Partisan Warfare

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Partisan warfare refers to organized military activities of groups not incorporated in regular armies; it is also called irregular warfare. The term is derived from the word party or party follower, and is used predominantly in central and eastern Europe. In southern Europe and overseas the term guerrilla is preferably applied, derived from "small war" in the Spanish language. Some historians distinguish between partisans as a more organized form of armed resistance with clear political goals, and guerrillas as predominantly individual fighters in small groups.

Partisan warfare was not a new phenomenon of the twentieth century. It came rather as a byproduct of the establishment of standing armies during the eighteenth century. Partisan warfare turned up during the Silesian wars from 1740 and especially during the revolutionary American War of Independence. The most famous case remains the systematic guerrilla war against Napoleon's occupation of Spain from 1809.

In the twentieth century, partisan warfare evolved either in the context of modern regular warfare in general or as insurrectionary movements in peacetime. The fourth Hague convention on rules of land warfare (1907) provided a limited legal basis for partisan warfare, the right of citizens to form armed groups in case of warfare in their area. These should be protected by international law as long as they have a responsible leadership, are marked by specific signs or uniforms as combatants, and carry their weapons visibly in the open.

During World War I, partisan warfare appeared only on a small scale. Nevertheless German occupation troops in Belgium and northern France, influenced by the experience of the franctireur movement during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, developed a specific guerrilla hysteria. For alleged acts of resistance they killed more than six thousand civilians in 1914–1915. In German-occupied Lithuania, organized groups attacked German institutions. Both the Triple Entente (France, Great Britain, and Russia) and the middle powers tried to initialize insurrections in the rear area of their enemy. The most famous cases are represented by the revolts organized by Lawrence of Arabia (Thomas Lawrence; 1888–1935) or the Easter Uprising (1916) in Ireland. The latter did not immediately lead to a partisan war, but the Irish war of independence (1919–1921) showed patterns of such. Albanians applied guerrilla tactics in their conflict with the Serbs in 1919.

The Russian civil war, which started in 1918, was both a regular and a partisan war. At least four groups can be identified: the communists, who propagated their fighting as a "people's war"; the "Whites," or counterrevolutionary forces; the nationalists, like the army of the Ukrainian directorate; and predominantly the "Greens," a loose conglomerate of peasant insurgencies especially in southern Ukraine, the lower Volga area, and western Siberia. Most famous was the partisan army of Nestor Makhno (1889–1934) in southeastern Ukraine, which over the years fought on different sides. The Russian civil war was characterized by utmost violence, killings of ideological enemies, excessive reprisals, and the murder of POWs (prisoners of war). It generated among the prevailing communist forces a tradition of partisan warfare, which was systematized by the military theoretician Mikhail Frunze (1885–1925) and laid down in the "Instruction on Partisan Warfare" from 1933. But during the 1930s, when the Soviet doctrine of the offensive took over, partisan warfare was no longer considered a model for the Red Army.

Between the world wars all over Europe a debate was going on about the war of the future. While some authors focused on the significance of strategic aerial bombing or fast offensives with tank forces, the majority of the military experts predicted a total war, involving the civilian population in warfare. Several authors considered the necessity of a "people's war" in the case of occupation of home territory. And even the British military, which generally did not fear occupation, developed future operational schemes in their 1939 "Principles of Guerilla Warfare."

Actually, partisan warfare did not play a significant role in armed conflict between 1921 and 1939 in Europe. The Spanish civil war (1936–1939), which at first glance showed all preconditions for a partisan war, was fought for the most part by regular armies. On the other hand, the European colonial powers were faced with insurrectionary warfare abroad—especially the Spanish and French armies in Morocco after the revolt in the Rif from 1921, Italy during the Second Sanusi War in Libya from 1923, and also the Netherlands to a certain extent during the communist uprising in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) from 1926/27.


