World War II: resistance movement in Russia, France & Italy

The ‘Resistance’ was a term coined for underground movements that fought a courageous but sometimes useless battle against Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The movements aided the Allies in at least four strategies: first, the providing of intelligence; second, sabotage; third, helping Jews and escaped prisoners of war to escape capture from the Gestapo (q.v.) and the SS (q.v.); and fourth, fighting in the open during the latter stages of the war.

Resistance was strongest in Europe, Russia, Poland and Yugoslavia. When Adolf Hitler broke his promises and invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941 (q.v.) many soldiers and Communist Party officials found themselves behind German lines. They escaped to the forests and marshlands, to form groups of ‘partisans’. They had few rifles and less ammunition, and had to take food from peasants and serfs, more to survive than to fight.

As the war toiled on many young men and women joined the partisans to avoid forced labour, so that there were 300,000 of them by the end of 1941. Their presence and potential were recognised by allied leaders, especially Churchill and de Gaulle.

In the Ukraine (q.v.) a unique situation arose, in which the partisans, who were equally nationalist, fought both the Germans and the Soviets, for an independent Ukraine. In Russia, Soviet partisans got no help from Ukrainians.

In Poland, the ‘Polish Home Army’, a resistance group, owed its allegiance to the Polish government-in-exile in London, and was assaulted in turn by both Germans and Russians. This confusion led to Germans and Russians accusing each other of atrocities, such as the Katyn Massacre. The Home Army came out openly during the Warsaw uprising, but was crushed beneath German tanks. Their supposed allies the Soviets failed to come to their aid. Resistance, though extremely brave and well-intentioned, can worsen a state of occupation because it is often under-organised, or embittered by personal feuds.

In Western Europe resistance was not as many movies would like us to believe. In France most resistance to the Nazis was found in the North, with invariably Communist leaders. Then a united movement was organised by Jean Moulin, a follower of General de Gaulle. In May 1943 Moulin was betrayed by members of his own resistance group, and caught and killed by Klaus Barbie, the ‘butcher of Lyons’ (pictured in German uniform below).

When most of France was occupied by the Germans following the Ango-American invasion of North Africa, more French people joined the resistance. But only a tiny minority was actively involved in ‘La Resistance’- in fact about 2% of the French population. Most of these died bravely. After the War thousands of citizens claimed to have been in resistance groups, and took the opportunity to accuse personal enemies of ‘collaboration’ with the Germans. Many so-called ‘collaborators’ were summarily murdered in their homes or in the streets, though they had never collaborated with the enemy.

In Italy a resistance movement grew quickly after their country dropped out of the War (1943). In 1945 they came out of hiding and openly attacked enemy units with whatever weapons they had. They also sought out ‘fascist’ collaborators throughout Italy, at least 100,000 of them, and eliminated them. It was a return to the worst of the Dark Ages.

Mussolini and his mistress were shot dead and hanged by their ankles in a garage forecourt, though at one time Il Duce had been enormously popular in Italy. Italian resistance was genuine and ferocious, and played an important part in the liberation of Liguria, Turin, Milan and Venice.

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