By mid-July, the German offensive had advanced over 400 miles, and within months had reached Moscow. Tens of millions of Soviet citizens, made up of many different ethnic groups, came under German occupation. Whilst resistance in the pre-June 1940 Soviet territories of East Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States are covered elsewhere in this report, this section focuses on Russia and Belarus, with a special focus on the Soviet partisan movement.
Nazi brutality towards the occupied populations was immense
Fearing resistance from the outset, and spurred on by its poisonous racial theories, the Nazi brutality towards the occupied populations was immense. Hitler himself called for anti-partisan units to use “the most brutal means possible”, and whole villages were annihilated as a matter of routine. Belarus would lose more than a quarter of its population during the war, hundreds of thousands of them due to anti-partisan actions.
Whilst camps and ghettos had existed for several years, the invasion of the Soviet Union also marked the beginning of the Nazis’ systematic destruction of Europe’s Jewish population, and by the end of 1941, as many as one million Jews had been murdered in the Soviet territories by mobile death squads. In total, an estimated 26 million Soviet citizens died during WWII, only 8.6 million of whom were military.
A Russian partisan in the Leningrad region kissing his mother goodbye before leaving with his detachment.
(Photo by: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
However, the Nazis’ attempts to eliminate pro-Soviet resistance via indiscriminate violence backfired, catalysing one of the biggest resistance movements in all Europe.
Nazis’ attempts to eliminate pro-Soviet resistance backfired
Largely motivated by a combination of patriotism and self-defence, civilians and isolated Red Army soldiers assembled large partisan bands behind German lines, and engaged in a campaign of sabotage and bloody guerrilla warfare.
Unlike elsewhere in occupied Europe, partisan warfare in the Soviet Union was partly organised by the nation’s undefeated military and government. Stalin was deeply suspicious of popular, spontaneous uprising, and had killed many of his own guerrilla warfare experts in the interwar period. As a result, initial directives for partisan uprising were inept in the extreme, and early units were severely under-resourced, under-trained, uncoordinated and often operated without guidance.
Partisan Fortunes Turn
Fortunes turned in 1942 with German defeats, and by May, the Central Partisan Headquarters, under the Belarusian official Panteleimon Ponomarenko, were established. This department airlifted weaponry, portable radios and trained guerrilla fighters to partisan units, and identified attacks on communication and transport lines as the key purpose of partisan activity. Partisan units grew from roughly 30,000 in January 1942 to over 100,000 by the end of the year.
the costs were horrific
Spurred on by Red Army victories, by January 1944 an effective force of roughly 250,000 partisans had emerged, more closely coordinated from the outside than anywhere else in Europe.
As historian Alexander Statiev explains, the brutal Soviet leadership regarded civilian losses as a secondary concern to military objectives, holding that victory justified any means. The populations of the occupied areas paid an incomprehensibly heavy cost for partisan activities as a result.
What the partisans contributed to the Soviet war effort was a large volume of military intelligence, the major disruption of German supply lines, the hounding of the German civilian administration and the deterrence of collaboration, as well as the prevention of economic exploitation of occupied areas, the damaging of German morale, and the boosting of the morale of dedicated Soviets. After 1943, more partisan units also began protecting civilians and peoples targeted by the Nazis, including Roma, Sinti and Jews.
The questions posed by Soviet partisan activity are complex. As historian Mark Mazower states, “the costs were horrific - hundreds of thousands of civilians killed, and thousands of villages burned down - but the Germans never felt secure”.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a young Russian guerrilla sniper who killed 309 Germans, for which she was made a senior lieutenant and given the Order of Lenin. A former historian, she participated in the defence of Odessa and of Sevastopol, where she remained until the last. She was wounded four times.
Photo by: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Who Were The Partisans?
By the time of the German invasion, Russia already had an ingrained guerrilla tradition, having pioneered this form of warfare during the French invasion of 1812. Statiev states that, as the invasion commenced, “many Soviet people perceived guerrilla warfare as a natural option”, both out of patriotic duty and a lack of alternatives.
