On 23 March 1944 Italian resistance fighters ambushed an SS company marching up via Rasella, a quiet street in central Rome. At 3.45 p.m. Rosario Bentivegna, a 21-year-old medical student, lit the fuse on a bomb hidden in a dustcart, then walked away. Fifty seconds later the bomb exploded. Bentivegna’s comrades opened fire and hurled grenades, then fled through the backstreets. More than thirty SS men were killed and dozens were injured.
In no other Nazi-occupied city had partisans succeeded in such an audacious attack. Rome’s Gestapo chief, Herbert Kappler, was ordered to execute civilians at the rate of ten for every German killed (elsewhere it had been even worse: fifty for every German). Kappler – played by Richard Burton in George P. Cosmatos’s film Massacre in Rome (1973) – had to come up with names very quickly: the killings were to be carried out within 24 hours of the attack. In the film we see Burton at a desk, adding the names of political prisoners, men already condemned to death, Jews in Nazi custody – anyone he could think of – to the list. By daybreak Kappler had 335 names – five more than necessary. At 2 p.m. the first trucks arrived at the Fosse Ardeatine, a cave complex south of the city, near Christian catacombs dating from the late Roman Empire. On the command of a junior SS officer, Erich Priebke, the prisoners were led in, five at a time, hands tied. They were made to kneel at the far wall, then one by one they were shot in the back of the head. After several hours all 335 prisoners – the eldest was 74, the youngest 15 – were dead. The cave entrances were dynamited to seal in the corpses and conceal their murder.
There would be a reckoning. US troops entered Rome in June, and three months later Pietro Caruso, the police chief who had helped organise the Fosse Ardeatine killings, was executed by firing squad; footage was shown in British cinemas in a Pathé News bulletin. Audiences did not see what preceded the execution: the director of the Regina Coeli prison, Donato Carretta, a witness for the prosecution at Caruso’s trial, had been beaten to death by a mob led by women widowed by the massacre. Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment, but in 1975, suffering from cancer, he was moved to hospital. His wife, a nurse he married in prison, managed to smuggle the diminutive Kappler out in a large suitcase. They made it to West Germany, which refused to extradite him to Italy; he died there in 1978.
We instinctively applaud members of the resistance like the man in Cosmatos’s movie who accepts the inevitability of reprisals for the via Rasella attack. ‘I have children,’ he says. ‘One day I want them to be able to say: my father chose to drown in blood rather than live in shit.’ But not everyone felt this way. Many Italians, including supporters of the resistance, condemned the partisans for inciting German reprisals. After the war, the myth of the left was that there had been mass support for the partisans, who were seen as regular soldiers; the right insisted that the partisans had selfish, sectional aims. There’s something in both views.
Via Rasella, as John Foot has observed, is seen both as a ‘heroic act of war’ and ‘a pointless and vanguardist terrorist attack’. Bentivegna belonged to the Gruppi di Azione Patriottica, which was dominated by communists and socialists (he was a Trotskyite). Many thought the Gappists should have given themselves up after the attack (in which ten civilians, six of them children, also died), and that this might have prevented the massacre. An editorial in Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, castigated the ‘irresponsible elements’ who had let innocents suffer. Others accused Pope Pius XII of failing to intercede on the victims’ behalf. This was the line taken in Massacre in Rome (and in Robert Katz’s book on which the film was based). Cosmatos and his producer, Carlo Ponti, were prosecuted for ‘defaming the memory of the pope’ and received six-month suspended sentences.
Even more astonishing were the legal proceedings in 1994 against Kappler’s subordinate Priebke. He fled to Argentina after the war, but fifty years later, unwisely decided to give an interview to a US TV network. A year and a half later he was extradited to Italy. His trial triggered angry scenes in Rome, but when the unrepentant Priebke, who had participated in the massacre, blamed ‘Italian terrorists’ for what happened, some Italians concurred. Priebke argued that he had been following orders, and was acquitted. Following howls of protest, there was a retrial, and this time he was convicted and given a life sentence. By this point, right-wing revisionist historians were putting forward a different interpretation of wartime events. Pierangelo Maurizio’s account from 1996 dismissed the via Rasella episode as a plot to trick the Germans into eliminating the communists’ rivals in the resistance, prompting the brother of a boy who had been killed in the attack to sue Bentivegna.
