Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac: Resistance Fighter and Historian
Eric Hobsbawm did not live during the 19th century but he wrote a great book about the long century. Christopher Clark did not experience the First World War but he wrote one of the most discussed books about the years 1914 to 1918. It is not common for historians to write about experiences, it would be easy to accuse them of lacking objectivity. However, Winston Churchill wrote “The Second World War” and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Like the British Prime Minister, Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac wrote as a historian about what he had experienced as a contemporary: the Second World War as a resistance fighter in the Free French Forces under Charles de Gaulle.
He grew up as Jean-Louis Crémieux in Colombes near Paris as the son of a Jewish family. As a young adult, he attended the renowned Lycée Condorcet and studied literature and history at the Sorbonne.
Politically, he stood behind the liberal values of French republicanism and supported the left-wing Popular Front government of Léon Blum.
The Second World War
With the beginning of the Second World War, Crémieux was drafted for military service in 1939. First, he attended the famous French military school Saint-Cyr. In May 1940, Germany started the West Campaign and attacked France. While many French soldiers arrived in England directly by escape or evacuation during the French defeat in 1940, Crémieux experienced an odyssee that began at the French Maginot Line. Captured by the Germans and deported as a prisoner of war to a camp in Pomerania, he managed to escape with two comrades. While fleeing east, they tried to find French allies, but were captured again, this time by the Red Army, as the Soviet Union still cooperated with Germany following the Non-aggression Pact.
It is almost cynical that the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 led to Soviet co-operation with Charles de Gaulle’s expatriate Free France forces and to their release. This finally enabled them to make their way to London (while many of Crémieux’s fellow prisoners were Polish officers who were later cruelly murdered in Katyń).
In London with the Free French Forces
In London, Crémieux was given his code name “Brilhac” as a resistance fighter, which remained part of his name and identity long after 1945.
At the same time, the Free French Forces and their leader General de Gaulle were short of personnel: many of the soldiers who had been evacuated from Dunkirk returned to France by the end of 1940. Those who remained were equally recruited by the Royal Army and the French Forces, which was primarily problematic for the latter. Crémieux-Brilhac became director of the Free France wartime radio broadcasts from Britain and liaison officer with the BBC. As secretary in the Free French Committee, he was in charge of propaganda. He also repeatedly spoke at Radio Londres himself. Thus, he was well acquainted with all French authorities in London. Remarkably, Crémieux-Brilhac was only 24 years old by this point.
In May 1944, a few days before the Allied invasion of his homeland (which was also supported by the Free French Forces of London), Crémieux-Brilhac wrote an exceptional four-page document. These four pages contained instructions on the behaviour of the French population as soon as the invasion took place. They were primarily for people who were not organised in the Resistance. The aim of the paper was to put the population on a general alert, and set the stage for a gradual, phased insurrection, developing in accordance with the advance of Allied forces. Every Frenchman should be engaged in the liberation struggle, or as Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac said: “It is not a question of choosing to fight or not to fight; or when to fight. They are all soldiers under orders.”
Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac, the historian
Winston Churchill’s historic work “The Second World War” was published between 1948 and 1956, when Crémieux-Brilhac was just thirty years old and worked as founder and director of the organization “La Documentation Francaise”.
His two most important historical works, the two-volume “Les Français de l’an 40” and “La France libre: de l’appel du 18 juin à la Libération” were published first in 1990 and 1997.
In both books, he claims objectivity and tries to emancipate himself from the Gaullist interpretation of history and to break with traditional French historiography: for example, he emphasizes the importance of Great Britain in the liberation of France in 1944. But recent research on the phenomenon “Free France” shows that he did not go far enough. Although his assessment of the military significance of the Free French is more critical, the movement itself retains its heroic status. British historian Nicholas Atkin shows a different side of the French exiles in his comprehensive work “The forgotten French”: The movement was not only no one-man-show, as Crémieux-Brilhac had stated. Instead it was, like de Gaulle himself, internally as well as externally controversial, in its essence heterogeneous.
Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac died on April 8 2015 in Paris.
Atkin, Nicholas, The Forgotten French. Exils in the British Isles, Manchester 2003.
Crémieux-Brilhac, Jean-Louis, La France libre: de l’appel du 18 juin à la Libération, Paris 1997.
Crémieux-Brilhac, Jean-Louis, Freie Franzosen in London 1940 bis 1944, in: Krohn, Klaus-Dieter (Hrsg.): Exilforschung. Ein Internationales Jahrbuch (18), 2000, S. 112-137.