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The Underground in France

ISSUE:  Winter 1944

Paris-Underground. By Etta Shiber, in collaboration with Anne and Paul Dupre. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.50. The Germans Came to Paris. By Peter de Polnay. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. $2.75. They Shall Not Have Me (Us ne m’auronl pas!). By Jean Helion. E. P. Dutton, and Company. $3.00.

These three books, different in theme, in style, and in the personality of the author, still have something in common: all three give an account of the bitter resistance of a people, beaten, disarmed, desperate, abandoned, deprived of leaders and of forms of organization against a triumphant enemy, armed to the teeth and pitilessly employing the most cruel methods of oppression in order to break the morale of the vanquished. It concerns an extraordinarily unequal fight between the will to survive of the weaker and the will to power of the stronger.

The three authors, an American, a Hungarian, a Frenchman, so far apart by origin and culture, so close by a like consciousness of human dignity and a like feeling of duty simply done, again have in common their personal modesty, the sobriety of their story, and the authenticity of their observation. Their works treat of dissimilar milieux, although on the same popular level, and of entirely different circumstances, although of a like historical period, that which followed the fall of France in 1940. At that time Great Britain was alone in braving the German violence ruthlessly unloosed after intense preparation; Russia had not yet been attacked or was yet in the period of her first defeats; the eventual aid of faraway America appeared tardy and doubtful. In this nightmarish situation, when European civilization almost crumbled in weakness and despair, throughout the three books one sees a people pull itself together and, gritting its teeth, clenching its naked fists, regain confidence in itself, thanks to the contagious example of England and, by the heroism of an anonymous elite, work out its own salvation.

For our three authors, self-effacing witnesses and actors of the tragedy, agree likewise on this essential point which they have not sought to formulate but which unwittingly emerges: it is principally the people of humble or obscure station, the workers of the city and of the country, who by their tranquil courage and their faithfulness to traditional values saved the soul of France. The same phenomenon has been observed in other countries of Europe. It is not that civilization found no defenders in the so-called upper classes: it would be unjust to forget so many cases and so many examples which bespeak the contrary. But as a general rule it can be said that in contrast to the hopeless lack of courage observed among the rich, the professional politicians, and the perverted intellectuals, the wholesome reaction came from the people, in the broadest sense of that word.

Finally, in the three books in which are unfolded episodes of the muted, stubborn, mysterious fight carried on by the victims of the furor teutonicus against their executioners, one again finds something essential that the authors have not sought to put there: elements to formulate a worthwhile opinion of what is called at random the “underground,” a word which figures in one of the titles, a notion that one constantly has in mind while reading these three works. It is of primary importance just now to dissipate the confusion created around the great new fact called “underground,” a confusion kept alive by faulty observers, by unscrupulous journalists, and by cinema producers short of theme material, to the great detriment of a just understanding of European events, both present and future.


Mrs. Etta Shiber is an American, a widow of some sixty years. With an English friend, Kitty Beaurepos, ten years her junior, married to a Frenchman, from whom she was amicably separated, she was living at Paris in ease and comfort. Having left the city too late, on the eve of the irruption of the Germans, the two women found themselves caught in the indescribable bottleneck of cars, of conveyances of all kinds, which was blocking the roads. From their planes, the champions of racism were mercilessly machinegunning the civilians—women, children, old people. They had to retrace their steps.

By chance the two travelers came into contact with an English aviator who was in hiding. They took him in their car, put him up in their lodging at Paris, sought and found the means to help him to escape. They obtained, one by one, the necessary accomplices, simple, modest people, ready to run the risks involved. A chain of circumstances led them to take part in other escapes of British soldiers, that is, their passage from one zone (occupied) to the other (unoccupied). At this time there existed no organization to handle that technique. The two inexperienced women, aided on an increasing scale by several willing persons, had to improvise everything, to trick the Gestapo, to expose themselves to the greatest dangers, up to the day when all were arrested: but one hundred and fifty valiant British soldiers had crossed the line of demarcation.

Mrs. Shiber and Mrs. Beaurepos conducted themselves stoically in prison, and at the trial. So did their accomplices: a disabled veteran, a young priest, and an aged winegrower. Three were condemned to death, among them Mrs. Beaurepos, and Mrs. Shiber was sentenced to three years in prison. After more than a year of punishment, she was exchanged for a female German spy, and in “Paris-Underground” she gives the poignant story of her adventure, of her trials and tribulations, with a modesty which does her credit, bringing into relief the noble conduct of her friend, “the Edith Cavell of this war,” and of their three companions. This is not a book with an ax to grind, and the underground with which it is concerned has nothing of an organized conspiracy, of a political party or sect: the population reacts spontaneously against German occupation, it painfully finds the ways and means to resist efficiently the “New Order” imposed by the invader. Thrown upon their own resources, the humble militants of the resistance, men and women, pull together and help each other, beginning by saving English soldiers, since England alone is carrying on the good fight and keeping hope alive.

