Résistance, Agnès Humbert’s journal and memoir, is a haunting and heart-wrenching account of her experiences during the occupation of France throughout the Second World War.
The first two chapters are presented in journal form, recorded by the author almost on a daily basis. The larger section of the book is comprised of her memoir written just after the war ended. Both segments recount the many men and women that Agnès Humbert knew and met and who joined her in the underground movement that helped define France during the war years. The courage shown by her and others is remarkable. They seemed to share an unshaken faith that it was only a matter of time before they were once more able to live without fear of persecution.
There is plenty of anger and bitterness: “The Germans are a spineless lot on the whole, lacking any ability to reason things through or view them with a critical spirit; and they suffer from a total and absolute lack of initiative, inculcated by their educational system down the centuries.” This comment, made at the end of the war, is in response to Agnès stepping in to help when the native Germans did nothing to support other Germans with among other things, medical help. It’s not politically correct, but for the mores of 1945, coming at the end of a brutal war, it was probably considered mild. However in other instances within the book, the author gives credit to Germans for unexpected kindnesses. When a Nazi judge sentenced some of her fellow resistance fighters at trial, he went to considerable trouble to later plead for leniency for them, saying they behaved honorably and more. Agnès was at the time encouraged by his honest and respectful behaviour towards the prisoners and afterwards, during his own war criminal hearing, she wrote a moving testimonial supporting him. In another notable statement that would not be looked favourably on in present-day societal norms Agnès criticizes polish prisoners of war for their behaviour once they were granted freedom in 1945. Throughout the book, her feelings for the enemy seemed to be scorn for the many but genuine affection for the few.
I’ve only read one other book that touched on the French resistance – The Tiger Claw by Shauna Singh Baldwin. While that book does have some parallels to Résistance – obviously the topic, but also both are based on actual events with the main characters being real (as opposed to fictitious) women - Resistance is the more true to life work, simply because it’s written by the person who lived the events.
Occasionally the narrative jumps around and individuals are introduced but then not mentioned for some time making it difficult to keep track of the connections between Agnes and her friends. However, this is a minor criticism given the circumstances under which this book was written and especially so since several tools are provided to alleviate this issue at the back of the book: an afterword explains some of the methods and motivations of the author; an appendix which includes documents and transcripts from the war and which are pertinent to the book; a bibliography and an index, both of which are extremely helpful in identifying notables within the book.
I can recommend this book not just as an enjoyable read – it’s much more than that. It’s a history lesson that teaches the fortunate what could still happen given the right circumstances.