The word resistance, in the sense of actions taken, encompasses everything from noncooperation to civil disobedience, conducting intelligence activities, committing sabotage and assassinations, running escape lines, and even carrying out hit-and-run raids against small enemy units. Resistance can also mean an organization or a particular movement, such as the maquis in France. Resistance may be undertaken by individuals or by groups of people organized to work clandestinely against an oppressor. To the occupied people, those who engage in such activities are resisters and are often held up as heroes. To the occupying power, they are considered bandits, criminals, and even terrorists.
To exacerbate the confusion, most nations have created myths concerning their resistance activities. As a consequence, we will never know, even approximately, the numbers of people actually involved in such activities. After the war, for quite understandable reasons, the governments of many countries, including France, sought to magnify the numbers of citizens involved in resistance work and their contribution to victory.
Resistance movements during World War II were sharply fragmented along national lines, and there were even bitter rivalries within groups of resisters in individual nations that often led to bloodshed. These rivalries were the result of deep ideological and religious differences, long-standing ethnic feuds, fiefdoms, and petty jealousies among the leaders themselves. In Czechoslovakia, Defense of the Nation and the Falcon Organization vied with one another. In the Netherlands, various religious and political groups emerged, but they did not work together until September 1944. In France, resisters were markedly divided at first: not until May 1943 was the National Council of the Resistance (CNR) formed, uniting all major French Resistance groups. In Greece, infighting among the National Popular Liberation Army (ELAS), the National Republican Greek League (EDES), and the Communist National Liberation Front (EAM) led to a civil war after World War II had ended. In Albania, royalist Zogists fought a prorepublican group of resisters. The Yugoslavia Resistance was polarized between the royalist Cetniks under the leadership of Dragoljub "Draza" Mihajlovic and Communist Partisans led by Josip Broz (better known as Tito). The Cetniks were promonarchy and conservative, whereas the Partisans were antimonarchy and sought a postwar communist state. The Cetniks were also reluctant to embark on the types of operations that would bring reprisals against the civilian population, such as direct attacks on German troops. The Partisans felt no such compunction. Inside the Soviet Union, many resisters sought not only freedom from the Germans but also freedom from Soviet control as well.
Often, Allied agents who parachuted into an occupied state had difficulty sorting out all these rivalries and making the appropriate determinations as to where Allied financial and military assistance should be directed. Throughout the occupied countries, the communist resistance groups, although they were late to take the field (until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Josef Stalin advocated close ties with Nazi Germany), tended to be highly effective because they were better trained and organized; with strong ideological motivation, they had no reservations about the use of force.
Geography impacted resistance activities and determined the levels of action and participation. Mountainous, forested, or swampy terrain favored the guerrilla. It was thus easier to conduct resistance activities in Norway, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Greece, all countries with many hills, forests, and caves. In Asia, jungles often worked to the advantage of the resistance forces as well.
Resistance took many forms and was both passive and active. Passive resistance was generally nonconfrontational and a method of coping and asserting one's patriotism. Passive resistance involved many people in occupied Europe and in Asia. It encompassed a wide range of activities and might include nothing more than reading an illegal newspaper, selling or buying goods on the black market, or not handing in materials decreed necessary for the Axis war machine. It might also mean secretly listening to church sermons, praying for a royal family or leaders in exile, listening to broadcasts from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), leaving a public place when a German entered it, or other such actions. At the highest levels, passive resistance might include balking at anti-Jewish legislation or not handing over individuals sought by the occupier and seeking to evade the occupying power's exactions.
Active resistance included intelligence gathering; acting as couriers or radio operators; disseminating information or Allied propaganda, through such means as underground newspapers; printing false identification papers and ration cards; rescuing downed Allied pilots and assisting them to neutral nations; committing acts of sabotage; freeing prisoners; hiding Jews; and even carrying out assassinations of individuals and conducting military actions against small numbers of occupying troops. Active resistance was far more dangerous and often life-threatening, both to the individual involved and to his or her family. For that reason, those who engaged in it were always a minority. Considerable courage as well as clairvoyance were required for a Frenchman to see, in 1940, that Germany might indeed lose the war, let alone for him to be willing to risk all toward that end.
The British Special Operations Executive (SOE), established by Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill in 1940, helped finance and train agents from the nations of Axis-occupied countries to carry out active resistance activities. Its U.S. counterpart, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), conducted similar activities. The SOE and OSS enjoyed some successes, but they also experienced a number of failures leading to the deaths of agents. The most dramatic failure resulted from englandspiel, an elaborate German counterintelligence operation in the Netherlands that ended in the deaths of many Allied agents. Resisters had to exercise constant vigilance—and not only against the occupying forces. The governments of their own countries, working with the occupiers, often sent out forces (such as the Milice in France) to hunt them down.
One notable resistance success was the February 1943 strike executed by British-trained Norwegian resisters against the hydroelectric plant at Vermork, Norway. This raid and the subsequent sinking of a ferry delayed German production of the heavy water essential for the production of an atomic bomb.
The Poles, who suffered terribly at the hands of their German and Soviet occupiers during the war, immediately established active resistance operations. They provided immensely useful intelligence on the German development of V weapons, and they created the secret Home Army. Jews in the Warsaw ghetto employed active resistance as well, rising up against the Germans and providing a heroic example of courage against impossible odds.
The French maquis also fought the Germans. Resistance activities mounted from the Vercors Plateau in the Alps of eastern France provoked a strong reaction in the form of 20,000 German troops who, in June 1944, decimated the Vercors maquis and mounted savage reprisals against the civilian population. The Germans carried out ferocious reprisals elsewhere as well. Often, they executed innocent civilian villagers or hostages at the rate of 20 or more for each of their own slain. Reprisals were especially fierce after British-trained Czech commandos assassinated the Reich protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich. His death led the Germans to kill most of the inhabitants of Lidice and level the town. Communities in other parts of Europe suffered a similar fate.
Resistance activities sharply increased as the Axis powers suffered military reversals, especially when it became clear that they would lose the war. Resisters had to be constantly on guard and regularly change their modus operandi. They also had to contend with double agents, of whom there were a substantial number. French Resistance leader Jean Moulin, the head of the National Resistance Council (CNR), for example, was betrayed to the Gestapo by an informant.
The effectiveness of resistance activities during the war is difficult to gauge. Such activities may not have greatly sped up the end of the war, but they did affect events in that the occupiers were forced to divert many troops from the fighting fronts to occupation duties and to hunting down the resistance forces. Resistance in all its forms was a vindication of national identity and pride and a statement for freedom. Unfortunately for resistance leaders in many countries, their bright and idealistic hopes that the war would bring new political structures were, for the most part, left unfulfilled. In most nations, these individuals were thanked politely and then shown the door, as the old elites soon reestablished themselves in power.
Some resistance groups, of course, fought not only against the Axis powers but also against colonial forces. Thus, in Vietnam, the Vietminh led by Ho Chi Minh fought both the Japanese and the French. As a consequence, the resistance continued in a number of countries after World War II ended, utilizing the methods and weapons supplied to fight the Japanese. Such was the case in Vietnam, in the Philippines, and even in the Soviet Union. Annette Richardson and Spencer C. Tucker
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Annette Richardson and Spencer C. Tucker