Twenty-first-century images of partisan warfare are to a large extent shaped by the experience of anti-Nazi, predominantly communist, armed resistance during the Second World War. But the historical picture is more diverse. The first armed attacks on German occupation power occurred in spring 1940, by remnant groups of the Polish army. But these remained isolated instances. The largest resistance group in Poland, the Polish Underground State—centered around the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) and supported by the government-inexile—preferred a strategy of unarmed resistance until the time was ripe for general uprisings in the cities (Operation "Burza," or Storm), not for widespread partisan warfare. The second-largest movement, the right-wing National Armed Forces (Narodowe Sily Zbrojne) followed the same strategy. The small communist underground in Poland, which was established in 1942 and was largely controlled by the Soviet Union, at an early point set up the People's Guard (Gwardia Ludowa), which attacked not only German institutions but also other resistance groups. Only in 1944 did intensive partisan warfare start in Poland, predominantly during the uprisings in the cities, first in eastern Poland, from August 1944, culminating in the Warsaw uprising.

After the German attack on the Soviet Union, Stalin on 3 July 1941 called for the establishment of a partisan movement in the occupied Soviet territories, later even for a general people's war (vsenarodnaya borba). Preparations for partisan warfare had been stopped during the mid-1930s because it was not expected that Soviet territory would be a battlefield; so it took some time to raise a considerable partisan force. Early groups in 1941 consisted of Red Army stragglers. The Soviet secret police, the NKVD (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, or People's Commissariat for the Interior), started to install larger partisan units, as the regional Communist Party organizations prepared for underground work on impending occupation. Attacks on occupation institutions started in August 1941 in Byelorussia, then extended to the Bryansk area and the eastern frontier of Latvia. The German occupation power—Wehrmacht (German army), SS (Schutzstaffel), and police—from the outset used extreme violence to terrorize the population and deter from partisan activity or support. The Germans succeeded in destroying partisan units in eastern Ukraine and on the Crimean Peninsula until the turn of the year 1941/42.

The year 1942 saw the establishment of an integrated partisan movement with a central staff. The movement constantly attacked rear lines and units of the army group center, especially in Byelorussia and central Russia, and from autumn 1942 also in northeastern Ukraine. German forces, in southern Russia together with Hungarian units, organized combined antipartisan raids, encircling partisan areas. These operations were accompanied by extreme violence against locals—whole villages were burned, and inhabitants murdered or deported. The antipartisan raids were only partly successful in the military sense. The Soviet partisan movement continued to expand; statistics on its personnel strength vary considerably, as German veterans and Soviet historians tended to inflate the numbers. Reasonable estimates are at 100,000 active partisans in 1942, and a maximum of 280,000 in summer of 1944. All in all, between 400,000 and 500,000 citizens supposedly fought against the occupation, not counting a "partisan reserve" supporting the armed fighters. In Byelorussia, the center of Soviet partisan warfare, Germans lost 6,000–7,000 dead, while they exterminated 300,000–350,000 inhabitants and partisans. The partisans themselves were only partly affected by German raids after 1941. It is estimated that only 20 percent of the partisans in Byelorussia died during the war. In sum, several tens of thousands of soldiers of the German army and their indigenous auxiliaries were killed by partisans, while almost half a million civilians died during antipartisan warfare.

The historical image of the Soviet partisan movement has changed considerably since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its military effectiveness is considered as of limited value, restricted to the "rail war," the two major combined attacks against railways in the German rear during the summers of 1943 and 1944. The Soviet partisans were more effective in keeping up Stalinist rule in the areas under German occupation. Until the end of 1942, partisans killed thousands of real or alleged collaborators, often including their families. They stripped the local population of all agricultural goods and endangered them by provoking German reprisals. A large part of the Soviet partisan units were integrated into the Red Army or NKVD troops in 1944. The anticommunist groups in the territories annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939–1940 represent a specific case of partisans. Parts of these, in the Baltics and in western Ukraine, chose a tactical alliance with the German occupation in 1941–1942, but most of them turned against the Germans in 1943–1944 after realizing that the new occupier did not intend to create independent states in these areas. Especially in Latvia, Lithuania, and in western Ukraine, those groups fought both German occupation and the Soviet underground, despite some limited tactical negotiations with German authorities in 1944.

