Giles Woodforde talks to an Oxford University historian about his latest book

Robert Gildea is particularly interested in the Second World War, and his latest book, Fighters in the Shadows – A New History of the French Resistance, has been longlisted for the prestigious Samuel Johnson prize.

Oxford University’s Professor of Modern History, and a Fellow of Worcester College explained: “I’ve always been a bit sceptical about how many people were involved in the French Resistance, and how deep it went. Also, I wanted to find out what life was like in ordinary communities in occupied France.

“So I decided to write Fighters in the Shadows from first person testimony. I interviewed about a dozen people who were still alive, but also relied on interviews that were recorded all the way back to the immediate post-war period.

“And of course there are memoirs, letters, and so on. So I hope I’ve managed to weave some quite dramatic and moving individual accounts into a wider picture.”

“I’ve been teaching this area of French history for about 30 years,” Robert explains, “and out of that, came a book I wrote 15 years ago called Marianne in Chains, which was about life in the Loire Valley under German occupation.

“French historians are very sceptical of oral history, because for the first 20 or 30 years after the liberation of France the archives were closed, so you had to rely on what the resisters said was going on – they didn’t keep archives themselves, obviously, for had such paperwork been discovered the resisters concerned would have been shot.

“But the oral history project taught me that you get a truth from an interview, and that truth changes every time. People are always reworking their past. What matters to me is how people got involved with the Resistance.”

But, I ask, might some interviewees still be a bit wary of revealing any co-operation with the German occupying forces, even 70 years later?

“Well, I interviewed Madeleine Riffaud, who is still alive and must be about 95. The recording is often interrupted by birdsong – she relies on exotic birds for company.

“She tells an extraordinary story about how she got involved with the Resistance – obviously one doesn’t know whether it’s true or not, but the story is that in 1940 she came across a group of German soldiers, and one of them kicked her in the backside.

“She was so angry and humiliated that she resolved to join the Resistance. As a young nurse, she shot a German soldier dead on the banks of the Seine in 1944, partly to avenge the death of a colleague, who’d been tortured by the Germans, and partly to stimulate some kind of insurrection in Paris.

“She managed to avoid execution, and took part in the liberation of Paris. It’s an extraordinary account, and it’s the kind of story I find very moving and passionate.”

Robert is also a pioneer in the collection and publication of oral history.

“I got involved in running an oral history project called Europe’s 1968: Voices of Revolt,” Robert tells me when we meet in his college rooms.

“We recorded about 500 ‘life history’ interviews – we asked people about their early lives, how they got involved in activism, and what their later lives were like. As a historian one wants to have a wide and diverse picture, but I also became fascinated by individual lives.”

So what, I ask, first tickled Robert’s interest in history?

“I’d like to say that it came naturally – I can still remember the first two history books I purchased: I was given a book token for five shillings when I was eight or 10 years old, and bought myself two Ladybird books, one on Alfred the Great and the other on William the Conqueror. That’s how it all began.

“I now work more on the 19th, and particularly the 20th century, but the different world that you get from studying the past is something that’s always fascinated me.

“I wasn’t so interested in mythology or science fiction, but to me ordinary history is a world you can enter. By the time I entered my teens, I did start to feel that British history was in black and white while European history was in Technicolor, so I went for that!”

Robert first arrived in Oxford as a Merton College undergraduate in 1971, and apart from a brief spell as a lecturer at King’s College, London, has lived here ever since – when he’s not in France.

“Because I work on French history, I’ve spent a lot of time there: when I’m writing a big book I tend to go and live in France for a year, with or without the family, and do intensive research in archives.

“It’s the only way to do history properly. I’ve worked it out, and I’ve spent about six years in France.

“My wife Lucy-Jean read French and German at university, so we have a lot of French interests together. We have two boys and two girls, and three of them did history up to A-Level, but none of them are following in my footsteps – if parents can inspire their children with a love of learning and a certain amount of ambition that’s good, but they should find their own paths in life.

“Our eldest daughter Rachel is a dancer: she was recently involved in the Cowley Road Carnival, and has also been much involved in promoting dance in Oxford.”

A keen Twitter contributor, Robert is also well known on the social media site for his outbursts. “I do send one off when something gets me going,” he admits with a gentle laugh. “It’s usually anger at various political circumstances.”

One of his tweets reads: “History repeats itself, from tragedy to farce, and finally drives you mad.” Does that suggest that being Professor of Modern History means taking risks with your own sanity?

“Those lines from Marx say that all history starts with tragedy and ends in farce,” Robert replies. “I suppose that one of my things is that politicians, for example, learn so little from the past while we historians are beavering away trying to explain things, and put them in context.

“You’d think that at some point the message would get through – why it isn’t a good idea to start wars, or oppress people too much, for instance. That does upset me from time to time.”

Fighters in the Shadows by Robert Gildea is published by Faber & Faber.