Military history



In some versions, the New Order in Europe was not merely an economic idea but also encompassed political restructuring as well.145 Faced with the problem of administering the areas of Europe it dominated, the Third Reich came up with a characteristic hodge-podge of different arrangements. 146 While some areas like western Poland and small chunks of eastern France and Belgium were incorporated directly into the Reich, others, intended for later absorption, like Alsace-Lorraine, Luxembourg or Bialystok, were placed under the authority of the nearest German Regional Leader. A third category, with a somewhat indeterminate status, included the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the Reich Commissariats of the Ukraine and the ‘Eastern Land’ (the Baltic states and Belarus), was run by a specially created German administration, although in the Protectorate there was also a large Czech element in the bureaucracy. In other countries under German occupation, there was a military administration if they were considered strategically important like Belgium, occupied France or Greece; countries considered ‘Germanic’, like Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, were run by a civilian Reich Commissioner, using the native administration as far as possible. Only in Norway was a native fascist leader placed in power, although in another nominally independent state, Vichy France, a regime emerged which bore distinctly fascist traits. A fifth category consisted of client states such as Croatia or Slovakia, where there was a limited German military presence but German agents of one kind or another wielded huge power. Finally there were Germany’s allies, notably Hungary, Italy and Romania, where there was German influence but no German domination. The situation was fluid, however, changing partly with the military situation and partly with local conditions, so that countries sometimes moved from one category into another.147

Economic exploitation was not the only priority for the occupying authorities. The ‘New Order’ demanded the racial restructuring of Europe as well as its economic rearrangement for Germany’s benefit. A major purpose of the German administration of occupied countries as well as of German representatives in client states and allied nations was to implement there as well as at home ‘the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe’. Everywhere that they could, German administrators, civilian, military and SS, moved quickly to secure the passing of anti-Jewish laws, the Aryanization of Jewish property and finally the round-up of the Jewish population and its deportation to the killing centres of the east. Reactions to these policies varied widely from country to country, depending on the zeal of the Germans, the strength of antisemitic feeling in the local authorities, the degree of national pride in the population and the government and a variety of other factors. Almost everywhere, Jewish refugees from other countries were the first victims. They were generally offered little or no protection by the administration of the country in which they had sought safety from persecution in Germany or elsewhere; even native Jewish organizations were reluctant to do anything to help them. When the Germans moved against the native Jewish population of these countries, however, reactions turned out to be more complex, and more divided.

Such moves generally began in 1941- 2 and so came before the emergence of any widespread resistance movements in occupied Western Europe. The speed and scale of the German military victories in 1940 had left most Western Europeans in a state of shock and despondency. Millions of refugees had to find their way home; the physical damage caused by military action had to be repaired; normal life had to be restored. Hardly anyone thought in 1940 or 1941 that Britain would survive the onslaught that Hitler would sooner or later undoubtedly unleash. Most people in the occupied countries of Western Europe decided to wait and see what would happen, and in the meantime get on with their lives as best they could. Those who undertook any form of resistance were very few. Before June 1941 the continued existence of the German - Soviet Pact also made it difficult for Communists to take action. Small groups of independent leftists and right-wing nationalists did engage in various kinds of resistance, but these did not include violent action, and overall they had little effect. For the great majority, Germany’s victories made it a country to be admired, or at least respected. They had demonstrated the effectiveness of dictatorship and the weakness of democracy. The prewar political order was discredited. Working with the occupying authorities seemed unavoidable.148 And for some, at least, defeat provided the spur to national regeneration.

This was most obvious in France, where the armistice had been followed by a division of the country into an occupied zone in the north and along the western coast, and an autonomous area in the south and east, run by the government of Marshal P’tain from the spa town of Vichy. Technically this was the last government of the defeated and discredited Third Republic, but the parliament quickly voted P’tain full powers to draft a new constitution. The aged Marshal abolished the Third Republic but he did not create any formal replacement. Everything centred on himself. ‘Ministers are only responsible to me,’ he said on 10 November 1940. ‘History will judge me alone.’149 He developed a leadership cult. His portrait was everywhere, and he required all public servants to take a personal oath of loyalty to him. In Vichy France, mayors and other officials were appointed rather than elected, and it was P’tain who controlled the appointments process. Public opinion regarded him as the saviour of France. His regime took on a fascist tinge, proclaiming a ‘national revolution’ that would regenerate French society and culture. A new youth movement was to mobilize and discipline young people in the service of their country. Vichy proclaimed the virtues of the traditional family, with women in their proper place as wives and mothers. Catholic values were intended to replace the Godlessness of the Third Republic, and the clergy, high and low, duly lent their support to the regime. But Vichy never had the time or the coherence to develop into fully fledged fascism. Moreover, many of its policies soon began to alienate popular opinion. Vichy’s moral repressiveness was not popular among young people, and labour requisitioning by the Germans began to turn people against the idea of collaboration. The Deputy Premier, Pierre Laval, who liked to think of himself as a realist and therefore regarded the ‘national revolution’ with a healthy degree of scepticism, did not get on with P’tain and was dismissed in December 1940, but on 18 April 1942 P’tain recalled him to office as Prime Minister, and he remained there, increasingly taking over the reins of government from the aged Marshal, until the end of the war.150

The triumph of Marshal P’tain and the far-right nationalists in France brought to power in the unoccupied zone a regime that was shot through to its core with antisemitism. This tradition derived partly from the military opposition to the campaign to exonerate the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, who had been accused of spying for the Germans in the 1890s, partly from the antisemitic fallout of a series of notorious financial scandals in the 1930s, partly from the broader influence of the rise of European antisemitism under the impact of Hitler.151 The polarization of French politics during the Communist-supported Popular Front in 1936-7 under the Premiership of L’on Blum, who happened to be Jewish, added further fuel to the flames of antisemitic feeling on the right. And the immigration into France of some 55,000 Jewish refugees from Central Europe, bringing the total Jewish population of the country to 330,000 by 1940, ironically stoked fears among the military of a ‘fifth column’ of agents working secretly for the German cause, along the lines they still believed had been followed by Dreyfus.152 More than half the Jews living in France were not French citizens, and a high proportion of those who were had acquired their citizenship after the First World War. These now became the first target of state discrimination. Already on 18 November 1939, well before the defeat, a new law provided for the internment of anyone who was considered to be a danger to the French Fatherland, and some 20,000 foreigners resident in France, including many Jewish immigrants from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, were put into prison camps; many were released after a short time, but as soon as the German invasion began, all German citizens, most of them Jewish, were arrested once more and taken again to the camps. Jews from Alsace-Lorraine, France and the Benelux countries were among the millions who took to the road in terror, fleeing to the south. At the same time, antisemitic campaigners like Charles Maurras and Jacques Doriot plumbed new depths in their rhetorical attacks on the Jews, whom they now blamed for the French defeat, a view shared by many senior figures on the political right as well as large parts of the French population in general and, not least, by the Catholic Church hierarchy in France.153 In the following wartime years, other antisemitic writers, such as Louis-Ferdinand C’line, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle or Lucien Rebatet in his bestseller Les D’combres, were to echo such views and, in Rebatet’s case at least, to describe French Jews as weeds that had to be destroyed root and branch.154

