• Email
  • Print

Nazis and Resisters

In response to:

The Age of Aggression from the January 13, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

István Deák’s reply to his critics [NYR, January 13] is dignified but unconvincing. He admits that the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender was comprehensible because they were determined not to allow Germans to repeat the myth that their army, undefeated in the field, had been stabbed in the back in 1918. It is fantasy to say that some Allied statements guaranteeing the existence and reconstruction of postwar Germany would have encouraged “a large number of influential Germans to rally behind the flag of the resistance.”

To begin with it was exceedingly difficult to plot resistance. No one, perhaps, who has not lived under an efficient secret police such as the Gestapo, can guess how dangerous it was to express anything other than blind belief in Hitler’s success. Anyone after an air raid who was caught uttering defeatist words was strung up on a lamppost on the spot. Plotters need a communications system and only the army possessed one especially since the plotters were separated often by thousands of men. It was difficult to know which officers were loyal to the Nazis; which officers disliked them but could not bring themselves—as they saw it—to mutiny and abandon the troops under their command; and which officers were possible recruits.

Does István Deák really think that Stalin would have agreed to treat with a German government composed partly of generals or Junkers? Who does not today admire the courage of the July 20 plotters? But in 1944 Prussian militarists were regarded as willing accomplices of Hitler. Does he really believe that Adenauer “might” have been a very different person “had he come to power as a former member of the anti-Hitler movement and not as the choice of the Americans, and had his main task been to create a new Germany and not prepare the country for the anti-Communist crusade.” Did Mr. Deák ever meet Adenauer in the days immediately after the war? I did; and his loathing of Prussians was surpassed only by his loathing of communism. His contempt for socialism was boundless; he saw it as a threat to his vision of abendländische Kultur. While he did not exonerate war criminals, he was determined to set limits to de-Nazification in order to resurrect his country—rather as Professor Craig reports Marion Dönhoff and others today are pleading for a policy of reconciliation. (NYR, January 13, p. 40).

To suggest that Adenauer was “the choice of the Americans” is silly. Having outwitted his rivals in the CDU, he was the choice of his countrymen. I respect Adenauer—as I do De Gaulle—for being the savior of his country. But by 1945 he was set in his ways and to imagine that he might in different circumstances have resembled Willy Brandt beggars credulity.

Noel Annan
London, England

István Deák replies:

Undoubtedly, it was difficult to plot resistance, yet perhaps Noel Annan exaggerates the extent of Gestapo terror directed at German citizens, especially at members of elite society, prior to the July 20, 1944, attempt on the life of Hitler. It was one of the characteristics of the Third Reich that while a Jewish, Polish, or Ukrainian forced laborer could be strung up for showing insufficient respect to a German policeman, members of the master race were often permitted considerable liberties in terms of grumbling or poking fun at their leaders. The remarkably honest public opinion reports prepared by the Security Service of the SS show how far the Germans, even ordinary Germans, went in semipublicly criticizing their regime during the war.1 All this changed drastically, especially for the army officers, after the failed coup in 1944. There was a sudden radicalization of the National Socialist movement of which the main victims became the “reactionary” Prussian aristocrats and army officers. Yet until that time the army had been the well-known refuge of regime critics, half-Jews, and others who might not have been able to survive in civilian life. This does not mean that thousands of officers, particularly the young, did not enthusiastically serve the Führer, or that the Wehrmacht was not guilty of the vilest crimes against Jews and others. It only means that not until after July 1944 were Hitler and the party able to break the autonomy of the army as a social institution.

Officers, especially of the highest ranks, had been discussing, some as early as 1934, others beginning in 1938 or 1943, the possibility of deposing or even assassinating Hitler. Yet it seems that not a single one was betrayed by a comrade-in-arms to the Gestapo.2 Ulrich von Hassell, a professional diplomat and leading member of the resistance, who was to be hanged for his participation in the July 20 conspiracy, wrote dejectedly in his diary on May 15, 1943:

Unfortunately, there are no prospects for a fundamental change. All attempts to inspire these subaltern field marshals to fulfill their higher duty are in vain…. Increasingly, one has to fear reckless individual actions, although any change in the situation would increasingly appear to be an improvement.

