World War II: Europe Under Occupation

World War II Reference Library. Editor: Barbara C Bigelow, et al., Volume 1: Almanac, UXL, 2000.

Because World War II was a total war, its effects on ordinary people, not just the soldiers and sailors, were deeper and more widespread than in previous wars. This was especially true when a foreign army defeated and then occupied a country. A military occupation, when one country stations troops on another’s territory to control it, is often a time of hardship. But occupation by Nazi Germany in World War II was much harder and more murderous than anything that had come before. While Germany occupied or controlled much of Europe from 1940 to the middle of 1944, it carried out policies, especially in eastern Europe, that involved the intentional killing of millions of people.

Even in western and northern Europe, where occupied countries were treated relatively mildly at the beginning, the Germans used the economic resources of the conquered country for the benefit of Germany. The impact on the local population was lower wages, less food, poorer health, and sometimes forced labor in Germany. In other places, especially in eastern and southeastern Europe, German economic policy amounted to stealing everything they could and leaving as little as possible for the locals, who were essentially treated as slaves.

Economic gains were not the only reason Germany occupied countries. Indeed, German treatment of the occupied Soviet Union, which amounted to looting and smashing everything of value, produced fewer economic benefits for Germany than it received from the smaller and less populous France. In fact, Germany got more farm and other products from the Soviet Union before it invaded, by buying them.

Germany’s long-term goal in eastern Europe was the permanent destruction of the nations it conquered. This did not mean simply dominating their governments, as in France. It meant wiping out the very idea of a country separate from German control. Sometimes German leaders actually described their goal as the creation of a slave empire.

This goal was closely tied to Nazi racial theories. The Nazis believed that Germans were a master “race,” superior to all others, and had a right to attack, conquer, and enslave weaker ones. Adolf Hitler, the absolute ruler of Nazi Germany, believed that Germany needed Lebensraum, or “room to live.” This word implied that without more land, Germany could not survive. Hitler believed that this new land should come from eastern Europe. Germany would take over the area and populate it with Germans. The Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, White Russians, and others who already lived there would serve the German overlords as sources of cheap labor. Any who resisted this fate would be killed. Millions of others would die from lack of adequate food, shelter, and medicine. And, according to Nazi racial theories, the millions of Jews who lived in these areas were not even people but “subhumans” who would all be killed. (The Nazi attempt to destroy the Jews, known as the Holocaust, was not limited to eastern Europe. It is described in Chapter 7.)

The way the Germans treated captured Soviet soldiers is an example of how Nazi ideas about race led to inhumanly cruel actions that made no economic sense. More than 5.5 million Soviet troops were captured beginning in June 1941, more than 3 million of them in the first few months of the German invasion. An estimated 1 million of these soldiers died before they reached any kind of prison camp, often shot by the German troops to whom they surrendered. Another 2 million died in the German camps, where they were crowded together with no shelter—and often no food whatsoever. In some camps, there were reports of cannibalism, as the starving soldiers ate the flesh of those who had already died. Another quarter-million died while the Germans transported them from one place to another, some of them forced to march until they died.


The Nazis began putting some of their plans into action as soon as they conquered Poland in September 1939. Desirable parts of western Poland were annexed to (made part of) Germany. The Nazis intended to force all Poles out of these areas and replace them with Volksdeutsche, people with German ancestors who lived outside Germany, often for many generations. The Nazi plan meant moving millions of people from their homes, most of them against their will. The Nazis acted very quickly, but with little preparation. People had almost no time to get ready. They could take little food with them and had to leave almost all their household belongings. In reality, they were being robbed of their property, as well as being forced from their homes. Among the 2 million Poles forced to leave were about 600,000 Jews, who were specially targeted.

The Germans forced the Poles into the part of German-occupied Poland that had not been annexed, which the Germans called the General Government. The Nazis did not want to make the General Government part of Germany. Instead, they wanted to destroy it as a nation and run it for the benefit of Germany. Hitler told Hans Frank, the man he picked to run the General Government, that his job was to turn Poland’s “economic, cultural, and political structure into a heap of rubble.”

On October 3, 1939, only days after Poland’s defeat, Frank told officers of the German army how he planned to achieve these ends. He would “remove all supplies, raw materials, machines, factories, installations, etc. which are important for the German war economy.” He would reduce the Polish economy to the absolute minimum necessary for the “bare existence of the population,” he said. “The Poles shall be the slaves of the Greater German World Empire.” The German policy was to send everything of value back to Germany. Factories that were not stripped of their machines were to be run by Germans.

