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Europe on Trial

The Story of Collaboration,
Resistance, and Retribution
During World War II

István Deák

In memory of Dr. Juris Béla Stollár

and his then fiancée, Éva Deák Veress


Foreword by Norman M. Naimark



1From Brutality to International Conventions to Renewed Brutality: Foreign Occupations in European History

2Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland: The First German Conquests

3Defeat and Submission: Europe’s Honeymoon with Hitler, 1939–1941

4The Invasion of the Soviet Union and East European Collaboration

5Germany’s Many Allies: A Blessing or a Curse?

6The Beginnings of German Decline: The Growth and Many Dilemmas of the Resistance Movements

7Resistance and Civil War in Eastern, Southern, and Southeastern Europe

8Freedom Fighters or Terrorists? Case Studies of Resistance and Reprisal

9The End of the War, the Apparent Triumph of the Resistance Movements, and the First Retributions

10Purging Hitler’s Europe

11The Long Aftermath of Collaboration, Resistance, and Retribution


Suggestions for Further Study




The military battles and diplomatic wrangling of World War II in Europe reached a bittersweet conclusion for many Europeans: the defeat of Nazi Germany, to be sure, but also the advance of Soviet power on the continent. For many East Europeans, in particular, the Soviet postwar occupation remains a much more consequential part of their historical consciousness than the Nazi control of Europe that preceded it. For many West Europeans occupied by or allied with the Germans, the overwhelming image of Nazi evil conveniently blots out their own collaboration and connivance with German aims. Black-and-white evaluations of national virtue or immorality in World War II usually do not hold up under close scrutiny. True, Hitler and “the bad guys” lost; a new and much more civilized Europe eventually emerged from the rubble and ashes of the old. But along with the contests on the battlefield and the machinations of international politics, the process of victory contained within itself a whole series of unpredictable and ironic twists of fate. It is at this level of how the war was experienced by Europeans that István Deák excels and Europe on Trial is so important. This is not the war that most Europeans want to remember today, nor is it the war analyzed in grand military and diplomatic histories.

István Deák is Seth Low Professor Emeritus at Columbia University. He is the author of a number of prizewinning studies of the history of the late Habsburg monarchy.[1] But Deák has also exhibited an abiding interest in World War II as a test case of the societal and moral mettle of Europeans. He coedited and wrote a pioneering study of retributive justice in postwar Europe with Tony Judt and Jan Gross and authored a series of important review essays in the New York Review of Books and the New Republic that explored the most recent literature about such topics as the Holocaust, collaboration, and resistance.[2] Many of these articles were published in his 2001 Essays on Hitler’s Europe.[3] The culmination of this work and thinking is Europe on Trial. Deák’s final verdict on how well the Europeans withstood the moral and ethical challenges of the war is not that of a judge, who determines the guilt or innocence of the accused. Yet the feeling the reader has when putting down the book is that the case for the prosecution is stronger, while that for the defense, which understandably dominates the national consciousness of the individual peoples of Europe today, is considerably weaker. Even the Germans have begun to talk about being victims, as well as perpetrators.

Behind Deák’s work is a depth of moral passion that comes, perhaps, from his own youthful experiences in wartime Hungary, including a stint in a forced-labor battalion and being a witness to the siege of Budapest toward the end of war.[4] But that passion never gets in the way of his deep respect for the actual circumstances that dictated historical choices. Constantly, he asks the reader: What would you do if you were in the position of a poor Polish peasant, begged by Jews to hide them, or of an unemployed Norwegian youth, urged by the Quisling government to join the Waffen SS, or of a Serb resistance fighter, caught between the terror of the German occupation and hostile threats of the Communist partisans? What would you do as a government official in orderly Holland under Nazi rule? Would you have efficiently and dutifully supplied the Nazis with a list of Jews, who would eventually be transported to Auschwitz and eliminated? He even asks us to put ourselves in the place of the German occupiers. What we would do if we were Wehrmacht officials in Italy (or France or Poland), faced daily with attacks and bombings that killed and maimed our soldiers and undermined our military efforts? Would we have ordered the execution of civilians or prisoners as reprisals? And if so, how many executions would have been justified?

In Deák’s rendition of the war, the dilemmas that individuals faced reflect on an everyday level the egregious cynicism of high politics in war. Take the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, in which the Soviets precipitously abandoned their principled antifascism in order to reap the potential benefits of a German war in the West and to incorporate the eastern parts of Poland (western Belorussia and western Ukraine) into the Soviet Union. The Soviets waited until the Nazis had defeated the Poles and seized Warsaw before invading the East. During their occupation of eastern Poland, they murdered twenty-two thousand Polish officers and officials and deported an even larger number of their family members to camps in northern Kazakhstan. When asked by Polish officials what happened to their officers, Soviet officials initially responded that they must have left the country through central Asia. Later Soviet officials blamed the massacre on the Nazis and denied complicity until the very end of the Soviet Union. These cynical moves do not, of course, say anything about the brutal secret protocols of the pact that gave Stalin license to incorporate the Baltic states and Bessarabia (Moldova) into the Soviet Union.