Mr. Peter de Polnay, author of “The Germans Came to Paris,” is Hungarian by nationality and English by education; he loves France, loves Paris, loves the Butte Mont-martre where he was living when the war came to change everything. He was a witness to the resignation and submission which followed the disaster, then to the re-awakening and to the resurrection. He has noted, first, the little acts of weakness, the reproaches directed against England through the motive of self-excuse, the pettinesses of the prosaic life which ’ lived from one day to the next. Then, in proportion as British courage hardens and as the English aviation replies, the inevitable evolution is accomplished, hope comes into her own again, the Germans become more and more arrogant, the French stiffen and regain confidence in regaining consciousness. Mr. de Polnay objectively registers little significant incidents, revealing conversations; he paints imperturbably the picture of this little world at first stricken with a coma, profoundly depressed and demoralized, then its return to self-rehabilitation and transformation. lie observes with a keen eye the average Frenchman and the average German. And he also gives us reliable testimony concerning the milieu where he lived through the darkest hours of the war and of the history of France.

Indeed, the picture would have been painted with different colors and touches if the author, instead of treading the Butte Montmartre, had been immersed in another milieu, either that of the provinces or even that of Paris in some university circle or a workers’ district. But the deeper sense would have been the same, for the same phenomena have taken place mutatis mutandis, on a general scale. And everywhere analogous findings present themselves: the little people, the average Frenchman or those below the average, have been the artisans of the national renaissance.

Mr. de Polnay and his friends and connections also have their thoughts turned toward England, which set the example of constancy. They also, thrown upon their own resources, without guides, without advice, without organization, set in motion oral propaganda to contradict the German lies; they reproduce and put into circulation with their feeble means the first tracts dropped by the British aviation; and soon our Hungarian, an anglophile and a francophile, begins to edit tracts himself. This is again the spontaneous, the unorganized underground. After a stay of four months in the occupied zone, he feels the imminent danger and goes over into the unoccupied zone, where his trials do not cease but only change face. Twice arrested at Mar-sailles by the Vichy police, he finishes by fleeing into Spain, where he is again arrested. Finally he reaches England.

As for M. Jean Helion, in “They Shall Not Have Me” he takes us into the ranks of the French army in full flight, among the simple people in uniform who bravely defended their attacked country; who then, taken prisoner, exhausted, led away into captivity, endured and still endure the sinister regime of the stalag and of forced labor in Germany. These men, abandoned and sacrificed, also dependent on their own resources, also reanimated by the attitude of England, strive to survive. They can count on no aid from the outside. In vain do they try to get in touch with British agents, to establish some contact or liaison with the Intelligence Service. All their efforts come to naught. They also form a kind of spontaneous, improvised, sporadic underground, without co-ordination or direction. And they receive no help, no assistance.

M. Jean Helion, a French artist, married to an American, gives us an admirable book dedicated to his brothers in misery, companions of captivity, whom he had to leave back there when he managed to escape, in February, 1942. In it he describes the pitiful life of the French prisoners in the camps, on the farms of Pomerania, and on the prison ships of the Baltic ports, in a style of remarkable sobriety, without literary pretensions, without exaggeration, without rhetoric. Certain pages, which recall “The Plouse of the Dead” of Dostoievski, attain an epic grandeur, for example, in the chapter entitled “Night Life on S. S. Nordenham.”

Thanks to his personal qualities, among others his knowledge of German, M. Jean Helion was employed as interpreter and, at the same time, he was chosen by his comrades as their “Confidential Agent.” All this placed him in a favorable position for exercising his innate gifts of observation, to which are added a great talent as a painter and writer, a deep sense of the human and of grim humor. One of the most interesting aspects of his book is that of Germany at war, intermittent and fragmentary scenes, a picture of corruption, of cruelty, and of fear, with a portrait of several Germans, among whom the author has been able to discern human types and human traits, which he depicts with perfect probity, without prejudice, without hatred.

Such a book takes its place, beside that of Saint-Exupery, among the finest that the war has inspired and which deserve to stay. It reconciles man with man, man capable of the worst things but also capable of the best. It meets with and confirms on many points the two other works but it soars above them by its unique character as a work of art. The few lines where M. Jean Helion recalls his desperate efforts to get into contact with certain services of the Allies (propaganda, information), which definitely do not reach the prisoners, bring us back to the conclusion which it is important to draw concerning the underground.


Nearly all Europe having been brutally occupied by a self-styled superior race which has made itself definitely odious to the crushed populations, it is natural that these populations should have rebelled under the oppression and should have gradually elaborated a secret life, tricking the watchfulness of the oppressors. Such is the origin of the underground, a spontaneous creation of peoples abandoned or betrayed by their accustomed leaders. By its very definition, no one could claim to speak in its name: countless groups have come together on their own initiative and act on their own account, very few being bound together under present conditions, which are not conducive to co-ordination and which spell mortal danger for those vanguard circles that might attempt to work together.

In this anonymous and general underground, there have been created particular undergrounds, having a political etiquette by advantage of which they try to canalize the total movement and which they seek to make prevail, within France in order to take an option on future power, outside of France in order to obtain aid and alliances. Competition ensues in the underground, and sometimes intestinal struggles. Committees of politicians try to exploit for their own selfish ends a state of things which it is impossible for the worthy commentator to treat openly, for that would be equivalent to denunciations to the advantage of the enemy. That gives free rein to self-seeking propagandists who interpret the news, true or not, from a reliable or suspect source, in a sense favorable to their factions.

One must then beware of according a blind faith to the immense journalistic literature, sensational but partly fabricated, spread abroad in the countries of America on the hackneyed theme of the underground, still less to the moving picture productions which feed on it and which give an absolutely false idea of European reality. The merit of the three books mentioned here is of reporting the facts as they are, in their naked simplicity, in their bitter truth, with no polemic or political intention.


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