The European Resistance Movements of WWII Part I

Yugoslav Partisan fighter Stjepan “Stevo” Filipović shouting “Smrt fašizmu sloboda narodu!” (“Death to fascism, freedom to the people!”) (the Partisan slogan) seconds before plunging to his death.

The German conquest of Europe was intended to be permanent. The First Reich was the old Holy Roman Empire, and it had been laid to rest by Napoleon after the Battle of Austerlitz; the Second Reich was the Hohenzollern Empire; proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles in 1871, it collapsed with the Kaiser’s abdication in 1918; the Third Reich was to last for a thousand years. At least so Hitler said, and so he meant. He was building for the ages.

Not everyone agreed with his concept of the Master Race and the inherent superiority of the Aryan peoples. In western Europe, though at first the Germans behaved themselves, the shock of conquest and defeat soon wore off, and as soon as it did, men and women began thinking of ways to thwart the conquerors. General von Senger und Etterlin wrote in his memoirs of being billeted in a chateau in Normandy after the French surrender, and visiting with the owners and exchanging pleasantries. In 1939 and 1940 there was still some sense of European community among the well-to-do and well educated of the Continent, and French and German had conquered each other so often that there were recognized modes of behavior for such situations. There were also strong currents of authoritarianism in right-wing French circles, and a substantial number of Frenchmen initially preferred the Germans as masters to their own French Socialists, or even worse, the Communists.

The sense of community wore off when Frenchmen realized that these Germans were not quite what they were thought to be. As Neville Chamberlain had earlier discovered, the Nazis were not gentlemen. Temporary occupation, requisitioning, a certain degree of traffic in art work and monuments, all these were still within the code. Labor conscription, holding prisoners of war as hostages, blatant robbery of personal as opposed to state property, persecution of Jews, these were outside the code. The Germans ceased to be tourists in Feldgrau, and became the enemy.

In eastern Europe the Germans made little pretense of being anything other than permanent conquerors, and their murderous policies served almost immediately to alienate those peoples who had initially seen them as marginally better masters than the Bolsheviks. The conquest of the eastern lands lacked even the veneer of civility shown to western Europe.

As a result of this, there grew up in every subject state of the German empire a resistance movement. There was even one in Germany itself, “Germans” versus “Nazis.” The Resistance has attracted considerable attention, though it remains a difficult affair to study, for so much of its activity was clandestine, fragmented, and individual. Historians disagree widely on how valuable it was and opinions vary from those of orthodox military historians who discount the whole matter as the bungling of right-thinking amateurs, to theorists and advocates of “popular war” who contend that the Resistance won the war—or could have done so—practically alone.

The movements in each country had their own peculiarities. The Resistance in Belgium, relatively open and built up, was different from that in Greece or Yugoslavia. Resistance in Norway, where access to the outside world was at least possible, was different from that in Poland. There were even differences within countries. A member of the Resistance at the Renault works outside Paris worked within a different set of limits from his fellow in the rough country of the Vosges or south-central France. In spite of all these necessary variations, the French historian Henri Michel has found a series of constants in the development of opposition to Hitlerian Germany. The movements had several common characteristics and they all went through similar phases of development.

The rock-bottom common denominator to all of them was that they were patriotic movements aimed at the liberation of one’s own territory from the invader. For whatever other reasons he might be an enemy, the basic one was that the German was there, on another’s land, doing and taking by might what was someone else’s by right. For patriotism as for religion, few things provide a more effective spur than persecution.

It was not just that the Germans were in occupation, however. Because of the essentially negative nature of the Nazi ideology, the Resistance movements also became a reaffirmation of the essential worth and dignity of man. Here was one of the major differences between the Hitlerian empire and the Napoleonic one. However much he may have warped the concept, Napoleon claimed to be the standard-bearer of European progress and the culmination of the Enlightenment, and until they went sour, the Napoleonic conquests were welcomed by bourgeois, liberals, and intelligentsia. The German conquests were sour right from the beginning, and made no pretense to universality of appeal. Their basic argument was brute force, and the attraction of that was limited. Those who opposed the Germans had widely divergent views on the worth of man, and the proper social or political system under which he should live, but there was a common ground for agreement, and for action, in their detestation of nazism. Thus the paradox of Communists, Catholics, Protestants, and liberal agnostics fighting side by side against the enemy.

