Resistance histories

The political resistance against Nazism, Fascism and German military occupation in the middle years of the twentieth century has made the term synonymous with leftist dissidence against authoritarianism. That is the case despite the fact that not all resistance against these forces emerged from the left, and not all of it was anti-fascist in ideological terms. Just think of the generals’ plot against Hitler in 1944, or the efforts of Charles de Gaulle and his Free French in London. Neither was the use of the word ‘resistance’ to convey organised opposition to a ruling power a novelty in mid-century Europe. The terminology extends back at least to the late nineteenth century, and the concept goes back even further.

It was to share historical perspectives on resistance that colleagues organised a ‘teach-out’ as part of the UCU strike action in defence of the USS defined benefit pension scheme in March 2018. We wanted to focus our attention on the mental and affective processes of individual dissent. Whatever there might be to say about the organisation of resistance on a mass scale in any historical context, all such movements originated in individual human refusal—refusal to adapt, accommodate and accept what was thought and felt to be wrong.

Our historical examples showed the relevance of what the anthropologist James C. Scott once called ‘weapons of the weak’. When faced with overwhelming force or subtler asymmetries of power, men and women have made imaginative use of the tools available to them. The Jews of Jerusalem in the first century CE appropriated the very symbol of Imperial Rome—the eagle—and invested it with new, subversive meaning when making sense of the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The apocalyptic downfall of the ‘worthless’ eagle presented a means of critiquing the Roman Empire. At the same time, the symbolism offered assurances to the Jewish people that the Empire would fall and in so doing provided encouragement to stay firm in the face of crisis.

Aristophanes imagined an equally inventive kick back in his comedy Lysistrata, performed in Athens in 411 BCE, during the Peloponnesian War. In order to end the conflict, the central character proposed not only to occupy the Acropolis, and thus to starve the war effort of its funds, but to unite women throughout Greece in another act of resistance – withholding sex. In the words of the play, it is not ‘crowbars’ that are needed, but ‘intelligence and common sense’. And the result: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata ends with peace and reconciliation.

Some early twentieth-century feminists in France also deployed this tactic. They promoted a grève des ventres [‘womb strike’] designed to force husbands into lobbying for contraception rights on their behalf. The historian Luisa Passerini found that the Italian women she interviewed about their everyday experience of living under Mussolini’s Fascist regime joked about doing something similar. They suggested that they had limited the number of children they bore in defiance of the natalist cult that inveighed them to produce more sons for the army. Sharing information and traditional remedies for contraception and abortion, although always illegal acts, could become infused with a more pointed political meaning for these women. Indeed, in their refusal to have their bodies co-opted by fascism, they anticipated the second-wave feminist notion that the ‘personal is political’.

Conversely, women in occupied France in the 1940s used the prevailing gendered assumptions about women—that they were weak, apolitical, and duplicitous—as tools of resistance. ‘Ignorant’ wives fed false information to the authorities; young women ‘seduced’ German officers only to shoot them at point blank range. Thus women’s very conformity to social expectations served to disguise their rebellion.

In an equally inventive way, refusal to bow to Nazi propaganda on newsreels in wartime Paris led to outbursts of sneezing among cinema audiences. The gesture was so successful that for a time the authorities demanded the films were played with the lights on. It turns out that even workers in as repressive a regime as Nazi Germany could exert some measure of control over their working conditions. They enacted politically legible refusals to cooperate with the priorities of the regime such as the Go Slow or absenteeism. The point is to recognise that people in the past, in drawing on localised traditions, memory and knowledge, already knew what to do in such circumstances. We are not the workers of Nazi Germany, but we can learn from them.

We closed the discussion by referring to the grievances that powered the Russian Revolutions in 1917. One dimension of the popular protests against the tsarist regime in Late Imperial Russia was the fight against arbitrariness – from peasants revolting against landlords’ authority, to workers fighting against their employers, whether the intelligentsia rebelling against tsarist despotism or women challenging the patriarchal order. What makes us feel outraged now?


Joan Tumblety, Helen Spurling, Annelies Cazemier, Niamh Cullen, Neil Gregor, Claire Le Foll



4 Ezra 11:1-12:3 in J. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament pseudepigrapha, vol.1, Apocalyptic literature and testaments (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1983), pp. 548-549

Aristophanes: Lysistrata and other plays, trans. Alan H. Sommerstein, rev. edn (London: Penguin Books, 2002)


Bowles, Brett, ‘German newsreel propaganda in France, 1940-44’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 24, 1, 2004, pp. 45-67


Kedward, H.R., ‘Resiting French Resistance’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 1999, pp. 271-282


Mason, Timothy W., Social Policy in the Third Reich. The Working Class and the ‘National Community’ (Oxford: Berg, 1993)


Passerini, Luisa, Fascism in popular memory: the cultural experience of the Turin working class, trans. Robert Lumley and Jude Bloomfield (Cambridge, 1987)


Portier-Young, A., ‘Jewish Apocalyptic Literature as Resistance Literature’ in J.J. Collins, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature (Oxford: OUP, 2014), pp. 145-162


Schwartz, Paula, ‘Partisanes and gender politics in Vichy France’, French Historical Studies, 16, 1989, 126-151


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