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Resistance: The Underground War in Europe 1939-45

Across the whole of Nazi-ruled Europe the experience of occupation was sharply varied. Some countries – such as Denmark – were within tight limits allowed to run themselves. Others – such as France – were constrained not only by military occupation but by open collaboration.

In a historical moment when Nazi victory seemed permanent and irreversible, the question ‘why resist?’ was therefore augmented by ‘who was the enemy?’. Resistance is an extraordinarily powerful, humane and haunting account of how and why all across Nazi-occupied Europe some people decided to resist the Third Reich. This could range from open partisan warfare in the occupied Soviet Union to dangerous acts of defiance in the Netherlands or Norway. Some of these resistance movements were entirely home-grown, others supported by the Allies. Like no other book, Resistance shows the reader just how difficult such actions were. How could small bands of individuals undertake tasks which could lead not just to their own deaths but those of their families and their entire communities? Filled with powerful and often little-known stories, Halik Kochanski’s major new book is a fascinating examination of the convoluted challenges faced by those prepared to resist the Germans, ordinary people who carried out exceptional acts of defiance and resistance.

Hello, my name is Halik Kochanski and I’m talking about my book called Resistance: The Underground War in Europe, 1939 to 1945, which was published by Alan Lane in 2022.

My aim with producing this book was to dispel some notions that people have of resistance. The principal one was that it was all armed resistance. A semi-romantic notion of SOE agents parachuting into occupied Europe. And leading ill-armed partisans against the might of the German army. Well, some of that happened but not till 1943.

The other misconception is that countries liberated themselves by their internal resistance movements. This was most clearly portrayed by De Gaulle in 1944 when Paris fell. But it’s inaccurate and it’s nationalistic. It was necessary to dispel the feeling of failure from the original defeat. So I have taken the subject as a whole, the whole of Europe. Resistance against the Germans and where they were present to the Italians. And I have adopted a chronological format.

The first section from the start of the war until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 asks the simple question: Why resist? And in this time you can see a clear east-west divide into how the Germans are reacting to any signs of resistance and what the occupation policies are.

This is the period of total ally defeat and disorder. There’s no chance that allies are going to win the war in the near future. So people in occupied Europe have to decide how to react. In the east, it’s simple. The German occupation is so appalling, the country is wiped off the map, the population is enslaved. Also Poland had a long tradition of resistance generally against Russian occupation, so they knew how to resist. And so, as the Germans admitted themselves, the Poles resisted from the first day of the occupation to the last.

But in Western Europe it was different. There they had collaborating regimes or administrations. The Germans were just seeking to exploit natural resources and industries of the countries. It was perfectly possible to live a normal life. Just with an extra layer of administration. And indeed, collaboration was encouraged. So why resist?

Well, people did resist, but they found very limited ways in which they could resist. Of which the most important was the battle of the mind through the production of the clandestine press. The other was to prove their usefulness to the allies but through the provision of intelligence and also by the protection of allied personnel left behind. After the debacle at Dunkirk in 1940 and later Arnhem.

Now the second section covers from the German invasion of the Soviet Union to the surrender of Italy in September 1943.  At this time the Germans are still largely on the ascendence, although the tone of the war is changing. The German failure to take Moscow by December 1941 meant it was going to be a long war. And the Germans responded by the introduction of 2 new policies which inspired resistance. One was the Holocaust which appalled those witnessing the Jews being taken off to what ultimately turned out to be their deaths. But the second that had an impact in every home in Europe was the imposition of forced labour.

Critically, these 2 policies were put into practice by the collaborating regimes. So their raison d’etre of acting as a shield between the Germans and the population collapsed. Resistance became a more promising attitude to adopt. Yet there is then a new question. Who is the enemy?

It was the war against the collaborators. Not everyone saw the Germans as the greatest enemy and so many more people began to collaborate just as many more people began to resist.

Then as the war against Nazification in countries such as Norway where Quisling tried to impose his own policies. There was a territorial and political fight in what is now Western Ukraine but had been eastern Poland over which it should be along with so the Soviet partisans, the Polish partisans, the Jewish partisans and the Ukrainian partisans all struggled against each other.

Then there were the communists fighting for a new world order while the world war was continuing. This in the Balkans in particular led to a situation of actual civil war. During that period too, SOE, which had failed miserably in 1941 began to have some successes. Yet one should not exaggerate the success of resistance during that time. Because in June, 1943, the Germans mounted a very successful campaign of crushing resistance, which they did many areas of France, took over the resistance in Holland and managed to capture and later kill the head of the Polish Home Army.

But the tribute that I like to pay to the resistors throughout the war, is their resilience. Time and time again, they witnessed their friends and colleagues being arrested and taken off for certain torture and probable death and get new leaders would come to the fore and networks will be rebuilt again and again.

The final section takes the war from the surrender of Italy to the end of the war. The question here was: How did the resistance work alongside the allies? What did they want from each other and how did they work together?

Well, the resistance wanted self-deboration, and this led to disastrous decisions such as in Vercors in France, the launch of the Warsaw uprising, the Paris uprising, the Slovakian uprising and various other actions to take territory from the Germans.

But allies themselves misunderstood how the resistance could be used. They tried to issue orders that had no relevance to how an underground army operates. So, we get to the end of the war and conclude. But again, the question was: Who was the enemy? For the whole range of countries from the Baltic states down to the Black Sea: Who was the enemy? The incoming Soviets? Or the outgoing Germans, a terrible dilemma for the people there.

When it became clear that the German occupation was being replaced by a Soviet occupation, the resistance looked upon the events of the last few years as a defeat. They now had to face over 40 years of a new occupation. But in the West, however, there was the restoration of liberal democracy. Ultimately the battle of the mind had been won. Whether or not the armed resistance was successful or not, the people. understood what had been going on. And the final quote I normally end with is “The refusal to accept the German victory allows us to look at a Russian, British or American soldier without blushing”. This was a spiritual resistance. It was very, very important to them far more than the military resistance for the future of Western Europe.

Shortlisted for the History Reclaimed Book of the Year Prize. Buy here.

About the author


Halik Kochanski