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Book Review Objectivity compromised by political side-taking

ANDREW MURRAY recommends, with reservations, a flawed account of anti-German armed resistance during WWII

Resistance
by Halik Kochanski
Allen Lane £35

 

THE anti-fascist resistance across Europe during World War II was one of the great stories of the 20th century – a political and human drama which still resonates today.
 
In scope, depth of research and detail this is the book the resistance deserves. In politics, and in terms of expressing that drama, it isn’t.

No-one can fault Kochanski’s efforts to deal with a vast subject comprehensively. There was resistance to Nazi occupation, to some extent or other, everywhere where it was imposed. Its story must therefore traverse the continent from Greece to Norway, Belgium to Poland, and this Kochanski does.
 
Every movement is mentioned and their main exploits recorded. The development of the resistance is also located in the wider course of the war in Europe, helping make sense of the actions, or the lack of them, taken against the Nazis.
 
Yet still this immense book is unsatisfying. Part of this is due to the author’s conventional and top-down approach. It dwells extensively on the work of the British Special Operations Executive and other organs of the British state – to a lesser extent the US too – as if they were the mainsprings of the fight in Nazi-occupied Europe.
 
This downplays the internal dynamics which drove so many men and women to risk their lives in fighting against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy, including at times when victory, if achievable at all, seemed a long way off, although it does highlight Britain’s attempts to control events in its own interests.
 
That may be because Kochanski is uncomfortable with those dynamics. Her anti-communism simmers, and she is always anxious to play up the actions of non-communist resistance forces at their expense, most notably in relation to Yugoslavia and Greece. The French Francs-tireurs et partisans (snipers and partisans) français (FTP) is also somewhat short-changed.

In fact, Communists or other left-wing forces powered the armed resistance in nearly all countries other than Poland. Too often, bourgeois-led resistance forces preferred to wait things out to a certain extent, keeping their powder dry for the post-war world.

This difference – which was not universal by any means, it must be acknowledged – arose because the left understood the connection between national liberation and social emancipation.  

Across Europe, people rose against not just Nazi imperialism but against the conditions which had bred fascism, both German and domestic, to begin with.

They were struggling not only in support of an allied-Soviet victory and the liberation of their own country, but to transform their societies too.
   
Kochanski cites a contemporary Western military report complaining that Italian partisans were fighting “not for patriotic motives, but for the eradication of all traces of fascism” as if the two were in contradiction. That seems to be Kochanski’s view too.

I sense she prefers that resistance which prioritised the return of state authority, as championed by General de Gaulle, and the restoration of sundry kings to their thrones.  The Churchillian view in fact.
 
She acknowledges that there was a post-war shift to the left but asserts that “there was no great upsurge in support of the Communists” which is simply untrue, as a glance at election results in France or Italy would show.
 
That advance owed much to the association of the Communist parties not just with resistance but with the most militant and uncompromising forms of it, untainted by the attentisme which was found elsewhere, as well as their vision of the future.
   
Given Kochanski’s outlook, it is unsurprising that Churchill’s extreme opposition to the Communist-led resistance ELAS in Greece is given indulgent treatment. For the British prime minister, it was always an imperialist more than an anti-fascist war.

Only in Poland did non-Communist resistance assume an advanced character from the outset under non- (indeed anti-) communist leadership. There matters were further complicated by the struggle over borders, pitching Poles, Ukrainian nationalists, Germans and the Red Army against each other in bloody battles which still have their echoes in contemporary politics.

The issue remains as to what difference the resistance made. German generals, speaking after the war, always asserted that the answer was very little. Certainly, the disparity of power and organisation between the regular forces of the main combatants and guerilla resistance was immense.
 
Nevertheless, more recent events from Vietnam to Afghanistan have shown that such an imbalance is not always decisive. In the Balkans and the occupied areas of the Soviet Union — admittedly a special case — resistance contributed significantly to the defeat of Nazism and its attendant barbarisms. So too in northern Italy in the last two years of the war.
 
Elsewhere its achievements can more be measured in terms of asserting the dignity of the struggle, patriotic and anti-fascist, as part of a global movement, something Kochanski does acknowledge.

To get a sense of the interplay of political and social factors, and the passion of ordinary working-class people taking up arms against the aggressor, Claudio Pavone’s masterly book on the Italian resistance is a better starting point.

Kochanski’s narrative is perhaps best used as a work of reference in covering a movement which informed progressive politics across the continent long after it had laid down its arms.

 

 

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