The French resistance erecting barriers in Paris to obstruct the German military as Allied forces approached the city

Robert Doisneau/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Members of the French resistance erecting barriers in Paris to obstruct the German military as Allied forces approached the city, August 1944

Waging resistance against the Third Reich during World War II and writing the history of that resistance afterward have both been inextricably tied to wider political issues. The shifting wartime relationships among the three major ideological camps of democracy, fascism, and communism certainly affected the various resistance movements, as did their positioning for advantage at the war’s end. Postwar politics and historiography both attempted to appropriate and glorify as well as discredit various forms of resistance. A number of recent works have contributed to the ongoing discussion of Western European and German resistance, though they leave aside the important topics of Eastern European and Jewish resistance (as well as the unfortunate recent movements toward the rehabilitation of Eastern European collaborators with the Nazis).

Winston Churchill’s aspiration in 1940 to “set Europe ablaze” and Charles de Gaulle’s 1944 proclamation that Paris was “liberated by itself” are only two aspects of what Olivier Wieviorka calls a broader “myth”—based on a “gospel” of resistance shaped by the “politics of remembrance”—that he sets out to revise in his impressive overview of Western European resistance during the war. He argues for a transnational approach that would establish a greater appreciation and awareness of Allied caution and skepticism, the dependence of resistance movements on external aid, and the complicated triangular political relations among the Allies, internal resistance movements, and London-based governments-in-exile of defeated and occupied Western European countries.

Wieviorka’s The Resistance in Western Europe is primarily a history “from above” centered on Allied political, military, and logistical policies that sought to foster and control continental resistance movements for the benefit of Allied strategic goals. With Britain fighting alone in the latter half of 1940, Churchill, Minister of Economic Warfare Hugh Dalton, and the Special Operations Executive—which was responsible for dispatching agents and organizing sabotage and intelligence-gathering networks on the continent—initially dreamed of instigating widespread uprisings against Nazi control on the continent, but this vision clashed with the viewpoints of virtually every other agency of the British government as well as with reality.

Very quickly a more limited and restrained approach emerged, which focused on selective sabotage, propaganda, and intelligence-gathering. The goal of creating shadow armies was not entirely abandoned, but they were to aid an eventual invasion. Fear of premature uprisings and the bloody repression they were bound to provoke weighed against the creation of military units. This hesitancy increased once Communists joined the resistance after the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 and raised Allied apprehension over the postwar revolutionary goals that armed units might pursue. Wieviorka summarizes the Allied attitude toward a militarized resistance and armed revolt cryptically: “caution prevailed.”

In line with this more cautious approach, Britain and then its American ally supported a vigorous underground press, morale-raising measures such as the V-for-Victory graffiti campaign, the rescue of Allied pilots (3,500 were successfully exfiltrated from the continent), and intelligence-gathering. They broadcast credible news, especially on the BBC, as well as “black propaganda” from unidentified stations. They dropped 1.5 billion leaflets, parachuted limited supplies (with a costly 20 percent loss rate), and dispatched over four thousand agents into occupied Europe.

One factor threatening the Allied approach to resistance was the enormous German roundups of forced labor in Western Europe that began in 1942 and peaked in 1943. In France in particular, most of those conscripted complied, and the majority of those who evaded did so legally by obtaining exempt jobs or medical excuses. Nonetheless, some 30,000–40,000 fled their homes and sought help from the resistance. Most of them wanted only to hide, but some wanted to join, which provided a flood of new recruits. Both the Allies and Jean Moulin, who was trying to unify the French resistance on behalf of de Gaulle, welcomed the discrediting of the Vichy regime as a result of its highly unpopular collaboration in labor conscription on behalf of the Nazis and the rise in popularity of the resistance, but worried about the spontaneous emergence of maquis units that demanded funding and arms but acted independently and chafed at remaining an army-in-waiting.

France was only one, albeit by far the most important, of six Western European countries in which the Allies pondered resistance policies. The monarchs and governments of both the Netherlands and Norway had fled to London, where they could legitimize resistance and advocate for their own national interests. In Denmark, both the monarch and the government remained in Copenhagen and reached an agreement with the German occupier that preserved Danish law but subordinated the economy to the German war effort. The Allies vacillated between treating that country as an enemy collaborator or a conquered ally, and they generally refrained from fostering resistance there until the German-Danish agreement collapsed and the Danish government was deposed in 1943. An unpopular Belgian government fled to London while the country’s unpopular monarch remained in the country, and neither was able or eager to encourage resistance. As for Italy, the Allies tried to recruit Italians from POW camps in North Africa to return to their country to organize resistance against the Mussolini regime, but virtually no captured Italians—overjoyed to be out of the war—volunteered for such a risky venture. Resistance was not a factor in Italy until the German occupation of the northern half of the country in 1943 and the reimposition of the deposed Mussolini and his puppet Salò Republic.


