“’Of arms and the man I sing,’” over and over again? Yes, surely, to some degree. But the Resistance is also a complex and compelling tale after all of these years in part because it is almost entirely about what ordinary people did, in great adversity, and with great courage…colleagues, and often friends, coming together in small groups, two or three people talking and agreeing to take a deadly risk together.”
~Charles Potter, Editor, The Resistance, 1940
Last night I had the privilege to attend a local Chamber of Commerce dinner where a non-profit that I am involved in received an award. The dinner is an annual event — as it is in most municipalities around the country — meant to bolster community pride and to celebrate the hard work and civic efforts of those who care deeply about our community and its future.
These are important events, naturally, in the life of any tight-knit community. That is particularly true, I think, in smaller towns without an industrial base whose economic elasticity is always in question, and who therefore require a certain measure of tasteful boosterism in order to remain competitive in the pursuit of stability.
Sitting amongst the many fine people in attendance, I couldn’t help but survey the room and wonder how the brighter lights in attendance — those gifted entrepreneurs, civic leaders, municipal officials, and politicians who drive the civic engine of our small community in the Cascades — might react under a sudden, violent, and overwhelming hostile invasion.
Forgive me. That’s just how my mind works after almost two decades of continually rehearsing scenarios — big and small — in a professional and personal effort to stay off the reservation and to retain an OODA loop advantage in a dogfight.
For emphasis: I do not believe a hostile army is invading tomorrow, or even next week, or next month, or anytime in the perceptible future.
Nevertheless, in an era when the word “Resistance” is bandied about rather cavalierly and, it appears, claimed by every emotional mass movement du jour, I think it’s worth thinking about what a worst-case scenario might actually look like.
And history is probably a decent guide for what we might expect.
It is fair, I think, to assume that amongst the polite company politely discussing the gossip and business of Sisters, and handing out awards over a catered meal and cocktails, there were those who would flee at the first hint of serious trouble on the horizon. Bags packed, apologies made, they would quickly become refugees on the crowded road to someplace else.
There would be some whose first and only thought would be to go internal, to scrape and claw for scraps with a mind focused solely on sandbagging their own bunker of bitterness.
There would, undoubtedly, be collaborators and 5th columnists, once amiable and reliable neighbors now denouncing their former colleagues and friends and embracing the invader for whatever advantage they might find in it.
There would be informants, for one side or another, virtually everywhere.
And there would probably be some — a very small percentage — whose passions would drive them instantly, or eventually, toward resistance. There would even be some whose passion for resistance would eventually morph into a blend of vigilantism and criminal behavior directed mostly at the defenseless neighbors they were purporting to help.
There would be some who simply died outright of shock.
These are but a few of the possibilities, but I think it fair to posit that amongst our cozy, amiable, and sold-out conference center, all of those potential behaviors were likely represented in the audience, discreetly camouflaged by enduring domestic tranquility and an evening meant to celebrate continued success and good fortune.
Just as it had been in Chartres, France, in 1939.
“It is around 5 p.m. In the courtyard of the Prefecture I have the unpleasant surprise of finding all of my staff packed into trucks and ready for departure. I had given direct orders that no one was to leave his post. Furious, I order my people to get out and I instruct each one of them to return to work, until further order.
“I can hardly recognize my staff. Some of the women are in a frightening state. Some of the men who only yesterday refused to go down to the basement during an air raid continue to work by my side are now scared stiff. Idem, a veteran of ’14, reputed to be very brave, who scarcely hours ago was ready to volunteer for a dangerous mission, has now completely lost control over himself.
“The winds of panic which up until now had passed them by now have the better of them. Nerves are frayed. Everybody has just one thought on their mind: to flee.
“I exhort them, I implore them. They obey and manage to find a kind of professional automatism, but I immediately sense that for the most part I can no longer count on my chief of staff or my personal secretary.”
~Jean Moulin, 9 a.m., June 14, 1940
Such is the nature of human psychology and reaction to foreign — or even domestic — invasion or occupation, one supposes, and I would make no predictions or judgments as to who at the Chamber of Commerce dinner might react in what way — mostly because history and literature teach us to expect surprises in that arena.
As my daydreaming looped around the room, I began to wonder who among us would have the fortitude, in the face of all that is truly evil, to behave with the bravery of Jean Moulin.
Moulin, probably the most widely known of the French Resistance greats, was also the author of Premier Combat, or First Fight, detailing the days leading up to, and immediately after, the Nazi invasion and occupation of Chartres. Because it was written so soon after the fact, and because Moulin’s ultimate fate (he was eventually informed on, captured, and tortured to death, probably by Klaus Barbie, The Butcher of Lyon) underwrites his integrity, the book is considered a foundational piece in the literature of the Resistance.
