“Resistance. The Underground War in Europe, 1939-45” by Halik Kochanski (published by allen lane)

Fighting the enemy from the forests and mountains

December 2022 – Soviet forces have occupied Ukraine. Tens of thousands of troops and civilians are dead. Resistance groups in the woods kill a few Soviet soldiers, blow up rail tracks and bring down power lines. In retaliation the Soviets shoot hostages and raze villages. Mankind rarely learns, as evidenced in this book whose aim is to offer a clear, balanced and unified account of the resistance to the Germans and Italians in every country they occupied in the Second World War.
22. February 2022 13:23

In one of the greatest – or perhaps most reckless – acts of resistance, two Czechoslovak operatives were parachuted in from Britain and attacked and fatally wounded Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany and an important figure in the rise of Adolf Hitler, in his open-top car in occupied Prague on May 27, 1942.

Nazi intelligence falsely linked the assassins to the village of Lidice, and on June 9, 1942, the Germans massacred 199 men there, deported 195 women to Ravensbrück concentration camp and took 95 children prisoner. Of the children, 86 were sent to concentration camps and gassed to death, while nine were adopted by German families.

The Czech village of Ležáky was also destroyed because a radio transmitter belonging to the resistance was found there. The men and women of Ležáky were murdered, both villages were burned and the ruins of Lidice were bulldozed.

These “lessons” and many others showed that the Germans’ practice of reprisals involved a slaughter of innocent people. Nonetheless, there were those who decided to resist the Third Reich, and, as British historian Halik Kochanski recounts, this could range from open partisan guerrilla warfare in the occupied Soviet Union to dangerous acts of insurrection in the Netherlands, Norway and elsewhere.

And the author shows just how dangerous and difficult such actions were, posing the question of how could small bands of individiuals undertake tasks that could lead not only to their own deaths but those of their families and their entire communities?

Kochanski is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, founded in the United Kingdom in 1868, and a member of the British Commission for Military  History, founded in 1965 as a branch of the International Commission for Military History. She taught history at several universities and is the author of “The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War”.

Occupation and resistance weren’t always simple matters of one side versus the other side. By the end of 1941 the Germans occupied more than 850,000 square miles of territory in the east, containing some 70 million people. These newly acquired Poles, Lithuanians, Belorussians, Latvians, Estonians and Ukrainians found themselves liberated from one oppression into another, raising the question of who was the worst enemy.

One village elder expressed the problem: “We live between the hammer and the anvil. Today we are forced to obey the partisans or they will kill us, tomorrow we will be killed by the Germans for obeying them. The nights belong to the partisans, but during the days we are in no-man’s land. Oh, I know the partisans can protect us now, but for how long?”

In June 1940, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was set up in Britain after the British Chiefs of Staff called upon the resistance movements to focus on sabotage until the time of the arrival of the Allies, at which point the partisans would supply intelligence on German movements, guide the Allied forces and protect vital installations from destruction.

The role of SOE was to encourage and direct this secret war, but sabotage and subversion behind enemy lines, with its risk of inviting reprisals against the innocent, might have the undesired effect of dampening resistance. Consideration had to be given to the moral and utilitarian questions of stoking the fire of resistance too much and too soon by encouraging risky actions while liberation by the Allied armies remained a distant prospect.

Nonetheless, the peoples of Europe had to find a response to the presence of their occupiers. Sometimes the resisters had widely varying political viewpoints. Also, native collaborators – traitors – presented a new enemy for the resistance. Collaboration meant that a merciless civil war was added to the war between occupiers and occupied, and sometimes between the occupied themselves.

There was the puppet Vichy regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain in France. In Norway there was a willing and active collaborator ready to work closely with the Germans in the shape of Vidkun Quisling. And, for instance, a substantial number of Polish citizens had German ancestry.

Did resistance movements support their governments-in-exile or did they want a say in post-war cabinets? In Yugoslavia, several different wars were taking place simultaneously. And King George II of Greece was being hosted by the British government but he was disliked at home.

A clandestine press sprang up, important in that it publicised the actual existence of a resistance movement. These tracts were complemented by BBC broadcasts from Britain that reached every country. However, the Germans imposed strict controls over the sale of newsprint and ink. Graffiti was an alternative form of opposition.

Britain’s Royal Air Force dropped arms, food, radios and other supplies to the clandestine groups. But to fly men and material into occupied Europe was a hazardous enterprise, and planes making such deliveries were shot down all over the continent. In turn, crashed pilots and escapers were hidden and smuggled away. Anyone caught faced torture by the Gestapo, and might name names.

Kochanski describes some tortures. Photographs introduce us to people such as Mlle Andrée de Jongh, a 25-year-old Belgian woman who saved the lives of many British airmen and soldiers by organising their escape from Belgium across the Pyrenees into Spain. She received the George Medal at Buckingham Palace in February 1946. Another picture shows Virginia Hall, the first female SOE agent to enter France.

Some Jews fled to the forests, in self-defence but also to seek revenge, taking an active role in the partisan movement either by working with existing groups or setting up their own Jewish units. As D-Day loomed, SOE agents were appalled by the conduct of the so-called “Naphthalinés”, the “Mothballed”, former French Army officers who had hitherto taken no part in the resistance but who now put on their uniforms, which stank of mothballs, and demanded to be given troops to command.

And so it continues – executions and massacres, sabotage, betrayal, torture, reprisals, uprisings, deportations and then recriminations, all are detailed at length by author Halik Kochanski in a valuable addition to the dismal history of grisly war.

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