After the French defeat and the creation of the Vichy regime in the unoccupied zone, P’tain’s government first repealed legislation banning incitement to racial or religious hatred, then on 3 October 1940 passed its first formal measure against the Jews, whom it defined as people with three or four Jewish grandparents, or two if they were married to a Jew. Jews were banned in particular from owning or managing media concerns. Jewish professors were with a few exceptions dismissed from their posts. These measures had validity for the whole of France, including the occupied zone; in addition, when the German authorities in the occupied zone took steps against the Jews, the Vichy regime frequently followed suit under the pretext of preserving the administrative unity of France. On 4 October 1940 another law created special internment camps for all foreign Jews in the Vichy zone. 40,000 Jews were interned in them by the end of 1940.155 Native French Jews and their leading representatives assured the Vichy regime that the fate of the foreign Jews was not their concern.156 For the moment, they remained relatively unaffected. But this would not last. As early as August 1940 the German Embassy in Paris had begun urging the military authorities to remove all Jews from the occupied area.157 Action soon followed.

In the occupied zone of France, the German Ambassador, Otto Abetz, urged immediate measures against the Jews. With Hitler’s explicit approval, Jewish immigration to the occupied zone was banned, and preparations were made for the expulsion of all Jews who were still there. On 27 September 1940, with the agreement of the army Commander-in-Chief von Brauchitsch, Jews who had fled to the unoccupied zone were banned from returning, and all Jewish persons and property were to be registered in preparation for expulsion and expropriation. From 21 October 1940 all Jewish shops had to be marked as such. By this time the registration of around 1 50,000 Jews in the occupied zone was essentially complete.158 The Aryanization of Jewish businesses was now driven rapidly forwards, while the economic foundation of the Jews’ existence was increasingly undermined by a series of ordinances that banned them from a whole variety of occupations. Jews were forbidden to enter bars where members of the German armed forces were customers. And the SS began to take an increasingly active role, led by Theodor Dannecker, the officer responsible for the ‘Jewish question’ in the Security Service of the SS in France. Dannecker ordered the arrest and internment in camps of 3,733 Jewish immigrants on 14 May 1941. The Vichy regime also began carrying out Aryanization measures along the same lines, confiscating Jewish assets and businesses. By early 1942 some 140,000 Jews had been officially registered, enabling the authorities to pick them up whenever they wanted to.159 Preparations to deport them began in October and November 1941, following a series of meetings between Himmler and senior figures in the French occupation administration, including Abetz, in September 1941.160

Many of these refugees had been opponents of the Nazi regime, and a good number were hunted down ruthlessly by the Gestapo. A special fate was reserved for one Jewish refugee in particular. In June 1940, a Gestapo unit arrived in Paris to secure the young Pole Herschel Grynszpan, whose assassination of a German diplomat there had been the pretext for the launching of the pogrom of 9-10 November 1938. Grynszpan had in fact been moved by the French prison authorities to Toulouse. En route he had actually escaped, perhaps with the connivance of his captors, or perhaps he had simply got lost, but, amazingly, he turned up at a police station not long afterwards to present himself to the authorities. The Gestapo were quickly on the scene. After interrogating him in their notorious cellars in the Prinz Albrecht Street in Berlin, no doubt about his supposed but in fact purely imaginary Jewish backers, they took him to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he was admitted on 18 January 1941 and seems to have received relatively privileged treatment. In March 1941 he was transferred to Flossenbürg, and in October to the Moabit prison in Berlin to await trial by the People’s Court under Otto-Georg Thierack. Meanwhile a legal team had been sent to Paris to try to find evidence for the claim, put forward in 1938 as justification for the pogrom, that he had been acting as part of a Jewish conspiracy. It failed to find any. Worse still, it now became clear that the man he had shot, vom Rath, was homosexual, and rumours were circulating that the two had been involved in a sexual relationship. There was no truth in the allegations, but the danger of embarrassment was still considerable, so Goebbels decided to abandon the idea of a trial. Grynszpan was transferred to the penitentiary at Magdeburg in September 1942, where he seems to have died early in 1945, whether or not from natural causes is uncertain.161

Tensions meanwhile were mounting in Paris and other parts of the occupied zone of France. The senior army commander in the occupied zone, Otto von Sẗlpnagel, was replaced on 16 February 1942 by his cousin Karl-Heinrich von Sẗlpnagel, a hardline antisemite transferred from the Eastern Front. The new commander ordered that future reprisals were to take the form of mass arrests of Jews and their deportation to the east. Following an attack on German soldiers, 743 Jews, mostly French, were arrested by the German police and interned in a German-run camp at Compiègne; with another 369 Jewish prisoners they were eventually deported to Auschwitz in March 1942.162 On 1 June 1942, in addition, a new Chief of the SS and Police took over in Paris - another transfer from the east, Carl Oberg. Finally, in the Vichy zone, the return of Pierre Laval to head the government in April 1942 signalled an increased willingness to co-operate with the Germans, in the belief that this would lay the foundations for a Franco-German partnership in building a new Europe after the war. With the growing radicalization of German policy towards the Jews, Laval correspondingly appointed a radical antisemite, Louis Darquier (who called himself, somewhat pretentiously, ‘Darquier de Pellepoix’), to run Jewish affairs in the unoccupied zone, with the assistance of an effective and unscrupulous new chief of police, Ren’ Bousquet. It was Bousquet who asked Heydrich during the latter’s visit to France on 7 May 1942 for permission to transport another 5,000 Jews from the transit camp at Drancy to the east. By the end of June, 4,000 had already gone to Auschwitz.163

On 11 June 1942 a meeting was called by Eichmann in the Reich Security Head Office, with the heads of the Jewish Affairs departments of the SS Security Service in Paris, Brussels and The Hague. It was informed that Himmler demanded the transport of Jewish men and women from Western Europe for labour duties, together with a substantial number of those judged unfit for work. For military reasons it was not possible to deport more Jews from Germany during the summer. 100,000 were to be taken from both French zones (later reduced to 40,000 for reasons of practicality), 15,000 were to come from the Netherlands (a number subsequently increased to 40,000 to make up some of the shortfall from France), and 10,000 from Belgium.164 By this time, the wearing of the Jewish star had become compulsory in the occupied zone, calling forth many individual demonstrations of sympathy from French Communists, students and Catholic intellectuals.165 On 15 July 1942 the arrest of stateless Jews began. French police used previously compiled files to identify and begin the round-up of 27,000 Jewish refugees in the Paris region. The scale of the action was so large that it could scarcely remain a secret even in the planning stage, and many Jews went underground. Just over 13,000 had been arrested by 17 July 1942. After sending all the unmarried people or childless couples to the collection camp at Drancy, the police penned up the remaining 8,160 men, women and children in the bicycle-racing stadium known as the V’l d’Hiv. For three to six days they stayed there, without water, toilets or bedding, in temperatures of 37 degrees Celsius or above, subsisting only on one or two bowls of soup a day. Together with another 7,100 Jews from the Vichy zone, they were eventually sent via further collection centres to Auschwitz - a total of 42,500 altogether by the end of the year. Among them was a transport sent on 24 August 1942 consisting mainly of sick children and adolescents between the ages of two and seventeen who had been kept in hospital while their parents had been sent to Auschwitz; all 553 were gassed immediately on their arrival at the camp.166

