How Exiles in Argentina Shaped France’s Resistance to Nazi Occupation

During WWII, a Latin American network fought to liberate their homeland from afar, with Buenos Aires — the Paris of South America — at the heart of a transnational movement

How Exiles in Argentina Shaped France’s Resistance to Nazi Occupation
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

Summer 1940. A young boy reads in his parents’ living room as a portrait of the French Gen. Charles de Gaulle watches over him from the mantelpiece. The house is not in Paris or Nice, but Alta Gracia, Argentina. And the young boy’s name is Ernesto Guevara.

Sixteen years later, Guevara would lead Cuba’s armed communist revolution. But at the time, “El Che” was a schoolboy in a small town in Argentina.

Guevara’s political consciousness came from his mother, Celia de la Serna. In the late 1930s — already married and with four children — de la Serna joined various anti-fascist groups and began to engage in left-wing activism. When war broke out in Europe, she helped resettle Spanish Republican refugees in Argentina. Then, when Hitler marched west in summer 1940, she turned her sights to France.

De la Serna must have listened to, or at least been aware of, de Gaulle’s June 18, 1940, speech on the BBC, in which he condemned the French armistice signed with the Nazis and called on the army to keep fighting. Around the world, French expatriates and Francophiles tuned in to this broadcast. The most active of them began to form external resistance committees. The constellation of these networks made up Free France, a state in exile that claimed to be the true incarnation of the fallen Republic, with de Gaulle at its helm.

In Cordoba, near Alta Gracia, de la Serna co-founded the local Free French chapter. Roughly 300 committee members met weekly to recap the latest news from the front and gather funds for the liberation of Paris by selling hand-bound French recipe books. They were not alone. Of the 400 Free French committees founded around the world, 300 of them were in Latin America, and more than 40 in Argentina. Committees sprouted up in Mendoza, Posadas and as far away as Tucuman, near the Bolivian border.

From June 1940, Buenos Aires became the beating heart of the French resistance-in-exile. In this cosmopolitan port city, French expats and Argentinians alike drummed up resistance to — and raised money to counter — France’s collaborationist regime headquartered in the spa town of Vichy. Around 400 recruits left the port of Buenos Aires on boats headed for England, where they would put their lives on the line to free a country most of them had never seen. At home, volunteer civilians published newspapers, hosted radio shows, sold pins and badges and held high-society galas to support Free France. These Argentinians — who had strong historical and cultural ties to France — may have also seen in the French civil resistance echoes of their own situation: emerging fascist sentiment that would eventually boil over into a military coup.

The story, then, of how de Gaulle’s portrait ended up on the mantle of Guevara’s family home is also the story of how French expatriates and exiles and their Argentinian allies resisted fascism at home and abroad — and it begins with one mustachioed Frenchman.

Little in Albert Guerin’s past made him a likely candidate for resistance leader. Wounded in World War I, the Avignon-born Guerin was a disabled business owner who dealt in perfume rather than politics. He had moved from France to Buenos Aires after the war and, by 1940, had lived half his life outside his home country.

Still, when de Gaulle made his June 18 speech, the 47-year-old Guerin, head of the WWI veterans association in Buenos Aires, was one of the first people to answer his call.

A week after de Gaulle’s BBC radio address, a telegram arrived at the Foreign Office in London, where de Gaulle was attempting to establish his Free French government-in-exile. It came from Argentina and read: “Former French combatants united [in] Buenos Aires have set up [a] French National Committee approving your initiative [to] continue resisting until victory and await your orders.”

Several weeks later, de Gaulle wrote back to Guerin: “I congratulate you, confirm your appointment as Buenos Aires French group representative, and invite you to form a French action group and keep me informed of the situation.”

Guerin called his group of resistors-in-exile the “de Gaulle Committee.” And with the approval of the general himself, he got straight to work.

From a Hausmannian building on the aptly named Libertad Street in central Buenos Aires, Guerin founded and bankrolled a free, monthly bulletin called Pour la France Libre that would serve as the Free French mouthpiece in Latin America.

Readers of the bulletin admired Guerin’s daring and sharp tongue. “One finds his reward in reading your articles that are of an admirable verve and flame,” the New York-based art historian and Free French commentator Henri Focillon wrote to Guerin in August 1941. De Gaulle, too, wrote to Guerin to encourage him: “The Argentinian de Gaulle Committee, by its efficient action, is at the forefront of all of the committees formed around the world.”