Not everyone felt that way, though. One of the most painful aspects of the whole war was that the Germans did possess some appeal to certain classes and types of people in every country. They did attract supporters, either those who became collaborators from conviction or ambition, or those who were caught up in an organization that was by the policy of its own government committed to a degree of cooperation, such as the French police organizations under the Vichy regime. In all of the countries of Europe, or nearly all of them, the war became a civil war as well as a conventional one, and in many places the worst excesses were committed in the struggle between the members of the Resistance movements and the collaborators with the Germans. In France, for example, as young Frenchmen took to the countryside and became the Maquis, the Germans organized French paramilitary forces called the Milice, and Maquis and Milice waged war on each other with a breathless fury. In Yugoslavia there was open warfare between the Communist Resistance led by Joseph Broz, who took the name Tito, and a pro-monarchist leader, General Draja Mikhailovitch, leader of the “Chetniks.” Eventually, the British backed Tito, as the more active and the more anti-German of the two; Tito went on to win, and Mikhailovitch was executed by him in 1946—as a Fascist.

The timing of the different phases through which each nation’s Resistance movement passed depended upon a variety of matters: the circumstances of its defeat, the extent and brutality of its occupation, the condition of its government, whether it was in residence like Vichy or in exile like Holland, and similar factors. Nonetheless, all the movements had similar stages of development.

The first of these is the most difficult to document or treat historically, for it was intensely private and individualistic. This was the phase of rejection, of refusal to submit. The state was conquered; if the national government existed, it was either in exile or had made some sort of accommodation. The individual therefore was left to make his own decision, and it was a necessarily lonely, painful, and dangerous one. In Poland one could be shot for a gesture of ill will toward a German. Yet all over Europe, one at a time, people made such gestures. A Frenchman who habitually sold newspapers to Germans would one day watch a convoy of Jews being shipped off; the next morning when the Germans came for their papers, they found the vendor suddenly understood no German. When Germans entered a café, conversation stopped. Silently the patrons finished their drinks, paid, and got up and left. Such acts were small but they were still dangerous, and a small act because it was dangerous thus became an act of patriotism.

Thousands of Europeans who did no more than turn their backs when a German parade marched by could still feel they had committed an act of defiance. The Germans forbade listening to the overseas service of the British Broadcasting System; it therefore became a patriotic act to gather behind closed blinds and listen to the evening news. There were jokes about the enemy, and the Germans, like most conquerors, notoriously lacked humor. A classic was the tale in France that at nine-twenty a Jew killed a German, cut his heart out, and ate it; why was this story untrue? For three reasons: first, a German has no heart; second, Jews do not eat pork, and third, at nine-twenty everyone is listening to the BBC anyway.

The second phase was that of organization. Like-minded people began to seek each other out and slowly to coalesce into groups and units. This development was fraught with danger; mistakes were easily made. Many people who were willing to turn their backs on Germans were not willing to move to active participation of the kind that might land them in jail, or before a firing squad. There was also a great problem of differing aims. Groups developed to get men to England, and to take soldiers and sailors, and later downed fliers and place them on routes back home. But other groups wanted to educate and propagandize; still others wanted to gather intelligence, and a few hotheads wanted to kill Germans in the streets. These last were the most dangerous, for the Germans soon adopted a policy of reprisals: one dead German was worth fifty to a hundred executions, and eventually they were wiping out whole towns and villages, especially in eastern Europe, as punishment for killings or assassinations.

One of the most notable examples of this kind of situation occurred in Czechoslovakia. In May of 1942 Himmler’s number two man, Reinhard Heydrich, the Protector of Bohemia, was assassinated by a group of Czechs who had been in exile in Britain. They had been infiltrated into the country, and had set up an ambush in Prague. When Heydrich’s car passed by, they opened fire, and he was fatally wounded. The plotters were betrayed, run to earth in an old church, besieged, and killed. The assassination had been opposed by the British, but ordered by the Czech government of President Benes, in exile in London. The Resistance in Czechoslovakia itself had also been opposed to it for reasons that quickly became apparent. The Germans arrested nearly 500 people immediately, following this with the execution of more than 250. They then mounted a military operation against the village of Lidice, rounded up all the inhabitants—men, women, and children—and massacred them as a warning and a reprisal.

