The Partisan

The Partisan, orig­i­nal­ly titled “La Complainte du par­ti­san” in French, has always been one of my favourite Leonard Cohen songs. The lyrics are from the point of view of a sole par­ti­san secret­ly fight­ing an occu­py­ing force in his coun­try, but I had no idea it was specif­i­cal­ly about the French resis­tance to Nazi occu­pa­tion dur­ing WWII, as the only ref­er­ences to this are in the French vers­es.

You hear of sol­diers nowa­days with iPods and their mur­der mix­es; playlists of heavy met­al, used to keep them moti­vat­ed (or, in some cas­es, inhu­man so they can com­mit inhu­mane acts). I’ve long held the belief that if I was ever fight­ing in a war, this would be my song — the only one I’d lis­ten to, and on repeat — because the nar­ra­tor is so cold and sto­ic in his pur­pose.


A group of par­ti­sans join­ing forces with the Canadian army at Boulogne, in September 1944.

Fédéric has been telling me bits of French his­to­ry here and there; it’s giv­en me even more of an appre­ci­a­tion for the song, and I could­n’t think of a bet­ter time or place to be learn­ing this than here in France. The Coles Notes ver­sion of the French Résistance goes some­thing like this:

In the German blitzkrieg, the French lost the whole of the north and west of their coun­try in about six weeks and were forced to become a client state to the ger­mans. Philippe Pétain, head of the French gov­ern­ment at the time, sub­mit­ted and col­lab­o­rat­ed with the new occu­py­ing German forces1. Some French peo­ple also coop­er­at­ed with the Nazis by giv­ing them shel­ter, telling them where Jews were hid­ing, or pro­tect­ing cer­tain infra­struc­ture points. But there were also those who did­n’t agree with what Hitler was doing, nor with the dra­con­ian rules that were even­tu­al­ly imple­ment­ed on the French peo­ple. Initially, the mem­bers of the Résistance were scat­tered, but even­tu­al­ly a speech by Charles du Gaulle (who had escaped to Britain), plant­ed the seed that would ral­ly the coun­try to side with the Résistance over Germany and their French col­lab­o­ra­tors. The Résistance not only fought with guer­ril­la tac­tics, they would also hide friend­ly sol­diers who were downed behind ene­my lines, sab­o­tage strate­gic Axis points, pub­lish under­ground news­pa­pers, and pro­vide infor­ma­tion to the Allies, even­tu­al­ly help­ing them speed through France after D‑Day. The cause of the Résistance inspired peo­ple of all polit­i­cal lean­ings and social class­es to fight side-by-side with an equal fer­vor against the Germans, and played an impor­tant role in the cre­ation of the mod­ern idea of the arche­typ­al French patri­ot.

As much as I’d like to say that Cohen wrote the song, I know the tune was writ­ten by Anna Marly, with the lyrics being a trans­la­tion of a French poem writ­ten by resis­tance fight­er, Emmanuel d’Astier de La Vigerie. But Cohen total­ly sells the song, with his numb voice, and dron­ing arpeg­gios that give it an unre­lent­ing momen­tum, rem­i­nis­cent of a slow mil­i­tary march. Even the English rhyme scheme remains some­what faith­ful to the orig­i­nal in French.


When they poured across the bor­der
I was cau­tioned to sur­ren­der,
this I could not do;
I took my gun and van­ished.

I have changed my name so often,
I’ve lost my wife and chil­dren
but I have many friends,
and some of them are with me.

An old woman gave us shel­ter,
kept us hid­den in the gar­ret,
then the sol­diers came;
she died with­out a whis­per.

There were three of us this morn­ing
I’m the only one this evening
but I must go on;
the fron­tiers are my prison.

Oh, the wind, the wind is blow­ing,
through the graves the wind is blow­ing,
free­dom soon will come;
then we’ll come from the shad­ows.

Les Allemands étaient chez moi,
ils me dis­ent, “résigne toi”,
mais je n’ai pas peur;
j’ai repris mon arme.

J’ai changé cent fois de nom,
j’ai per­du femme et enfants
mais j’ai tant d’amis;
j’ai la France entière.

Un vieil homme dans un gre­nier
pour la nuit nous a caché,
les Allemands l’ont pris;
il est mort sans sur­prise.

Oh, the wind, the wind is blow­ing,
through the graves the wind is blow­ing,
free­dom soon will come;
then we’ll come from the shad­ows.

Europe 2010 travel diaries

  1. There’s a famous pic­ture of him shak­ing hands with Hitler. Obviously, he’s not very well regard­ed by the French today. []

Leave a Reply