RESISTANCE: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945

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Halik Kochanski’s “Resistance” traces the underground opposition to the Nazis across the continent of Europe.

RESISTANCE: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945, by Halik Kochanski

For continental Europeans World War II was a vastly different experience than it was for the people of the British Commonwealth or the United States. In the English-speaking world the war was largely a long narrative of military operations happening somewhere else — sometimes going very badly, but always going, and ending in a comfortably self-affirming victory. They were spared the hardships, horrors, moral dilemmas and later recriminations of foreign occupation.

Not so with the peoples of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, France, Yugoslavia, much of the Soviet Union and many, many others. For them, the war involved either a surrender without a fight or a surrender after a humiliatingly rapid military defeat, followed by years of fear, hunger, oppression and often inconceivable brutality. Occupied peoples had to make choices virtually every day — how much to go along or “collaborate,” how much to push back against the occupier, resist. These differences in how the war was lived continue to shape our politics today, from Brexit to the war in Ukraine.

Of course, some Europeans made the choice to fight back against their occupiers and engage in active resistance. How and why they did so, and how it all went, is the subject of “Resistance,” a thorough and well-researched new book by the British historian Halik Kochanski.

German-occupied Europe was mostly the product of a remarkable series of victories in the continent’s east, north and west between 1939 and 1941. In the earlier years, opposition in most places was limited and feeble. One of the lessons that emerges clearly from “Resistance” is that people would choose defiance in proportion to the severity of German occupation policies. These, in turn, varied in accordance with Nazi racial thinking. The Nazis had a high regard for the “Aryan” peoples of northern Europe, a moderate regard for the French and nothing but contempt for anyone to the east of Germany. The Danes, Norwegians and French were therefore allowed to retain some measure of self-government. The Danes even held a free parliamentary election in 1943, won by social democratic and conservative parties. The Germans would generally look the other way even in the face of mild gestures of protest. In these conditions, the incentive to risk resistance was weak, and there was little of it.

Not so in places like Poland, Yugoslavia or the western regions of the Soviet Union after the German invasion of June 1941. In these countries, the almost inconceivable brutality of the German assault left people little option but to fight back. A partisan war behind the lines hampered the German invasion of the Soviet Union from its earliest days, often at a staggeringly high cost to the people of Ukraine and Belarus.

By 1942 the increasing intensity of the war pushed the Germans to tighten the screws on Western Europe as well, and the result was predictable. Young men in France, for instance, fled to the hills to avoid being drafted for labor in Germany. The formation of insurgent units like the Maquis constituted one strand in the complex tapestry of French resistance. Similar processes were at work elsewhere.

Kochanski is careful to note that the rise of resistance was never steady or linear. In the summer and fall of 1943 the Germans struck back very successfully at opposition networks across Europe, arresting and killing key leaders like France’s Jean Moulin and rounding up the covert organizations of the British S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive) in several different countries. Yet the resistance rose again to make a small but meaningful contribution to the Allied D-Day landings in 1944.

These groups also profoundly shaped the politics of Europe after the war, through both their alliances and their bitter enmities. It is fascinating to catch a glimpse of Alcide de Gaspari, Italy’s Christian Democratic prime minister from 1945 to 1953, appearing at a crucial meeting of Italian anti-Fascists in 1943. Charles de Gaulle would never have become the dominant figure in postwar France without his hard-won leadership of the resistance inside France and the Free French forces abroad. And as Kochanski points out, when the British decided (mainly from expediency) to favor Josip Broz Tito’s Communist Partisans in Yugoslavia rather than the conservative, royalist Cetniks, they effectively determined that postwar Yugoslavia would be a Communist state. Greece’s late 1940s civil war was a legacy of bitter conflicts among rival resistance groups.

How much did resistance forces contribute to winning the war? The obvious temptation for the author of a book like this is to play up the impact of all the human bravery it depicts. Kochanski resists it. “It was only just worth it,” is her sobering conclusion, quoting a British S.O.E. officer. No resistance movement could drive out the occupiers on its own, or even stage a successful local uprising (as the famous Warsaw uprising of 1944 tragically demonstrated). But sabotage could slow the movement of German soldiers and supplies, and the intelligence resisters provided to the Allies was often crucial.

Kochanski tells this story effectively on the basis of deep research (although almost entirely in English-language sources). Her long book is always interesting and readable, sensitive to the powerful human drama it presents.

Often, however, Kochanski undermines the depth of her research through her rigid way of thinking about it. The most glaring example is her exclusion of German internal resistance from the story. Kochanski tells us she wants to write a “balanced” portrait of all European resistance that avoids the “pitfalls of nationalism.” But she also tells us that since Germany was neither invaded nor occupied, “there was nothing to resist.” The German opposition, Kochanski says, aimed only at preventing its country from losing the war. “The internal opposition within a conquering nation,” she concludes, “has nothing in common with the resistance in the countries it has defeated and occupied.”

This is nonsense. That German resisters sought only German victory, or at least to avoid defeat, is a caricature even of the conservative military resistance that culminated in the famous Valkyrie plot of 1944, many of whose members were driven by moral repugnance at Hitler’s crimes and whose roots reached back before the war. But in any case the largest number of resistance activists in Nazi Germany came not from the nationalist right but from the Communist left. There were about 300,000 Communist Party members in Germany in 1933. An estimated 30,000 of them formed underground resistance cells, and perhaps 60,000 spent at least some time in a concentration camp. This dwarfs any other movement, and the motivation of these activists (ideological opposition to Nazism) and the problems and challenges they faced (the dangers of working underground and living a double life) were no different than anywhere else in Europe. Indeed, many of the resistance fighters Kochanski talks about, in France or Norway for instance, also faced the problem of fighting their own government.

Still, this is an instructive book. Kochanski tells us of Norwegian teachers who stood up to their puppet government’s demands to reshape the school curriculum, and of the oath of the pro-fascist Vichy French police force, the Milice, whose members swore their opposition to “democracy, individualism and international capitalism” and their support for “an authoritarian, national socialist regime.” One does not need to listen too closely to detect the melancholy echoes in our own time.


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