Casualties of Resistance

The Cost of Courageby Charles Kaiser

Other Press. 288p $26.95

Paris lay inert, her breathing scarcely audible, her limbs relaxed, and the blood flowed remorsefully from her manifold veins. Paris was dying, like a beautiful woman in coma, not knowing or asking why.

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The voice is that of Eric Sevareid, a CBS News foreign correspondent, who has sent his wife and twin infant sons back to the United States while he and a team of reporters remain to risk their lives and make journalism history recording the worst war in modern times.

It is June 1940. On June 3 more than 100 German bombers bombed the city. On June 13 The New York Times reports that “the German guns are battering at the hearts and minds of all of us who think of Paris when we try to define what it means by civilization....Of all cities it expresses best the aspirations of the human spirit.” The next day, Paris falls.

Jacques Boulloche, director of the French Bureau of Highways, out of town, writes to his wife, two sons, André and Robert, and two daughters, Jacqueline and Christiane. They are a distinguished nonpracticing Catholic family about to have their faith in one another and their country tested. He writes to his wife, “Stay calm, courageous and proud”; to his children, “I love you with all my heart.”

Charles Kaiser’s The Cost of Courage is both a history and a morality tale, the story on one level of the Boulloche family and the risks they both took and did not take to preserve their lives and their integrity. It is also a key chapter in the history of France under German occupation, when some citizens, fired by patriotism, risked all to resist the Nazis—as the nation split between occupied and Vichy, southern France—while others survived by sitting on their hands. Both, in tragic ways, paid the cost of their decisions.

Charles de Gaulle, wounded three times in World War I, with almost three years in German prison camps, escapes to England where Winston Churchill allows him to use the BBC to rally the French population with: “Whatever happens, the flame of French Resistance must not die.” Young André, 24, who helped blow up a bridge to slow the German advance, for a time retreats to Africa. The same day, Hitler sneaks into Paris and visits Napoleon’s tomb, perhaps wondering whether his own invasion of Russia will improve on Napoleon. André, convinced that France “can only be saved by a complete moral resurrection,” returns to Paris, where his brother Robert introduces him to the dashing André Postel-Vinay, who immediately recruits him for the underground. The two Andrés, both impetuous youths, bond immediately. In a way, writes Kaiser, “Resistance is so instinctive, and so immediate, they barely consider the possible consequences—for themselves, or for anyone else.”

As fate would have it, Postel-Vinay’s brief career will foreshadow that of the four-years-younger André. Meanwhile Hitler scuttles the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact and invades Russia, transforming the French Communists into Resistance fighters. At the same time Postel-Vinay has been introduced to an agent to whom he must deliver secret documents on German troop movements; but he suspects him, reminding himself that every relative of a Résistant is subject to arrest. Therefore every member must carry cyanide pills and, if arrested, kill himself lest under torture he might identify his brothers and sisters in the movement.

The agent turns out to be a British con man and burglar working with the Nazis, who burst, guns drawn, into their meeting. They grab Postel-Vinay’s gun before he can shoot either them or himself. In prison he feigns insanity and twice attempts suicide; moved to an insane asylum, he escapes, makes his way to Gibraltar, then to a Patriotic School in England where he must prove that he too is not an informer. Proven, he is led to deGaulle, who makes him a director of a bank for Free French colonies.

Warned in 1942 that he faces arrest, the younger André takes a long route through France to Toulouse, to Spain and to England where he too works with deGaulle, who sends him back to Paris to coordinate the Resistance activity in northern France. The British send him to espionage school where he (now 27) excels in physical training, weapon training, communications and intelligence. Nevertheless he is arrested less than four months after returning to Paris. Shot by the Germans, he decides to not kill himself. At the hospital they operate, but repair him just enough to allow him to talk. Trying to climb out a window, he falls. They sloppily sew up his stomach wounds. His sisters try to rescue him but fail. Tortured, he does not talk.