The rapidity of the Nazi offensive meant that huge numbers of Red Army soldiers found themselves stranded behind enemy lines and cut off from command. These troops often became the core around which partisan units formed, including dedicated Party members, civil war veterans, NKVD agents, local patriots, and refugees fleeing the Nazis. Prospective members often faced a period of probation, and execution if they were suspected of being infiltrators.
Whilst partisans hoped to blend in with locals, they had a fractious relationship with these populations. Partisan activity in an area often brought bad fortune, including the risk of Nazi reprisals but also exploitation from the partisans themselves, who sometimes co-opted or destroyed resources to stop them falling into German hands, or murdered those they suspected of collaboration. Some partisans had scant regard for civilians, whilst others viewed their purpose in a more humanitarian sense. One partisan commander, being told by a member of his unit that “we’re here to fight the Huns, and not to nurse children”, replied:
"Only bastards can talk like that. I am ashamed of you! I see you do not understand the duties of partisans. To protect people who are being persecuted by the fascists is our most important task. To save lives is to fight the enemy."
Whilst many hated Stalin’s regime, which had shot and starved huge numbers in the years preceding the war, the extreme depredations of the Nazis gave many civilians little choice but to support or join the partisans. As historian Alexander Hill writes, the fact that Stalin came to be viewed as the lesser of two evils “was for many more a testimony to the horror of the Nazi regime than positive sentiment towards Stalin”. Vengeance and survival were key motivating factors for many.
Belarusian partisans of the Kotovsky detachment in the arms workshop.
(Photo by: Sovfoto/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Life As A Partisan
As civilians fled Nazi terror, large camps began to gather, well-hidden deep in the forests, swamps and mountains, making use of local knowledge of the terrain. These bases, which often centred around a staff dugout and a makeshift medical facility, were typically surrounded by outposts, bunkers, trenches and sometimes mines, which were closely mapped so they could be safely recovered.
Life as a partisan was gruelling, and despite the sheer peril, often tedious; many days consisted of working on the structures of the camp, and routines of cleaning weapons, patrolling, finding and preparing food, and scouting. Units possessing radios tuned in to the Voice of Moscow, the official Soviet broadcast; to combat German misinformation, sometimes news gleaned from the broadcast would be hand-copied and distributed to locals.
Of course, winter was especially severe. Food was scant, and when hunting and foraging was inadequate, units depended on local populations or had to capture food from the enemy. Due to the smoke, many camps could not risk lighting fires during the daytime, meaning freezing temperatures were endured by huddling in dugouts and makeshift shelters. When the trees shed their leaves, units based in forests were also made vulnerable to air attacks. The winter of 1941-42 was so harsh that many partisan units either perished or were subsumed back into local populations.
Antisemitism and Resistance
In Soviet territories, Jews faced deadly antisemitism not only from the Germans and local populations, but sometimes from partisans themselves. There are even examples of Jews in Belarus returning to the ghettos rather than suffer robberies and possible death at the hands of Soviet partisan groups.
Between 20,000 to 30,000 Jews fought as Soviet partisans during WWII, some hiding their identity, others not, and despite their shared anti-Nazism, many Jews encountered hostility from their supposed “comrades”.
Jews faced deadly antisemitism not only from the Nazis but from local populations and even some partisans
In response, a number of solely Jewish partisan units formed, establishing camps and protecting Jews from their many enemies. The most renowned of these was the Bielski partisans.
Like in other regions of Europe, antisemitism was rife, but there were also exceptional individuals who risked all to save Jewish people. There are 209 Russians (i.e. those living in the post-Communist Russian Republic) and 660 Belarusians recognised as Righteous Among the Nations (non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews) by Yad Vashem.
Soviet partisans planning a raid on the Germans in January 1942.