The leading representatives of the French Jewish community did little to protest against these deportations of foreign Jews, still less to try to prevent them. Only when the majority had already been deported, and the Germans began to turn their attention to native French Jews, did their attitude begin to change.167 A similar evolution took place in the approach of the Catholic Church in France. Meeting on 21 July 1942, the French Cardinals and Archbishops resolved to do nothing to prevent foreign Jews being deported to what they now knew to be their death. Those who protested were, they noted, enemies of Christianity, especially Communists. It would be wrong to make common cause with them. The letter they sent to Marshal P’tain on 22 July 1942 merely criticized the maltreatment of the internees, especially at the V’l d’Hiv. Some prelates were less mealy-mouthed. On 30 August 1942 the Archbishop of Toulouse, Jules-G’rard Saliège, issued a pastoral letter declaring roundly that both French and foreign Jews were human beings and should not be loaded on to trains like cattle. Others encouraged rescue attempts behind the scenes, particularly where Jewish children were the targets. But the Catholic Church in France as an institution had traditionally been deeply conservative, even monarchist in sentiment; and it stood broadly behind the ideas that underpinned the Vichy regime. Only when the regime came under pressure to reclassify as foreigners all Jews who had been naturalized as French citizens since 1927 did the Cardinals and Archbishops declare their opposition. It was clear, too, that this policy would encounter substantial popular criticism, and P’tain and Laval rejected the proposal in August 1943. Their reluctance was no doubt strengthened by their realization that Germany was on the way to losing the war by this time.168

On 11 November 1942, symbolically marking the anniversary of the armistice that had ended the First World War, German troops crossed the border from the occupied zone into the area controlled by Vichy and proceeded to take it over. The Vichy regime had failed to prevent the Allied invasion of the territories it controlled in North Africa, notably Algeria, and its ineffective fighting forces, which Hitler now ordered to be disbanded, clearly offered no prospect of a defence against Allied attacks on the southern French coast across the Mediterranean.169 This presaged a further dramatic worsening of the situation for France’s remaining Jewish population. On 10 December 1942 Himmler noted that at a meeting with Hitler the two men had agreed ‘Jews in France/ 600-700 000/do away with.’ 170 This was double the number of Jews actually in France. Nevertheless, on the same day, Himmler told his subordinates: ‘The Leader has given the order for the Jews and other enemies of the Reich in France to be arrested and taken away.’171Deportations resumed in February 1943. But the German authorities’ efforts to arrest and deport French Jews ran into increasing difficulties. Popular willingness to protect or hide them was growing, and some 30,000 also found their way to relative safety in the Italian-occupied portion of south-eastern France. In the summer of 1943, determined that the French Jews should be exterminated, Eichmann sent Alois Brunner directly from carrying out similar work in Salonika with a staff of twenty-five SS officers to replace the French officials in charge of the transit camp at Drancy. Over the next few months, the Gestapo arrested most of the leaders of the French Jewish community and deported them to Auschwitz or Theresienstadt; the last trainload left for Auschwitz on 22 August 1944.172 Altogether, some 80,000 out of 350,000 French Jews, or just under a quarter, were killed; this was a far greater proportion than in other largely self-governing countries in Western Europe such as Denmark or Italy.173

The German takeover of the previously unoccupied area of France presaged the decline of the Vichy regime. P’tain now became little more than a figurehead for Laval, whose radical right-wing views had free rein. He shocked many French people by openly proclaiming his desire for Germany to win the war. But increasingly he had to rely on repression to impose his views. In January 1943 he set up a new police force, the French Militia (Milice franc¸aise) under Joseph Darnand, whose own Fascist paramilitary Legionaries formed its active and radical core. With nearly 30,000 members, all bound to a code of honour that obliged them to fight against democracy, Communism, individualism and the ‘Jewish leprosy’, the Militia bore more than a passing resemblance to Michael Codreanu’s Legion of the Archangel Michael in Romania. Darnand joined the SS and as a reward Himmler’s organization began to supply him with money and arms. Laval was being outflanked on the right, and in December 1943 the French Militia was authorized by the Germans to operate across the whole of France. These developments deepened the unpopularity of the occupation and the Vichy regime. Growing economic problems, a rapidly falling standard of living and ever more intrusive labour drafts all undermined its credibility still further. Waiting across the Channel in London was the Free French movement under Colonel Charles de Gaulle. By 1943 the Vichy regime had lost most of its power, and the idea of national regeneration on which it had based its appeal to the French people had been rendered meaningless by the German takeover of the unoccupied zone.174


In Belgium, the chaos that accompanied the German invasion was such that the majority of people were simply concerned to re-establish some kind of normality. Two million Belgians, a fifth of the entire population, had fled south to France when the German forces marched in, and despite the relative brevity of the conflict, the damage done to property by military action was considerable. Seen from Belgium, the situation looked very different from how it appeared across the Channel. King Leopold III, whose precipitate surrender had caused such anger in London, was seen by Belgians as a unifying figure, and his presence, albeit in confinement, in Brussels during the war provided a focal point for national unity. The government that had fled to London was blamed for the defeat, along with the parliament. The prewar order was unpopular even with the small groups on the far left and right who tried, without much success, to resist the German occupation. Given the importance of the Belgian coast as a jumping-off point for a possible invasion of Britain, either in 1940 or at some time in the future, Hitler decided to leave the military in charge, as they were also in the French departments of the Nord and the Pas-de-Calais. This led to a different and to some extent milder form of occupation than it might have been had a civilian Nazi commissioner been in charge. From the German point of view, the role of Belgian heavy industry was also important to the war economy, so it was vital not to alienate the working population. The overall result was that the existing Belgian establishment, the civil service, lawyers, industrialists, the Church and those political leaders who had not gone into exile, worked with the German military administration to try to preserve peace and calm and maintain the existing social order. The vast majority of ordinary Belgians saw little alternative but to go along with this, making what accommodations with the occupying powers they thought necessary.175

The German occupiers also tended to view the Flemish inhabitants of Belgium as Nordic in their racial constitution, and held the same view of the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Netherlands. In the long term, indeed, Holland was slated for incorporation into the Reich. In consequence, the German administration was relatively conciliatory, and took care not to alienate the population. In any case, as in Belgium, the prewar order was popularly blamed for the defeat, and the vast majority of Dutch people saw little alternative to coming to terms with the occupation, at least in the short-to-medium term. The best thing to do seemed to be to reach a modus vivendi with the Germans and wait and see what would happen in the long run. Queen Wilhelmina and the government had fled into exile in London, so a civil administration was imported under the Austrian politician Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who proceeded to appoint fellow Austrians to all the top civilian posts except one. For good measure, the head of the SS and the German police in Holland, Hanns Rauter, was also Austrian. The military administration, run by an air force general, was relatively weak. Thus Nazi Party appointees and the SS had far more room to impose extreme policies than did their counterparts in Belgium. In the absence of a Dutch government, Seyss-Inquart issued a stream of edicts and injunctions, and established comprehensive control over the administration. The consequences of this were soon to become apparent.176