Or think about the relations between Hungary and Romania during the war, both of which professed loyalty to their alliance with Nazi Germany while using every available opportunity, of which there were many, to attack and undermine the efforts of the other in the hopes of seizing territory that each believed was theirs. In fact, Deák tells us, one of the reasons the Nazis could advance their armies so swiftly from one end of the continent to the other was the unwillingness of potential opponents to give up their antagonisms toward each other in order to face the Nazi threat. In general, the Europeans would rather have allowed the Germans to have their way on the continent than give up their sometimes quite petty squabbles with their neighbors. This is as true in the Low Countries and Scandinavia as it was in Eastern Europe. The French, thought to be powerful militarily and ready to fight to the death for their sovereignty, did everything they could to keep their Nazi occupiers happy with them. Vichy France was a near-perfect government of collaborators, while occupied Paris too easily made the Germans feel welcome and at home.

The self-serving hypocrisy of states during this period captures only a part of the deeply ironic character of the instructive “war stories” told by Deák. The Austrians, for example, were among Hitler’s most ardent supporters and, even more consequentially, served the Nazis in crucial military, political, and economic functions. Yet they were designated by the Allies as the first “victims” of the Nazis in the Moscow Declaration of October 1943. The peaceable and pragmatic Danes conspired with local Nazi officials to organize the dramatic sea rescue of the Danish Jews from certain destruction. Yet the Danes were an official ally of Nazi Germany and even joined the Anti-Comintern Pact in November 1941.

German officers and Nazi officials themselves sometimes behaved quite well, even nobly, in Western Europe, indeed even better than could be expected in the situation of occupation and war. At the same time, they pursued bestial policies in Poland, Russia, and Ukraine, killing, torturing, burning, and terrorizing their way through the region, sometimes enlisting Poles, Balts, Russians, Ukrainians, and others to help them with their dirty work, sometimes turning on their helpmates and destroying them and their families. Meanwhile, local peoples sometimes used the temporary favor of the Nazis to advance their own causes against their local ethnic rivals. The unpredictable behavior of the occupied peoples combined with the divergent goals of the Nazi occupiers leave us with a kaleidoscopic picture of European life during the war. No two situations were alike; variability was the rule.

This then brings us to the Holocaust, the Shoah, or to what the Nazis called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” The Third Reich’s determination to murder all the Jews of Europe developed over time. Crucial was a series of murderous decisions made in conjunction with Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and the escalating violence on the Eastern front. Generally, Deák does not dwell on the much-studied “road to genocide” and elimination of the Jews by mass executions or in death camps. Instead, he uses a wide-angle lens on his historical camera to capture disheartening scenes of Jewish persecution from across the continent. The common denominator was that very few Europeans came to the aid of their Jewish brethren. True, there was not much they could do. But it was also the case that the Holocaust could never have been accomplished with the efficiency and completeness that it was without the active participation of hundreds of thousands of non-German Europeans and the indifference of tens of millions of others.

As the scene shifts from Norway or Poland to Italy or Slovakia, the dynamics of Jewish persecution differed. Deák tells some familiar stories of “saving Jews” in Denmark and Bulgaria, as well as describes instances of individual and group heroism, including that of scattered pockets of Jewish resisters. But the overall picture is deeply depressing. Europeans routinely identified, seized, abused, transported, persecuted, guarded, and executed the Jews, often without any orders to do so, not to mention as a consequence of coercion on the part of the Germans. Some did it out of avarice and greed, some out of anti-Semitic hatred and nationalist resentments, some simply because the opportunity seemed to be there. Here, it should be clear: Europe and Europeans did not pass the test of the war. It was—and remains—too easy to blame just Hitler and the Nazis. For survivors and their families, there are both bitterness and some satisfaction that nearly seventy years after the destruction, new museums go up all over the continent that remember and mourn the loss of a vibrant and unique European civilization that is gone forever.

The end of the war did not bring peace, nor did it curtail the radical consequences of the social and political change that characterized Nazi rule and resistance. Continuities between the wartime period and the postwar one are much more profound than between the prewar period and the war. In many countries—Poland, Latvia, France, Ukraine, and Italy among them—civil war erupted on the heels of the Nazi retreat and continued, in some East European cases, until the early 1950s. Hitler had unleashed an earthquake of anti-Semitism during the war that continued after war’s end with aftershocks of pogroms and persecution in Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere. East Europeans—Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Yugoslavs—seemed to have absorbed the lessons of Nazi ethnic cleansing by brutally expelling their German populations that had often lived in those localities for centuries. Sanctioned by Allied decisions at Potsdam in July and August 1945, the forced removal of some 13 million Germans—along with the elimination of the Jews—permanently altered the social and political, not to mention cultural, landscape of Eastern Europe.

Coursing throughout Deák’s treatment of this history is a strong sense of the ultimate injustice of it all, even if many perpetrators faced some measure of punishment for their crimes after the war. The spontaneous retribution that took place in newly liberated Europe, whether in France, Belgium, Norway, or Yugoslavia, did not seem calibrated to the specific crimes committed by the actual collaborators and oppressors. Women who harmed no one by their actions had their hair shorn and were otherwise humiliated and brutalized, often because they had relationships with German soldiers, sometimes—though not always—simply to survive or keep their families fed and sheltered. Thousands of completely innocent Norwegian babies fathered by German soldiers were denied citizenship by the postwar Norwegian government. Yet major Nazi criminals escaped criminal justice by escaping to South America and even being recruited to Soviet, British, or American military establishments. The onset of the Cold War meant that countless fascists and Nazis became upstanding members of postwar police and civil administrations on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The Nuremberg Tribunal, while setting an important precedent for trying war crimes and crimes against humanity, hypocritically, if understandably, omitted the crimes of the Allied victors, most notably the Soviet Union. There can be no question that this was “victors’ justice.” It is hard to imagine it could have been otherwise. Even at that, only a handful of Nazi perpetrators were convicted and hanged for some of the most vicious crimes of the century. On balance, Deák reminds us, there was some measure of justice achieved at Nuremberg and in the thousands of trials that took place across the continent. But just like the difficulty European citizens faced when dealing with moral issues during the conflict, it was hard to achieve the right pitch in prosecuting war criminals, while trying to rebuild societies and polities after the war. Imperfect as it often is, “history” itself may be the best means of all to seek justice. But the craft of history requires the readiness to accept ambiguity and the imperfectability of human behavior; it means understanding the challenges faced by victims, perpetrators, and those in between; and it demands respect for the facts as we know them. István Deák is a master craftsman. Every student of World War II should read this book.

