German resistance to Nazism

Hermann Goering, Martin Bormann and Bruno Loerzer in the ruins of the Wolfsschanze conference hall after the 20 July 1944 attack on Hitler. Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv. (German Federal Archive)
Hermann Goering, Martin Bormann and Bruno Loerzer in the ruins of the Wolfsschanze conference hall after the 20 July 1944 attack on Hitler. Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv. (German Federal Archive)

In Germany, resistance to Nazism was neither the act of a single group nor of a mass movement.

Although they were in the minority, German men and women from all political, social and religious categories fought Hitler, were exiled, imprisoned in the camps and died.

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Reichstag fire, Berlin, 27 February 1933. Source: akg-images

When we speak of German resistance, we must remember that it was not the work of a single group, nor was it a mass movement.

Yes, there were representatives from every political, social and religious category, but even today - sixty years later -,we still do not know their exact number.

Legal procedures are one of the main sources available to help us get an initial estimation. These are files from the Nazi era and from the after-war period, from when survivors in FRG and GDR tried to get compensation or their rights re-established. Regardless of the figure suggested - between 150,000 and 500,000 resisters - their number is small compared to the pre-war Reich population of 70 million.

The first people affected by the repression were those who were politically opposed to the national socialists. Communists were hunted down as soon as Hitler came to power on 30 January 1933. Three weeks later, on 22 February, SA (1) and SS (2) became the auxiliary police in Prussia. Despite the mass arrest one day after the Reichstag fire, following the instruction of 28 February regarding the ”protection of people and State”, the Communists still managed to obtain 12.2% at the elections on 8 March 1933.

Given that they were not present for the first meeting of the new Reichstag, the 43.9% of votes obtained by the National Socialist party (NSDAP), plus the11.2% for the Central party (the Catholic party), and the 8% for the National Democrats (DNVP) were enough for Hitler to pass his ”Enabling Act” with the two-thirds majority enforced by the Constitution of the Weimar Republic, which remained in force until 1945. The Social Democrats, who had obtained 18.2% at the election of 8 March and who voted against the ”Enabling Act”, were the first target.

In May 1933, the party created an external organisation, SOPADE, which first established itself in Prague, and then London. The Central party ended its political activities after the Reich Concordat between Hitler's Germany and the Vatican in Rome was signed on 20 July 1933. A week before that, on 14 July, Hitler declared the NSDAP as the sole party in Germany. From this date on, any form of political engagement outside the ”National Socialist movement” was illegal, with an immediate risk of punishment. Although this situation was uncertain and difficult for all militants, the left was not prepared to forget its differences.

The rivalry between Communists and Social Democrats helped the Gestapo quickly overcome their clandestine organisations. The same fate was reserved for opponents, of which there were far less, from the right and the Central party. They were arrested and executed on 30 June 1934, during the ”Night of the Long Knives (Röhm-Putsch). In October 1934, a group of protestants got together and formed a ”temporary department of the Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche)”.

German emigration proposals were ignored.

Resisters' spirits were seriously put to the test due to a number of things: acceptance of the régime by the mass of Germans, success of the policy taken by the National Socialists in the economic and social field as well as in the field of foreign policy - giving the Saar back to the Reich in 1935 and successive cancellation of stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles with reinstatement of military service on 16 March 1935, signing of the Anglo-German Naval Agreement on 18 June 1935 and re-militarisation of the Rhineland on 7 March 1936.

The Soviet Union, France and Great Britain were not prepared to hear the proposals from German emigration, established in Moscow, at the Lux Hotel, in Paris, in Hôtel Lutétia, and in Prague and London. Clandestine trips to London by the former mayor of Leipzig, Carl Goerdeler, a leader of the Conservative opposition in Germany, were also futile. Given that Goerdeler had suggested a return to the pre-World War 1 situation, for the British and the French the alternative solutions presented by the conservative elite were not very convincing.

In March 1938, at the time of the Anschluss (annexation of Austria), the situation of the resistance in Germany seemed desperate. Most militants - if they had not chosen to give up all political activities - were either in concentration camps or in exile abroad. Just two months later, however, with the Sudetan Crisis in May 1938, everything changed. Hitler seemed determined to end the programme he had announced to the highest political and military representatives of the Reich on 5 November 1937.

A new group of officers and high-ranking officials, who did not want the risk of a new Great War, formed around General Beck, Chief of Staff of the Army. These men, from the elite national conservative, wanted to stop Hitler launching an attack on Czechoslovakia. But at the last minute, under pressure from the joint action of Hermann Göring, second-in-command of the Third Reich, Konstantin von Neurath, former foreign affairs minister, and Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister, Hitler changed his mind and accepted the idea, suggested by Mussolini, to organise a four-party conference in Munich.

The signing of the Munich Agreement in September 1938 marked the end of this first conspiracy against Hitler. General Beck resigned and group members stopped their activities.

Another occasion came up in winter 1939-1940, while preparing the offensive against France. This time, it was up to General Hans Oster from the counter-intelligence department of the army (Abwehr) to take the initiative. But the idea of informing the opponents of the start of an attack on France and Belgium ended in failure: by postponing the date of the German attack several times, Hitler, without knowing it, discredited the information provided by Oster. The collapse of France, in summer 1940, once again ended the conspiracy.

