Guerrilla warfare is often erroneously perceived as single-minded or even primitive, but this is only true on a technological level. Tolstoy once wrote that guerrilla war “was raised in all its menacing and majestic power; and troubling itself about no question of anyone’s taste or rules, about no fine distinctions, with stupid simplicity, with perfect consistency.”
The guerrilla or partisan fighter may indeed not rely on complex machinery, heavy weaponry or even computers like his enemy might be equipped with, but he can instead overcome and even compensate for those disadvantages with iron conviction and the power of intellect. Thus, common folk become warriors. Some prominent examples in modern or nearly modern history are the battles during the American Revolutionary War, the fighting in Spain against Napoleon, the Libyan struggle against Italy, or the Moroccan uprising against France. Smaller or weaker forces fought a war of attrition against a foreign oppressor.
But if you hear the word ‘partisan’, you’re generally reminded of the resistance fighters of the 20th century. Technically. the word refers to any resistance or guerrilla fighter that is ideologically or emotionally attached to a cause or side that they are informally associated with. Partisans can be of any variety of political convictions.
Modern guerrilla warfare
The father of the modern guerrilla war may well be Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese communists. In 1937, he wrote down his teachings about China’s anti-Japanese struggle in his pamphlet ‘Yu Chi Chan’. Mao was determined to fight even the most radical war to free China from both external and internal enemies. Not only was his impoverished country occupied by the Japanese, but he was also opposed by the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai Shek. To achieve his goal, to become strong enough to face his enemies in the field and take control of the country, he and his forces had to rely on tactics that were both conspiratorial and hidden. Sabotage and terrorism were tools to liquidate collaborators and reactionary elements of the state, like police and politicians. But kidnapping hostages, strong-arming merchants and gathering information were just a step of the way.
The goal was the liberation of the country, and this was only achievable by liberating its people. Mao and his men had to rely on the support of the masses; on the common folk to supply them with food, volunteers and information. Despite their readiness to use violence, the war was as much about propaganda and political agitation. “Explain, persuade, convince,” said Mao, and this way you draw the will of the people to your cause. And in an area sympathetic to his partisan’s cause, the invaders had to see every man, every woman, and every child as a potential agent of the opposition. The guerrillas would be here, there, everywhere – and nowhere. There were thousands of eyes watching the enemy, always watching.
It was crucial for their survival to keep the initiative, and the guerrilla would only engage the enemy under conditions of their own choosing. Guerrilla warfare was about distraction and surprise, about mobility and deception. The enemy would unknowingly move into a trap where a short vicious fight would destroy them.
The real frontline of the guerrillas was the rear of the enemy, because it was there that their war would feed, stealing arms, supplies and medicine. But if the odds were against them, the fighters would disperse as quickly as they had struck. Guerrillas had to be professionals when it came to running away. They were not to stand and fight, and never be dragged into a fight where their freedom of movement was limited. If they became static in their tactics, if they became unorganised, then they would be nothing more than vagabonds, bandits and anarchists. All this proved to be true, not only to Mao, but to others on the European continent as well.
In 1941, the war machine of Nazi Germany reached its high water mark. Hitler had once envisioned conquering most of Greater Russia all the way up to the Ural Mountains. But after his advance halted late in the year and the Soviet Union did not come crashing down before the might of the German Panzers, it was clear that a lengthy wartime occupation of the territory taken was necessary.
Where the Germans could, they established civil Reichskommissariats (a type of administrative entity headed by a government official) and General Governments, like in Poland and Ukraine, and tried to rely on local police and security forces to keep the peace. But even in Poland, occupied right from the start of the war, the Germans failed to destroy the underground resistance movement. The nationalistic Armia Krajowa, whose actions would culminate in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, sabotaged the German war effort and kept the spirit of a free Polish state alive- until it was crushed, though not by the Nazis, but by the Soviets.
