems to have been highly opportunistic. Famously, he became in the late 1930s the youngest prefect (district governor) in France, a feat achieved only by his carefully cultivating powerful figures in various French government ministries. Moulin’s own politics were never clear. He seems to have been left-wing, and the pre-war French government minister he most cultivated was the left-wing Pierre Cot. There have even been (implausible) attempts to interpret him as a covert Communist. But Moulin stayed at his post when the Germans invaded, continued to fulfil his function as prefect, and was commended for his diligence by the Vichy (collaborationist) regime.
Or was he simply biding his time and waiting for the right moment to act?
As prefect he did refuse to sign an order condemning black (Senegalese) French troops to death for rape, on what were clearly fabricated charges. When pressure was put on him because of this, he attempted suicide by cutting his own throat with a glass shard. Thereafter, he often wore a scarf (the most commonly reproduced image of him) to hide his neck wound.
Marnham takes nothing away from Moulin’s own courage once he clearly threw in his lot with the French Resistance. But by scrutinising carefully the nature of the Resistance, and especially by investigating the strong possibility that one set of resisters betrayed another set of resisters at the fatal clandestine meeting, Marnham comes up with an altogether more depressing tale.
As he relates it, the Resistance was split into mutually hostile factions that bickered futilely during much of the occupation and that were not above dobbing in one another’s personnel to the Gestapo when they saw a tactical advantage for doing so. The Communists were among the most devious. Since the war, left-wing historians have assiduously cultivated the myth of universal French Communist resistance to the Nazis. Indeed, for some years after the war, the French Communist Party billed itself in electoral propaganda as “le parti des fusilles” (“the party of those who were shot [for their resistance work]”). In this version, Communists were the largest and most dedicated resistance forces, with other groups (the military “Combat” resistance network; the Gaullists; the more rural maquis and francs-tireurs) as mere adjuncts.
The reality was that for the first year of the Nazi occupation (when Hitler was still in what amounted to an alliance with Stalin), French Communists did no resisting at all. Their publications (still openly distributed in 1940-41) encouraged French workers to see the fight against Hitler as a mere irrelevant shindy between different sets of capitalists. The first effective resistance to the occupation came from French military, nationalist and even right-wing groups, despite the fact that most of the French Right sided with Petain and collaboration. After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in mid-1941, and once the French communists got going as resisters, they were as keen to wipe out their French political opponents as to harass the Nazis. Their hope was for a post-war French Soviet. Their nightmare was a coordinated Resistance under Gaullist leadership.
A Jean Moulin, seeking to bring the competing arms of resistance under Gaullist command, was not on their agenda.
Marnham examines carefully all those who might have had an interest in betraying Moulin to the Nazis (extreme right-wingers as well as communists) and he examines Moulin’s own pre-war left-wing sympathies. But in the end, and always asking cui bono?, he comes as close as he can to fingering Communist members of the resistance as Moulin’s most likely betrayers. After the war, the Left led a well-coordinated campaign to condemn the right-wing resister Rene Hardy as Moulin’s Judas. Hardy was tried twice in post-war French courts, but acquitted both times. Part of the reason for this campaign was to divert attention from the more likely culprit, Raymond Aubrac. Aubrac was a resister known to the Gestapo as being both Jewish and a Communist – yet when he was captured by the Gestapo in 1943 (and at a time when Moulin was arranging the clandestine “summit” of resistance groups), he was allowed to walk free. The inference is that he did a deal – betraying the Gaullist Moulin’s meeting – with the promise that he himself and his family would be left unharmed. If Aubrac acted this way – and it is only a possibility, not a certainty – then it would take a very smug person indeed to condemn him. How many men could face the prospect of torture and the death of his family at the hands of the Gestapo? It still remains extraordinary that the Gestapo would let go unharmed a man whom they had captured and whom they knew to be Jewish, Communist and an active resister. When, years later, the war criminal Klaus Barbie was on trial, he named Aubrac as the man who told him about Moulin’s meeting.
But, of course, these circumstances provide only supposition, not proof.
Much of The Death of Jean Moulin reads like a careful detective story, with strong suspects, clues and a conclusion. Moulin’s personal heroism survives intact. So does a sense of what a superb tactician de Gaulle was. He outmanoeuvred the Communists and the British and the French to establish his own version of what post-war France should be.
But the book leaves a bitter aftertaste. Even the best causes have their informers, their cowards and their self-servers. The French Resistance was no exception. And we can never be absolutely certain of what actually happened to cause Moulin’s final arrest. Real history is a bugger that way. If we rely on verifiable proof, there are a lot of loose ends dangling about. Only in works of historical propaganda are all our questions neatly answered.
Who betrayed Jean Moulin? We really don’t know. We just have a strong inference.
Despairing footnote. As you will be aware, there are huge swathes of the population whose interpretation of history is based solely on what they have seen at the movies in historical dramatizations. Non-French audiences might assume that any French movie about the French Resistance has the stamp of authenticity. French audiences are more alert to the fact that any fictionalised account of the Resistance is likely to be inflected by the political preferences of its makers.
There have been some good dramatized movies about the resistance – I still think the best is Melville’s Army of Shadows (L’Armee des Ombres) made in 1969. The Left tend to hate it because it has a Gaullist slant; but it does show some of the grim necessities of Resistance work (such as a wrenching scene in which resisters have to kill a relatively harmless chap because he is a security risk).
But there is one popular French movie about the Resistance which I find very dodgy. This is Claude Berri’s Lucie Aubrac (1997). It is an admiring biopic of the heroic Frenchwoman, the wife of Raymond Aubrac, and her resistance work. Fair enough. The personable Daniel Auteuil plays Raymond Aubrac. But alert viewers will note that there is some highly improbable dialogue, which is designed to incriminate Rene Hardy and exonerate Raymond Aubrac over the matter of Jean Moulin’s betrayal. It even includes such lines as “After the war they will try to argue that….” etc.etc. Here you feel the thumb of a politicised scriptwriter weighing heavily upon the script, trying to convince uninformed viewers that this partisan interpretation is an historical fact.
French movies about the French Resistance are never “innocent” historical artefacts. They are always arguing a political case of some sort.