Norman M. Naimark
Stanford University


The origins of this book lie in the death of a young Hungarian journalist, Béla Stollár, whom Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross militiamen killed in a gun battle toward the end of World War II, during which Hungary had been Nazi Germany’s ally. It happened on Christmas Eve in 1944; Béla was my sister’s fiancé. About six members of his larger group, made up mainly of military deserters and Jewish escapees from forced-labor companies, died with him. Because he had not been a member of the underground Communist Party—on the contrary, because he had never hidden his dislike of the Communists—later, under Communist rule, Béla Stollár was memorialized by a narrow little street in the heart of Budapest, named after him. And even this street, where he actually died, was eventually halved by a large new government building. Today, hardly anyone in Hungary remembers his name, even though the country’s anti-Nazi resistance movement was a minuscule affair. Only in Jerusalem did the Yad Vashem Museum, in 2003, recognize him as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” a distinction given to persons of non-Jewish origin who risked their lives to save Jewish lives. Béla Stollár was one of the few Europeans who actually gave their lives so that others may have lived.

What followed at that time was my sister’s indescribable suffering, our family’s worry about the loss of a protector, and my sadness over the disappearance of a “wise old” friend—he was twenty-seven and I eighteen at that time. The terrible historical problems hidden in this seemingly simple story of heroism and self-sacrifice dawned on me only many decades later and slowly convinced me to try to take up the themes. In fact, in Béla Stollár’s tragedy, we find many of the contradictory features of wartime collaboration, resistance, and retribution. What did he and his companions die for? Was their goal worth the sacrifice? One of his group’s purposes was to help those who were threatened by death simply for being Jews. But Stollár and friends also planned to seize a neighboring newspaper building, just before the arrival of the Soviet Red Army, which at that time was already besieging Budapest. There they would set up the liberated city’s first free, democratic, but definitely non-Communist-oriented newspaper. Yet what were their chances of setting up anything while major armies were clashing in the streets? How long would the paper have lasted before falling under Communist control or being suppressed by the new Communist authorities?

Also, could we not say that members of the Arrow Cross militia against them were similar ideologues who risked their lives for a cause, even if it was an unworthy cause? In fact, the Arrow Cross men were mostly bandits who, rather than fighting for their cause by battling the Soviet Red Amy at the front, preferred to search out, rob, and kill Jews. But what about the “bystanders,” the building superintendent and his wife whom the Arrow Cross accused of having sheltered the resistance group and who were shot dead on the spot? Or the uninvolved couple who happened to be visiting the superintendent at the time and were, too, shot? Or the more than a dozen Jewish civilians who happened to be hiding in the building and without this incident may have remained undiscovered and unharmed? (The Red Army would conquer the area in three weeks.) How many innocent bystanders constitute reasonable “collateral damage” for any resistance activity?

The problem of “duty” in connection with Béla Stollár’s life and martyrdom has been a further inspiration for me. Who in this incident actually did his duty and a duty to whom: God, country, the government, justice, humanity? Stollár, a civilian, had been drafted into the military during the war and, as an excellent sports journalist and champion stenographer, was posted to the Ministry of Defense with the rank of sergeant. There he had access to documents and weapons that enabled him to provide persecuted Jews with false identity cards and to create his seemingly legal resistance group, which was then betrayed. According to law, he was a mutineer and a traitor, yet what he actually tried to do was save an important public building from destruction in the Hungarian capital whose military defense and total destruction helped, at most, the Germans but not the Hungarians.

There were nearly forty thousand Hungarian combat soldiers besieged in what Hitler called “Fortress Budapest.” They had taken the same military oath as Stollár. Many of them went into hiding and put on civilian clothes; others did not dare leave their ranks for fear of execution, but, certainly, many officers and men were convinced that they were doing their duty by continuing to fight. Never mind the useless and definitely lost war.

Was the Hungarian government at that time entitled to expect obedience from any of its uniformed and nonuniformed citizens? On December 24, 1944, more than half of the country was already in Soviet hands, while the pro-Nazi government had fled the capital. German troops had been occupying Hungary since March 1944, but the old royal Hungarian army remained a staunch ally of Germany. Meanwhile, a provisional national assembly that the Soviet high command had helped to set up in an eastern Hungarian city formed a provisional antifascist coalition government, which, on December 23, sued for an armistice with the Soviet Union. The message was communicated by radio to besieged Budapest. Frankly, neither government was “legitimate,” for one had been created by a German SS coup d’état in October and the other was being organized by the Soviet Red Army. Later, under Communist rule, only “determined enemies of fascism” were considered patriots; in today’s nationalist, conservative, “Christian” Hungary, the public and the law are inclined in the opposite direction.

One aspect of Stollár’s life and death inspires only negative thoughts in me: to the best of my knowledge, no one was investigated and none sentenced for what occurred during that event. Polite, modest, brilliantly intelligent, and cultivated, Béla Stollár did, then, have a great influence on my development and work, although, to be honest, I never showed an inclination to imitate his heroism and self-sacrifice.

