Review of the book “Resistance: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945” by Halik Kochanski

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Summer 1940. A deep sense of desperation descended on Europe as country after country fell under the rapacious conquest of Nazi Germany. 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 the civilians. German traffic signs appeared. “Foreign occupation changes every detail of a lifetime,” wrote a Czech soldier. “You are no longer master of your own country, you are no longer at home in your own house.”

But what could be done to challenge such an overwhelming force? The German onslaught had overrun the professional armies of Poland and France within months. The resistance of ordinary people seemed futile, even suicidal. Most Europeans dared not fight their occupiers; they tried to learn to live with them: “If we cannot sing with the angels, we will howl with the wolves”, as a Czech journalist said.

But even at this point in history, when Nazi victory seemed certain and permanent, some men and women found within themselves the courage to fight back. The intriguing question of why they did it – “Why resist?” – runs like a common thread in Halik Kochanski’s comprehensive new book, “Resistance: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945.

In his unflinching and sober account of the reaction of ordinary people under occupation, Kochanski shows that there is no straight answer to the question of why some Europeans chose to resist the Nazis when most did not. haven’t done it. Generally speaking, she argues, the answers 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 the Great Britain, and that they allow the economic plunder of the country”. In Poland, meanwhile, the population was seen as Untermenschen – sub-humans to be exploited and then exterminated. To Western Europeans, “Why resist?” was a matter of principle, whereas for Eastern Europeans it was a matter of survival.

At least in the early stages of the war, resistance in Western Europe was less risky. As a result, small-scale forms, such as the use of symbols, were prevalent. Many Dutch people wore orange blossoms to support the House of Orange; some Norwegians wore paperclips on their lapels in allegiance to King Haakon; French resistance fighters wore the Cross of Lorraine as keychains. Such a visual challenge may seem ineffective, but it has helped maintain tension between occupiers and occupied and has rarely resulted in prison sentences, let alone executions.

Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, partisan action began long before the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and it provoked a devastating reaction not only for those involved, but also for civilians. passive. In Poland, Major Henryk Dobrzanski, known as Hubal, refused to surrender after the Polish defeat in 1939 and assembled a volunteer force that destroyed an entire German battalion in March 1940. But the Nazi reprisals were swift and brutal. Anti-partisan units killed more than 1,200 people, including civilians whose villages were targeted, whether they supported Hubal or not.

While the efforts of resisters across Europe were admirable in bravery and spirit, decades of post-war mythmaking have also obscured many uncomfortable historical realities. Kochanski takes a fresh, uncompromising look at many of these cherished ideas without detracting from their importance “for the concept of the nation-state in the post-war years.”

To rebuild itself, post-war France, for example, needed to believe that it had virtually liberated itself under Charles de Gaulle, the leader of Free France. Indeed, its agents provided vital intelligence – for example, where air power could be deployed most effectively – but “such activities were useful only when the Allies were nearby,” Kochanski writes. Industrial sabotage and the dismantling of railroads made the Germans aware of their vulnerability, but Kochanski shows that they were “more of a nuisance than a war-changing activity”.

The “resistance” also challenges our images of friends and foes during 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 for the resistance as the Germans themselves.

For Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Czechoslovakia, countries which had achieved independence after the First World War, there was another dimension to the struggle: their fight was for autonomy—against anyone who compromised it. After 1943, when the war began to turn, this enigma raised the question: “Was the greatest enemy the retreating Germans or the advancing Soviets?”

This dilemma had serious repercussions on post-war views of what the resistance had achieved. In the West, where the defeat of Nazism restored independence, democracy and a chance to rebuild national dignity, resistance was associated with liberation. But in the East, where the Soviet occupation replaced the German occupation, things were very different. As one devastated resistance fighter put it, “As the smoke cleared from the battlefield, it began to appear that we had suffered a huge national defeat.”

A nuanced and dispassionate study, “Resistance” nevertheless pays homage to those who “were determined to thwart the designs of the Germans, to harass them, to deny them the possibility of forever asserting total control over the peoples of Europe”. Ideas of independence and dignity were at the heart of the struggle – they were worth fighting for and even dying for. Dutch resistance fighter Erik Hazelhoff spoke for many when he said, “In every person’s life, there are times when they think, ‘Tja, this is not okay.’ And then he does something.

Katja Hoyer, 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

Bonny J. Streater