Resistance: Southeastern Europe


Greek People’s Liberation Army or ELAS

The spatial factor derives from the fundamentally and deliberately asymmetrical nature of Nazi rule in Europe. Between the two extreme ends of the timescale on which Nazi planners projected their program—the immediate strategic contingencies of battle and the ultimate ideological goals of transforming the European continent in an imperial order destined to last one thousand years—there was an almost infinite latitude for experimentation, provisional solutions, and a very peculiar management of priorities, of a military, economic, or ideological nature.

Southeastern Europe, particularly the Balkans, form a second area with a distinct fate. The German invasion responded to the strategic imperative to occupy the northern shore of the Mediterranean in order to avoid a British landing rather than the implementation of any precise planning or ideological design. The winter famine in Greece in 1941 and 1942, for example, was the result of cynical neglect and contempt for the lives of the local population and not of any deliberate calculation. In Yugoslavia in particular, a country that had verged on civil war ever since its creation after World War I, extreme brutality against the civilian population combined with murderously divisive occupation policies, as practiced by the German, Italian, and Hungarian occupiers, exacerbating tensions among Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Slovenes, ethnic Hungarians, ethnic Germans, Jews, and Gypsies, degenerated into generalized internecine killing. The creation of a Croat fascist—Ustas¡a—State and the annexation policies in other areas were particularly nefarious in this regard.

In this context of anarchy, the tiny prewar communist parties emerged as the most efficient and credible endogenous force. Partisan republics, organizing the redistribution of land and capable of halting ethnic violence, both by offering an alternative political creed and by ruthlessly eliminating its nationalist adversaries, established the only homegrown communist regimes in Europe outside the Soviet Union, in Albania and Yugoslavia. In Greece only the intervention of twenty-two thousand British troops could avert a similar scenario. Unlike postwar France, Italy, or the German Democratic Republic, which would rhetorically proclaim to be political regimes born from resistance struggle, the Albanian and Yugoslav communist parties effectively transformed a clandestine underground apparatus into a new ruling elite, with all the problems this entailed. By 1957 Milovan Djilas, himself a partisan hero, would describe in The New Class how a regime built on this historical legitimacy was hermetically closed to the younger generations and fundamentally frozen in its evolution.

A last important chronological distinction applies to the ‘‘end’’ of resistance. For Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries, anti-Soviet partisan activity continued into the late 1940s. For parts of central and eastern Europe, particularly for the Balkans, including Greece, 1945 is not the end of the cycle of civil war, ethnic cleansing, expropriation, and political violence. The second half of the decade from 1938 to 1948 is in that regard often more fundamental than the five years up to 1943.

The early engagement of nationalists in the resistance, during the fall of 1939 in Poland; the summer of 1940 in Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium; from April 1941 in Serbia and Greece; followed by the simultaneous entry of communist militants all over occupied Europe in June and July of 1941. A broadening of the basis occurred late in 1942 and in the course of 1943, particularly through the dynamic of ‘‘functional’’ resistance involving resisters with a very different profile. In late 1943 and during 1944, the expectation of a German retreat then created space either for a process of unification of a national resistance front anticipating the formation of a new postwar political coalition, such as in most western European countries, or a situation of civil war in the absence of prospects for coalition and power-sharing, such as in eastern and southern Europe. Resistance is thus a central category in understanding the war experience and postwar trajectory of European societies, but one whose impact has to be measured carefully in political, social, and even cultural terms depending on the geographical and chronological setting, and it is furthermore necessary to distinguish between the different forms of engagement in the struggle against it.


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