When Underground Newspapers Created Hope and Helped Save the Free World

Clandestine newspapers were a way to counter German propaganda.

It was the first large anti-German demonstration in France, and the enemy was determined to make it the last. German police and troops charged into the crowd and shot several students—a response that shocked the country and discouraged any future acts of mass defiance.

Nonetheless, unnoticed by almost everyone, the embers of rebellion began to smolder. The Scottish writer Janet Teissier du Cros, who lived in France throughout the war, put it another way; French resistance “grew as naturally as a mushroom grows among dead leaves,” she wrote.

“In its beginnings it was no organized movement. In town, village, or countryside, those in whom it burns soon came to know which of their neighbors shared their views; and with no clear notion how their feelings could be translated into action, they gathered, at first simply for moral support. Heroism crept up on many of them like a thief in the night.”

Gradually, these small clusters of would-be resisters joined forces with equally disorganized groups, creating fragmented movements around the country. Few of them had much, if any, knowledge of the others. What they did have in common was the first step most of them took as embryo resistance organizations: the publication of clandestine newspapers meant to counteract German propaganda and provide the French public with accurate information about what was occurring in the war and their country.

Underground newspapers were central to the existence of resistance movements in every occupied nation, but they were particularly important in France, a country that places an extremely high value on the spoken and written word. According to the National Library of France, more than one thousand underground publications were published during the country’s occupation.

Like the BBC broadcasts to France, the newspapers were aimed at replacing despair and the feeling of helplessness with hope and a spirit of defiance. “We made it clear that there was an active Resistance at work, one that was growing from day to day,” an underground editor remarked after the war. “[Our membership] was invisible to our readers. . . .The only sign it could give at that stage was our two-page printed sheet.”

The newspapers in themselves were tangible proof that Frenchmen were fighting back. Producing and distributing the papers—leaving them in post offices and on trains, slipping them through mail slots—involved considerable risk and ended up serving as the seedbed and training ground for more overt and dangerous kinds of rebellion.

As they set about retrieving their self-respect, these early resisters also developed a  sense of community that had been lacking in French society for generations, if not centuries. Transcending traditional social and economic barriers, people from all classes and walks of life—journalists, teachers, railwaymen, shopkeepers, stevedores, engineers, clerks, and farmers—banded together in what one resister called “our passionate love for our country.”

—From Last Hope Island, by Lynne Olson, a book about how European nations fought back after the Nazi blitzkrieg rolled over continental Europe in the early days of World War Two.
Défense de la France was an underground newspaper produced by a group of the French Resistance during World War II. Essentially developed in the Northern Zone, Défense de la France distinguished itself by an activity centered on the distribution of a clandestine newspaper created in August 1941 by a group of Parisian students of the Christian faith. Philippe Viannay was the founder of it and the main editor. With a circulation of 450,000 in January 1944, it had the largest circulation of the clandestine press.


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    This reminds me of your manual typewriter’s column and the high regard of Russian technicians. ‘Maybe we made a difference over there.’ (approx.)

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