April 27, 1944, 40 days before the Allied landing in Normandy, André, with 100 prisoners in each of 17 railroad cars, is crammed in and headed for Auschwitz. Fellow prisoners include 39 French railroad employees, two poets, 20 priests and members of 64 Resistance organizations. In four days jammed so tightly they can’t sit, many lose their minds, strip nearly naked to escape the heat, scream, open their veins to drink one another’s blood, as their corpses are stacked in the corner. At Auschwitz they are tattooed, their bodies shaved of all hair. What remains, at least in some, are the traditional three requirements for survival: determination, dignity and luck.

Following André’s arrest Christiane stops studying at the Science Politique and moves out of her parents’ apartment in order to live a totally secret life, including her job of moving the Resistance radio equipment from one site to another. She is proud of her self-control. When a comrade, a boy from England, downs cognac to calm his nerves, she tells herself, “At least I am courageous—even though I am a girl.”

In April 1943 almost half a million Allied troops invaded Italy. The Americans and the British, to disrupt the transportation system prior to Normandy, launched 9,000 sorties in 69 attacks, losing 198 planes. Again and again Kaiser pauses to remind his readers of the moral dimensions of various issues—particularly the cost paid by innocent civilians for the Allied victories. A line from a poem of Paul Verlaine, “The long sobs of autumn violins,” is code that the invasion to save France is about to begin. Yet Kaiser notes that the “Normandy countryside will be drenched with the blood of thousands of Allied and German soldiers, and at least 15,000 French civilians, most of whom will be victims of Allied bombardments.” Like Hitler, “Stalin is responsible for genocides that have killed millions of innocent people”; now he is willing to sacrifice 20 million men and women to defeat Hitler. On D-Day, our landing at Omaha beach cost 2,000 American lives in order for 30,000 to make it ashore.

Yet General Eisenhower reported that the actions of the Resistance behind the lines were as important as the bravery of the men storming the beaches. On the night after the invasion President Roosevelt read a prayer for the men on the radio: “Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men.” In Germany, Field Marshal Rommel conspires to remove, but not kill Hitler. After the attempt, which fails, Rommel must choose between suicide or a trial. He swallows a cyanide capsule and dies within 15 seconds.

In August 1944, as tanks of the French armored division are but a few weeks from roaring into Paris. Christiane and her extended family celebrate the approach of peace with a dinner. Christiane leaves early; but at 3 a.m. the Gestapo break in to arrest her. Since she is not there they arrest her parents and brother in her place. All three die in prison. But André survives when General George Patton liberates his prison camp. André, 29, returns gaunt, with bulging eyes.

For the rest of his life he blames himself for all that happens, he shaves his head to a crew cut and wears a black tie in memory of the dead. But he was not universally worshipped as a hero. For some relatives, by opposing the Nazis he was responsible for the deaths of his parents and brother. On Aug. 5, 1946, he wrote in his diary: “When the war came, I had, with great effort, offered the complete sacrifice of my life—mine and mine alone.... Why didn’t I have the courage to remain absolutely alone when I returned to Paris? Why did I have to add the possibility of the sacrifice of my own family members to the near certainty of my own sacrifice?”

As a politician his main goal was to accomplish reconciliation between France and Germany. He became a local mayor, a deputy in the National Assembly and rising star of the Socialist Party; but his marriage broke up and his children described him later as a “tyrant” who wildly drove his car. He died in a plane crash in the Black Forest.

Three thousand people attended the funeral hall and thousands more gathered outside to listen. In his eulogy, future prime minister Francois Mitterrand said, “When he turned toward the Germans, he was the first among us who knew how to say, ‘My friends.’” As this review is written (Nov. 14, 2015), Paris mourns over 100 bloody corpses, slain in a theater, restaurant and soccer stadium, as the Muslim terrorists yelled, “Allah be praised.”

Today, Paris does not lie inert. She is not dying like a beautiful woman in a coma. She is again what we think of when we try to define the meaning of civilization. But again she faces a problem which is international in scope, in which all the countries affected must come together, welded as one by a common understanding of what it means to be a free person, and show courage in commitment to that vision.

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