There were 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands when the German armed forces invaded in 1940, of whom 20,000 were foreign refugees. The native Dutch Jews belonged to one of the oldest established Jewish communities in Europe, and antisemitism was relatively limited in scope and intensity before the German occupation. But the strong position of the Nazi and in particular the SS leadership in the absence of a Dutch government, and the antisemitic convictions of the almost wholly Austrian occupation administration, lent a radical edge to the persecution of Dutch Jews. In addition, ironically, since Hitler and the leading Nazis regarded the Dutch as quintessentially Aryan, the need to remove the Jews from Dutch society seemed particularly urgent. The German administration began almost immediately to institute anti-Jewish measures, limiting and then in November 1940 ending Jewish participation in state employment. Jewish shops had to be registered and so too, on 10 January 1941, were all Jewish individuals (defined roughly as in the Nuremberg Laws). With the inevitable emergence of a native Dutch Nazi Party, tensions began to mount, and when the Jewish owners of an ice-cream parlour in Amsterdam attacked a pair of German policemen under the mistaken impression that they were Dutch Nazis, German forces surrounded the Jewish quarter of the city and arrested 389 young men, who were deported to Buchenwald and then to Mauthausen. Only one of them survived. Numerous protests were directed by Dutch academics and from the Protestant Churches (except the Lutherans) at the antisemitic policies of the occupiers. The Dutch Communist Party declared a general strike that brought Amsterdam to a virtual standstill on 25 February 1941. The German occupying authorities responded with massive and violent repression, in which a number of protesters were killed and the strike brought to a swift end. Another 200 young Jews, this time refugees from Germany, were tracked down, arrested and sent to their deaths in Mauthausen after a small group of resisters launched bold but futile attack on a German air force communications centre on 3 June 1941.177

The situation of Dutch Jews became truly catastrophic following the Eichmann conference of 11 June 1942. Already on 7 January 1942, acting on German orders, the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, responsible for the Jews in the whole country since the previous October, began ordering unemployed Jews into special labour camps at Amersfoort and elsewhere. Run mainly by Dutch Nazis, the camps quickly became notorious centres of torture and abuse. Another camp, at Westerbork, where German-Jewish refugees were detained, became the main transit centre for non-Dutch deportees to the East, while Dutch Jews were collected in Amsterdam before being loaded on to trains bound for Auschwitz, Sobibor, Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. After fresh antisemitic legislation had been introduced, including a Dutch version of the German Nuremberg Laws and, in early May 1942, the compulsory wearing of the Jewish star, it became easier to identify Jews in Holland. The main burden of the business of rounding up, interning and deporting the Jews fell on the Dutch police, who participated willingly and, in the case of a 2,000-man force of voluntary police auxiliaries recruited in May 1942, with considerable brutality. In the usual way, the German Security Police in Amsterdam - about 200 men in all - forced the Jewish Council to co-operate in the deportation process, not least by allowing it to establish categories of Jews who would be exempt. Corruption and favouritism rapidly spread as desperate Dutch Jews used every means in their power to obtain the coveted stamp on their identity cards granting them immunity. Such immunity was not available to non-Dutch Jews, mostly refugees from Germany, many of whom therefore went into hiding - amongst them the German-Jewish Frank family, whose adolescent daughter Anne kept a diary that became widely known when it was published after the war.178

Two members of the Jewish Council managed to destroy the files of up to a thousand mostly working-class Jewish children assembled in a central crèche and smuggled the children into hiding. But help from the mass of the Dutch population was not forthcoming. The civil service and the police were used to working with the German occupiers, and took a strictly legalistic view of the orders they were asked to implement. The leaders of the Protestant and Catholic Churches sent a collective protest to Seyss-Inquart on 11 July 1942, objecting not only to the murder of Jewish converts to Christianity but also to the murder of unbaptized Jews, the overwhelming majority. When the Catholic Bishop of Utrecht, Jan de Jong, refused to give in to intimidation from the German authorities, the Gestapo arrested as many Jewish Catholics as they could find, and sent ninety-two of them to Auschwitz. Despite this clash, however, neither the Churches nor the Dutch government in exile did anything to rouse the population against the deportations. Reports about the death camps sent to Holland both by Dutch SS volunteers and by two Dutch political prisoners who had been released from Auschwitz had no effect. Between July 1942 and February 1943 fifty-three trains left Westerbork, carrying a total of nearly 47,000 Jews to Auschwitz: 266 of them survived the war.179 In the following months, a further 35,000 were taken to Sobibor, of whom a mere nineteen survived. A trainload of 1,000 Jews left the transit camp at Westerbork every Tuesday for week after week through all this period, and beyond, until over 100,000 had been deported to their deaths by the end of the war.180 The Nazi administration in Holland went further in its antisemitism than any other in Western Europe, reflecting not least the strong presence of Austrians among its top leadership. Seyss-Inquart even pursued the sterilization of the Jewish partners in the 600 so-called mixed marriages registered in the Netherlands, a policy discussed but never put into action in Germany itself.181

14. The Extermination of the European Jews

The contrast with neighbouring Belgium was striking. Between 65,000 and 75,000 Jews lived in Belgium at the beginning of the war, all but 6 per cent of them immigrants and refugees. The German military government issued a decree on 28 October 1940 compelling them to register with the authorities, and soon native Jews were being dismissed from the civil service, the legal system and the media, while the registration and Aryanization of all Jewish assets got under way. The Flemish nationalist movement set light to synagogues in Antwerp in April 1941 following a showing of an antisemitic film.182 However, the German military government reported that there was little understanding of the Jewish question amongst ordinary Belgians, and feared hostile reactions should native Belgian Jews be rounded up. Most Belgians, it seemed, regarded them as Belgians. Himmler was willing for the moment to agree to a postponement of their deportation, and when the first train left for Auschwitz on 4 August 1942, it contained only foreign Jews. By November 1942 some 15,000 had been deported. By this time, however, a newly founded Jewish underground organization had made contact with the Belgian resistance, whose Communist wing already contained many foreign Jews, and a widespread action began to bring the country’s remaining Jews into hiding; many local Catholic institutions also played an important part in concealing Jewish children. In Holland, on the other hand, the Jewish community leadership was less active in assisting Jews to go underground. Quite possibly, too, the fact that the Belgian monarchy, government and civil service and police administration had remained in the country provided a buffer against the genocidal zeal of the Nazi occupiers, as did the effective control of Belgium by the German military, in contrast to the dominance in Holland of the Nazi Commissioner Seyss-Inquart and the SS. Certainly the Belgian police were less willing to assist in the round-up of Jews than were their colleagues in the Netherlands. As a consequence of all this, only 25,000 Jews were deported from Belgium to the gas chambers of Auschwitz; another 25,000 found their way into hiding. All in all, 40 per cent of Belgian Jews were murdered by the Nazis, an appalling enough figure; in the Netherlands, however, the proportion reached 73 per cent, or 102,000 out of a total of 140,000.183


