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Historical Context

In this section you will find basic information about the rise of  fascism in Europe during the 1930s, the occupation of Europe by Nazi Germany and its Axis partners during World War II, and the development of resistance against Nazism, fascism, occupation and collaboration in Europe in general, and more specifically in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, France and Germany, as well as about the remembrance of this resistance after 1945.

The development of fascism and Nazism in Europe

[Fig. 1.1.] Vojo Dimitrijević, “Fascism reigns”, 1939. . The painter Vojo Dimitrijević (1910-1980), one of the most important artists of modern Bosnia and Herzegovina, experienced the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s while he lived in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Paris. In 1939, with other leftist artists, he founded in Sarajevo the antifascist Collegium Artisticum movement. (History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Arts collection)

Nazism constituted the most violent form of fascist nationalism, which progressed in different parts in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Exploiting economic anxieties of people, fascist movements designed Jews, immigrants, leftists and other groups as scapegoats for all existing problems. The National Socialist Party led by Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933 in Germany where it abolished all democratic rights and violently suppressed opposing voices. Concluding an alliance with fascist Italy led by Benito Mussolini, Nazi Germany gained more and more influence in Europe. The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 was another milestone in the progress of fascism: With the support of Hitler and Mussolini, nationalists under Franco attacked  and eventually defeated the Spanish Republic. Fearing a new European war, France and the United Kingdom tried to appease the fascist powers instead to oppose them.

The Occupation of Europe during World War II

[Fig. 1.2.]  Europe at the height of Axis domination, 1942.  (Goran tek-en, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Seeking to establish its domination over entire Europe, Nazi Germany attacked and occupied Poland in 1939, and then Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and France in 1940. The plan to invade Great Britain in summer 1940 failed ; led by Winston Churchill, the UK remained at this moment the only unoccupied country in Europe opposing Nazi Germany. In Spring 1941 followed attacks on Yugoslavia and Greece, and in June 1941 on the Soviet Union. End of 1941, Nazi Germany and its allies controlled most parts of Europe.

In several occupied countries, Nazi Germany established collaboration regimes, for example the Vichy-regime in France, the “Independent State of Croatia” led by Ante Pavelić, or the one in Norway, led by Vidkun Quisling.   His name quickly became internationally known as a synonym for collaborators and traitors.

Occupiers and collaboration regimes persecuted those considered inferior or «undesirable» as well as real or supposed opponents. Repression was even more brutal in the East: Nazi ideology considered Slavic people as an inferior race and large parts of this territory as future « Lebensraum» for German people. Camps were established all over Europe where millions of people were imprisoned, mistreated, and murdered. In 1941 began the systematic extermination of the Jews, as well as Roma and Sinti, from all over Europe. Occupation also meant economical exploitation, for example by using millions of forced laborers from occupied countries to support the German war effort.

How to react? Attitudes towards Nazism and occupation

[Fig. 1.3.:]  “For Denmark’s Freedom – Crush Nazism”, poster of the Danish resistance movement during World War 2 . (Museum of Danish Resistance 1940-1945)

War and occupation forced everyone to situate towards the new situation. Many tried to accommodate, trying to live on with their life as best as they could, some openly supported and collaborated directly with the occupier, and some went into resistance. Often, the borders between accommodation, collaboration and resistance were fluid: persons could first be passive and then choose to resist, or they could first collaborate and then resist or vice-versa, or they could sometimes do both at the same time.

Resistance activities developed in all countries of Europe, and they mostly started slowly and with very few people. There was a broad range of activities, from non-violent to armed forms of resistance. Some led a seemingly normal life and acted secretly, others went underground, others went into exile and tried to organize and support resistance from outside.

Resistance activities were led by women and men, young and older, locals and foreigners, from all professions, and from all religions: catholic, protestant, orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, atheists, and from all political orientations: communists, socialist, social-democrats, conservative, right-wing, apolitical. Some acted because they did not support foreign occupation, others because they rejected fascist ideology, some because they were personally threatened, and some for all these reasons simultaneously.

By time passing, resistance groups got more structured and attracted more people. For communists in all countries, the decisive moment to enter into resistance was the attack of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The growth of resistance movements was influenced by the increasing military successes against Nazi Germany, from 1942/3 on,  of the Soviet Union, the USA and the United Kingdom. The British government and the other Allies also supported resistance movements from different occupied countries, even if the relations were often complicated.

Resisting was a choice connected with many dangers and risks, since people resisting or helping resistants were hunted by the occupiers and their collaborators, and those caught were often tortured, deported to camps or executed. The occupiers and their collaborators used brutal repression against resistance activities, including retaliation against the civilian population after attacks on German soldiers.

Occupation and resistance in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia: Basic information

[Illustration 1.4.:] Axis occupation and partition of Yugoslavia in World War 2 (as of 1941). The grey line within the Independent State of Croatia represents the demarcation line between the German occupation zone (on the northern side) and the Italian zone. (Source: wikimedia commons, public domain)

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was created in 1918 by the unification of Serbia, Montenegro and parts of the collapsed Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which included Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was originally called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and was ruled by the Serbian Karađorđević dynasty as a centrally organised state. This created many conflicts, especially with Croatian political parties who sought federal organisation of the state.


