Germans Against Hitler
The Men Who Tried to Kill Hitler
In the library in which I work there is almost an entire roomful of books and pamphlets on German resistance against Hitler. When visitors are shown round our building they often express surprise that so many people have devoted so much time to writing so many books upon a nonexistent subject. Similar opinions have been expressed by widely read authors (such as Hannah Arendt and A.J.P. Taylor); they are commonly held in England and in the United States. But what of the thousands of German enemies of Hitler who perished in prisons and concentration camps? True, these dissidents were singularly ineffective, but is it just to ignore them altogether? The question of the German resistance against Nazism, its inspiration, aims, and effects, is one of the most complicated and vexing of modern history. Hence the flood of books about it in many countries. That the issue happens to be also of wider significance need hardly be stressed: the problem of resistance in a totalitarian regime has not, unfortunately, become a purely academic one since 1945.
No other modern dictatorship has had such a wide popular appeal as Nazism had in Germany; up to the outbreak of the war, to give but one example, Germans could travel abroad freely; no other totalitarian regime has felt secure enough to give its subjects similar license. But we also know, on the basis of much evidence that has come to light since 1945, that the third Reich had far more enemies inside Germany than was commonly assumed at the time. How does one explain this apparent paradox? Most of us have come to measure the importance of political groups in terms that make sense only in a democratic regime. Since Hitler’s opponents were not much in evidence after 1933 it has been assumed that a German resistance did not exist. But a totalitarian regime and a strong opposition exclude each other like fire and water; wherever there is an organized opposition, the regime is not yet, or is no longer, totalitarian in character.
German opposition to Hitler was ineffectual but so far as sheer figures are concerned it was not negligible. This was partly due to the fact that the Nazis never tried to win over political opponents; they were very confident of their hold and refused even to consider admitting to their ranks leading Communists or Social Democrats who might have been willing; neither were “bourgeois” leaders permitted to play a role of political importance in their Reich beyond that of specialist assignments.
“Resistance,” admittedly, covered a very wide range of activities; not all of which now strike us as very dangerous. One of the heroes of the German resistance was a Professor of Romance languages who had decided to sabotage the war effort by mistranslating Spanish documents. Much of the opposition of the Communist militants consisted in listening to Radio Moscow. Twenty years later, these do not seem to qualify as great acts of heroism; but at the time …