The politics of resistance were by far the most complex as well as most important in France. Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt gave up on the Vichy regime as a potential partner until November 1942, when the invasion of North Africa provoked a German entry into the unoccupied zone. De Gaulle and the Free French in London did not have the full legitimacy of a government-in-exile, and his self-aggrandizement and relentless demands on the Allies drove them to explore every conceivable alternative leader (including the pro-Vichy, anti-British Admiral François Darlan and the pro-Vichy, anti-German General Henri Giraud), both of whom proved unviable. The internal resistance’s embrace of de Gaulle and his stormy welcome during the liberation in 1944 finally forced the Allies to grant him a reluctant recognition.

As invasion loomed in 1944, Allied aid to the French resistance increased fifteenfold over 1943. In Wieviorka’s judgment the French resistance “brilliantly” performed its tasks of providing intelligence and guidance, sabotaging communications and transportation, protecting infrastructure from German demolition, and harassing the German retreat. However, open battles between the German military and vastly outgunned resistance units anxious for a part in the liberation ended in costly defeats. Nor could the resistance prevent the bloody massacres perpetrated by the SS division Das Reich in Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane.

As Allied relations to the French resistance and de Gaulle clarified, the situation in Italy became ever more confusing. After Italy bolted the Axis in September 1943 and joined the Allies, Roosevelt was willing to treat the new government of Pietro Badoglio and Ivanoe Bonomi as an ally, while the grudge-bearing Churchill deemed Italy a defeated and occupied country. The Allies both desired resistance against the Germans and the Salò Republic in the north and feared the revolutionary goals and Communist orientation of the Italian resistance, and thus provided only a minimal supply of arms. The late-war seizure of more than one hundred cities by the resistance in northern Italy and the summary execution of the captured Mussolini came far closer to self-liberation than de Gaulle’s theatrical declaration in Paris.

One nightmare that haunted the Allies vis-à-vis local resistance movements was a replay of the outbreak of civil war in Greece between a Communist-dominated resistance and a discredited monarchy and old order whose restoration was backed by Britain. As Wieviorka emphasizes, perhaps the most surprising outcome of the resistance in Western Europe was that Greek-style civil war did not happen. The Communists prioritized the defeat of Germany over revolution. The non-Communist resistance movements, though opposed to the restoration of discredited pre-war politicians, embraced democracy ameliorated by social welfare. What Wieviorka does not mention is that chastened conservatives and collaborators could reenter politics only by abjuring their authoritarian tendencies and past fascist sympathies and at least feigning conversion to democratic values. He concludes that Allied victory was helped by but not dependent on the resistance, while the resistance would have been “powerless” without Allied aid. Ultimately, the most important contribution of the resistance was, in the words of Hans Kirchoff, “psychological, moral and political rather than military,” through enabling a smooth transition to postwar democracy.

Ronald C. Rosbottom’s Sudden Courage: Youth in France Confront the Germans, 1940–1945 presents a stark contrast to Wieviorka’s approach. The vantage point of high politics and Allied strategy disappears entirely, and individual stories and personal motivations come to the fore. Rosbottom’s youthful resisters are portrayed against a backdrop of France’s World War I demographic catastrophe, the pacifist and defensive Maginot mentality of the interwar period, and a world turned upside down by sudden defeat and occupation in June 1940. He concludes that they were driven by much more than the stereotypical youthful passion and distrust of authority. They acted for freedom and patriotism and against both the Vichy regime and the German occupation, whose misdeeds catalyzed their “sudden courage.” Ultimately, their “ethical world” was “clearer” than that of their elders, and they possessed a “moral certainty” that they were risking their lives and often dying for a “better future.”

The stories of the individual resisters whom Rosbottom features collectively add another dimension as well. There is the tight-knit band of teenage Communists in Paris composed of Guy Môquet, Thomas Elek (a Hungarian Jew), André Kirschen (born in Budapest to Romanian Jewish parents), and Maroussia Naïtchenko (born to a Ukrainian father and a French mother), which began with nonviolent actions against Vichy at a very early point. Once unshackled from the constrictions of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact, which obliged Communists to view the Nazis as allies rather than enemies until the German invasion of the USSR, the group escalated their tactics to the point of Elek’s sabotage activities and Kirschen’s attempted assassination of a German officer. There are Roger Fichtenburg and Claude Weill (French Jews), and Jean-Raphaël Hirsch (a Romanian Jew), who as innocent-looking, bike-riding youths in southern France sustained networks for hiding other Jews. There is Annie Kriegel (an Alsatian Jew and future historian), who joined a Communist group in Grenoble. And there is Adolpho Kaminsky (born in Argentina to Polish Jewish parents), who became an expert forger on behalf of the resistance.


