Summer, 1940. A deep sense of despair descended over Europe as country after country fell to Nazi Germany’s rapacious conquest. Wherever they went, the occupiers imposed painful markers of their presence. Public buildings were draped in blood-red banners bearing the swastika. Orders were barked at civilians. German street signs appeared. “Foreign occupation changes every detail of one’s whole life,” a Czech soldier wrote. “You are no longer master of your own country, no longer at home in your own home.”
But what could be done to defy such overwhelming force? The German onslaught had overrun the professional armies of Poland and France in a matter of months. Resistance from ordinary people seemed futile, even suicidal. Most Europeans did not dare fight their occupiers; they tried to learn to live with them: “If we cannot sing with the angels we shall howl with the wolves,” as a Czech journalist put it.
But even at this moment in history, when Nazi victory seemed certain and permanent, some men and women found it in themselves to fight back. The intriguing question of why they did so — “Why resist?” — runs like a red thread through Halik Kochanski’s comprehensive new book, “Resistance: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945.”
In her unflinching and sober account of the response of ordinary people under occupation, Kochanski shows that there is no straightforward answer to the question of why some Europeans chose to resist the Nazis while most did not. Broadly, she argues, the responses depended on the type of occupation imposed: “What Hitler wanted from France was for the French to remain silent while he prepared for war against Britain, and to permit the economic plundering of the country.” In Poland meanwhile, the population was regarded as Untermenschen — subhumans to be exploited and then exterminated. To Western Europeans, “Why resist?” was a question of principle, while to Eastern Europeans it became one of survival.
At least in the early phases of the war, resistance in Western Europe was less risky. As a result, small-scale forms, such as the use of symbols, were widespread. Many Dutch people wore orange blossoms to support the House of Orange; some Norwegians wore paper clips on their lapels in allegiance with King Haakon; French resisters carried the Cross of Lorraine as key fobs. Such visual defiance may seem ineffective, but it helped maintain tension between the occupiers and the occupied and rarely ended in prison sentences, never mind executions.
Meanwhile in Eastern Europe, partisan action began well before the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and it drew a devastating backlash not just for those involved but for passive civilians too. In Poland, Maj. Henryk Dobrzanski, known as Hubal, refused to surrender after the Polish defeat in 1939 and gathered a volunteer force that destroyed an entire German battalion in March 1940. But Nazi retaliation was swift and brutal. Anti-partisan units killed more than 1,200 people, including civilians whose villages were targeted whether they had supported Hubal or not.
While the efforts of resisters everywhere in Europe were admirable in bravery and spirit, decades of postwar mythmaking have also obscured many uncomfortable historical realities. Kochanski takes an uncompromising new look at many of these dearly held ideas without taking away from their importance “to the concept of the nation state in the post-war years.”
In order to rebuild, postwar France, for instance, needed to believe that it had practically liberated itself under Charles de Gaulle, the leader of Free France. Indeed, his agents provided vital intelligence — for example, where air power might be deployed most effectively — but “these activities were only valuable when the Allies were nearby,” Kochanski writes. Industrial sabotage and the dismantling of railway lines were making the Germans aware of their vulnerability, but Kochanski shows that they were “more of a nuisance than a war-changing activity.”
“Resistance” also challenges our images of friend and foe in World War II. “Who is the enemy?” is a pertinent question, given that the compliance of internal collaborators was often as much of a problem to the resistance as the Germans themselves.
For Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Czechoslovakia, countries that had gained independence after World War I, there was another dimension to the struggle: Their fight was for autonomy — against whoever compromised it. After 1943, when the war began to turn, this conundrum raised the question: “Was the greater enemy the retreating Germans or the advancing Soviets?”
This dilemma had serious repercussions for postwar views of what resistance had achieved. In the West, where the defeat of Nazism restored independence, democracy and a chance to rebuild national dignity, the resistance was associated with liberation. But in the East, where Soviet occupation replaced the German one, things were very different. As one devastated resistance fighter put it, “As the smoke cleared from the battlefield it began to emerge that we had suffered a huge national defeat.”
A nuanced and dispassionate study, “Resistance” nonetheless pays tribute to those who “were determined to thwart the designs of the Germans, to harass them, to deny them the opportunity to ever assert total control over the peoples of Europe.” Ideas of independence and dignity were at the heart of the struggle — worth fighting and even dying for. Dutch resister Erik Hazelhoff spoke for many when he said: “In the life of every person there are moments when he says to himself: ‘Tja, this won’t do.’ And then he does something.”
Katja Hoyer, an Anglo-German historian and journalist, is the author of “Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918.”
The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945
By Halik Kochanski
Liveright. 936 pp. $45