Destroying the Nation

The economic plundering was only part of the plan to destroy Poland. The Nazis wanted to eliminate anyone who might be a leader of any type, which included all educated Poles. The first wave of terror began immediately and resulted in the murder of 60,000 Poles and the imprisonment of thousands more.

The Einsatzgruppen (“special-action groups” or “special-duty groups”) committed most of the killings. These specially trained strike forces were like a combination of army troops and secret police officers. The Einsatzgruppen followed the regular German army closely, arriving in towns immediately after the army entered them. They killed Polish political leaders, even those who shared some of the Nazis’ ideas. They killed members of the Polish nobility. They killed doctors, lawyers, professors, high-school teachers, and people with technical training. They killed many priests, who were often community leaders in heavily Catholic Poland. In the Archdiocese (church district) of Poznan, in the annexed part of Poland, there were 681 priests and 147 monks when the Germans arrived. By October 1941, 74 had been shot, 120 had been expelled to the General Government, and 451 were in jail or concentration camps, the brutal prison camps run by the SS (stands for schutzstaffel, the German name for the black-uniformed military branch of the Nazi Party).

To make sure that these educated people were never replaced, the Nazis planned to destroy the educational system in Poland and the occupied areas of the Soviet Union. A secret report to Hitler from Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, said that schools for the non-German population of these areas should be limited to four-grade elementary schools. The children were to learn only “simple arithmetic up to 500 at the most,” the ability to write their names, and that God wanted them to obey the Germans and to be “honest, industrious, and good.” No conquering country in modern history had ever made plans like this. Throughout these areas, the Germans simply closed down most schools. In the city of Vilna in 1943, there was one primary school for a Polish population of 104,000. In response, the Poles created secret schools, including a university with 2,500 students that even issued degrees to its graduates.

The secret university was part of a widespread network of secret organizations that engaged in many different activities to resist the Germans. In Poland, as in the rest of Europe, these organizations became known as the underground or the resistance. One was the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, known as the AK), which eventually had 300,000 members and fought an armed rebellion in Warsaw in August 1944. (The Warsaw uprising is described in Chapter 12.) The Polish underground published more than 1,000 newspapers and magazines. Three hundred of these came out regularly throughout the occupation. The underground also published books, including scholarly works that were not related to the war. Despite Hitler’s orders to turn Poland “into a heap of rubble,” the Poles were determined to preserve their culture and traditions.

Western Europe: Legalized Theft

Instead of the smash-and-grab methods they used in eastern Europe, the Germans developed more complicated ways of stealing in western Europe. One was simply to force the occupied country to pay the cost of the occupation. These costs were figured according to how wealthy the country was, not what it really cost to keep the German army there. So Germany actually made a profit from occupying countries. France, the richest and largest country Germany conquered, paid millions of dollars a day, more than half of all payments the Germans received.

Another method was to set the value of German money, the mark, at a high rate compared with the local currency. This meant that German companies and the German government could buy local products with fewer marks—in other words, they artificially lowered the price for purchases with German money. Throughout western Europe, German companies were soon buying local businesses. More and more of an occupied country’s economy fell into German hands. Germany even used similar methods with its allies, such as Hungary and Romania. It was almost impossible to refuse these deals because, behind Germany’s economic demands, there was always the threat of military force.

Food Shortages

One of Germany’s major goals was to ensure that it could send home a steady supply of farm products, which also caused food shortages in the occupied countries. The shortages were made worse by Allied bombing of railroad and road systems, which made it more difficult to get food from farms to people in the cities. Everywhere, food and other products were rationed, which means the amounts that people could buy were limited. The idea behind the rationing was that everyone could get their share. In fact, however, the shortages led to high prices and to illegal buying and selling on the black market. People with enough money could buy more than their share illegally. Others might not get enough to eat.

The official rations were different in various countries and at different times. Germany had the most rations. Almost everywhere else, people ate much less than before the war, generally about one-half to two-thirds as much. In France, the official ration provided around 1,200 calories a day, but even this much was not always available except on the black market. For example, in Paris the official price of butter in 1941 was 40 francs a kilogram (2.2 pounds). By 1943, this had gone up to 61 francs. But the real price that people actually had to pay to get butter in 1943 was 800 francs. In the same way, products like wine and tobacco had an official price, but the real price was ten or twelve times as high. A meal in a factory’s lunchroom, where prices were supposed to be kept low, cost the company’s workers a full day’s pay. Throughout the war, some foods, like meat, were especially scarce. Often meat could not be bought in Paris for an entire month.

