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  • Writer's pictureMichael Baker


What we might call the 'underground war' - secret agents, resistance cells and partisan activity - has always been a popular field to write about within the Second World War. But in the historiography written in English most of the focus has been very selective, centred on France and Italy, as well as on partisan warfare in the Balkans, all of them areas where Britain's Secret Operations Executive (SOE) played a significant (if underwhelming) role. The British-Polish historian Halik Kochanski has now written a Europe-wide study of resistance to Nazi occupation which reveals a much more complex picture of the underground war. In the first place, it's clear that many of the standard resistance narratives have been skewed by a post-war construct of courage and national unity that was often far from the case: in France, for example, the message put out was that the French resistance was united, which it wasn't, and that France had liberated itself, which it hadn't. In general, civilian resistance, even partisan operations, had little real effect on the outcome of the fighting on the major battle fronts. Secondly, only a broad view of underground activity across Europe as a whole enables us to understand that there was a wide difference between east and west: in the east, the racially-motivated barbarity of Nazi occupation meant defiance came at a far higher cost, especially for the Jews - whose resistance was existential but also highly constrained by vicious reprisals and the constant fear of betrayal.

You can listen to Halik Kochanski talk about resistance across Nazi-occupied Europe in Episode 6 of the new series of Unknown Warriors, in which leading historians explore how modern scholarship and fresh perspectives challenge the received narratives of WW2.

If you think you know about WW2, it's time to think again.

An Understanding History podcast

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