Totalitarian Regimes in Occupied Europe and the Rise of Fascism and Nazism

by Paulina Adryańczyk-Linard


‘Hisoria magistra vitae est – the study of the past should serve as a lesson to the future ‘

This Latin sentence should guide all politicians and ordinary people who find themselves in a situation where nationalistic movements are gaining increasing popularity, and groups are proclaiming slogans based on the need to defend national culture or religion from incoming ‘others’ or when young neo-fascists are on the streets under the pretext of patriotic mottoes.

Auschwitz Concentration and Extermination Camp

In these circumstances, it is particularly worthwhile recalling events from less than a century ago; events that led not only to the birth of Fascism and Nazism, but also to an increase in  popularity for these ideologies, to the takeover of power by Mussolini and Hitler in Italy and Germany, and to the reality of  World War II that resulted in the enslavement of almost all of Europe. 

During the interwar years a number of political, social and economic factors played a key role in the rise of political extremism and this, coupled with the ‘quiet consent’ of the main European politicians, ensured that successive governments across Europe  failed to take action. What resulted was the tragic events of 1939 and everything that followed leading to one of the most devastating world wars of all times. Today we can view what happened in the lead up to World War II as a lesson we can learn from, to ensure that similar events do not happen again.

We must realize that the destruction of democratic values ​​is a fact in many countries around the world . We are tempted to close our eyes and wait out the worst. History, however, teaches us that freedom will not defend itself. It needs our help.  

The birth and popularity of Fascism and Nazism

In order to talk about the roots of Fascism and Nazism, it is necessary to go back to the end of the First World War and the consequences that arose because of it. Germans, blamed for the outbreak of the war, felt deeply burdened by the decisions of the Paris conference and the terms of the Treaty of Versailles (it was also called a dictate). Territorial losses, demilitarization and extremely high war reparations were a huge burden for Germany and had a severe impact on the German people, creating a deep sense of humiliation and injustice. The Treaty of Versailles (signed in 1919) and the 1921 London Schedule of Payments required Germany to pay 132 billion gold marks (US$33 billion) in reparations to cover civilian damage caused during the war. The severity of the treaty orders were questioned before the treaty was signed and again after it was signed, with elements of the treaty intensively criticized and eventually rejected within Germany.  During the 1920’s Germany went on to experience a situation of severe economic hardship, as well as a social and political crisis. Political slogans based on resentment towards the Versaille orders became extremely popular ensuring a rise in popular support for the National Socialist German Workers Party, the NSDAP or Nazi party, that had initiated the slogans. The NSDAP was initially a marginalised group that now rose to power and became a mass movement based on the success of the anti-Versaille  political slogans and other actions. The party, commanded by Adolf Hitler, promoted German pride and came to power in 1933 and accomplished this by using democratic mechanisms of parliamentary elections. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) became Chancellor of Germany and soon after, he assumed dictatorial power. 

Although Italy was considered to be a part of the winners group after the first World War, the country could not speak of an actual victory.  The decisions made by the Treaty of Versailles were as bad for Italy as they were for Germany.  In 1915 Italy had joined the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia in return for a promise of benefits after the war, including territorial gains.  When these territorial gains did not materialise after the war, there was a sense of an  ‘incomplete’ victory (also referred to as stolen or crippled victory).

This sense of an ‘incomplete victory’ accompanied the birth of the veterans’ unions which led to the  establishment of the National Fascist Party, and the ‘march on Rome’ in October 1922, an organised mass demonstration that resulted in  Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party  finally taking control and ascending to power in Italy.

Benito Mussolini, like Adolf Hitler, was able to establish a strong relationship with the public based on a sense of perceived injustices and Mussolini went on to become an object of worship.  Both Hitler and Mussolini had the ability to unleash in their ‘followers’ very strong emotions. Hitler was a powerful orator and regularly spoke at public meetings across Germany. Both he and Mussolini managed to garner  the public’s attention and support, making the public feel that there were participating in something great and unique. They motivated the general public by generating within them a  sense of ‘victimhood’, that they, as a group, were victims.  They also identified anyone as different to them as the enemy.  These sentiments were used to justify any necessary actions that needed to be taken against the ‘enemy’ whether those enemies were internal or external. They created amongst the general public, the primacy of the group, to which everyone has duties superior to any rights; the need for closer integration and the authority of natural leaders. 

Unlike imposed earlier monarchist systems or military dictatorships, fascism nourished itself with widespread public dissatisfaction resulting from a lost war, job losses, a sense of humiliation and the threat to national identity. The stronger the level of dissatisfaction, the more willingly thousands of followers worshipped the Nazi leader for his dreams of rebirth or promises to regain stolen goods and values. 