* * *

By 1948, three years after the liberation of Hungary, the postwar democratic coalition government had been fatally undermined by its Communist members. I then successfully conspired to leave for France, sensing, correctly, that soon no one would be allowed to go anywhere. Paris was a young East European’s dream, the city of Jean-Paul Sartre, of Albert Camus, and of “existentialism,” which many in France interpreted, strangely, as meaning no need for cleanliness. In the hotel room I occupied for a monthly rent of five US dollars, cleanliness was a near impossibility in any case. In reality, French life at that time was dominated by government crises, the war en Indochine, seemingly dangerous Communist bids for power, and the memory of wartime collaboration and resistance, followed by “the purges.” From conversations at the Sorbonne, where I attempted to restart my studies of medieval history and geography, it became clear to me that some people had “done it all” during the war. There had been many true heroes whom one idolized, but there were also those who had alternately worked with the German occupiers, opposed the Germans, fought against other French people, and, at war’s end, helped to punish the guilty, often in order to turn attention away from their own guilt. Refugee life for me was similarly one of contradictions: utter poverty and near starvation, interrupted by unauthorized physical labor and by sudden, surprising assistance tendered by American relief organizations.

Part-time study at the Sorbonne was rewarding, even though most lectures consisted of famous old men reading aloud their notes, which, in a mimeographed form, were purchasable anyway in front of the lecture halls. Final exams were, however, most challenging, with their ruthless insistence on phenomenal factual knowledge and absolutely impeccable French. The names of those who had passed a test toward the licence ès lettres were posted on the wall, and that was it. The desperately hoped-for route to scientific glory in France was closed to me in any case, a refugee bogged down by the mutually unobtainable work permit and the permit for a long-term stay in France. Nor could I hope, as foreign born, for a teaching position in a state high school—and there were scarce other types of high schools in the country.

Thanks to UN-arranged international agreements, travel and even temporary work abroad were available for us, passportless refugees, such as harvesting potatoes in surprisingly impoverished Great Britain. And thus, after some illegal journalistic activity at the newspaper Combat of World War II resistance fame, I applied for and received a position at Radio Free Europe (RFE) in Munich, at first as an archivist-librarian and later as an editor. This allowed me to take some courses at two Munich-based universities. It was again a very different life, marked by those of us RFE employees who had been hired from outside Germany, enjoying, in an awkward way, the considerable privileges of an officer of the American occupation forces. This US-sponsored and -funded Cold War institution enabled us to broadcast programs to Eastern Europe that, in the final analysis, must have done some good to people who at home were basically told nothing but lies. But because this employment brought great difficulties to my poor family at home, I used the occasion to emigrate, in 1956, to the first country that was willing to receive me permanently: the United States.

In Paris I had once been a great fan of Garry Davis, a World War II US bomber pilot, who around 1948 declared himself a world citizen and tried to turn in his passport at the US Embassy. Davis invited others to register for “world citizenship,” which twenty thousand of us did with great enthusiasm but, of course, to no avail. The world was definitely not “one.” I met with the real “one world,” however, upon my arrival in New York, on a very warm night, in a small supermarket in Manhattan. No one in the store could put together a decent sentence in English, yet no one cared, and I have been at home here ever since.

Although no doubt hospitable, the United States too was a world of contradictions: at Columbia University, where I was accepted as a graduate student in history, based on my piles of semidiplomas from Budapest, Paris, and Munich, registration insisted that I state my race (“Caucasian”) and my religion, although the latter soon became “facultative,” and the stating of race was eventually forbidden. It was later reinstituted in the interest of “affirmative action.”

The sense of absolute personal freedom has not left me since, in my undoubtedly privileged position, and I even came to terms, gradually, with the great anxiety and contradiction of my life: my “Semitic” ancestry and my strict Roman Catholic upbringing. I tried to forget both but never could because, fundamentally, what knowledge I have comes from my Cistercian monk-teachers in Budapest, and what I have been living with for many years now, as have many others, is the memory of the Holocaust. Once unknown as a term and nearly ignored as a problem, the Holocaust is today a universal theme.

In many ways, Columbia University has changed little during the past sixty-odd years—not the power structure, or really the teaching methods. The direction is clearly, however, toward the unification of genders and internationalization from which only a few domestic minorities have not been able to draw great benefits. I myself was pulled away by gentle pressure from medieval and Western European history toward modern Central and Eastern Europe. The world was tremendously interested in the goings on within the “Soviet bloc.” I have been shifting my emphasis ever since among such themes as cultural politics in the Weimar Republic, the Hungarian national revolution of 1849–1849, the death of multinational empires, World Wars I and II, fascism, socialism, nationalism, and the officer corps of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian army. The latter was made up of eleven nationalities, and I am convinced that the officers, also from eleven nationalities, did much better than generally supposed in enabling Central Europeans to live together and to thrive in the pre–World War I decades. Even generals from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) wanted to hear from me about it, all in the interest of eventually building a Pan-European army. But, of course, nothing has come from it as yet.

Researching the thick dossiers of officers, full of unbelievably detailed and often intimate information in the Vienna and other military archives, was a great joy; I recommend such types of social historical analysis to all.

All this would have been impossible without my new American family, a university that has paid my salary and benefits unfailingly through economic crises and student revolts and always permits you to say anything you would like to the students. What luck!

