Historian wins £50,000 Wolfson History Prize for book about resistance movements fighting the Nazis

Halik Kochinski (Justine Stoddart)
Halik Kochinski (Justine Stoddart)

A female historian who has described the London Library as her most inspiring place has won her subject’s most prestigious prize for her “compelling” account of Jewish and other resistance movements fighting the Nazis across Europe.

Halik Kochanski, who has taught in the capital at King’s College and University College London, beat five other shortlisted contenders to be named as the winner of the £50,000 Wolfson History Prize for her book Resistance.

It tells the story of the “underground war in Europe” between 1939 and 1945 and includes chapters on the Jewish and Christian responses to the Holocaust, as well as others on intelligence operations, uprisings in Warsaw, Slovakia and Paris, and the “clandestine press” used to fight the “battle of the mind” against German occupying forces.

Announcing their decision, the Wolfson History Prize judges, who this year included Mary Beard and Diarmaid MacCulloch, said Ms Kochanksi’s book was “the first English-language history of resistance to study the whole of Europe” and used “captivating storytelling” to uncover “powerful human stories that have been overlooked across the continent.”

They added: “Unveiling lesser-known acts of defiance, this is a remarkable history of pan-European resistance to the Nazis.”

Ms Kochanski, whose Polish parents moved to Britain after the Second World War, said she was “thrilled and honoured” by the judges’ recognition of her book and hoped that it would encourage more people to learn about the resistance movements.

She said her inspiration for writing it had been drawn from a previous book about Poland in which she had recounted “what ordinary men could and could not achieve in the face of oppression”, but that the place which inspired her most was the London Library.

She said the library, on St James’ Square in central London, was a “vital resource” with an “enormous collection” that allowed researchers to consult and borrow books on a “vast range of subjects”, but also provided an important recognition of the value of scholarship.

“In an apparently commercial and goal-directed culture, where scholarship often seems to be no more than a grudgingly tolerated eccentricity, the London Library shows that scholarship still is valued, and that we still live in a civilisation which offers opportunities for serious study and research,” she added.

Praising Ms Kochanski, Sir David Cannadine, the chairman of the prize judges, said Resistance was an “impressive” book which “breathes life into forgotten voices and untold tales of bravery, illuminating the spirit of ordinary people who challenged oppression.

“Through meticulous research and powerful writing, Halik Kochanski highlights the indomitable courage of those who resisted the Nazis,” he said. “In our own times of conflict and instability, Resistance is a timely winner of the Wolfson History Prize.”

The other shortlisted books included Hakim Adi’s African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History and Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth Century London by Oskar Jensen.

The others were Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers by Emma Smith; The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe by James Belich; and The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire by Henrietta Harrison. Each author will receive £5,000.

The Wolfson History Prize was founded in 1972 and aims to reward readable books of outstanding academic merit. Previous winners include Simon Schama, Mary Beard Amanda Vickery, Antony Beevor and Antonia Fraser.