The Partisan Movement

"The teenage partisan Zoya Kosmodemianskaia is marched off to her execution by German soldiers, whose comrades proudly photographed the event. Around her neck is a sign branding her a 'House Burner.'"
“The teenage partisan Zoya Kosmodemianskaia is marched off to her execution by German soldiers, whose comrades proudly photographed the event. Around her neck is a sign branding her a ‘House Burner.'”

As the German military over extended itself on the Eastern front, its supply lines and logistical support structure became prime targets for groups of guerrilla fighters. According to William C. Fuller, these resistance fighters, known as partisans, numbered as many as 200,000 individuals in 1943. The presence of such a large fighting force behind German lines proved to be extremely beneficial to Russian military operations as well as exposing failures of German occupation.

Partisan groups were composed of officers, soldiers, as well as local people trained to fight. At the beginning of the war, large numbers of Soviet personnel were trapped behind enemy lines. These groups were some of the first partisan fighters. Despite some military training, partisan groups during the early war period struggled to survive due to a lack of supplies, training, and casualties sustained in military operations. In a move to inspire nationalistic pride, Soviet propaganda circulated the story of Zoya Kosmodemianskaia. Zoya was a partisan teenager who’s story and execution (pictured above) were used as a way to inspire the Soviet people.

Partisan tactics focused on hitting key strategic points such as railways and communication junctions as well as supply lines. Guerrilla warfare suited the forested regions of German occupation. Hit and run attacks were common. Constant strain behind the lines forced German commanders to allocate front-line troops to fight behind the lines against partisans. The continual drain on supplies and men reduced the overall combat effectiveness of German forces fighting the Russian military.

Russian partisans were a diverse group of people. Partisans units consisted of professional soldiers, locals, varying religious faiths, and varying degrees of loyalty to the Soviet government. One of the most famous groups of partisans were the Bielski Partisans. These partisans were responsible for the most successful rescue operation of Jews from Nazi tyranny. Few things could cause such a diverse group of peoples to come together. German treatment of occupied territories was extremely cruel. Starvation was common as well as forced relocation of workers back to Germany for work in German factories. Despite aversion to the Soviet government, peasants took the fight to the greater of two evils, fascism.

Partisans played a critical role in the war. Soviet military blunders cost Russia dearly in the early months of the war, and partisan operations helped slow the seemingly unstoppable German advance.


Other Sources:


William C. Fuller, Jr., “The Great Fatherland War and Late Stalinism,” in Russia: A History, by Gregory L. Freeze. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 385.

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3 Responses to The Partisan Movement

  1. seeingred says:

    Before this post, I had no idea that the impact of the Soviet partisans on the war effort. I’ve always been taught that, ultimately, it was “the cold” that beat out the German army, but this could not have been done without the valiant efforts of men who went behind enemy lines. As we’ve seen throughout history in conflicts in Vietnam and in Algeria, guerrilla warfare has always been extremely efficient and effective in defeating the enemy.

  2. A. Nelson says:

    Thanks for reminding us that the struggle against Nazism was about so much more than the weather! The Partisan movement is extremely interesting and complicated. As you can imagine, the postwar fate of irregular units who had fought against the Nazis could be tragic. Thanks for the excellent cite to the Holocaust Museum page for the Bielskii Partisans!

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