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For the 72 Million

Occupation and Resistance in Europe, 1939-1945

From the time of Hitler’s appointment to Chancellor, men and women lived and died resisting German occupation. Resistance groups sprang up in every occupied country, and several organizations in Germany herself. Their members succeeded and failed in all sorts of activities against the Third Reich.

In many conquered lands, the Germans made promises of independence or the redress of ancient ethnic disputes. In some cases they followed through, but most natives who hailed the Germans as liberators were quickly and sharply disabused of their illusions.

Different areas were controlled differently. In many places the Germans set up provinces that were incorporated into Germany, each run by a Gauleiter who held absolute power. In the vast areas of Russia, the Germans held little territory but used armored trains and tanks to project power anywhere. Collaborationists that worked with the Germans r. an areas like Vichy France.

Especially after the losses in Stalingrad and Kursk, the Gauleiters were instructed to send resources to Germany. Besides natural resources, thousands of slave laborers were shipped into Germany to work in war production and other areas.

The romantic view of French Maquis fighting a hit-and-run battle while wearing black berets underestimates the horror and death that most resistance fighters lived for their short lives as partisans. Communists under the direct control of the Soviet Union organized much of the resistance in occupied Europe. This fact is often overlooked as the cold war precluded celebrating their actions.

The Gestapo was ruthlessly efficient in destroying resistance cells, and many resistance fighters died in torture or in concentration camps. Thousands of innocent men, women and children were killed in reprisals. Resistance often began as soon as the country was occupied. Defeated soldiers would hide their weapons in case of uprising; journalists and printers would hide their presses for future use. Often those army officers willing to continue the fight would carry on after their government had surrendered.

By July 1940, it became clear to the British that they were not going to return to the continent anytime soon, and began to organize intelligence units to support partisans around occupied Europe. Called Special Operations Executive (SOE), it organized espionage and sabotage operations, supplied and trained guerilla units, and was the model for the United States Office of Strategic Services.

When Czech Special Operations Executive agents killed SS Chief of the Reich Central Security Office (RSHA) Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, the Germans destroyed the town of Lidice, Czechoslovakia on June 10, 1942. The men were shot, the woman and children deported, and the town blown up and covered over. The name was removed from all German maps.

The effectiveness of resistance varied by country. In Germany, resistance movements were largely ineffective and were eliminated before the war. The best known is the Weisse Rose (White Rose) which was their password. Two University of Munich students, brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, organized students and soldiers opposed to the Reich in 1942. One soldier had seen the Einsatzgruppen (Action Groups) that shot Jews on the Eastern Front. In February 1943, they dropped leaflets critical of Hitler that said “Germany’s name will be disgraced forever,” from their University’s window. Both were arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death within days. Sophie, tortured by the Gestapo, was beheaded.

But most Germans were supportive of the Nazi Regime and loyal to Hitler. When the Allied armies approached the Rhine in 1945, the lack of the effective resistance that guided the Allies in France was deeply felt.

In France the resistance was well organized by the end of 1940. They fought two set-piece battles with German troops, rescued hundreds of Allied pilots, and sabotaged many trains and bridges. Their effectiveness has been overstated in the popular media, but they did hold divisions that would have made a difference on the Eastern Front. The Communist partisans in Paris rose up and fought the Germans as the Allies approached in August 1944.

Yugoslavia was the only country where the partisans were able to expel the oppressors. Partisans under Josef Tito received help from both the western Allies and the Soviet Union. His forces fought other partisan groups as well as the Germans. The Red Army and Tito’s partisans liberated Belgrade in October 1944.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and the Polish Home Army attempt to liberate Warsaw in 1944 the shattered the resistance movements there. Often Jewish resistance units were separate and distinct from the other resistance movements. Anti-Semitism was not limited to the Nazis.

Greek partisans, like their comrades in Greece, spent as much time fighting each other as they did the Germans. By 1944 the fighting was so fierce between anti-Communist and communist factions, the British sent troops into Greece after the Germans pulled back. They did mount large-scale resistance that held German Forces that were badly needed elsewhere.

Norway, with the help of SOE, organized a resistance movement that confounded the Germans on a regular basis. Norwegian resistance members helped the British Commandos that attacked the German heavy water plant, vital to their atomic bomb program. Norwegians helped locate the Tirpitz, which threatened convoys to Murmansk and was sunk by British Lancaster bombers in 1944. Resistance members brought Norwegians to Sweden, where they learned police training and filled the vacuum left by the Germans when they surrendered.

In the Soviet Union, partisans were Communists, red army units, civilians, and plain clothes party operatives. Capture meant torture and death. Often without training or equipment, Stalin ordered a general resistance behind the lines on July 3, 1941. Especially vulnerable was the long Wehrmacht supply lines back to Germany. Eventually 250,000 partisans operated behind the German lines. Roving anti-guerilla units of the Wehrmacht killed thousands of Ukrainians, Georgians, Russians, and others. The resistance did pave the way for the advancing Red Army by providing intelligence, cutting transit, and rallying support for Stalin and the Red Army.

The Resistance movements in Occupied Europe became a symbol of the struggle against the Nazis. While their effectiveness is debatable, they did provide valuable intelligence for the advancing Allies and a focus for those willing to risk death to fight the Nazis.

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