biography patrick marnham hearing the news; nine resisters were not sitting in the doctor’s waiting room at Caluire; General de Gaulle did not give his celebrated speech in Paris in August 1944 to cheering crowds in the Champs-Elysées; and one might think that someone at the author’s publishers would have pointed out to her that the First World War did not end on 8 May 1918. One could go on.
Acting Heroically Lucie Aubrac: The French Resistance Heroine who Defied the Gestapo
By Siân Rees (Michael O’Mara Books 256pp £20)
Lucie Aubrac was a young French woman who became an instant celebrity in 1944 when she was flown out of France by the RAF and identified by the BBC as the heroine who had ambushed a German prison van, killed the guards and rescued her husband from the clutches of the Gestapo. Raymond Aubrac had been arrested in Lyon in June 1943 in the company of Jean Moulin, the political head of the French Resistance. Moulin died in German custody and when the war ended the Aubracs played a prominent role in the investigation and subsequent trial of the man they identified as the traitor who had betrayed him. This was paradoxical, since one of the first people suspected of betraying the meeting on 21 June in the house of Dr Frédéric Dugoujon in Caluire was Raymond Aubrac himself.
to be meeting General de Gaulle; Moulin was never a member of France’s National Assembly, nor did he fight for two hours in the streets of Paris on 27 February 1934, nor did he resign as a Vichy prefect (he was fired), nor was he picked up ‘every so often’ by a British plane and regularly ‘parachuted into France’; the photograph of Moulin
The opening words of this biography are, ‘All her life, Lucie Aubrac was a storyteller’. They are probably the most reliable words in the entire book. Aubrac was not just a storyteller; she was, in fact, a fantasist and a romantic, or, as her husband once said in a moment of exasperation, a liar.
There were several reasons for suspecting Aubrac. He had been arrested as a possible terrorist and investigated by the Gestapo a few weeks before the meeting, but he had been released without being mistreated and had failed to inform other members of the Resistance of this. He had prior knowledge of the address of the meeting in Caluire, he arrived forty-five minutes late and decided to stand in the doctor’s waiting room among genuine patients rather than join the Resistance group in a room upstairs.
From ‘True Comics’, a publication distributed to American troops
Unfortunately, this latest account of his wife’s life, Lucie Aubrac, is studded with errors. Contrary to what Siân Rees claims, François Mitterrand was never a member of the prewar extreme-right terrorist organisation known as the Cagoule; the pro-communist resistance leader Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie did not give up drugs when he came to London – he was once found stupefied in a smart hotel with a Soviet girlfriend when he was supposed does not show him wearing a scarf hiding a scar on his throat after he attempted suicide in German custody, since it was taken in 1938 before the outbreak of war. Furthermore, the picture purportedly ‘of Klaus Barbie in 1944’ shows an entirely different German soldier wearing the uniform of a unit in which Barbie never served.
Moulin was not in London when he heard of the arrest of General Delestraint in June 1943 and consequently did not immediately parachute into France on
To put it bluntly, she was a serial fabricator, in particular about her activities during the war and about the nature of the French Resistance. She was never seriously confronted with her lies until she was too old to defend herself, by which time public sympathy naturally went out to a frail, half-blind old lady who was apparently being bullied by a panel of historians about her long record of telling porky pies. The only interesting question about Lucie Aubrac, never asked in this very disappointing book, is why did she do it? She had passed the agrégation, she was a highly intelligent woman and she had the courage to join a resistance group, so why did she muddy the waters and cover up her own real-life activities with a long series of absurd accounts of how she led commando raids that could have come straight from the pages of Comic Cuts?
One explanation is that she and her communist husband had quite a lot to hide about what they actually did during the war, in particular about the circumstances in which he was arrested and later freed by the Gestapo. Madame Aubrac was known to be a liar by other resisters during the war, but despite this Siân Rees generally accepts her longdiscredited account of events, however far-fetched. The result is a book that is consistently misleading. In that sense at least, it is worthy of its subject. To order this book through our partner bookshop, Heywood Hill, see page 28
Literary Review | october 2015 10