Resistance voices from WW2 throw new light on 21st Century terrorism

June 27, 2003

The memories of Polish migrants who resisted Nazism in France during World War Two have been recorded and analysed in ESRC-sponsored research which aims to throw new light on what draws people into modern- day terrorism. This research is published today as part of the ESRC's Social Science Week.

For the study, Alan Bicker of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kent interviewed surviving resistors from among the quarter-million Poles who lived and worked in the mining area in the 'Zone Interdite' (or 'prohibited zone') of Northern France.

By examining the motivation and circumstances behind recruitment to Polish Resistance in northern France for what were then young migrants, he identifies factors that may draw people into terrorism today. With unique and privileged access to these veterans, their personal archives and those of their resistance groups, for the first time extended in-depth interviews were conducted with individuals and groups of former resisters from all ideological camps.

Patriotism, xenophobia, social and moral constraint and wanting to transform everyday life were identified as key motivating factors.

Significantly, Bicker was able to discount two other possible motivations often linked to resistance or terrorism. Not one veteran cited anti-Semitism, seen in German and Vichy-French persecution of the Jews, as a motivation. And though there was a clandestine press, underground propaganda was not in itself a spur.

Patriotism was a big factor in the lives of Polish migrants, but it alone was not enough of a motive to Resistance. The study also found that patriotism and xenophobia did not necessarily depend on each other. Veterans' hatred and anger towards the Germans was quite as important as their patriotic hopes for Poland, but not conditional upon it.

Neither of these powerful motivations was enough in itself to explain why people were moved to Resistance. They were merely emotional expressions of how the migrants felt. The research revealed that these emotions were deeply rooted in the moral system of family and social life that the migrants saw as central to their community.

Mr Bicker said: "This moral system was the dynamo that provided both the motivation and the very basis for resistance by the migrants.

"As with all moral systems, individual circumstances and desires played a part. So wanting to transform one's everyday life was also often given as a reason for joining."

The research has further pioneered comprehensive electronic archiving of material to allow analysis to be copied and extended to other examples of terrorism or resistance.

Mr Bicker added: "The vast amount of recent commentary on armed resistance and terrorism has focused mainly on its political origins and social consequences. Little attention has been paid to what motivates people to join these movements.

"No doubt this is largely due to the obvious impossibility of studying present-day examples at close hand. Our research got round this hurdle.

"Not only were the Polish migrants a good example of 'terrorists' who as victors had lost that tag, but World War Two was sufficiently distanced in time for research to be possible."
For further information:
Contact Mr Alan Bicker on 122-782-3942, e-mail:
Or Lesley Lilley or Anna Hinds at ESRC, on 01793 413119/413122


1. Social Science Week 2003, from the 23rd to the 27th June, is about revitalising policy by bringing social scientists and their research together with policy-makers. Events in various locations will showcase a broad array of ESRC research. Topics will cover a wide spectrum, from the state of UK business to climate change and arms control. For a programme visit or call David Ridley, External Relations, on 01793 413118.

2. The research report 'Recruitment To Terrorism' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Mr Bicker is at the Department of Anthropology, University of Kent, Canterbury CT2 7NS.

2. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £76 million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at

3. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at

Economic & Social Research Council

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