German resistance to Nazism was the opposition by individuals and groups in Germany to the National Socialist regime between 1933 and 1945. Some of these engaged in active plans to remove Adolf Hitler from power and overthrow his regime.
The term German resistance should not be understood as meaning that there was a united resistance movement in Germany at any time during the Nazi period, analogous to the more coordinated Polish Underground State, Greek Resistance, Yugoslav Partisans, French Resistance, Dutch Resistance, Norwegian Resistance Movement, and Italian Resistance. The German resistance consisted of small and usually isolated groups. They were unable to mobilize political opposition. Except for individual attacks on Nazis including Hitler or sabotage acts, the only real strategy was to persuade leaders of the Wehrmacht to stage a coup against the regime: the 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler was intended to trigger such a coup.
“You Did Not Bear The Shame,
You Resisted, Sacrificing Your Life
For Freedom, Justice and Honor.”
-From the German Resistance Memorial, Berlin
Approximately 77,000 German citizens were killed for one or another form of resistance by Special Courts, courts-martial, People’s Courts and the civil justice system. Many of these Germans had served in government, the military, or in civil positions, which enabled them to engage in subversion and conspiracy; in addition, the Canadian historian Peter Hoffman counts unspecified “tens of thousands” in concentration camps who were either suspected of or actually engaged in opposition. By contrast, the German historian Hans Mommsen wrote that resistance in Germany was “resistance without the people” and that the number of those Germans engaged in resistance to the Nazi regime was very small. The resistance in Germany included German citizens of non-German ethnicities, such as members of the Polish minority who formed resistance groups like Olimp.
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The German Resistance movement consisted of several disparate political and ideological strands, which represented different classes of German society and were seldom able to work together – indeed for much of the period there was little or no contact between the different strands of resistance. A few civilian resistance groups developed, but the Army was the only organization with the capacity to overthrow the government, and from within it a small number of officers came to present the most serious threat posed to the Nazi regime. The Foreign Office and the Abwehr (Military Intelligence) also provided vital support to the movement. But many of those in the military who ultimately chose to seek to overthrow Hitler had initially supported the regime, if not all of its methods. Hitler’s 1938 purge of the military was accompanied by increased militancy in the Nazification of Germany, a sharp intensification of the persecution of Jews, homosexuals, communists, socialists, and trade union leaders including aggressive foreign policy, bringing Germany to the brink of war, and it was at this time that the German Resistance emerged.
The Resistance members were motivated by such factors as the mistreatment of Jews, harassment of the churches, and the harsh actions of Himmler and the Gestapo. In his history of the German Resistance, Peter Hoffmann wrote that “National Socialism was not simply a party like any other; with its total acceptance of criminality it was an incarnation of evil, so that all those whose minds were attuned to democracy, Christianity, freedom, humanity or even mere legality found themselves forced into alliance…”.
One strand was the underground networks of the banned Social Democrats (SPD) and Communists (KPD), such as the SPD activist Julius Leber, who was an active resistance figure. There was also resistance from the anarcho-syndicalist group the Freie Arbeiter Union (FAUD), that distributed anti-Nazi propaganda and assisted people in fleeing the country. Another group, the Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle), consisted of anti-fascists, communists, and an American woman. The individuals in this group began to assist their Jewish friends as early as 1933.
Another strand was resistance coming from members of the Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant. Their stance was symbolically significant. The churches, as institutions, did not openly advocate for the overthrow of the Nazi state, but they remained one of the very few German institutions to retain some independence from the state and were thus able to continue to coordinate a level of opposition to Government policies. They resisted the regime’s efforts to intrude on ecclesiastical autonomy, but from the beginning, a minority of clergymen expressed broader reservations about the new order, and gradually their criticisms came to form a “coherent, systematic critique of many of the teachings of National Socialism”. Some priests – such as the Jesuits Alfred Delp and Augustin Rösch and the Lutheran preacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer – were active and influential within the clandestine German Resistance, while figures such as Protestant Pastor Martin Niemöller who founded the Confessing Church, and the Catholic Bishop August von Galen who denounced Nazi euthanasia and lawlessness, offered some of the most trenchant public criticism of the Third Reich – not only against intrusions by the regime into church governance and to arrests of clergy and expropriation of church property, but also to the fundamentals of human rights and justice as the foundation of a political system. Their example inspired some acts of overt resistance, such as that of the White Rose student group in Munich, and provided moral stimulus and guidance for various leading figures in the political Resistance. A third strand might be called the “unorganized resistance”: individual Germans or small groups of people acting in defiance of government policies or orders, or in ways seen as subversive of the Nazi system. Most notably, these included a significant number of Germans who helped Jews survive the Nazi Holocaust by hiding them, obtaining papers for them or in other ways aiding them. More than 300 Germans have been recognized for this. It also included, particularly in the later years of the regime, informal networks of young Germans who evaded serving in the Hitler Youth and defied the cultural policies of the Nazis in various ways.
Finally, there was the resistance network within the German Army, the Foreign Office and the Abwehr, the military intelligence organization. These groups hatched conspiracies against Hitler in 1938 and again in 1939, but for a variety of reasons could not implement their plans. After the German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, they contacted many army officers who were convinced that Hitler was leading Germany to disaster, although fewer who were willing to engage in overt resistance. Active resisters in this group were frequently drawn from members of the Prussian aristocracy.
Almost every community in Germany had members taken away to concentration camps. As early as 1935, there were jingles warning: “Dear Lord God, keep me quiet so that I don’t end up in Dachau.” (It almost rhymes in German: Lieber Herr Gott mach mich stumm / Daß ich nicht nach Dachau komm.)Dachau refers to the Dachau concentration camp. This is a parody of a common German children’s prayer, “Lieber Gott mach mich fromm, daß ich in den Himmel komm.” (“Dear God, keep me pious, so I go to Heaven”)
Pre-War Resistance 1933–39
There was almost no organized resistance to Hitler’s regime in the period between his appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933, and the crisis over Czechoslovakia in early October 1938. By July 1933 all other political parties and the trade unions had been suppressed, the press and radio brought under state control, and most elements of civil society neutralized. The July 1933 Concordat between Germany and the Holy See ended any possibility of systematic resistance by the Catholic Church. The largest Protestant church, the German Evangelical Church, was generally pro-Nazi, although a small number of church members resisted this position. The breaking of the power of the SA in the “Night of the Long Knives” in July 1934 ended any possibility of a challenge from the socialist wing of the Nazi Party, and also brought the army into closer alliance with the regime.
All sources agree that Hitler’s regime was overwhelmingly popular with the German people during this period. The failures of the Weimar Republic had discredited democracy in the eyes of most Germans. Hitler’s apparent success in restoring full employment after the ravages of the Great Depression achieved mainly through the reintroduction of conscription, a policy advocating that women stay home and raise children, a crash re-armament programme, and the incremental removal of Jews from the workforce as their jobs were tendered to Gentiles, and his bloodless foreign policy successes such as the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 and the annexation of Austria in 1938, brought him almost universal acclaim.
During this period, the SPD and the KPD managed to maintain underground networks, although the legacy of pre-1933 conflicts between the two parties meant that they were unable to co-operate. The Gestapo frequently infiltrated these networks, and the rate of arrests and executions of SPD and KPD activists was high, but the networks continued to be able to recruit new members from the industrial working class, who resented the stringent labor discipline imposed by the regime during its race to rearm. The exiled SPD leadership in Prague received and published accurate reports of events inside Germany. But beyond maintaining their existence and fomenting industrial unrest, sometimes resulting in short-lived strikes, these networks were able to achieve little.
There remained, however, a substantial base for opposition to Hitler’s regime. Although the Nazi Party had taken control of the German state, it had not destroyed and rebuilt the state apparatus in the way the Bolshevik regime had done in the Soviet Union. Institutions such as the Foreign Office, the intelligence services and, above all, the army, retained some measure of independence, while outwardly submitting to the new regime. In May 1934, Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, Chief of Staff of the Army, had offered to resign if preparations were made for an offensive war against Czechoslovakia. The independence of the army was eroded in 1938, when both the War Minister, General Werner von Blomberg, and the Army Chief, General Werner von Fritsch, were removed from office, but an informal network of officers critical of the Nazi regime remained.
