Who Resisted the Nazis?

The French resistance erecting barriers in Paris to obstruct the German military as Allied forces approached the city
Robert Doisneau/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Members of the French resistance erecting barriers in Paris to obstruct the German military as Allied forces approached the city, August 1944

Waging resistance against the Third Reich during World War II and writing the history of that resistance afterward have both been inextricably tied to wider political issues. The shifting wartime relationships among the three major ideological camps of democracy, fascism, and communism certainly affected the various resistance movements, as did their positioning for advantage at the war’s end. Postwar politics and historiography both attempted to appropriate and glorify as well as discredit various forms of resistance. A number of recent works have contributed to the ongoing discussion of Western European and German resistance, though they leave aside the important topics of Eastern European and Jewish resistance (as well as the unfortunate recent movements toward the rehabilitation of Eastern European collaborators with the Nazis).

Winston Churchill’s aspiration in 1940 to “set Europe ablaze” and Charles de Gaulle’s 1944 proclamation that Paris was “liberated by itself” are only two aspects of what Olivier Wieviorka calls a broader “myth”—based on a “gospel” of resistance shaped by the “politics of remembrance”—that he sets out to revise in his impressive overview of Western European resistance during the war. He argues for a transnational approach that would establish a greater appreciation and awareness of Allied caution and skepticism, the dependence of resistance movements on external aid, and the complicated triangular political relations among the Allies, internal resistance movements, and London-based governments-in-exile of defeated and occupied Western European countries.

Wieviorka’s The Resistance in Western Europe is primarily a history “from above” centered on Allied political, military, and logistical policies that sought to foster and control continental resistance movements for the benefit of Allied strategic goals. With Britain fighting alone in the latter half of 1940, Churchill, Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton, and the Special Operations Executive—which was responsible for dispatching agents and organizing sabotage and intelligence-gathering networks on the continent—initially dreamed of instigating widespread uprisings against Nazi control on the continent, but this vision clashed with the viewpoints of virtually every other agency of the British government as well as with reality.

Very quickly a more limited and restrained approach emerged, which focused on selective sabotage, propaganda, and intelligence-gathering. The goal of creating shadow armies was not entirely abandoned, but they were to aid an eventual invasion. Fear of premature uprisings and the bloody repression they were bound to provoke weighed against the creation of military units. This hesitancy increased once Communists joined the resistance after the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 and raised Allied apprehension over the postwar revolutionary goals that armed units might pursue. Wieviorka summarizes the Allied attitude toward a militarized resistance and armed revolt…

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