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The WWII Resistance in occupied France offers many lessons on how to create and organize resistance movements. Historian Julian Jackson notes that, prior to WWII, there were few organized resistance movements to emulate; liberation movements had been more nationalist or anticolonial in nature, were based in a specific distinct population, and often did not have an underground component. “What did ‘resistance’ mean to these people? One must cast aside romantic images … the hackneyed phrase ‘he or she joined the Resistance,’ is entirely inappropriate to 1940–1. Before it could be joined, resistance had to be invented.”4

Jackson continues, “Structures did gradually emerge, and gave rise to two distinct types of resistance organizations: networks … and movements. The networks were set up with specific military objectives—the collection of information, sabotage, organizing escape routes,” and so on. “Some networks developed from spontaneous local initiatives” while others “were set up from scratch by intelligence agents sent out from London.… For security reasons, networks had to be rigidly compartmentalized and hierarchically organized. They did not have newspapers because the overriding priority was secrecy. By contrast, newspapers were central to the existence of most movements. Although these also collected information and sought links outside France, their priority was to target the French population: to shake it out of its lethargy and eventually organize it for action.”5

These networks and movements were, as you can surely see, roughly analogous to the underground and aboveground structures described above. Part of the difference was that the French population was clearly aware that it was under occupation and was sympathetic, so the movements were able to use structures that were hidden from the Germans. They were also able to organize in ways more structurally similar to aboveground groups. Indeed, in many areas (mostly in southern “Vichy” France, which was not directly occupied by the German army) Resistance movements were something of an open secret for the French people. There are stories of visitors walking into newspaper buildings and successfully asking directions to the “offices of the Resistance.” Of course, these distinctions were not initially clear to a group of people trying to teach themselves how to organize against occupation.

“The differentiation between movements and networks crystallized gradually. The first resisters did whatever seemed possible. The Muse’e de l’homme group started by smuggling escaped prisoners to the Free Zone [southern France]; it then moved on to collecting information; then, finally, it founded a newspaper. In theory it had gone from being a network to a movement, but such distinctions did not yet exist. Once the networks became more professionalized and started receiving aid from London, the rule was that their members could not also be in a movement.6 That last part in particular is worth rereading. The French Resistance clearly recognized the need for a firewall between aboveground and underground activism.

This division was expressed in many aspects of their organization. As Jackson notes, “The distinction between movements and networks was fundamental. The networks were specialized, secretive, and usually small: effectiveness and security might be jeopardized by size. The movements, on the other hand, sought to increase their numbers. The networks had mysterious coded names—Ali-France, Jade-Fitzroy, Caviar, Brutus, Comète—while the names of the movements spoke for themselves: Libération, Défense de la France, Résistance.”7

The networks, being smaller and distinct, had differing areas of focus and recruitment. “The networks’ social composition also varied. Some specialized in infiltrating a particular institution, like the Ajax network which recruited among the police. Others, like Jade-Fitzroy, recruited eclectically: its members included railway workers, postal workers, garage owners, a prefect of police, hairdressers, restauranteurs, gendarmes, doctors, teachers, lawyers, priests, students, and engineers.”8

Members of the Resistance recognized that the goals of the organization ultimately determined its structure and other characteristics. This was especially true a few years into the Occupation, by which time the Resistance had been able to shake out some of the initial bugs. “In 1942,” notes Jackson, the Resistance leader Christian “Pineau distinguished between two kinds of Resistance: ‘military resistance can only be performed by a real Secret Army … composed of men ready, outside their daily tasks, to undertake a specific mission … Political resistance, on the other hand, is performed by each Frenchman in the framework of his normal activities.’ The former required ‘a hierarchy, a discipline, a discretion incompatible with the idea of a mass movement’; the latter ‘leaves a lot to individual initiative.’ ”9 It’s hard to put it more clearly than that.

Networks and movements also had very different ways of growing and recruiting. While the networks were secretive and highly selective, the movements could afford to recruit larger numbers of people with lower risk. They could also join forces with other movements without as much concern about infiltration. And that’s what happened. As the Resistance grew, various independently formed movements gradually consolidated. In 1943, the three largest movements agreed to merge into a single organization. This was very beneficial for their main activities at the time, which were newspaper publishing and propaganda.

The movements were unsuitable for some forms of action, but they were still a vital part of the Resistance. And their greater numbers, and a relatively broad membership, meant that they could assign people to specialize in certain tasks. “Each movement had a section to manufacture false papers …; a social service section to help the families of resisters who had been arrested; a section responsible for gathering intelligence; and embryonic paramilitary units.”10 It’s also important to note that the two types of resistance were deliberately complementary. People in networks recognized the vital importance of movements, and movements recognized the vital importance of the networks. Pineau described two different types of organization working in parallel, not in opposition.

But we should also recognize that that wasn’t always the case. Early in the development of the Resistance, the French people did not have a good idea of what would constitute real action against the occupation. As is often the case for people who lack effective organizations for resistance, many of them clung to individual or personal expressions of discontent. Early in the war, some observers even claimed that the “elegance” of Parisian women constituted a form of resistance against the Germans.11 It seems laughable in retrospect, but people who aren’t presented with real options for resistance will cling to whatever they can find. This same phenomenon expressed itself in a focus solely on “spiritual” resistance by some movements—that is, they believed that the French people should not actively resist the Germans, but instead focus on their own souls. Does this sound familiar?

In 1941, a year after the beginning of the Occupation, the majority of Resistance movements opposed violence and even sabotage. Over time, this changed. The Resistance grew, and so did the number and diversity of its attacks on the occupiers. In 1943, thousands of acts of sabotage took place, and assassinations became relatively common. Notes Jackson, “This radicalization of Resistance affected even a movement like Défense de la France which had originally privileged the idea of spiritual resistance. The Catholic convictions of its leaders made them suspicious of violence. But in November 1942 the movement’s newspaper declared that everyone’s duty was to bear arms; a year later, it approved … assassinations of individuals.”12 A prominent leader of the movement even wrote an article titled “The Duty to Kill,” which at length encouraged people to kill Germans and collaborators. His advice on police who aided the Germans and particularly the members of the German-run paramilitary was to “exterminate them … strike them down like mad dogs … destroy them as you would vermin.”13

This trajectory is one we see again and again in many resistance movements. They start with atomized dissidents and “leaders” who fear resistance and privilege personal change, then coalesce into dedicated affinity groups that carry out new or risky tactics, and finally escalate to large political movements and networks that can mobilize and strike with force.

Although the growth of the Resistance was initially slow, it eventually began to grow with greater and greater speed. This growth occurred in part because many of the French could see a path to victory. Jackson observes: “The expansion of the Resistance occurred at a time when it seemed increasingly likely Germany would lose the war. This does not mean that these comparatively late arrivals should be written off as opportunists. As the Germans became weaker, they became more dangerous: the growth of resistance was a function of opportunities more than opportunism.”14 As the Resistance grew, even the movements shifted from propaganda to military action and guerrilla action. And when the Allied forces landed at Normandy to begin to liberate France using conventional warfare, they were aided by Resistance members who served as guides as well as engaging in guerrilla strikes and widespread sabotage.

The Resistance grew relatively slowly until it looked as though Germany might lose. It’s easy to draw parallels to our own situation. The cracks in the façade of industrial civilization are inspiring more resistance. As that system breaks down further, resistance will become more feasible, more effective, and more necessary.