In pursuit of Hitler’s declared purpose of ridding Europe of the Jews, the pedantically thorough Heinrich Himmler also turned his attention to Scandinavia, where the number of Jews was so small as to have virtually no political or economic importance, and native antisemitism was far less widespread than in other Western European countries. He even visited Helsinki in July 1942 to try to persuade the government, which was allied to the Third Reich, to hand over the 200 or so foreign Jews who lived in Finland. As the Finnish police began compiling a list, news of the forthcoming arrests spread, and voices were raised in protest both within the government and beyond. Eventually the number was whittled down to eight (four Germans and an Estonian with their families), who were deported to Auschwitz on 6 November 1942. All save one were killed. The 2,000 or so native Finnish Jews were not affected, and after the Finnish government assured Himmler that there was no ‘Jewish question’ in the country, he abandoned any attempt to secure their delivery to the SS.184

In Norway, under direct German occupation, Himmler’s task was simpler. The King and the government elected before the war had gone into exile in Britain, from where they broadcast regularly to the population. Resistance to the German invasion had been strong, and the installation of a puppet government under the fascist Vidkun Quisling had failed to produce the mass popular support for collaboration with the German occupiers that its leader had promised. Growing shortages of food and raw materials, like everywhere else in Western Europe, had done little to win over the population. The majority of Norwegians remained opposed to the German occupation, but unable for the moment to do much about it. Behind the scenes, the country was effectively ruled by Reich Commissioner Josef Terboven, the Nazi Party Regional Leader in Essen. There were about 2,000 Jews in Norway, and in July 1941 the Quisling government dismissed them from state employment and the professions. In October 1941, their property was Aryanized. Shortly afterwards, in January 1942, the Quisling government ordered the registration of the Jews according to the definition of the Nuremberg Laws. In April 1942, however, recognizing Quisling’s failure to win public support, the Germans dismissed his government, and Terboven began to rule directly. In October 1942 the German authorities ordered the deportation of the Jews from Norway. On 26 October 1942 the Norwegian police began arresting Jewish men, following this on 25 November with women and children. 532 Jews were shipped to Stettin on 26 November, followed by others; in all, 770 Norwegian Jews were deported, of whom 700 were gassed in Auschwitz. 930, however, managed to flee to Sweden, and the rest survived in hiding or escaped in some other way.185 Once the deportations of Jews from Norway began, the Swedish government decided to grant asylum to any Jews arriving in the country from other parts of Europe.186 Neutral Sweden now took on a significant role for those trying to stop the genocide. The Swedish government was certainly well enough informed about it. On 9 August 1942 its consul in Stettin, Karl Ingve Vendel, who worked for the Swedish secret service and had good contacts with members of the German military resistance to the Nazis, filed a lengthy report that made it clear that Jews were being gassed in large numbers in the General Government. The authorities continued to grant asylum to Jews who crossed the Swedish border but refused to launch any initiative to stop the murders.187

Hitler considered the Danes, like the Swedes and Norwegians, to be Aryans; unlike the Norwegians, they had offered no noteworthy resistance to the German invasion in 1940. It was also important to keep the situation in Denmark calm so that vital goods could pass to and fro between Germany and Norway and Sweden without hindrance. Denmark’s strategic significance, commanding a significant stretch of the coast opposite England, was vital. For all these reasons, the Danish government and administration were left largely intact until September 1942, when King Christian X caused Hitler considerable irritation by replying to his message of congratulation on his birthday with a terseness that could not be considered anything but impolite. Already irritated by the degree of autonomy shown by the Danish government, an angry Hitler immediately replaced the German military commander in the country, instructing his successor to take a tougher line. More significantly, he appointed the senior SS officer Werner Best as Reich Plenipotentiary on 26 October 1942. By this time, however, Hitler had calmed down, and Best was fully aware of the need not to offend the Danes, their government or their monarch by being too harsh. Somewhat unexpectedly, therefore, he operated to begin with a policy of flexibility and restraint. For several months he even urged caution in the policy adopted towards the Danish Jews, of whom there were about 8,000, and little was done to them apart from minor measures of discrimination, to which the leaders of the Jewish community did not object.188

But as Germany’s military fortunes began to decline, acts of resistance in Denmark began to multiply. Sabotage, strikes and various kinds of unrest had become widespread by the summer of 1943. Hitler ordered the declaration of martial law, and this was followed shortly afterwards by the withdrawal of co-operation by the Danish government. There was clearly no possibility of an alternative, more willing administration being formed to take its place, although this was the course favoured by the German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop. Best now moved to assume total power himself, using the Danish civil service to implement his own personal rule. For this he needed a massive increase in police powers, and the means to this seemed obvious to him: the implementation of the long-delayed deportation of the Danish Jews. On 17 September 1943 Hitler gave his approval, confirming the deportation order on 22 September 1943. In his mind, the Jews were in any case responsible for the growth of Danish resistance, and their removal would be crucial in putting an end to it. Swiftness and surprise were vital. But news of the impending arrests began to leak out. The Swedish government, which had been told the date by its ambassador in Copenhagen, issued a public offer to grant asylum to all Danish Jews, who now began to go into hiding. In a country where collaborationism was weak and there was little native antisemitism, a police action now seemed to Best to be counter-productive. A police sweep would probably take weeks and would arouse widespread public anger. Best tried to get Berlin to call off the action, but without results. So he himself now ensured that the planned date of the action, 2 October 1943, leaked out as widely as possible. On 1 October 1943, after a good deal of secret preparation, Danes everywhere and in every situation of life worked together to ship around 7,000 Jews across the straits to Sweden and safety. Only 485 were arrested in the following day’s ‘action’. Best intervened with Eichmann to ensure that almost all those arrested were taken not to Auschwitz but to Theresienstadt, where the great majority of them survived the war.189

Best presented this action as a triumph for German policy. ‘Denmark,’ he wrote to the German Foreign Office, ‘has been freed of Jews, since there are no more Jews active and living here legally who fall under the relevant decrees.’190 His action was motivated not by any moral considerations, but by power-political calculation, within the overall context of a virulent and murderous antisemitism propagated and implemented by the organization to which he himself belonged, the SS. It was already clear that martial law would soon come to an end, and, when it did, Best instituted a regime of what might be called behind-the-scenes terror, in which he proclaimed in public the continuation of a flexible approach, but - acting on Hitler’s orders to take reprisals - used clandestine armed bands, including on occasion SS men dressed as civilians, to kill those he believed were responsible for the growing campaign of sabotage against German military and economic installations. His policy met with little success; on 19 April 1944, indeed, his own chauffeur was assassinated. As the situation threatened to deteriorate into a state of unbridled civil war, and Copenhagen looked like becoming a European version of 1920s Chicago, Best backpedalled once more. Ignoring orders from Hitler and Himmler for show trials and on-the-spot killings of suspects, he carried out individual executions but, even after a mass strike in Copenhagen, refused to implement a policy of mass counter-terror. From the Danish perspective, however, there was little difference between the two policies. As Ulrich von Hassell noted on 10 July 1944, after meeting with a friend stationed in Denmark, Best was ‘a very sensible man’: ‘The murder of German soldiers or of Danes friendly to the Germans is not met by punishment or the shooting of a hostage. Instead a simple policy of revenge murder is carried out, that is some innocent Danes are killed. Hitler wanted a ratio of 5 to 1; Best reduced it to 2 to 1. The hatred created everywhere is boundless.’191 The effect was thus the same. Normal life continued in Denmark after a fashion, with the civil administration continuing to function, but the hold of the German occupiers on the country became steadily more shaky. And although Best had gone back on his instrumentalization of ‘Jewish policy’ for the scrapping of existing forms of collaboration and the introduction of a regime of naked terror, it was to be introduced in other countries to deadly effect.192

