Sian Rees is a critically acclaimed social and maritime historian. Two of her books, The Floating Brothel and The Ship Thieves, are currently under option as feature films. She lives in Brighton.
Frenchwoman Lucie Aubrac was a Sorbonne graduate, a schoolteacher and a committed Communist. Brought up in rural poverty between the wars, she was also a lifelong résistante against social and political oppression, including four years’ militant opposition to the Nazi Occupation of France.
In France, she and her equally remarkable husband, Raymond, have become national heroes: state funerals and respectful obituaries at the end of their long lives, streets and schools named in their honour, even a 1997 film starring Carole Bouquet and Daniel Auteuil based on their wartime experiences. In Britain, interest in the French Resistance has been more focused on the participation of agents of the Special Operations Executive, and this remarkable woman is relatively little-known – a situation I hope may be rectified by my 2015 biography Lucie Aubrac: the French Resistance Heroine who outwitted the Gestapo.
So why was Lucie Aubrac a ‘dangerous woman’?
Firstly and most obviously, because she was prepared to kill in defence of what she thought was right, confronting Gestapo guards with a gun in her fist and the intention of shooting them down in her street.
When France surrendered in 1940, Lucie Aubrac lived in the southern city of Lyon with her new husband, Raymond. They were ebullient, sociable, open-minded people. Raymond’s family was Jewish; Lucie was a Communist and both, as students in Paris in the 20s, had had a large, multinational and predominantly left-wing acquaintance which included academics, factory workers and refugees from fascism elsewhere in Europe. Almost immediately after the fall of France, they joined one of the emerging movements which would eventually grow and be called ‘The Resistance’, but which in the first months of occupation were tiny, scattered pinpricks of opposition.
In November 1942, the Nazis crossed the Demarcation Line which had previously divided France into an occupied zone in the north and a nominally free one (the ‘Vichy Zone’) in the south, and the Aubracs’ anti-Nazi activities intensified. Ostensibly a respectable young couple with a baby, minding their own business, in fact they had begun living parallel, undercover lives as freedom fighters. In June 1943, Gestapo agents commanded by Klaus Barbie, the infamous ‘Butcher of Lyons’, arrested Raymond and other resistance leaders at a meeting called by Jean Moulin, the representative of General de Gaulle.
Newly pregnant with her second child, expecting any day to hear that her husband’s corpse had turned up in one of the morgues where the Gestapo left its victims, Lucie managed to put together a daring rescue plan. Aided by a determined group of resistance fighters, she concocted an extraordinary story centred on her (real) pregnancy and her (faked) engagement to ‘Claude Ermelin’, the false name Raymond had been going under when he was arrested. She appealed to the Gestapo to let her ‘fiancé’ do the decent thing and set a date to marry the mother of his unborn child before he faced the firing squad, then ambushed the prison van which was carrying him, and killed the guards. For several months, both Aubracs went on the run, sheltered by sympathisers all over the Jura until the RAF flew them out in February 1944, two days before Lucie’s second child was born.
But Lucie did not just pose a danger to fascists, Gestapo guards and the Nazi regime which took over her country. Because immediately after the war, some of her former resistance comrades regarded her as a danger to the precarious provisional government of France.
When France was liberated in 1944, it was not the Resistance which took control, but the Free French military, headed by General de Gaulle. He and his advisors found themselves facing an uneasy partnership with a civilian army which they knew had been instrumental in defeating the Nazis but, in so doing, threatened to become a powerful force in its own right. De Gaulle defused the real Resistance by creating a myth which would at the same time unite and empower a divided and unruly nation: that resistance had been immediate, widespread and principled and that only a few bad apples had ever collaborated. Furthermore, France had not been liberated by the Allies, but by troops commanded by de Gaulle and supported – but only supported – by the resistants.
A further subtext to this rewritten Gaullist resistance was that it had been French, Christian, republican, white and principally male. As the plaques started to go up at the street corners where patriots had died for France, the thousands of Spanish Communists, expatriate Jews and refugees from fascism elsewhere in Europe – the men and women who had been the Aubracs’ comrades before and during the war – were notably missing.