Outbreak of War

World War II began on September 1, 1939  when Germany invaded Poland. The war was initially seen as a two-sided Polish-German conflict. However, it soon turned out that Poland was only the first of many countries to be forcibly occupied by the Third Reich. The spring of 1940 brought  attacks on Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France, creating massive change across Central and Eastern Europe.18 The United Kingdom, isolated from the rest of the continent by the English Channel, managed to successfully defend their country during what became known as the Battle of Britain (July 1940 to June 1941) against sustained attacks from the Nazi air force (Luftwaffe) and they remained a free country for the duration of the war, an action that played a key role in the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.

The governments of several European countries occupied by the Third Reich now found themselves in exile. Many of these governments in exile found shelter in the United Kingdom and from here, they attempted to coordinate the activities of the various resistance movements and  underground structures that came into operation within their own countries under Nazi occupation. Many of the countries also set up armed forces in exile that continued the fight against the Nazis. 

However, it is important to ask how all this happened? Was it not possible to foresee the beginning of World War II on 1 September 1939? After all, from the 1920s onwards, the Germans had carried out a series of activities within a European context which could be defined as ‘symptoms’ of war.  Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 and in 1934 he  became known as the Führer or Supreme Leader. In 1934, Hitler secretly carried out a policy of re-armament, building up the size of the German army in violation of the Versaille Treaty restrictions. In 1935 the existence of the German air force (Luftwaffe) was made known and Germany introduced military service, again violating the terms of the Versaille treaty. No actions were taken by the other European leaders. 

In March 1936 Germany once again broke the terms of the Versaille Treaty by marching their army into the demilitarized Rhineland areas and in March 1938 the Anschluss of Austria took place which saw the annexation of Austria as it came under German control.  In September 1938 the Munich Agreement was signed between Germany, Great Britain,  France and Italy, effectively permitting the German annexation of the Sudetenland in Western Czechoslovakia. 

All these activities were made possible thanks to the policy of appeasement conducted mainly by the British and French governments. Appeasement was seen as a way to ensure security in Europe. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proclaimed ‘I bring you peace’ on his return from Munich in September 30, 1938. Less than a year later with the outbreak of WWII, he was proved wrong. 

Joseph Gray,  'Battle of Britain: The First Blitz', 1940
Joseph Gray, ‘Battle of Britain: The First Blitz’, 1940

The situation in Occupied Europe

National socialism was a set of political beliefs associated with the Nazi party of German. A key feature of Nazi political ideology was the idea of creating a ‘living space’ (Lebensraum) for Germany. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler promoted ‘lebensraum’ as a key principle of Nazi foreign policy, stating that land expansion was essential for the survival of the German people. He created a master plan to conquer Eastern and Central  Europe in order to secure more space to build his vast German empire. The aim was to ensure German control over the rest of Europe.  This was connected to a culture of discrimination within Germany that resulted, over time, in the extermination of foreign-born enemies, including Jewish people, Slavs and members of the Roma community. Other persecuted groups included homosexual men, people with disabilities, Jehovah’s witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, political enemies or political opponents including people classified as communists or members of a trade union, those considered as ‘asocials’ including homeless people and authors and artists whose work was considered subversive.

Another key part of Nazi ideology was ‘Germanisation’,  the idea of building a German empire made up of an elite race of Germanic people, the superior biological Aryan race. ‘Germanisation’ began with a ‘classification of people’ across Nazi occupied Europe, removing those not considered part of the’ master race’.  This led to ethnic cleaning and eventually genocide on a vast scale as those not considered part of the superior race were removed from society and were either enslaved or exterminated as they were of no  value. The Nazis developed a system of forced labour camps and concentration and death camps to enact the final solution. These camps  were spread out across the Third Reich and in occupied countries. The vast majority of extermination camps were  located in Polish territories  where,  before the outbreak of war, the highest number of Jewish diaspora lived, almost 3.5 million Jewish people. Within occupied Poland, the ‘Deutsche Volksliste’ or German People’s List was set up by the Nazi party, as a Nazi party institution that regulated citizenship, determining who was acceptable and who was not.

A Bombed Hospital Ward, Kathleen Guthrie, 1940. Two nurses strip a bed with blood-stained sheets in a ward with a large hole blown through the wall. An ARP warden stands near the hole surveying the rubble-strewn floor and the pile of mangled bedsteads on the right. In the background a third nurse and a doctor look down towards something obscured on the floor.
A Bombed Hospital Ward, Kathleen Guthrie, 1940. Two nurses strip a bed with blood-stained sheets in a ward with a large hole blown through the wall. An ARP warden stands near the hole surveying the rubble-strewn floor and the pile of mangled bedsteads on the right. In the background a third nurse and a doctor look down towards something obscured on the floor.

