Large parts of Occupied Europe were liberated by local resistance movements. But the potential for a revolutionary transformation was smothered at birth, writes Neil Faulkner
The Axis powers faced growing internal opposition to their brutal regimes during the Second World War.
When the Japanese Militarists attacked China in 1937, they expected rapid conquest before embarking on a wider war. Instead, their savagery provoked fierce and sustained resistance from both Nationalist and Communist movements, forcing them to keep two-thirds of a million troops in China until the end of the war.
The German Nazis, despite the police terror they imposed on Occupied Europe, were also obliged to deploy huge armies to hold down restive populations. Even at the very end of the war, with Berlin itself under attack, Hitler still had 400,000 troops in Norway.
Many occupied countries freed themselves. Yugoslavia was liberated not by Allied armies but by the Partisans, a Communist-led mass movement headed by Josip Broz ‘Tito’. The Partisans drove out the Germans, crushed their Croat Ustashe fascist allies, and sidelined the ineffective Chetnik royalist movement.
The Partisans were a genuinely multi-ethnic mass movement. By the end of the war, almost a million Yugoslavs were actively involved. This gave Tito a strong independent base. During the subsequent Cold War, Yugoslavia was aligned with neither the West nor the East.
Poland also produced a powerful resistance movement. At its height, the Polish Home Army numbered an estimated 400,000 members.
As the Soviet Army approached Warsaw, Radio Moscow announced that ‘the hour of action has already arrived’ and called on the Poles to ‘join the struggle against the Germans’.
Around 50,000 Poles responded, including many Communists and Jews emerging from hiding. The centre of Warsaw was captured. The concentration camp built on the site of the old Jewish ghetto was liberated. Weapons were seized, arms workshops improvised, and canteens and hospitals established.
But Stalin halted the Soviet advance, allowing the Nazis to concentrate forces to crush the uprising. It took two months. The city was first bombed and shelled into submission, then subjected to a punitive terror.
Wounded fighters were burned alive in their beds with flamethrowers. Nurses were raped, flogged, and murdered. Polish children were shot down for fun. At least 30,000 were killed in the Old Town alone.
The Polish resistance was decapitated. The Nazis performed the execution, but the Stalinists had erected the scaffold. The Soviet Union was an imperialist power waging a war of conquest. It wanted no home-grown rivals to the puppet regimes it planned to impose. It was therefore actively counter-revolutionary.
Stalin’s policy in the East was matched by that of the British and Americans in the West. But Stalin’s role was again decisive.
The Second World War found the British and French ruling classes deeply divided. They were torn between fear of socialist revolution and fear of German imperialism.
Churchill had opposed appeasement only because he thought the threat of revolution was receding and that of the Nazis increasing. His aim was to defend the British Empire and keep the world safe for big business and the rich. That meant crushing revolutionary movements in both Europe and the colonies.
The deal agreed by the ‘Big Three’ at their wartime international conferences was for the division of Europe into spheres of influence. Stalin was given a free hand in the East, Churchill and Roosevelt in the West. The latter faced three major challenges – in France, Italy, and Greece.
Following the military defeat of May/June 1940, the French ruling class had split irrevocably into a collaborationist wing that supported the Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain in southern France and an exiled nationalist wing based in Britain, led by General Charles de Gaulle, which, with American assistance, was organising an army of ‘Free French’ soldiers.
The Free French participated in Allied campaigns in North Africa and North-West Europe. But the Communist-led underground resistance inside France grew to be much more powerful. During the liberation of France in June-November 1944, workers took strike action and the resistance defeated local German units and set up liberation committees and people’s courts.
But when exiled French Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez returned from Moscow to Paris, he called on the working class to subordinate itself to the Gaullists, coining the slogan ‘One state, one army, one police force’.
In Italy, Mussolini had been overthrown by the Grand Fascist Council in July 1943. Marshal Badoglio, a conservative general, had formed a new government and made peace with the Allies.
But the Germans rushed troops to Italy and reinstated Mussolini as the head of a puppet Fascist regime in the north of the country. The Nazi occupation triggered a Communist-led insurgency which swelled rapidly from 10,000 armed rural partisans in late 1943 to 100,000 or more by the end of the war.
Underground resistance groups also formed in the cities, and hundreds of thousands of workers eventually took strike action. The three northern industrial cities of Genoa, Turin, and Milan were liberated by armed insurrections in spring 1945.
The Communist Party grew from 5,000 members to 400,000. But when Italian Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti returned from exile in Russia, he announced that his party was joining the government of Marshal Badoglio. The partisans should lay down their arms and the workers return to their benches.
In Greece, the Nazis had faced a mounting guerrilla insurgency. Their evacuation at the end of 1944 had left the country under the virtual control of EAM-ELAS – the Communist-dominated resistance movement.
In France and Italy, local Communist Parties obeyed Stalin’s orders and disarmed. In Greece, they attempted to do the same. Explaining that it was ‘everybody’s primary national duty to ensure order’, they urged their supporters to back the ‘United National Government’.
But Churchill was determined to use force to restore the monarchy and smash the Left. ‘Do not hesitate to act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in process,’ he cabled the British commander on the spot.
The result was a protracted, vicious, British-backed civil war to destroy EAM-ELAS – the resistance movement that had liberated Greece from the Nazis. Again, the action of the Western leaders was supported by Stalin, who told Churchill, ‘I have every confidence in British policy in Greece.’
Large parts of Occupied Europe were liberated from the Nazis by local resistance organisations in the last two years of the war. As Nazi power crumbled, these organisations had evolved from small underground units into mass movements involving millions of people. Most were dominated by Communists.
Yet the potential represented – for a thoroughgoing revolutionary transformation of European society – was smothered at birth. Old ruling classes, including former fascists and collaborators, were restored to power, both at home and in the colonies.
East and West, the principal agent of this counter-revolution was Stalinism – in the East, because of the power of the Soviet Army to crush all independent political force, in the West, because millions of workers looked for leadership to Communist Parties that in fact took their orders from Moscow.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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