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© The Boston Globe 2001.  Used by permission.
The Secret History of World War II

by Mark Fritz / Globe Staff / August 26, 2001

Page 1 of 11

Two men were assigned to kill the Nazi officer in charge of brutalizing their country. They found him, they shot him, they fled. The Reich responded by massacring every man, teenaged boy, and -- just for the hellish embellishment of it -- every dog in a village singled out to die for that defiant deed.

The women and children were sent to concentration camps. Few survived. The village itself was blown up and burned down, eventually erased by the anonymity of a rippling wheat field.

The community was Lidice, the country Czechoslovakia, the assassination the work of the mythic underground, the maze of movements that ran like violent rivers beneath the battlefields of World War II. Wildly romanticized, "La Resistance" involved more than plucky French patriots sporting berets and setting booby traps in quixotic crusades against evil oppressors.

The underground's underbelly was often quite ugly. As Lidice learned in June 1942, the enemy usually settled the score by lopsided margins. The Nazis killed hundreds as punishment for the assassination of SS chief Reinhard "the Hangman" Heydrich, whom Hitler replaced with an equally evil overlord.

Yet to the oppressed, the death of the hated Heydrich, who lingered in exquisite agony for days while his wounds turned gangrenous, was a morale-pumping moment of dark, primal pleasure.

"Fifty years later, yes, it's easy to say it wasn't worth it because of the number of people killed," says former Czech freedom fighter Vera Laska, an Auschwitz survivor and now a historian at Regis College in Weston. "But then, there was such a moral joy among the people with the killing of this bastard."

The cold calculus that Hitler and Hirohito used to punish populations for the derring-do of a few is one of the most richly documented war stories buried in the 3 million intelligence records cracked opened by the National Archives under the Nazi War Crimes Act of 1998. The records add countless details to the important, arguably essential role the resistance played not just in the outcome of World War II, but also the end of European colonialism, the onset of the Cold War, and ultimately the collapse of the USSR a decade ago this December.

They also create a gritty, real-time diary of sorts, chronicling how the Allies competed for control over a medley of quarrelsome guerrilla movements that were each vying to be the power that filled the post-war vacuum, planting the seeds of future conflicts from Burma to the Balkans. Names like Gandhi, Mao, Tito, de Gaulle, and Ho Chi Minh float through the dossiers not as historical figures, but as resistance role players in a struggle over the fate of the world.

"You do not look very nonviolent to me," Mohandas Gandhi, whose nonviolent revolt would drive the British out of India, smilingly chided an American spy who wore a military uniform to a meeting with the pacifist just after the war.

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