The archetype of partisan movements, as portrayed in public memory, is represented by the Yugoslav communist partisans under Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980). The Yugoslav communists after the German occupation in April 1941 did not take action before they were ordered to do so by the Komintern (Communist International) in July 1941. Already during autumn 1941 they were able to control a part of southern Serbia. Even earlier, remnants of the Yugoslav army took up resistance against the occupier. These scattered groups were loosely merged under the name Četniks, led by Drazha Mikhailovich (1893–1946). They pursued a greater Serbian policy and were supported by the government-in-exile and the British. German military and police reacted with unrestrained terror, they took reprisals for partisan attacks as a pretext to shoot all male Jews in Serbia. In 1942 partisan warfare moved to Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia, thus more and more also directed against Italian and to some extent Hungarian occupation troops. Its expansion led to the enforcement of occupation military; in autumn 1943, 230,000 Germans and 220,000 Italians were present in Yugoslavia; the Germans lost approximately 14,000, the Italians 16,000 men in antipartisan warfare, most of them in 1943–1944. Tito's partisans, finally some four hundred thousand men and women, were able to liberate their country and Albania from occupation without the Red Army, albeit with Soviet support. At the same time the partisans took horrible revenge. They fought the Četniks, numbering between twelve and fifteen thousand, which had been abandoned by the British government in 1943, and in 1945 committed mass killings of real or alleged collaborators, including large parts of the German minority.

In western and southern Europe partisan movements developed at a later stage. In France the communist underground started to attack the German occupation from the summer of 1941 on. The French Resistance consisted of politically diverse groups. Nevertheless all armed organizations in February 1944 officially united as French Internal Forces (Forces Françaises de l'Interieur), which remained more in a waiting position. However, in 1943 an actual warfare of the so-called Maquis (French for bushes), rather independent groups, started to unfold in certain regions like the Jura, predominantly as a reaction to recruitment for forced labor, and intensifying after the allied landing in June 1944. The Germans resorted only at a comparatively late point to extreme violence. Killings of hostages intensified, as massacres occurred like the infamous crime at Oradour-sur-Glane. In Belgium similar armed resistance movements turned up, though much less active than the French one.

The Greek resistance, like the Yugoslav one, had to fight against three powers at the same time, German, Italian, and Bulgarian occupiers. The Communist National Liberation Front, ELAS (Ellinikos Laikos Apeleftherotikon Stratos), applied armed resistance from mid-1942 and controlled some of the mountain regions, while the anticommunist underground despite British support remained in a weaker position. From August 1943 on, Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht started an excessively violent retaliation policy in Greece, and then extended it to the regions that had been under Italian occupation. At least 25,000 civilians were killed, almost one million forcibly expelled from their homes.

The Italian resistance was activated by the German occupation of the country, which had been an Axis ally, in September 1943. As a result of widely differing political views, a common leadership for armed resistance was established only in June 1944, as the general command of the Corpo Volontari della Libertà (CVL; Voluntary Liberty Corps). Most of the resistance was active in central and northern Italy, especially in the mountain regions. Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS, especially in spring and summer 1944 reacted with massacres against the civil population, resulting in the murder of around ten thousand persons.

A very late case of armed resistance turned up in the Axis state of Slovakia, during the Slovak Uprising from August 1944, as German troops occupied the country. Parts of the former Slovak army now fought against the German occupiers, in cooperation with approximately 2,500 partisans. Until the liberation of the country almost 3,000 civilians were killed and another 30,000 deported to German camps.


Partisan warfare during the Second World War showed some common features that were unique for this period: there were armed resistance groups all over Axis-occupied Europe. On the other hand, these resisters faced not only German repression, but also violence by Italian, Hungarian, Romanian, Bulgarian and, to a certain extent, Slovakian troops and police units. It goes without saying that the German Reich was primarily responsible for the crimes committed during antipartisan warfare. Only Germany in 1942–1943 installed a central institution for combating partisans, the Chef der Bandenkampfverbände (Chief of Antibanditry Units) of the SS, who directed operations in most Eastern European areas under civil occupation. The actual antipartisan warfare was taken over by Wehrmacht, especially security troops; by Waffen-SS; and by police units. All of them relied on hundreds of thousands of indigenous auxiliaries, who out of political beliefs, material incentives, or under coercion participated in the antipartisan actions.

In most countries a broad variety of political direction existed among the underground movement, only temporarily united against the Axis aggressors. In several cases, the underground units were not only fighting against occupiers but also among each other. The Allies provided a network for most of the major groups, initially the British Special Operations Executive, and during the second half of the war also the American Office of Strategic Services. The communist partisan warfare all over Europe was more and more directed by the Komintern in Moscow and after its dissolution in 1943 by other organs of the Soviet state, especially the Communist Party and the Secret Police NKVD. All of the Allies organized supply, trained personnel, and in many cases even parachuted personnel (mostly natives in exile) into the occupied countries. Several of the underground movements at the end of the war merged with regular armies (in Eastern Europe the newly created Soviet-based armies), and they provided a large part of the postwar elites.

