There seems to be no end to the books by or about survivors of the Holocaust and World War II in general. I believe there are two main reasons why such books keep appearing. First, there is the attempt to understand how some human beings can subject other human beings to such suffering as recounted in these memoirs and histories. Second, and related to the first, is our fascination with the ability of human beings, individually and corporately, to survive under the most challenging circumstances.
I remember the Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor, Elie Wiesel, saying that we have every reason to give up on the human race, but we must not, and will not. Of course, this raises the whole question of what makes a human being “human.” That question lies at the heart of some of the best books of every genre.
Caroline Moorehead’s new book, A Train in Winter (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), has all the elements of an interesting narrative of war: heroism, survival, betrayal, even a touch of mystery. It is the story of 230 French women of varied backgrounds, who chose to become part of the French resistance during World War II. Many were political “leftists,” Communists, supporters of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War. They were also French patriots.
Patriotism was not the only motivation behind the women joining the resistance. Those who chose to “save” some of France from German occupation were the conservatives, individuals like the hero of the Battle of Verdun in World War I, Marshal Henri Pétain, and the collaborator, Pierre Laval. They shared many aspects of Fascism. For them modernism, especially anything that smacked of women’s liberation, was evidence of the moral decadence that led to France’s defeat. It was this view of women as “ideologically and politically inferior beings” that motivated many of these women to join the resistance.
The story of these brave women is one of heroic sacrifice. Moorehead presents their struggle against one of history’s greatest ideological villains in a manner that solicits feelings of admiration, respect, and pity from the reader. We have a natural tendency to praise those who resist the conqueror, unless of course, they are resisting our occupation of their homeland. Also, we tend to overlook it when the occupier is one of our allies.
As a historian of the twentieth century, I feel the need to add a note of caution. Despite their heroism, we must ask how effective was the French resistance? Apart from defending the perceived honor of France, did their efforts contribute anything to the ultimate liberation of France, or the defeat of Nazi Germany? The honest answer must be “No!” Charles de Gaulle, leader of Free France, urged the resisters not to kill Germans. It would, he argued, lead only to reprisals. There would come a time for armed resistance, but that had to wait for the right moment.
We resist the thought that their suffering was in vain. They may well have played a truly meaningful role in France’s liberation, if only they had accepted the leadership of General de Gaulle and the French National Committee of Liberation. Moorehead has done well in making sure that they will not be forgotten.