Words: Clare Church
Violent storm clouds and blistering winds gathered around Germaine Sablon. As her silk scarf wavered in the wind, she clenched her fists to the sky and sang “Ce soir l’ennemi connaîtra la prix du sang et des larmes.” Tonight, the enemy will know the price of our blood and tears.
That was the scene depicted in Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1944 film Three Songs of the Resistance. Radio star Germaine Sablon was chosen especially for the production, and purposed with the task of performing songs which might inspire and unite the French Resistance against Nazi tyranny.
Scholars often say that World War II was fought as much with mass media as it was with weapons. But the female voices behind this mass media – including that of Sablon – are frequently excluded from ongoing historical narratives of the war. By taking a closer look at the most famed performers of the French Resistance, we see that a pattern emerges of action driven by the bravery of women: wartime accomplishments which have been largely neglected.
Like many others, Josephine Baker fled Paris when the Nazis invaded France in 1940. Despite finding widespread success in Parisian cabarets throughout the 1920s and 30s, Baker was no longer safe in the city she called home.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906, Baker was an African-American dancer and singer who – after facing segregation in the US – had moved to France, where she became one of the country’s most successful performers. By 1936, she was a naturalised citizen and was rumoured to be making more money than any artist who had ever appeared on the Paris scene.
At the beginning of World War II, she retreated to her chateau where she was approached by Jacques Abtey, head of the French counter-military intelligence. When asked if she would contribute to the growing resistance against the Nazis, Baker is reported to have said: “I am ready, Captain, to give my life to France.”
Her weapon of choice was her stardom. Using her celebrity status, she attended lavish parties where she gathered top-secret information from prominent Japanese, Italian, and German officials. She smuggled the information on her sheet music using invisible ink, moving from country to country under the guise of a tour. She also hid members of the French Resistance in her residence and helped them evade imprisonment.
She eventually left her beloved France, escaping to North Africa where she sang for Allied regiments to boost morale. American academic Harold Cruse attended one of these concerts; she sang her infamous J’ai deux pays (I have two countries: my country, and Paris), and the GIs swooned. Of Baker, Cruse wrote: “What she sings, what she says in words, expresses in movement of body, in dance motions and pantomime, constitute an art of such magnificence and individuality that it is not enough to talk about. She must be seen.”
For her war efforts, she won five medals including the Legion d’Honneur presented by French President Charles de Gaulle.
Anna Marly was only 18 when she performed at the Schéhérazade, a legendary club in the heart of Paris, in 1935. She wore Medieval dress, sang in multiple languages and accompanied herself on the guitar.
Born in the midst of Russia’s 1917 revolution, Marly – previously Betoulinsky – emigrated with her family from Russia to France, where she was trained as a musician. She performed her original songs in Parisian music halls throughout the 1930s and gained local fame.
When war broke out, Marly fled to London, England. There, she volunteered to clear bomb damage and perform in the canteens. Inspired by the acts of resistance in Russia, she wrote the song Le Chant des Partisans; Joseph Kessel and Maurice Druon wrote the French lyrics.
The song was immediately popular. Broadcast twice daily by the BBC from March 17, 1943 to May 2, 1944, the song was said to have matched La Marseillaise – the French national anthem – as the musical symbol of resistance.
Even whistling the song’s opening melody in Occupied France could be seen as a political statement. A few bars signaled “the coast was clear” during sabotage operations; it was also reportedly whistled before German firing squads in defiance. Years after the war, Marly was told about two prisoners who sang the song to keep courage while they were forced to dig their own grave.
Marly wrote more than 20 songs for the French Resistance, but it was Le Chant des Partisans that stood out among her accomplishments. Though Kessel and Druon originally took full credit for the song, her contributions were acknowledged in 1985, when she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur. Of Marly, Charles de Gaulle said: “She made her talent into a weapon for France.”
While Marly wrote Le Chant des Partisans and performed it prolifically, it was famed crooner Germaine Sablon who sang the song in the 1944 film Three Songs of the Resistance. And though her performance was chill-inducing, it was far from her only contribution to the movement.
By the time of the film’s release, Sablon had already worked for years in the name of Free France. When the Germans invaded in 1940, Sablon refused surrender and immediately started undertaking clandestine activities to undermine the Nazis. She smuggled weapons and intelligence agents into France from England and enlisted volunteers in Charles de Gaulle’s underground army.
One of her recruits was Joseph Kessel – a journalist and screen-writer, who was also her lover. The two struck up an affair in 1935 and were inseparable. An article from the 1941 Albany Times claimed that when Kessel was offered a job in Hollywood, he refused because of his love for her. “He can’t live without Germaine Sablon, beautiful raven-haired Parisian radio star,” the article said.
But when Kessel was exposed as an underground fighter and a Jew, he fled to London where he met up with Druon and Marly. Sablon, however, went to North Africa, where she drove ambulances for the Allied forces. Historian Dominique Missika claimed that Kessel never forgave her for this display of independence.
She eventually joined the free French fighters in London in 1943, where she sang and performed on film for the war effort. She received the Legion d’Honneur in 1952.
The delayed acknowledgement of the resistance contributions of Baker, Marly, and Sablon is reflective of a broader issue regarding the exclusion of women from French Resistance narratives.
In the post-war period, efforts were made to quantify the French Resistance. Accounts measured resistance by counting any person who had been part of an official underground militant organisation for a minimum of 90 days; using this evaluation, only 7 percent of resisters were women. This criterion, however, paints an incomplete portrait of Resistance, failing to account for many individual and/or nonviolent acts.
Historians have increasingly demonstrated that women’s participation was much greater than originally documented. This is because women were able to maintain an air of normalcy throughout their endeavours. They assumed resistant activities that could be done from the home, sheltering Jewish children and stockpiling weapons among them. By resisting within their domestic sphere, they played up their traditional gender roles as wife and mother. In the case of the three singers, they took up jobs that would allow them to continue under the guise of their pre-war professions and identities.
Conversely, men were more likely to be seen as threats by the authorities. This made it imperative that the men band together in underground groups; what’s more, when the war ended, men were more likely to seek out recognition for their achievements. Many women felt that they did what had to be done.
Popular songs can create feelings of a shared identity among listeners. They fashion a sense of space and kinship. Individual listeners and audience members were empowered by the tunes, feeling that they did not act alone, but were instead part of a larger community – a community worth fighting for.
Overlooking the work of Baker, Marly, and Sablon also dismisses the fundamental power of music to unite and inspire. Contrary to de Gaulle’s postwar message of a national, unified Resistance, the reality was much more fragmentary. The French Resistance was not one, single, group of people – but countless individual acts and hundreds of distinct organizations with varying motivations. By studying these women, we begin to tell a more complete story.
- FILM: Women at War (1939-1945)
- BOOK: Rhythm and Resistance: Explorations in the Political Uses of Popular Music by Ray Pratt
- BOOK: Sisters in Resistance: How Women Fought to Free France, 1940-1945 by Margaret Collins Weitz