In short, virtually every example in Rosbottom’s study is some combination of Jew, Communist, and/or immigrant. The one exception is Jacques Lusseyran, a blind Parisian teenager who founded his own nonideological, broad-based resistance group. But he too experienced very personal discrimination. Categorized by Vichy as “deformed” because of his blindness, he was barred from taking university entrance exams. Quite simply, beyond abstract motivations of freedom and patriotism, those who were personal targets of Vichy and Nazi discrimination and persecution fought back first. In contrast, most of France, young and old, was initially stunned into quiescence by the defeat of 1940, and it took the shock of the Jewish deportations, the threat of conscription for forced labor in Germany, and the changing tide of war to activate a shift away from Vichy and toward the resistance.

The German resistance to Hitler faced a fundamentally different situation. Viewed by the vast majority of their fellow countrymen as traitors, they remained an even smaller minority of the population than in occupied countries. As such, they had no credibility with the Allies and thus no leverage to alter the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. That in turn induced many Germans to rationalize their cooperation, thinking they had no choice but to fight for Hitler to the bitter end despite the undeniable catastrophe such a course entailed.

Defying Hitler: The Germans Who Resisted Nazi Rule by Gordon Thomas and Greg Lewis sets for itself a very modest goal: “To overturn a popular myth: that the German people followed Hitler as if as one mass,” and to show that there were courageous Germans who “through a love of Germany committed treason” in order to “redeem the honor of their nation.” The authors in fact accomplish much more than this, painting vivid pictures of a broad range of groups and individuals who defied the Nazi regime. The well-known Claus von Stauffenberg and the July 20 plotters as well as the White Rose get their due, but more importantly Thomas and Lewis bring needed attention to isolated resisters who worked alone, such as Georg Elser, Fritz Kolbe, and Kurt Gerstein, and to groups previously marginalized as Communist-tainted—the Herbert Baum circle and especially the Harnack circle.

In addition to demonstrating the existence of a spectrum of resisters against the Nazis, Thomas and Lewis’s examples allow a number of other conclusions to be drawn. First, most of those they examine were not reacting belatedly to the looming threat of German defeat. They had a strong and principled aversion to Nazi dictatorship and repression even before aggressive war and genocide were added to the list of Hitler’s crimes. Second, the cost of resistance was terribly high. Almost every member of every group Thomas and Lewis examine did not survive. And a handful of military officers and the diplomat Fritz Kolbe, who did survive, were spurned as traitors in postwar Germany and denied reemployment in their professions. Another survivor, Kurt Gerstein, committed suicide when he was identified as a potential war criminal for his activities as an SS infiltrator. Third, the successful Nazi discovery and elimination of a number of these resistance networks were often the tragic result of avoidable mistakes. The resisters were amateurs, well-meaning but not trained in underground activities. All too often a single mistake led to the rolling up of an entire network. Fourth, a number of these resisters had ample opportunity to escape the country. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, even deliberately returned from New York to Germany in the summer of 1939. These people chose to resist the Third Reich rather than rescue themselves.

The more established conservative resisters sought contact with the British through numerous emissaries. Before the war they were convinced that they could not take action against the very popular Hitler until Britain stood firm against German demands on Czechoslovakia, thus justifying a coup because Hitler was leading Germany into a war it could not win. Given that the esteemed General Ludwig Beck was unable to persuade his fellow officers to carry out a strike against Hitler’s war plans in the summer of 1938, it is highly dubious that a tiny coterie of resisters with much less standing—the central figure was Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Oster but it included a very mixed bag of military officers and civilians—would have managed the coup they planned for the narrow window between Hitler’s invasion order and the outbreak of hostilities. It was called off when British prime minister Neville Chamberlain agreed to fly to Munich in September 1938 to avert war.