Jean Moulin was born in 1899, the son of a history professor. In 1918 he was conscripted into the French Army, but within weeks of his first posting the fateful armistice was signed and he returned home to join the civil service. Moulin, who was well educated and rarely idle in his lifetime, was firmly to the left in his politics, and a staunch believer in French Republican values, particularly as they are expressed in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. And, importantly, there was already a tradition of resistance — and consequence — in his family background. His grandfather had been imprisoned for defying a monarchist administration in the 1870s.
Contemporary with his rise in the civil service, Moulin was also friends with the radical socialist Pierre Cot, and during the Spanish Civil War Moulin worked to smuggle French aircraft and munitions to the Republican Army.
“This morning I am taking stock of the situation. It is a disaster. There is no longer any economic or administrative organization. An entire social construct to be rebuilt in frightening circumstances, under falling bombs, with an entire quarter of the city in flames, without water, without gas, without electricity, without telephones… I divide up the jobs, I dictate instructions; so that someone who, just yesterday, was the editor of the newspaper, is today expected to help me divide up emergency provisions; one of his colleagues, from the competing newspaper, will devote himself to the police and will head the small group of volunteers that we have pulled together. A teacher from a local parochial school has the task of burying the dead, who are, alas! numerous, being piled up in the hospital morgue and at the St. Brice hospice forty-nine were buried straight away in the courtyard of the hospital, thirteen at St. Brice’s, and thirty-four in the cemetery; or someone who will direct water duty aimed at assuring the supply of water to welcome centers, public facilities, bakeries; or someone else yet who will organize rounding up abandoned livestock and placing them in enclosures; others, finally, who will be in charge of picking up garbage, of sanitation, of fighting fires, of housing refugees, first aid for the sick and injured.”
~Jean Moulin, 8 a.m., June 15, 1940
Eventually, Moulin rose to the position of prefect of the Eure-et-Loir region and was posted in Chartres. The position was one of wide responsibility, a uniformed assignment combining elements of legal authority with civil responsibility. He was serving in this capacity when the Nazis first bombed, then invaded and occupied Chartres on June 14, 1940.
What emerges from Moulin’s narrative is the story of a man whose commitment to liberal virtues was extraordinary. His composure and self-discipline under intense pressure were nothing short of astonishing, and he was able, in nearly unimaginable circumstances, to draw from a very deep reservoir of endurance, both psychological and physical.
And nowhere in the text is there a sense that his attempts to organize the remaining citizens of Chartres — to stave off famine, disease, and disorder even as hundreds of thousands of refugees were passing through and around his city — is driven by anything other than an embrace of duty, concern for his fellow citizens, and defense of the honor of France.
He wrote of the tremendous tasks before him: “…for the sake of all whose fate is in our hands; it must be done in order to present to the Germans, when they arrive, a social and moral framework worthy of our country.”
Moulin, writing in the present tense throughout, manages to convey his concerns without affectation, without becoming a boring scold, and without even a hint of self-pity. He is, profoundly, the portrait of a man embracing the familiar dictat to “improvise, adapt, and overcome.”
Jean Moulin had every opportunity to abandon his post, as many in similar positions all over France in fact did, but in the pages of Premier Combat we see a man instead preparing for the moment when he would have to stand in the courtyard of the prefecture, a representative of France, and come face to face with the Nazi commanders who only hours before were bombing the city, strafing refugees on the road, and sowing destruction in every direction.
That moment came early on June 17th, 1940, with Moulin and two others standing beneath the Tricolour:
“Suddenly motors are heard firing. The first motorcyclists pass, not without noticing in surprise the three individuals, immobile under the French colors.
It is 7 a.m.
Next come the self-propelled artillery. They slow down as they pass us, but they do not stop. Soon a big automobile comes and stops right in front of us, and several officers get out straightaway. Military salutes.
The oldest one, who is without a doubt their commander, steps forward and, in French, asks who we are.
I state that I am the Préfect and that I have at my sides the representative of the Bishop and the mayor of Chartres.
I add: ‘The fortunes of war have led you to enter our city as conquerors. We submit to the laws of war, and I am prepared to assure you that order will prevail if you, for your part, can assure us that your troops will respect the civil population, and especially the women and the children.’
To which the officer says to me: ‘You can be sure that German soldiers will respect the population. I am holding you, Monsieur le Préfet, responsible for public order and I invite you to remain in place. Tell all of your staff that the war is over for them.”
Within hours, Moulin observed wholesale looting all over Chartres. “In many cases,” he writes,
“…instead of working on their own, the Germans are using civilians whom they have come upon in the process of looting. Instead of punishing them, they have taken them under their protection and brought them to work in front of stores that interest them and get them to demolish the storefronts. When the way is cleared, they go in right behind the civilians.”
