Resistance movement

Resistance movement
Members of the White Rose, Munich 1942. From left: Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst.
Watched by two small boys, a member of the FFI (French Forces of the Interior) poses with his Bren gun at Chateaudun, 1944

A resistance movement is a group or collection of individual groups, dedicated to opposing an invader in an occupied country or the government of a sovereign state. It may seek to achieve its objects through either the use of nonviolent resistance (sometimes called civil resistance) or the use of armed force. In many cases, as for example in Norway in the Second World War, a resistance movement may employ both violent and non-violent methods, usually operating under different organizations and acting in different phases or geographical areas within a country.[1]

The term resistance is generally used to designate a movement considered legitimate (from the speaker's point of view). Organizations and individuals critical of foreign intervention and supporting forms of organized movement (particularly where citizens are affected) tend to favor the term. When such a resistance movement uses violence, those favorably disposed to it may also speak of freedom fighters.

On the lawfulness of armed resistance movements in international law, there has been a dispute between states since at least 1899, when the first major codification of the laws of war in the form of a series of international treaties took place. In the Preamble to the 1899 Hague Convention II on Land War, the Martens Clause was introduced as a compromise wording for the dispute between the Great Powers who considered francs-tireurs to be unlawful combatants subject to execution on capture and smaller states who maintained that they should be considered lawful combatants.[2][3] More recently the 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, referred in Article 1. Paragraph 4 to armed conflicts "... in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes..." This phraseology contains many ambiguities that cloud the issue of who is or is not a legitimate combatant.[4] Hence depending on the perspective of a state's government, a resistance movement may or may not be labelled a terrorist group based on whether the members of a resistance movement are considered lawful or unlawful combatants and their right to resist occupation is recognized.[5] Ultimately, the distinction is a political judgment.



The modern usage of the term "Resistance" originates from the self-designation of many movements during World War II, especially the French Resistance. The term is still strongly linked to the context of the events of 1939–45, and particularly to opposition movements in Axis-occupied countries. Using the term "resistance" to designate a movement meeting the definition prior to WWII might be considered by some to be an anachronism. However, such movements existed prior to WWII (albeit often called by different names), and there have been many subsequent to it – for example in struggles against colonialism and foreign military occupations. "Resistance" has become a generic term that has been used to designate underground resistance movements in any country.


Resistance movements can include any irregular armed force that rises up against an enforced or established authority, government, or administration. This frequently includes groups that consider themselves to be resisting tyranny. Some resistance movements are underground organizations engaged in a struggle for national liberation in a country under military occupation or totalitarian domination. Tactics of resistance movements against a constituted authority range from nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, to industrial sabotage and guerrilla warfare, or even conventional warfare if the resistance movement is strong enough. Any government facing violent acts from a resistance movement usually condemns such acts as terrorism, even when such attacks target only the military or security forces. Resistance during World War II was mainly dedicated to fighting the Axis occupiers. Germany itself also had an anti-Nazi German resistance movement in this period. Although the United Kingdom did not suffer invasion in World War II, preparations were made for a British resistance movement in the event of a German invasion (see Auxiliary Units).

Controversy regarding definition

Some definitions of resistance movement have proved controversial. According to Joint Publication 1-02, the United States Department of Defense defines a resistance movement as "an organized effort by some portion of the civil population of a country to resist the legally established government or an occupying power and to disrupt civil order and stability". In strict military terminology, a resistance movement is simply that; it seeks to resist (change) the policies of a government or occupying power. This may be accomplished through violent or non-violent means. In this view, a resistance movement is specifically limited to changing the nature of current power, not to overthrow it; and the correct[according to whom?] military term for removing or overthrowing a government is an insurgency. However, in reality many resistance movements have aimed to displace a particular ruler, especially if that ruler has gained or retained power illegally.

Freedom fighter

"Freedom Fighter" redirects here. For the aircraft, see Northrop F-5.
Mujahideen loyal to Yunus Khalis, in October 1987

Freedom fighter is another term for those engaged in a struggle to achieve political freedom for themselves or obtain freedom for others.[6] Though the literal meaning of the words could include anyone who fights for the cause of freedom, in common use it may be restricted to those who are actively involved in an armed rebellion, rather than those who campaign for freedom by peaceful means (though they may use the title in its literal sense).

Generally speaking, freedom fighters are seen as people who are using physical force in order to cause a change in the political and or social order. Notable examples include the South African Umkhonto we Sizwe and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), both of which were considered freedom fighters by supporters. However, a person who is campaigning for freedom through peaceful means may still be classed as a freedom fighter, though in common usage they are called political activists, as in the case of the Black Consciousness Movement.

