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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

What I'm Reading: The Saboteur

These days, if I buy a book, there's a good chance it was inspired by a podcast. In the case of The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France's Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando, this was certainly the case.

Author Paul Kix appeared on Ryan Holiday's Daily Stoic podcast to discuss the book, which tells the story of Robert de La Rochefoucauld, a young Frenchman from one of the country's wealthiest families who joined the Resistance during World War II. His daring acts of espionage form an engrossing and suspenseful tale as La Rochefoucauld sabotages Nazi factories, escapes multiple prisons, and operates under a number of aliases in his quest to avoid detection.

Aside from a compelling plot, the book revealed a different wartime France than the one I had envisioned when learning about this time period in school. I was surprised to learn that only an estimated two percent of Frenchmen actively participated in the Resistance movement (to be fair, a larger minority could classified as passive participants). But as I read further, it soon became apparent why.

For starters, because the Resistance was a secret operation, their mission was about causing disruption in Nazi-occupied France by any means necessary. However, that meant when they were captured, they weren't "covered by the international treaties that protected prisoners of war in their official military fatigues. The résistant's civilian clothing was itself sometimes all the goading the Nazis needed to send another suspected saboteur to the firing squad."

In some respects, Kix writes, the life of a résistant was "more dangerous than an Allied soldier's, because standard rules of combat did not apply." There is a section in the book where he dives into the methods of torture the Nazis used on suspected résistants, which included torturing their family members as they looked on.

It's also important to recognize that France was only two decades removed from the First World War when the Nazis took over, and many had loved ones who perished in battle. According to Kix, "rather servitude than war" was the collective mindset as Hitler took over in 1940. There was simply no appetite to endure the same bloodshed and hardship of the past, even if it meant bowing to one of history's most villainous dictators.

It's easy to be critical of that stance, but hindsight creates a deceptive bias. I'm reminded of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who wrote in Man's Search for Meaning that "no man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same." Joining the Resistance put the life of a résistant and his family in grave danger. When that perspective comes into focus, it's easy to see why so many conformed.

So why did an aristocrat like La Rochefoucauld join the fight? I can't be sure, but I imagine the privilege that surrounded Robert's youth was not lost on him. His ancestors had brought wealth and respect to the family name through various acts of leadership and love of country. My guess is Robert felt compelled to follow in their footsteps.

What I love about the book is that it is written as narrative nonfiction. As such, it reads more like a novel than a textbook. To achieve this flow, Kix constructed the plot using a triangulation of research from La Rochefoucauld's memoir, interviews with his family, and British military records.

As Kix openly admits, there were parts of the memoir that were inconsistent with military records. There are validity constraints with both, as any individual's memory isn't always precise (check out Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History episode on this here), and the British military understandably kept many Resistance activities off the books. To connect the dots, Kix goes with his best guess, and includes roughly 60 pages of notes for support.

For those searching for absolute historical accuracy, that process might be a deterrent. For me, I appreciated how forthcoming Kix was in his approach. I also think it preserved his ability to share La Rochefoucauld's story as just that - a story. It was enjoyable and engaging. And, at the end of the day, nothing that was written skews the major facts or diminishes the heroism of any other prominent figure of the time.

The Saboteur is more than a suspenseful tale of espionage. It's an inquiry into the cost of standing up for what you believe. For many of us, we must acknowledge there's a price at which we are no longer willing to pay.

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