Sometimes the ration was much lower. In the Greek capital of Athens in the winter of 1941-42, the average adult was getting 600 to 800 calories a day, which led to widespread malnutrition, illness, and death. (One peanut butter sandwich on white bread contains more than 350 calories.) In those parts of the Netherlands that were still occupied by Germany, the winter of 1944-45 was known as the “hunger winter.” People consumed about 500 calories a day, and many starved.

A Harder Life

It was not just food that was expensive. In France in 1943, a pair of shoes cost what the average person earned in six weeks. (This would be like a pair of shoes in the United States in 1999 costing about $4,000.) A man’s suit in Paris cost about four months’ pay. Coal was so expensive that most people could not afford enough to cook their meals.

Winters Bring Disease

Because both clothing and fuel for heating were expensive and hard to find, each winter brought terrible suffering in northern areas. It was made worse by the fact that people were often malnourished. Not surprisingly, there was a general decline in health. There were outbreaks and sometimes epidemics of tuberculosis, diptheria, typhus, typhoid, and cholera. At the end of the war, there were 1.5 million cases of tuberculosis in Poland—an incredible 6 percent of the surviving population. Shortages of medicine made it difficult to control these diseases. In places such as France where reliable statistics exist, it is known that there was a serious increase in death rates, especially of infants.

Death could come more suddenly as well. Although people in occupied Europe welcomed the sight of British and American planes on their way to bomb Germany, many of the raids were aimed at factories in occupied countries. The first successful large-scale British bombing raid in Europe was on the Renault factory complex in a Paris suburb in March 1942. It resulted in large numbers of civilian deaths.

Crime Increases

Life was harder in other ways, too. As hunger grew in most countries, there was a large increase in crime, especially theft and prostitution, even though the police had more power to stop and arrest people. There were virtually no private cars, and train travel was restricted. There was usually a curfew, and no one was allowed out at night. People were not allowed to visit or move to another city without permission. Everyone had to have an identity card, which the police could check at any time. Attendance at sports events and movies increased, however, as people looked for escapist entertainment to help them forget about the war. Although most films made during the war were either pure escapism or pro-German propaganda, a few, especially in France, were very good, even great, films that are still valued today.


People in occupied countries had to be careful about expressing their opinions. Criticizing the Germans or the government that was cooperating with them could mean jail or even deportation to a concentration camp. The police often read and censored mail. Prewar newspapers were either shut down or printed only what the Germans allowed, and fewer people wanted to read them. Resistance papers began to publish very early. At first, some were produced on typewriters with a half-dozen copies passed from hand to hand. Later, they became more professional, sometimes secretly using the same printing presses as the legal newspapers. Eventually there were about 1,000 resistance newspapers in France and 300 in Belgium, with 12,000 people working on them. There were 315 papers in Denmark, which had only 4 million people. In the Netherlands, 120 newspapers were being published as early as 1941; there were another 150 within two years.

The official radio was also controlled, but people listened to Swiss radio or to the BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation). It was the BBC that informed Europeans that Germany was losing battles and could be defeated. The Germans tried to prevent people from learning the truth. They wanted to keep people demoralized and unwilling to risk their lives, and their families’ lives, in a cause that seemed hopeless. They levied heavy penalties on people caught listening to the BBC and, in 1943, even banned the ownership of private radios in the Netherlands altogether. Nonetheless, many people hid their radios and continued to listen in secret. To make up for the loss of radio news, some of the main Dutch resistance newspapers began publishing three times a week. The five largest papers had a combined circulation of 450,000.

Forced Labor

German policy intentionally made jobs difficult to find in occupied areas because Germany had a labor shortage and wanted foreigners to work there. From the first days of the occupation, people in eastern Europe were sent to Germany and forced to work on farms and in factories. In parts of Poland, children as young as twelve were subjected to forced labor.

In western Europe, however, the Germans at first tried to persuade people to volunteer to work in Germany, promising high wages and good conditions. But they also made sure that some people would have little choice except to volunteer. An unemployed worker who refused to work in Germany, for example, would not receive unemployment insurance and could even have his or her ration card taken away—which could mean starvation. In France, the Germans promised to release French prisoners of war who had been captured in 1940 in exchange for Frenchmen who volunteered to work. For every six voluntary workers, the Germans did release about one prisoner of war, often the sickest individuals. By May 1941, about 45,000 French workers had gone to Germany, 33,000 of them from Paris, where unemployment was especially high.