The Germans had to deal with organised resistance groups on all fronts, though. In the east, the occupation forces failed to exploit the existing anti-Soviet feeling in many regions and instead further alienated most of the population in Eastern Europe, Greater Russia and the Balkans with a harsh and inhumane occupation policy. Oppression, harassment, abuse and persecution by Nazi officials drove many people to militant resistance.
Before the German invasion, Joseph Stalin had banned local partisan forces, since it would not only show a lack of confidence in the regular forces but could also potentially backfire on him. Nonetheless, the NKVD – the Soviet secret police – had already experimented with irregular ‘Destruction Battalions’, and as the war with Germany got going, they were quick to call upon the Otryadi groups, made of scattered Red Army troops, party officials and political officers, to keep on fighting behind the German lines. In 1942, Moscow began officially organising party led partisan groups, and by 1943, there were an estimated 130,000 irregulars operating in the German rear. 80 per cent of the Soviet Partisans operated in the area of Central Russia and Byelorussia, where thick forests and swampy marshes were ideal hiding places and refuges.
In the Balkans, the Chetniks, experienced from decades of guerrilla warfare, could rely on an already existing network that supported quick evasion and harassment tactics. Communist guerrilla leader Joseph Broz ‘Tito’ organised the Odredi – partisan groups to operate in Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro. In Northern Bosnia he was so successful that it was soon known as ‘Titoland’, and by 1943, the Chetniks were 250,000 men strong. His ‘Proletarian Brigades’ began attacking Italian and Croatian outposts, but also had to constantly evade elite SS units and German commandos that were mercilessly hunting them.
Discouraging partisan activity
The partisan threat became reality as more and more German soldiers fell prey to ambushes. Numerous cases of murdered patrols and ravaged supply columns caused Heinrich Himmler to task his ruthless SS-Police commandos specifically with anti-partisan operations. But the territories were often too vast to patrol, and only highly organised operations had any sort of short term success, since the Partisans simply dispersed in the face of strong opposition.
Because of this, the Axis Powers organised ‘Schutzmannschaften’ and the so-called ‘Eastern Battalions’ made out of auxiliaries, often Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians or Ukrainians and regular German police. These security divisions set out to destroy partisan cells by all means possible and often did the dirty work for the SS, like rounding up Jews, Soviet sympathisers and other undesirables accused of partisan activities. Whole villages were burned down, and many innocent people were butchered in an attempt to discourage partisan activity. That ruthlessness of course backfired and drove even more people with nothing left to lose into the ranks of the partisans.
The term ‘Partisan’ is often associated with communist guerrilla fighters, but there were of course also non-communist resistance factions, often nationalistic or constitutionalist. They hated communism as much as they did the Nazis and engaged in a three way war for the future of the country. An example was the Croatian Ustasha Militia or the nationalists in the Baltics, who fought the Communists as soon as the Germans were no longer a threat, and kept up the fight into the early 1950s.
In the long term, though, in Europe, only Tito’s partisans achieved what Mao had envisioned. To become more than just a guerrilla force fighting foreign invaders. Tito and Mao were able to liberate themselves and stay in power, because revolutionary guerrilla warfare differs from just armed resistance against the occupying enemy. For Mao, the guerrilla fighter had to be a political warrior as well. He would lead by personal example and through firm education, would convince himself and the people around him of the righteousness of his struggle. His fight was not against but for the interest of the people. At the end would be nothing less than the trans-formation of the whole country into revolutionary war until liberation.
There are some parallels between Mao and the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun-Tzu and their writings about warfare, and Mao’s teachings about guerrilla warfare would soon inspire other causes, such as the struggle of Ho Chi Minh in Indochina or the socialist fight in. While guerrilla warfare can effectively cripple an invader, revolutionary guerrilla warfare can raise a political guerrilla leader to power, drawing mass support that a non-political cannot.
If you’re interested in a more visual interpretation of this story, watch our Sabaton History episode, Unbreakable – Guerrilla Warfare: