05.08.2017
  • France

A Partisan Mayor

A look back at the "French Tito," partisan militant Georges Guingouin.

Taillandier-Rue des Archives / via L'Obs

Our new issue, “Earth, Wind, & Fire,” is out now. Check out the table of contents and subscribe today!

On December 5, 1943, the Courrier du Centre carried news that Georges Guingouin’s anti-Nazi partisan unit (maquis) had imposed price controls in the Limoges region. No longer could potatoes be sold for over four francs a kilo or pork for over forty; any profiteers would face “exemplary” reprisals. Seeing the Communist Guingouin’s ordinance published in the Courrier came as quite a surprise to the paper’s readers: it was, after all, still controlled by the Vichy government.

The partisan leader, whom the article called the “préfet du maquis,” had clearly become a thorn in the regime’s side: Guingouin had somehow convinced sympathetic print workers to slip his decrees into the government-controlled press some seven months before the US Army’s arrival.

Guingouin’s fame would spread quickly in the months following liberation; a 1944 film even claimed that his Limousin Communists had formed a “partisan republic” in defiance of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Elected mayor of Limoges in May 1945, the thirty-two-year-old — who was credited with founding France’s first maquis — became a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur that same summer on account of his wartime feats.

While Guingouin was celebrated as one of the first résistants on French soil, the return of democracy proved to be the end of his political career and not a new beginning. Ostracized by the French Communist Party (PCF) hierarchs in the early 1950s, he was soon under attack from ex-Vichyite prosecutors, who charged him with two murders during the postwar purges of Nazi collaborators. Abandoned by his old comrades and thrown in jail, the disgraced Guingouin was beaten within an inch of his life by vindictive prison guards. Only in 1959 was he absolved.

Despite Guingouin’s troubles, stories of his heroism ran riot in the postwar decades. These were largely based on the narrative he advanced in a series of articles in 1947–48 and later in his 1974 book Quatre ans de lutte sur le sol limousin, but were used in different ways. Depending on who was interpreting Guingouin’s fables, he either appeared as a coup-plotter who established the “shadow of a Soviet state” in the middle of German-occupied France (as Paris-Match informed readers in January 1953), or, more sympathetically, as a French Tito who, like the Yugoslav Communist leader, had defied Stalinist conservatism and sought to turn resistance into revolution.

Fabrice Grenard’s recent book Une légende du maquis helps us separate the truth of Guingouin’s life from his self-made mythology. It also reveals the complex relationship between the Soviet Union, local Communist parties like the PCF, and the anti-Nazi resistance both during and after World War II. While Guingouin’s is ultimately a local story, it captures the challenges faced by socialists and communists throughout Western Europe during the early Cold War period.

Resistance, Unity, Myth

One question sits at the heart of Grenard’s book: why would the French Communist Party, otherwise keen to boast about its resistance record, expel such a prominent partisan?

The most obvious answer — which Guingouin himself propagated — is that the PCF punished militants whose activity transgressed a conservative party line, dictated by Soviet realpolitik. From this perspective, the French Communists refused to launch a bid for power in 1945 in order to abide by the division of Europe that Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill had decided at Yalta. Because the USSR had “traded” France and Italy to the Anglo-Americans in exchange for a free hand in Red Army-occupied Eastern Europe, class-struggle objectives in the west were deferred in favor of the peaceful and democratic politics of national unity.

Grenard, however, has little time for the simplistic narrative of the PCF sacrificing anti-fascist radicalism on the altar of social harmony. He likewise rejects Guingouin’s post facto claim that his early turn to resistance represented a break with the PCF’s passive attitude during the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939 to June 1941. Instead, Grenard explores how Guingouin constructed an anti-Stalinist backstory for himself after the war, seeking to varnish his dissident credentials and to present himself as more politically consistent than he really had been.

We might add that the préfet du maquis’s anti-Stalinist narrative clashes with another myth — namely, the PCF’s insistence on its own patriotic credentials. Indeed, the Communists’ postwar breakthrough appeared not only in its 30 percent vote share or its million members but also in its ability to fit its resistance record into a romanticized national history. While France had been a republic for just 83 of the 155 years since the storming of the Bastille, the overthrow of the Nazi collaborationists struck a fatal blow against the anti-republican right’s legitimacy.

PCF authors could thus portray the destruction of the Vichyite État français in 1944 as the culmination of a patriotic epic stretching from the revolutionary wars of the 1790s to the Paris Commune of 1871, the antifascist Popular Front of 1936, and the partisan war against Nazi Germany. Combining patriotism with the republican tradition, the Communists bragged about the general strike they organized against Hitler on the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Valmy — revolutionary France’s 1792 victory over Prussia.

This attempt to establish an identity between the PCF, the French people, and the partisan struggle did not come without contradictions. First, the party leadership could hardly claim full credit for underground Communists’ struggle against German occupation. However exaggerated the PCF’s claim to be the “party of 70,000 shot members” may be, its clandestine fighters’ bravery and suffering were very real. This militancy contrasted strikingly with the personal record of PCF leader Maurice Thorez, who spent the whole war in Russian exile. Indeed, between August 1939 and June 1941, when Hitler and Stalin maintained a non-aggression pact, Thorez had no contact with the party’s grassroots, and the leadership did not call for active anti-Nazi struggle. The Communists who organized resistance in those years did so on their own initiative, often only much later establishing communications with the party center.

Cold War anticommunists exploited Thorez’s behavior both to highlight the PCF’s subordination to Kremlin foreign policy and to question the resistance’s patriotic credentials more broadly. They objected less to the fact that an unelected junior minister named Charles De Gaulle had presumed to speak for all Frenchmen in his June 18, 1940, resistance appeal, and more to the Communists’ attempt to appropriate the national cause for their own ends. The PCF could insist that it planned a democratic transition to socialism, but in Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest people’s democracy had meant Red Army-backed coups. And if the PCF really was the party of French democracy and not a Soviet proxy, why had its resistance not begun until the summer of 1941, after the USSR had been dragged into the war?

Guingouin’s partisan activity highlights some of the problems the PCF faced when defending its resistance record. The party could point to this former schoolteacher’s autumn 1940 “Call to Struggle” as evidence that its cadres had indeed begun the fight against Nazi Germany before the USSR came under attack. Yet if Guingouin had formed the “first maquis in France,” he had done so in either ignorance or defiance of party policy. Further, his record demonstrated that Communist maquisards could liberate territory without help from the Anglo-Americans — hence the widespread rumor that the Wehrmacht had nicknamed the Limousin region “little Russia.” But this invocation of the partisan struggle’s revolutionary aspect fed into the narrative that the Communists wanted to assert control by force, calling their commitment to democracy and national unity into question.

As Cold War divides hardened and the wartime antifascist coalition broke apart, the PCF’s resistance activities came under increasing scrutiny from a resurgent right. Attention particularly focused on the unruly “wild purges” in the months following liberation, when still-armed partisans (and not only Communist ones) exploited chaos to eliminate political and personal opponents. When Vichyite prosecutors brought Guingouin to trial in 1953–54, a torrent of anticommunist press reports described a Red Republic in the Limoges region beholden to his tyranny. In the immediate postwar period, the PCF had lionized Guingouin’s Resistance record, but by the time of his trial he could not count on any party backing.

Expulsion

Tensions between the PCF and Guingouin had first arisen in May 1945, when he became mayor of Limoges. Though disappointed not to be appointed to the PCF central committee, the partisan hero Guingouin maintained a strong regional profile. Not cut out for the slow bureaucracy and horse-trading of town-hall politics, however, the former schoolteacher treated Limoges as a personal fiefdom, often ruling by decree.

Even if, as Grenard argues, this was due to Guingouin’s naiveté rather than “totalitarian” intentions, such “adventurism” clashed with Thorez’s attempts to emphasize the PCF’s responsible, patriotic attitude. Its role in the resistance movement had made it the country’s largest party by 1945 and given it a place in the ruling coalition from 1944–47, making it a governmental force for the first time. Class radicalism was no longer the order of the day.

However, the onset of the Cold War soon exposed the weaknesses in Thorez’s strategy. In May 1947, the French Communists were thrown out of government, just like their Italian counterparts. In response, they adopted an oppositional rhetoric, regaining some of their old radicalism. But this had come too late: at the 1947 meeting of Europe’s Communist Parties (Cominform), Yugoslavia’s League of Communists (KPJ), prompted by the Soviets, condemned the PCF for disarming its partisans at the end of the war and committing to a peaceful democratic road.

Guingouin agreed. In a 1949 position paper, he argued that the party ought to have split from the antifascist coalition upon liberation from foreign occupation and made its own bid for power.

This act of insubordination did not immediately earn Guingouin’s expulsion, but it did leave him on very thin ice. The decisive blow came in 1952, as Thorez and his allies judged the moment ripe to evict a number of resistance heroes from party leadership, most importantly André Marty and Charles Tillon, founder of Francs Tireurs et Partisans. Indeed, the PCF general secretary had long resented the militants who had organized the armed struggle. They may have been a source of pride for the party in general, but they enjoyed a prestige of their own that hierarchs like Thorez could not appropriate.

However sincerely loyal these partisans had always been to the PCF and even to Stalin personally, the fact that they had taken independent action during German occupation undermined the party’s authoritarian model, where political wisdom, patronage, and authority descended from the central apparatus. Part of the PCF’s wider Stalinist hardening, these expulsions were meant to reestablish this balance.

The PCF’s vilification of Guingouin (“an enemy of the worst kind”) was far from the end of his troubles, as a resurgent right also attacked the former partisan leader. On Christmas Eve, 1953, Vichyite prosecutors charged Guingouin with the murder of two peasants during the purges in the months following liberation.

Grenard rejects the theory, most eloquently advanced by journalist Michel Taubmann, that the PCF and these ex-Vichyites conspired to get rid of Guingouin. But if the party did not actively participate in the campaign to imprison its former Haute-Vienne organizer, it certainly did wash its hands of him.

Other Left parties, not least the Socialists, joined in the attacks against the préfet du maquis, who now found himself discredited as a Stalinist authoritarian and without party support. In the struggle between a monolithic, disciplinarian PCF and fierce anticommunist reaction, few would speak up for Guingouin.

These hostile left forces are not wholly to blame for Guingouin’s fall, however. In a sense, he was the author of his own destruction. In a series of articles for Le Travailleur in 1947–48, the former partisan leader had falsely claimed that his command extended to the area where the murders with which he was charged took place. Guingouin’s overly proud narration of his resistance efforts, without any rival accounts to contest his claims, dug a hole for the former PCF organizer. As Grenard explains:

In parallel to his partisans’ embellished legend of a maquisard who had taken to Resistance struggle very early, escaping all the attempts to catch him and leading his men to ever more sabotage actions and guerrilla operations, his detractors in turn worked up a “black legend” that sought to reduce him to a “gang leader of the worst kind.”

The flip side of the Right’s depiction of a bloodthirsty Red Resistance was the narrative Guingouin had himself spread in the years following liberation, portraying himself as a near-omnipotent leader. In the press campaign surrounding his trial, Guingouin’s legends of insurrectionary war were grist to the mill of his most ardently anticommunist critics.

With Stalin’s death and North Korea’s invasion of the South still recent memory, and Khrushchev-era liberalization in the USSR yet to come, Cold Warriors used the préfet du maquis’s version of events to demonstrate the PCF’s totalitarian impulse to seize power.

The Turn to the Maquis

This image of a Communist partisan movement that started early and asserted itself as a counterweight to the Vichy regime rather oversimplifies history. Certainly, in the years between liberation and Guingouin’s expulsion in 1952, his self-mythology — not least his claim to have initiated a Limousin maquis even before Hitler’s invasion of the USSR — had proven useful for a PCF insisting on its patriotic credentials.

France’s centrist Daladier government had banned the PCF in September 1939 in response to the Hitler-Stalin pact, deeming the party an agent of a foreign power. It would take two years for the Communists to commit to the anti-Nazi struggle. In this context, Guingouin’s version of events gave credence to the PCF’s claims that it had supported the French resistance from the beginning, not just after the Soviet Union was also under attack.

Grenard, however, largely undermines Guingouin’s account. While he had indeed gone to the maquis (literally, “scrubland”) in April 1941, his activity there was initially “of a political-activist character, not a military one,” principally devoted to the circulation of his clandestine paper Le Travailleur. Also worth noting is that armed groups had in fact formed in the Corrèze and Savoie regions before Guingouin’s did in the Limousin, and what really flooded the partisan ranks was the German conscription of French workers for the war effort in February 1943, which forced tens of thousands of young draft-resisters to flee the cities.

By late 1942, militants like Guingouin had built clandestine structures for political and tactical leadership, but until their numbers surged with the rebellion against conscription, the Communist underground had struggled to mount any significant military operations. Guingouin certainly did lead impressive sabotage actions, but these were principally aimed at undermining the Vichy authorities rather than engaging in frontal clashes with German troops.

Here we will not delve into Grenard’s extensive discussion of how Guingouin’s rural guerrillas diverged from the PCF leaders’ urban-centered strategy. But it is worth dwelling on Grenard’s most important insight: Guinguoin’s tactical and political choices diverged from PCF policy because of the fragmentary character of the instructions that reached him and not due to any conscious political opposition. He was, in his writings and his consciousness, a “Stalinist”: but he was cut off from the command structure that made Stalinism an organizational reality.

Ironically, at the moment when the world communist movement was most uncritically Stalinist and its authoritarian mores most total, Vichyite repression served to create divisions within the PCF’s internal hierarchy. Despite the Communists’ apparent monolithism, given their isolation, local militants were forced to resort to individual initiative rather than simply following a centrally directed party line. This breakdown in communications shaped Guingouin’s clandestine activity and itself raises doubts over his postwar claims to any kind of anti-Stalinist dissent.

Indeed, Grenard convincingly argues that Guingouin’s pretense of having turned to resistance out of opposition to the PCF’s passivity during the Nazi-Soviet pact was in fact a retrospective explanation of a rather more confused approach. Guingouin was no dissident, but, cut off from PCF leaders, he assumed that he ought to pursue the party’s past antifascist approach by opposing German occupation. This fits into the pattern Grenard describes: “a militant who was convinced of the rightness of the Party’s cause, who does not seem to have understood how the institution to which he devoted his life actually worked.”

The peak of this naiveté came in the row over his 1949 text on the shortcomings of the PCF’s resistance strategy, in which Guingouin appealed to none other than party leader Maurice Thorez to defend him. During the resistance, the préfet du maquis had in fact been anything but a dissident, the paper he produced consistently praising a Stalinist model he continued to associate with the revolutionary traditions of 1917.

A French Tito?

In this sense, Grenard’s account has a degree of parochialism, insofar as he seems to assume that the conditions that led Thorez to expel resistance heroes like Guingouin existed in France alone. In fact, Stalinist apparatchiks all across Europe often demonized out-of-favor Communists as “enemies of the Party” for similar reasons, regardless of the real political positions of the accused.

To take two far more infamous (and important) examples: the Soviet leadership’s attacks on figures like Nikolai Bukharin and Josip Broz Tito were never really a matter of defending particular strategic positions. Instead, Moscow vilified these figures in order to destroy alternative sources of authority and stabilize established leaders’ power. These Communists were expelled not because their politics differed from party orthodoxy, but because their prestige derived from their own past revolutionary activity: an implicit challenge to a regime of obedience.

The fact that Yugoslav leaders such as Tito, Milovan Djilas, or Edvard Kardelj had loyally rooted out Trotskyists in the 1930s, made constant paeans to Stalin’s genius, and even attacked the PCF at the 1947 Cominform congress on the Soviet party’s behalf, could not save them from Moscow’s heresy-hunting. Ultimately, the Soviet leadership could not tolerate the fact that, in their victorious struggle, the Yugoslavs had built a power base independent of its control.

Grenard aptly notes that Guingouin’s wartime writings had never promoted Tito’s approach as an alternative to Thorez’s national-unity policy. But this alone does not render impossible a loose analogy between the Limousin Communist’s outlook and that of Tito’s KPJ. After all, the Yugoslav leaders did not consider themselves anti-Stalinists during the war; only in the 1950s did they begin to counterpose the idea of self-managed socialism to the bureaucratic Soviet model.

The Soviet Union excommunicated the KPJ from the family of Communist Parties most of all because it had gone too far in demonstrating its independence. While the ruling parties of postwar East Germany or Poland owed their rise to Red Army intervention, the Yugoslavs had liberated their territory on their own. Moscow resented this autonomy, which served as a potential source of division within the Communist movement. Across Europe, champions of national Communist Parties’ autonomy were derided as “Titoite” wreckers.

Thorez’s resentment of PCF resistance fighters had a similar character, even if it had only much more local consequences. Even party loyalist André Marty — known as the Butcher of Albacete for his role in suppressing alleged Trotskyites during the Spanish Civil War — was labeled a dissident and expelled in 1952, simply because of the prestige he had gathered in the resistance. Kicked out of the PCF at the same time, Guingouin adopted a pro-Yugoslav position, even though during the resistance struggle he had consistently venerated Soviet leadership.

