Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: resistance movement
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Opposition movement in a country occupied by an enemy or colonial power, especially in the 20th century; for example, the resistance to Nazism and Nazi occupation in Europe during World War II.

During World War II, resistance in Eastern Europe took the form of guerrilla warfare by partisan bands, for example, in Yugoslavia, Greece, Poland, and behind the German lines in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In more industrialized countries, such as France (where the underground movement was called the Maquis), Belgium, and Czechoslovakia, the action was more sporadic; sabotage in factories and on the railways, propaganda, and the assassination of Germans and collaborators were the main priorities. Resistance, though less problematic for the Nazi dictatorship, also came from the Jews and other inmates of the concentration camps and ghettos of Eastern Europe, and from anti-Nazi groups within Germany itself.

Most resistance movements in World War II were based on an alliance of all antifascist parties, but there was internal conflict between those elements intent only on defeat of the enemy, and those who aimed at establishing communist governments, as in Yugoslavia and Greece. After World War II the same methods were used in Palestine, South America, and European colonial possessions in Africa and Asia to unsettle established regimes.

Organization of anti-Nazi resistance In the early months of World War II, the shock of the Blitzkrieg invasions by Nazi Germany left much of occupied Europe reeling. However, after Britain had successfully fended off Nazi attacks in 1940, and with the formalization of the Nazi occupation across Europe, local populations began to organize resistance. Many European leaders took refuge in London and used the BBC to broadcast patriotic messages back to their peoples calling for resistance. The British government, working with governments in exile, organized drops of ammunition and military supplies to help resistance fighters. Popular targets included German guards, military trains, and local collaborators. The Germans responded by taking hostages and executing civilians to terrorize people into accepting their rule. However, the harshness of the German tactics, coupled with forced deportations, and conscription of youths for forced labour in Germany simply increased support for the partisan bands. Guerrilla activities were not a serious threat to Germany's occupation in Europe, but they acted as a constant irritant and tied down thousands of troops that could otherwise have been sent to the battlefront.

Resistance in Yugoslavia Yugoslav partisans waged a continuous guerrilla campaign against the Nazi occupation of their country from 1940 through to the end of the war. By the end of 1941 there were around 100,000 partisans operating within Yugoslavia, and this rose to over 300,000 by the end of 1943. The main centres of resistance were in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. By 1942 the Yugoslav partisans were loosely organized under one structure known as NOViPOJ. The two main guerrilla groups were the communists of the National Liberation Army, led by Tito; and the Serbian nationalist Chetniks under Draza Mihailovič. Mihailovič supported the monarchy in Yugoslavia, and so the Chetniks and the communists were not natural allies; despite their common enemy, the two parties conducted a bitter feud.

Tito's National Liberation Army made Nazi efforts to govern occupied Yugoslavia extremely difficult, and tied down tens of thousands of German troops. Despite massacres of civilians, including 7,000 in Kragujevac and 1,700 in Kraljevo, the communists continued to fight on. Although the Chetniks initially received aid from the Allies, their rivalry with the communists led to the withdrawal of Allied support, and aid being transferred to the communist partisans. The Chetniks and other groups sought help from the Italians and Germans, and engaged in constant battles with the National Liberation Army. However, by the end of 1943 the Italians had surrendered in Yugoslavia, and during 1944 the Germans were forced out. In October 1944 Tito's partisans entered Belgrade and took control of Yugoslavia. In this case, the partisans managed to defeat the Nazi occupiers using guerrilla warfare and widespread support.

French resistance Resistance in France was less successful than in Yugoslavia, but nevertheless caused problems for the occupying German forces throughout the war. Help and training were given to resistance workers by the British armed forces, and by the summer of 1942 French resistance had become a highly effective force, with thousands of men and women organized into detachments across the country. The situation was complicated by the existence of the collaborationist Vichy government under General Pétain in southeast France. French response to the Nazi occupation varied. Many collaborated enthusiastically with the Nazis; for instance, many members of the French police service worked willingly alongside SS units in the deportation of French Jews to the death camps of Eastern Europe.

After 1942 the recognized French government-in-exile under Charles de Gaulle, organized the resistance groups into the ‘National Council of the Resistance’. Before the D-day landings of Allied troops in June 1944, the French resistance had become an effective army operating inside France. Under the leadership of General Koenig, the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) sabotaged bridges, communications, transport, and power stations. After the Germans had been driven from France during 1944, the resistance fighters became the first form of government in liberated areas, and many of its members took revenge on those accused of collaboration or profiting from the German occupation. Thousands were quickly tried by popular justice, many being sentenced to death.

Jewish resistance After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Jewish ghettos were set up in major cities such as Warsaw and Łódźto control the millions of Polish Jews. Inside the ghettos the Jews were forced to live on starvation rations, and following Hitler's move towards the final solution in 1941, shipment began to the extermination camps. Of the more than 380,000 Jewish inhabitants of Warsaw originally confined to the Warsaw ghetto in September 1940, only 70,000 remained by September 1942.

Despite being trapped in effective death camps, Jewish resistance groups managed to operate. In January 1943 German forces tried to level the ghetto, but were beaten off by Jewish resistance fighters supported by the Polish Home Army, another Polish resistance movement. The second attempt to destroy the ghetto led to the uprising of April 1943. Jewish resistance was led by Mordechaj Anielewicz, and included members of the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union. For one month the Polish Jews fought off the German army and SS, but their resistance was eventually crushed and the Nazis exacted their final revenge. Over 7,000 Jews were executed on the spot, and the remaining 53,000 were deported to the nearby death camp at Treblinka. Following the uprising in Warsaw, further Jewish resistance occurred in the ghettos of Białystok, Czȩstochowa, Bedzin, and Kraków.

Another example of Jewish resistance were the revolts in the concentration camps, including breakouts from Treblinka and Sobibor in 1943. Although 200 escaped in the Treblinka incident, all were recaptured or killed. However, in the escape from Sobibor, of the 600 Jews and Soviets who managed to escape the camp, nearly 60 survived to join local resistance movements.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles


Full text Article resistance movement
The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology

See social movement . ...

Full text Article resistance movements
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

Underground organizations that resisted the Axis powers during World War II, especially in occupied Europe. Their activities ranged from...

See more from Credo