The number of volunteers, however, was not enough. It became even lower as word came back that foreign workers in Germany were treated badly and were not making as much money as promised. So the Germans began drafting young men from western Europe to work in Germany. By the second half of 1942, 250,000 French workers had been sent to Germany by the Service de Travaille Obligatoire (“compulsory labor service”), or STO. Altogether, the STO drafted 641,000 Frenchmen, the largest number from any western country. The earlier volunteer workers were now treated the same as the STO workers: as prisoners. Counting French prisoners of war and some other categories, there were 1.7 million French workers in German industry in 1943. (For more information on forced labor in Germany, see Chapter 7.)

The STO and similar programs in other occupied countries had a result that the Germans had not anticipated. Most people in western Europe hated the Nazis and wanted the German occupation to end. But most, probably the great majority, were not ready to risk their freedom and their lives to oppose a seemingly all-powerful German army. They were waiting, hoping that Germany would lose the war and that they would be freed.

But now, young men faced a simple choice: report for forced labor in Germany or go into hiding. In France, thousands of men left home and hid in the forests and hills, where they joined the existing bands of resistance fighters. In the Netherlands, where the flat, treeless geography was not suited for guerrilla warfare, young men and women who hid from compulsory labor service were called onderduikers, or “divers.” By the end of the war, there were an estimated 300,000 of them.

Hostages and Retaliation

The growth of armed resistance as a result of the STO also led to an increase in civilian victims. Throughout occupied Europe, the Germans decided to shoot innocent civilians as revenge for acts of resistance. The high command of the German armed forces ordered all commanders to follow this policy. The idea was that if ordinary people were punished for things the resistance did, they would blame the resistance and would not support it. In general, the German policy did not work. As far as can be known, the people in occupied countries blamed the Germans, not the resistance, when the Germans murdered civilians. But, regardless of who was blamed, it did put many resistance organizations in the difficult position of causing the deaths of their fellow citizens. In some countries, most resistance organizations decided not to engage in attacks on the German occupying forces as a result of this policy.

Lidice Erased

Often, German retaliation was intentionally far greater than the action of the resistance. In May 1942, a team of British-trained Czechoslovakian resistance fighters who had parachuted back into the country assassinated the high-ranking Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich. The Germans retaliated immediately by killing at least 1,500 Czechs. A few days later, the Germans surrounded the coal-mining village of Lidice (LI-deet-su). Then they shot all 172 males over the age of sixteen. All the women and most children were sent to concentration camps. Very few of these children survived the war. A few of the Lidice children, who “looked German,” were taken from their mothers and sent to German families instead. (The policy of seizing young children and “Germanizing” them without their parents’ consent was also carried out in Poland and other parts of eastern Europe.) After killing or deporting all the people of Lidice, the Germans burned down every building in the town. Lidice was picked at random; it seems to have had no connection to the assassination of Heydrich.

Lidice became famous, and towns in America and other countries were renamed “Lidice” to show that the Nazis could never destroy it. But similar massacres happened throughout occupied Europe. In Norway in April 1942, the Germans burned down 300 houses in the town of Televaag, deported 75 people to concentration camps, and arrested another 260. The Dutch town of Putten was burned down and all its male citizens sent to concentration camps, where most of them died, in retaliation for a nearby attack that wounded one German.

French Civilians Punished

In Paris, people who were caught outside after the official curfew were arrested, held overnight, and usually released in the morning. But if German soldiers were killed during the night, then the curfew violators might be shot as a reprisal. In October 1941, the Germans shot fifty French civilians in the western city of Nantes in retaliation for the killing of one German officer. The Germans announced they would shoot fifty more hostages if the killers were not turned over to them within two days. The next day, after another German officer was killed in the southwestern city of Bordeaux, the Germans arrested one hundred people there and immediately shot fifty. The other fifty were held hostage, as in Nantes. But these actions created a tremendous outcry throughout the world and increased French hostility. The Germans decided not to shoot the fifty hostages in each city. But the general policy remained the same. By the end of the war, the Germans had executed 30,000 French hostages. In Greece, which had a much smaller population than France, the number of murdered hostages may have been as high as 45,000. In one Greek town, Klisura, 250 women and children were burned to death.

Captured resistance fighters, as opposed to civilian hostages, were often tortured to extract information and then hanged or shot. But, especially in western Europe, the Germans adopted a policy they called “Night and Fog” (Nacht und Nebel in German), under which the Nazis secretly took political opponents to concentration camps in Germany, where they disappeared—into the night and fog. There were no trials, no letters, no contact with the outside world. Families and friends would never know what happened, or whether the person was dead or alive. (In fact, a small number of “night and fog” deportees did survive the war in concentration camps.)

Protests, Strikes, and Sabotage

Resistance to German occupation often began early, but usually in nonviolent ways. People in the Netherlands waiting to cross the street would raise their hats when the light turned orange, which is the Dutch national color. Danish students wore knit caps in blue, white, and red so that they looked like the insignia on the planes of Britain’s Royal Air Force. In many cities, everyone would stop talking whenever a German soldier entered a shop, and no one would say a word until he left.