Nor did the fact that Guingouin believed himself to be a loyal party man and indeed, Stalinist, distinguish him from other Communists who found themselves in conflict with official party leaders. Only a few hundred European militants opposed Moscow’s wartime alliance policy from a Trotskyist or Left-Communist perspective; they were outnumbered by the currents in the official Communist parties that supported cross-class popular fronts, seeing such alliances as temporary and instrumental rather than as an abandonment of the struggle for socialism.

Their radical plans would be thwarted, for they eventually clashed with the postwar spheres of influence. Yet in the moment that they organized their clandestine resistance cells, isolated and in the jaws of Nazi repression, they did not necessarily know that such an imperial carve-up was taking place.

We can see this not only in the Yugoslav Communists’ bid for power, but equally in the tensions within the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and its Greek counterpart (the KKE). From the resistance into the postwar period, PCI cadres consistently reported to general secretary Palmiro Togliatti that militants refused to believe that the rhetoric of national unity and democratic pacification were not ruses to help them prepare for the moment when they could seize power.

The Greek case and the military suppression of the resistance in the British-hegemonized eastern Mediterranean is even more striking. As the British Army and its local royalist cohorts crushed the Communist KKE after 1945, the party that had led the Greek resistance was amazed to receive no help from Moscow. Stalin refused to make an intervention that would have given the Western powers a pretext for interfering in Poland, his sphere of influence.

Paradoxically, foreign militants’ often-exuberant cult of the revolutionary Stalin actually undermined their disciplined observance of Moscow’s strategy, precisely because they were not truly aware of the Georgian generalissimo’s real intentions. The wartime disruption of the Communist Parties’ internal command structures only exacerbated this problem.

The PCF leaders who jettisoned the language of class struggle in favor of patriotism were not expressing their national autonomy, but instead their obedience to Kremlin foreign policy. Yet for isolated militants such as Guingouin, Red Army victories on the Eastern front fueled a millenarian belief that socialism was on the march. Their Soviet triumphalism made them indifferent or disdainful toward the Gaullists and other resistance forces that Thorez’s national unity strategy embraced; the sectarianism borne of clandestine conditions cut against the alliance policy that Soviet realpolitik in fact demanded.

Rather than seeing Guingouin as an anti-Stalinist, then, we should call him an autodidact Stalinist. Cut off from the party center and at the head of an armed underground, he associated his own revolutionary aspirations with a glorified image of the USSR’s triumphant struggle against the Nazis.

This same naiveté would resurface in different forms even after Guingouin started to doubt the PCF strategy. We see as much in his positive references to Mao’s China in his postwar writings — even referring to the Limousin partisans’ own “Long March” — as well as his praise of Titoism in the late 1950s. Guingouin did not simply draw inspiration from Stalin, Mao, and Tito: he literally idolized them. He used these far-away regimes as avatars, projecting his own ideas onto revolutions that in turn granted his outlook the authority of grand historical movements, regardless of his ignorance of the politics or social conditions in these countries.

Indeed, this is a phenomenon far from specific to the French partisan leader; we can also see it at other moments when militants have sought evidence of socialism in construction. We need only remember the ’68 left’s glorification of the Cultural Revolution to see that being a maoisant critic of the PCF did not require a deep understanding of the events in Shanghai or Beijing, never mind an actual connection to the Communist Party of China. As with Guingouin’s Stalin, their Chairman Mao was not the flesh-and-blood leader but a projection of their own local struggle onto international politics and the forward march of socialism.

For Guingouin, as for starving and hounded Resistance fighters like him across occupied Europe, the cult of Stalin did not amount to following directives. To be a Stalinist was not necessarily to be unthinking or obedient. Isolated militants worshipped the Soviet leader in order to confer a grand historical significance on their own activities, not just as partisans, but as the builders of the socialist tomorrow that the USSR supposedly embodied. As Tito’s deputy Milovan Djilas reflected after he had lost faith in the USSR, these Communists were:

[t]he same as everyone in the long history of man who has ever subordinated his individual fate and the fate of mankind exclusively to one idea: unconsciously they described the Soviet Union and Stalin in terms required by their own struggle and its justification.