At the same time, the obsessive pursuit of the Jewish population all over occupied Europe continued, irrespective of the economic utility or otherwise of their extermination. A clear case in point was Greece, where there was a substantial Jewish community - 55,000 in the German occupation zone, 13,000 in the area controlled by the Italians, whose reluctance to co-operate in antisemitic measures frustrated the ambitions of the Reich Security Head Office until 1943. In 1942, however, the German army began to draft Jewish men into forced labour projects, and in February 1943 the wearing of the Jewish star was made compulsory. The large Jewish population of the northern city of Salonika was herded into a tumbledown district of the city as a preparation for deportation. Meanwhile, senior officials in Eichmann’s department had arrived in Salonika to prepare the action, including Alois Brunner. On 15 March 1943 the first train left with 2,800 Jews on board; others followed until, within a few weeks, 45,000 out of the city’s 50,000 Jewish inhabitants had been taken off to Auschwitz, where the majority were killed immediately on arrival. Taken by surprise, and poorly if at all informed about what was going on in Auschwitz, they offered no resistance; nor was there any Greek organization in existence that might have offered to help them. The leader of the religious community in Salonika, Rabbi Zwi Koretz, merely tried to assuage the fears of his congregation. Objections from the Red Cross’s representative in Athens, Ren’ Burckhardt, were met by a successful German request to the organization’s headquarters to have him transferred back to Switzerland. The Italian consul in Salonika, Guelfo Zamboni, supported by the ambassador in Athens, intervened to try to obtain as many exemptions as he could, but he could only save 320 of Salonika’s Jews in all. Meanwhile, the Germans razed the Jewish cemetery and used the gravestones to pave new roads in the area.193

Several months went by before the deportations could be extended to the capital, since the Jewish community’s list of members had been destroyed. On 23 March 1944, however, 800 Jews who had gathered in the main synagogue after the German authorities had promised to distribute Passover bread were arrested and deported to Auschwitz; and in the course of July 1944, the Germans rounded up the tiny Jewish communities living on the Greek islands, including ninety-six from Kos and 1,750 from Rhodes, who were shipped to the mainland and similarly deported to Auschwitz.194 As in the case of Finland, the obsessiveness with which the SS, aided by the local German civilian and military authorities, hounded the last Jews to their deaths, irrespective of any military or economic rationality, was a stark testimony to the primacy of antisemitic thinking in the ideology of the Third Reich.


The situation of the Jewish populations of countries allied to Nazi Germany was complex, and altered with the changing fortunes of war. In some of them, native antisemitism was strong, and in the case of Romania, as we have seen, it led to pogroms and killings on an enormous scale. By the middle of 1942, however, the Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu was beginning to have second thoughts about the extermination of the Romanian Jews, who formed a large proportion of the country’s professional classes. Interventions from the USA, the Red Cross, the Turkish government, the Romanian Queen Mother, the Orthodox Metropolitan of Transylvania and the Papal Nuncio all began to have an effect on the dictator. There is also some evidence that wealthy Romanian Jews had bribed Antonescu and some of his officials to postpone their deportation. Moreover, behind the scenes, Romanian intellectuals, professors, schoolteachers and others forcefully reminded Antonescu that Romania was the only European country apart from Germany to have carried out a large-scale extermination of the Jews on its own initiative. When the war was over, and the Germans, as now seemed increasingly likely to many leading Romanians, had been defeated, this would endanger Romanian claims over northern Transylvania, since in December 1942 Churchill and Roosevelt declared the punishment of countries that had persecuted the Jews to be an Allied war aim. Initially, Antonescu had acceded to the German request to allow the deportation to occupied Poland not only of Romanian Jews living in Germany or German-occupied Europe, but also of the 300,000 Jews left in Romania itself. But he was irritated by repeated German attempts to get him to surrender what were, after all, despite his record of reducing their civil equality and much more besides, Romanian citizens. Warned by the German Foreign Office that they were a serious threat, he still dithered. After playing for time, Antonescu first halted the deportation of Jews to Transnistria, then late in 1943 began repatriating the surviving deportees back to their Romanian homeland.195 Hitler did not give up trying to persuade him to resume the genocide, warning him as late as 5 August 1944 that, if Romania was defeated, it could not expect Romanian Jews to defend it or do anything but put a Communist regime in power.196 But Antonescu was no longer willing to listen to him.

Concerns about sovereignty were also decisive in Bulgaria, where King Boris refused to surrender the country’s Jews to the SS after widespread popular protest against the plan. There was still a functioning parliament in the country, imposing limits on the authoritarian monarch’s freedom of action, and deputies objected forcefully to the deportation of Bulgarian citizens, despite having bowed to German pressure earlier by introducing antisemitic legislation. 11,000 Jews in the annexed Thracian and Macedonian territories were deprived of their citizenship, rounded up and handed over to the Germans for killing. Yet there was little endemic antisemitism in Bulgaria, where the Jewish minority was small. There was widespread outrage when 6,000 Jews from the prewar Bulgarian kingdom were listed for deportation along with the others by an over-zealous antisemitic official. The Orthodox Church stepped in to protect the Jews, declaring that Bulgaria would remember the war with shame if they were deported. On a visit to Germany on 2 April 1943, King Boris explained to Foreign Minister Ribbentrop that the remaining 25,000 Jews in Bulgaria would be put in concentration camps rather than delivered to the Germans. Ribbentrop insisted that in his view only ‘the most radical solution was the right one’. But he was forced to admit that nothing more could be done.197

In similar fashion, the Hungarian government, which had nationalized Jewish-owned land and begun discussions with the German government about the deportation of Hungarian Jews, also began finding excuses for failing to co-operate with the increasingly insistent demands of the German Foreign Office. In October 1942 the Hungarian Regent and effective Head of State, Mikl’s H’rthy, and his Prime Minister, Mikl’s Kall’y, rejected a German request to introduce the wearing of the Jewish star for Hungarian Jews. While Hitler did not want to offend either Romania or Bulgaria, he became increasingly irritated with the failure of Hungary to deliver up its Jewish population of 800,000 for extermination and the confiscation of its assets. In addition, H’rthy was now pulling troops out of the German-led army on the Eastern Front, in the belief that Germany was on the way to losing the war. On 16 and 17 April 1943, therefore, Hitler met with H’rthy near Salzburg, in the presence of Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, to put some pressure on him on both these issues. Among other things, H’rthy made it clear during the first day’s discussion that any Hungarian solution of the ‘Jewish question’ would have to take the specific circumstances of Hungary into account. Dismayed by his reluctance to accede to their request, Hitler and Ribbentrop returned to the topic on the second day. Both sides now dropped the diplomatic circumlocutions. According to the interpreter’s minutes, Ribbentrop told H’rthy ‘that the Jews must either be annihilated or taken to concentration camps. There was no other way.’ Hitler weighed in with a lengthier series of arguments:

Where the Jews were left to themselves, as for example in Poland, gruesome poverty and degeneracy had ruled. They were just pure parasites. One had fundamentally cleared up this state of affairs in Poland. If the Jews there didn’t want to work, they were shot. If they couldn’t work, they had to perish. They had to be treated like tuberculosis bacilli, from which a healthy body could be infected. This was not cruel, if one remembered that even innocent natural creatures like hares and deer had to be killed so that no harm was caused. Why should one any more spare the beasts who wanted to bring us Bolshevism? Nations who did not rid themselves of Jews perished.198

But H’rthy would not budge. He would soon pay the price for his intransigence.