From these kinds of actions, which were not very dangerous and had little effect on the Germans, some people moved on to larger, organized anti-German activities. Writing and distributing newspapers, as mentioned earlier in this chapter, were among the most important. But people found other ways to hurt the Germans. Workers producing products for Germany purposely did their jobs poorly, making sure that parts did not fit properly or that they would break after being used once. Clerks mislabeled shipments so that they were sent to the wrong place, causing delays. Even tardiness became a form of protest. In addition, more serious forms of sabotage (intentional destruction of military or industrial facilities) also became widespread.

Martial Law Declared

There were also more public forms of protest. On October 28, 1939, less than two months after the war began, university students in the Czech capital of Prague led large public demonstrations in honor of the Czechoslovakian national holiday. The demonstrations turned into battles with police, and the Germans retaliated by shutting down all Czech universities for the rest of the war.

In the Netherlands, students in Dutch universities staged a series of protests and strikes against the German order to remove all Jewish professors. In February 1941, another Dutch challenge to German anti-Jewish policy became one of the largest protests in occupied Europe. After an acid attack on German police in a Jewish-owned store, the Germans arrested 400 Jews off the streets of Amsterdam, the largest Dutch city, and sent them to a concentration camp. In protest, thousands of Dutch workers went on strike. They shut down public services, transportation, large factories, and the port of Amsterdam. As the strike spread to two nearby cities, the Germans declared martial law (military law, with many normal legal rights suspended) and sent large numbers of troops into the city to force people back to work. Strikers faced arrest and deportation to a concentration camp or even being shot on the spot.

In Denmark, which the Germans had treated less harshly than any other occupied country, there was a wave of strikes in 1943 to protest new German restrictions. The Germans declared martial law and disbanded the Danish government and army, both of which had been allowed to exist until then.

Some of the most significant strikes occurred in Italy in early 1943. At that time Italy was technically still an ally of Germany. (Chapter 10 describes the last days of Italy’s alliance with Germany.) Beginning in the FIAT auto factories in the northern industrial city of Turin, the strikes spread to many industries in northern Italy. The workers demanded lower prices and better working conditions, but they also wanted Italy to get out of the war.

Armed Resistance

Some form of armed resistance developed in almost every country Germany occupied. In a few places, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, the geographic conditions meant that these movements were confined to towns and cities and were therefore very small. Sometimes, the Germans succeeded in destroying much of the armed resistance movement, as they did in Czechoslovakia after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in May 1942. From then until the last days of the war, the remaining Czech resistance was made up of small groups that organized work slowdowns in factories and engaged in mostly small-scale sabotage.

In countries with deep forests or mountains, however, bands of resistance fighters, sometimes supplied with arms by parachute drops from Allied planes, began hit-and-run attacks against the occupiers. But in most cases, the resistance was not just a war against the Germans. It was also against the people who supported the Germans during the occupation, sometimes because they agreed with Nazi ideas and sometimes because they thought this was the way to get ahead. In other words, a European resistance movement often involved a civil war inside a country as well as a war between different countries.

The Slovak National Rising

This was true even in a German puppet state like Slovakia, a country the Germans had created when they took over Czechoslovakia in March 1939. A puppet state is a country that claims to be independent but is actually controlled by another stronger country. Slovakia’s government was a dictatorship led by Father Josef Tiso, a Catholic priest who introduced Nazi-like policies. The Slovakian army attacked the Soviet Union alongside the Germans. By 1944, however, there was an underground guerrilla army, called partisans, operating in the countryside. Many Slovakian soldiers fighting in the Soviet Union had deserted and joined the Soviet army. Along with other Soviet agents, some of them parachuted back into Slovakia to help lead the partisans.

Then, in August 1944, much of the Slovakian army stationed at home launched a rebellion against Tiso and the Germans. The partisans joined this battle, which became known as the Slovak National Rising. Tiso’s forces could not defeat the rebels, who soon controlled much of the country. The Soviets parachuted arms and supplies, and the Soviet army attempted to break through the German lines to reach Slovakia, but the German army stopped them. Then strong German reinforcements rushed into Slovakia to crush the National Rising. After heavy fighting, they defeated the rebels by the end of October. Tiso and the Germans then engaged in large-scale and bloody reprisals.