Yugoslavia included many religions and ethnicities, Bosnia and Herzegovina being the most diverse territory, with a population of 2,2 million, mainly made up of Orthodox Serbs, Muslims, Catholic Croats, as well as Jews and other communities. In Croatia lived around 3,8 million people, in majority Croats as well as around 17 % Serbs.


In April 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was attacked by Nazi Germany and its allies – Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. The Royal Yugoslav Army was defeated in less than two weeks. The government and young King Peter fled the country, and remained in exile, in London and Cairo, for the duration of the war.


Yugoslavia was occupied and dismembered; the largest part became the “Independent State of Croatia” (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska – NDH), which included most parts of Croatia as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina. Germany militarily occupied one half of the territory and Italy the other until Italy’s capitulation in 1943, whereupon German troops occupied the entire territory.


The NDH was a German-Italian protectorate governed by the fascist Ustasha movement with their leader, Ante Pavelić, as head of state. The Ustasha’s aim was to create a homogeneous Croat state that included Muslims, who they considered Croats of Islamic faith. Immediately after the establishment of the NDH a campaign of mass violence against Serbs, Jews and Roma began and  political opponents were persecuted.


This policy of terror led to strong counter-reactions, and soon a complex war developed, not only between the occupiers and the occupied, but also between local forces, on a large scale between collaboration and resistance. The main protagonists were the Ustasha and the Home Guard, both NDH forces, the communist-led Partisans, the Serb royalist Chetniks, and Muslim militia. The borders between different local forces were often not clearly defined, with groups infiltrating each other or people switching sides. Different sides were often taken within  the same family, with dramatic consequences.


During the four years of the war, the Yougoslav communist-led Partisans became the most massive antifascist resistance movement within occupied Europe, and the NDH, especially Bosnia and Herzegovina, became the epicentrum of its military and political struggle.  Initial guerilla units were increasingly transformed into a regular army, with 800.000 soldiers in 1945; the Partisan movement attracted many non-communists, as well as members from all ethnic and religious groups, and many women joined the Partisan movement, also in combat units. Their main opponents were the German and Italian occupiers, the Ustasha, as well as the Chetniks: The latter had started the war as anti-occupation force and partially cooperated with the Partisans, but increasingly moved into collaboration with the occupation and NDH forces, soon considering the Partisans as their main enemy.


While the Nazi-occupied countries in Europe were mainly liberated in 1944 / 45 from outside, by the troops of the Allies led by the United Kingdom, the USA and the Soviet Union,  main parts of Yugoslavia were liberated from within by the Partisan movement. The foundations for a new Yugoslav state had already been laid by the Partisan movement during the war, and after the military victory the monarchy was officially abolished and the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was created, under the leadership of the Communist Party, composed of six Republics, among them Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Occupation and resistance in France: Basic information

[Illustration 1.5.:] Occupation zones in France during World War 2. (Source: wikimedia commons © Eric Gabe, CC BY-SA 4.0)

France was attacked by Nazi Germany one year before Yugoslavia, in May 1940, also suffered a crushing defeat within a few weeks and then signed an armistice dictated by Germany in June. Similar to Yugoslavia, the French territory was also treated in different ways: In the east of France, Alsace and parts of Lorraine were annexed, and the northern half of France and the Atlantic coast down to the Spanish border was occupied by the German military. This was initially not the case for the southern half, the so-called Free Zone, until November 1942 when German troops also occupied this part, in response to the Allied landings in North Africa. Incidentally, there was also an Italian occupation zone in southeastern France, which Germany took over after the Italian capitulation in autumn 1943.


Similar to the NDH, a new regime was also established in France, in summer 1940: the so-called État français, which abolished the Republic, with its seat in Vichy in central France. Vichy France was, like the NDH, a vassal state of Germany, which increasingly engaged in open collaboration, but there were also two important differences. Firstly, unlike Ante Pavelić in the NDH, Philippe Pétain as head of the new state was incredibly popular. As victor of the battle of Verdun 1916 against the German army he was a legend of the First World War, and many French people thought initially that he would defend their interests against Germany. And secondly, although there were increasingly influential fascist groups in the Vichy regime, for example the Milice, which was founded in 1943 to crush the resistance, Vichy was more of a national-conservative, authoritarian state. The regime also did not immediately use open terror against parts of its own population and built up its antisemitic measures gradually, until the open persecution of Jews in 1942.


Resistance activities in France began slowly and initially on separate paths. There were small groups which emerged on the one hand in the German occupied zone, and on the other hand in the so-called “free zone” controlled by the Vichy-regime, but with little contact between each other. Additionally, there was the exile resistance led by Charles de Gaulle, who had proclaimed “Free France” from London in June 1940. In 1941/42, groups became more structured, and the Free French Forces led by de Gaulle began to get involved in combat activities in Africa, with the support of the UK and   the USA. The fragmentation in multiple movements was one the main weaknesses of the French resistance, but in 1943, after multiple efforts,  most resistance groups agreed to accept de Gaulles leadership and constituted the National Council of the Resistance (Conseil National de la Résistance; CNR) als central coordination instance among them.