In von Hassell’s eyes, for a general to fulfill his higher duty was to overthrow the Nazi regime. Or as he complained elsewhere in his diary, the generals engage “in the wildest talk,” but they “lack the courage to act.”3

As we know, some officers actually did muster the courage to act in July 1944. The German historian Wolfgang Schieder, for instance, found thirty-nine generals, half of them aristocrats, who were actively engaged in the conspiracy.4 But the combined list of such generals who participated in the plot and of those who knew about it and by keeping silent signified their cautious approval is much longer. It included two former chiefs of the German General Staff, Ludwig von Beck, who was ordered to shoot himself immediately following the failed attempt on the Führer, and Franz Halder who was sent to a concentration camp. There were also four field marshals, Erwin von Witzleben, who was hanged by the Nazis; Hans Günther von Kluge and Erwin Rommel, both of whom committed suicide to avoid arrest, and Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt, who was not deeply enough implicated to get arrested. In the summer of 1944, Rundstedt and Kluge were successively commanders-in-chief in the West and Rommel was commander of Army Group B, the armed force that opposed the Anglo-American invasion. The other high officers with enormous potential influence and power were Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of military counterintelligence; General of the Infantry Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the military governor of France, and Generaloberst Friedrich Fromm, the commander of the reserve army and of equipping the army (Ersatzheer und Heeresausrüstung) in Germany. All three were later executed by the Nazis. On July 20, Stülpnagel actually had 1,200 SS, SD, and Gestapo leaders arrested in France and similar arrests took place in Vienna. Had Fromm not lost his nerve at the news that Hitler was only wounded and not dead, he could have used his authority over the reserve army to seize power in the Reich.

Failure to denounce the conspirators, in itself a capital crime, was also an act of resistance that is explicable, as I wrote in my earlier reply, by the caste spirit of the officers and the terrible situation in which Germany found itself after 1943.

Why did many of those in the know not become more active in the movement? The reasons they gave to each other was their oath as soldiers; their unwillingness to leave their men in the lurch, especially on the Eastern front; their fear of being regarded as arch-traitors by the public; and again and again, their fear that Germany and the German people would be destroyed by the Allies who insisted on unconditional surrender. Von Hassell wrote in his diary on January 22, 1943:

The malignancy of the situation is expressed by the contemporaneous news arriving from the “other side” [i.e., the Allies] which instills increasingly strong doubts. They seem to be insisting on shattering Germany in its entirety.

Von Hassell wrote these lines on the day he learned of the Anglo-American decision at Casablanca to demand the unconditional surrender of Germany.5 The conclusion is inescapable that had the British been willing at least to talk to the delegates of the German resistance at the time of the Munich crisis in 1938, when the generals offered to overthrow Hitler, or had the Allies shown even a minimum of interest subsequently in the offers and warnings of the German resisters, then the end of the war could have been hastened.

Nothing proves more the considerable extent of the resistance movement and the almost inconceivable inefficiency of the Gestapo and other security services before July 1944 than the fact that thousands were executed or imprisoned following the failure of the coup d’état. Not all had been involved in the plot, but all had been at least critical of the regime. Those arrested included all the relatives of Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg, the one who had placed the bomb near Hitler, as well as the relatives of the other main conspirators. On August 22, 1944, five thousand former Weimar politicians alone were sent to concentration camps, including Konrad Adenauer, the Social Democrat Kurt Schumacher, and Hjalmar Schacht, in 1945-1946 one of the Nuremberg defendants. Executions continued virtually until the day of Germany’s surrender, and if there were not even more victims this was due to the fact that many officers and high-ranking civilians were still able to protect each other. It is worth recalling at this point that Hitler, not Stalin, destroyed the Prussian officer corps.6

I cannot prove that Stalin would have been ready to treat with a German government composed partly of generals and Junkers, but I know that Stalin was perfectly ready to treat with members of the conservative elite in other Axis countries, such as King Michael and his generals in Romania; Admiral Miklós Horthy in Hungary; Field Marshal Carl Mannerheim in Finland; and the moderate Social Democrat Karl Renner (who had voted for the Anschluss in 1938) in Austria. Even though Horthy had been unable to change sides on October 15, 1944, the first Hungarian anti-Fascist government set up by the Red Army in December 1944 included three Horthy generals, one of whom became the prime minister. The new cabinet also included an aristocrat, while it had only three Communist members. Nor should we forget Stalin’s highly unwelcome admonitions to Tito to include representatives of the exiled king in his government, orStalin’s toleration of the defeat of the Greek Communists by the British occupation forces and the Greek royalists. All this might have been a subterfuge on Stalin’s part, but at least it was a remarkably consistent subterfuge.