After the outbreak of war, resisters sought assurance from the Western Allies that if Hitler were overthrown, the successor regime would be granted generous terms. For the most conservative among the resisters, such as the former mayor of Leipzig Carl Goerdeler, these included keeping Hitler’s ill-gotten gains in Austria, the Sudetenland, and the Polish corridor. Others were more realistic but still wanted exemption from the Allied demand of unconditional surrender. The Allies gave little credence to any potential for an internal overthrow of the Nazi regime, and after 1941 were going to make no assurances that, if leaked to the paranoid Stalin, could break up the Grand Alliance.

Ultimately, a handful of German military officers—Stauffenberg, Oster, and Henning von Tresckow—stand at one focal point of this study. Unlike other potential conservative resisters, they had freed themselves from conditioning their plans against Hitler on Allied assurances. After various earlier plots misfired, they launched the unsuccessful assassination attempt of July 20, 1944. Thomas and Lewis end their book with a quote from von Tresckow: “We must prove to the world and to future generations that the men of the German Resistance movement dared to take the decisive step…. Compared with this, nothing else matters.” Yet even if the July 20 attempt had been successful, it was sadly too late for the vast majority of Hitler’s victims throughout Europe who were by then already dead.

On the other end of the political spectrum in this study stands Herbert Baum. A Jewish Communist, Baum was a charismatic figure who was connected to a number of young people—Communist and non-Communist, Jewish and non-Jewish—in various dissident circles.1 With Hitler’s assumption of power, Baum engaged in opposition activities such as disseminating anti-Nazi leaflets, newspapers, and posters. In 1941 his activities expanded to providing forged papers and in 1942 to “expropriations”—i.e., theft and extortion—in order to support Jews in hiding. Fatefully, he then resolved on direct action in the form of a firebomb attack on Joseph Goebbels’s mocking “Soviet Paradise” exhibition in Berlin in May 1942, a reckless act that many of his friends advised against and declined to take part in. It led to the arrest and execution of Baum and many others, due above all to the boastful bravado and then surrender of names under interrogation by one unfortunate associate. In additional reprisals, the Nazis killed five hundred Berlin Jews who had no connection with the Baum group at all.

Thomas and Lewis begin their book with the meeting of the German foreign student Arvid Harnack and his soon-to-be wife, the American Mildred Fish, at the University of Wisconsin in 1926. Their subsequent journey through the Third Reich constitutes one of its main storylines. After joining the Nazi Party and insinuating himself into the Ministry of Economics, Harnack tried to pass on information to both the US and the USSR, first about the extent of German rearmament in an attempt to expose Hitler’s intentions and then about his decision to attack the Soviet Union. The Soviets (though crucially not Stalin) were far more receptive to what Harnack had to offer than the US (which reassigned his Berlin contact to South America in May 1941). Thomas and Lewis make clear that Harnack never considered himself a Soviet agent or spy but rather a German antifascist. Soviet carelessness in trying to reestablish contact with him and his associates once his information about the Nazi invasion proved true allowed the Gestapo to roll up the entire network, including Harnack’s wife, Mildred. To dishonor them all—embarrassingly for the Nazis, most were elite officers and bureaucrats—as Soviet spies, the Nazis dubbed them the Rote Kapelle, the Red Orchestra.

The postwar appreciation of the Baum and Harnack resistance groups became politically awkward on both sides of the Iron Curtain. American investigators, using Nazi documents uncritically, not only accepted the portrayal of the Harnack group as a Soviet spy ring but exempted their most notorious persecutors (Manfred Roederer and Walter Huppenkothen) from prosecution and protected them as assets with anti-Communist expertise in the cold war. As the historian John Cox has shown, the Jewish survivors of the Baum group settled in East Germany after the war. There Baum was honored as a Communist resister, but recognition of his Jewishness was downplayed, particularly after the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign of the early 1950s marked an anti-Semitic turn in Eastern European communism. Additionally, survivors of the Baum group who maintained or even intensified their Jewish identity were harassed.2 The stance of the German Democratic Republic toward a resistance circle that was both partially Communist and partially Jewish was one of selective appropriation.

One group that receives relatively little attention from Thomas and Lewis is the Kreisau circle. Through Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence, September 1944–January 1945 (edited by a surviving son and two grandchildren), Helmuth James von Moltke and his wife, Freya, can speak for themselves.3 Helmuth gave up his goal of becoming a judge in 1935 to avoid serving in the Nazi regime. Instead he pursued a private legal practice until he was conscripted as a legal adviser to the German Armed Forces High Command in September 1939. At this point he moved from private disdain for the Nazis to concerted action in opposition. His family estate, Kreisau, became the center for a group of regime opponents—diverse in religious, political, and social background—planning for a post-Hitler Germany based on Christian, democratic, and socialist principles and living in peace with its European neighbors. Moltke was suspicious of the Goerdeler-Beck opposition, which he considered too traditional, too authoritarian, and too complicit in Hitler’s rise to power. He also opposed assassinating Hitler, believing that German democracy could not be founded on murder and a recycled stab-in-the-back legend. Nonetheless, the very act of envisaging a democracy after Germany lost the war constituted defeatism and treason by Nazi standards.