There is another layer of meaning to the via Rasella episode. The attack was timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the birth of fascism: Mussolini’s rally in Milan on 23 March 1919. This was Italian business: even the troops targeted weren’t regular Waffen-SS but a company of ethnic German Italians from the South Tyrol, the 3rd Battalion of the Police Regiment ‘Bozen’, who wore police uniforms but operated under SS command (the officers and NCOs were German, and held the other ranks in contempt for not being German enough – some were native speakers of Ladin, a romance language). The men who died in via Rasella were not random symbols of Nazi occupation: they were avatars of the Italian right killed by the Italian left.
These twisted political and cultural threads run through Halik Kochanski’s vast study of Europe’s underground war. Civilian resistance to the Nazis spread across Hitler’s empire, varying according to local conditions. Unlike the major campaigns illustrated by maps thick with national symbols and sweeping arrows, the history of resistance cannot be reduced to a unified narrative. For one thing, there were no front lines, only sabotaged railway tracks, severed cables, ambushed transport columns, sporadic assassinations and the occasional pitched battle. The harm done to enemy logistics and morale could be impressive, but it’s hard to connect the specific incidents to form a coherent picture.
It was unclear what constituted ‘resistance’, which began as a feeling of secret defiance that didn’t always turn into action. Visible symbols were important. The Dutch wore orange flowers and the Norwegians paperclips on their lapels (a custom begun by students at Oslo University in 1940) as tokens of loyalty to their monarchies. Graffiti ranged from Victory Vs to ‘Heil Hess!’, a Belgian joke about the deputy Führer’s mission to Scotland. In November 1940 two Parisian boys placed a floral Cross of Lorraine at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Such small gestures mitigated the alienating effects of tyranny and encouraged active resistance in some and perhaps a tolerance of reprisals as a consequence of that resistance in others – although, as the reaction to the via Rasella attack showed, not everyone felt the same way about this. In Norway a powerful protest movement argued that resisters should not be allowed to jeopardise civilian safety.
Early in the war resistance movements tended to be fragmented, poorly organised and lacking in clear purpose. In Western Europe, however, they were certainly useful in helping downed aircrew to escape. Andrée de Jongh was 24 when she began evacuating British and Commonwealth servicemen from Nazi-occupied Brussels to neutral Spain via the Pyrenees. ‘She used to tease the Germans in a way that’d make your blood run cold,’ one enamoured client remembered. (De Jongh became the first leader of the Comet line escape network.) Other women taught US aircrew how to walk like Frenchmen – hands out of your pockets – and escorted them arm-in-arm, pretending they were lovers. The thrills hardly offset the perils. The escape organisations were infested with traitors and German spies posing as Allied airmen. Spies were exposed using the simple strategy of asking their height and weight: if they answered in metric not imperial, arrangements were made to transfer them to ‘safe houses’, which in Paris meant being shot and dumped in the Seine.
Another valuable contribution was made by intelligence networks. Anyone could help – a 55-foot map of the Normandy coast was drawn on the basis of observations made by a rambler and his son – but the hard bit was passing the information on. Amateur spies in Rotterdam put messages in bottles in the river, in the hope that they’d wash up on British beaches. Homing pigeons sent to Belgium were eaten by the Belgians. Like the escape lines, intelligence networks were plagued by infiltration, but that wasn’t the only problem. Intelligence could only be used properly if the Allies trusted one another, and if they acted competently. When in 1941 two Danes, Thomas Sneum and Kjeld Pedersen, filmed a new kind of German radar station, then flew a homemade plane across the North Sea with their evidence, MI5 were first suspicious then ruined all but two frames of their film.
