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. []

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