Magazine article The Spectator

A War of Words

Magazine article The Spectator

A War of Words

Article excerpt

RESISTANCE: MEMOIRS OF OCCUPIED FRANCE by Agnes Humbert Bloomsbury, £14.99, pp. 370, ISBN9780747595977 £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Paradoxically, wrote Jean Paul Sartre, never had French intellectuals been so free as they were under the German occupation, for having lost all normal rights to speak out, each was forced to question every thought and ask himself: 'Rather than death. . . ?' In practice, most of the writers and academics who remained in France after 1940 simply kept their heads down and went on with their own work. Sartre himself had several of his plays staged. There was, however, a number of these men and women for whom collaboration of any kind was immediately intolerable. One of these was a 46-year-old art historian and ethnographer, divorced mother of two adult sons, called Agnès Humbert.

The Musée de l'Homme was one of Paris's most prestigious museums. On its staff, and working closely with it, was a group of gifted curators, scientists, teachers and writers, politically to the Left, who, discovering a shared sense of fury against the invader, decided to set up one of the first resistance networks in occupied France. Apart from Humbert, there were Boris Vildé, a specialist in the polar regions, Anatole Lewitsky, a world expert on Siberian shamanism, and Jean Cassou, a celebrated cultural and political figure of prewar France. At a time when most Parisians were still stunned by the rapidity with which France had fallen, they began to meet to exchange news learnt from BBC radio broadcasts, write summaries, and produce and distribute pamphlets and flyers. Soon, anti-German and anti-Vichy material was to be seen pasted on walls, scattered throughout the metro, tucked into the windscreens of parked cars and plastered throughout universities and schools. In November, they started a newspaper, Résistance.

For a while, the very newness of what they were doing offered them some kind of protection. But not for long. Though extremely brave, they were amateurs at concealment and subterfuge, and they proved no match for the Germans, long experts in anti-Resistance operations. By April 1941, the group from the Musée de l'Homme had been tracked down and arrested. Humbert had started a diary shortly before the arrival of the Germans. She continued it, whenever she could, in the various prisons -- ChercheMidi, la Santé, Fresnes -- in which she was held awaiting trial. The outcome for the group was never in doubt. By the winter of 1941, Resistance newspapers, tracts and propaganda attacking the occupiers were appearing all over the capital and the Germans had decided on exemplary punishments. The seven men were executed by firing squad in February 1942. Humbert and two other women were condemned to five years' slave labour, to be served alongside common criminals in Germany. At this stage of the war, deportation did not yet mean concentration and extermination camps.

Résistance, Humbert's account of her war years, is written throughout as a diary, but only the first and last sections were actually recorded at the time. What she described later, after liberation, was remembered, but her recall of the harshness and misery of slave labour was, she wrote, absolutely clear. And it was indeed appalling.

Not least of the fascinating sections of this remarkable book is Humbert's matter-offact, unsentimental picture of the savage treatment meted out by the Germans to their Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Belgian, French and German slave-labourers. …

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