People who are described as "freedom fighters" are often also called assassins, rebels, insurgents, or terrorists. This leads to the aphorism "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter".[7] The degree to which this occurs depends on a variety of factors specific to the struggle in which a given freedom fighter group in engaged. During the Cold War, under Ronald Reagan's Reagan Doctrine, the term freedom fighter was used by the United States and other Western Bloc countries to describe rebels in countries controlled by communist states or otherwise under the influence of the Soviet Union, including rebels in Hungary, the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua, UNITA in Angola and the multi-factional mujahideen in Afghanistan.[citation needed] In the media, an effort has been made by the BBC to avoid the phrases "terrorist" or "freedom fighter," except in attributed quotes, in favor of neutral terms such as "militant", "guerrilla", "assassin", "insurgent", "paramilitary" or "militia".[8]

A freedom fighter is different from a mercenary, as they gain no direct material benefit from being involved in a conflict.

Common weapons

Partisans often use captured weapons taken from their enemies, or weapons that have been stolen or smuggled in. During the Cold War, partisans often received arms from either the Free World countries or the Communist bloc. Free World backed forces would receive weapons such as the American M-16 assault rifle and the FIM-92 Stinger missile launcher. Communist backed forces would receive the Soviet AK-47 assault rifle (and its variants) and RPG-7s. They also may use improvised weapons such as Molotov cocktails[citation needed] or IEDs.

Examples of resistance movements

The following examples are of groups that have been considered or would indentify themselves as resistance groups, the Governments they oppose would more likely define them as terrorists or criminals. These are mostly, but not exclusively, of armed resistance movements. For movements and phases of activity involving non-violent methods, see civil resistance and nonviolent resistance.

Pre-20th century

  • The Sicarii were a first century Jewish movement opposing Roman occupation of the so-called Promised Land. Jesus of Nazareth would have been heard by many to be endorsing this violent resistance against Rome when he told his followers to carry a cross (Luke 14:27), the manner of crucifixion reserved for rebels against Rome.[9]
  • Sons of Liberty – Revolutionary patriot group that embraced Republicanism in the United States during the 1760s and 1770s and routinely engaged in acts of violent resistance against British government officials and prominent loyalist sympathizers. The Boston branch of the Sons of Liberty met under the Liberty Tree, from which they would post messages or hang and burn effigies of their enemies.
  • American Loyalists – group loyal to the crown and faithful to the British Empire, attempted to resist the separatist rebels in North America, though was defeated, except in Canada.

Pre–World War II

World War II

Planned resistance movements

  • The Auxiliary Units, organized by Colonel Colin Gubbins as a potential British resistance movement against a possible invasion of the British Isles by Nazi forces, note that it was the only resistance movement established prior to invasion, albeit the invasion never came.
  • Volunteer Fighting Corps (Japan)

Post–World War II

Notable individuals in resistance movements

World War II (anti-Nazi, anti-Fascist etc)

Other resistance movements

See also


  1. ^ On the relation between mlitary and civil resistance in occupied Norway 1940–45, see Magne Skodvin, "Norwegian Non-violent Resistance during the German Occupation", in Adam Roberts ed., The Strategy of Civilian Defence: Non-violent Resistance to Aggression, Faber, London, 1967, pp. 136–53. (Also published as Civilian Resistance as a National Defense, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, USA, 1968; and, with a new Introduction on 'Czechoslovakia and Civilian Defence', as Civilian Resistance as a National Defence, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, UK, and Baltimore, USA, 1969. ISBN 0140210806.)
  2. ^ Rupert Ticehurst (references) in this footnote 1 cites The life and works of Martens are detailed by V. Pustogarov, "Fyodor Fyodorovich Martens (1845–1909) – A Humanist of Modern Times", International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC), No. 312, May–June 1996, pp. 300–314.
  3. ^ Rupert Ticehurst (references) in hist footnote 2 cites F. Kalshoven, Constraints on the Waging of War, Martinus Nijhoff, Dordrecht, 1987, p. 14.
  4. ^ Gardam p. 91
  5. ^ Khan, Ali (Washburn University – School of Law). A Theory of International Terrorism, Connecticut Law Review, Vol. 19, p. 945, 1987
  6. ^ Mirriam-Webster definition
  7. ^ Gerald Seymour, "Harry's Game", 1975
  8. ^ BBC guideline
  9. ^ Perry, Simon (2011). All Who Came Before. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock. ISBN 13: 978-1-60899-659-9. 


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