Even though the practices of the Nazi occupying force were not consistent across Europe, there were some common features. Once the Nazis had occupied a country, the lands were incorporated into the Third Reich and  all administrative and legal structures were now directly controlled by Germany.  People living in the occupied territories who were deemed unsuitable for membership of the German nation were deported with many removed to forced labour camps in Germany to provide slave labour. German colonists were brought in to live in the occupied countries. The occupied territories were required to make their labour forces  and natural resources available to the German state, to support the war machine of the Third Reich. German occupation resulted in total exploitation.

People living in the countries and territories occupied by the Nazi regime suffered in many different ways including a loss of property, forced labour, displacement, mass executions of certain groups such as the intelligentsia, politicians or athletes, imprisonment and torture, social and cultural limitations, liquidation of education, the plundering of cultural artefacts, food shortages, forced transfer of goods and natural resources to the German state and the displacement of children including the forced removal of children so they could be raised by German families or their forced removal to Hitlerjugend youth homes. People experienced a constant sense of danger and fear and a growing sense of helplessness and a lack of hope. The Jewish people were isolated and oppressed within ghettos leading to mass deportations of Jewish populations to extermination camps. The genocide of the Jewish people known as the Holocaust or Shoah resulted in the deaths of over six million Jews. The Nazi regime created a state of unparalleled brutality across Europe.

The Germans established a system of government for the Third Reich including within the occupied territories  and this resulted in repression, racial and national segregation, exploitation, and intimidation.  The Nazis demanded total loyalty and obedience through a rigorous system of legal prohibitions, orders and regulations that were imposed on a regular basis and were used to suppress all forms of resistance directed against the authorities. Civil liberties for the German population were excessively restricted with limits place on the right to travel, on correspondence and on any type of gatherings including religious worship.  The civil and political rights of Jewish people were completely abolished and anyone who provided assistance to Jewish people was severely punished or executed. The death penalty was formally introduced in Poland for anyone who hid or otherwise helped Jews.

The actions of the Nazis generated a wide range of responses within the occupied territories. On the one hand, there are numerous examples of acts of solidarity, support and kindness. The threat of a common enemy (the Nazis) mobilized local and national communities to come together through cooperation and resistance. On the other hand you also find hostility, jealousy, hatred and betrayal.  Many people were forced to fight for their own survival and that of their immediate families even at the expense of others.  There are many stories of collaboration with the Nazis to ensure a person’s survival or for personal gain, highlighting selfish attitudes. However, we should remember that living in a time of war creates extreme circumstances and it is not always easy to make judgements. However, how people react in a time of war and adversity can be a measure of one’s humanity.

Despite the brutality of the Nazi regime and the extremely difficult and repressive conditions imposed across occupied Europe including the relentless actions of the authorities to suppress any form of resistance, actions of solidarity existed everywhere and resistance movements were set up in many different countries. An organized resistance movement was established in Poland and was one of the largest in  Europe.  The underground system that functioned in Poland was on an organised scale unprecedented throughout Europe and it played a key role in the fight for liberty along with the resistance movement in France, the guerrilla movement in Yugoslavia and the various resistance groups that existed in  other European countries.

All forms of resistance were important in the struggle to defeat the Nazi occupiers. Resistance groups and partisans (members of irregular military forces) existed across Europe and they directly opposed and fought against the occupying force and local collaborators through various means including armed conflict.  Many people resisted in their own way by refusing to take part in forced labour that would support the occupying force. Others operated on the edges of the resistance and  provided support through an economic underground or by providing safe houses, false alibis etc. People who tried to escape from Nazi occupied Europe to Allied or neutral countries were also resisting the occupier.  Tens of thousands of people fled from Poland, especially to Hungary. Up to 100,000 fled from Norway to Sweden and Great Britain, and up to 30,000 fled from Alsace and Lorraine to France and Switzerland.  These escapes would not have been possible without the support of the various escape lines and resistance groups established by ordinary people to assist others to escape from Nazi occupied Europe.  People who assisted others to escape showed extraordinary courage, bravery, kindness and determination as they risked their lives to assist those who needed to cross the borders of occupied Europe.   



Albright M., Faszyzm. Ostrzeżenie, Warszawa 2018
Bratkowski S., Kto na to przyzwolił? Szkic o odpowiedzialności za przyszłą historię, Warszawa 2013
A. Filar, Opowieści tatrzańskich kurierów, Warszawa 1977
Madajczyk Cz., Faszyzm i okupacje 1938-1945, Poznań 1984
Paxton R. O., Anatomia Faszyzmu, Poznań 2005
Rutkowski G., Polska Walcząca, t.22 Tatrzańscy kurierzy, Warszawa 2016