For the rest of this preface, let me thank the individuals who have done the most to make this book possible. There is, first of all, Fritz Stern at Columbia University, who more than fifty years ago wisely guided my doctoral dissertation on Carl von Ossietzky, the martyr of German intellectual resistance. Von Ossietzky received the Nobel Prize for Peace for 1935, when he was in a Nazi jail, and he died in 1938, still in Nazi custody. Let me continue the list of thanks with Leon Wieseltier and Robert Silvers, editors, respectively, of the New Republic and the New York Review of Books, who over several decades invited me to write a total of well over a hundred review articles on books that, in their majority, dealt with World War II events. There were also stimulating “exchanges” with critics on the pages of the two great journals. Leon Wieseltier is himself a prolific writer; Robert Silvers is the world’s most exacting editor, who not only is conversant with the various subjects that new books bring his way but goes into battle with the reviewer over every comma as well as over any conceivable world historical concern.

Two outstanding historians of contemporary Europe, Tony Judt and Jan T. Gross, were kind enough to make me a partner in the preparation of a number of international conferences on immediate post–World War II Europe, partly sponsored by the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and its late leader, Krzysztof Michalski. I also worked with Tony and Jan in writing and editing a successful collection of essays on the politics of retribution in postwar Europe.

Special thanks are due to Bálint Magyar, who put at my disposal a copy of the valuable essay he wrote as a student at Budapest University, in 1971, on the so-called Hungarian Freedom Movement, in which Béla Stollár’s “Klotild Street Group” played an essential role. Between 1996 and 1998, Bálint Magyar served as Hungary’s minister of education.

For the rest, I list in alphabetical order some of the many who helped me in collecting my thoughts and in writing them down in a reasonable order. Some among these helpers read and corrected my manuscript; others again became the source and inspiration of specific chapters in the book. They are Tarik Amar, Gergely Baics, Csaba Békés, Volker Berghahn, Peter Black, Sally Carr, Holly A. Case, Michael Chad, Mateja Fajt, Jennifer Foray, Tibor Frank, Ben Frommer, Charles Gati, Emily Greble, Paul Hanebrink, Pieter Judson, László Karsai, Andrew Kornbluth, Katherine Lebow, Ann Major, Sanford Malter, Mark Mazower, Dan McMillan, Judith Molnár, Éva D. Peck, Tom Peck, Attila Pók, Ivan Sanders, András Simonovits, Mitja Velikonja, and Nancy Wingfield.

As at first I had no idea what was involved in writing a textbook, I am grateful to Priscilla McGeehon, who introduced me to the idea, and I am now particularly grateful to the wonderful Kelli Fillingim and her associates Victoria Henson, Sandra Beris, and Annette Wenda.

Let me also express my gratitude to Drs. Jerry Gliklich and Bret Taback, both at Columbia University Medical Center, who with great ingenuity and enormous goodwill are keeping the author in good-enough shape to write these lines.

My dear wife, Gloria Deák, assisted me in innumerable ways all the while she was writing her own book.

If a few more people in his country become seriously interested in such subjects as life under foreign occupation, the duties of a citizen toward the occupier and toward his own countrymen, and how the victims of wartime persecution could have been helped by a little more compassion, then my efforts have not been in vain.

István Deák
New York, 2014

Chapter 1

From Brutality to International Conventions to Renewed Brutality

Foreign Occupations in European History

Local populations can survive a foreign military occupation only if the occupation army enforces discipline among the troops—that is to say, if the soldiers abide by their country’s military code, and if they regard the locals as fellow human beings worthy of consideration. In return, the occupying power has the right to expect that the locals obey all of what would be considered at least halfway reasonable orders and that they not threaten the lives of the soldiers. No military code, not even that of the German Nazis, authorizes plunder or the slaughter of innocents; in fact, Paragraph 211 of the German penal code, as published in a handbook in October 1943, threatened a soldier guilty of murder with capital punishment without any distinction as to the victim’s race, religion, or nationality. Other paragraphs in the code called for the severe punishment of those who incited murder or assisted in the commission of such a crime.[5] Remarkably, the 1943 German military regulations went so far as to threaten with punishment the soldier who carried out such orders of his superiors that were in violation of the law. “The subordinate is punishable as a participant when he knows that the superior’s order would have the aim of leading to a military or other crime or violation.”[6] The monstrous behavior of German troops during World War II in Eastern and southeastern Europe shows that the military code is useless if the commanders do not bother to enforce it or deliberately disregard it.

Unfortunately, the ideal situation of mutual respect between occupied and occupier existed only intermittently throughout history; more often than not, armies were unruly bands of men whose appearance in foreign lands, whether “friendly” or “hostile,” spelled violence and plunder. Occupying armies had to live mostly on the produce of the land, and the land was seldom rich enough to feed its inhabitants, less so a horde of invaders.

Overall, life under military occupation was an unmitigated tragedy. In the European-wide Thirty Years’ War between 1618 and 1648, soldiers were mostly indistinguishable from other men carrying implements that could be used as weapons, and, in general, the belligerent powers were unable to provision their troops. Thus, soldiers robbed, raped, and slaughtered; in return, the peasants slew and sometimes skinned the soldiers who were unfortunate enough to find themselves separated from their units.

The great change came in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries with the beginning of centralized administrations and state-directed economic and social policies. For the first time in the history of Europe, economic progress and the growing ability of the royal treasury to collect money from its subjects enabled some governments to create long-lasting rather than temporary standing armies. The mercenaries of the Italian Renaissance princes were usually excellent soldiers, but with the expiration of their contracts, they unhesitatingly switched to the highest bidder or became mere marauders. Eighteenth-century monarchs expected loyalty from their soldiers, whom they were now increasingly able to outfit, feed, and equip with standardized weapons. The king’s flag began to be seen not as a mere instrument of visual recognition but as a sacred royal symbol and, increasingly, as a symbol of the state the ruler was governing. Later, mostly in the nineteenth century, the flag became the symbol of the nation.

Soldiers in the new armies were usually commanded by the “cadets,” or younger sons of the nobility, for whom service in the military was often no longer an elegant pastime but a destination as well as the source of a modest but steady income. Ordinary soldiers generally came from the poorest strata of society or were such unfortunates whom their communities had wanted to get rid of and had therefore been designated for service. Gradually, however, military service became a general obligation, if at first only for certain strata of society. Over them, iron discipline prevailed, creating a chasm between the draftees, many of whom were not released for twenty-five years, and the “civilians,” a new term.

The aristocratic officers who commanded the armies of the eighteenth century formed an unofficial international class whose members were often related to each other and who had nothing but contempt for the “rabble” under their command. Eighteenth-century European wars were limited in scope—unlike those fought in the colonies or on the high seas, where few of the above rules prevailed. Under such conditions, it is small wonder that guerrilla wars, that is, civilians fighting uniformed soldiers from a hiding place, were a rarity.

With all due respect for the danger of hasty generalizations, we can still state with confidence that the more or less successful practice of regulating and humanizing warfare was suspended late in the eighteenth century as a result of the partition of Poland and the French Revolution. Of the two, the second event is far better known, yet the fall of Poland in the late eighteenth century had a more immediate and profound influence on the practice of foreign occupation and resistance to it than the French Revolution.

Starting in 1772 and within the following twenty-three years, Russia, Prussia, and Austria completed the partition of the Polish kingdom, to which Polish patriots reacted with a great rebellion in 1794. The uprising failed, but since then the names of Poland and of the Polish people have been associated with resistance to foreign occupation. Carrying a flag with the inscription “For Our Freedom and Yours,” Polish émigrés fought in all of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century wars of national liberation. Sacrificing one’s life in the struggle against occupation forces has become part of the Polish national myth. Indeed, in the first year and a half of World War II, Poland was the only country besides Great Britain that did not surrender or join the German Nazis. Not surprisingly, some Poles, especially the poets among them, saw their country as the “Christ of the Nations.” Poland, whatever its geographic and ethnic boundaries—an independent Poland in recent history existed only between 1918 and 1939 and then again after 1944—was truly a dangerous place for all foreign occupiers. What a vast difference between the problems of resistance in, for example, Denmark, which had barely known a foreign occupation until 1940, and Poland, which for centuries had experienced nothing but foreign administrations and foreign occupation armies.

The significance of the French Revolution for Europe is neatly summed up in “La Marseillaise,” a battle song that became a national anthem as well as the global anthem of resistance. Without the slightest idea of how the Austrian and Prussian troops marching into France in 1792 were going to behave, “La Marseillaise” called for a fight to the death against the foreign occupiers, whom it called féroce and a howling and fearsome horde of slaves. No quarter was to be given in this holy struggle.

The irony is that in the period between 1792 and 1814, France suffered no foreign occupation, and thus the French nation had no opportunity to engage in guerrilla operations. Instead, many ordinary people in Europe resisted the “ferocious soldiers” of French occupiers. The very term guerrilla, meaning “little war,” stems from the Spanish struggle against the French occupation. All of these conflicts were conducted with great ferocity and cruelty by both sides.

The French governments of the revolutionary and Napoleonic conflicts waged their wars while promising national liberation and enlightened reforms to the enslaved peoples of Europe: the answer in the occupied or “liberated” countries was the rise of local nationalism. This led to conflicts not only with the French but also with other local groups; the ideological conflicts invariably led to the formation of armed irregular units.

The Congress of Vienna from 1814 to 1815, which terminated the Napoleonic Wars, endeavored to return Europe to the hereditary rulers. They, in turn, promised to combine their forces into a kind of supranational police that would ensure peace and quiet on the continent of Europe. The resolutions of the congress proved a rare success: peace among the great powers was interrupted by only the Crimean War in the 1850s. Guerrilla activities seldom occurred.

Conservative regimes dominating Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century worried that universal conscription and a three- or four-year term of service under the flag, demanded by experts as a military necessity, would put weapons in the hands of nonprofessionals. The specter of millions of trained soldiers and former soldiers with close ties to their civilian existence haunted the military and political establishment. Would these civilians in uniform be prepared to fire, if need be, on their demonstrating or striking brothers and mothers?

The fears were vastly exaggerated: the recruits of the new mass armies, who were no longer automatons crushed into submission with the sergeant’s baton, were often happy and proud to serve. The army, after all, had freed many of them from the drudgery of rural existence and had brought the excitement of travel, better nourishment, health care, and a measure of education. Most important, universal military service brought a sense of belonging to the nation, actually an imagined community.

Except for the United Kingdom, European countries introduced universal conscription between the early nineteenth century and the 1870s. Three or four years in the barracks taught the recruit that it was his sacred duty to learn how to kill in the service of his king and nation, yet he was also taught that killing without orders, whether in or out of uniform, was a capital crime. By 1900 Europe possessed several million men trained to be robbers and killers, but only in circumstances carefully delineated by their superiors. To prove their high esteem of trained soldiers, nearly all European states reserved employment to army veterans in the police forces, firefighting, lower administration, the tobacco monopoly, guard duty, and so forth. “Did you serve?” (Haben Sie gedient?) was a standard question used in German private industry when it came to filling “respectable” positions.