In 1936, thanks to an informer, the Gestapo raids devastated Anarcho-syndicalist groups all over Germany, resulting in the arrest of 89 people. Most ended up either imprisoned or murdered by the regime. The groups had been encouraging strikes, printing and distributing anti-Nazi propaganda and recruiting people to fight the Nazis’ fascist allies during the Spanish Civil War.
As part of the agreement with the conservative forces by which Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the non-party conservative Konstantin von Neurath remained foreign minister, a position he retained until 1938. During Neurath’s time in control, the Foreign Office with its network of diplomats and access to intelligence, became home to a circle of resistance, under the discreet patronage of the Under-Secretary of State Ernst von Weizsäcker. Prominent in this circle were the ambassador in Rome Ulrich von Hassell, the Ambassador in Moscow Friedrich Graf von der Schulenburg, and officials Adam von Trott zu Solz, Erich Kordt, and Hans Bernd von Haeften. This circle survived even when the ardent Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop succeeded Neurath as foreign minister.
The most important center of opposition to the regime within the state apparatus was in the intelligence services, whose clandestine operations offered an excellent cover for political organization. The key figure here was Colonel Hans Oster, head of the Military Intelligence Office from 1938, and an anti-Nazi from as early as 1934. He was protected by the Abwehr chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Oster organized an extensive clandestine network of potential resisters in the army and the intelligence services. He found an early ally in Hans Bernd Gisevius, a senior official in the Interior Ministry. Hjalmar Schacht, the governor of the Reichsbank, was also in touch with this opposition.
The problem these groups faced, however, was what form resistance to Hitler could take in the face of the regime’s successive triumphs. They recognized that it was impossible to stage any kind of open political resistance. This was not, as is sometimes stated, because the repressive apparatus of the regime was so all-pervasive that public protest was impossible – as was shown when Catholics protested against the removal of crucifixes from Oldenburg schools in 1936, and the regime backed down. Rather it was because of Hitler’s massive support among the German people. While resistance movements in the occupied countries could mobilize patriotic sentiment against the German occupiers, in Germany the resistance risked being seen as unpatriotic, particularly in wartime. Even many army officers and officials who detested Hitler had a deep aversion to being involved in subversive or treasonous acts against the government.
As early as 1936 Oster and Gisevius came to the view that a regime so totally dominated by one man could only be brought down by eliminating that man – either by assassinating Hitler or by staging an army coup against him. But it was a long time before any significant number of Germans came to accept this view. Many clung to the belief that Hitler could be persuaded to moderate his regime, or that some other more moderate figure could replace him. Others argued that Hitler was not to blame for the regime’s excesses and that the removal of Heinrich Himmler and reduction in the power of the SS was needed. Some oppositionists were devout Christians who disapproved of assassination as a matter of principle. Others, particularly the army officers, felt bound by the personal oath of loyalty they had taken to Hitler in 1934.
The opposition was also hampered by a lack of agreement about their objectives other than the need to remove Hitler from power. Some oppositionists were liberals who opposed the ideology of the Nazi regime in its entirety, and who wished to restore a system of parliamentary democracy. Most of the army officers and many of the civil servants, however, were conservatives and nationalists, and many had initially supported Hitler’s policies – Carl Goerdeler, the Lord Mayor of Leipzig, was a good example. Some favored restoring the Hohenzollern dynasty, while others favored an authoritarian, but not Nazi, regime. Some saw no problem with Hitler’s anti-Semitism and ultra-nationalism and opposed only his apparent reckless determination to take Germany into a new world war. Because of their many differences, the opposition was unable to form a united movement or to send a coherent message to potential allies outside Germany.
Role of the Churches
Though neither the Catholic nor Protestant churches as institutions were prepared to openly oppose the Nazi State, it was from the clergy that the first major component of the German Resistance to the policies of the Third Reich emerged, and the churches as institutions provided the earliest and most enduring centers of systematic opposition to Nazi policies. From the outset of Nazi rule in 1933, issues emerged which brought the churches into conflict with the regime. They offered organized, systematic and consistent resistance to government policies which infringed on ecclesiastical autonomy. As one of the few German institutions to retain some independence from the state, the churches were able to coordinate a level of opposition to Government, and, according to Joachim Fest, they, more than any other institutions, continued to provide a “forum in which individuals could distance themselves from the regime”. Christian morality and the anti-Church policies of the Nazis also motivated many German resisters and provided the impetus for the moral revolt of individuals in their efforts to overthrow Hitler. The historian Wolf cites events such as the July Plot of 1944 as having been “inconceivable without the spiritual support of church resistance.”
“From the very beginning”, wrote Hamerow, “some churchmen expressed, quite directly at times, their reservations about the new order. In fact, those reservations gradually came to form a coherent, systematic critique of many of the teachings of National Socialism.” Clergy in the German Resistance had some independence from the state apparatus, and could thus criticize it, while not being close enough to the center of power to take steps to overthrow it. “Clerical resistors”, wrote Theodore S. Hamerow, could indirectly “articulate political dissent in the guise of pastoral stricture”. They usually spoke out not against the established system, but “only against specific policies that it had mistakenly adopted and that it should therefore properly correct”. Later, the most trenchant public criticism of the Third Reich came from some of Germany’s religious leaders, as the government was reluctant to move against them, and though they could claim to be merely attending to the spiritual welfare of their flocks, what they had to say was at times so critical of the central doctrines of National Socialism than to say it required great boldness, and they became resistors. Their resistance was directed not only against intrusions by the government into church governance and to arrests of clergy and expropriation of church property, but also to matters like Nazi euthanasia and eugenics and to the fundamentals of human rights and justice as the foundation of a political system. A senior cleric could rely on a degree of popular support from the faithful, and thus the regime had to consider the possibility of nationwide protests if such figures were arrested. Thus the Catholic Bishop of Munster, August von Galen and Dr. Theophil Wurm, the Protestant Bishop of Wurttemberg were able to arouse widespread public opposition to the murder of invalids.
For figures like the Jesuit Provincial of Bavaria, Augustin Rösch, the Catholic trade unionists Jakob Kaiser and Bernhard Letterhaus and the July Plot leader Claus von Stauffenberg, religious motives and the determination to resist would seem to have developed hand in hand. Ernst Wolf wrote that some credit must be given to the resistance of the churches, for providing “moral stimulus and guidance for the political Resistance…”. Virtually all of the military conspirators in the July Plot were religious men. Among the social democrat political conspirators, the Christian influence was also strong, though humanism also played a significant foundational role – and among the wider circle, there were other political, military and nationalist motivations at play. Religious motivations were particularly strong in the Kreisau Circle of the Resistance. The Kreisau leader Helmuth James Graf von Moltke declared in one of his final letters before execution that the essence of the July revolt was “outrage of the Christian conscience”.
