The French Resistance

This information is from "Justice at Nuremberg" by Robert E. Conot

Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski was the head of the SS section in charge of anti-partisan warfare. He was one of Himmler's favorites and was among the 12 highest ranking SS officers. As a long time member of the Nazi party, he had killed several Communists in the street fighting in Germany in 1932 and 1933.

The following is quoted from the book entitled "Justice at Nuremberg" by Robert E. Conot:

Following the onslaught on the Soviet Union, Bach-Zelewski became Höbere SS and Polizeiführer in central Russia. In 1942 he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. Tortured by guilt, he writhed and screamed, and was oppressed by horrible visions. "Don't you know what's happening in Russia?" he asked his doctor. "The entire Jewish people is being exterminated there."

Two of his sisters were married to Polish Jews. He was from Pomerania, much of which had gone to Poland after World War I.

Dr. Ernst Grawitz, the chief SS medical officer, reported to Himmler: "He is suffering particularly from hallucinations connected with the shooting of Jews, which he himself carried out, and with other grievous experiences in the East."

Within a few months Bach-Zelewski recovered sufficiently to be named chief of all antipartisan units. Throughout 1943 he flew from one headquarters to another organizing antipartisan task forces out of units of the Wehrmacht, the SS, the SD, and the police. Occasionally, when he considered an action especially important, he led it himself.

While, individually, many of the partisan groups were more a nuisance than a danger to the Germans, collectively, by their very numbers and the vast territory over which they spread, they posed a major threat. Attacks on trains averaged eight hundred to a thousand a month.


By its very nature, the warfare was savage. The partisans had no facilities to keep prisoners or to treat wounded, so captured soldiers were shot as a matter of course. Hitler, conversely, reiterated that whoever was involved in antipartisan warfare had carte blanche: "The enemy employs in partisan warfare Communist-trained fanatics who do not hesitate to commit any atrocity. It is more than ever a question of life or death. If the fight against the partisans in the East is not waged with the most brutal means we will shortly reach the point when the available forces are not sufficient to control this pest. It is therefore not only justified but it is the duty of the troops to use all means without restriction even against women and children as long as it insures success. No Germans employed against the partisans will be held accountable for the fighting against them or their followers either by disciplinary action or by court-martial."


Warfare between guerrillas and German troops in western Europe was scarcely less savage. On February 3, 1944, the commander in chief of the forces in the West directed: "It is of little importance that innocent people should suffer. It will be the fault of the terrorists. All commanders of troops who show weakness in suppressing the terrorists will be severely punished. On the other hand, those who go beyond the orders received and are too severe will incur no penatly."

When, the following month, 35 German soldiers were killed in an attack in Rome, 382 people of all genders and ages were mowed down in the Ardeatine Caves. While retreating north through Italy, the SS killed and burned as wantonly as in the East. (President George W. Bush visited the caves in June 2004 during the 60th anniversary of D-Day events.)

In France, thirty thousand people were shot and forty thousand died in Nazi prisons during the war. The violence reached its height following the Allied landing in Normandy. The Wehrmacht, and especially the SS, came under relentless attack from the Maquis, supplied and loosely coordinated by the Allies. Sniped at, blown up by mines, their stragglers picked off and their wounded killed, their columns bombed by British and Americans planes directed by the guerillas, the SS cut a swathe of terror in revenge.

The division Das Reich, ordered from Bordeaux to the Normandy front, required seventeen days to make what was normally a three-day journey and suffered hundreds of casualties en route. When a popular battalion commander was killed in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres, near Limoges, the troopers descended in error on Oradour-sur-Glane. Unable to extract any information, they machine-gunned the 190 men of the community in the square, and burned 245 women and 207 children alive in the church.

The account of an eyewitness was introduced into evidence: "Outside the church the soil was freshly dug; children's garments were piled up, half burned. Where the barns had stood, completely calcinated human skeletons, heaped one on the other, partially covered with various materials, made a horrible charnelhouse."

Juxtaposed was the report of a German judicial inquiry, issued January 14, 1945: "The reprisals appear to be absolutely justified for military reasons."


Biddle (the prosecutor at Nuremberg) wanted to know how many troops Germans had committed to antipartisan warfare. Bach-Zelewski replied: "Perhaps three divisions." This was a statement that was true insofar as it went, but was completely misleading as to the extent of the combat. The fact of the matter was that at the height of the fighting there had been 253,000 men employed in battling the guerillas, but, of these, 238,000 had been auxiliaries recruited from the occupied lands.

End of Quote from "Justice at Nuremberg" by Robert E. Conot

Back to The Story index