The supreme test of the citizens’ armies came to pass in World War I when it often became extremely difficult to distinguish between innocent civilians and guerrillas hiding among the local population. Fortunately, by 1914 Europe possessed a series of international conventions and agreements for the regulation and humanization of warfare and the protection of the wounded and prisoners of war. Other clauses in these nonbinding agreements provided for the protection of the occupation forces and even, interestingly, of armed civilians in irregular resistance forces.

The various Hague and Geneva Agreements, initiated by peace-minded thinkers and statesmen but also, for instance, by the Russian czar, forbade the use of particularly devastating instruments of war, such as naval blockades aimed at bringing about starvation in the enemy country, explosive rifle bullets and chemical weapons, and artillery or aerial attacks on cities without a war industry. They further demanded that wounded enemy captives be given the same care as one’s own wounded and that prisoners of war not be employed in the war industry. Also, in an unconscious fallback on feudal tradition, the agreements stipulated that captured officers should be treated almost as honored guests and be given the same pay as one’s own officers. But while officers and officer candidates could not be required to work, ordinary soldiers and noncommissioned officers among the prisoners could be forced to toil in nonmilitary jobs. And indeed, while a naval blockade became a crucial weapon in the hands of the British, while the Germans felt free to bombard cities from the moment they invaded France and used poison gas as soon as it became available, and while ordinary soldiers died by the hundreds of thousands in Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Italian captivity, the belligerents scrupulously observed the privileges of captive officers during the First World War.

The most important innovation regarding collaboration and resistance was introduced by the Fourth Hague International Convention of 1907, whose Articles 42–43 outlined the citizenry’s duty to obey enemy occupation forces so long as the latter abided by the terms of The Hague Convention and were able to control the occupied territory.[7] This legalized a limited degree of collaboration, but also legalized resistance, if only in strictly defined conditions: Article 4 of The Hague Convention included guerrillas, militia, and irregular troops among legitimate belligerents but only if they were properly commanded, wore a fixed emblem recognizable at a distance, carried their arms openly, and conducted their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. Between 1914 and 1918, neither side respected The Hague Convention regarding guerrillas: resistance fighters regularly operated in disguise, and the military executed captured guerrillas even if they had been “recognizable at a distance.” Still, those at The Hague had made an appreciable effort to protect irregular fighters with results that were not entirely negligible.

We must remind ourselves that, during World War I, the Entente or Allied armies (Russia, France, Great Britain, Italy, plus many others) hardly ever succeeded in penetrating German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian, or Turkish territory, that is, the lands of the so-called Central Powers. Consequently, when we talk of foreign occupation, collaboration, resistance, repression, and retribution in the war of 1914–1918, we inevitably mean territories that the Central Powers occupied in Belgium, France, Serbia, Russia, Italy, and Romania. Small wonder that the public within the Central Powers continued to believe that they were winning when, in reality, they had long lost the war to a materially and numerically superior enemy.

No sooner did the war begin than German troops started executing alleged francs-tireurs (snipers) in Belgium and France or, as the word itself implies, unattached civilians accused of having fired on the soldiers of invading armies. At the same time, the Austro-Hungarians, Germany’s main allies, hanged thousands of Serbian and Russian-Ukrainian civilians, among them Orthodox priests, suspected of spying for the enemy.

Politically, the shootings and lootings benefited mainly the Allies, whose media spread the news of the atrocities committed by the “Huns” (Germans) and their allies, inflaming the French and British as well as, eventually, the American public. After the war, historians and the public, especially in the United States, tended to dismiss the atrocity stories as wartime British propaganda. More recently, however, historians have shown that German atrocities were only too real and that they had been inspired by the German high command’s brutal orders as well as by fear and hysteria spreading among the troops. Atrocities in Alsace-Lorrain and Belgium usually began with German troops nervously or accidentally discharging their rifles; it led to panicked soldiers inadvertently firing at one another and then taking revenge for imagined franc-tireur attacks by killing innocent civilians.

The issue of collaboration with the enemy was less of a public concern during World War I, at least in Western Europe, than it would become during World War II. In the West, this was because the front lines solidified in 1914 and remained basically unchanged until the last weeks of the war. Higher French and Belgian authorities had fled with the retreating armies; left behind were the local administration, police, and the like, from whom the German occupiers demanded obedience but not any kind of ideological commitment. Whereas suspected opponents were harshly punished, “collaborators” were not rewarded or recruited into the German armed forces. This was not so in the East, where conditions foreshadowed many of the terrible developments in the next great war.

In Eastern Europe in 1914, several ethnic groups were suspected of being hostile and traitorous. The Russian high command believed that all Jews rooted for Germany; the Austro-Hungarian high command assumed that many of Emperor Francis Joseph’s Slavic-speaking subjects were siding with their brothers in the Serbian and the Russian armies. Thousands were hanged or shot for mostly imaginary crimes. The dreaded Cossacks, an elite force usually on horseback within the Russian army, forced hundreds of thousands of Jews in Galicia to flee toward Budapest and Vienna; other Jews were killed and their houses looted. In view of such mistreatment, it is not surprising that many Eastern European Jews received the German- and Austro-Hungarian troops as their saviors with whom, among other things, they could communicate in German or in a mixture of Yiddish and German. When the Russians reconquered some territory, as they occasionally did during the war, they persecuted the “hostile” Jewish population with increased ferocity, despite the fact that, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Jews had been drafted into the Russian ranks. Nor did the fleeing Orthodox Jews, many among them in their strange garb and with “uncivilized” behavior, earn the love and respect of people in Germany and Austria-Hungary, many of whom resented having to share their starvation rations with the refugees.