The first issue of Pour la France Libre featured a red, white and blue cover and an image of Francois Rude’s sculpture “La Marseillaise.” The following bulletins were littered with crosses of Lorraine, the symbol of Free France, designed to counter the Nazi swastika. He paired it with the Latin words “In hoc signo vinces,” meaning, “In this sign thou shalt conquer.” Guerin, as it turned out, was not only a sharp writer but also a visionary propagandist.

Guerin was very much a “precursor” to the broader movement of resistance-in-exile, Vladimir Trouplin, a historian and head curator at Paris’ Museum of the Order of the Liberation, told New Lines. Flipping through archives, he explained that Guerin was both “the first to join and one of the most active members of the resistance-in-exile” and that his grassroots efforts in Argentina were key in making Free France a government in its own right.

Trouplin’s office is decorated with a large poster of the two-barred Cross of Lorraine, alongside the motto “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” and the tricolor flag of Republican France. Guerin, he explained, could use these three symbols at a time when de Gaulle himself wasn’t able to. London, where de Gaulle had set up the Free French headquarters, had broken diplomatic relations with Vichy in July 1940, though the two countries were never officially at war. As a result, criticism of the Vichy regime and its 84-year-old leader, Marshal Philippe Petain, was expressly forbidden, including in broadcasts by the government-funded BBC.

The BBC’s censorship did not apply to Argentina, though, and Guerin could afford to be as virulently anti-Vichy as he wished. “Could we accept this forfeiture, this degeneration inflicted upon France by this handful of traitors?” he wrote in fall 1940. “No, a thousand times no!” he responded. In early 1941, on Argentinian public radio, he declared: “To obey Petain is to obey Hitler. It’s as simple as that.”

Bruno Leroux, a historian and author of several books on the French Resistance, told New Lines that Guerin, unlike most of his contemporaries, was “not just against Vichy, but against Petain himself.” By August 1940, Guerin was already calling Petain a “dictator.”

It’s obvious from Guerin’s editorials that he had read not only “Mein Kampf” but also de Gaulle’s and Petain’s respective books and was fluent in their ideology and rhetoric. This, according to Leroux, made his own writing all the more convincing: “When Guerin — a war veteran himself — wrote that Petain had been a horrible general in WWI and should not be trusted to save France from the Nazis, people paid attention.”

Guerin’s propaganda led to his being condemned to 15 years in prison and stripped of his French nationality in absentia. In October 1941, a few months after Vichy effectively rendered him stateless, de Gaulle granted Guerin wartime France’s highest honor: the Cross of the Liberation, a medal bestowed upon only about 100 civilians. De Gaulle had rewarded him not as a soldier but as “Free France’s first propagandist,” Trouplin explained.

That Guerin built his propaganda machine 7,000 miles away from France, in an office in central Buenos Aires, was not as surprising as it may seem: Argentina has a long history of Francophilia.

Miranda Lida, a historian and professor at the University of San Andres in Buenos Aires, explained that from 1857 to 1940, Argentina received some 200,000 French immigrants — of whom more than half permanently settled in the country. A popular saying at the time went: “Argentina was built by Italian brawn, English capital and French thought.”

“In the prewar years, French culture was very important,” Lida told New Lines. “People read in French. They were up to date on all of the debates on the French left.” When the French socialist leader Jean Jaures was assassinated in 1914, she explained, “Argentinian newspapers commented on it, and some reacted with outrage.” Argentinians had first heard about the Russian Revolution through the effect it had in Paris, she added.

Buenos Aires in the early 20th century was like a modern Babel. The French community regularly came into contact not only with Spanish and Italian immigrants but also Germans, who published their own Spanish-language newspaper, El Pampero.

Despite the German presence, in May and June 1940, as the Nazis marched across France, Argentinian students backed France. They took to the streets singing “La Marseillaise.”

“South American elites are so traditionally attached to our culture,” wrote the French cultural attache Henri Seyrig in 1941, that the fall of France had felt “as though their entire spiritual universe was collapsing.” For the people of Latin America, Vichy signified “the annihilation of the social gains of the French Revolution” — in the name of which their own countries had been constituted as independent states.

This made supporting the war effort second nature to many in the “Paris of South America.” Argentines felt that if France fell, so too could their relatively new republic.

The fact that de Gaulle took a special interest in Latin America may have also spurred them on. On April 19, 1943, he gave one of only two wartime speeches directed to non-French listeners (the other being Canadians). “No other part of the world has shown suffering and fighting France a more ardent sympathy than Latin America,” he said. “Your souls and ours drink from the same sources of inspiration.”

By early 1943, Guerin had gathered some 4,000 dues-paying members across the country. His Buenos Aires committee was more than just a political entity: It was a hub of cultural preservation, hosting art shows, lectures and concerts that showcased prewar France to fund the fight for a postwar order.

The committee linked up with Accion Argentina — one of the anti-fascist groups Guevara’s mother, Celia de la Serna, had joined — and began to cross-syndicate content aimed at drumming up support for de Gaulle’s liberation army. At a time when fascist ideas were also beginning to take hold in Argentina, “the de Gaulle committees are an act of faith in France,” they wrote in a joint editorial, “which is in itself an act of faith in democracy.”

Latin American and Free French anti-fascist intellectuals frequented the same salons and republished one another’s work in their newspapers and magazines. In Lida’s book-filled Buenos Aires apartment, she kept dozens of copies of the magazine Sur, edited by the Argentinian editor Victoria Ocampo — a Francophile and close confidant of Guerin’s.

During the war, Ocampo was particularly active in supporting the Free French. In 1940, her publishing house translated and released de Gaulle’s 1934 missive, “The Army of the Future,” which had called on the French army to modernize in the face of the fascist threat. As the war went on, she joined forces with Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and French intellectual Roger Caillois in publishing a number of manifestos calling on Latin American governments to cut ties with Vichy and recognize the Free French.

From Argentina, Guerin also began to coordinate the broader Latin American resistance effort, reaching out to various Free French committees by letter and telegram.

Across the region, contemporaries had responded to de Gaulle’s call to arms. By June 22, 1940, committees had popped up in Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and Cuba — the latter would become the first country to recognize Free France as a government in its own right, in 1942. These committees gathered hundreds and sometimes thousands of members in many capital cities and smaller towns.

Guerin’s strongly worded and increasingly international bulletin (boasting roughly 150,000 readers across Latin America by late 1941), his financial heft and his close connection to de Gaulle made him a natural leader of this regional movement.

World-famous French writers often sent Guerin articles and editorials from their forced exile. Eve Curie, daughter of the scientists Pierre and Marie, mailed in an excerpt of “Journey Among Warriors,” her Pulitzer-nominated reportage on the war fronts of Africa, East Asia and the Soviet Union. Out of Brazil, author Georges Bernanos published several pieces urging his compatriots not to give up the fight. Jacques Maritain, Philippe Barres, Genevieve Tabouis and countless others also contributed from New York.

Guerin’s bulletins were translated into Spanish under the name Por la Francia Libre and widely distributed across the region. According to Leroux, roughly three-quarters of its readers were Spanish-speaking.

In January, Guerin transitioned the monthly bulletin into a bilingual weekly newspaper called La France Nouvelle. Subtitled “The Great Weekly of Latin America,” the operation was truly a transnational affair. Tono Salazar, a Salvadoran diplomat and artist, joined the newspaper as a caricaturist. Pedro Olmos Munoz penned monthly illustrations from Valparaiso, Chile. New York’s own Free French weekly, France-Amerique, sent in regular editorials from its director, Henri Torres.

The movement created by Guerin’s call was so compelling that some decided to embark on the long boat ride to Europe to join the fight, including 15-year-old Benjamin Josset. On June 15, 1940, Josset was on his way home from school when he saw the front page of the newspaper, La Gaceta. “The German Army has occupied Paris,” it read.

Josset must have felt devastated. “My professors had always told me that Paris had given culture and liberty to the rest of the world,” he said in an interview years later.

Josset, whose parents had emigrated from the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Syria) to Tucuman, a city in the Argentinian high plains, read about the newly formed de Gaulle committee. In October, he made the 745-mile journey to the committee’s office on Libertad Street in Buenos Aires to enlist — and in typical teenage fashion, he took off without telling his parents. “I’m leaving to liberate France,” he later wrote to them in a letter.

Other volunteers came from even farther away.

In April 1941, a 20-year-old Chilean of French Basque ancestry, Margot Duhalde, joined a group of a dozen Chileans traveling from Santiago to Buenos Aires to enlist. Duhalde sailed to London, where she went on to become the first and only woman to join the Free French air force and was later honored with France’s Legion of Honor. She was nicknamed “Chile.”

Across the muddy Rio de la Plata, the river separating Buenos Aires from neighboring Uruguay, Domingo Lopez Delgado also chose combatant exile. Delgado, 21, enlisted at the Montevideo Free French chapter in 1941. He boarded the Northumberland, a frigate designed for anti-submarine warfare, to London, where he was trained by the Royal Air Force. His combat missions took him to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, as well as northern Italy and France.

“I went to war dragged by my love for France, mother of civilization,” Delgado, who had never been to France before the war, declared. “And I went to war to be able to shout loudly that I have defended with my arms the ideals of democracy and that I have the right to be a free man!”