Clandestine newspapers displayed a similar ingenuity. In 1943 the Polish underground faked an edition of the German-controlled Nowy Kurjer Warszawski rich in rousing content, and Belgian resisters pulled off a similar stunt with Le Soir, selling five thousand doctored copies before the Germans twigged. The risks were considerable – only five of the 22 people who worked on Le Soir survived the war – but the fillip to morale was huge. A French periodical called Résistance printed advice anyone could follow: do your work slowly and badly, and wreck useful things; one diarist found it ‘a glimmer of light in the darkness’. BBC broadcasts had a wider reach than these papers, and the Germans knew it. Radios in the Czech protectorate bore a label warning that ‘listening to foreign broadcasts is punishable by death.’ The first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth – played by the BBC in its broadcasts to Europe because the rhythm equates to ‘V’ in Morse – were to the French writer Jean Guéhenno a ‘rallying sign of hope in the prison of Europe’. ‘Foreign occupation changes every detail of one’s whole life,’ a Czech fugitive wrote, ‘not only public life, but ordinary, daily, private life.’ Many found this intolerable. When Himmler decreed that only ethnic Germans in the east were to receive secondary education, Polish teachers set up nearly two thousand secret schools. The Poles also refused to have their army taken away. The Armia Krajowa (AK, or the Home Army) fought from February 1942 to January 1945, supplied by secret workshops where Sten guns were made from hydraulic cylinders used in hospital equipment.
The definition of ‘resistance’ interests historians, but resisters cared more about who ‘the enemy’ was. Occupation divided loyalties, and there were often several adversaries to be fought. Collaboration came in shades from attentisme – wait-and-see acquiescence – to actively serving the Germans as, say, an informer. The growth of the Polish resistance was unimpeded by any common interest between industry and the Nazi war machine, whereas in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia concessions made to workers by the de facto ruler Reinhard Heydrich turned them into traitors. Factions such as the far right Belgian Rexists and the Danish Schalburg Corps, which was formed after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, were pro-German because they were anti-Bolshevik. But things were rarely that straightforward. My enemy’s enemy could be my friend or my enemy or both at the same or different times.
In the east, as the Russians closed in on the Reich, the Ukrainian and Belarusian desire for independence led to complex battles and alliances between the Polish AK (which was loyal to the government in exile), Polish communists (who were not), the Red Army, Soviet partisans, the Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organisation) and the Germans. The nationalist Ukrayinska Povstanska Armiya (UPA) turned against the Germans, while also fighting against the AK and a marauding army of Soviet irregulars. Conflict ranged from punch-ups between Poles and Jews over food to the massacre of fifty thousand Polish civilians by the UPA, which led to the Poles allying with the Germans and the revenge killing of ten thousand Ukrainians. In these regions, more than anywhere else in Europe, geography shaped history. Bulgaria was in the bizarre situation of being an ally of the Axis powers but unwilling to fight on the eastern front or to deport Jews. As Tsar Boris III explained: ‘My army is pro-German, my wife is Italian, my people are pro-Russian. I’m the only pro-Bulgarian in the country.’
Wars of liberation easily turned into civil wars, as in Slovenia and Greece and as might have happened in Italy but for Allied intervention. Belgium too found itself on the brink, as did France, in areas where the Resistance and the quasi-fascist Milice fought street battles and staged summary executions. The separation of Vichy from the ‘zone occupée’ was a painful lesson about the faultlines of nationhood. Here, as with the bombing of civilians, the Spanish Civil War had been proleptic.
