With mostly amusing talk of “resistance” so much in the air, this column has been reading deeply on various characters of the French Resistance during World War 2. A couple of noteworthy names have floated to the surface—not Frenchmen, but allies who parachuted into occupied France to help the Maquis organize, train, and bring the fight to the Wermacht war machine.
But first, a note on the modern “resistance” types marching among us: I’m not convinced that many of the black-block set—which is really just a broad term to describe gamers, dropouts, and college sophomores who may not ultimately have the sand to graduate–who congregate to smash stores and burn businesses when they don’t like someone, or some thing, are really interested in “resisting” anything.
I think, to a large degree, and at their core, they are timid people easily empowered by the anonymity afforded by crowds to do stupid things. They remind me of gang members, mostly, who will rat pack an easy victim and cry like infants when they get arrested by people who actually have character. I’ve enjoyed seeing some of the fiercest street gang peanutheads blubber and whimper when put in the box.
People of that ilk are essentially opportunists. In the anarchist/uber-progressive/hate-America case, they simply enjoy breaking things for a LiveStream broadcast, which makes them feel famous and accomplished in their anger—an anger which often has no legitimate, or at least articulable, origin.
Which is the crux. Frequently, there doesn’t seem to be much philosophical weight underpinning a lot of the protests, except a kind of easily inflamed digital passion and nihilist seething—much of it lacking evidence of the critical thinking skills to work a problem through or to offer meaningful alternatives. It devolves into anger for anger’s sake, like children who don’t want to eat their peas so they throw them on the floor and smash up their highchair tray.
One suspects that these types wouldn’t last five minutes in a real resistance, which requires the kind of grit and determination that doesn’t run out when people get hurt or arrested, essential services fail, cell phones don’t work, and food and shelter are hard to find for weeks or months on end.
I don’t think that the pussy hats and black bandanas—who throw out words like fascist and Nazi with abandon, are ready for that kind of resistance. And that’s largely because what they claim to be resisting, in many cases, is a figment of their own angst. And using those words so often, and so often wrongly, weakens their essential meaning in potentially dangerous ways.
In the long run, it will make it harder to separate real, dyed-in-the-wool fascists from people who just have an other-than-progressive view, and that is dangerous as hell.
Once, while policing an annual week-long festival, I was approached by several angry young women who were appalled to see so many officers on the street—which was a thoughtful deployment plan because the festival they were enjoying also involved stabbings, shootings, and acts of mass vandalism every year.
“It’s a police state,” one of them told me, with obvious disdain for my uniform and probably me personally. She was also drunk which comes naturally to some people. I asked her if she had ever been to a police state. “No,” she said. So I told her, as politely as I might, that I had been to police states, and that in police states there aren’t any festivals. Ever. It was a solid effort but a message entirely lost on her, as it so often is on the hyperbole junkies and social media dimwits who are dominating so much of the American conversation.
While Trump is most definitely the most annoying type of extreme narcissist, he’s no Nazi, not even close, which is a distinction the “police state” types are unable to make because, for the most part, they live unfettered and untouched by actual human evil, especially on the grand scale, nor are they often bothered by even the mildest personal deprivation. And so, for the dopamine kick they get from assuming victim status, anything that runs counter to their lives of extreme comfort, or challenges their thinking, is instantly denounced as fascist.
At the bottom of a lot of the “police state” and “fascism” talk what one often finds is a kind of whiny demand for more and cheaper stuff, less work, and a life unburdened by the necessities of personal accountability.
The French Resistance was made of tougher stuff, thankfully, and although the Maquisards who composed the various and very loosely controlled bands across France came from wildly diverse political backgrounds, from communists to colonialists, they were united in their hatred of real Nazis, and real fascism, and the tragic loss of French sovereignty. To be sure, they had plans for their own political dominance after the war, and spent a lot of time jockeying for position as the allied armies marched through the heart of France, but they also understood that in order to survive at all they would have to work, at least for a while, together.