In Holland the assassination of a German officer resulted in the deportation of nearly 700 people to concentration camps. Eventually, the Resistance movements decided that this kind of direct action was probably too costly and that it ought to be avoided. There were exceptions to this decision, however. In Poland there was no cessation of the bloodshed; the Poles were so badly treated anyway their condition could hardly be worse, and throughout the war they fought furiously and indiscriminately against the conqueror. Particular assassinations and reprisals were part of an ongoing cacophony of terror there.

The Communists too tended to take a cold view of affairs. In many countries they were leaders of the organizational phase. They possessed the necessary background; they were used to acting clandestinely, to being persecuted, to having to live carefully. Resistance for them was little more than an extension of their normal activities. There were variations on this theme, too. The earliest French resisters found the Communists completely uninterested in them; the Reds marched to a drum beaten in Moscow, and as long as the Russo-German Nonaggression Pact was in force, they were well behaved. As soon as Germany invaded the Soviet Union the Communists became violent anti-Nazis. They were also quite willing to shed blood, their own as well as others’. They believed that if killings caused reprisals, the reprisals in turn caused more killings, and they were content to see villages wiped out if that would ultimately bring more people into the fight against the Fascists. Ideologically, everyone who was not a Communist was an enemy, so it meant little to them if innocents died. “Innocent” was not a word in their vocabulary.

The differing ideological views of the resisters, the different types of work done by different groups, the rivalries within and between them, the fear of infiltration by enemy agents, all made organization difficult. Gradually, the small cells did coalesce; safe houses became parts of escape routes; occasional broadsheets became newspapers; isolated intelligence-gatherers became networks. Few were as successful as the Dutch, who set up shop across from German headquarters in Amsterdam and ran a line across from the German central switchboard so that they could listen to all German calls. But within a relatively short time, the individual resisters had become the Resistance. As they moved to yet a further stage, the outside world began to take an interest in them.

As soon as they were chased off the Continent, the British began thinking how they were going to get back. Harboring a large number of governments in exile, maintaining ties and contacts wherever possible with the occupied territories, the British soon realized that the more Germans who could be tied up in internal security operations, the fewer there would be available for the battlefield. They established a group known as SOE, Special Operations Executive, to control and coordinate the activities of the various Resistance groups. Initially, there was some hope that SOE would become a “fourth arm,” equivalent to the army, navy, and air force, but it never got that far. Personality conflicts, the excessive demands for supplies and resources, the inability to control matters, all militated against this. Conventional service chiefs were extremely skeptical of Resistance-type operations, and indeed, the regular service officer tended to make a poor Resistance leader. Subversive warfare called for different skills, in fact for a different type of mind altogether, than that attracted to the regular army. In France, for example, few officers from the Armistice Army became successful Resistance leaders; the necessary mental leap was too great for them to make.

As the British began supplying the Resistance, they also sought to control and direct its activities. They were not overly successful in this; for one thing, they often wanted slightly different things than the Resistance people wanted. For another, it was difficult to direct and control from afar. They also had to contend with the desires and directives of the various governments in exile, so there was at least a three-cornered tug of war for control in most cases. In spite of all this, the Resistance reached the third stage, that of giving battle to the enemy.

For the Resistance, “battle” was different from what it was for the regular forces. It might include overt action, an ambush or a derailment of a train; it might be the fomenting of a strike, or some kind of industrial sabotage. Overt action varied from place to place, and time to time.

In Russia where large numbers of Russian troops were cut off in the early days of the invasion, guerrilla or partisan operations began early. Large numbers of German units were forced to operate behind what were officially the front lines, and attacks on supply and communication lines were frequent. The same sort of thing happened in Yugoslavia, and though the Germans officially occupied the country, they never subdued it. At one point there were twenty divisions of Germans and Italians—as many as were fighting on the Italian front—busy in Yugoslavia attacking the partisans.