After Dunkirk, with the formation of the Special Operations Executive, British attention shifted towards supporting resistance movements. It was time, according to Hugh Dalton, the minister for economic warfare, to learn from Sinn Féin and the Chinese guerrillas who were fighting the Japanese. At SOE’s London HQ in Baker Street (known to cabbies as ‘the secret house’), businessmen and bankers with a gift for languages were recruited, as were foreign nationals living in Britain. F Section preferred French-speaking Mauritians to Frenchmen because, as British passport-holders, their selection did not require approval from de Gaulle. Harry Rée, a Lancashire schoolmaster, was accepted even though he spoke French with a Mancunian accent.Training included learning to lose a tail among shoppers in a Bournemouth department store. Stately homes were repurposed as spy schools, where rookies were woken in their beds by officers wearing German uniforms, taught to react calmly to surprises and never to hesitate with a stiletto. At his interview in Cairo, the writer Xan Fielding was politely asked if he had any objection to committing murder. As one veteran put it, SOE wanted ‘gangsters but with the behaviour, if possible, of gentlemen’.
The SOE’s early efforts were dismal. Operatives parachuted into France and the Low Countries were captured or achieved little. The encryption of messages was feeble, and security checks for the Playfair cipher, according to the cryptographer Leo Marks, ‘had all the validity of a child’s excuses for staying up late, with none of the imagination’. Foolish errors were made: one agent packed pyjamas bearing the label ‘Harrods – The Man’s Shop’; another had his codename written on his washbag. The former diplomat Peter Churchill parachuted into France without checking his wallet, which contained a ten-bob note and the previous day’s Times crossword. The RAF considered SOE unprofessional, unchivalrous and a drain on resources, and without Winston Churchill’s patronage it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did. The RAF’s record wasn’t perfect either. The plane carrying the first Belgian agent, Emile Tromme, in May 1941 forgot to drop his radio and clothes, and was so far off course that Tromme landed in a German POW camp. The psychological benefit of these heroic failures, however, was significant. News that some agents had arrived in occupied territory, spread by posters offering rewards for their capture, gave heart to those who supported the resistance.
In June 1941 Hitler invaded Russia, and by the end of the year seventy million Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians, Latvians, Estonians and Ukrainians had been absorbed into the Reich. Stalin called all men to arms, but the partisans were initially badly led, trained and equipped, and were often betrayed by peasants whose food they stole. By the summer of 1942 they were better co-ordinated with the Red Army and with one another, and had learned all sorts of tricks, from how to survive on bark and moss in swamps to blowing up oilfields with acid bombs hidden in baskets of grapes. The Germans responded by treating every civilian as an enemy, turning the anti-partisan campaign – or Bandenbekämpfung – into a merciless struggle. In the Balkans the fight was complicated by the clashing objectives of the royalist Četniks and the socialist Partisans. Fighters from Belgium to Greece were politically divided in similar ways, and in Poland the resistance worked with the Russians while secretly hoping that the mutual exhaustion of Moscow and Berlin would clear a path to Polish independence.
By 1943, after the twin Nazi humiliations of Stalingrad and El Alamein, and with American involvement in the war in full swing, the possibility of Allied victory shimmered into view. Passive resistance became active: enemy vehicles that once had sand put in their fuel tanks were now sprayed with gunfire; factory workers abandoned go-slows and spiked their machines. A 48-hour fire at the Michelin plant in Clermont-Ferrand destroyed 36,000 tyres, and at the Peugeot works near Besançon employees blew up the factory’s power station and assembly hall (having just played football with the German guards). By July 1943 there were 650 SOE agents in Europe, and although the trouble they caused was comparatively minor, ambushes and ‘discreet bangs’ persuaded some budding resisters of the value of direct action. Reprisals for the assassination of Heydrich in 1942 had virtually destroyed the resistance movement in the Czech protectorate, but formed an object lesson in patriotic courage and Nazi savagery.
