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Friday, 25 October 2013

To what extent was World War Two a people’s war?

When you look at World War Two across the globe, a pattern emerges. The pattern shows that in each country there was a people’s war ongoing. Germany and France both had aspects of this in them which will be discussed in this essay. Using two examples I will discuss to what extent World War II was a people’s war. 

The conventional view of what World War Two was about was that it was a war to fight Fascism, to stop the persecution of the Jews and to stop world domination. These are conventional Imperialist motives. This view does not highlight that during the War the people became organised resistance fighters. Henri Michaels sums up European resistance, he states, “Most of all he never separates his actions as a resistance fighter from his actions of a citizen...the resistance was an ideological struggle for the dignity of man.” This definition gives the clearest motivations for a people’s war. During the war people fought for dignity and freedom against Fascist dictatorship, globally.

There were attempts by resistance to fight the people’s war in Germany throughout World War Two. Communists showed defiance as they warned that they were being “trained as cannon fodder and … they must bring the Fascist to ruin” . There were also strikes and sabotage on military production lines and resistance fighters who helped Jews find escape passages out of Germany. The White Rose resistance (students) maintained information circulation on Hitler’s methods. Some of Hitler’s inner circle saw his ambitions expand and it became apparent that a war on two fronts was a threat. They were being bombed daily, losing thousands of lives. The Conservative resistance, including Gordeler, wanted to keep the spoils of war and maintain a healthy Germany but had the problem of unconditional surrender so ‘Operation Valkyrie’ was carried out by them in July 1944 but failed to assassinate Hitler. Gordeler and the resistance both failed as they were not supported by any other resistance factions or Imperialism against the Axis. Any resistance formed was never able to unite with others as the factions were separated by class, culture and race. However small the efforts, these are still aspects of the people’s war. 

Within Germany all resistance was quashed before they could gain momentum, even after the war the Antifascists groups were stopped abruptly. Germany was split between Russia, France, Britain and the US. Antifa’s emerged as the Third Reich was dissolved; 120 committees formed with 150,000 members across Germany in only two weeks. Their aim was to forestall Hitlers ‘Nero Order’ (the self destruction of Germany’s infrastructure) . Others helped to re-house homeless, distribute food and distribute Antifa leaflets and posters requesting soldiers to desert. Many broke away from class and race difference to establish unity. The US and USSR were however treating Germany as “the defeated enemy state”. It took only two weeks for Imperialism to abolish them completely. Stalin did this by use of violent, immoral brutal force. The allies followed suit using military force but did not reprimand any “Stalin like” force used. Allied Imperialism had gained too much to lose it now, if the Antifa’s unified there could be an uprising, giving Stalin the upper hand in Germany, neither of the Allies wanted this. This final resistance movement in Germany was demolished and the people’s war was lost utterly and completely.

It took only 6 weeks for the Germans to occupy France. France's vaunted Maginot Line failed to hold back the Nazi onslaught and the German Blitzkrieg poured into France. Britain offered support to France in the form of a Franco-British union, Frances response was announced by their Cabinet stating “Better be a Nazi province at least we know what that means” . On the 22 June 1940 they signed an Armistice giving the Germans full authority over the North and the Vichy Government authority in the South. This was an Imperialist move to protect the country from the anarchy. Due to previous uprisings General Weygand thought if the Nazi’s left enough troops during the occupation, this would control the population . 

French resistance factions formed across the entire French Empire. Communists rose up, a mixed group of resistance from all classes, race and religions formed to fight against the Vichy government; they were named the Maquis in rural areas . A young French Brigadier, De Gaulle, who had escaped to London, announced the existence of “Free France” during a BBC broadcast. He attempted to gain support from other Imperialists such as the French Commissioner in Chief of North Africa, this support was initially limited but as Imperialism changed its aims, so too did the support De Gaulle received. His aim was to maintain a hold on the French Empire, but his message and his methods caused disinterest and conflict within each resistance faction as he tried to militarise them and administrate them, using his secret army. Some resistance factions were experienced in methods of Guerrilla Warfare which were already successful so they would not adhere to De Gaulle’s methods, such as the PCF led ‘Franc-Tireurs et partisans’ or FTP. Others chose to remain neutral.

A key victory for the resistance came when De Gaulle sent the order that General Eisenhower wanted maximum disruption of the Wehhrmacht from within France. The French resistance were ready and willing, interior forces rose from 140,000 to 400,000 between June and September. All resistance factions fought, thousands died in places such as Vercors but this was still a victory for the resistance as the boats finally landed on the beaches of Normandy. This is a clear picture of the success of the people’s war in France but the resistance factions were still segregated from one another at this time. 

Operation Torch, where top Vichy officials were arrested, changed the way the resistance worked together. Admiral Darlan was one of the arrested and the anointed Heir of Petain. Darlan held the same values as other Vichyites such as Laval; who was later hanged. The resistance were stunned when the US officials handed the North African Government to him . Darlan did nothing about the anti-Semitic laws in Vichy France, and now De Gaulle’s’ men sat in concentration camps alongside Communist and Maquis resistance. This move united all French resistance factions. De Gaulle became the figure head, however his objectives were still entrenched in Imperialist motives, far from what the people fought for. 

De Gaulle planned on liberating Paris but was fearful of anarchy if the people succeeded without his presence, mass strikes had already erupted. De Gaulle ordered they stand down until his arrival. His secret army waited dutifully but the Communists resistance along with some other factions such as the Maquis ignored this. Headed by Communist, Rol-Tanguy, (a veteran of the Spanish Civil War - The dress rehearsal for WWII in which they had no Imperialist Allied support and lost) 20,000 resistance fighters, started the uprising. They fought well for 8 days. On the 9th day they lost 99 fighters to 5 Nazi’s. The resistance re-grouped immediately and on the tenth day more resistance fighters emerged to fight. The Nazi’s were defeated and Paris liberated, this was a huge success for the resistance. The extent to which World War Two was a people’s war in France is a large one which was supported by Allied Imperialism and impacted directly on the Imperialist war itself. 

When you look at global resistance motives for the people’s war they are identical. All fought against Right-wing Nationalists/Fascists for freedom. Germany’s people fought alone from within the Axis powers, France fought with support of Allied Imperialism. Resistance motives remained the same throughout the war, only their approach, support and results changed. 

WWII Germany was for the most part an Imperialistic war. There was a small people’s war ongoing but there was no support from Allied Imperialism and they failed, as did Spain which is mentioned briefly. France shows that this was a people’s war on a larger scale; they fought throughout the globe and within France. They had the support of Allied Imperialism against the Axis. Their resistance won many battles and their people’s war. 

From the evidenced countries the conclusion drawn is that the extent of World War Two being a people’s war was balanced. It was as much a war about Imperialism as it was a people’s war, a people’s war which could not have succeeded without Imperialism against the Axis.


H, Micheals, The Shadow war – Resistance in Europe, 1972, p.12.

Gluckstein, D, 2012. A Peoples History of the Second World War - Resistance versus Empire. 1st ed. London: Pluto Press.

Eye Witness to History - history through the eyes of those who lived it. [ONLINE] Available at:

Maquis (World War II) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia. [ONLINE] Available at:

I have recently published An Academic View of World War Two on and it included four full Essays about World War two.  These are a great help when working on Year one Essays for university.