One example of the way the war against Nazi Germany was also a civil war is France. France was considered the greatest military power in Europe when the war began. The speed and completeness of the German victory shocked the nation. (The defeat of France is described in Chapter 2.) The Germans placed a new French government in office, headed by Marshal Phillippe Pétain, a hero of World War I. Pétain had helped defeat the Germans in 1918, but now he was an old man of eighty-four. He believed the German victory in 1940 was a kind of punishment because the French people had failed to respect authority and had been allowed too much freedom before the war. As the historian Nora Levin has said, “More than Nazism, Pétain despised and feared democracy.”

The armistice with Germany that stopped the fighting divided France into two parts. The German army occupied the northern half and all of the Atlantic coast. The southern part was controlled by Pétain’s French government. Its laws also applied to the German-occupied zone if they did not interfere with German orders. France had to pay for the huge cost of the German occupation, millions of dollars a day, and Germany refused to release French soldiers taken prisoner in the battle.

Vichy France

The French government made its new capital at Vichy (pronounced VEE-she), a small city in central France. The constitution was changed to abolish democracy. Marshal Pétain was given dictatorial powers as the head of the new French State, which replaced the French Republic. Even the famous slogan of the republic, dating back to the French Revolution, was changed. Instead of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” (brotherhood), the Vichy government’s slogan was “Work, Family, Country.”

Some French people opposed Vichy from the beginning. Charles de Gaulle, a little-known army general, fled to London and declared that France should continue to fight Germany. With British support, he organized French forces that had escaped the country (soon called the Free French) to continue the war alongside the British. (De Gaulle and the Free French are described in Chapter 9.) Inside France, both in the occupied zone and in Vichy France, networks of resistance groups were born.

The reistance groups published illegal newspapers, hid people who the Nazis were trying to arrest, and tried to organize opposition to Vichy. Although they were often tiny at first, these groups eventually grew very large. They hid British and American airmen whose planes were shot down over France, attacked German troops, and blew up railroad lines.

But most French people were not active in the resistance, and certainly not at the beginning. A few pro-Nazi French were happy that Germany had defeated France. Others agreed with the Vichy government about what kind of country France should be, that democracy and freedom had gone too far. They supported a policy of cooperating with Germany.

Perhaps the largest number took a wait-and-see attitude. They respected Marshal Pétain and thought he would do his best for France in a difficult situation. They did not like the Germans who had conquered their country and did not share the Nazis’ ideas. But they wanted to continue to live their lives as best they could. They needed to earn a living and send their children to school. They hoped Vichy would be able to arrange for the release of the 2 million French prisoners of war held in Germany. They hoped Pétain could ease the harsh conditions the Germans were imposing on their country. Perhaps most of all, they hoped that for France the war was over.


At the beginning of the occupation, when it looked almost certain that Germany would win the war, many French leaders thought that France’s future—and their own personal power—depended on developing a close relationship with Germany. They wanted to collaborate with Germany. To collaborate means to work together, and the Vichy officials used the word to make it sound as if they were not simply obeying German orders. But the word soon took on a different meaning from what they had intended. Many French people could understand that France often had to do what Germany wanted. After all, millions of German soldiers were occupying France. But that was different from voluntarily collaborating. Many were outraged when the official newspapers published photographs of Marshal Pétain greeting German leader Adolf Hitler as a friend. Pierre Laval, the most powerful Vichy leader, openly said that he hoped Germany would win the war. As time went on, more and more people thought that Laval and his fellow collaborators were traitors to France.

Most of the things Germany wanted were very unpopular with the people of France. The Germans wanted money from the French government, they wanted to take over many French companies, and they wanted to buy French products cheaply. They wanted the crops grown on French farms. They wanted Vichy’s cooperation in arresting and deporting all Jews from France. All of these things increased opposition to Vichy. When Vichy gave in to German demands and began drafting young Frenchmen for forced labor in Germany, many young men became active members of the resistance.

Pro-Nazi Milice

In response, Vichy created special pro-Nazi units of French volunteers, called the Milice (“Militia”), that worked with the SS, the military branch of the Nazi Party. Before long, the Milice and the resistance were fighting what amounted to an open civil war. When the Allied armies landed in France in June 1944 and drove the Germans out, the French resistance played an important part in destroying rail lines, guiding Allied troops, and slowing down the advance of German reinforcements. The greatest moment for the French resistance, and perhaps for any resistance in occupied Europe, was the role it played in liberating Paris. (The Allied landing in France and the liberation of Paris are described in Chapter 11.)

