The Nazis held populations collectively responsible for resistance activity, especially in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, motivated in part by racist doctrines and a desire to ethnically cleanse these lands. For every assassination of a German or act of sabotage in the Lublin area of Poland, at least twenty Poles were killed; in Serbia, 50 civilians were murdered for every German soldier killed, and 100 for every German officer. In Belarus, whole villages were routinely annihilated in response to actual or suspected partisan activity. Smouldering villages, bodies hanging in public squares, and piles of corpses were left behind as warnings to others.
Fear of such punishments was a major reason for the failure of early resistance movements to achieve popular support in much of Europe. Nazi barbarity bullied the majority into non-resistance and made many resentful of resistance groups, although Germans and collaborators were invariably hated more keenly. The burden of civilian death strained the loyalties of potential resisters; Miles Lerman, a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor, recounted his agonising deliberations:
"In the beginning of 1942, I was in a slave labour camp […] Young people felt that escaping and organising a partisan group is the thing to do. Jewish elders learned about it, and they asked us a simple question: “who gives you the right, at the price of hundreds of people who will be shot on account of you, to buy you a life at a price of others. Who gives you this moral right?” And we went back, and we were sitting up all night and debating, and we came to the conclusion that they are right - we cannot do it."
Lerman and three others would eventually take their chance to overpower their guards and escape, joining a partisan unit near Lvov. “It was a time when life wasn’t worth much”, he later said of his two years as a partisan. “But what you have to do, you have to do”.
It was a time when life wasn’t worth much
The retaliatory barbarism of the Axis moulded the strategy of resistance groups across most of Europe. The “secret army” approach – engaging in selective actions, while preparing for a large-scale revolt at a strategic moment – was adopted first in Poland, and subsequently in Norway, Yugoslavia, Demark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and elsewhere in the early years of the war, partly to avoid unnecessary civilian deaths. Much energy was dedicated to non-violent forms of resistance, which, whilst highly risky for those involved, was less costly in terms of civilian deaths. Violence was often directed at collaborators rather than Germans for the same reason.
Still, violent actions were undertaken with the knowledge that civilians would die. Assassinations of Gestapo officials by the Polish Home Army (AK) accelerated in 1943 on the basis that, in the words of General Tadeusz Komorowski (AKA Bór), the leadership was “morally convinced” that the military gains were worth the civilian cost. For example, 300 died in retaliation for the February 1944 assassination of the cruel Warsaw police chief Franz Kutschera, which was sanctioned with the belief – correct, as it transpired – that Kutschera’s successor would be discouraged from matching the infamous official’s brutality. However, civilians also died for attacks that missed their marks; for example, many perished for the failed attempt on Hans Frank, the governor of the occupied Polish territories, in January 1944.
The Memorial to the Children of Lidice.
Photo: Ashley Pomeroy
In the Soviet Union, as historian Alexander Statiev writes, Moscow followed “a simple logic: the goal – victory – justified any means”, and partisan operations were prioritised above civilians at many turns. Rather than attempting to protect locals from the murderous Nazi counterinsurgency, partisans often abandoned them to their fate. Some 345,000 Belarusian civilians perished in anti-partisan sweeps – thousands burned alive – alongside 30,000 partisans. In the words of historian Antony Beevor, “The life of an individual seemed to have lost all value on both sides”. It was not until early 1943 that Central Partisan Headquarters commanded partisans to protect civilians as much as possible.
Heeding Stalin’s commands, communist resistance groups across Europe often surpassed non-communist groups in violence. In an action that remains debated in Italy today, a March 1944 communist bombing in Rome killed dozens of German police, and 335 Italian “hostages” were executed in response. After the war, two of the partisans responsible, Carla Capponi (AKA Elena) and Rosario Bentivegna (AKA Paolo) became celebrated resistance heroes with political posts. Historian Istvan Deak writes that when questioned about the bombing, “the two usually replied that without the risk of innocents getting killed in the action, no armed resistance could ever have taken place.” Deak continues, “The radical thesis that “one cannot make an omelette without first breaking an egg” is what generally separated Communist from non-Communist resisters.”
Some historians have argued that the military value of partisan activity was not worth the human cost. After considering reprisal massacres in France, Italy and modern day Serbia, Deak concludes that “World War II armed resistance was both ethical and unethical; it was ethical because it combated the Nazis, and it was unethical because of the havoc and suffering it caused”. He also claims that outside of Yugoslavia, Russia and Poland, few resistance groups “became powerful enough to cause serious trouble to the German army.”
However, as historian Mark Mazower states, “it will not do to reduce resistance to a question of military accounting”, as armed resistance was often an attempt to protect the identity and pride of besieged peoples or conquered nations, a “demonstration that the rule of force had not succeeded in crushing the spirit of freedom”. This resonates especially in the armed resistance of persecuted minorities. The participants of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 knew that it was doomed to fail and that all within the ghetto walls would perish, but they also knew everyone would die in Treblinka even if they did nothing. The uprisings in the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Sobibor death camps were likewise motivated by the desire to give the Third Reich a black eye in the face of inevitable death.
WWII was a time of widespread moral collapse across much of Europe, and the many ethical questions of the conflict will be debated for decades yet. Resistance movements were forced to grapple daily with what historian Paul Latawski calls a “brutal calculus”, the careful weighing of the value of action and the potential cost, and ultimately there were few paths one could tread and emerge without dirty hands. However, this does nothing to discount the immense courage and resolve of armed resisters to bring the fight to the Axis, against terrifying disadvantages and deterrence.
This image shows members of the Dutch National Socialist Party, alongside shaven-headed “collaborators”, being arrested by members of the Dutch resistance.
(Photo by: Photo 12/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images
After liberation, a brutal settling of accounts took place in many areas of Europe, with accused collaborators publicly humiliated, beaten, and sometimes murdered. In France, Belgium, Italy, Norway, and to a lesser extent the Netherlands, women accused of having relations with Germans were treated particularly cruelly, subjected to head shaving, and paraded through public squares in front of jeering crowds. Some of those subject to this spectacle were teenagers. Some were stripped or tarred.
Historian Antony Beevor, observing the phenomenon in France, points out that many actively inflicting the humiliation were not themselves active in resistance, and that “quite a few had been petty collaborators themselves, and sought to divert attention from their own lack of resistance credentials”. Still, whilst much of the public was appalled, the fact remains that some resistance groups did engage in this practice. Photographic images of degraded women after liberation remain potent reminders of the acute shame and humiliation felt by many in occupied regions, and the desire of some to lash out when the occupation had ended.