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N. 42 - Giugno 2011 (LXXIII)

The Resistance in occupied Europe
Origins, aims and strategies

by Marco Siddi


The Resistance was essentially an armed struggle against the German army and its collaborators that took place in most European countries occupied by the Third Reich during the Second World War. It was a spontaneous movement made up of people with different social backgrounds, involving primarily guerrilla and sabotage actions. Its main aims included crippling the Nazi war effort, liberating occupied areas and facilitating the Allies’ military operations.


Foreign invasion and the harshness of the occupation were the main reasons for the formation of resistance movements. By the summer of 1942 Hitler’s armies had conquered vast areas of Europe. Nazi occupation involved the brutal exploitation of local resources in order to boost Germany’s war effort. The agriculture and the industry of occupied countries were geared to the Reich’s war production needs. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were deported to work in German factories. The German military administration requisitioned grain and livestock in the countryside, which alienated local peasants and farmers, leading them to support the Resistance.


The Slavic populations of Eastern Europe, which the Nazis considered “racially inferior”, were subject to even more atrocious suffering, unprecedented material destruction and mass deportations to concentration camps. Such brutality resulted in spectacular anti-Nazi revolts, such as the Warsaw uprising in August-September 1944.


The introduction of conscription in some of the occupied areas greatly contributed to the growth of resistance movements. Many decided to join the partisans rather than fight on the side of the Fascists. This phenomenon was particularly widespread in Italy and France, where the Germans had created puppet governments that drafted soldiers to fight the war on Germany’s side. In Italy, half of the partisans were people below the age of 25 who had evaded Fascist conscription.


Although its role was often overestimated in post-war political discourse, ideology was an important factor in the formation of resistance groups. The partisans considered their struggle as an essential part of the contention between Fascism, on one side, and democracy, freedom and communism, on the other side. Communist ideals were particularly widespread in the ranks of European resistance movements. In France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece and the Soviet Union the Communist parties played a fundamental role in the organization of armed resistance against Nazi occupation. In most of these countries the Communist party had been banned before the Nazi occupation; thus, when the Germans arrived, the party could rely on clandestine and underground networks built in previous years.


The Italian Communist party had survived clandestinely since Mussolini’s rise to power in the early 1920s. In France, the Communist party had been outlawed in 1939, in response to the Soviet stipulation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. When the Germans invaded France and Italy, the party’s underground networks enabled the Communists to organize active resistance better and faster than other political groups that lacked such clandestine structures.


In Italy, the Communist party re-emerged from clandestinity during the 45 days between the fall of Mussolini and the armistice (25 July – 8 September 1943), with a political campaign that demanded Italy’s exit from the war. After the Nazi invasion, the party returned underground, organized the Resistance in central and northern Italy and played a crucial role in coordinating the final uprisings of April 1945, which resulted in the liberation of all the main northern Italian cities before the arrival of the Allies. In Yugoslavia and in Greece the main resistance organizations, Avnoj and ELAS, were dominated by the Communists. They achieved considerable successes and also liberated vast areas before the arrival of the Allies. Partisan republics were founded in the territories temporarily freed by the Resistance in Greece and northern Italy. In these areas, elections took place with universal male and female suffrage and women were guaranteed the same rights as men.


Communist propaganda was very active and appealed to the masses thanks to its program of land and wealth redistribution, as well as the promise of an egalitarian society at the end of the war. In addition, the Communists could rely on the popularity of the Soviet Union, which had inflicted the first and most decisive defeats upon Nazi Germany. The formation of armed resistance groups controlled by Communists also provided the party with a good opportunity to politicize the masses of volunteers. As a result, Communist parties polled very well in post-war elections in countries such as France and Italy.


We can therefore generalize on a considerable number of aspects concerning European resistance movements. Firstly, the Resistance emerged as a response to German occupation and exploitation. Many civilians decided to join the Resistance rather than go to work in Germany or fight for a Nazi puppet government. The ruthlessness of Nazi occupation policies led civilians to support or join the Resistance even in countries where the arrival of the Germans had initially been welcomed, such as in the Baltic states and western Ukraine.


