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Henningsen: The Resistance

06/18/10 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) This month marks the 60th anniversary of one of World War II's darkest moments: the fall of France.  It also marked the start of one of the most romanticized aspects of that war.  Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen explains.

(HENNINGSEN) On June 17th, 1940, Marshal Phillipe Petain, the elderly World War I hero who came out of retirement to lead France's collaborationist Vichy government, proclaimed an armistice, surrendering France to the invading Germans.  

At 7 PM the following evening, Colonel Charles de Gaulle, who had escaped France earlier in the week, broadcast to his native land via the BBC, denouncing the armistice and proclaiming unremitting resistance to Nazi rule.  "Has the last word been said?" he asked his countrymen, "Must hope disappear?  Is defeat final?  No! .  .  .  The flame of French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished."

De Gaulle's broadcast marked the start of the French Resistance which, thanks to countless books and movies, came to symbolize all European resistance to Nazi domination. Who can forget resistance hero Paul Henreid defying the Germans in Casablanca, leading the patrons of Humphrey Bogart's café in a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise - a moment rich in the symbolism of opposition to tyrants?

But it wasn't much like that.  Resistance movements were riddled with internal strife, usually mirroring pre-war political divisions or foreshadowing postwar political struggles. For example, after the Italian government surrendered in 1943, Communist and fascist partisans fought each other and even the Allies as often as they did the Germans. The resistance was as often about settling old scores at home as about harassing the invaders.

The grim truth was that many Europeans collaborated with their German masters. Most tried to continue their lives as best as possible, making quiet accommodations along the way.  In the immediate aftermath of Allied victory everyone claimed to have been in the resistance.  For the sake of political and social reunification, new European governments colluded with this fiction.  But the truth is that only a few actively put themselves at risk.

It took more than two generations for Europeans to confront fully the realities of their responses to occupation. Movies such as Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity and Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, both released in France in 1969, brought home the complexities of life under occupation as well as the gritty realities of the resistance itself.  Historians began asking more pointed questions.  Old people began to talk.

At about that time I discovered my own family's story.  Two of my grandfather's sisters lived in adjoining apartments in a small Danish city occupied by the Germans in 1940.  One sister's husband actively collaborated; the other's husband joined the resistance.  Had the collaborator known of his brother-in-law's activities, he would have betrayed him instantly, but the sisters kept the secret. The emotional toll of this situation can only be imagined.   It made for a long war.  It continues to cast a long shadow.  

History's like that, I'm afraid.  It's never as simple as we want it to be.
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