Book: Lynne Olson’s “Madame Fourcade’s Secret War”

Dear Commons Community,

Earlier this month, I read and reviewed on this blog, Lynne Olson’s book, Empress of the Nile, a biography of Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, a French archaeologist who goes to great lengths to preserve the ancient treasures of Egypt.  I  was so impressed both with the story of Desroches-Noblecourt as well as Olson’s  presentation and writing that I decided to read one of her earlier works, a biography of Marie Madeleine Fourcade, entitled, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War:  The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler (2019). The Fourcade book focuses entirely on the Alliance, a major intelligence operation trying to undermine Nazi control of France.  The Alliance provided valuable information to the British and the Americans on German submarine deployments, preparation for the Normandy invasion, and the subsequent Allied march to Germany. What is most remarkable about Fourcade is that she was the leader of the Alliance and coordinated the work of over 3,000 operatives,  hundreds of whom were captured and executed by the Germans.    Olson’s particular literary gift is her ability to depict well the strong-willed personalities of women who excel in male-dominated activities.

I found both books fine reads and highly recommend them.

Below is a review of the Fourcade book that appeared in The New York Times Review of Books.


Review of Books

Remembering a Woman Who Was a Leader of the French Resistance

March 12, 2019

Marie-Madeleine Fourcade’s false identity card under the name Marie Suzanne Imbert.
Credit…Tallandier – Rue des Archives/Granger, NYC

The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler
By Lynne Olson
Illustrated. 428 pp. Random House. $30.

Why have most of us never heard of Marie–Madeleine Fourcade? Why is her name missing from the honor roll of war heroes carved into thousands of monuments in hundreds of French village squares? Might the fact that this hero — the leader of one of France’s most successful anti-Nazi resistance organizations — was not a hero, but a heroine, have something to do with her absence from history? There is reason to believe so. At the end of World War II, the triumphant Gen. Charles de Gaulle designated 1,038 people as resistance heroes. Only six of those heroes were women, and Fourcade, who ran the longest-running spy network, was not among them. In “Madame Fourcade’s Secret War,” her fast-paced and impressively researched account, Lynne Olson corrects that historical injustice. Marie-Madeleine Fourcade emerges as a vivid and pivotal player in the French Resistance.

She was a daughter of the privileged bourgeoisie and the product of convent schools, with a naturally adventuresome spirit nurtured during a Shanghai childhood (her father was with the French Maritime service). In ordinary times, Fourcade might have slipped into her natural role as a chic Parisian. But, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, the 1930s were no ordinary time for France — or the world. From the days of gathering darkness in 1936 until the end of World War II, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was the very definition of une femme engagée.

When German troops marched into Paris in the early morning hours of June 14, 1940, the French government — caught shockingly unprepared — fled the capital. As Hitler triumphantly toured Paris the following week, 84-year-old Marshal Philippe Pétain, hero of Verdun, hastily formed a collaborationist government in the spa town of Vichy. Many of his fellow citizens, still reeling from World War I’s aftershocks, including the loss of 660,000 of their sons, were as unenthusiastic about confronting Hitler as the old marshal himself. Pétain soon changed the humiliated country’s motto from liberté, égalité, fraternité to the fascist-friendly travail, famille, patrie.

Fourcade embodied everything Pétain and his ilk despised. She was a woman who refused to play by the rules of the racist, sexist and ultimately murderous Vichy patriarchy.

Olson describes how, as early as 1936, over tea at her sister’s elegant Paris apartment, the outspoken 27-year-old caught the eye of a former French military intelligence officer, Maj. Georges Loustaunau-Lacau (code name Navarre). He shared her revulsion at France’s passivity in the face of fascism and was organizing those of like mind. “It was a moral obligation to do what you are capable of doing,” one of Fourcade’s operatives said. “It was a must. How could you not do it?”

In July 1941, Navarre was arrested for anti-Pétain activity, and picked Fourcade to lead the movement he had started. (She chose the code name Hedgehog because, as a colleague put it, “it’s a tough little animal that even a lion would hesitate to bite.”) Olson’s narrative moves briskly through the Cote d’Azur, the Dordogne, Brittany and Burgundy as Fourcade recruited spies, radio operators, pilots and couriers (happily, many recruits came equipped with their own ancient family chateaus), all the while stealthily communicating with British intelligence in London. Skeptics regarding the actual strength of the French Resistance may be surprised by this account, according to which thousands — from all walks of life — signed up.

