In September 1943 in Minsk, Belarus, a brutal Nazi commandant died instantly after a bomb, placed under his bed by his housekeeper Yelena Mazanik, exploded in the early hours of the morning.
In October 1943, the prisoners of the Sobibor death camp, coordinated by Alexander Pechersky and Leon Feldhendler, killed eleven guards and facilitated a mass escape into the forests. Whilst many escapees were caught and killed, others survived the war.
In October 1939, after almost all forms of education were outlawed by the Nazis, Polish teachers risked death to form the Secret Teaching Organisation and began to organise a covert network of classrooms that would educate over a million children during the war.
In May 1944, 22 year-old Marianne Cohn was arrested by the Gestapo whilst smuggling 28 Jewish children from France into Switzerland. Enduring extensive torture, she held her silence, and was eventually beaten to death. Every one of the children arrested alongside her survived the war.
The above cases, each remarkable in their own right, offer a glimpse into the enormously diverse world of resistance to the Axis during WWII in Europe. Many millions died during the five and a half years of bloodshed on the continent, the greatest self-inflicted tragedy in Europe’s history.
However, there are several lenses through which to view the conflict, several ways of telling the story of the war. Amidst the chaos, death and destruction of WWII, hundreds of thousands of uncommonly brave people risked their lives to defy Hitler and his allies. This project aims to tell some of those stories.
What is resistance?
Many WWII historians have attempted to define “resistance”, all of whom have encountered difficulties. The scope and forms of resistance ranged from large-scale guerrilla uprisings to an individual tearing a Nazi flag down from a public building, and took place in locations as diverse as the streets of occupied Paris, the mosquito-infested swamplands of Belarus, the squalor and starvation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the wintertime darkness of the Norwegian coastline. Such is its diversity that some historians have questioned whether such a definition is possible even when considering a single country, let alone a continent. For example, Olivier Wieviorka, referring to resistance in France, claims that its multifarious nature “hinders us from proposing a comprehensive definition of a phenomenon that is surely marked by diversity and pluralism”.
However, Wieviorka outlines criteria that have informed this project. Firstly, “resistance must be considered in terms of its actions”, i.e. it required a deed that combated the Axis or collaborationist regimes in some way, beyond the mere holding of an opinion. Secondly, intention is important; someone who smuggled Jews primarily for monetary gain cannot be considered a resister, as “there is Resistance only if there is consciousness of resisting”, in historian Pierre Laborie’s words. Additionally, resistance was “predicated on transgression”; it opposed the legality of the Axis and collaborationist governments, and entailed a risk.
there is Resistance only if there is consciousness of resisting
Whilst resistance efforts were varied, there were several primary forms. Militant resistance included guerrilla warfare, assassinations and, at its peak, mass uprisings. Armed raids were conducted on official buildings and storehouses to steal information and resources. Espionage and intelligence gathering was conducted to aid the Allied war effort. Sabotage, be it through placing explosives under rail tracks or cutting communication lines, undermined Axis military efforts.
Non-violent active resistance variously aimed to safeguard the identity and culture of besieged peoples, to keep hope burning, and to save lives. Underground presses sprung into being during the war, documents were forged, and humanitarian aid was provided to armed resistance. Allied personnel, Jews and other persecuted minorities were hidden or smuggled to safety, and POWs were illicitly provided with food. Public forms of civil disobedience, such as strikes and demonstrations, took place against exploitative laws and Nazification in occupied areas.
It is important to underline that active resistance was a minority pursuit in all European countries, especially in the West. For example, in France, it is estimated that less than 2% of the population engaged in active resistance. Whilst the proportion was higher in the East, thanks in part to the Third Reich’s ruthless barbarity and lack of options, in Poland no more than 15% engaged in organised resistance movements. While anti-Axis sentiment was widespread, in the face of terrifying deterrence most simply tried to ensure their own survival, and that of their families. Active resisters were exceptional, and as historian Istvan Deak writes, given the fear, suspicion, uncertainty and brutality of life as an active resister, “it is a near miracle that so many Europeans chose it voluntarily”.