Today, a monument to the Free French still stands in Rocha, the town in Uruguay where Delgado was born. The giant Cross of Lorraine is dedicated to “Charles de Gaulle, citizen of the world.”

Others fought for France without leaving Latin America.

Latin Americans, themselves recent victims of settler colonialism, had taken the occupation of France particularly hard. In defense of France, Peruvian writer (and future prime minister) Luis Alberto Sanchez compared the subjugation of Paris to that of the Aztec Empire under Hernan Cortes or the Inca Empire after Pizarro’s conquest.

The Guatemalan poet Miguel Angel Asturias, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature, was deeply devoted to France and to de Gaulle, who, like him, categorically refused to see the country fall. “On the coasts of Central America,” he wrote, “facing the furious waves of the Pacific, while we were fishing for sharks, a portable radio had transmitted to us the words of the one who, because of something that touched us deeply, we already called ‘our General.’”

In a warehouse in downtown Buenos Aires, the Free French Feminine Union, founded in April 1941, collected fabric donations from around the continent, which they sewed into clothing and uniforms. This “hive of women animated by patriotic faith,” as Guerin’s paper called them, donated no fewer than 26,000 items to Free French soldiers in Africa and the Middle East.

Women at the Feminine Union opened a shop, La Petite Boutique. The shop’s earnings were sent to London to help run the Free French orphanage in Beaconsfield, northwest of London. Young female volunteers dressed in typical Alsatian garb sold rings, pins, bracelets and handkerchiefs on Libertad Street.

According to the committee’s archives, their most popular items were the ones emblazoned with the tricolor flag of France, forbidden by Vichy and dear to so many Argentinians.

On the home front, Argentinians were also fighting their own battles — not unlike the ones at play on the other side of the Atlantic.

Already virulent in its attacks against the Vichy regime in France, La France Nouvelle began to lambast the Argentinian state for its complicity in the Nazi takeover of Europe. Despite pressure from the United States, Argentina refused to break relations with the Axis powers until January 1944.

Throughout the war, Argentinian society was split into two factions, pro-Allies (“aliadofilos”) and pro-neutral (“neutralistas”). When it became clear that a soon-to-be new president would declare war on the Axis, the armed forces, who favored the neutralistas, staged a military takeover. The June 1943 coup greatly destabilized the French resistance-in-exile and the burgeoning anti-fascist movements in Argentina.

From June onward, the junta under Gen. Pedro Pablo Ramirez began cracking down on press freedom and banning groups like Accion Argentina. The next year, La France Nouvelle was banned from distribution in Argentina. Guerin was unfazed. He moved publishing operations to neighboring Uruguay and sneaked in the paper across the Rio de la Plata on commuter boats. “Only victory will stop us,” he wrote.

Guerin had reason to be hopeful. By June 1943, the tide of the war was beginning to shift in favor of the Allies. France was still under occupation, but on the Eastern front, Soviet forces had just won a major battle at Stalingrad and Allied soldiers — including roughly 70,000 to 130,000 Free French — were preparing to launch their invasion into Italy. A year later, on June 6, 1944, the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy.

“After having set foot on French soil,” Uruguayan volunteer Delgado wrote in his memoir, “we could have the consolation that if fate had marked us to die in this chaos, we would fall into the land of heroes and thinkers, of ideals and greatness.”

Nearly three months later, on Aug. 25, 1944, de Gaulle marched into the French capital at the head of a liberation army.

The young Josset, from Tucuman, was among them. The previous day, his Romilly tank had been one of the first to enter Paris. There, in the midst of an insurrection, he met Odette, a young French woman who was pushing her father in a wheelchair along the cobblestone streets. They married three years later.

Latin America celebrated the liberation of Paris like a personal victory. Nowhere were the celebrations as boisterous as in Buenos Aires. About 200,000 people spontaneously gathered at the Plaza de Francia, a square in the capital’s Recoleta district. Cries of “Viva la Resistencia!” and “Viva la libertad!” resonated across the city.

According to Lida, at the University of San Andres, the liberation of Paris had a lasting effect on Argentina — and may have even played a role in the toppling of the military dictatorship one year later. The return to democracy in France gave Argentinians the push they needed to begin their own resistance to military rule. “Ya basta,” they cried — “That’s enough.” Spurred by the liberation, “society rose up to demand the end of the dictatorship,” Lida said.

The Free French in Argentina, she added, had shown that there are many ways to resist occupation. Despite their government’s lack of engagement, “Argentinian civil society refused to accept the fall of France and helped turn the tide of the Second World War,” Lida said.

“Governments can profess their neutrality all they want,” she added, “but the people can never be neutral.”

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