In the words of Kershaw, the churches “engaged in a bitter war of attrition with the regime, receiving the demonstrative backing of millions of churchgoers. Applause for Church leaders whenever they appeared in public, swollen attendances at events such as Corpus Christi Day processions, and packed church services were outward signs of the struggle of… especially of the Catholic Church – against Nazi oppression”. While the Church ultimately failed to protect its youth organizations and schools, it did have some successes in mobilizing public opinion to alter government policies. The churches challenged Nazi efforts to undermine various Christian institutions, practices, and beliefs and Bullock wrote that “among the most courageous demonstrations of opposition during the war were the sermons preached by the Catholic Bishop of Munster and the Protestant Pastor, Dr Niemoller…” but that nevertheless, “Neither the Catholic Church nor the Evangelical Church… as institutions, felt it possible to take up an attitude of open opposition to the regime”.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the main Christian opposition to Nazism had come from the Catholic Church. German bishops were hostile to the emerging movement and energetically denounced its false doctrines. A threatening, though initially mainly sporadic persecution of the Catholic Church in Germany followed the Nazi takeover. Hitler moved quickly to eliminate Political Catholicism, rounding up members of the Catholic political parties and banning their existence in July 1933. Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen, the leader of the Catholic right-wing, meanwhile negotiated a Reich concordat with the Holy See, which prohibited clergy from participating in politics. Catholic resistance initially diminished after the Concordat, with Cardinal Bertram of Breslau, the chairman of the German Conference of Bishops, developing an ineffectual protest system. Firmer resistance by Catholic leaders gradually reasserted itself by the individual actions of leading churchmen like Josef Frings, Konrad von Preysing, August von Galen and Michael von Faulhaber. Most Catholic opposition to the regime came from the Catholic left-wing in the Christian trade unions, such as by the union leaders Jakob Kaiser and (Blessed) Nikolaus Gross. Hoffmann writes that, from the beginning:
“[The Catholic Church] could not silently accept the general persecution, regimentation or oppression, nor in particular the sterilization law of summer 1933. Over the years until the outbreak of war Catholic resistance stiffened until finally its most eminent spokesman was the Pope himself with his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge… of 14 March 1937, read from all German Catholic pulpits. Clemens August Graf von Galen, Bishop of Munster, was typical of the many fearless Catholic speakers. In general terms, therefore, the churches were the only major organizations to offer comparatively early and open resistance: they remained so in later years.”— Extract from The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945 by Peter Hoffmann.
In the year following Hitler’s seizure of power, old political players looked for means to overthrow the new government. The former Catholic Centre Party leader and Reich Chancellor Heinrich Brüning looked for a way to oust Hitler. Erich Klausener, an influential civil servant and president of Berlin’s Catholic Action group organized Catholic conventions in Berlin in 1933, and 1934 and spoke against political oppression to a crowd of 60,000 at the 1934 rally. Deputy Reich Chancellor von Papen, a conservative Catholic nobleman, delivered an indictment of the Nazi government in his Marburg speech of 17 June. His speechwriter Edgar Jung, a Catholic Action worker, seized the opportunity to reassert the Christian foundation of the state, pleaded for religious freedom, and rejected totalitarian aspirations in the field of religion, hoping to spur a rising, centered on Hindenberg, Papen, and the army.
Hitler decided to strike at his chief political opponents in the Night of the Long Knives. The purge lasted two days over 30 June and 1 July 1934. Leading rivals of Hitler were killed. High-profile Catholic resistors were targeted – Klausener and Jung were murdered. Adalbert Probst, the national director of the Catholic Youth Sports Association, was also killed. The Catholic press was targeted too, with anti-Nazi journalist Fritz Gerlich among the dead. On 2 August 1934, the aged President von Hindenberg died. The offices of President and Chancellor were combined, and Hitler ordered the Army to swear an oath directly to him. Hitler declared his revolution complete.
Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber gained an early reputation as a critic of the Nazis. His three Advent sermons of 1933, entitled Judaism, Christianity, and Germany denounced the Nazi extremists who were calling for the Bible to be purged of the Jewish Old Testament. Faulhaber tried to avoid conflict with the state over issues not strictly pertaining to the church, but on issues involving the defense of Catholics, he refused to compromise or retreat. When in 1937, the authorities in Upper Bavaria attempted to replace Catholic schools with “common schools”, he offered fierce resistance. Among the firmest and consistent of senior Catholics to oppose the Nazis was Konrad von Preysing, Bishop of Berlin from 1935. He worked with leading members of the resistance Carl Goerdeler and Helmuth James Graf von Moltke. He was part of the five-member commission that prepared the Mit brennender Sorge anti-Nazi encyclical of March 1937 and sought to block the Nazi closure of Catholic schools and arrests of church officials.
While Hitler did not feel powerful enough to arrest senior clergy before the end of the war, an estimated one-third of German priests faced some form of reprisal from the Nazi Government and 400 German priests were sent to the dedicated Priest Barracks of Dachau Concentration Camp alone. Among the best known German priest, martyrs were the Jesuit Alfred Delp and Fr Bernhard Lichtenberg. Lichtenberg ran Bishop von Preysing’s aid unit (the Hilfswerke beim Bischöflichen Ordinariat Berlin) which secretly assisted those who were being persecuted by the regime. Arrested in 1941, he died en route to Dachau Concentration Camp in 1943. Delp – along with fellow Jesuits Augustin Rösch and Lothar König – was among the central players of the Kreisau Circle Resistance group. Bishop von Preysing also had contact with the group. The group combined conservative notions of reform with socialist strains of thought – a symbiosis expressed by Delp’s notion of “personal socialism”. Among the German laity, Gertrud Luckner was among the first to sense the genocidal inclinations of the Hitler regime and to take national action. She cooperated with Lichtenberg and Delp and attempted to establish a national underground network to assist Jews through the Catholic aid agency Caritas. Using international contacts she secured safe passage abroad for many refugees. She organized aid circles for Jews, assisted many to escape. Arrested in 1943, she only narrowly escaped death in the concentration camps. Social worker Margarete Sommer counseled victims of racial persecution for Caritas Emergency Relief and in 1941 became director of the Welfare Office of the Berlin Diocesan Authority, under Lichtenberg, and Bishop Preysing. She coordinated Catholic aid for victims of racial persecution – giving spiritual comfort, food, clothing, and money and wrote several reports on the mistreatment of Jews from 1942, including an August 1942 report which reached Rome under the title ‘Report on the Exodus of the Jews.’
Even at the height of Hitler’s popularity, one issue unexpectedly provoked powerful and successful resistance to his regime. This was the programme of so-called “euthanasia” – in fact, a campaign of mass murder – directed at people with mental illness and/or severe physical disabilities which had begun in 1939 under the codename T4. By 1941, more than 70,000 people had been killed under this programme, many by gassing, and their bodies incinerated. This policy aroused strong opposition across German society, and especially among Catholics. Opposition to the policy sharpened after the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, because the war in the east produced for the first time large-scale German casualties, and the hospitals and asylums began to fill up with maimed and disabled young German soldiers. Rumors began to circulate that these men would also be subject to “euthanasia,” although no such plans existed.
Catholic anger was further fuelled by actions of the Gauleiter of Upper Bavaria, Adolf Wagner, a militantly anti-Catholic Nazi, who in June 1941 ordered the removal of crucifixes from all schools in his Gau. This attack on Catholicism provoked the first public demonstrations against government policy since the Nazis had come to power, and the mass signing of petitions, including by Catholic soldiers serving at the front. When Hitler heard of this he ordered Wagner to rescind his decree, but the damage had been done – German Catholics had learned that the regime could be successfully opposed. This led to more outspoken protests against the euthanasia programme.
In July, the Bishop of Münster, August von Galen (an old aristocratic conservative, like many of the anti-Hitler Army officers), publicly denounced the euthanasia programme in a sermon, and telegrammed his text to Hitler, calling on “the Führer to defend the people against the Gestapo.” Another Bishop, Franz Bornewasser of Trier, also sent protests to Hitler, though not in public. On 3 August, von Galen was even more outspoken, broadening his attack to include the Nazi persecution of religious orders and the closing of Catholic institutions. Local Nazis asked for Galen to be arrested, but Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels told Hitler that if this happened there would be an open revolt in Westphalia. Galen’s sermons went further than defending the church, he spoke of a moral danger to Germany from the regime’s violations of basic human rights: “the right to life, to inviolability, and to freedom is an indispensable part of any moral social order”, he said – and any government that punishes without court proceedings “undermines its own authority and respect for its sovereignty within the conscience of its citizens”.
By August, the protests had spread to Bavaria. Hitler was jeered by an angry crowd at Hof, near Nuremberg – the only time he was opposed to his face in public during his 12 years of rule. Hitler knew that he could not afford a confrontation with the Church at a time when Germany was engaged in a life-and-death two-front war. It needs to be remembered that following the annexations of Austria and the Sudetenland, nearly half of all Germans were Catholic. On 24 August, he ordered the cancellation of the T4 programme and issued strict instructions to the Gauleiters that there were to be no further provocations of the churches during the war.
