Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Female French Resistance: Truth Or Fiction?

Simone Segouin, a woman combatant in the French Resistance, near Chartres, August 23, 1944.
The Nightingale,” by Kristin Hannah, is about how ordinary French women summoned up extraordinary courage during the German occupation of their country in WWII. I wasn't expecting much from this New York Times best-selling author, but about half-way into the novel, I was hooked. How could things become worse? They did.

The story is about how two rivalrous sisters of Carriveau, a fictional town somewhere in the Loire Valley, play out their roles during the war. Courageous Isabelle becomes a member of the resistance. She's a runner, leading fallen British aviators out of France across the Pyrenees mountains into Spain and out of danger. Her sister Vianne seems more like the typical woman of her time. A mother. A teacher. And dependent on her husband, who is forced to enlist and leave. We fear she will betray all and become a collaborator--in order to survive.

Through this book, I learned much about how women coped in wartime France, thanks to the author's research. Women queuing for hours to buy very little with their ration coupons. Wearing shoes with wooden soles when the leather ran out. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a bomb hit, or a when German soldier decided it was time to maintain order at a border crossing. Or being rounded up as a Jew, a spy, or for breaking curfew. It left me in tears.

In this book, you'll find only heroines, however, no female “collabos.” As if to say that all French women faced ambiguous situations where it may have “looked like” they helped the enemy in some small degree or other, but, in the end, they all slayed their occupiers. I'm not underestimating how difficult it must have been for French women to survive under occupation. But there were certainly other women, like Coco Chanel, who found it convenient and lucrative to become very close to the enemy (read Hal Vaughan’s “Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War”).

Ms. Hannah gives us the happy ending we all want. And the version of history that France desperately reaches for. In May 2015, France interred Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, two female heroes of the resistance in the Panthéon, the resting place of the nation’s great, in addition to two male members. It's no doubt that these women were brave. But was there a French Resistance, or more or less acts of resistance? The latest book about the WWII resistance, "Fighters in the Shadows," by Robert Gildea, sets out to answer that question.

(More resistance reading: “The Secret Ministry of AG. & Fish: My Life in Churchill's School for Spies,” by the British author Noreen Riols, who helped support French Resistance fighters.)