The General’s Niece
Over the last year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about women involved in resistance movements in World War II.
The extent of women’s particicpation in the armed resistance units known as the maquis is a matter of dispute. But no one doubts that many women performed critical activities that allowed the maquis to function. Because women could move more freely, they acted as couriers and collected intelligence, and arranged for food, supplies, and shelter for armed insurgents and downed Allied pilots. They transported weapons and ammunition and distributed illegal printed materials, sometimes using the trappings of pregnancy and motherhood to help them smuggle contraband under the eyes of German soldiers. Their work was as dangerous as that performed by any armed maquisard. Without them, the armed groups could not have carried out their actions, yet historians often describe their work as “passive resistance.” As Paige Bowers demonstrates in The General’s Niece: The Little-Known De Gaulle Who Fought to Free Occupied France, they were not passive by any reasonable definition of the term.
Genevieve De Gaulle was a teenager when the war began. Inspired by the example of her uncle, Charles De Gaulle, she became a fervent member of the French resistance, and an inspiration to others in her own right. Bowers tells her story in a classic three-act structure: the development of a young girl into an important member of the resistance, her arrest by the Nazis and imprisonment in the infamous Ravensbruck concentration camp, and her post-war activism, first on behalf of other women who suffered in the camps and later on behalf of the poor and displaced. At each step, Bowers sets De Gaulle’s story within its larger context, using the story of one extraordinary woman to illuminate the story of those around her.
Personally, I found the post-war part of the story the most fascinating in some ways because it was all new to me. It had never occurred to me that women who escaped the camps would have troubled re-integrating into society after the war. A serious lack of imagination on my part. It’s easy to forget that war leaves a long tail of destruction.
The General’s Niece is by turns gripping, heart-breaking, horrifying, and inspirational. If you’re interested in World War II, women’s history, or stories of resistance, put it on your list.
(Mark your calendars. Paige Bowers is going to be part of a special project celebrating Women History Month here on the Margins.)
Loved the ‘Niece’