Pius XII became Pope on the eve of World War II, and maintained links to the German Resistance. Although remaining publicly neutral, Pius advised the British in 1940 of the readiness of certain German generals to overthrow Hitler if they could be assured of an honorable peace, offered assistance to the German resistance in the event of a coup and warned the Allies of the planned German invasion of the Low Countries in 1940. In 1943, Pius issued the Mystici corporis Christi encyclical, in which he condemned the practice of killing the disabled. He stated his profound grief at the murder of the deformed, the insane, and those suffering from hereditary disease… as though they were a useless burden to Society, in condemnation of the ongoing Nazi euthanasia program. The Encyclical was followed, on 26 September 1943, by an open condemnation by the German Bishops which, from every German pulpit, denounced the killing of “innocent and defenceless mentally handicapped, incurably infirm and fatally wounded, innocent hostages, and disarmed prisoners of war and criminal offenders, people of a foreign race or descent”.
However, the deportation of Polish and Dutch priests by the occupying Nazis by 1942 — after Polish resistance acts and the Dutch Catholic bishops’ conference’s official condemnation of anti-Semitic persecutions and deportations of Jews by the Nazis — also terrified ethnic German clergy in Germany itself, some of whom would come to share the same fate because of their resistance against the Nazi government in racial and social aspects, among them Fr. Bernhard Lichtenberg. Himmler’s 1941 Aktion Klostersturm (Operation Attack-the-Monastery) had also helped to spread fear among regime-critical Catholic clergy.
Following the Nazi takeover, Hitler attempted the subjugation of the Protestant churches under a single Reich Church. He divided the Lutheran Church (Germany’s main Protestant denomination) and instigated a brutal persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refused military service and allegiance to Hitlerism. Pastor Martin Niemöller responded with the Pastors Emergency League which re-affirmed the Bible. The movement grew into the Confessing Church, from which some clergymen opposed the Nazi regime. By 1934, the Confessional Church had declared itself the legitimate Protestant Church of Germany. In response to the regime’s attempt to establish a state church, in March 1935, the Confessing Church Synod announced:
We see our nation threatened with mortal danger; the danger lies in a new religion. The Church has been ordered by its Master to see that Christ is honored by our nation in a manner befitting the Judge of the world. The Church knows that it will be called to account if the German nation turns its back on Christ without being forewarned”.— 1935 Confessing Church Synod
In May 1936, the Confessing Church sent Hitler a memorandum courteously objecting to the anti-Christian tendencies of his regime, condemning anti-Semitism and asking for an end to interference in church affairs. Paul Berben wrote, “A Church envoy was sent to Hitler to protest against the religious persecutions, the concentration camps, and the activities of the Gestapo, and to demand freedom of speech, particularly in the press.” The Nazi Minister of the Interior, Wilhelm Frick responded harshly. Hundreds of pastors were arrested; Dr. Weissler, a signatory to the memorandum, was killed at Sachsenhausen concentration camp and the funds of the church were confiscated and collections were forbidden. Church resistance stiffened and by early 1937, Hitler had abandoned his hope of uniting the Protestant churches.
The Confessing Church was banned on 1 July 1937. Niemöller was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the concentration camps. He remained mainly at Dachau until the fall of the regime. Theological universities were closed, and other pastors and theologians arrested.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, was from the outset a critic of the Hitler regime’s racism and became active in the German Resistance – calling for Christians to speak out against Nazi atrocities. Arrested in 1943, he was implicated in the 1944 July Plot to assassinate Hitler and executed.
First Assassination Attempt
The first resolute attempt to remove Hitler during this period was led by Oster from the Abwehr, but no shot was fired. In November 1939, however, Georg Elser, a carpenter from Württemberg, acting completely on his own, developed a plan to assassinate Hitler. Elser had been peripherally involved with the KPD before 1933, but his exact motives for acting as he did remain a mystery. He read in the newspapers that Hitler would be addressing a Nazi Party meeting on 8 November, in the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer hall in Munich where Hitler had launched the Beer Hall Putsch on the same date in 1923. Stealing explosives from his workplace, Elser built a powerful time bomb. For over a month, he managed to stay inside the Bürgerbräukeller after closing hours each night, during which time he hollowed out the pillar behind the speaker’s rostrum to place the bomb inside.
On the night of 7 November 1939, Elser set the timer and left for the Swiss border. Unexpectedly, because of the pressure of wartime business, Hitler made a much shorter speech than usual and left the hall 13 minutes before the bomb went off, killing seven people. Sixty-three people were injured, sixteen more were seriously injured with one dying later. Had Hitler still been speaking, the bomb almost certainly would have killed him, with consequences which can only be guessed. Elser was arrested at the border, sent to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, and then in 1945 moved to the Dachau concentration camp. Elser was executed two weeks before the liberation of Dachau KZ. This attempt on Hitler’s life set off a witch hunt for potential conspirators which intimidated the opposition and made further action more difficult.
The entry of the Soviet Union into the war had certain consequences for civilian resistance. During the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the KPD’s only objective inside Germany was to keep itself in existence: it engaged in no active resistance to the Nazi regime. After June 1941, however, all Communists were expected to throw themselves into resistance work, including sabotage and espionage where this was possible, regardless of risk. A handful of Soviet agents, mostly exiled German Communists, were able to enter Germany to help the scattered underground KPD cells organize and take action. This led to the formation in 1942 of two separate communist groups, usually erroneously lumped together under the name Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra), a codename given to these groups by the Gestapo.
The first “Red Orchestra” was an espionage network based in Berlin and coordinated by Leopold Trepper, a GRU agent sent into Germany in October 1941. This group made reports to the Soviet Union on German troop concentrations, air attacks on Germany, German aircraft production, and German fuel shipments. In France, it worked with the underground French Communist Party. Agents of this group even managed to tap the phone lines of the Abwehr in Paris. Trepper was eventually arrested and the group broken up by the spring of 1943.
The second and more important “Red Orchestra” group was entirely separate and was a genuine German resistance group, not controlled by the NKVD (the Soviet intelligence agency and predecessor to the KGB). This group was led by Harro Schulze-Boysen, an intelligence officer at the Reich Air Ministry, and Arvid Harnack, an official in the Ministry of Economics, both self-identified communists but not apparently KPD members. The group however contained people of various beliefs and affiliations. It included the theatre producer Adam Kuckhoff, the author Günther Weisenborn, the journalist John Graudenz and the pianist Helmut Roloff. It thus conformed to the general pattern of German resistance groups of being drawn mainly from elite groups.
The main activity of the group was collecting information about Nazi atrocities and distributing leaflets against Hitler rather than espionage. They passed what they had learned to foreign countries, through personal contacts with the U.S. embassy and, via a less direct connection, to the Soviet government. When Soviet agents tried to enlist this group in their service, Schulze-Boysen and Harnack refused, since they wanted to maintain their political independence. The group was betrayed to the Gestapo in August 1942 by Johann Wenzel, a member of the Trepper group who also knew of the Schulze-Boysen group and who informed on them after being arrested. Schulze-Boysen, Harnack and other members of the group were arrested and secretly executed.
Meanwhile, another Communist resistance group was operating in Berlin, led by a Jewish electrician, Herbert Baum, and involving up to a hundred people. Until 1941 the group operated a study circle, but after the German attack on the Soviet Union, a core group advanced to active resistance. In May 1942, the group staged an arson attack on an anti-Soviet propaganda display at the Lustgarten in central Berlin. The attack was poorly organized and most of the Baum group was arrested. Twenty were sentenced to death, while Baum himself died in custody. This fiasco ended overt Communist resistance activities, although the KPD underground continued to operate, and re-emerged from hiding in the last days of the war.