Much of his tireless work was undone in a matter of minutes, and what happened next falls into a familiar, and nonetheless horrifying pattern.
We are, perhaps, so inured to the horrors of Nazism by decades of film and television saturation — and by any number of subsequent murderous regimes across the globe — that we sometimes forget how refined in their brutality the Nazis actually were. Moulin’s tale returns humanity and immediacy to the equation, and refreshes our view of events in such a way as to return real evil to its proper and rarified place in our minds.
At 6 p.m., on June 17th, 1940, the same day he surrendered the city, Moulin was summoned from the prefect, where he was having a meal, by two young German officers. He was to meet the General, he was told, and received a stern lecture about what kind of behavior would be acceptable. One of the officers then began to tell him about supposed “atrocities” committed by French troops in retreat through Chartres. “Women and children,” the German said:
“French people, were massacred after having been raped. Some of your black troops did this, and France will bear the shame of it forever. Since this explanation of events has been proven beyond a doubt, it is appropriate that a document has been drawn up stating responsibility in this matter. It is in connection with this that the staff of the German army drew up an affidavit that will be signed by our general on behalf of the German army and by you as the Préfect of the department.”
It was an outrageous lie and Moulin, of course, refused to sign. His refusal was met with enraged beatings. He was battered with a rifle butt on his feet and ankles. He was kicked and beaten again with the rifle butt until he struggled even to stand. He was left standing late into the night under threat of more beatings if he fell. He was taken away in a car and shown the irrefutable proof of the atrocities. He was beaten again for refusing to agree to their origin. He was thrown into a shed where he landed on the mutilated body of a French woman. He was left inside with her body for hours. He was taken out and again beaten for refusing to sign. He was led to a contrived jail cell where finally, in the middle of the night, Moulin took a shard of glass and cut his own throat — an injury for which he wore a scarf every day for the rest of his short life.
But after all of that he never signed, and once released from custody due to his injury, Moulin was subsequently relieved of his duties as prefect by the Vichy government. He eventually made his way to England, where he joined the SOE, and parachuted back into France to organize the formal Resistance — with only a microfilm directive signed by De Gaulle as his bonafides.
Sitting in the Chamber of Commerce dinner last night, as various award winners were announced and came to the podium to give their acceptance speeches, I could not prevent myself from wondering: who here, amongst the honored guests and attendees, would ultimately refuse to sign?
It’s probably impossible to answer that question without facing the same or similar circumstances. And it is partially that lingering question in ourselves that informs the greatness of a man like Moulin, who we know as a matter of historical fact refused to sign, even when he had every right and reason to simply comply and be done with it.
But a man like Moulin, one thinks, probably could not have lived with himself had he abandoned his values. He would rather die than give up on his neighbors, or himself, or the dream of a Free France, which is one reason he mutilated himself in his jail cell. His inclination toward resistance, and his understanding of the concept, was not of the sandwich-board, hashtag, or pussy hat variety, those shallow notions of modern resistance which seek their strength in numbers and the anonymity it affords.
Moulin stood virtually alone against the might of Nazi Germany.
And I think that is the critical point. It is his earlier actions, the days that fill the pages of Premier Combat, before he became a celebrated leader of the broader Resistance, that recommends him most. And it is this part of him, the incredible focus, stamina, and fortitude, that I hope our civic leaders are studying.
Because what distinguishes Moulin, finally, is that he gave the very best of himself at precisely that moment when vulnerable people needed him the most. That was his first fight, and that agonizing combat for possession of himself is most instructional, I think, when we remember those moments when he refused to abandon his post, when he worked tirelessly to find the last two bakers left in the city to bake bread for the starving, when he toured the bomb shelters, when he escorted a blind man down the road and out of town, when he faced down angry mobs alone, when he searched basements to find the elderly and infirm to see them evacuated, when he berated cowardly looters and thieves, when he fought fires and buried the dead, when he braved bombardment and strafing — driving against the traffic of a retreating French army — to scout the German positions outside the city, and when finally he stood, abandoned by his neighbors, to offer the surrender of his city to the German war machine with dignity.
I would like to believe that our civic leaders would behave in the manner of Jean Moulin, and win the first fight. I would like to believe that I would. But all of that is predicated on an enduring belief that what one is standing up for remains worthy of preservation.
Do we maintain that kind of fire for our Republic? Is the slow and inevitable collapse of our empire extinguishing the flame? Is the division we see all around us actually evidence of a fabric irreparably torn?
Let us hope that our belief in freedom is never put to the acid test of torture and brutality. Let us hope that on the eve of some cataclysm we never have to write what Moulin wrote as the Wehrmacht sat poised to enter the city he loved:
June 16, 1940
Everyone has gone. I return home, alone.