The Mystery of Jean Moulin

Douglas Johnson is the author of "France and the Dreyfus Affair" and other books and is emeritus professor of French history at the University of London.

Jean Moulin has been called the greatest hero of the French Resistance. But it was 21 years after his death in German hands and 20 years after the liberation of Paris that he was so proclaimed. And the proclamation itself was very unusual. It was more like a canonization.

On the morning of Dec. 19, 1964, a large gathering assembled outside the Pantheon in Paris, the deconsecrated church that is the resting place of the heroes of the French Republic. A remarkable ceremony was presided over by President Charles de Gaulle, who was wearing his legendary uniform, that of the two-star general who founded La France Libre in London. Before the coffin containing the supposed remains of Moulin (it is not known where or how he died ) was taken into the building, the crowd heard a remarkable speech by writer Andre Malraux, in which he hailed the Resistance as the people of the night, and Moulin as their leader.

“Think of his poor, battered face,” he cried. “That day, his last day, it was the face of France.”

Thus began the cult of Moulin. Until this ceremony, his name was largely unknown. There had been commemorations in places that had had a particular involvement with him, such as Beziers, in the south, where he was born in 1899, and Chartres, where he had lived as prefect of the Eure-et-Loire department. But those who had died fighting in the Resistance had often been honored in localities where they were known, so there was nothing special about this. Books about the Resistance, published before 1964, had scarcely mentioned him or had referred to him by his Resistance pseudonym as “Max.”


But after the Pantheon ceremony, books about him became plentiful. In 1993, it was estimated that nearly a thousand streets, squares and bridges had adopted the name of Jean Moulin, as had several lycees and universities. In this category of fame and honor, Moulin stood high, outclassed only by de Gaulle and Gen. Jacques Leclerc.

But why had de Gaulle ordered this commemoration? It was assumed that he had a particular motive. The spectacle, with the Pantheon as its background, reminded the country that, if Moulin was the leader of the people of the night, de Gaulle was the Liberator of France. And if he was to be a candidate for reelection as president in 1965, then the man who had recently abandoned Algeria needed the victories and the glory of the past. It is noticeable that when de Gaulle concluded the final Cabinet meeting of the year, on Dec. 23, 1964, he told his ministers that they could look back on a successful 12 months, culminating in the commemoration of Moulin.

Naturally, this maneuver inflamed many former members of the Resistance and encouraged them not only to question the timing of the ceremony, but also to ask whether Moulin had really been the leader of the Resistance. Had the right man been placed in the Pantheon? As Moulin became a cult figure, he also became a figure of bitter controversy.

But what sort of a man was Moulin? This is the question that Patrick Marnham addresses in what is a relatively short book (given the length of many books about Moulin), and a book that is always direct in its presentation and argument.


In chapters describing Moulin’s life up to the French army’s defeat in June 1940, when he was on the eve of his 41st birthday, there are certain aspects that Marnham stresses. One is what his sister, Laure Moulin, loyally called his natural sense of reserve, but which was usually called his secrecy. Another is his ambition. A French historian of the Resistance has said, with a certain delicacy, that you do not become the youngest sub-prefect in France, and then the youngest prefect, which was Moulin’s achievement, simply by being a talented administrator. One of Moulin’s acquaintances is quoted as saying that, as young men, they were all ambitious, but if you saw Moulin talking to a friend, he looked as if he were plotting something against himself. He appears as if he were always watchful for the right opportunity, manipulative, becoming a Freemason so that he could benefit from influential contacts.

Another aspect of Moulin’s life, as shown by Marnham, is that he had difficulties with personal relations. The failure of his marriage was largely caused by his mother-in-law, who thought that he had married her young daughter because he knew that she would inherit a large sum of money on reaching the age of 21. But while he had several girlfriends and spent enjoyable holidays with people of his age, the first real friend that we are told about was Pierre Cot, whom he met in 1925 and who was elected deputy three years later. They shared many interests, such as sports and dancing, and most particularly, the politics of the Radical Socialist party.

In all biographies of Moulin, events of June 1940 are of considerable importance. It was then that, as prefect of the Eure-et-Loire region, he was in Chartres when the Germans arrived in the early hours of June 17. The story has often been told. Moulin refused to sign a document falsely stating that Senegalese troops in the French army had killed some French women, and the Germans beat him up. Exhausted, and fearing that he would give way to the Germans if they continued, when he was left in prison for the night he cut his throat. But the German guard found him when he was still alive, and his life was saved. Marnham does not see this as an example of heroism. He suggests that the imprisoned Moulin waited until he heard the German guard arriving before carefully cutting himself close to his chin, so that no major artery was severed although he bled and the wound appeared dangerous. This was an example of cunning, not heroism.

It is clear that Marnham is, to say the least, critical of Moulin. And why not? Every hero has his weaknesses. But the general theme of the book sets out to show that Moulin was tainted by his communist acquaintances and ideas. From the time that he first became a friend of Cot’s, Moulin was in contact not only with members of the party but also with Soviet agents. When he left France in September 1941, on his long journey to join de Gaulle in London, Marnham describes Moulin as a man far more committed to the defense of the Soviet Union than to the cause of patriotic resistance. And he finds it particularly significant that, when working for de Gaulle, Moulin concealed his contacts with the circle of Soviet agents. Marnham’s fundamental belief is that the communists always sought to seize power in France.


Moulin’s greatest achievement was to create the National Council of the Resistance, which met for the first time in occupied Paris on May 27, 1943. This brought together the most important Resistance groups and representatives of several political parties. This was also an achievement for the communists. Moulin had done what they wanted. From then on, they had no further use for Moulin. Indeed, he hindered them by insisting on his own power, and because he represented de Gaulle who was the great obstacle to their revolution, they needed to get rid of him. So, according to Marnham, it was the communists who betrayed him. On June 21, less than a month after the first meeting of the National Council, Moulin was seized by the Gestapo and disappeared for ever.

This is highly controversial. Because the author has written a most readable narrative but has not presented an historical argument sustained by evidence, it is far from convincing. His vision of the communist party as a unified revolutionary force is hardly credible.

His arguments are not helped by hints. Thus, after November 1940, when Moulin has been dismissed from his prefecture and is on half-pay, Marnham notes that he does not seem short of money. Someone must be giving him money. Who could it be? And when, writing about the exodus of civilians from Chartres in 1940, Moulin said that it was the “so-called ruling class of the bourgeoisie” that had given the example. Marnham comments that the phrase is, of course, straight out of the Marxist night-school handbook. How could he make this snide remark about a man whom he has praised for his exceptional ability?