World War Two Part 3: Resistance

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
~Dylan Thomas

Nazi-occupied Europe. A continent crushed under the iron heel, subject to the tender mercies of Hitler and Mussolini, governed by local collaborators, and compelled to produce for the benefit of the Nazi war machine. For many of its residents this ‘homeland’ was capable of inspiring only a single thought: resistance. In France, Italy, and even Germany itself, resistance organized and asserted itself. It was the Italian partisans who captured and executed Mussolini, the French resistance movement that drove the Nazis from Paris, and the German “Red Orchestra” that formed the basis of Allied spy networks in Berlin. This anti-fascism from below, the revolutionary rising of the oppressed and exploited people in Western Europe against their fascist overlords is both one of the greatest and one of the least remembered episodes in European history.

The German “Red Orchestra” actually consisted of two separate organizations, a well organized spy ring reporting back to the Soviet Union and a network of German revolutionaries determined to oppose Hitler at any cost. The underground networks of banned social democrat, communist, and anarchist groups collaborated to conduct anti-fascist agitation and sabotage in cities across German. Although these networks never developed into a united partisan organization, as in other countries, they inspired a widespread silent resistance to Hitler among the German working class- which had been among the best organized in the world prior to the Nazi regime- and among student groups (the White Rose group being the most well-known of these). The popularity of this movement provided the basis for the failed coup and assassination attempts against Hitler that emerged from the German army and foreign office as elements of the regime lost confidence in the ability of the Nazi party to deliver military victory abroad and suppress dissent at home.

In contrast to the multiplicity decentralized groups that formed the German resistance, the resistance in France was relatively well organized and achieved substantial military successes. It included some of the most prominent intellectuals and philosophers of the era, including Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, but was mostly composed of ordinary workers organized into communist and socialist militias. These militias experimented with competing strategies of attempting to win over rank and file German soldiers and targeted strikes against German military and French collaborationist forces. It was ultimately these forces that broke the back of the collaborationist Vichy government and undermined Nazi control of France. It was the resistance that took Paris from the Nazis and made the speedy advance of the Allied forces through occupied France possible. The triumph the French resistance is only marred by the tragedy of its choosing to accept the post-war government of Charles de Gaulle, who is often misremembered as an important resistance leader although his role during the war was absolutely minimal and spent in Britain organizing an UK/US controlled government in exile, rather than seeking a new and truly liberatory form of government.

This tragedy of defeat in victory would occur with the Italian partisans as well. Italian leftists had been engaging in armed resistance since Mussolini assumed power in 1922 and continued their struggle throughout the war. After Italian imperialism was defeated in the struggle for Africa, the fascist government no longer had the military resources to suppress the resistance, which gained control of most of Italy in the uprisings of 1944 and 1945. Provisional councils, often organized as a product of local democracy and dominated by communist partisans, exercised power over much of the country and partisans arrested and executed Mussolini himself in April of 1945. Power had passed from the fascist government into in the hands of the Italian people, who looked to Italian Communist Party (PCI) for leadership do to its role in the anti-fascist struggle. However, leading elements of the PCI had spent the war in Moscow as political exiles and were absolutely loyal to the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union, which ordered them to see power returned to the Italian bourgeois in order to demonstrate Stalin’s goodwill to the other Allies. In Italy, as in France, the end of the dark night of Nazism offered the hope of a new dawn of freedom, but that hope was traded away in the interests of Allied diplomacy.

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