Resistance in the Army 1938–42
Despite the removal of Blomberg and Fritsch, the army retained considerable independence, and senior officers were able to discuss their political views in private fairly freely. In May 1938, the army leadership was made aware of Hitler’s intention of invading Czechoslovakia, even at the risk of war with Britain, France, and/or the Soviet Union. The Army Chief of Staff, General Ludwig Beck, regarded this as not only immoral but reckless since he believed that Germany would lose such a war. Oster and Beck sent emissaries to Paris and London to advise the British and French to resist Hitler’s demands, and thereby strengthen the hand of Hitler’s opponents in the Army. Weizsäcker also sent private messages to London urging resistance. The British and French were extremely doubtful of the ability of the German opposition to overthrow the Nazi regime and ignored these messages. An official of the British Foreign Office wrote on August 28, 1938: “We have had similar visits from other emissaries of the Reichsheer, such as Dr. Goerdeler, but those for whom these emissaries claim to speak have never given us any reasons to suppose that they would be able or willing to take action such as would lead to the overthrow of the regime. The events of June 1934 and February 1938 do not lead one to attach much hope to energetic action by the Army against the regime.” Because of the failure of Germans to overthrow their Führer in 1938, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was convinced that the resistance comprised a group of people seem not well organized.
Writing of the 1938 conspiracy, the German historian Klaus-Jürgen Müller observed that the conspiracy was a loosely organized collection of two different groups. One group comprising the army’s Chief of Staff General Ludwig Beck, the Abwehr chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, and the Foreign Office’s State Secretary, Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker were the anti-war group in the German government, which was determined to avoid a war in 1938 that it felt Germany would lose. This group was not committed to the overthrow of the regime but was loosely allied to another, a more radical group, the anti-Nazi fraction centered on Colonel Hans Oster and Hans Bernd Gisevius, which wanted to use the crisis as an excuse for executing a putsch to overthrow the Nazi regime. The divergent aims between these two factions produced considerable tensions. The historian Eckart Conze in a 2010 interview stated about the anti-war group in 1938:
“An overthrow of Hitler was out of the question. The group wanted to avoid a major war and the potentially catastrophic consequences for Germany. Their goal wasn’t to get rid of the dictator but, as they saw it, to bring him to his senses.”
In August, Beck spoke openly at a meeting of army generals in Berlin about his opposition to a war with the western powers over Czechoslovakia. When Hitler was informed of this, he demanded and received Beck’s resignation. Beck was highly respected in the army and his removal shocked the officer corps. His successor as chief of staff, Franz Halder, remained in touch with him and was also in touch with Oster. Privately, he said that he considered Hitler “the incarnation of evil”. During September, plans for a move against Hitler were formulated, involving General Erwin von Witzleben, who was the army commander of the Berlin Military Region and thus well-placed to stage a coup.
Oster, Gisevius, and Schacht urged Halder and Beck to stage an immediate coup against Hitler, but the army officers argued that they could only mobilize support among the officer corps for such a step if Hitler made overt moves towards war. Halder nevertheless asked Oster to draw up plans for a coup. Weizsäcker and Canaris were made aware of these plans. The conspirators disagreed on what to do about Hitler if there was a successful army coup – eventually, most overcame their scruples and agreed that he must be killed so that army officers would be free from their oath of loyalty. They agreed Halder would instigate the coup when Hitler committed an overt step towards war. During the planning for the 1938 putsch, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler was in contact through the intermediary of General Alexander von Falkenhausen with Chinese intelligence. Most German conservatives favored Germany’s traditional informal alliance with China and were strongly opposed to the about-face in Germany’s Far Eastern policies effected in early 1938 by Joachim von Ribbentrop, who abandoned the alliance with China for alignment with Japan. As a consequence, agents of Chinese intelligence supported the proposed putsch as a way of restoring the Sino-German alliance.
Remarkably, the army commander, General Walther von Brauchitsch, was well aware of the coup preparations. He told Halder he could not condone such an act, but he did not inform Hitler, to whom he was outwardly subservient, of what he knew. This was a striking example of the code of silent solidarity among senior German Army officers, which was to survive and provide a shield for the resistance groups down to, and in many cases beyond, the crisis of July 1944.
On 13 September, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced that he would visit Germany to meet Hitler and defuse the crisis over Czechoslovakia. This threw the conspirators into uncertainty. When, on 20 September, it appeared that the negotiations had broken down and that Chamberlain would resist Hitler’s demands, the coup preparations were revived and finalized. All that was required was the signal from Halder.
On 28 September, however, Chamberlain backed down and agreed to a meeting in Munich, at which he accepted the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. This plunged the resistance into demoralization and division. Halder said he would no longer support a coup. The other conspirators were bitterly critical of Chamberlain but were powerless to act. This was the nearest approach to a successful conspiracy against Hitler before the plot of 20 July 1944.
As war again grew more likely in mid-1939, the plans for a pre-emptive coup were revived. Oster was still in contact with Halder and Witzleben, although Witzleben had been transferred to Frankfurt am Main, reducing his ability to lead a coup attempt. At a meeting with Goerdeler, Witzleben agreed to form a network of army commanders willing to take part to prevent a war against the western powers. But support in the officer corps for a coup had dropped sharply since 1938. Most officers, particularly those from Prussian landowning backgrounds, were strongly anti-Polish. Just before the invasion of Poland in August 1939, General Eduard Wagner who was one of the officers involved in the abortive putsch of September 1938, wrote in a letter to his wife: “We believe we will make quick work of the Poles, and in truth, we are delighted at the prospect. That business must be cleared up.” The German historian Andreas Hillgruber commented that in 1939 the rampant anti-Polish feelings in the German Army officer corps served to bind the military together with Hitler in supporting Fall Weiss in a way that Fall Grün did not.
This nevertheless marked an important turning point. In 1938, the plan had been for the army, led by Halder and if possible Brauchitsch, to depose Hitler. This was now impossible, and a conspiratorial organization was to be formed in the army and civil service instead.
The opposition again urged Britain and France to stand up to Hitler: Halder met secretly with the British Ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson to urge resistance. The plan was again to stage a coup at the moment Hitler moved to declare war. But although Britain and France were now prepared to go to war over Poland, as war approached Halder lost his nerve. Schacht, Gisevius, and Canaris developed a plan to confront Brauchitsch and Halder and demand that they depose Hitler and prevent war, but nothing came of this. When Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September, the conspirators were unable to act.
Outbreak of War
The outbreak of war made the further mobilization of resistance in the army more difficult. Halder continued to vacillate. In late 1939 and early 1940, he opposed Hitler’s plans to attack France and kept in touch with the opposition through General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, an active oppositionist. Talk of a coup again began to circulate, and for the first time, the idea of killing Hitler with a bomb was taken up by the more determined members of the resistance circles, such as Oster and Erich Kordt, who declared himself willing to do the deed. At the army headquarters at Zossen, south of Berlin, a group of officers called Action Group Zossen was also planning a coup.
When in November 1939 it seemed that Hitler was about to order an immediate attack in the west, the conspirators persuaded General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, commander of Army Group C on the Belgian border, to support a planned coup if Hitler gave such an order. At the same time, Oster warned the Dutch and the Belgians that Hitler was about to attack them – his warnings were not believed. But when Hitler postponed the attack until 1940, the conspiracy again lost momentum, and Halder formed the view that the German people would not accept a coup. Again, the chance was lost.
With Poland overrun but France and the Low Countries yet to be attacked, the German Resistance sought the Pope’s assistance in preparations for a coup to oust Hitler. In the winter of 1939/40, the Bavarian lawyer and reserve Abwehr officer Josef Müller, acting as an emissary for the military opposition centered around General Franz Halder, contacted Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, the exiled leader of the German Catholic Zentrum party, in Rome, hoping to use the Pope as an intermediary to contact the British. Kaas put Müller in contact with Father Robert Leiber, who personally asked the Pope to relay the information about the German resistance to the British.