Ímportant steps for the development of the resistance in France were also the attack of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany  in June 1941- after this, the powerful French Communist Party became one of the most active parts in the French resistance -, and  in February 1943 the official launch of the Compulsory Work Service by the Vichy-regime which aimed to send young men to work in factories in Germany. Many young men went into hiding and parts of them joined resistance groups in order to avoid the forced departure to Germany.


With the landing of the Allied in Normandy in June 1944 began the  liberation of France. The Free French Forces led by general de Gaulle participated in the military operations and were the first to enter liberated Paris in August 1944. Also the internal resistance movements participated actively in the liberation process. However, without doubt the liberation of France would not have been possible without the British and American troops.


In August 1944, the National Council of Resistance becomes the Provisional Government of the French Republic, led by Charles de Gaulle. It declares the laws of the Vichy regime null and void, re-establishes republican legislation within the French metropolitan territory and initiates various political and social reforms.

The Nazi-regime and resistance in Germany: Basic information

[Ill. 1.6.]: Mass gathering in Hamburg during a visit of Adolf Hitler, 13 June 1936. Among all the people who give the Nazi salute, one man remains with his arms crossed. The person has later not been identified for certain, his namke might be August Landesser or Gustav Wegert. (Source:, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, )

The context in Germany was very different compared to Yugoslavia and France. Germany was not a country attacked and occupied by a foreign state, but it was the country in which the Nazi Party had taken power in 1933 and then invaded and occupied large parts of Europe during the Second World War. The occupation policy was carried out everywhere by force, generally with even more violence in Eastern Europe than in the West. In the invaded and occupied countries, Nazi Germany often set up collaborator regimes, such as the Independent State of Croatia or the Vichy regime, in order to preserve its own forces.


As far as the situation within Germany was concerned, Hitler was legally appointed Reich Chancellor on 31 January 1933, and many thought that he would not remain in power for long. However, the Nazi leaders used the Reichstag fire in February 1933 to drastically restrict civil rights and arrest political opponents en masse, and in this climate of terror, the majority of parliament voted on 23 March to give full powers to the government in what was known as the Ermächtigungsgesetz, or enabling law. All communist members of the parliament had already been arrested at that time; only the social-democrat MPs who were present voted against the law.


Germany was transformed into a dictatorship that increasingly encompassed all levels of society and everyday life. Through propaganda and terror, economic policy measures, foreign policy successes and the first victories in the war, the Nazi regime also secured the support of the German population. The development of totalitarian power structures and the population’s attitude, which ranged between conformism, consent and active participation, also minimised the scope for resistance within the society.


In these conditions, resistance remained extremely fragmented and isolated in Germany between 1933 and 1945.  Despite strict persecution, it was mainly within the labour movement that developed clandestine resistance activities in the first years, such as the printing and distributing of anti-Nazi leaflets. Many opponents to the Nazis went into exile, where they tried to support opponents in Germany and to inform the population and authorities of their hosting countries of the dangerosity of Hitler and Nazi-Germany. During World War II, skepticism towards the regime grew in certain circles, especially after the first German military defeats, the increasingly difficult supply situation, and news of the brutal warfare in the East, including against civilians, and of the systematic murder of Jews. Within the army, some started to think how to stop Hitler,  which culminated in the plot to assassinate  him, to seize control of the government and to enter in peace negotiations with the Allies. The plot involved high ranking officers, and gathered  a network of several hundred people, including former politicians from conservative and social democrat parties. However, the assassination attempt against Hitler on 20 July 1944 failed, and many of those involved were arrested and executed. This was one of the rare attempts of violent resistance against the Nazi regime in Germany. In general, groups  or individuals in Germany were more active in the field of civil resistance, for example by trying to inform others of the realities of the Nazi regime, or trying to help Jews or other persecuted persons.





The memory of resistance in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, France and Germany

How was the history of resistance transmitted after 1945? Here, also, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, France and Germany represent different situations and developments, as well as similarities.


In France and in Yugoslavia, the reference to the own resistance became the dominating state narrative after 1945, until the situation changed radically in Yugoslavia in 1990s. With the rise of nationalism, the violent break-up of Yugoslavia and the establishment of new states, the heritage of the Partisans was violently rejected, or fell into oblivion, or was reinterpreted in nationalist perspective, stripping it from its multinational and communist meaning.  In the meantime,  in France, the reference to the own resistance remains an important part in the country’s historical self-definition, even if it has considerably evolved: in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, the topic of collaboration came more to the forefront in the and the glorifying narrative of the resistance was increasingly questioned.


Germany represents an interesting mix of both evolutions and also a particular case: on the one hand, in Eastern Germany, the reference to (communist) resistance became a fundamental pillar after 1945, which radically changed with the dissolution of the GDR and the German (re)unification in 1990. On the other hand, in Western Germany, resistance against Nazism was in the first decades after 1945 a contested and disputed topic before becoming more generally accepted and positively connoted.

[Illustration 1.7.] Plaque in the Place du Souvenir et de la Résistance in the Frnech town of Colombes. (Chabe01, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

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