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Attempted attacks and groups of resisters

Stamp from the German post office commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Georg Elser (2003). Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv. German Federal Archive

Resistance against Hitler did not only come from the elite. The attack on the ”Bürgerbräu-Keller” beer hall in Munich on 8 November 1939 was an isolated act, prepared by one man. The bomb made by Georg Elser, a carpenter, missed its target only because Hitler left the premises earlier than planned. In view of his efficacy, the Gestapo was initially convinced that Georg Elser received help from abroad. It was only a few weeks later, due to other activities, that the Gestapo realised there was still a spirit of resistance in Germany.

Clearing up after the bomb attack on Hitler at the ”Bürgerbräu” beer hall in Munich, 8 November 1939. Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv. German Federal Archive

After the mass arrests at the start of the 1930s, the opposition began to reorganise itself in Germany in other forms.

Small groups formed on both the left and right. Enrolment in the fight against the Nazi regime stepped up a notch when the war began in the East on 22 June 1941 and with the persecution of Jews. But, despite the activities of the Red Orchestra (a group of senior officials led by Harro Schulze-Boysen, an officer of the Luftwaffe), the Baum Group (a network of Jews in Berlin), the White Rose (a student movement founded by Sophie and Hans Scholl in Munich), the Edelweisspiraten in Cologne and the Swing-Jugend in Hamburg (both protest movements organised by young people) - to give just a few examples - there is no denying that this was still a minority.

Compared to the situation in France and in other occupied countries in Europe, we must never forget that, for a German, becoming a resister was not an easy decision. Not only did they have to act against their own country, but, if necessary, against their fellow citizens. Fighting one's own government, even when the régime is a criminal one, is an act of high treason, punishable by death. This problem was at the heart of debates organised as of 1942 by Count Helmuth James Graf von Moltke on his domain in Kreisau in Lower Silesia (hence the name Kreisau Circle). The necessity for the collective assassination of the régime's highest representatives (Hitler, Himmler, Göring) and the issue of legitimacy of an ”uprising of consciences” (Aufstand des Gewissens) were problems not only for these high-ranking officials, but also for soldiers who had all taken an oath to serve Hitler in person.

On 8 January 1943, a few days before the sixth army capitulated in Stalingrad, initial contact was established between General Beck, Carl Goerdeler and the Kreisau Circle. But in order to be able to react, they needed someone in Hitler's entourage, as he was hiding more and more within his main headquarters. This man was Colonel Henning von Tresckow, Chief of Staff of the Centre army group on the eastern front. After witnessing atrocities committed by the ”Einsatzgruppen” (3) in German-occupied territories in the East, he decided to act. But none of the attempts to attack Hitler were successful.

Arrests, deportations and executions

However, the Gestapo was not inactive. After succeeding in the summer of 1943 to dismantle the Abwehr surrounding General Oster, in early 1944 it arrested its head, Admiral Canaris, and Count Hellmuth James von Moltke. Time was of the essence, but each of these failures required plans to be changed and adjusted.

At the time of the Allied Landing on 6 June 1944, it was nearly too late. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who took over, was now the only plotter who could get close to Hitler. Colonel von Tresckow, who was on the eastern front, asked his friend to launch the coup d'etat, even if failure was likely, to at least prove the existence of another Germany.

Hermann Goering, Martin Bormann and Bruno Loerzer in the ruins of the Wolfsschanze conference hall after the 20 July 1944 attack on Hitler. Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv. (German Federal Archive)

But the attack and the ”Walkyrie” operation of 20 July 1944 failed. When the different actors were arrested, the Gestapo noticed, to its great surprise, that this was not a plot organised by a small group of ambitious and stupid officers, as Hitler still believed in his speech broadcast on radio in the night of 20 July 1944. Stauffenberg and his Bendelerstrasse plotters had made contact not only with the conservative elite (Carl Goerdeler, Ludwig Beck, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke), but also with nearly all the other resistance groups in Germany.

Based on documents that the Gestapo discovered in the army's headquarters in Zossen, Hitler gave the order to make a wave of arrests. During this ”Operation Storm” (Aktion Gewitter), the majority of opponents were arrested and members of their families were interned.

In the months that followed, Hitler's vengeance was terrible: opponents were judged and sentenced to death, dozens at a time, by the President of the People's Court, Roland Freisler. Among those who were still in prisons or concentration camps like Flossenbürg, a large number were assassinated just before the camps were liberated, by order of Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler. At the end of the war, German resistance was literally decapitated.

Note :

(1) SA (Sturm Abteilung): paramilitary organisations, assault divisions, created on the margin of the Nazi party, spread terror throughout Germany.

(2) SS (Schutzstaffel): paramilitary organisations which gradually replaced the SA, provided homeland security for Nazi Germany and the occupied territories and also managed and guarded the concentration camps.

(3) In June 1941, the Reich central security office and German military authorities created Einsatzgruppen. These groups were responsible for the mass killing of Jews in the newly conquered eastern territories. Between June 1941 and the end of 1943, they executed more than 1.3 million people.

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