The Vatican considered Müller to be a representative of Colonel-General von Beck and agreed to offer the machinery for mediation. Oster, Wilhelm Canaris, and Hans von Dohnányi, backed by Beck, told Müller to ask Pius to ascertain whether the British would enter negotiations with the German opposition which wanted to overthrow Hitler. The British agreed to negotiate, provided the Vatican could vouch for the opposition’s representative. Pius, communicating with Britain’s Francis d’Arcy Osborne, channeled communications back and forth in secrecy. The Vatican agreed to send a letter outlining the bases for peace with England and the participation of the Pope was used to try to persuade senior German Generals Halder and Brauchitsch to act against Hitler. Negotiations were tense, with a Western offensive expected, and on the basis that substantive negotiations could only follow the replacement of the Hitler regime. Pius, without offering an endorsement, advised Osbourne on 11 January 1940 that the German opposition had said that a German offensive was planned for February, but that this could be averted if the German generals could be assured of peace with Britain, and not on punitive terms. If this could be assured, then they were willing to move to replace Hitler. The British government had doubts as to the capacity of the conspirators. On 7 February, the Pope updated Osbourne that the opposition wanted to replace the Nazi regime with a democratic federation, but hoped to retain Austria and the Sudetenland. The British government was non-committal and said that while the federal model was of interest, the promises and sources of the opposition were too vague. Nevertheless, the resistance was encouraged by the talks, and Muller told his contact that a coup would occur in February. Pius appeared to continue to hope for a coup in Germany into March 1940.
Following the Fall of France, peace overtures continued to emanate from the Vatican as well as Sweden and the United States, to which Churchill responded resolutely that Germany would first have to free its conquered territories. The negotiations ultimately proved fruitless. Hitler’s swift victories over France and the Low Countries deflated the will of the German military to resist Hitler. Muller was arrested during the Nazis first raid on Military Intelligence in 1943. He spent the rest of the war in concentration camps, ending up at Dachau.
The failed plots of 1938 and 1939 showed both the strength and weakness of the officer corps as potential leaders of a resistance movement. Its strength was its loyalty and solidarity. As Istvan Deak noted: “Officers, especially of the highest ranks, had been discussing, some as early as 1934 … 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.” Remarkably, in over two years of plotting, this widespread and loosely structured conspiracy was never detected. One explanation is that at this time Himmler was still preoccupied with the traditional enemies of the Nazis, the SPD and the KPD and, of course, the Jews, and did not suspect that the real center of opposition was within the state itself. Another factor was Canaris’ success in shielding the plotters, particularly Oster, from suspicion.
The corresponding weakness of the officer corps was its conception of loyalty to the state and its aversion to mutiny. This explains the vacillations of Halder, who could never quite bring himself to take the decisive step. Halder hated Hitler and believed that the Nazis were leading Germany to catastrophe. He was shocked and disgusted by the behavior of the SS in occupied Poland, but gave no support to his senior officer there, General Johannes Blaskowitz, when the latter officially protested to Hitler about the atrocities against the Poles and the Jews. In 1938 and again in 1939, he lost his nerve and could not give the order to strike against Hitler. This was even more true of Brauchitsch, who knew of the conspiracies and assured Halder that he agreed with their objectives but would not take any action to support them.
The outbreak of war served to rally the German people around the Hitler regime, and the sweeping early successes of the German Army – occupying Poland in 1939, Denmark and Norway in April 1940, and swiftly defeating France in May and June 1940, still virtually all opposition to the regime. The opposition to Hitler within the Army was left isolated and apparently discredited since the much-feared war with the western powers had apparently been won by Germany within a year and at little cost. This mood continued well into 1941, although beneath the surface popular discontent at mounting economic hardship was apparent.
Low Point of the Resistance: 1940–42
The sweeping success of Hitler’s attack on France in May 1940 made the task of deposing him even more difficult. Most army officers, their fears of a war against the western powers apparently proven groundless and gratified by Germany’s revenge against France for the defeat of 1918, reconciled themselves to Hitler’s regime, choosing to ignore its darker side. The task of leading the resistance groups for a time fell to civilians, although a hardcore of military plotters remained active.
Carl Goerdeler, the former lord mayor of Leipzig, emerged as a key figure. His associates included the diplomat Ulrich von Hassell, the Prussian Finance Minister Johannes Popitz, and Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, heir to a famous name and the leading figure in the Kreisau Circle of Prussian oppositionists, which included other young aristocrats such as Adam von Trott zu Solz and Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, and later Gottfried Graf von Bismarck-Schönhausen, who was a Nazi member of the Reichstag and a senior officer in the SS. Goerdeler was also in touch with the SPD underground, whose most prominent figure was Julius Leber, and with Christian opposition groups, both Catholic and Protestant.
These men saw themselves as the leaders of a post-Hitler government, but they had no clear conception of how to bring this about, except through assassinating Hitler – a step which many of them still opposed on ethical grounds. Their plans could never surmount the fundamental problem of Hitler’s overwhelming popularity among the German people. They preoccupied themselves with philosophical debates and devising grand schemes for postwar Germany. The fact was that for nearly two years after the defeat of France, there was little scope for opposition activity.
In March 1941, Hitler revealed his plans for a “war of annihilation” against the Soviet Union to selected army officers in a speech given in Posen. In the audience was Colonel Henning von Tresckow, who had not been involved in any of the earlier plots but was already a firm opponent of the Nazi regime. He was horrified by Hitler’s plan to unleash a new and even more terrible war in the east. As a nephew of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, he was very well connected. Assigned to the staff of his uncle’s command, Army Group Centre, for the forthcoming Operation Barbarossa, Tresckow systematically recruited oppositionists to the group’s staff, making it the new nerve center of the army resistance.
American journalist Howard K. Smith wrote in 1942 that of the three groups in opposition to Hitler, the military was more important than the churches, and the Communists. Little could be done while Hitler’s armies advanced triumphantly into the western regions of the Soviet Union through 1941 and 1942 – even after the setback before Moscow in December 1941 that led to the dismissal of both Brauchitsch and Bock. In December 1941, the United States entered the war, persuading some more realistic army officers that Germany must ultimately lose the war. But the life-and-death struggle on the eastern front posed new problems for the resistance. Most of its members were conservatives who hated and feared communism and the Soviet Union. How could the Nazi regime be overthrown and the war ended without allowing the Soviets to gain control of Germany or the whole of Europe? This question was made more acute when the Allies adopted their policy of demanding Germany’s unconditional surrender at the Casablanca Conference of January 1943.
During 1942, the tireless Oster nevertheless succeeded in rebuilding an effective resistance network. His most important recruit was General Friedrich Olbricht, head of the General Army Office headquartered at the Bendlerblock in central Berlin, who controlled an independent system of communications to reserve units all over Germany. Linking this asset to Tresckow’s resistance group in Army Group Centre created what appeared to a viable structure for a new effort at organizing a coup. Bock’s dismissal did not weaken Tresckow’s position. In fact, he soon enticed Bock’s successor, General Hans von Kluge, at least part-way to supporting the resistance cause. Tresckow even brought Goerdeler, leader of the civilian resistance, to Army Group Centre to meet Kluge – an extremely dangerous tactic.
Aeroplane Assassination Attempt
In late 1942, von Tresckow and Olbricht formulated a plan to assassinate Hitler and stage a coup. On 13 March 1943, returning from his easternmost headquarters FHQ Wehrwolf near Vinnitsa to Wolfsschanze in East Prussia, Hitler was scheduled to make a stop-over at the headquarters of Army Group Centre at Smolensk. For such an occasion, von Tresckow had prepared three options:
- Major Georg von Boeselager, in command of a cavalry honor guard, could intercept Hitler in a forest and overwhelm the SS bodyguard and the Führer in a fair fight; this course was rejected because of the prospect of a large number of German soldiers fighting each other, and a possible failure regarding the unexpected strength of the escort.
- A joint assassination could be carried out during dinner; this idea was abandoned as supporting officers abhorred the idea of shooting the unarmed tyrant.