So Lucie Aubrac spoke up: this sanitised narrative, she said, was neither fair nor true. ‘Resistance’ had started long before the Occupation: it had started in the anti-fascist street-fights in Paris which she, a student at the Sorbonne, had joined, and which the ‘officer class’ now claiming to have liberated France would have condemned out of hand. She had not only been resisting German fascism, she pointed out: she, and the thousands of others like her now being expunged from the record, had been fighting against oppression in all its forms, including those she feared were about to be re-introduced in, and by, postwar France.
It was a dangerous message for the group of men (and a very few women) attempting to unite France, and win back her place at the international table of powers which would decide the shape of post-war Europe. Lucie found herself sidelined.
Further cracks in a resistance which had united against Nazis but buckled under the strain of peace appeared when, in the 1960s, France was divided in its reaction to the Algerian War of Independence. For some French, General (now President) de Gaulle and many former resistance fighters among them, the Algerian militants were terrorists. Lucie Aubrac and many of her former comrades put forward a dangerous alternative narrative: that the Algerians were fighting the same fight against France that the French resistance had fought against the Germans. So passionately committed to this view were both the Aubracs that they left France, and went to live for several years in North Africa to express their support.
For three decades, the Gaullist myth of resistance held. Shortly after the Aubracs returned to retire in France in the 1970s, however, it was challenged. New archival research suggested that France’s wartime rulers had been active, even proactive, collaborators, and that most French citizens had been passive, at best, until the final few months of the Occupation. Although divisive and painful, this tied in far better with what Lucie Aubrac knew to have been the truth.
Worse, as new data was made public, it became clear that some of those who had taken power after 1944, and, in some cases were still in power, had extremely dubious wartime records. In the 1950s it had been believed (or at least little disputed) that everyone had resisted, by the beginning of the 1980s it was almost beginning to seem that no one had. And given the determination of the younger generation to know what had really happened in wartime France, principled resistants like the Aubracs were at last given recognition for their rarity and truthfulness, and cherished as upholders of French values.
So when Klaus Barbie was extradited from South America in 1983 to stand trial for his treatment of Jews and resistants in wartime France, and accused the newly-sanctified Aubracs of being Gestapo collaborators, it caused a sensation. Were Lucie Aubrac and her husband Raymond now endangering the new version of the resistance? Lucie, of course, came out fighting, publishing a memoir called Ils partiront dans l’ivresse (translated into English as ‘Outwitting the Gestapo’) which put the record straight, and despite the best attempts of Barbie’s Machiavellian lawyer, only a tiny bit of mud stuck. At the time, with the success of the Bouquet/Auteuil film and Lucie’s soaring new profile as star of chat shows, resistance documentaries and hundreds and hundreds of appearances in schools and colleges all over France, few noticed that tiny bit of mud.
But in her overhasty attempt to defend herself and her husband, Lucie Aubrac had indeed endangered the story of the resistance which she had cherished all her life. Because the mud refused to fall away – and in the next decade, a historian brought together a mass of archival data which appeared to show that Barbie’s accusation had been true, the Aubracs had collaborated and had even been guilty of betraying Jean Moulin, the man arrested with Raymond Aubrac in Lyons in July 1943 and one of France’s greatest wartime heroes. It wasn’t true: but the tragedy was that in proving it wasn’t true, many of the speeches, articles and books Lucie had written about her wartime experiences were publicly picked apart, and the humiliating fact emerged that she had embroidered, exaggerated and even, sometimes, told outright lies.
Not about the main things: she had indeed fought fascism; she had put herself in immediate, physical danger, faced down men with guns, rescued her husband, put her life on the line … there was no doubt about her heroism or her political integrity. But she had fibbed about silly, unimportant things such as places she had lived in her childhood, and what date she had passed her teaching examinations, and who had said what to whom in the staffroom of the school she taught in in Lyons … nothing in themselves, but when her truthfulness over greater matters was at stake, deeply damning. By sexing up her story she had rendered even the parts of it which were true open to challenge from unfriendly quarters.
Left mortifyingly and publicly exposed when these undeniable lies were put to her, Lucie found that the last danger she posed was to herself.
Lucie Aubrac died in 2007, at the age of 94. Raymond died five years later. Both were interred with military honours, as heroes of France, with Lucie’s reputation restored. Almost. For any internet research will still turn up poison-filled websites which imply her Communism or Raymond’s Jewishness mean they could not have done what they said they did – that there are still secrets in the archives, or possibly, now, taken to the grave which would reveal conspiracy and sinister intrigue.