Resistance: The French Series and History Explained

Christina Knight | March 9, 2020

THIRTEEN members can binge watch Resistance with the member benefit THIRTEEN Passport.

Based on true events, the six-part drama Resistance tells the story of young heroes in France who fight for freedom from German Nazi occupation during World War II. Their actions include producing an underground newspaper titled, Résistance. The series is in French with English subtitles.

To get you started, here are some brief notes to explain the history of occupied France in WWII, including people, places and events alluded to in the dramatic series.

When and how was France Occupied During World War II?

Occupied and free zone of France (dates indicate terms used before and after 1942).

Occupied and free zone of France (dates indicate terms used before and after 1942).

France entered World War II more than two years before U.S. did, declaring war on Germany when it invaded Poland in September 1939. By May 1940, German troops overwhelmed French forces on their own land. The French government was divided between those who wanted to continue fighting and those who considered surrender the best option.

The defeatists were led by cabinet member Philippe Pétain, a retired army general. He was elevated to prime minister and signed an armistice treaty with Germany on June 22, 1940.

From 1940 until 1942, Germany occupied the northern half and southwestern coastal area of France, which included the capital Paris and all Atlantic coastline. Behind a rigid demarcation line was the “free zone” of France in the southeast, roughly one-third of the country.  The Pétain government made its seat there in the city of Vichy. It had civil authority over all of France, and collaborated with the German occupiers.

When Allied forces landed in North Africa in 1942, the Axis powers Germany and Italy extended the occupation France to the south in a defensive move, ending the “free zone.”

The Allied Normandy landings on June 6, 1944 would finally push Germany out of France.

What was Vichy France?

The Vichy opera house, where the parliament voted to form the new French State in 1940. Photo: Tabl-trai

The new French State was formed during the days surrounding the surrender to German forces in June 1940. In July, the French parliament met in the Vichy Opera house and voted to end the Third Republic and form the new French State (80 of 600 parliament members voted against it). This Vichy regime oversaw the civil administration of France and the French colonial empire. It is named for the city where the government was based.

Led by Prime Minister Pétain, the Vichy government collaborated with Nazi Germany, becoming a police state and allowing actions against its Jewish citizens and other Jewish residents, and eventually deporting Jews to concentration camps.

Adolf Hitler greets the Vichy leader Philippe Pétain (at left) in Montoire-sur-le-Loir. In center: Interpeter Dr. Paul Schmidt. At right: Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

Adolf Hitler greets the Vichy leader Philippe Petain (at left) in Montoire-sur-le-Loir. In center: Interpreter Dr. Paul Schmidt. At Right: Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

After the Normandy landings of the Allied forces and the liberation of Paris in 1944, the exiled General Charles de Gualle returned to Paris and set up a provisional government that was recognized by the Allied powers. The Vichy government relocated to Germany on September 7, 1944. After the war, Pétain was convicted of treason and his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

The history and role of Vichy France is complicated, but we hope this introduction orients you in the series Resistance, which references Pétain and the town of Vierzon in Episode 1. (Vierzon is bisected by a river: the south of the city was in the “free zone” of France, and the north part was in the German-occupied area.)

People Introduced in Resistance: Episode 1

Without giving away spoilers, here is a short selection of real people portrayed, or mentioned, in the first episode of Resistance, a six-part series based on true events. The main character, the teenager Lili (Pauline Burlet), is a fictional heroine.

Countess de la Bourdonnaye
The wealthy Countess de la Bourdonnaye is among those organizing the resistance in Episode 1. Among her accomplishments during the war was manufacturing fake identity cards for Jewish children.

The Huns
“The Huns” turns up often in the English subtitles of Resistance; characters often refer to the Nazi German occupiers as such. It was a common pejorative term for Germans used by the French and British, and its usage dates to World War I. In 1900, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II gave a speech to German troops, entreating them to be as merciless as Attila the Hun as they set off for the Boxer Rebellion in China.

Bernard Kirschen
Jewish and born in Romania in 1921, Kirschen immigrated as a child with his family to France. He was among the young leaders who organized the first public act of resistance against the Nazi occupiers: the student march and protest at Place de l’Étoile on November 11, 1940, the anniversary of the end of World War I.

Sylvette LeLeu
A widow and owner of a garage in Bethune, France (about one hour inland from Dunkirk, where the British battled German forces from May 26, 1940 – June 4, 1940), Sylvette was the head of a resistance team whose activities included helping British prisoners of war escape occupied France.

Philippe Pétain

Characters in Resistance utter Pétain’s name with disdain. Marshal Philippe Pétain, leader of the French Vichy government, was authoritarian, right-wing – and some say – an outright fascist.

Boris Vildé
This Russian ethnologist worked at the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) in Paris. He organized a group of scientists and lawyers there to form one of the first resistance groups. They used the museum’s basement to secretly publish the anti-Nazi and anti-Vichy newspaper, Résistance from the museum’s basement.

Resistance can be streamed on-demand with the PBS station member benefit THIRTEEN Passport, as can the PBS foreign-language dramas Line of Separation from Germany, Professor T from Belgium, and Thou Shalt Not Kill from Italy.