May 8, 2020

Celebrating Victory Day: Youth in the Fight Against Fascism in Europe

By Bronwyn Cragg

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi-Fascism, we recognize the struggles and efforts of youth in this victory. The contributions of youth and students in the fight against fascism in Europe and abroad was vast, and each individual story within the broad unified fight could not possibly be done justice in the short space of an article. We provide here only a short glimpse into the multitude of stories of efforts made and of lives given by progressive youth in the first half of the 20th century against the horrors of Nazi-Fascism, and we recognize the need to continue this struggle into the current day:

Debatik, Albania

On February 10th, 1942, a small group of twelve 10 to 14 year olds gathered under secrecy in Tirana to form the United Boys of Communist Ideas, or Debatik for short. Children of workers and artisans, Debatik pledged to fight against the Italian fascist invasion of Albania, quickly assembling a few hundred progressive-minded youth in order to organize small actions and to sabotage Italian efforts in the country. Debatik also brought in a number of teenaged communists to serve as educators and organizers for the group, and by the end of 1942 the organization had expanded across Albania. Following the victory of the Albanian partisans, Debatik was reorganized and became the country’s official Pioneer movement, renaming itself the Organizata e Pionierëve. Today, a neglected but still-standing monument remains in the Grand Park of Tirana to commemorate their efforts.

Ethiopian resistance against Fascist Italy

A number of resistance movements were formed in Ethiopia in response to Fascist Italy’s policy of irredentism, colonialism, and imperialism in the country. Addis Ababa saw the formation of the Black Lions, composed mainly of college students and young people who took up methods of guerilla warfare in order to rid the region of Italian colonizers. Members of the Black Lions sabotaged Italian military actions, including burning three planes carrying Italian officials in June 1936. Outside of the Black Lions and other similar organizations, Ethiopian women often took up the task of preparing food and sharpening weapons for resistance fighters, if not taking up arms or gathering intelligence themselves. The Orthodox Church in Ethiopia also helped broaden the reach of resistance activities, renouncing the actions of Italian Fascists in Ethiopia and invoking religious texts in order to inspire parishioners to take up arms against Italy.

FTP-MOI, France

Young people were the most active within French Resistance movements, widely organized and unafraid to take up arms. Among them, Thomas Elek, born in Hungary to a family of communists, joined the Manouchian Group of the FTP-MOI at age 18, frequently derailing trains and committing grenade attacks against German occupiers with comrades like the Czech communist Pavel Simo. In 1943, Elek and a number of his FTP-MOI comrades were arrested, tortured by Vichy officials, and executed by firing squad. Simo was also arrested and executed in the summer of 1943. Olga Bancic, a Romanian Jewish communist and young worker, was the only member not executed by firing squad due to a law preventing women from being executed on French soil. Bancic had personally manufactured explosives and had taken part in around 100 acts of sabotage, refusing to give up information about her comrades even through torture. She was deported to Stuttgart and subsequently killed.

EPON and the National Liberation Front, Greece

In 1941, Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Stantas climbed the Acropolis to tear down the swastika and replace it with the Greek national flag. In November of that year, young people organized rallies and Europe’s first all-student strike against fascist occupation. Two years later, EPON, the United Panhellenic Organization of Youth, was founded as the militant youth wing of Greece’s National Liberation Front, the Greek Resistance front that united the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) with a number of smaller progressive and republican groups against fascism and occupation. EPON consisted of a number of working class communist youth, leading and continuing the struggles against German, Italian, and Bulgarian fascists and participating in combat and sabotage missions in both towns and in the mountainside. On March 25, 1943, EPON members attempted a mass mobilization of Greek youth, writing slogans on walls, laying wreaths on the graves of national heroes, and gathering in the thousands -- by the next morning, over 300,000 people had gathered to protest against fascism and occupation. EPON continued to mobilize groups of youth to fight the fascists, to block and sabotage their actions, and to rally masses of people in the streets. Members resisted the worst of fascist occupation, torture, and death, one notable story concerning the young militant Tsaprazis Taxiarchis even being forced by German occupiers to dig his own grave. By the end of the liberation war, EPON members, ranging from the ages of 18 to 24, made up 65-75% of combatants in ELAS (the Greek People’s Liberation Army), numbering around 32,000. Although dissolved by the courts at the beginning of the Greek Civil War, EPON continued to operate underground until 1958.

Italian Partisans

The partisans of Italy were one of the largest, most active, and most widely recognized groups of underground resistance fighters in WWII Europe. Young women like Clarice Boniburini, Irma Marchiani, Elsa Oliva, and Carla Capponi took up arms, held positions of command, relayed messages, assassinated fascists, and resisted tremendous torture. In the summer of 1944, a large number of these women partisans participated in efforts against the German army in Montefiorino, which was held by a brigade of around 800 socialists. The battle raged on for a week, and although declared a victory by the heavily-armed Germans, the Italian partisans had killed six times the number of Germans than partisans killed, costing the Nazis 2000 occupiers. After the war, around 35,000 women, most under 30 years old, were recognized for their contributions as partisans. A number of Italian women also hid partisans and Jews, printing and distributing anti-fascist pamphlets and serving as couriers. Of these women, around 20,000 were recognized after the end of the war for their efforts as “Italian patriots”.

Jewish Partisan Groups

A number of young Jewish partisans organized brigades across Central and Eastern Europe to fight Nazism, fascism, and antisemitism in their home countries. The Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (FPO) was a cross-ideology group of young Jews in the Vilna Ghetto, most under 30 and many much younger, who trained in self-defense, assisted the Red Army and fellow underground groups, smuggled weapons into the ghetto, and engaged in sabotage actions against German forces, factories, and warehouses. Upon the ghetto’s attempted liquidation in 1943, the FPO escaped, joining up on the outside with Soviet forces and participating in the ghetto’s liberation the following year. Similarly, the Bielski partisans in German-occupied Poland (in areas now incorporated into Belarus) were organized by four Polish-Jewish brothers aged 15 to 36 who had escaped the Nowogródek ghetto and began to smuggle others into nearby forests. Despite the fact that they eventually numbered over 1200 members and had even built a town-like series of bunkers, kitchens, mills, workshops, a hospital, a bathhouse, and even a de-facto synagogue, the Bielski partisans evaded German forces, prioritizing saving Jews but sabotaging German actions in the process, destroying German trains, telegraph poles, and bridges, and serving in clandestine combat missions against Nazi forces. The partisans connected with Soviet forces, fighting Polish collaborators and Germans alike, and were disbanded once they had gained control of the area in mid-1944. Jews participated elsewhere as well, numbering around 5000 members in Yugoslav partisan groups, up to 8000 joining Soviet partisan brigades, and accounting for 500,000 positions in the Soviet Red Army.

Union of Communist Youth, Romania

Romania’s Union of Communist Youth was banned initially in 1924, seeing additional repression and arrests into WWII and further under the fascist Antonescu-Sima government. Member Filimon Sârbu, the son of railway workers exiled from their hometown in Transylvania for organizing strikes, was forced to drop out of school and later became an apprentice lathe operator, but in 1933 he was fired from his apprenticeship due to his communist organizing. Arrested in 1936 for antifascist organizing, he was forcibly drafted into the Romanian Army, where he faced frequent disciplinary actions. By 1941, he joined up with the illegal Union of Communist Youth, and began to organize sabotage actions in port towns, including setting fire to a German military warehouse. In June 1941, Sârbu and a number of other young communists were arrested, and Sârbu was sentenced to death. Sârbu was executed at the age of 25 in Jilava prison, and his other comrades faced lengthy prison sentences.

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