Sideshows

Charles Maier

  • German Resistance against Hitler: The Search for Allies Abroad 1938-1945 by Klemens von Klemperer
    Oxford, 487 pp, £45.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 19 821940 7

With the collapse of Communism and the disorientation of the Marxist Left, a poignant revaluation has overtaken the history of the European Resistance in World War Two. The gradual disappearance of the survivors would in itself have led to a dissipation of the Resistance’s sacred aura; but politics as well as demography is now at work. Of course, the history of the Resistance has always been especially vulnerable: for four decades in Italy it served to legitimate the vision of a Left that could embrace Communists and non-Communists alike; in France it justified the creation of the Gaullist Republic; in Yugoslavia it helped for forty years to hold together a precarious nationhood; in the Soviet bloc it furnished credentials for the Communist Parties that monopolised power after Hitler’s armies had been cleared out. In the early post-war years a source of pride and solace, the Resistance has by now become a troublesome, sometimes tiresome legacy.

Historians have sometimes seemed to share the dismissive attitude once displayed by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. Churchill did not want the Resisters, however brave, getting in the way of post-war conservative governments; De Gaulle and the Poles appeared to him to be obsessed with, respectively, personal status and frontiers. Stalin had a visceral distrust of peasant insurrection, whether it occurred in Yenan or Yugoslavia. Roosevelt believed in big battalions and in co-operation with Stalin. All three were correct in the narrow military sense: no Resistance force was able to stand up to a well-trained SS division. The danger was that they would either provoke reprisals or inspire hopeless insurrections that diverted resources from the steady slog against the Wehrmacht which victory required. In a war whose leaders indulged in many ‘sideshows’, the Resistance was the sideshow they could all agree was unjustified.

Although it still evokes passionate argument, this issue of effectiveness is an old one. What is new is the interest historians are taking in the morality and intentions of Resistance movements. It has become acceptable to point out that their fighters aimed to settle old scores and not just to cleanse their country of foreign occupiers and home-grown collaborators. The transformation has been most profound in Italy, as evidenced by the well-deserved success of Claudio Pavone’s Una Guerra Civile, subtitled ‘A Historical Essay on Morality in the Resistance’. Pavone provides what might be called the phenomenology of the Resistance in Italy, and presents as a civil war (with good on both sides) the partisan struggle which post-war ideology and historiography had depicted as a crusade. The violence of the reprisals carried out by the partisans, previously accepted as a justifiable aspect of the ‘purification’, emerges from the book as intensely problematic, and Pavone ponders its possible impact on Italian terrorism of the Seventies. Conservative or rightist historians had pressed such charges before but for most on the Left they had remained taboo. If one compares Bertolucci’s 1900 with the Taviani brothers’ Notte di San Lorenzo, in which Fascists and Resisters fight blindly with each other in a corn-field, one can see how much things have changed. If violence was redemptive in the earlier view of the Resistance, it is so no longer.

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