Soviet Union

The largest armed resistance movement in Europe was the partisans of the Soviet Union. When the German tanks swept into the Soviet Union in June 1941 (see Chapter 3), they raced past large formations of Soviet troops. The advancing German infantry later captured many of these units, but other units remained free, regrouping in heavy forests and marshy areas that had few roads. Some of these free Soviet army units were still commanded by their regular officers and were prepared to continue fighting. Others consisted mainly of men who only wanted to get home. But getting home was often impossible without being captured. Word soon spread that the Germans killed most Soviet soldiers who surrendered.

Soviet Partisans

Trapped far behind the German army, the free Soviet units became the core of a guerrilla army, operating in groups of anywhere from 300 to 2,000 fighters. By the end of 1941, there were 30,000 of them. Soon they undertook thousands of small actions that interfered with the German invasion. Partisans cut telephone wires and blew up railroad tracks. They seized or burned German supplies, forcing the Germans to guard them more heavily. They also executed civilians who cooperated with the German occupiers.

The Soviet government immediately saw the value in partisan activity. By the autumn of 1941, it began training officers in guerrilla warfare. The graduates of these schools then parachuted behind German lines to join existing partisan units or create new ones. By the summer of 1942, there were 150,000 organized partisans; a year later, there were at least 200,000.

Germans Welcomed at First

Not all partisans were Soviet soldiers trapped behind German lines. Many were local villagers who had joined the resistance. When the Germans first invaded the Soviet Union, some people welcomed them. This was especially true in Ukraine and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Many of these people thought the Germans would free them from Russian domination. (Although the Soviet Union was made up of many nationalities, it was generally controlled by Russians, who were the largest group, and who had conquered these countries over the centuries.) The Communist government of the Soviet Union, which had come to power in 1922 and was led since 1924 by the brutal dictator Joseph Stalin, had treated the conquered peoples harshly.

Communism is a political and economic system based on government ownership of factories, banks, and most other businesses. During the 1930s in Ukraine, Stalin’s secret police had executed many thousands of small farmers as they fought to keep their farms from being confiscated by the government. Hundreds of thousands of people had died in famines created by unwise and vengeful Soviet policies. Other opponents of the Communists were arrested and sent to Siberia, a frigid wasteland in the north of the country. It is then not surprising that many people in these areas were happy to see the Soviet army driven out and the Germans march in.

Townspeople Join Guerilla Soldiers

Soon the way the Germans treated the local people turned most of them into enemies too. German officials treated the local populations with contempt, and took everything of value and sent it home. Tens of thousands of people were taken away to work as semi-slaves in Germany. The people left behind were treated just as badly; the Germans seized their crops and left them without enough to feed their families. Before long, support for the partisans grew dramatically. Large numbers of local people, including thousands of women, joined the partisan bands in the forests. Many thousands more cooperated with the partisans and provided them with information.

It is impossible to know how many German troops the Soviet partisans put out of action, and it is now clear that the claims made at the time were vastly exaggerated. But 35,000 is probably a fair estimate. Their military value went beyond wounding or killing German soldiers, however. The Russian partisans had the major advantage over other European resistance movements of working closely with a regular army that was near enough to support them: they could coordinate their activity with that of the Soviet army. For example, at the beginning of major Soviet offensives the partisans played an important role in limiting the German army’s ability to transfer units by train from one part of the battlefront to another by destroying rail lines.


Aside from the Soviet Union, the most effective armed resistance movement in Europe was in Yugoslavia. As in France, the battle against the Germans was also partly a civil war between different groups inside the occupied country.

The invasion of Yugoslavia had been one of the German army’s easiest victories. The million-man Yugoslav army surrendered in less than two weeks, and Germany and its partners, known as the Axis, divided up the country. (See Chapter 3.) But this rapid success also meant that many Yugoslav army units were still intact when the country surrendered. Some officers immediately led their units into the hills to continue fighting. The most important leader was Draza Mihailovic, who had been deputy chief of staff of the Yugoslav Second Army. His band originally consisted of only fifty soldiers. As the movement grew, they became known as Chetniks, a name used by Serbs who had fought against the invading Turks in past centuries. Mihailovic and most top Yugoslav army officers were Serbs, the largest ethnic group in the country, and the one that had dominated Yugoslavia. The Chetniks were loyal to the Yugoslav king, who was from the Serbian royal family.

Croats and Serbs

But other ethnic groups in Yugoslavia had long resented Serbian control. The Croatians were the most prominent of these. Throughout the 1930s, various Croatian political parties struggled for greater Croatian rights within Yugoslavia, and some demanded complete independence. The most extreme of these groups was called the Ustashi (“rebel” in the Croatian language). It engaged in terrorist activities, including the assassination of Yugoslavia’s king on a visit to France in 1934. The Ustashi took money from Benito Mussolini’s Italy and modeled itself after Mussolini’s Fascists and Adolf Hitler’s Nazis, both militaristic organizations that brutalized their enemies. Meanwhile, most Serbian political parties refused to give in to any Croatian demands and tried to maintain Serbian domination of Yugoslavia.

