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Resistance in Western Europe

Discussion in 'The Secret War: Resistance and Espionage During WW' started by Jim, Nov 16, 2007.

  1. Jim

    Jim Active Member

    Sep 1, 2006
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    Civilians trapped in the occupied countries were often unsure of how to respond to their predicament. Many turned a blind eye to the atrocious activities of the occupiers, but the majority of men and women felt confused, demoralized, and unsure how they were expected to act. With astonishing speed, they became hardened to violence. However, collaboration with fascism was not inevitable. Moral agency is crucial to what it means to be human. After all, the Nazis did not have a ‘free hand’ and their efforts were impeded by people’s views of right and wrong. For instance, while the German Catholic Church did not oppose the transport of Jews, it did eventually oppose the mass murder of the handicapped. In fascist Italy, even under German occupation, anti-Semitic laws were not generally enforced. People were never, in practice, ‘banal actors devoid of moral conscience’ (Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase).

    This said, resistance was never easy, although there were innumerable gradations of risk. Symbolic resistance was understandably the most common form of resisting enemy occupation. Retired people pottered about in their gardens, planting flowers in the national colours. Workers would fasten paper clips to their collars (‘we will stick together’), and adolescents would daub slogans in public toilets (as one Channel Islander admitted, subversive graffiti were ‘How you got your kicks. These days they’d call you hooligans’).7 In occupied France, people would wear a black tie or ribbon on 14 June, the anniversary of the entry of the Wehrmacht into Paris. On Bastille Day, there would be a sartorial epidemic of clothes coloured red, white, and blue. In many countries, simply greeting Jewish neighbours in the street was risky enough. More active forms of resistance included striking and assisting people ‘on the run’. For instance, the Dutch went on strike in February 1941 over the persecution of the Jews, in spring 1943 when Dutch soldiers were sent to prisoner-of-war camps in Germany, and in September 1944 when Allied troops landed. Further, the Dutch underground hid around 25,000 Jews, of whom 6,000 remained undetected. Sabotage, intelligence, and armed revolt were even more dangerous. Such activity was encouraged by organizations such as the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Britain and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in America. They were ‘The Fourth Arm’ in the war, after war by land, air, and sea, and they aimed to ‘set Europe ablaze’ (in Churchill’s words) by working with other resistance groups. By the end of the war over 13,000 men and women had served in the SOE, and the OSS employed 13,000 people at its height in late 1944.

