JULY 20, 2022
THE BUTCHERY OF World War II is undeniably staggering, but when expressed as totals, it can feel abstracted, almost sanitized. The six million Jews, the 27 million Russians, the almost 300,000 Americans: these are the thumbnail numbers we have become familiar with. When described, though, in terms of the dates, the places, or the names of the people slain, the true magnitude of destruction becomes much more real, as does the sheer number of horrifying events, nightmarish days, it takes to add up to millions.
In her magisterial new Resistance: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939–1945, British historian Halik Kochanski catalogs this damage from an oblique angle that makes for vivid reading. But her focus isn’t the bloodshed. Instead, she provides a comprehensive history of World War II’s many resistance movements — something that the voluminous literature has surprisingly lacked.
Resistance’s essential takeaway is how central these resistance movements were in hastening Allied victory. These were not scattered, ragtag groups of French, Macedonian, or Croatian partisans harrying the Nazi war machine without causing much real damage. Resistance groups were often large (over 100,000 in Poland) and effective, particularly in the war’s final two years.
They also provided a challenge for Great Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), the agency created in 1940 to arm, support, coordinate, and influence them. But although Kochanski uses SOE as the connecting thread, Resistance is by no means a British-centric history, and the stories of the guerrilla leaders across Europe and their actions (and the Germans’ vicious responses) drive the book. Kochanski mostly confirms the shorthand by which we have come to understand the nations of Europe during the war: collaborationist Vichy France and Quisling Norway; quietly defiant Denmark; desperate Poland and Ukraine, trying to preserve or establish their nations; fractious Greece, Yugoslavia, and Albania, whose resistance groups fought each other as much as they did the Germans.
Kochanski structures her almost 1,000-page compendium along axes of time and geography. Appropriately, she calls the first period, when the Wehrmacht seemed unstoppable, “Why Resist?” The answer differed by region. The Poles, for one, desperately wanted to fight, but the citizens of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands just felt “apathy and indifference.”
Knowing that attrition from the German army might save Britain, SOE tried to bolster and supply any existing partisan groups for a later time when resistance wouldn’t be futile. In preparation for being airdropped into occupied territory, SOE officers trained for their missions in Scotland, learning to live off the land, to kill in 17 different ways, and to blow up locomotives. Later, the American Office of Strategic Services joined SOE in coordinating resistance efforts, but Anglo-American collaboration was never seamless, and their relationship was particularly contentious and fragile in the Balkans and Egypt.
The game changed when the Nazis invaded the USSR in mid-1941. “[T]he communists were now freed from the shackles imposed by the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact,” Kochanski points out, and comrades in places like Czechoslovakia and Poland, not just in Soviet territory, organized sabotage operations against the occupiers. The Soviets halted the German advance in the battle of Stalingrad, and the Allies achieved victory in North Africa. Resistance no longer seemed pointless.
But with more groups operating in more places came more problems: “[D]ebates [ensued] over how to conduct resistance, the matter of command and control, and […] whether the principal enemy was the occupier or the political opponents within the resistance.” The Balkans were particularly plagued by this last issue, and Yugoslavian, Albanian, and Greek communist–dominated partisan armies, led by commanders such as Josip Broz Tito and Enver Hoxha, fought as much with other partisans as with the Germans. SOE’s dilemma: To support what was often the strongest resistance force and risk a postwar communist government or to back non-communist groups that were often their own flavor of awful, such as Draža Mihailović’s Chetniks in Serbia.
Kochanski is a sure guide to the baffling welter of names for various partisan groups and factions, and her attention to the material realities of partisan resistance gives the reader the granular feel of wartime sabotage: How many guns of what type were airdropped, and what kind of ammunition did they need? How many electrical pylons were destroyed? How does one blow up a railroad trestle, and how long does it take to repair? The difficulties of communication, both within groups and between SOE and partisans, often contributed to the failure of operations. Radio transceivers, for instance, weighed 20 pounds and relied on a fragile crystal “the shape and size of a two-pin electric light plug” and a 70-foot antenna that had to be attached to a structure. The difficulties of keeping such a device whole and operational under battle conditions must have been considerable.