Moltke was arrested in January 1944 for having alerted a friend to the danger of an informer and was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. When several close associates in the Kreisau circle who had joined Stauffenberg’s failed plot were investigated, the trail led back to him. In Hitler’s frenzy of revenge, Moltke was moved to a Berlin prison in September 1944 and awaited summary trial and execution. The prison chaplain, at great personal risk, began carrying deeply personal letters back and forth between him and Freya.

Three aspects of the correspondence are particularly noteworthy. First, they are intense love letters between two people who were convinced that their love would transcend death. Freya considered it a “great gift” and “the most beautiful thing” that they had been granted “our shared preparation for your death,” and she wrote, “We have had our union sealed beyond death.” Regardless of life or death, she believed, “we will stay together.” Helmuth considered that the afterlife was beyond the dimensions of time, space, and causality, and thus not comprehensible to living humans. But he was certain “that the two of us are a single idea of creation, and, when the Lord calls me to Him, you will be traveling along within me, and I remain here within you.”

Second, the letters testify to the challenge of facing Helmuth’s imminent death while simultaneously coping with a series of unexpected postponements of his trial and pursuing every possibility of altering its outcome that they allowed. Helmuth noted that if he were to resign himself to his fate, it would be easier to conquer his “creaturely fear of dying.” “Living this way, between death and life, is exhausting,” but nonetheless he felt “obliged to fight against” his fate. This situation posed a dilemma to an introspective and intensely religious man. Struggling and praying to have his life saved signified “presumption and a lack of surrender to God’s will.” To ask only for the strength to face the gallows with equanimity expressed “lack of faith” that for God all things were possible. Ultimately, Helmuth found a way to reconcile “a readiness to fight alongside my readiness to die” when he reached the conviction that God was subjecting him to these “infinite detours” and “elaborate zigzag curves” in preparation for “a mighty task” that was revealed in his climactic courtroom confrontation with Judge Roland Freisler on January 10, 1945.

The third important aspect of the letters, therefore, is Moltke’s own view of his trial and his actions as a nonviolent opponent of Hitler and National Socialism. He expressed relief that he was going to be tried with noted Protestants and Catholics, which was much better than having his case tied to the July 20 plot, whose violence he opposed, or worse, “being killed with Goerdeler.” If Freisler was able to reach the “true depths” of his case, “at least I’ll be dying for the right thing…. It is better to be hanged by Hitler than to die from a bomb. It is more meaningful.”

Before the trial Moltke noted that Freisler, the notorious hanging judge of the Nazi People’s Court described by Thomas and Lewis as “one of the most terrifying and demented figures” of the Third Reich, was reportedly also “the smartest man in the entire regime” and “a brilliant interrogator” and thus would be “a worthy match.” Of the trial itself, he reported immediately to Freya that “I easily kept pace with Freisler, which, incidentally, we both clearly enjoyed.” And when Freisler’s infamous temper erupted as if a “hurricane was unleashed,” Moltke confessed, “I couldn’t help but smile.” After the trial, intended as a theater of humiliation and debasement for the defendants, he wrote Freya triumphantly, “I’m a bit giddy, for there’s no denying that I’m in positively high spirits.” Why?

What was important for Moltke was Freisler’s emphasis on Christianity and his treatment of the Kreisau circle apart from rather than intermingled with the other resistance groups who had been tried in connection with the July 20 plot, and that he and his fellow defendants were convicted for what they believed rather than for anything they were alleged to have done. “All we did was think,” Moltke noted, or as Freisler put it, “think differently.” The trial thus revealed that National Socialism had “such a great fear” of “mere thoughts” that Moltke and his fellow defendants had to be “hanged for having thought together.” “How’s that for a compliment,” he added. But above all, the “big favor” that Freisler “unwittingly” performed was to blurt out, “There is only one way in which Christianity and we are alike: We demand the entire person!” Moltke would die “not as a Protestant, not as the owner of a large estate, not as a nobleman, not as a Prussian, not as a German…but as a Christian and absolutely nothing else.” That was the “task” for which God had prepared him, he now realized. Helmuth James von Moltke was executed on January 23, 1945.