They watched, mute and impotent, as their friends and family members were denounced, hauled off for torture in infamous prison such as the citadel in Besançon, where they were often executed against a wall. They watched Gestapo agents humiliating mayors, compromising their neighbors, and stealing their food and valuables with abandon during organized looting sessions known as “inspections”. They watched everything they had known and love fall under the Nazi hammer, and some of them got very angry about it. Angry enough to take to the maquis, the bush, and to live in sometimes appalling conditions for months on end while sabotaging and undermining wherever they reasonably could.
There are so many heros and heroines of the French Resistance that I can’t possibly explore them all here, and the bulk of all praise is naturally reserved for the French men and women who never lost their nerve, or their heart, and contributed so much to the defeat of the Nazis, and their Vichy collaborators. They worked tirelessly, and often died, to ensure the survival of a free France during long episodes when the allies were being beaten soundly around the world and that prospect did not seem likely.
One of the allies of the resistance who has attracted me the most is George Millar, whose tale is improbable, but nevertheless true, and an example of courage and determination—the stuff of real resistance–that is harder to find. It probably won’t be found, at any rate, on the streets of Portland in the character of a 19 year-old probationer in a black hoodie, weighted down with rattle cans and eyebrow piercings.
Millar was a Scotsman who endured some rigorously unpleasant boarding school experiences and wound up becoming a journalist for a newspaper in Glasgow. In the middle of that he pulled a Richard Henry Dana, and signed on as an ordinary sailor to get some adventure into his curriculum vitae. After, he went back to newspapering, scooped everyone when he managed to engineer a lunch with Edward VIII, and was subsequently offered a post at London’s Daily Express, owned by Lord Beaverbrook.
The Express sent Millar to Paris, where he met and worked with the accomplished foreign correspondents Alan Moorehead and Geoffrey Cox. He was in Paris when the Nazis rolled in, and made a dicey escape to England, sleeping on the deck of terrifically overcrowded passenger ship, one of the last to leave from Bordeaux. His wife, who was serving as an ambulance driver, eventually made her own escape.
Millar then enlisted and ultimately became an officer in a Scots Rifle Brigade, and was sent to North Africa. Commander of a scout platoon, Millar was separated from the main body of his unit, and was eventually captured by Germans at Gazala, in 1942. Shortly after his capture, and Millar is genuine about the mostly decent treatment British POW’s received from the Germans, he met Rommel, and was ultimately handed off to the Italians and sent to a prison camp in Capua.
Millar, and its fascinating that so many of his fellow prisoners did also, worked feverishly on escape attempts—none successful–and developed a solid black-marketing plan to improve conditions for the inmates. The Italians were not so kind as the Germans, and sufficient food was a constant problem. But he was eventually discovered, and moved to a second camp, near Genoa, reserved for escape artists and malcontents and where David Stirling, founder of the SAS, was also imprisoned.
When Italy surrendered the POW’s were sent to Germany. It was on this train ride that Millar and his friend Wally Binns jumped from the moving train in the middle of the night, and following instructions he had received from a camp guard, were eventually able to find sympathizers in Munich. From Munich Millar eventually went to Strasbourg, and from there to Paris and Lyon in the south of France.
It was while in hiding there that Millar fell firmly under the sway of the Maquis, and an early British Agent named Richard Heslop. After several aborted attempts, Millar was able to cross the Pyrenees—on foot, in the snow—and find freedom in Spain.
When he returned to England Millar discovered that his wife had abandoned their marriage, and so by turns he joined the F Section of Churchill’s SOE. In June of 1944 he parachuted into France, in the middle of the night, under his codename Emile, linked up with the waiting maquisards and began to organize, equip, and train them for a long and breathtaking run of sabotage—principally of the railways, but as the allies drew closer, also by attacking retreating columns of Germans.
Millar writes of his time in the resistance in three books, Road to Resistance, Horned Pigeon, and Maquis. While they occasionally trespass on each other, by necessity, they are must reading for anyone interested in an introduction to the stuff that resistance leaders are truly made of.
In the second part of this exploration, we’ll take a look at Peter Ortiz, Legionnaire, US Marine, and like Millar, leader of his own band of French maquisards. And we’ll explore some more interesting notions about the modern “resistance” around us.