    Generally, the greater the individual and group threat, the greater the resistance. Thus, in the occupied areas of the Soviet Union, Poland, and the Balkans, people had little to lose by resisting, since death was staring them in the face irrespective of their actions. In other occupied countries—such as in the Channel Islands, the only British territory to be occupied by the Germans during the war, and in the Netherlands, peopled with so-called Aryans—the relatively gentle nature of the occupation reduced much of the incentive for aggressive resistance, at least initially. The Channel Islanders were also subdued by the overwhelming presence of German troops (there was one German soldier to every two islanders). It was easier to resist when the Germans were thinner on the ground. Resistance was also influenced by geography. The flat, cleared landscape of the Channel Islands and Denmark militated against the roving bands of guerrillas that were so effective in mountainous countries like Greece and Italy. In many countries, the resistance had difficulty persuading rural people to support their cause. Peasant families in places like France often found their status and material well-being improved by German occupation, while partisan groups were ignorant of rural needs. Partisans would descend upon a village, consume vital foodstuffs, and leave at the slightest sign of trouble, leaving the villagers to suffer the murderous wrath of German troops. Only when the occupying troops proved more vicious than the partisans did rural communities support the resistance.
    In many occupied countries, widespread resistance was only sparked off by threats of labour conscription. In the south of France, for instance, the marquis began with men fleeing into the hills to avoid being conscripted to work in factories. The Dutch and Norwegian resistance against the labour drafts was even more effective. In the Netherlands, massive labour strikes proved to be effective ways of resisting labour conscription. By mid-July, only 7 per cent of the men who had been conscripted had appeared for work. Similarly, in Norway, the ‘boys in the forest’ became a byword for resistance after the attempted labour mobilization of May 1944. Women were crucial to many forms of resistance. They were involved in some of the most dangerous actions and many brave women SOE agents parachuted into occupied France; but more important were the larger group of women who were responsible for hiding escaping POWs, Jews, and other people at risk. Hiding the Jews in particular was an important way women resisted the Nazis in occupied Europe. The Belgians and the Dutch were particularly effective in this—although the Dutch became notorious for their most celebrated failure to protect the young Jewish girl Anne Frank, author of a subsequently famous diary, from deportation to the camps. This work was carried out by women such as the young Andree De Jongh, whose escape network (called Comete) enabled over 700 Allied servicemen to escape from occupied Belgium. Without question, women were more ‘invisible’ than men in public places and were less likely to be regarded suspiciously by guards, police, secret agents, and troops. Resisters emerged from the full range of political parties. Inevitably, Communists eventually were at the vanguard of resistance movements, despite their hesitant start owing to the invidious position they found themselves in after the Nazi–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939. Freed from this Pact in June 1941 when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, they rapidly made up for lost time, even to the extent of making alliances with their former enemies, the Catholics. However, resistance should not be regarded as innately revolutionary. In some countries, resistance took the form of fighting for the restoration of an old, aristocratic order. In Germany, resistance was muted and difficult. Up to the war, resistance had been mainly on the Left. By 1944, however, conservative military officers had taken the lead. Claus von Stauffenberg, a German war hero, was responsible in July 1944 for one of the two major bomb attempts on Hitler’s life. He noted that ‘We must commit high treason with all the means at our disposal. Hitler was wounded only slightly, because at the moment of the explosion he coincidentally leaned over a heavy wooden table. The conspirators were arrested and hanged slowly by piano wire. The small number of German resisters was as likely to be inspired by reactionary elitism as by a vision of a new, democratic Germany. The moral stance taken by German groups such as the White Rose, established by Hans and Sophie Scholl, was exceptional. In their most famous act of resistance, they dropped anti-Nazi leaflets into the main lobby of Munich University. The leaders, all aged between 22 and 25 years of age, were beheaded. The wide political diversity in the resistance proved extremely problematical. Take the example of French resistance. General Charles de Gaulle, a French military Commander, had an immense impact. While in exile in London, he led the Free France resistance movement. His most famous speech was broadcast on 18 June 1940, when he claimed that ‘whatever happens, the flame of French Resistance must not and will not be extinguished’. The prophecy would take time to be realized, however. It was not until the German invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941 that the French Communist Party took over the scattered remnants of French resistance, giving it form, organization, and the ‘fire’ of the sort called for by de Gaulle from his safe haven in London. However, French resistance movements remained highly divided on political grounds—that is, until May 1943, when Jean Moulin (sent by de Gaulle) managed to unite the leftists, unionists, and centrists into the Conseil Nationale de la Resistance. One of their most important actions was to declare their faith in de Gaulle, an action that was to have huge implications for de Gaulle’s negotiations with the Allies. Meanwhile, the Communist Party coordinated a complex series of acts of sabotage and other forms of guerrilla warfare. The Germans responded with relentless repression focusing on innocent civilian populations. The most brutal of these reprisals occurred on 10 June 1944, when an SS Division, frustrated by its inability to strike a blow against the Allies, murdered around 1,000 men, women, and children in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane (in south-west France). The men were executed while the women and children were burnt alive inside the village church. This razed village can still be visited today. It has been left as it was the day after this atrocity: a painful memorial to the suffering caused by war.

    In all occupied countries, the risks were immense. Of the 112,000 French resisters sent to German concentration camps, only 35,000 returned. For those who were captured, torture was routine. As one Czech journalist involved in the clandestine production of newspapers said: ‘The way by shooting didn’t seriously bother me. It was too common in our country to worry me. But death another way, the slow way sometimes brought me awake in the night sweating. I had seen some of the results of their handiwork. Odette Sansom was an SOE agent in the Cannes area of France who paid this price. She was captured, tortured, and eventually sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She describes her experiences: I am not courageous. I just make up my own mind about certain things and when they started their treatment of me I’m not going to say that I thought ‘This is fun’. I thought well you know there must be a breaking point. Even if in your own mind you don’t want to break, but physically you are bound to break up after a certain time I suppose. ‘If I can survive the next minute without breaking up, then that’s another minute of life.’ And if I can feel that way instead of thinking what’s going to happen in half an hour’s time. Having torn out my toenails they were going to do my fingers, but they were stopped because the commandant came in and said ‘Stop!’ And then they would burn my back. Of course, there are many other things they can do to me. But if I accept that it will not be my decision, they will kill me. They will kill me physically, but that’s all. They won’t win anything. What’s the point? They will have a dead body, useless to them. But they will not have me. She survived the ordeal: hundreds of thousands of other resisters did not.

    A People's History
  2. r2b2ct

    r2b2ct New Member

    Nov 16, 2007
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    This is a very good history of the resistence in western europe to the war. I found it a very entertaining and interesting read. Thanks.

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