There was also a more widespread, lower level of resistance sometimes labelled “everyday resistance”, which, whilst touched on throughout this project, is not our focus due to necessary constraints of space. Due to the dangers of organisation under occupation, many undertook smaller acts of defiance on an individual basis, for example listening covertly to the BBC, or engaging in forms of passive non-cooperation, such as working slowly in an Axis-controlled factory. Whilst comparatively safer, individual, symbolic actions did carry risk; for example, so many Norwegians refused to sit next to Germans on public transport that the Nazis made it illegal to stand if there were seats available. Of course, for Jews, Roma, Sinti, LGBT+ people, people with disabilities and other persecuted minorities, establishing or maintaining relationships, or simply staying alive, was in and of itself a feat of resistance against ideologies that aimed to annihilate them.
For persecuted minorities simply staying alive was in and of itself a feat of resistance
Despite prevailing myths, resistance was never one unified thing. Resisters were of many political stripes and ethnic identities, and whilst many alliances were formed between previously opposing groups, there were also bitter rivalries, particularly between communist and non-communist groups, and bloody clashes occurred in Greece, Yugoslavia, and Ukraine. For example in France, where resistance groups had achieved an unusual degree of unity under the future President Charles de Gaulle by mid-1943, the picture remains complex. Many groups remained opposed to the general, many active resisters in France were not French, and some, such as those who helped to rescue Jews, were not linked to any formal organisation. Historian Robert Gildea argues that it is more accurate to refer to “resistance in France” rather than “the French Resistance” for these reasons.
It is also important to state at this stage that resistance activity, especially armed activity in the East and South, often came at a heavy civilian cost. Partisan activity in a region brought with it the risk of harsh Nazi reprisals, but locals could also face exploitation from the partisans themselves. This meant relationships between resistance groups and local populations were often strained, and the moral issues surrounding armed resistance were rarely clear-cut.
The development of resistance
Given the sheer diversity of wartime experience in Europe, drawing broad generalisations about how resistance developed must be approached with caution. As historian Norman M. Naimark states, we can only gain “a kaleidoscopic picture of European life during the war. No two situations were alike; variability was the rule”. However, whilst keeping this in mind, it is possible to identify some key moments and trends in the development of resistance in Europe during WWII. Below we outline the broad picture, before delving into national and individual stories elsewhere in this project.
OCCUPATION, COLLABORATION AND RESISTANCE: 1939-1941
The two years following Hitler’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 saw a series of stunning German victories, and great swathes of Europe came under Nazi occupation. German rule brought fear and great brutality to many, especially in the East, where Nazi racial doctrines and forced denationalisation led to extensive, horrendous terror.
By the summer of 1940, the situation was profoundly bleak for all those who opposed Hitler and his allies. The fall of France had ended hopes for a swift victory, Italy had joined the conflict on the side of the Axis, and the UK appeared to face imminent invasion. At this stage, the great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, appeared reluctant to declare war on Hitler.
Recognising that early attempts were doomed to fail, resistance groups adopted a “secret army” approach
Whilst resistance movements quickly emerged in occupied Europe, broadly speaking they did not make a significant impression on the occupiers or gain popular support in the early years of the war. Recognising that early attempts at uprising were doomed to fail, resistance groups in Poland and later in Norway, Yugoslavia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France adopted a “secret army” approach, undertaking strategic sabotage, intelligence operations and other forms of resistance, whilst preparing for a wider revolt at a moment when victory was in reach. There were comparatively few direct attacks on Germans in the early stages of the war.
During this period, resistance groups began to receive support from the British, who founded the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the summer of 1940, instructed by Churchill to “set Europe ablaze”. Whilst its initial ambitions to ignite widespread insurrection were later abandoned, the SOE provided important support, including British-trained agents, to many resistance groups, and coordinated intelligence, sabotage, and subversion efforts from abroad. As historian Mark Mazower writes, “without foreign backing, providing sanctuary (for those able to reach it), money, supplies, training and, above all, hope, resistance in occupied Europe would have been even more limited than it was”.
ENTRY OF THE GREAT POWERS: 1941-1943
The landscape of resistance was transformed with the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. As the most formidable invasion force in history swept through the East, many millions of Soviet citizens came under occupation, and would be subjected to extreme terror, encouraged by Hitler himself, who intended to starve 30 million people and colonise the region. Despite early missteps, the western Soviet territories would host the largest guerrilla resistance movement in Europe, increasingly coordinated by Moscow, which conducted sabotage and harassed German troops, to the great expense of the civilian population.