- A bomb could be smuggled on Hitler’s plane. Von Tresckow asked Lieutenant Colonel Heinz Brandt, on Hitler’s staff and usually on the same plane that carried Hitler, to take a parcel with him, supposedly the prize of a bet won by Tresckow’s friend General Stieff. It concealed a bomb, disguised in a box for two bottles of Cointreau. Von Tresckow’s aide, Lieutenant Fabian von Schlabrendorff, set the fuse and handed over the parcel to Brandt who boarded the same plane as Hitler.
Hitler’s Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor was expected to explode about 30 minutes later near Minsk, close enough to the front to be attributed to Soviet fighters. Olbricht was to use the resulting crisis to mobilize his Reserve Army network to seize power in Berlin, Vienna, Munich, and in the German Wehrkreis centers. It was an ambitious but credible plan and might have worked if Hitler had indeed been killed, although persuading Army units to fight and overcome what could certainly have been fierce resistance from the SS could have been a major obstacle.
But, as with Elser’s bomb in 1939 and all other attempts, luck favored Hitler again, which was attributed to Vorsehung (providence). The British-made chemical pencil detonator on the bomb had been tested many times and was considered reliable. It went off, but the bomb did not. The percussion cap apparently became too cold as the parcel was carried in the unheated cargo hold.
Displaying great sangfroid, Schlabrendorff took the next plane to retrieve the package from Colonel Brandt before the content was discovered. The blocks of plastic explosives were later used by Gersdorff and Stauffenberg.
Suicide Bombing Attempts
A second attempt was made a few days later on 21 March 1943, when Hitler visited an exhibition of captured Soviet weaponry in Berlin’s Zeughaus. One of Tresckow’s friends, Colonel Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff, was scheduled to explain some exhibits, and volunteered to carry out a suicide bombing using the same bomb that had failed to go off on the plane, concealed on his person. But the only new chemical fuse he could obtain was a ten-minute one. Hitler again left prematurely after hurrying through the exhibition much quicker than the scheduled 30 minutes. Gersdorff had to dash to a bathroom to defuse the bomb to save his life, and more importantly, prevent any suspicion. This second failure temporarily demoralized the plotters at Army Group Centre. Gersdorff reported about the attempt after the war; the footage is often seen on German TV documentaries Die Nacht des Widerstands etc., including a photo showing Gersdorff and Hitler.
Axel von dem Bussche, a member of the elite Infantry Regiment 9, volunteered to kill Hitler with hand grenades in November 1943 during a presentation of new winter uniforms, but the train containing them was destroyed by Allied bombs in Berlin, and the event had to be postponed. A second presentation scheduled for December at the Wolfsschanze was canceled on short notice as Hitler decided to travel to Berchtesgaden.
In January 1944, Bussche volunteered for another assassination attempt, but then he lost a leg in Russia. On February 11 another young officer, Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist tried to assassinate Hitler in the same way von dem Bussche had planned. However, Hitler again canceled the event which would have allowed Kleist to approach him.
On 11 March 1944 Eberhard von Breitenbuch volunteered for an assassination attempt at the Berghof using a 7.65 mm Browning pistol concealed in his trouser pocket. He was not able to carry out the plan because guards would not allow him into the conference room with the Führer.
The next occasion was a weapons exhibition on July 7 at Schloss Klessheim near Salzburg, but Helmuth Stieff did not trigger the bomb.
After Stalingrad – 1943 Onward
At the end of 1942, Germany suffered a series of military defeats, the first at El Alamein, the second with the successful Allied landings in North Africa (Operation Torch), and the third the disastrous defeat at Stalingrad, which ended any hope of defeating the Soviet Union. Most experienced senior officers now came to the conclusion that Hitler was leading Germany to defeat, and that the result of this would be the Soviet conquest of Germany – the worst fate imaginable. This gave the military resistance new impetus.
Halder had been dismissed in 1942 and there was now no independent central leadership of the Army. His nominal successors, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, and General Alfred Jodl, were no more than Hitler’s messengers. Tresckow and Goerdeler tried again to recruit the senior Army field commanders to support a seizure of power. Kluge was by now won over completely. Gersdorff was sent to see Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, the commander of Army Group South in the Ukraine. Manstein agreed that Hitler was leading Germany to defeat, but told Gersdorff that “Prussian field marshals do not mutiny.” Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, commander in the west, gave a similar answer. The prospect of a united German Army seizing power from Hitler was as far away as ever. Once again, however, neither officer reported that they had been approached in this way.
Nevertheless, the days when the military and civilian plotters could expect to escape detection were ending. After Stalingrad, Himmler would have had to be naïve not to expect that conspiracies against the regime would be hatched in the Army and elsewhere. He already suspected Canaris and his subordinates at the Abwehr. In March 1943 two of them, Oster and Hans von Dohnányi were dismissed on suspicion of opposition activity, although there was yet insufficient evidence to have them arrested. On the civilian front, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also arrested at this time, and Goerdeler was under suspicion.
The Gestapo had been led to Dohnanyi following the arrest of Wilhelm Schmidhuber, who had helped Dohnanyi with information and with smuggling Jews out of Germany. Under interrogation, Schmidhuber gave the Gestapo details of the Oster-Dohnanyi group in the Abwehr and about Goerdeler and Beck’s involvement in opposition activities. The Gestapo reported all this to Himmler, with the observation that Canaris must be protecting Oster and Dohnanyi and the recommendation that he be arrested. Himmler passed the file back with the note “Kindly leave Canaris alone.” Either Himmler felt Canaris was too powerful to tackle at this stage, or he wanted him and his oppositional network protected for reasons of his own. Nevertheless, Oster’s usefulness to the resistance was now greatly reduced. But the Gestapo did not have information about the full workings of the resistance. Most importantly, they did not know about the resistance networks based on Army Group Centre or the Bendlerblock.
Meanwhile, the disaster at Stalingrad, which cost Germany 400,000 casualties, was sending waves of horror and grief through German society but causing remarkably little reduction in the people’s faith in Hitler and in Germany’s ultimate victory. This was a source of great frustration to the military and civil service plotters, who virtually all came from the elite and had privileged access to information, giving them a much greater appreciation of the hopelessness of Germany’s situation than was possessed by the German people.
The White Rose
The only visible manifestation of opposition to the regime following Stalingrad was the spontaneous action of few university students who denounced the war and the persecution and mass murder of Jews in the east. They were organized in the White Rose group, which was centered in Munich but had connections in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart, and Vienna.
In January 1943, they launched an anti-Nazi campaign of handbills and graffiti in and around Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. They were detected and some arrested. Three members, Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst were to stand trial before the Nazi People’s Court, where on 22 February 1943 the President of the court, Roland Freisler, sentenced them to death. They were guillotined that same day at Stadelheim Prison. Kurt Huber, a professor of philosophy and musicology, Alexander Schmorell, and Willi Graf had to stand trial later and were sentenced to death as well, whereas many others were sentenced to prison terms. The last member to be executed was Hans Conrad Leipelt on 29 January 1945.
This outbreak was surprising and worrying to the Nazi regime because the universities had been strongholds of Nazi sentiment even before Hitler had come to power. Similarly, it gave heart to the scattered and demoralized resistance groups. But White Rose was not a sign of widespread civilian disaffection from the regime, and had no imitators elsewhere, although their sixth leaflet, re-titled “The Manifesto of the Students of Munich”, was dropped by Allied planes in July 1943, and became widely known in World War II Germany. The underground SPD and KPD were able to maintain their networks, and reported increasing discontent at the course of the war and at the resultant economic hardship, particularly among the industrial workers and among farmers who suffered from the acute shortage of labor with so many young men away at the front. But there was nothing approaching active hostility to the regime. Most Germans continued to revere Hitler and blamed Himmler or other subordinates for their troubles. And from late 1943 fear of the advancing Soviets and prospects of a military offensive from the Western Powers eclipsed resentment at the regime and if anything hardened the will to resist the advancing allies.