The Nazi forced labour programme also helped shift the attentiste quietism of the occupied peoples of Europe. Even the Germans recognised this, calling it the ‘Sauckel effect’ after the head of labour deployment. In April, soon after the millionth Polish worker was sent to Germany, Sauckel’s representative in Warsaw was shot dead. Reprisals followed, then more deportations, then further resistance. In the east, Nazi policy had always been enslavement and annihilation, but in the west, where there was industry to exploit and the workforce was less racially detestable, the Nazis had been more circumspect. Now, however, the depletion of human resources led Hitler to move western workers east, a measure that required the assent of compliant governments. This assent ‘broke the bonds of loyalty’ between occupied states and their people, Kochanski writes, with a significant number going into hiding or becoming partisans. The ranks of the maquis were swollen by a Vichy law that compelled all men to do labour service, undermining Pétain’s authority as leader and underlining the consequences of collaboration.
While non-Jews might protect their own short-term interests by acquiescing, Jews faced doom whatever they did. Some hid or lived under false identities; others joined the underground. ‘We are fighting for three lines in the history books,’ Dolek Liebeskind, leader of the resistance in Kraków, said, ‘to make the world know that the Jewish youth did not go like lambs to the slaughter.’ Protecting Jews was both an act of humanitarianism and the other sort of V-sign to the Germans. In Warsaw 28,000 Jews were sheltered by as many as 90,000 non-Jews until the uprising of August 1944. But many more Jews were reported to the Gestapo by people who were antisemites or were afraid of the consequences of not doing so. Pogroms occurred in the east even without the impetus of Himmler’s Einsatzgruppen: 12,000 were murdered in Poland, 16,000 in Lithuania, 23,000 in Ukraine. Antisemitism was also endemic in Latvia and Belarus, Denmark and Norway, Italy and Greece. The Czech government in exile was careful to support Jews in a way that didn’t alienate Czech resistance members, many of whom were antisemitic. The Dutch police arrested Jews, and Switzerland refused entry to 25,000 Jews whose passports the Germans had – at the request of the Swiss – stamped with a red ‘J’. A French civil servant organised a card index of Jews to make it easier to deport them, and de Gaulle was advised not to be seen as the man who would welcome them back. The Holocaust even turned Jews against Jews: native Parisians shunned refugees; the ghetto police betrayed escapees and resisters to save others from retribution. The dilemmas were appalling, the apathy overwhelming. As Marek Edelman, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, wrote: ‘To force ourselves to the smallest spark of activity … required truly gigantic effort.’ It was too much for most, and through the act of Kiddush Hashem (‘sanctification of the name’) many Jews combined a fierce spiritual resistance with a resignation to death.
By D-Day SOE and the resistance networks had learned a lot, but the Germans had too – for example, how to protect railway engines from mines by hitching an empty truck in front, and how to hunt partisans using infiltrators. They hit back all over Europe from the summer of 1943, and were successful everywhere except the Soviet Union, where the partisans were too strong. Brutality played a part. That summer German soldiers destroyed 184 Greek villages, resulting in the deaths of nearly 1800 inhabitants, including a sizeable minority of Albanians. The massacre at Kommeno alone, on 16 August 1943, claimed the lives of 317 out of six hundred villagers. Such atrocities inflamed the resistance, which paid no heed to reprisals. On 1 February 1944 the AK assassinated Franz Kutschera, the head of the SS and police in Warsaw, fully aware that innocent people would die as a result – two hundred of them, as it turned out. After a bloody skirmish with maquisards on the Vercors Massif near Grenoble in July, the Germans wrecked more than a thousand houses and beat to death scores of civilians, some of whom were disembowelled and castrated. The next month at Wola, a suburb of Warsaw, the SS Dirlewanger Brigade slaughtered forty thousand people in less than a week in order to bring a halt to the Warsaw Uprising. Cancer patients and nurses at the Marie Curie Radium Institute were raped before they were murdered.