The entry of the new Allied superpower gave hope to beleaguered resistance forces everywhere. The end of the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact also united previously divided communists across Europe, leading to an increase of militant resistance activity in many regions. In the Balkan states of Yugoslavia and Greece, which came under Axis occupation in April 1941, communist partisan forces quickly emerged, growing to be among the largest and most effective in Europe.
The entry of the Allied superpower gave hope to resistance forces everywhere
Also pivotal was the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 and the subsequent entry of the USA into the war, in a “Grand Alliance” with the Soviet Union and Britain. Victory began to seem possible. In July 1942 the US formed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, which worked to aid resistance efforts and employed 13,000 staff around the world.
In the autumn of 1942, German power reached its apogee. What followed was an astonishing reversal of fortunes, beginning with Germany’s first major defeat, following the titanic struggle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-1943. As historian Istvan Deak writes, “this faraway event caused millions of Europeans to begin to doubt that Germany would win the war, which in turn started a sea change – from accommodation to greater and greater forceful opposition to the Nazis”.
Facing enemies of vast wealth, Germany grew desperate for resources, leading to the rapacious exploitation of occupied regions, including forced labour drives in 1942 and 1943. Across all affected regions, but especially in Western Europe, the hated drafts led to a boom of support for and active involvement in resistance groups.
Operation Barbarossa also marked the beginning of the Holocaust, the systematic extermination of Europe’s Jewish population, alongside Romani, Sinti, LGBT+ people and other persecuted minorities. At its height, 1.32 million people would die in the three months between August and October 1942. Some were able to overcome the extreme disadvantages and deterrence and organise undergrounds in ghettos and death camps. Whilst many non-Jewish Europeans were shamefully indifferent, the Holocaust spurred others to resist, for example in Denmark, which has the finest record in occupied Europe for saving Jews.
UPRISING AND LIBERATION: 1943 - 1945
As German fortunes spiralled downwards, the war became ever more chaotic and violent; of the estimated 50 million deaths of WWII, roughly 40 million occurred during the last two and a half years of the war. The Nazi counterinsurgency took on a terrifying momentum in many occupied regions, but had a polarising effect, often hardening the resolve of resisters. Many resistance groups were now coordinating with the Allies, and in some cases were treated as auxiliary forces in plans to retake Europe. By 1944, resistance movements in several countries had developed into full-scale liberation movements.
The Allied invasion and the capitulation of Italy in September 1943 was another major confidence boost for resistance movements. Naples became the first European city to launch a mass anti-Nazi uprising that month, forcing the Germans to withdraw as the Allies reached the city. Italian partisans launched a guerrilla war against the occupying Germans and remaining fascists that would rage until the last days of the war. In 1943 uprisings also occurred at the death camps of Treblinka and Sobibor, and a defiant, but ultimately doomed, insurrection was staged in the Warsaw Ghetto in April-May.
Above all, the D-Day landings of June 1944, and the Red Army’s push into Poland, heralded Germany’s imminent defeat and provoked a groundswell of support for resistance throughout the continent, and activity in the form of strikes, sabotage and attacks on Germans and collaborators reached an unprecedented scale. The D-Day landings were coordinated with sabotage and guerrilla attacks from resistance groups in France, who also staged a successful insurrection in Paris in August, a city already being abandoned by German troops. As Mazower notes, exile governments, alongside the SOE and the US military did their best to prevent mass uprisings in Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, due to fear of casualties and for political motives.
In August 1944 the Polish nationalist Home Army launched the biggest urban rebellion of any resistance group in WWII as the Red Army approached the city. However, Nazi command seized the opportunity to raze Warsaw, and the Soviets held back, hoping the Nazis would stamp out organised opposition to its own domination of Poland. After 63 days of bitter fighting, the massively outgunned Home Army, with little aid from the Allies, was forced to surrender. In Yugoslavia, however, Tito’s partisans liberated most of the country without direct aid from the Allies, although received the help of the Red Army when taking Belgrade in October 1944.
AFTER THE OCCUPATION
In several regions, including France, Italy, and Yugoslavia, the period during and immediately after liberation was one of violent retribution, as resistance groups punished collaborators. It was also an uneasy period for liberating forces and returning politicians, who variously regarded resistance groups as potential allies or dangers to their own interests.
