The Canon: Outwitting the Gestapo by Lucie Aubrac

September 2, 2010

In this, the 70th anniversary year of Charles de Gaulle's appeal to the French people to continue their fight against the occupying Germans, it is timely to review one of the most important books ever written about the Resistance.

Originally published in 1984 as Ils partiront dans l'ivresse, Outwitting the Gestapo relates, in the form of a reconstructed autobiographical account, the experiences of the author in clandestine Resistance activities, and it was later made into a film.

The narrative covers the period May 1943 to June 1944, during which Lucie Aubrac was pregnant with her second child. Among the extraordinary feats she describes is the way in which she planned and carried out her husband's escape from prison under the noses of the Gestapo. Aubrac's account of her double life as a wife and mother on the one hand and Resistance heroine on the other offers many examples of the ways she mobilised her femininity to dupe the Germans. Her book opened the way for a complete reassessment of women's Resistance participation and a gendered reading of France's war years.

Aubrac's book spawned numerous subsequent Resistance memoirs by women; it remains a key text both because of its subject matter and because of the drama of the narrative. Reading it as a postgraduate, at a time when women's history was still in its infancy, I was inspired by it to hunt down other aspects of women's experience of "the Dark Years" and explore the ways in which it was different from that of men's; not just in terms of the patterns of their daily lives but also in relation to the choices they made about resistance and collaboration.

The work was also at the centre of extensive debate about the place of the witness in history. Its appearance soon after Klaus Barbie's trial for crimes against humanity meant that it was widely welcomed as providing the Aubracs' version of the events surrounding the arrest of General de Gaulle's envoy, Jean Moulin. Nonetheless, uncertainty about the exact role they had played rumbled on throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1997, in an unprecedented step taken in an effort to clear their name, the Aubracs met with a committee of contemporary historians in the offices of the French daily newspaper Libération. Confronted with the various different accounts they had offered of the period, the couple were unable entirely to satisfy the historians with their replies. Their experience fuelled debates about the validity of witness testimony. Those of us who mobilise such personal narratives as source material, however, are aware of their shortcomings, and do not seek to use them to gain access to some kind of universal truth about the past.

In my research, I have found repeatedly that these narratives can provide us with remarkable details and experiences that cannot be found in any other source material. Aubrac's book demonstrates superbly the insights that personal narratives, life histories or oral history - whatever you wish to call them - can bring to contemporary history.

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