Resistance: The Underground War in Europe, 1939–45 by Halik Kochanski

In the spring of 1942 SAS and SBS parties landed in Crete to attack airfields from which supplies were being flown to Rommel’s Afrika Korps: 25 aircraft were duly destroyed. The Germans knew that Allied soldiers had executed the operation because they captured four. They shot 50 Cretan hostages anyway.

The consequent question extends to all behind-the-lines resistance against an enemy as merciless as the Nazis: was the game worth playing on such terms? Most people in occupied countries concluded that it was not, at least until 1944, when Allied victory was obviously imminent. They collaborated with the Germans, in many cases influenced by a loathing for the communists who were playing a prominent part in the underground war after Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941.

The author writes of the near-collapse of resistance that took place across much of Europe in 1943. Action by the occupiers “effectively brought it to its knees as key leaders were arrested. The German successes came about through a combination of skill, luck and treachery.” The only country in which German repression failed was the Soviet Union, where, at a horrific cost in civilian lives, partisan warfare achieved its most significant strategic success, notably by attacking rail links.

This is the most comprehensive and best account of resistance I have read. It addresses the story with scholarly objectivity and an absolute lack of sentimentality. So much romantic twaddle is still published, especially about Britain’s Special Operations Executive and particularly about its female agents, that it is marvelous to read a study of such breadth and depth, which reaches balanced judgments.

It is not iconoclastic — indeed, pays effusive tribute to the courage of those who resisted. It merely seeks to address sometimes unpalatable realities.

So much romantic twaddle is still published, especially about Britain’s Special Operations Executive … that it is marvelous to read a study of such breadth and depth.

For instance: two British officers who served with Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia, Bill Deakin and Fitzroy Maclean, eulogized communist heroics — the latter achieved celebrity in postwar Britain. Halik Kochanski, already author of a widely praised history of wartime Poland, argues that the two officers, who had Churchill’s ear because Deakin was his prewar researcher and Maclean an MP, were monumentally naive. What they claimed was a Titoist onslaught on the Germans was mostly a Yugoslav civil war, waged by Croats against General Draza Mihailovic and his Serbs.

Yet the SOE men secured huge arms drops to the communists, and they cut off aid to Mihailovic, who was later shot by Tito. Kochanski writes, devastatingly: “Maclean never saw any action by the Partisans … Deakin had not traveled widely around the country but had instead received all his information from Tito’s confidant, who closely controlled whom Deakin met and what he learned.” She castigates “the sheer dishonesty with which the British government and authorities in Cairo dealt with Mihailovic”.

The point here, which the author extends to other regions, is that young British officers failed to perceive that many local people hated each other more than they did the Axis. Meanwhile the SOE’s headquarters sometimes displayed shameful incompetence. The story is well known of the Abwehr’s Englandspiel, two years during which it duped the SOE into parachuting 54 agents and resisters into Holland, directly into German hands. London ignored repeated warnings. Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, head of the SOE’s French section, incurred severe strictures. The field agent Pearl Witherington said harshly: “Not one agent liked Buckmaster. Not one.”

Young British officers failed to perceive that many local people hated each other more than they did the Axis.

The book notes that of the great 1944-45 partisan uprisings — in Warsaw, Slovakia and Paris — only the last succeeded, because the German front in France had collapsed, and Eisenhower sent the Free French armored division to secure the city. In eastern Europe, by contrast, it suited Stalin politically to allow the partisans to die in their thousands. No guerrilla force could defeat an army equipped with heavy weapons, and it was wicked to incite brave people to try.

The mistake made by many authors writing about the resistance is to focus on what agents and partisans did, disdaining the critical issue of what they achieved. The 1944 SOE kidnapping of a German general on Crete was a terrific feat of derring-do, but did it mean much when his own officers allegedly toasted the kidnappers for removing the old fusspot?

The author deplores the cynicism with which the British incited a campaign of rail sabotage in Greece and Yugoslavia in the name of blocking supplies to Rommel, when they knew he was getting most of his fuel and munitions through Italy. London’s real aims were, first, to feed German delusions that an Allied invasion of the Balkans might be looming and, second, to help to convince Stalin that the British had not given up on the region.

The book also offers an extensive narrative about the role of Jews. It dismisses the myth that all succumbed passively to the gas chamber, highlighting the extraordinary 1943 Polish ghetto uprisings. One participant wrote of the desperation with which the resisters fought, daunting the Germans: “They had their homes, their families. The Jews had nothing.”

Kochanski acknowledges that the moral value to postwar societies, especially France, of the memory of a resistance exceeded its contemporary strategic contribution. Conflicts between vast industrial states are determined by the big battalions. We may continue to be awed by the courage of individuals, while forswearing illusions about how much they hurt Hitler. A French resister wrote: “Never have so many consciously run so many risks for such a small thing: a desire to bear witness. Perhaps it is absurd, but it was by such absurdities that we restored our dignity.”

Sir Max Hastings is the author of several works of history, a columnist for The Times of London, and a former editor for The Telegraph