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 they involved the risk of years in a concentration camp, and possibly a death sentence. Those who have not had personal experience of living under a totalitarian regime ought to be careful in their judgment.
Not that all members of the resistance were angels: Goerdeler, the political leader of the July 1944 plot, gave all his fellow conspirators away without even being exposed to undue pressure. Arthur Nebe, another member of the conspiracy, would have been condemned to death by the Allies had he not been shot earlier by the Gestapo. (He had been the commander of one of the leading Einsatzgruppen in Russia; some 70,000 Jews were killed in White Russia under his personal command.) But there were also tens of thousands of Germans who resisted Hitler to the best of their ability, aristocrats and Communists, colonels and trade unionists, some Catholics and a few Protestants and ordinary, decent people who thought that Nazism was an outrage to their own people and humanity. Of these thousands paid with their lives, and it is a matter of elementary historical justice that their sacrifice should at least be recorded, even if it was inconsiderable in terms of political efficacy. In a country like France or Yugoslavia, many sympathized with the resistance; it was the patriotic thing to do since the Germans were the foreign invader. In Germany, German opponents to Hitler found themselves not only in almost complete isolation, swimming against the apparently irresistible wave of the future, but in the eyes of most other Germans they were simply traitors, breaking the oath to their supreme commander, stabbing their own people in the back. Those who braved not only the dangers of arrest and execution, but moral and political isolation, deserve full credit.
This, at any rate, is Mr. Prittie’s opinion. He knew Germany during the Thirties, was there as a prisoner of war and for many years now has covered the German scene for the (Manchester) Guardian. Mr. Prittie has obviously been worried by the anti-German frame of mind of many of his compatriots both on the left and on the right. There is, admittedly, much in this wave of British anti-Germanism (which has been fashionable ever since the middle Fifties) which has more to do with resentment of German economic achievement than with genuine anti-fascism. Organs of the press which were in the forefront of appeasement in the Thirties are now leaders in the sport of Germany-baiting; they seem to dislike Adenauer and Erhard more than Adolf Hitler. Be that as it may, Mr. Prittie has done well to present in broad outline the development of the various German resistance groups. Or perhaps one should talk about individuals rather than groups; the churches, the former political parties, trade unions did not resist, but quite a few individuals from these milieus did. Mr. Prittie mentions them all: the Kreisau circle (which included most of the men of the 20th of July), the “Rote Kapelle” (a fellow-traveling group which combined anti-Nazi propaganda with military espionage on behalf of the Russians), Jehovah’s Witnesses who steadfastly refused to join the army and were at once executed, Probst Lichtenberg, who protested from his pulpit against the deportation of Jews—and perished himself in a concentration camp. Even so, Mr. Prittie’s book is not an exhaustive history; it certainly was not written for other historians but for a much wider public. It could have been a very good book had the author taken a little more time, but Mr. Prittie is now chief diplomatic correspondent of his newspaper and the incessant international crises presumably leave him little time for other activities. It is, however, a useful book which will help to dispel some of the sillier ideas about the Third Reich—like the assumption that there was no resistance at all.
West and East German historiography have, quite predictably, not been able to agree with the importance of the attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944. West German books (Professor H. Rothfels’ history of the German opposition for example) often ignore the Communist opposition to Hitler, whereas for the East Germans the July plot was merely a desperate attempt by a handful of professional soldiers, Junkers, and other Anglo-American agents acting in accordance with their class interest when defeat was already certain. The Russians, it is only fair to mention, have of late taken a somewhat more objective view—Major General Milstein in his book Zagovor protiv Gitlera describes von Stauffenberg (the man who deposed the bomb in Hitler’s headquarters) as a great hero, a man of “boundless courage.”
There have been several descriptions of the July plot since the end of the war, how it was hatched and why it failed; Manvell and Fraenkel, who have shown familiarity with the German scene in their previous work, went over the whole evidence again, uncovered some that is new, and frankly admit that they do not have all the answers; some unsolved questions still persist. There is, for example, the all-important telephone call from Hitler’s headquarters to Berlin on July 20 which was to inform the conspirators whether the attempt on his life had succeeded—and for which, during many decisive hours, they waited in vain. The part of some of the dramatis personae either during the plot or after their arrest also remains in question; not all the documents are available and some of the survivors have apparently not been helpful in providing historical evidence. Manvell and Fraenkel’s book is well-written and accurate. My main criticism is that their book has no real beginning nor end. It does not set the plot into historical perspective, and there is very little about the Nazi political reaction to the plot. Something like the original plebian character of Nazism again emerged after these “degenerate aristocrats” had tried to kill the Fuehrer. (In Italy, too, fascism again became much more radical in its last phase—the Republic of Salo.) These shortcomings are unlikely to affect the success of the book which in Germany is already high on the bestseller list.
Hitler escaped almost unhurt from an explosion that, according to all established rules, was bound to kill. As Prittie puts it, this was “an act of God”—though it is not easy to think of any reason why the Almighty should have preserved Hitler’s life. But even after the plot to kill the Fuehrer had failed, the revolt might still have succeeded, had the conspirators acted boldly and decisively. They held so many key positions in the army command in Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere; there was still a good chance that the troops would have followed them. But, as Frankel and Manvell delicately put it, there were certain flaws common to human nature. There was, literally, a breakdown in communications, there was weakness and irresolution and lack of civic courage. The colonels and generals wavered, and went on looking for someone who would relieve them of taking initiative and responsibility, until the Gestapo came and arrested them all. The Germans have been the least effective rebels against authority in modern history; when the Social Democrat Scheidemann proclaimed the German Republic in November, 1918, his comrade Ebert told him “You had no right to do that…” Of all Germans, the senior officers were the least likely candidates to lead.