Not only anti-Nazi and antifascist movements developed partisan organizations, even in Germany there was a long debate on the necessity of an irregular Volkskrieg (People's War) since the 1920s. Facing defeat in 1944, German SS and military started to issue plans for an underground warfare after allied advance, especially in Eastern Europe. The SS managed to build up small groups of foreign SS members or locals, especially in Latvia. Inside the Reich, plans for an underground army "Wehrwolf" (werewolves) under SS leadership were set up. Despite some spectacular actions under Allied occupation, only some small groups continued the fight, an overall organization never came into being.


Partisan warfare in Europe was not over in 1945, but continued in Eastern Europe until the late 1940s. Noncommunist underground movements now fought against new Soviet occupations and indigenous communist attempts to take over the postwar states. The two main forces in the western Soviet Union were the so-called Forest Brothers in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in western Ukraine. They led a desperate war against internal troops of the NKVD (later MVD, Ministry of Interior). The latter already in 1940–1941 had established a department, from 1944 the Main Administration for the Combat against Banditism (Glavnoe Upravlenie po Borbe s Banditizmom, or GUBB). Soviet warfare against the anticommunist underground was especially ruthless and resulted in the killing of hundreds of thousands. According to Soviet statistics, until 1946, 70,000 partisans were killed and another 210,000 captured. In western Ukraine alone, until the early 1950s more than 150,000 civilians were murdered, not counting the higher figure of those Ukrainians deported from partisan areas.

A similar pattern is visible in postwar Poland, where parts of the Home Army continued to fight under the name Freedom and Independence (Wolność i Niepodleglość, WiN), together with other noncommunist units. In Poland, NKVD troops together with the Polish new army and police tried to repress the underground, and killed tens of thousands. The Ukrainian minority in southeastern Poland in 1947 during "Vistula Action" was deported completely to western territories in order to dislocate them from the UPA. Minor armed anticommunist groups like the so-called Crusaders (Krizhari) were active in Yugoslavia. In Greece, the situation was almost the opposite. The communist ELAS continued its partisan activity, from 1946 under the name Democratic Army of Greece (Demokratikos Stratos Elados, or DDE), in order to install a communist government. It took the Greek National Army, with major assistance of the British, until October 1949 to overwhelm the communist guerrillas.

Most of the anticommunist underground groups in Eastern Europe were supported by the Western powers, especially by British intelligence. Nevertheless, through espionage and infiltration the Soviet secret police was able to destroy them almost completely until the late 1940s. Remnants of these units, especially in the Baltics, fought against communist power until the early 1950s.


After 1947 Europe's involvement in partisan warfare again shifted to the colonies, which were seeking independence, often continuing the war that they had fought against the Axis powers until 1945. Now the Western Europeans were themselves fighting an antiguerrilla war. The British army fought the uprising of the Malayan Communist Party from 1948 until 1960, an episode called the Malayan Emergency. In East Africa they countered the Mau Mau uprising during the Kenyan Emergency from 1952 until 1960. Much more violent was the guerrilla war of the Netherlands against the Communist Party in Indonesia (1947–1948), at that time the Netherlands East Indies. France led the most intense guerrilla wars. Both the Indochina War of 1946–1954 and the Algerian War of 1954–1962 to a large extent were led as antiguerrilla campaigns, the latter with utmost violence. As the last colonial power, Portugal was also faced with uprisings, starting in Angola 1961.

The Geneva convention on POWs from 1949 envisaged a certain legal protection for irregular warfare, especially its amendment in 1977. After the 1960s, partisan or guerrilla warfare, unlike in Africa, Asia, and South America, ceased to play an important role in European military history. During the 1970s, some terrorist movements in Germany and Italy considered themselves "urban guerrillas," but showed completely different patterns. Also other ethnic terrorist groups claimed to fight for political aims and were responsible for assassinations, but did not resemble guerrilla movements. During the Cold War, East and West worked out insurgency plans in case of attack by the opponent. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) secretly prepared the Gladio force, intended to continue resistance under a presumed Soviet occupation. But these projects became obsolete as communist regimes fell across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the period from 1989 to 1991.