The small and predominantly agricultural Catholic state of Slovakia, set up as an autonomous state after the Munich agreement in 1938, had been led since March 1939, when it had become nominally independent, by the Catholic priest Jozef Tiso as President and the extreme nationalist law professor Vojtech Tuka as Minister-President. The radical wing of the nationalist movement, which Tuka led, had moved steadily closer to National Socialism, and was able to rely on a paramilitary force known as the Hlinka Guard, named after the priest Andrej Hlinka, who had long encouraged the growth of Slovakian nationalism. At a meeting with Hitler on 28 July 1940, Tiso, Tuka and Interior Minister Mach had been told to put in place legislation to deal with Slovakia’s small Jewish minority - 80,000 people, making up 3.3 per cent of the country’s total population. They agreed to the appointment of the German SS officer Dieter Wisliceny as their official adviser on Jewish questions, and soon after his arrival in the Slovakian capital Bratislava, the government began a comprehensive programme of expropriating the Jewish population, driving them out of economic life, removing their civil rights and drafting them into forced labour schemes. Slovakian Jews were forced to wear the Jewish star, just as it was being introduced in the Reich. Within just a few months, the country’s Jewish population had largely been reduced to a state of destitution. Responding early in 1942 to a request from the German government for 20,000 Slovakian workers for the German arms industry, the government offered 20,000 Jewish workers instead. The matter thus passed into the hands of Eichmann, who decided they could be used to build the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He also offered to take their families, or in other words, to ensure, in a manner that was to become customary, that the men who could work would be drafted into labour schemes on arrival at the camp, and anyone who could not work would be taken straight to the gas chamber. On 26 March 1942, 999 young Slovakian Jewish women were loaded with blows and curses on to cattle-trucks by the Hlinka Guard, assisted by local ethnic German units, and taken to Auschwitz. More men, women and children swiftly followed. Unusually, the Slovakian government paid 500 Reichsmarks to the German authorities for each ‘unproductive’ Jew to cover the costs of transportation and as compensation for being allowed to keep their property. Eichmann assured the Slovakians that none of the deportees would ever return. And indeed by the end of June 1942 some 52,000 Slovakian Jews, well over half the country’s entire Jewish population, had been deported, the vast majority to Auschwitz; even those spared to work on construction projects at Birkenau did not live very long.199

By this time, however, the deportations, undertaken, it must be remembered, on the initiative of the Slovakian government itself, not in response to any request issued by the Germans, were running into trouble. Distressing and violent scenes at the railway yards, as Jewish deportees were beaten up by the Hlinka Guard, were causing mounting protests from ordinary Slovakians, voiced in addition by some leading churchmen, such as Bishop Pavol Jantausch, who demanded that the Jews be treated humanely. The formal position of the Slovakian Catholic Church was somewhat more ambivalent, since it coupled a demand for the Jews’ civil rights to be respected with an indictment of their alleged responsibility for the death of Jesus on the Cross. The Vatican called in the Slovakian ambassador twice to inquire privately what was going on, an intervention that, for all its moderation, caused Tiso, who after all was still a priest in holy orders, to have second thoughts about the programme. More important by far was the initiative of a group of still-wealthy Slovakian Jewish community leaders, who systematically bribed key Slovakian officials to hand out exemption certificates. By 26 June 1942 the German ambassador in Bratislava was complaining that 35,000 of these had been issued, as a result of which there were virtually no more Jews left to be deported. At the German Foreign Office, Ernst von Weizs̈cker responded by telling the ambassador to remind Tiso that ‘Slovakia’s co-operation in the Jewish question up to now has been greatly appreciated’ and that the halting of the deportations would thus cause some surprise. Nevertheless, apart from a brief and temporary resumption in September 1942, the Slovakian deportations were now brought to an end. In April 1943, when Tuka threatened to resume them, he was forced to backtrack by public protests, especially from the Church, which by this time had been convinced of the fate that awaited the deportees. Pressure from the Germans, including a direct confrontation between Hitler and Tiso on 22 April 1943, remained without effect.200 However, in 1944 the Slovakian resistance movement, which had been growing in strength and determination, made a disastrous attempt to overthrow Tiso, and was brutally suppressed by the Hlinka Guard aided by German troops. At this point, Tiso ordered the deportation of the country’s remaining Jews, some of whom were sent to Sachsenhausen and Theresienstadt, but most to Auschwitz.201


All over occupied Europe, resistance movements were beginning to gain headway by 1943, and in some parts well before that. In France, the labour draft led to the formation of the Maquis, resistance groups so named because they originally emerged in the eponymous brushwood of Corsica. Resisters were sometimes advised, trained and supplied by British agents of the Special Operations Executive. They undermined support for the German occupiers by distributing propaganda leaflets and spreading rumours, encouraging various forms of non-cooperation all the way up to strikes. They attacked individual German soldiers or significant local collaborators, including the police, and increasingly engaged in acts of sabotage and subversion. Early in 1944, Joseph Darnand, head of the Vichy militia, replaced Ren’ Bousquet as Chief of police, while Philippe Henriot, for many years a well-known right-wing extremist, took over the management of the regime’s propaganda. Henriot began pumping out virulently antisemitic literature, branding the rapidly growing French resistance as a Jewish conspiracy against France. At the same time, Darnand’s police tortured and murdered numerous prominent Jews and resistance fighters. The resistance responded in June 1944 by assassinating Henriot.202German military authorities in France operated a policy of reprisal, arresting and shooting ‘hostages’. In early June 1944 the military ordered an escalation of reprisals, which the Second SS Tank Division took to mean implementing the kind of policy that had long been standard in the east. On 10 June 1944 its troops entered the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, shot all the male inhabitants, and herded the women and children into the church, which they set alight, burning them all alive. Altogether 642 villagers perished in the massacre. Supposedly a reprisal for recently committed, violent attacks on German troops, it took place in a community which in fact was completely unconnected with the resistance. Its only effect was to send a wave of revulsion through France and alienate people still further from the German occupation.203