Among Fourcade’s assets as a spy was her gender. “Good God, a woman!” Gabriel Rivière, the head of the underground’s Marseille operation, exclaimed, upon meeting Fourcade for the first time. She proved more fearless and often more cunning than some of the men she recruited, and frequently more so than the Vichy authorities. In this account, partly based on Fourcade’s own memoirs, Pétain’s agents often come off as Inspector Clouseau–ishly inept. When Fourcade’s assistant, Monique Bontinck, requested a bath before her arrest, the cops consented, and went for a smoke. “She went into the bathroom, turned on the taps of the tub full blast. … Taking off her shoes, she tiptoed down the hallway quietly” and opened the front door. “She could hear shouts from the policemen in the stairwell” as she fled to a safe house in Lyon.

Olson writes with verve and a historian’s authority. Fourcade, she tells us, was beautiful and liked men, but she was obsessed with defeating the despised Boches. A master of disguises, she frequently changed her hair color, and sometimes used distorting dentures and other theatrical tricks.

Her personal life was — even by French standards — complicated. Fourcade was married, with two young children she didn’t see for years at a time. Her estranged husband is barely mentioned. Before long, however, she fell in love with a French Air Force pilot, Leon Faye, who joined her network as her deputy. Even after she became pregnant with Faye’s child, she continued to take jaw-dropping risks. (Fourcade’s treatment of her children struck me as shockingly cold.)

Olson’s narrative might have been tighter had it focused on fewer and more fleshed-out characters. In a long list of dramatis personae worthy of a Russian novel, one of the more memorable is Fourcade’s agent Jeannie Rousseau. A 20-year-old recent graduate of the prestigious École Libre des Sciences Politiques, Rousseau, like her boss, benefited from men underestimating her. When the Germans set up their Brittany headquarters, Rousseau, who spoke fluent German, applied for a job as a translator. Remarkably careless around this pretty young woman, the Wehrmacht officers peppered their conversations with two strange words: “Peenemünde” and “raketten.” In answer to Jeannie’s seemingly innocent query, an officer showed her a drawing of a rocket and a testing station, on an island off the Baltic coast, Peenemünde. Rousseau’s report on this exchange was an astonishing piece of intelligence. It revealed to the Allies the existence of a new superweapon, the V2 rocket.

In late 1942, 200,000 Wehrmacht troops marched unopposed into the former Vichy-governed “free zone.” Now, with the Gestapo in full charge, Fourcade was often mortally afraid. Reluctantly, she accepted evacuation to London, where she found a different but still vicious war between two titanic exiled French leaders: Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud. Fourcade refused to be drawn into this internecine battle and made herself suspect in the eyes of many French exiles by working too closely with the British.

Collaborating with British intelligence confronted Fourcade with a familiar challenge: sexism. When the head of MI6, Cmdr. Claude Dansey, first met Fourcade, he behaved with exaggerated gallantry, presenting her with a bouquet and remarking, “So this is the terrible woman who has had us all scared!” Though anxious to return to her agents in France, Fourcade was told, essentially, not to worry her pretty little head. “You’ve gone on long past the safety limits,” the Englishman admonished her. “According to the law of averages, an underground leader can’t last more than six months. You’ve lasted over two and a half years. It’s sheer witchcraft.” As Olson relates, behind her back he referred to her as “Cohen’s bitch” — a reference to Fourcade’s close friend Cmdr. Kenneth Cohen, the MI6 official in charge of French intelligence during the war. Fourcade eventually returned to France and to her agents in the field.

Awaiting capture by the Gestapo, expecting torture and execution, Fourcade requested permission from a priest to take the cyanide pills she carried — suicide being a mortal sin in her Catholic faith. She shouldn’t have any scruples about this, the priest assured her. It would not be suicide, but instead a means of resisting the enemy. But, as always, she survived, living to the age of 79, dying in 1989.

Will the brutal Nazi occupation of Europe ever stop churning up new material? Probably not. Nor should we ever cease our attempt to fathom two unfathomable questions regarding the 20th century: Just how did Hitler nearly fulfill his murderous vision, and why did so few resist his monstrous plans? Marie-Madeleine Fourcade certainly did, and with this gripping tale Lynne Olson pays her what history has so far denied her. France, slow to confront the stain of Vichy, would do well to finally honor a fighter most of us would want in our foxhole.

Kati Marton, the author of nine books, is currently working on a biography of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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