In modern history, the first true genocide, an attempt to wipe out an entire people or “race,” occurred not in Europe but in the Ottoman Empire, where the Young Turk government and the army high command organized the expulsion and massacre of hundreds of thousands or perhaps even a million Armenian fellow citizens. Armenians were suspected of siding with the invading Russian enemy, and, indeed, many Armenians served in the Russian forces either as subjects of the czar or as irregulars from the Ottoman Empire. Yet nothing justified the deportation to the Syrian Desert of masses of Armenian civilians—including women and children—or their systematic extermination. (Note, however, that Armenians in Constantinople/Istanbul were not harmed.) The Armenian genocide was the first great step, and a very effective one, in the long series of ethnic cleansings that World War I inaugurated.

After the war, in quick succession, several million Greek-Orthodox were driven out of Turkish Anatolia, Muslims were deported from Greece and Bulgaria, several hundred thousand Hungarians fled or were expelled from neighboring Romania, and many Poles and Ukrainians changed places. In Ukraine itself, as well as in the Baltic countries, German and Russian soldiers hastily organized national armies. Red revolutionaries and White counterrevolutionaries committed atrocities against civilians, usually with the excuse of preventing or ending some kind of guerrilla resistance. Many of these horrors such as the so-called Greek, Bulgarian, and Turkish population exchanges took place with the permission, nay the encouragement, of the leaders of the great powers assembled in 1919 at Versailles.

Eventually, even Eastern Europe and the Balkans calmed down somewhat. In the various peace treaties dictated by the great powers, victorious Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia were obligated to subscribe to clauses that protected minority rights. Leaders of the postwar states usually interpreted these clauses as unwanted intrusion into their country’s sovereignty and did their best to ignore them, yet the League of Nations was not entirety powerless in remedying abuses committed against ethnic and religious minorities. Following World War II, the Paris peace treaties and the UN Charter left the protection of minorities to the sovereign governments, with the inevitable result of further persecution and expulsions until the much-longed-for goal of ethnic uniformity or purity was almost completely achieved.

The post–World War I international community engaged in several new attempts to regulate warfare and to ease the life of civilians in occupied territories as well as that of prisoners of war and especially of their wounded. The seemingly greatest achievement toward regulating warfare was the Kellogg-Briand Pact, signed in Paris on August 27, 1928. Within one year, forty-four nations, including Germany but not Soviet Russia, solemnly accepted the treaty’s provisions, renouncing war as an instrument of national policy. Rather than outlawing all wars, however, the pact called the wars of self-defense legitimate, and it did not make waging aggressive wars a criminal offense or contain any suggestion that individuals might be punished for the breach of peace. Unfortunately, not since Attila the Hun in the fifth century has a ruler or a government publicly admitted that it was conducting a war of aggression. Even the Nazis claimed to fight in self-defense.

Hitler’s assumption of power and his activist foreign policy in the early 1930s were heralded as a legitimate assertion of a nation’s right to self-determination that had been denied at the Paris peace treaties. The enthusiasm with which, in 1936, the German population west of the Rhine River greeted the remilitarization of the region, to be followed by the tumultuous celebration, in 1938, of the German army’s entry first into Austria and then into the German-inhabited Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, seemed to prove the righteousness of the German cause. Even the bloodless occupation, in the following year, of the rest of the Czech lands reinforced this widespread view. The Czechs may have been profoundly disappointed by these developments, but the world registered the fact that the Czechs had not fired a single shot at the occupying German forces.

At last, in September 1939, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany over the unprovoked invasion of Poland and the ruthless bombardment of its defenseless cities. But no help was given to the Poles, nor did many in the West notice that Polish resistance to the occupying power had begun virtually the day after the fall of Warsaw.

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1. See, in particular, István Deák, The Lawful Revolution: Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians, 1848–1849 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979) and Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848–1918 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

2. István Deák, Jan T. Gross, and Tony Judt, eds., The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

3. István Deák, Essays on Hitler’s Europe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001).

4. For biographical information, see Holly Case’s interview with Deák, available online:

5. See Otto Schwarz, ed., Strafgesetzbuch, Nebengesetze, Verordnungen und Kriegsstrafrecht, 12th rev. ed., 7th Great German ed. (Munich and Berlin: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1943). Paragraph 211 on murder is cited on 335–338; the Führer decree of October 8, 1939, regarding the incorporated Eastern regions is on 1010–1012; and the subsequent edicts are on 1012–1019.

6. Martin Rittau, ed., Militärstrafgesetzbuch, in der Fassung vom 10 Oktober 1940—mit Einführungsgesetz und Kriegsstrafrechtsordnung (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Verlag, 1943), 99.

7. See W. Michael Reisman and Chris T. Antoniou, eds., The Laws of War: A Comprehensive Collection of Primary Documents on International Laws Governing Armed Conflict (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 232–233; Lester Nurick and Roger W. Barrett, “Questions of Guerrilla Forces Under the Laws of War,” American Journal of International Law 40, no. 3 (1946): 563–583; Kenneth Macksey, The Partisans of Europe in the Second World War (New York: Stein and Day, 1975), l7–18; and Major Richard R. Baxter, “The Duty of Obedience to the Belligerent Occupant,” British Yearbook of International Law (1950): 235–255.