As the resistance spread, it worked in ever closer co-operation with regular Allied forces. At the same time, however, resistance movements almost everywhere were deeply divided amongst themselves. Stalin’s injunction to Communists to form partisan groups in July 1941 galvanized them into action, but at the same time rival, nationalist and often right-wing partisan and resistance movements emerged that often owed their allegiance to governments in exile in London. And Nazi antisemitism, sometimes echoed by nationalist resisters, prompted Jews in some places to form their own partisan units as well. The scene was set for a complex struggle in which, for many partisans, the Germans were far from being the only enemy.204 Perhaps the most serious divisions between resistance movements occurred in South-east Europe. In Greece, the Communist resistance launched successful attacks on German communication lines and had effectively taken over much of the mountainous and inaccessible interior by the middle of 1944. In August 1943, serious fighting broke out between its forces and its smaller right-wing rival, led by the ambitious, aptly named Napoleon Zervas, backed by the British as a counterweight to the Communists. The conflict was eventually to descend into a full-blown civil war. A rather similar situation emerged in the former Yugoslavia, where the Yugoslav Communist partisans under Tito won the backing of the British because they were more active than the Serb nationalist Chetniks. By 1943 Tito’s forces numbered some 20,000 men. As in Greece, the Communist partisans managed in the teeth of ferocious reprisals from the German occupying forces to take over immense tracts of the inhospitable and remote interior of the country. Yet even more than in Greece, the two resistance movements spent as much time fighting each other as they did the Germans. Indeed, Tito even negotiated with the Germans, offering his services in crushing the Chetniks if the German occupying forces agreed to suspend their anti-partisan campaigns, which they did for a time until Hitler personally vetoed the deal.205

Behind the Eastern Front, German rule began to disintegrate within a year of the invasion of the Soviet Union. Already by the spring of 1942 the security situation in some parts of Poland was out of control. In his diary, the hospital director Zygmunt Klukowski recorded one robbery after another; partisans, he noted, were everywhere, taking food and killing people working for the German administration. ‘It is nearly impossible to find out who they are,’ he wrote, ‘Polish, Russian, even German deserters or plain bandits.’ The police had given up trying to intervene.206 Many partisan groups were well armed and organized and some Polish officers were forming regular units of the Home Army. Villagers thrown out of their homes to make way for ethnic Germans swelled their ranks, thirsting for revenge. Often they went back to their villages to burn down their own homes before the Germans could occupy them.207 The Home Army liaised with the Polish government in exile in London, whose advice to be patient it seldom heeded. From January 1943 onwards, Klukowski devoted an increasing number of his diary entries to describing its acts of military resistance and sabotage. Already some local railway lines were made impassable by constant explosions and machine-gun attacks. German settler villages were attacked, the livestock was expropriated and anyone who protested was beaten up. Local partisan leaders became folk heroes; Klukowski met one of them and agreed to provide medical supplies for the movement.208 After this, his contacts with the Home Army became more frequent. Using the code name ‘Podwinski’, he provided its fighters with money, wrote down reports on events in his area and acted as a postbox for partisan units. He also treated wounded partisans, ignoring the German requirement that he report any cases of gunshot wounds to the police. He remained characteristically cautious: when commanders of partisan units visited him, he made them undress ‘so that in the event of German intrusion it would appear to be a normal physical examination’.209

Rival partisan groups, notably those organized by the Russians, were now active too. Some of them were several hundred strong.210 Partisan activity led to radical reprisals from the German occupying forces, who took hostages from the local population and threatened publicly to kill ten or twenty of them for every German shot by the resistance, a threat they carried out repeatedly, adding to the general atmosphere of terror and apprehension in the local population.211 The German and Polish auxiliary police were increasingly unable to mount effective operations against either the resistance movement or the rising tide of violence, robbery and disorder. The brutality of German rule in Eastern Europe from the very beginning had completely alienated the majority of the population.212 The argument, supported by Alfred Rosenberg among others, that this was the main reason for the spread of partisan resistance, cut no ice either with Himmler or with the army hierarchy. Partisan activity further fuelled the antisemitism of civilian administrators as well. One official in Belarus wrote in October 1942 that Jews had in his view a ‘very high participation in the success of the whole campaign of sabotage and destruction . . . One operation carried out on a single day . . . revealed 80 armed Jews amongst the 223 bandits who were killed. I am happy,’ he added, ‘to see that the 25,000 Jews who were originally in the territory have shrunk to 500.’213 Some 345,000 people, making roughly 5 per cent of the population of Belarus, died in the partisan war. It has been estimated that over the whole period of the German occupation, about 283,000 people in Belarus took part in partisan groups of one kind or another.214 Similar loss of life was caused by German military reprisals in other parts of Eastern Europe.

Jewish partisan groups, consisting of men and women who had taken to the deep forests of eastern Europe in flight from the machine-guns of the SS Task Forces, also began to emerge early in 1942.215 Many individual Jews escaped to the forest on their own, but failed to link up with the partisans. Often robbers stole their clothes, and many starved. So badly did they fare that, as Zygmunt Klukowski noted, ‘it is a common occurrence that Jews come on their own to the gendarme post and ask to be shot.’216 Villagers, he reported, were often hostile to these partisans. ‘There are many people who see the Jews not as human beings but as animals that must be destroyed.’217 Nevertheless, Jewish involvement in the partisan movement was widespread. The first Jewish resistance group in Eastern Europe was started by the twenty-three-year-old intellectual Abba Kovner in Vilna on 31 December 1941. At a meeting of 150 young people disguised as a New Year’s Eve party, Kovner read out a manifesto, in which, basing his reasoning on the mass shootings and killings that had been in progress since the previous summer, he declared: ‘Hitler plans to annihilate all the Jews of Europe . . . We don’t want to allow ourselves to be led like sheep to the slaughtering-block.’218 By early 1942, another group had been set up by the four Bielski brothers, villagers in Belarus whose parents had been killed by the Germans in December 1941. Based in a secret camp deep in the endless woods of the region, the brothers set up an elaborate system of procuring weapons and were joined by other Jews; their number reached 1,500 by the end of the war. Many more Jews joined local Communist-led partisan units as individuals.219

The New Order in Europe was beginning to crumble. Its early ambition of a broad sphere of economic and political co-operation had vanished in the face of the grim realities of war. German rule everywhere had grown harsher. Executions and mass shootings, the fruits of a belief that terror was the only way to combat resistance, had replaced informal mechanisms of co-operation and collaboration. Regimes friendly to the Third Reich, from Vichy to Hungary, were distancing themselves or losing their autonomy and falling into the same pattern of repression and resistance that was undermining German control in directly occupied countries. The insatiable demands of the German war economy for labour and materials, and the ruthless exploitation of subject economies, were driving more and more young men and women into resistance movements whose spreading campaigns of non-cooperation, disruption, sabotage and assassination were calling forth ever harsher reprisals, engendering in turn a further alienation of subject peoples and a further escalation of resistance. Yet this cycle of violence was also a reflection of the generally deteriorating position of Germany in the war itself, above all from early 1943 onwards. The early belief across Europe that there was no alternative to German domination was beginning to disappear. At the heart of the new preparedness of Europeans to resist was the perception that Hitler might, after all, lose the war. The turning-point was provided by a single battle that more than any other showed that the German armed forces could be defeated: Stalingrad.

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