Although resisters did not, as a rule, keep records during the war, various government agencies rushed to create files on them immediately after the war. These agencies fell into two groups: those interested in organizing information for the sake of dispensing money and those interested in figuring out what went on during the war.

The first group includes the American and British air forces, the French army and the Belgian and Dutch ministries of social affairs. The Americans and British wanted to thank civilians who had helped their men evade the enemy. But they only wanted to award medals, food packages, widow’s pensions and the like to those who actually did help, so they required enough documentation to support any such claim. In 1944 the French army already included a huge bureaucracy that administered veterans’ benefits for the First World War, so they folded resisters into that. Again, they were only willing to pay pensions to bona fide resisters and so required proof of resistance. The Dutch and Belgians entrusted benefits for resisters to civilian bureaucracies, which shared that same worry about acknowledging only authentic resisters.

The easiest way to separate the true resisters from the false resisters was to have the chiefs of acknowledged Resistance organizations vouch for everyone in their groups. That was not nearly as simple as it sounds, especially in big networks in which the leadership had changed because of arrests or the leaders simply could not know every single person involved. If necessary, the police investigated claims by interviewing the neighbors. Official acknowledgment of having been in the Resistance meant so much in postwar France that claims to resistance status could end up in court. I’ve seen the documents of one case that stayed in the courts for over 20 years before a judge finally put a stop to it on the grounds that it was so entangled in local rivalries that the truth could never be unearthed.

Once these bureaucracies established the validity of a claim, however, they were interested only in administering the benefits due to that claim not in writing history. As the decades passed, laws changed and the bureaucracies sent out new forms and admitted new categories of resisters or civilian victims of the war, but they remained focused on administering the benefits. They kept their files under lock and key until very recently, at least in part to preserve the privacy of their clients. They did not even share them with the other government agencies interested in resisters, about which I’ll tell you in the next post.