The Yugoslav Wars of 1991–1995 were accompanied by the return of partisan patterns. Militias and irregular forces played an important role during the conflict. Finally, partisan tactics have been applied by ethnic groups who sought to gain independence from the Russian Federation, as is visible in the Chechnyan Wars (1994–1996, and since 1999).


Partisan warfare by and large originates in the establishment of regular armies and in the militarization of society. Partisan groups often consist of men (or women) who were not recruited, deserters, or soldiers who have lost contact with their armies. Most partisans are motivated either by political ideologies or suppressive acts of occupiers. Additionally partisans tend to recruit more personnel by coercion. Most partisan groups have a weaker hierarchy than regular forces, though at times more brutal discipline.

Partisan warfare requires certain strategies of legitimization for an activity, which is generally seen as irregular. During war the central legitimization is the combat against foreign occupiers and oppressors. The communist underground during the Second World War was also driven by ideological motives, especially the establishment of a new order and the dominance of the Soviet Union. In peacetimes national or ethnic independence seems to be the prevalent driving motive.

These legitimization strategies are not only important for the partisan group identity and the motivation to fight, but also in relationship to the population. Partisans are highly dependent on the local population, especially concerning personnel recruitment, logistical support, and communication. On the other hand, partisans not only control the locals but also often are able to establish a complete rule, especially in remote areas.

The natural environment is another precondition for partisan warfare. Since partisans often lack military strength, they are obliged to restrict their activities to areas, like forests or mountains, that are difficult to control using regular forces. That is one of the reasons why, for example, it was not possible to establish a partisan movement in most of Ukraine during the German occupation.

A general problem of partisan warfare is the lack of material. A majority of partisan groups have problems acquiring uniforms or even appropriate shoes for their members. Their armory consists primarily of low-tech weapons. Heavy weapons, which usually are not suitable for irregular warfare, are almost absent. Partisan groups either take over weapons of armies, or depend on foreign supply.

On the other hand, counterinsurgency warfare is much better equipped, but the military means have a limited effect, since partisans generally try to avoid direct military confrontation and restrict themselves to isolated attacks on infrastructure and enemy personnel. As a consequence, antipartisan warfare alters from general military tactics, acting either in small groups (sometimes disguised as partisans) or combing through areas with regular troops. Antipartisan warfare is dependent on disconnecting the local population from the partisans, either by winning the "battle for the hearts and minds" by supporting the locals, or by delegitimizing the partisans, often officially called "bandits," by deterring the population through violence or by deporting or even exterminating the population. The latter was applied especially by the German occupation in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Poland, and to a certain extent by Soviet authorities in the annexed territories. In most cases antipartisan warfare is led in cooperation with indigenous auxiliaries, sometimes even by creating "defense villages."

Partisan warfare played an eminent role in war memory from the early 1950s. While West Germany and Austria only gradually recognized their resistance against the Nazi regime, most other countries based part of their identity on their history of armed resistance against the Axis occupiers. In Germany, however, the Eastern European partisans were demonized and held exclusively responsible for the radicalization of the occupation during the war. Only during the 1980s and 1990s did the perception shift. In the early twenty-first century it is obvious that the partisan movements represented only minor parts of the population, and that they had fought the war often with extreme violence. While the communist partisans now are considered as agents of Soviet rule or takeover, anticommunist armed resistance often serves as tradition for the new democracies in Eastern Europe. But the issue is still under debate.


Modern partisan warfare in Europe was discussed and planned already after the First World War, but had its high time between 1941 and 1948, with the spread of national socialist occupation and Soviet expansion thereafter. During the interwar period and after 1947–1948 antiguerrilla warfare in the colonies was high on the agenda until the early 1960s. Since then, partisan warfare lost its significance for European history, but remained important for the perception of the wartime period. After a rather heroic image during the first postwar decades, since 1990 a more sober picture has evolved, deconstructing the political myths surrounding the subject, showing the gruesome reality of partisan warfare and focusing on its victims.

See alsoColonialism; Occupation, Military; Warfare.


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Dieter Pohl