Between autumn 1944 and May 1945 the task of the resistance was to feed the Allies intelligence, to harry the retreating Germans and to prevent them from bringing in reinforcements. Partisan armies grew bolder and more eclectic in composition. The MI6 agent Owen Reed noted that in Slovenia, as the Germans withdrew, ‘black masses of old-fashioned guerrilla types’ came ‘swarming down from the mountains to join the fun’. Harold Macmillan admitted that the partisans he saw loosing off rounds and lobbing grenades in Modena ‘caused me more alarm than our opponents’. In France the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI), a mix of resistance fighters and former soldiers, including naphtalinés (ex-officers in mothballed uniforms who demanded to be given troops to lead), swept into towns and cities as soon as the Germans pulled out, which caused consternation to the Allies. As American troops approached Toulouse, the FFI in the city were already at odds with the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans and the Organisation de Résistance de l’Armée. This volatile mix was made even more unstable by the manoeuvring of SOE and local landowners, who struck A.J. Ayer, an SOE officer in the city, as little changed since the 15th century. In Italy the Protocols of Rome, agreed in December 1944 by the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale Alta Italia (CLNAI), the proxy government of the northern cities, and the new government, committed the CLNAI to handing over power to the Allies after the Germans had gone. This prevented rival partisan groups rushing in.
Like other countries, notably Poland, Italy now faced the danger that the communist definition of ‘fascist’ would include anyone who wasn’t a communist. The patterns of postwar antagonism were already forming. On 2 May 1945, the day the German surrender was ratified, mountain troops of the SS Prinz Eugen division – Germans, Croatians, Hungarians and Romanians – and a detachment of Cossacks (anti-Bolshevik Russians and Ukrainians) who were fighting for the Germans, massacred 76 Italians in the north-eastern region of Carnia. Many local people, however, blamed the local communist partisans.
The contenders in Crete were equally varied. In January 1945 the SOE-sponsored guerrillas of EOK (Ethnikí Orgánosi Krítis) had started to fight the pro-communist Greek liberation army ELAS (Ellinikós Laïkós Apeleftherotikós Stratós) even before the Germans had finished fighting the British on the island. When victory came in May, the venue for celebrations in Chania was a café where Cretans, SOE agents and Wehrmacht officers drank together while being entertained by a German jazz band. In Yugoslavia, meanwhile, Tito and his Partisans defeated the Četniks, whose leader, Draža Mihailović, was executed (he was exonerated in 2015 by the Serbian Supreme Court).
Kochanski has little to say about German opposition to Hitler. In fact, Germany is excluded from her exhaustive survey because it ‘was neither invaded nor occupied and in that sense there was nothing to resist’. It seems a bit much to claim that ‘the internal opposition within a conquering nation has nothing in common with the resistance in the countries it has defeated and occupied,’ unless one defines people only by nationality, and this in a century when borders and populations and ideologies were in flux. The story of the resistance can be told purely from above, in terms of countries and governments and the underground war that went on alongside the military campaigns. But the inner lives of individuals also demand attention: their stubbornness, refusal to capitulate, conscience and courage. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran dissident hanged in Flossenbürg, is a case in point; he at least gets a footnote.
Most people in occupied countries did nothing to resist the Nazis. Resisters faced internal exile, imprisonment, torture, execution, the loss of homes and families. But some found the alternative unbearable. Resisters were often young, thought little of their own mortality, and even found pleasure in danger. Intelligence gathering felt like a game, helping people escape was cause for elation. ‘Above all it was the joy, the thrill of feeling useful,’ Cécile Jouan recalled of the Comet line, ‘the camaraderie of battle and the exaltation of this unforeseen conflict, in which all our weapons were born of love.’ With such basic emotions in play, the amazing thing about resisters was what Harry Rée called their ‘complete and crushing ordinariness’, from which came a bravery most will never have the chance to find out if they possess. But perhaps every person whose homeland is invaded feels at some point as Dutch strikers, reacting to the internment of former POWs, did in 1943. ‘For a few moments the fear psychosis was broken and we did not feel like subjects of a terror regime, but like courageous and liberated people suddenly pushed on by an invisible mutual bond.’
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