Although the slander that Jews passively submitted to the Holocaust has long been debunked, Kochanski adds some more detail to the story of Jewish resistance. France’s primary partisan army, Franc-Tireurs et Partisans, included several specifically Jewish units. Small Jewish cadres also sought to sabotage the machinery of deportations in Vichy. For example, they destroyed the card index of members of the Union Générale des Israélites de France for the city of Marseille. Further east, there were certainly Jewish organizations that provided some assistance to the Nazis in recruiting Jews for “work camps,” but once news of the real nature of those roundups emerged so did resistance, including assassinations of Nazi officials.
The problem with killing Nazi bureaucrats and SS officers, though, was the brutal reprisals. Across occupied territory, the Nazis exacted merciless punishment for such assassinations, murdering 50, 100, 500 hostages for each German life lost. Local populations resented resistance fighters for this. But in the Warsaw Ghetto, when it became clear in early 1943 that extermination was the endgame, the resisters rose up against the Germans in furious combat. The death tolls were appalling — many thousands of Jews to a few dozen Germans — but the revolt inspired a similar, and similarly doomed, one in Bialystok, Lithuania.
Italy’s September 1943 surrender to the Allies marks Kochanski’s second turning point. Combined with the defeat at Stalingrad, the defection of Germany’s major ally signaled that the Reich would fall, and because of this, “the resistance could become more open in its activities” and coordinate more with the Allied armies. Or not: as the German threat receded, many partisan armies became more intent on fomenting civil war than on finally expelling the Nazis.
And then there’s Ukraine. In this genuinely pan-European study, Kochanski’s chapters on resistance in the “bloodlands” of Eastern Europe, as Yale historian Timothy Snyder memorably dubbed the region, feel like the book’s centerpiece — even if written long before Vladimir Putin’s invasion reminded us of how the struggle to control that fertile land drove so many unresolved 20th-century conflicts. The Nazi blitzkrieg and occupation of 1939–’41 ended the short-lived interwar independence of Poland and the Baltic states, but after the Soviets pushed the Germans back, Poland at least regained some sovereignty. Seeing a chance at their own national independence for the first time, Ukrainian and Byelorussian partisans coalesced to fight not just the Germans but the Soviets and Poles as well.
But they weren’t the sympathetic and scrappy fighters we see on CNN today. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) undertook ethnic cleansing in the area bordering Poland, massacring approximately 50,000 Poles in the Volhynia region. Refugee Poles then joined German forces against the Ukrainians, killing over 10,000 until the main Polish resistance force demanded an end to Nazi collaboration. On the other side of the country, the UPA — most of whom had survived Stalin’s manufactured famine of the 1930s — fought against Soviet partisans, with many more thousands dead. It is these Ukrainians, many of whom were pleased to work alongside Germans in killing Russians, that Putin disingenuously points to when he calls for the “denazification” of Ukraine.
Although Resistance primarily traces the impact that underground movements had in defeating the Nazis, seemingly small body counts such as those emerge as a key story in the book: 5,000 here, 10,000 there, pretty soon we get to real numbers. Tens of millions of Europeans died in the war, mostly civilians, and until very recently, it has been difficult for those who didn’t live through the war to imagine just how that could happen. But in Mariupol and Bucha, we can see exactly how it happened and that today’s bloodbath is just a continuation of those same conflicts between empires and national aspiration on lands shared by many distinct ethnic groups. Today, UPA fighters’ great-grandchildren are firing their ancestors’ rifles to stave off yet another invasion.
Greg Barnhisel is professor of English at Duquesne University. He is the author of James Laughlin, New Directions, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound and Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy and is currently completing a biography of the professor and spy Norman Holmes Pearson.