Fighters across Frontiers: Transnational Resistance in Europe, 1936-1948


Prof. Robert Gildea, University of Oxford

‘But there’s no such thing as transnational resistance!’ exclaimed one of our colleagues at the first meeting of the research team in Belgrade, ‘the Slovak national rising was a national rising!’ The point was well taken. After all, the team was drawn from many different nationalities: French, Dutch, Swiss, British, Spanish, Czech, Serb, Romanian, Israeli. Each could claim to have had its own national resistance against Nazism and Fascism. Fortunately, over three days, there was time to debate the concept that underpinned the project, and to ensure that all fifteen members of the team were happy with it.

The idea that resistance to Nazism and Fascism and in Second World War Europe was as much transnational as national came to me while I was researching Fighters in the Shadows. A New History of the French Resistance (Faber&Faber, 2015). In that resistance I found Spanish republicans, Italian antifascists, German anti-Nazis, Polish Jews and a Ukrainain-Jewish convert to Catholicism. General de Gaulle, who had proclaimed the resistance to be French and all French people, apart from ‘a handful of wretches’ to have been good patriots, knew that this was not in fact the case.  He had given a massive dressing-down as unwanted intruders to Spanish republicans marching in a liberation parade in Toulouse in September 1944. ‘It may be more accurate’, I concluded, ‘to talk less about the French Resistance than about resistance in France’.

The next step for a new research project would be to wider the lens to take in the whole of Europe, from Spain to the Soviet Union and from the Baltic to Greece. This was a Europe in which the state system had been shattered by invasion, occupation and civil war, in which political dissidents and Jewish minorities were forced to flee persecution, and in which movements such as communism were international before they were national. The aim, however, would be to trace not broad movements but the trajectories of individuals who moved from one part of Europe to another – economic migrants, smugglers, political exiles, refugees – the encounters they had with others who joined with them as resisters and rescuers, and then – the most difficult thing, to try to ascertain – whether and how far the thinking, practices and identities of these resisters were transformed by their experiences.

The scale and ambition of this project meant that it could never be achieved by one scholar, unless they were fluent in a dozen languages and conversant with a dozen national archives. It was going to be a collective project, an international project, indeed a transnational project. A team of scholars was assembled to track individuals who fascinated them, to confer with colleagues who had found traces of them in other archives, and to come together for three annual workshops to discuss their findings. Twice we failed to secure European Research Council funding, but then obtained one of the last of the Leverhulme International Network grants (since then, unbelievably, discontinued). That brought together nine researchers from seven research centres and two visiting scholars from Israel. We were then helped out by the Gerry Holdsworth Special Forces Trust, which enabled us to bring in one senior scholar, eleven early career scholars and one postdoc. A team, in all, of twenty-four researchers from eleven European countries, Israel and the USA.

How can you write a book with twenty-four contributors, each coming from different historical and historiographical traditions and manifesting different levels of enthusiasm for and scepticism about the project?  Conceptual and methodological questions seemed to be resolved, and were then reopened. Conviviality played a large part in bringing people together. The plan, from the start, was to write a themed book, with each chapter having a lead author and a number of contributors who would provide material on the people and networks they knew, from the archives that were their hunting grounds. The second workshop, in Dublin, sketched out those themes. They included the trajectories of six individuals from as far apart as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Latvia, Italy, Romania and Palestine to join the International Brigades in Spain; the subsequent resistance careers of former International Brigaders and Spanish republicans who were driven out of Spain in 1939 and finished up in France, North Africa, Poland and the Soviet Union; the role of internment camps, prisons and POW camps in forging transnational resisters; the transition of some resisters from regular armies to irregular combat groups; transnational escape lines and the many dimensions of Jewish resistance and rescue; the role of agents of hybrid nationality behind enemy lines; transnational guerrillas, reinforced by deserters from the Italian army and Wehrmacht in the ‘shatter zones’ of the Balkans and the Eastern Front; the transnational facets of the liberation of Warsaw, Prague and Slovakia (yes, that too had transnational stories of escaped forced labourers and POWs ) and the postwar changing lives and memories of transnational resisters and transnational resistance.

The first workshop was held before the 2016 referendum and the book is published as the UK finally leaves the EU. But it is an enthusiastically European book. Not in a top-down, Brussels-centric way, but a bottom-up study of the adventures of extraordinary ordinary men and women who criss-crossed Europe to fight Nazism and Fascism. At the time, few were thanked for it. They were communists, Jews, foreigners, many of them all three. Arthur Koestler, who was one of them, called them ‘the scum of the earth’.  Their stories and their memories were overlain by national resistance myths, by Cold War exclusions and by a Holocaust history that privileged Jewish victims over Jewish fighters. It has been a challenge and a pleasure as a transnational group to recover their stories and to bring them to light.


Fighters across frontiers: Transnational resistance in Europe, 1936–48 (2020) is published by Manchester University Press


About the Author: Robert Gildea is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at the University of Oxford. Among his publications are Marianne in chains; in search of the German Occupation (Macmillan 2002), which won the Wolfson History Prize, and Fighters in the Shadows. A New History of the French Resistance (Faber & Faber, 2015). He is currently working on an oral history of the 1984-5 Miners Strike.

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