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Telling the Story of a Social Movement
Taking off from a history of the French Resistance
A couple weeks ago, I read a history book that'd been recommended somewhere online (I forget where) as a good treatment of the French Resistance: Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance, by Robert Gildea. It was a decent picture, but disappointing in one large way - a way that Gildea doesn't mention, that was probably unavoidable, and that points to a problem inherent in telling stories (whether historical or fictional) like this.
To me, this book displays the difficulties of writing about amorphous leaderless social movements. In one sense, the French Resistance did have a leader: Charles de Gaulle, and under him the named leaders of the different groups inside France. But even beyond how de Gaulle was outside France and didn't share the Resistance's daily struggles, Gildea (with good reason) writes about the Resistance as opposed to de Gaulle in many ways. He discusses de Gaulle's fluctuating public image among the Resistance, tells of the struggles he had to establish and exert his authority among them, and argues that in many ways de Gaulle, post-Liberation, imposed his own sense of France on the Resistance.
So, the story we're left with is the story of the many groups inside France, who all had wildly varying experiences through every part of the war. Unsurprisingly, the Resistance in one town or department had great difficulty stably communicating with the Resistance in nearby departments, and generated widely different reactions from local Vichy or German commanders. Beyond this, as Gildea brings out at length, there were broad ideological differences between different groups, varying from Moscow-vintage Communists to exiled Spanish Republicans to ex-military quasi-Fascists who were simply upset that Germany had forced Vichy to disband its army (first partially and then completely). These groups were highly jealous of each other and had widely different relations with de Gaulle and the Anglo-American Allies. So, everything one might say about one group might be next to worthless about any other group. An individual biography or a local study could follow one Resistance group, and I've read several biographies of individual resistors that do that well. But that wouldn't even approach the full history of the Resistance that Gildea is trying to tell.
An ideal comprehensive history of the Resistance would need to tell the story of each individual group and draw comparisons - but that would be prohibitively long, even if we had all the full stories. As the Gospel of John says, "I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" about what even one single person did over three years. Or, one could try to identify representative groups and tell their stories. Many novels take this approach, picking a few protagonists. But it's not clear whether representative groups would even exist in the French Resistance, and in a historical study, it'd be more work to prove that they were indeed representative.
What Gildea does is describe various trends and give anecdotes from different local Resistance groups illustrating it. This's perhaps the best way to get an overview, but it leaves me simultaneously hungering for more and frustratedly unable to really feel like I know any one of the groups. It might make a good history, but it's not good as a story. My sister asked me whether I'd recommend this book to her; I needed to say no, because its protagonists are trends and large groups rather than any individuals.
So to tell the story of a varying social movement... I've come to the point where my next question would be, is that really the story you want to tell? Do you want your protagonists to be groups like "the Communist Resistance" and "the maquis of the Vercors"? In a fictional story, perhaps you should redesign your story to have a few individual people act agentically as protagonists. (That’s a main characteristic of a protagonist, after all.) But sometimes you don't want to tell a story where only a few people have most of the agency. And with real historical stories, you can’t change them. Sometimes a few people didn’t have most of the agency. Or, even in periods where you can pick a few people who did have it, sometimes you want to tell the story of all the other people who didn’t have agency over much of their lives. (Though they all had agency in some ways, be it their individual however-futile acts or simply their reactions.) They all have stories, after all; they’re all part of history.
What you can do in situations like that, however, is use the mass social movement as background for stories with more narrowly-focused agency. In fiction, I'm remembering how Tolkien's telling of the Siege of Gondor in Return of the King switches back and forth every few pages between an eagle's-eye view and a close-in perspective of our viewpoint character, Pippin, amid the siege. Or, I'm remembering the 1632 series, which has some books about the high-level politicians with agency about the war and politics, and other books or novellas of the more common people living out their own stories intertwined with that. Or in history, we can read Gildea's book on the Resistance as a whole, and then we can read narrower stories where we can get to know individual people. Both are important; both speak to the brain and heart in their own ways.