Ustashi Takes Croatia

During the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia, the Ustashi declared Croatian independence. The new independent Croatia was then protected by the German and Italian occupation forces and became an ally of Germany. The Ustashi government was one of the most vicious and murderous in all of Nazi-controlled Europe. Its troops engaged in horrible massacres of ethnic Serbs, Roma (gypsies), Muslims from Bosnia (another part of Yugoslavia), and Jews. In at least a few cases, even the Nazi SS, the military arm of the Nazi Party, complained about Ustashi brutality. At least 200,000 people, including Croatian opponents of the Ustashi, died at the Jasenovac concentration camp, where torture was common.

Germans Take Serbia

In Serbia, the German military government was also among the most brutal in Europe. Although there was a puppet Serbian government, it was not important because, unlike the Ustashi government in Croatia, the Germans ran Serbia directly. The harshness of the occupation led to a rapid increase in the strength of Mihailovic’s Chetniks. But the Chetniks had two key disadvantages. They wanted to return Yugoslavia to the way it was before the war, which meant continuing Serbian control of the country. That made it almost impossible for them to attract any anti-Ustashi Croatians, Slovenians, Bosnians, Montenegrins, or other ethnic groups of Yugoslavia. The second major Chetnik disadvantage was that they wanted to avoid fighting the Germans immediately. Instead, they wanted to gain more strength and wait until the Allied armies were nearby before beginning a major national uprising. One of the reasons for this policy was to avoid the savage reprisals against civilians that the Germans inflicted whenever there was armed resistance.

Tito Leads Yugoslav Partisans

A second movement soon developed in Yugoslavia that did not have these disadvantages. This was the Partisans, led by Josip Broz, known as Tito, a leader of the Yugoslav Communist Party before the war. The Partisans said they wanted a new Yugoslavia, where each of the national groups would be treated equally and control its own area. Unlike the Chetniks, the Partisan leaders included non-Serbs, such as Tito himself, who was Croatian. Also, unlike the Chetniks, the Partisans had no plan to maintain aspects of the old Yugoslavia, where the great majority of people had been very poor. For Tito, the war against the Axis occupiers was also a revolution against the old system.

The Partisans had about 100,000 armed soldiers and were fighting the Axis in major operations. In a series of offensives, the Germans chased the Partisans from the mountains of Bosnia to Montenegro and back again, but they could not destroy them. Twenty thousand Partisans were killed or wounded in these campaigns. The Germans also slaughtered the local villagers even if they had not helped the Partisans.

Altogether, up to thirty Axis divisions—a significant number at more than 300,000 men—were needed in Yugoslavia because of Partisans’ activity. Most of the Axis troops were Italian, with only a dozen German divisions. Few were first-rate combat units. The Partisans, on the other hand, received a tremendous amount of arms and equipment from the Italian troops in Croatia and other parts of Yugoslavia when Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943.

Another source of arms and supplies for the Partisans was the British and Americans. The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) were in charge of gathering information and of sabotage in occupied Europe (see Chapter 15) and in aiding resistance movements. At first the SOE and OSS favored the Chetniks because Mihailovic was the official representative of the prewar Yugoslav government. But his reluctance to fight hurt his reputation with the British and Americans. Their opinion of him lessened even more when they began to believe that Mihailovic was more interested in destroying Tito and the Partisans than in fighting the Nazis and Italians. Indeed, the Chetniks even cooperated with the Axis forces in hunting down the Partisans.

Allies Help Tito

Soon the British and Americans were supporting Tito, and by 1944 the British Balkan Air Force, based in Italy, was dropping large quantities of American arms and even sometimes supplying air support to the Partisans. Despite the fact that Tito was a communist and the British and Americans generally distrusted communist resistance movements, the Partisans were obviously willing and able to fight the Axis troops, while the Chetniks were not.

After the war it was learned that Tito also sometimes offered temporary truces to the Germans so that the Partisans could fight the Chetniks, but this was not well known at the time. The Chetniks and the Partisans knew they were fighting a civil war against each other while they were also fighting the Germans. The presence of the Ustashi in Croatia made it a three-way civil war. The rugged mountains made Yugoslavia well suited to guerrilla warfare. All these factors, plus the cruelty of the German occupation, ensured that the fighting and killing in Yugoslavia was among the most savage of the war. About 1.4 million people died—approximately one out of every ten.