The end of WWII was bittersweet for many, as Nazi rule gave way to Soviet domination of the East. Moscow disbanded Soviet partisan units, and many were incorporated into the Red Army. However, tens of thousands of members of the exhausted Polish Home Army were sent to Gulags, and some of Poland’s greatest resistance heroes were executed after the war. A more accurate picture of resistance in Eastern Europe would only emerge after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Uniquely, the dominant communist partisans were able to snatch power in Yugoslavia, and Tito would remain head of the state until 1980. However, in Greece, whilst the communist led EAM/ELAS was the largest armed force in the country, Churchill, motivated by strategic concerns, desired to destroy the force militarily and politically. After weeks of bitter fighting, EAM/ELAS was crushed with aid of the British military, facilitating the government-in-exile’s return. The remnants of the group went underground, re-emerging as the Greek Democratic Army in 1946 to fight in the civil war.
As Mazower writes, for returning politicians “Greece provided a warning of what could go horribly wrong”. In France, de Gaulle quickly brought many internal resistance groups under state control by incorporating them into the Free French units, with similar actions taking place in the Netherlands, Denmark, and, less than smoothly, in Belgium. In Italy, many former partisans took political roles in the new Republic, although others faced persecution during the Cold War.
The period during and after liberation was uneasy, and often violent, in many areas
Resistance movements quickly became heavily mythologised, the realities inflated and distorted to better boost the national pride of conquered nations. Political factions sought to emphasise their own actions and downplay those of their opponents, de Gaulle and Tito chief amongst them. The onset of the Cold War did much to transform WWII resistance into what the historian Santo Peli described as a “blunt instrument to be waved around in political debate”. However, as the historians Philip Cooke and Ben H. Shepherd have shown, anti-Axis resistance remains a highly charged subject, and continues to be mobilised in mainstream political debate in several European countries to this day.
WWII was the greatest moral catastrophe Europe has ever endured, a time of invasions, oppression, collaboration, genocide, suffering and loss on a colossal scale. This is, first and foremost, how we must remember the war.
However, WWII also bore witness to great courage, resilience, rescue, and extraordinary, audacious acts of defiance. Despite every effort, the Axis never completely corrupted or crushed the spirit of the populations that came under its yoke. Whilst they were exceptional, many thousands of people of many political stripes, ethnicities, religions and professions risked death to combat the Axis. This project aims to highlight examples of human bravery amidst the darkest moments in history.
Key dates of WWII
1 SEPTEMBER 1939
Germany invades Poland, prompting Britain and France to declare war on Germany, starting WWII in Europe. On 17 September, the Soviet Union invades Poland from the east, and attacks Finland shortly after.
10 MAY 1940
Having invaded Norway and Denmark in April, Germany storms into France and the Low Countries, which fall within weeks. Italy joins the war on 10 June, also invading France. British troops are evacuated from Dunkirk.
31 OCTOBER 1940
The Battle of Britain air war ends in German defeat, although the bombing of British cities continues until May 1941.
6 APRIL 1941
The Axis invades and subsequently occupies Yugoslavia, and takes Greece shortly after.
22 JUNE 1941
The Axis invades the Soviet Union, advancing swiftly and laying siege to Leningrad in September, and reaching Moscow in October. However, the Russian winter and counteroffensive slow Axis forces by December.
7 DECEMBER 1941
Japan attacks Pearl Harbour, bringing the USA into the war. Shortly after Japan invades the Philippines, French-controlled Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and British-controlled Singapore.
24 OCTOBER 1942
The British defeat the Axis at El Alamein in Egypt.
2 FEBRUARY 1943
After five months of combat, Axis troops surrender to the Soviets at Stalingrad, Germany’s first capitulation and a major turning point of the war.
13 MAY 1943
Axis forces surrender in Tunisia, marking the end of the North African campaign.
3 SEPTEMBER 1943
Italy surrenders to the Allies, and the Nazi grip tightens on the country. The Allies land in mainland Italy soon after.
6 JUNE 1944
Two days after Allied troops liberate Rome, the Allies land in Normandy, sweeping through France and liberating Paris on 25 August.
1 AUGUST 1944
As the Red Army approaches Warsaw, the Polish Home Army resistance group stages an uprising in the city that rages for 63 days, ending in Home Army surrender in early October.
27 JANUARY 1945
The Red Army, having pushed across Poland, liberates Auschwitz. Budapest is liberated the following month.
7 MAY 1945
After Hitler’s suicide and the Red Army’s capture of Berlin, Germany surrenders, ending the war in Europe.
2 SEPTEMBER 1945
After the USA drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan formally surrenders, ending WWII.