Finally, in answer to Noel Annan’s question, I cannot claim to have met Konrad Adenauer in the days immediately after the war. My age, social status, and geographic location made such a meeting highly unlikely, much as I would have been eager for the chance. It is true that Adenauer was not simply the choice of the Americans, and I apologize for giving any such impression. Yet I maintain that Adenauer could not have become the chancellor of West Germany in September 1949 without American support. He had been number one on the American White List during World War II, which caused the US occupation forces to appoint him mayor of Cologne on May 4, 1945. A short time later the British took over Cologne and surroundings, and in October of the same year a British brigadier dismissed Adenauer for inefficiency. In addition, he was expelled from the city of which he had been the mayor from 1917 to 1933 and then again in 1945, and he was threatened with arrest were he again to take up politics or show his face in Cologne. Adenauer never flinched in his subsequent belief that his dismissal in 1945 had been caused by the Labour government in Britain and by German leftists. What displeased the British Socialists about Adenauer, however, definitely appealed to many Americans. By 1949 the choice, after all, was basically between the Social Democrat Kurt Schumacher, who wanted Germany to be neither of the West nor of the East; the Christian Social Party leader Jakob Kaiser, who wanted a centralized, Prussian-oriented Germany to serve as a bridge between the East and the West, a Germany in which the major banks and heavy industry would be nationalized; and Konrad Adenauer, who was anti-Communist and anti-Prussian, as Noel Annan points out, as well as being pro-Western, Francophile, and in favor of a federalized, primarily Catholic and conservative Germany. In his Germany, private business and industry would prevail. Naturally, the Americans ended up by supporting him and his CDU party.7

Though I should have written more clearly about Adenauer’s political position, I still believe that the Allies were very wrong in their policy of unconditional surrender, in not helping the German resistance movement during the war, and in not setting up, almost immediately after the Allied victory, a new German government consisting of surviving resisters. If they had, then at least more Nazis might have received their just deserts. The dual absence of an all-German government and of a coherent Allied policy helped to bring about the division of Germany and the cold war.

  1. 1

    On the secret reports of the SSSecurity Service (SD), see Heinz Boberach, editor, Meldungen aus dem Reich: Auswahl aus den geheimen Lageberichten des Sicherheitsdienstes der SS, 1939-1944 (Munich:Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1968). On public opinion in Nazi Germany, see especially Ian Kershaw, Popular Opinion and Public Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 1933-1945 (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1984).

  2. 2

    Some recent, important books on the German resistance movement are Peter Hoffmann, Widerstand, Staatsstreich, Attentat: Der Kampf der Opposition gegen Hitler, second edition (Frankfurt: M. Ullstein, 1970); Klemens von Klemperer, German Resistance Against Hitler:The Search for Allies Abroad (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1992); and Jürgen Schmädeke and Peter Steinbach, editors, Der Widerstand gegen den Nationalsozialismus “Historische Kommission zu Berlin in Zusammenarbeit mit der Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand” (Munich: Piper, 1985).

  3. 3

    Leider ist keine Aussicht auf grundsätzlichen Wandel. Alle Versuche diese subalternen Feldmarschälle auf ihre höhere Pflicht zu bringen, bleiben vergeblich…. Zu fürchten sind allmählich unbesonnene Einzelaktionen, obwohl allmählich jede Änderung die Lage nur bessern zu können scheint.” This quotation is from Die Hassell-Tagebücher 1938-1944: Ulrich von Hassell, Aufzeichnungen vom Andern Deutschland, edited by Friedrich Freiherr Hiller von Gaertringen and Klaus Peter Reiss (Berlin:Siedler Verlag, 1988), p. 365. The second von Hassell quote is cited by Wolfgang Schieder, “Zwei Generationen im militärischen Widerstand gegen Hitler,” in Der Widerstand gegen den Nationalsozialismus, edited by Schmädeke and Steinbach, p. 436.

  4. 4

    Schmädeke and Steinbach, editors, Der Widerstand gegen den Nationalsozialismus, p. 439.

  5. 5

    Die Bösartigkeit der Lage kommt dabei darin zum Ausdruck, dass die gleichzeitigen Nachrichten von der ‘anderen Seite’ immer stärkere Zweifel ergeben, ob diese nicht nun auf der Zerschmetterung ganz Deutschlands bestehen wolle” (Berlin,January 22, 1943), Ulrich von Hassell, Die Hassell-Tagebücher, p. 345.

  6. 6

    On the post-coup purges, see especially Peter Hoffmann, Widerstand, Staatsstreich, Attentat, pp. 607 ff.

  7. 7

    On Konrad Adenauer’s earlier career, see Hans-Peter Schwarz, Adenauer. Der Aufstieg 1876-1942 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1986).

  • Email
  • Print