'Resistance': How underground forces sabotaged the Nazis - review

History of disparate actions by underground forces throughout Europe in World War II.

 A SOLDIER guards the entrance of an underground shelter. The book details the many operations of the underground resistance against the Nazis (Illustrative).  (photo credit: JORGE SILVA / REUTERS)
A SOLDIER guards the entrance of an underground shelter. The book details the many operations of the underground resistance against the Nazis (Illustrative).
(photo credit: JORGE SILVA / REUTERS)

Parachuted into Denmark by Great Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) in March 1943, Flemming Muus met with resistance leaders to gauge their willingness to launch sabotage operations against the Nazis.

Determined to help his fellow Danes “find their lost souls,” Muus warned London that the Wehrmacht would respond brutally to attacks and asked, “Shall we slow down or force the issue?”

Although the circumstances in Denmark were unique, this question was raised by members of resistance movements in all the countries occupied by the Nazis during World War II.

In Resistance, Halik Kochanski, the author of The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War, provides a history of the disparate actions taken by underground forces throughout Europe and their impact. Stunning in the breadth and depth of its research, analysis and exposition, Resistance is certain to become the authoritative work on this subject.

Kochanski acknowledges that the number of people who actively resisted the Nazis in occupied countries was small. After all, overt acts of resistance had minimal effect on the conduct of German military operations, risked reprisals against large numbers of innocent civilians, and usually lacked popular support.

Jewish fighters from the Vilna Ghetto (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Jewish fighters from the Vilna Ghetto (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Resisters, however, did play a pivotal role in supplying information about the location and movement of troops and warships, and possible plans of attack. A clandestine press complemented BBC broadcasts, which reached a far wider audience, countered Nazi propaganda and confirmed the existence of resistance movements.

In many European countries, Kochanski reveals, World War II was fought through “an infinite series of Chinese boxes of one struggle within another.” The resistance against occupying powers often led to two other conflicts, with different tactics and ultimate aims: a war against collaborators or perceived collaborators and a civil war for power once the nation was liberated.

Resistance into civil war

In Yugoslavia, Draza Mihailovic’s Cetniks and Marshal Tito’s Partisans fought with greater ferocity against each other than to expel the Nazis.

In France, resisters had to contend with the cult of personality around Gen. Philippe Pétain, a World War I hero who became the collaborationist chief of state of the Vichy government, and a prickly Charles de Gaulle, who had not yet attained the confidence of Allied leaders or his own people.

In Norway, civilians thwarted the efforts of Prime Minister Vidkun Quisling to nazify the public schools. In the Netherlands, the Catholic Church refused to administer the sacraments to anyone who supported “the National Socialist ideal to any extent.”

Unfortunately, Kochanski reminds us, although Jews understood that Nazis hated them, even those who heard reports of mass shootings and gassings did not always believe the Germans intended to exterminate all of them. While many of them believed complying with orders to deliver Jews to the camps was the only way to save other Jews, it was not as clear then as it is now that while obedience enhanced the chances of survival for non-Jews, disobeying them by changing identity and going into hiding increased the odds for Jews, albeit just a bit. That said, some Jews did join partisan bands and participate in ghetto uprisings. Zionist organizations helped others escape to Palestine.

The fate of Jews, Kochanski emphasizes, depended to no small extent on the political realities in each European nation, principally because the Nazis did not have the manpower to implement deportation without substantial help from collaborating regimes.

As underground newspapers reported on extermination camps, Kochanski writes, Vichy police told the Germans they would cooperate in rounding up foreign Jews, but not French citizens. The number of deportees dropped from 42,500 in 1942 to 22,000 in 1943, and still further in 1944.

In Italy, Germany’s erstwhile ally, Gen. Paride Negri refused a request for assistance in apprehending Jews “because it goes against the honor of the Italian Army.” Because the Greek government dragged its feet and Orthodox Greeks helped Jews escape, less than 50% of Jews in Athens, Volos Trikala, and Larissa fell into German hands.

In contrast to Western Europe, where very few helpers were executed, the Nazis applied the principle of collective responsibility in Eastern Europe to anyone caught hiding Jews, killing entire families and residents of apartment blocks. Even so, the Front for the Rebirth of Poland established a Council for Aid to the Jews in September 1942 to hide Jews, provide them with fake sets of documents, and rescue children. Kochanski estimates that 70,000-90,000 Poles were involved in these initiatives.

Home to 800,000 Jews in March 1944, Hungary acceded to Adolf Eichmann’s orders and sent 450,000 of them to Auschwitz. But as the tides of war turned, the Hungarian government complied with demands by President Roosevelt, the pope, and the king of Sweden for a halt to deportations in July, dispatching Jews to a ghetto in Budapest, where many survived.

THE BOOK is filled with heroic acts and heinous crimes. And Kochanski also manages, at times with mordant humor, to convey the experiences of ordinary people struggling to comprehend and cope with extraordinary challenges.

In its early days, we learn, the clothing delivered by the SOE to the Balkans included boots just for left feet. Throughout the war, according to one estimate, for every ton of supplies delivered to resisters by an Allied airdrop, one bomber was lost. In occupied Netherlands, the official food ration in October 1944 was 1,400 calories; in January 1945 it was only 500. During an RAF raid on Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen, a plane crashed; the ensuing fire confused the other pilots, who dropped bombs on a school, killing 18 adults, most of them nuns, and 86 children.

“I thought of my comrades who had given their lives.... I had long since stopped trying to hold back my tears; no Norwegian had the strength to do that today.”

Max Manus

Most evocative, perhaps, is the story Kochanski relates of a member of the Norwegian resistance, as he observed the liberation of his country. “It had taken many years, but now we were there,” Max Manus wrote. “I thought of my comrades who had given their lives.... I had long since stopped trying to hold back my tears; no Norwegian had the strength to do that today.”

Never forget. A timely lesson Resistance imparts to anyone willing to learn it.

The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

Resistance: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945By Halik KochanskiLiveright960 pages; $45