Secondly, the methods adopted by resistance movements were similar throughout Europe. Clandestine resistance groups were present in the cities, as for instance the Italian Gruppi di Azione Patriottica, but were smaller in number, as German and Fascist authority was much stronger in the urban centres and the risk of retaliatory actions was very high. The partisans concentrated most of their units in the countryside and in mountainous regions, where the conditions to fight a regular army were more favourable due to the limited striking power of tanks and airplanes.


The Greek and Yugoslav territory is largely mountainous and constituted a suitable terrain for guerrilla. Vast areas of these countries fell under the control the partisans, especially when the Italian armies in the Balkans dissolved in September 1943. Italian partisans sought refuge in the valleys of the Alps and the Appennines. From these positions, they could launch quick offensives against German and Fascist units in the Po valley, and then withdraw back to the mountains.


In France the partisans hid in the mountains of the Massif Central and in the countryside of central and western France. In the Soviet Union the Resistance was very active in the Ukrainian and Byelorussian countryside, in the rear of the German army, where it attacked the Wehrmacht’s long supply lines. A great part of partisan activities consisted in sabotage actions. Bridges, telephone lines and railways were attacked in order to disrupt German communication lines and slow down war production. The sabotage of communication lines, as well as the intelligence gathered by local Resistance groups, greatly favoured Allied offensives in the occupied areas.


The tactics and actions of the Resistance could only be effective if the partisans enjoyed the support of the local populations. Resistance fighters were greatly reliant on the supplies provided by civilians and could hide successfully only if they enjoyed the “protective silence” of local inhabitants. For this reason, resistance leaders gave enormous importance to their relationship with the local populations. Banditry was severely punished. The partisans helped civilians by distributing goods captured from the Fascists, attacking draft patrols and burning draft, police and animal records. The Greek and Italian Resistance imposed price ceilings in the areas that they controlled and punished those who sold goods in the black market. In addition, the partisans burglarized tax offices and postal services in order to be able to pay for the goods that they bought from civilians.


Undoubtedly, there were moments of tension between partisans and local populations, especially during the winter of 1943-1944 in Greece and the following winter in Italy. The partisans sometimes had to resort to the use of force to secure their supplies. Furthermore, their hit-and-run tactics often left the civilians who had helped them exposed to terrible retaliations by the Germans. This had a double effect. On the one hand, retaliations scared civilians, who became more reluctant to support the Resistance. On the other hand, they alienated civilians even more and forced the Fascists to fight in an increasingly hostile environment.


The political implications of the emergence of mass resistance groups during the war extended well beyond the end of the conflict and influenced considerably the political life of numerous states in the post-war years. In Italy, France and Yugoslavia the Resistance provided both the ideological base and the political leadership of the post-war states. In Italy, the Resistance became the foundational myth of the republican state and a source of national pride, symbolizing the re-birth of the country after years of dictatorship and the disastrous defeats of the war. In France the main figure of anti-Nazi Resistance, Charles de Gaulle, played a prominent role in post-war politics for almost 25 years. In Yugoslavia, resistance leader Josip Broz “Tito” became the country’s post-war president and remained in power until his death in 1980.



Riferimenti bibliografici:


Farmer, Sarah. The Communist Resistance in the Haute-Vienne, in French Historical Studies, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Spring 1985)

Ginsborg, Paul. A history of contemporary Italy 1943-1988. London: Penguin, 1990

Mazower, Mark. Structures of authority in the Greek Resistance 1941-1944, in Opposing Fascism, edited by Tim Kirk and Anthony McElligott, Cambridge University Press (1999)

Mazower, Mark. Inside Hitler’s Greece. Yale University Press (2001)

Travis, D.J. Communism in Modena. The provincial origins of the Partito Comunista Italiano (1943-1945). In The Historical Journal, Vol.29 No. 4 (Dec. 1986).




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