It cannot be disputed that many Germans supported the regime until the end of the war. But beneath the surface of German society, there were also currents of resistance, if not always consciously political. The German historian Detlev Peukert, who pioneered the study of German society during the Nazi era, called this phenomenon “everyday resistance.” His research was based partly on the regular reports by the Gestapo and the SD on morale and public opinion, and on the Reports on Germany which were produced by the exiled SPD based on information from its underground network in Germany and which were acknowledged to be very well informed.
Peukert and other writers have shown that the most persistent sources of dissatisfaction in Nazi Germany were the state of the economy and anger at the corruption of Nazi Party officials — although these rarely affected the personal popularity of Hitler himself. The Nazi regime is frequently credited with curing unemployment, but this was done mainly by conscription and rearmament — the civilian economy remained weak throughout the Nazi period. Although prices were fixed by law, wages remained low and there were acute shortages, particularly once the war started. To this after 1942 was added the acute misery caused by Allied air attacks on German cities. The high living and venality of Nazi officials such as Hermann Göring aroused increasing anger. The result was deep dissatisfaction among the population of all parts of the country, caused by failings in the economy, government intrusions into private life, disruption of accepted tradition and custom, and police-state controls.
Otto and Elise Hampel protested the regime by leaving postcards urging resistance both passive and forceful against the regime around Berlin. It took two years before they were caught, convicted and then put to death.
Opposition based on this widespread dissatisfaction usually took passive forms — absenteeism, malingering, spreading rumors, trading on the black market, hoarding, avoiding various forms of state service such as donations to Nazi causes. But sometimes it took more active forms, such as warning people about to be arrested, hiding them or helping them to escape, or turning a blind eye to oppositionist activities. Among the industrial working class, where the underground SPD and KPD networks were always active, there were frequent if short-lived strikes. These were generally tolerated, at least before the outbreak of war, provided the demands of the strikers were purely economic and not political.
Another form of resistance was assisting the persecuted German Jews. By mid-1942 the deportation of German and Austrian Jews to the extermination camps in occupied Poland was well underway. It is argued by some writers that the great majority of Germans were indifferent to the fate of the Jews, and a substantial proportion actively supported the Nazi programme of extermination. But a minority persisted in trying to help Jews, even in the face of serious risk to themselves and their families. This was most pronounced in Berlin, where the Gestapo and SS were headquartered, but also where thousands of non-Jewish Berliners, some with powerful connections, risked hiding their Jewish neighbors.
Aristocrats such as Maria von Maltzan and Marie Therese von Hammerstein obtained papers for Jews and helped many to escape from Germany. In Wieblingen in Baden, Elisabeth von Thadden, a private girls’ school principal, disregarded official edicts and continued to enroll Jewish girls at her school until May 1941 when the school was nationalized and she was dismissed. She was executed in 1944, following the Frau Solf Tea Party. A Berlin Protestant Minister, Heinrich Grüber, organized the smuggling of Jews to the Netherlands. At the Foreign Office, Canaris conspired to send a number of Jews to Switzerland under various pretexts. It is estimated that 2,000 Jews were hidden in Berlin until the end of the war. Martin Gilbert has documented numerous cases of Germans and Austrians, including officials and Army officers, who saved the lives of Jews.
There was only one public manifestation of opposition to the Nazi persecution of the German Jews, the Rosenstrasse protest of February 1943, sparked by the arrest and threatened deportation to death camps of 1,800 Jewish men married to non-Jewish women. Before these men could be deported, their wives and other relatives rallied outside the building in Rosenstrasse where the men were held. About 6,000 people, mostly women, rallied in shifts in the winter cold for over a week. Eventually, Himmler, worried about the effect on civilian morale, gave in and allowed the arrested men to be released. Some who had already been deported and were on their way to Auschwitz were brought back. There was no retaliation against the protesters, and most of the Jewish men survived.
Nazism had a powerful appeal to German youth, particularly middle-class youth, and German universities were strongholds of Nazism even before Hitler came to power. The Hitler Youth sought to mobilize all young Germans behind the regime, and apart from stubborn resistance in some rural Catholic areas, was generally successful in the first period of Nazi rule. After about 1938, however, persistent alienation among some sections of German youth began to appear. This rarely took the form of overt political opposition — the White Rose group was a striking exception but was striking mainly for its uniqueness. Much more common was what would now be called dropping out — a passive refusal to take part in official youth culture and a search for alternatives. Although none of the unofficial youth groups amounted to a serious threat to the Nazi regime, and although they provided no aid or comfort to those groups within the German elite who were actively plotting against Hitler, they do serve to show that there were currents of opposition at other levels of German society.
Examples were the so-called Edelweisspiraten (Edelweiss Pirates), a loose network of working-class youth groups in a number of cities, who held unauthorized meetings and engaged in street fights with the Hitler Youth; the Meuten group in Leipzig, a more politicised group with links to the KPD underground, which had more than a thousand members in the late 1930s; and, most notably, the Swingjugend, middle-class youth who met in secret clubs in Berlin and most other large cities to listen to swing, jazz and other music deemed degenerate by the Nazi authorities. This movement, which involved distinctive forms of dress and gradually become more consciously political, became so popular that it provoked a crackdown: in 1941 Himmler ordered the arrest of Swing activists and had some sent to concentration camps.
In October 1944, as the American and British armies approached the western borders of Germany, there was a serious outbreak of disorder in the bomb-ravaged city of Cologne, which had been largely evacuated. The Edelweisspiraten linked up with gangs of deserters, escaped prisoners and foreign workers, and the underground KPD network, to engage in looting and sabotage, and the assassination of Gestapo and Nazi Party officials. Explosives were stolen with the objective of blowing up the Gestapo headquarters. Himmler, fearing the resistance would spread to other cities as the Allied armies advanced into Germany, ordered a savage crackdown, and for days gunbattles raged in the ruined streets of Cologne. More than 200 people were arrested and dozens were hanged in public, among them six teenaged Edelweisspiraten, including Bartholomäus Schink.
Relations with Allies
The various groups of German resistance against the Nazi government had different attitudes to the Allies. The most visible resistance group of the July 20 plot wasn’t interested in dealing with all the Allies, and pressed demands against such Allied countries as Poland and the Soviet Union; some of its members were involved in atrocities against people in these countries. In particular, the July 20th plotters demanded in their proposals to occupy Poland and annex its territory, while occupying the rest of East Europe and continuing war with the Soviet Union. The token representative of the July 20 Group, Claus von Stauffenberg, was known for his support towards German colonization of Poland as well as racist remarks regarding Polish Jews.
Many postwar German commentators blamed the allies for having isolated the resistance with their demand of unconditional surrender while ignoring that the resistance offered unrealistic demands towards the Allies. While English historians have criticized the unconditional surrender, most of them agree that it had no real impact on the final outcome of the war. Prior to the formulation of unconditional surrender by the Allies, the peace demands sent from the German resistance were hardly satisfactory; for example in 1941 a proposal by Goerdeler demanded borders of 1914 with France, Belgium, and Poland, as well as acceptance of annexation of Austria and Sudetenland.
While German popular memory and public discourse portrays the resistance as isolated due to demand of unconditional surrender, in reality, its isolation was due to unrealistic expectations of what the Allies would accept; while German commentators write that the resistance tried to save that which remained to be saved, they omit the fact that it included a significant portion of territories conquered by Nazi Germany from its neighbors.
A SHAEF directive prohibited activities aimed at promoting German revolt against the Nazi regime.
The Allied doctrine of unconditional surrender meant that “… those Germans — and particularly those German generals — who might have been ready to throw Hitler over, and were able to do so, were discouraged from making the attempt by their inability to extract from the Allies any sort of assurance that such action would improve the treatment meted out to their country.”
On 11 December, OSS operative William Donovan sent U.S. President Roosevelt a telegraph message from Bern, warning him of the consequences that the knowledge of the Morgenthau plan had had on German resistance; by showing them that the enemy planned the enslavement of Germany it had welded together ordinary Germans and the regime; the Germans continue to fight because they are convinced that defeat will bring nothing but oppression and exploitation. The message was a translation of a recent article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
So far, the Allies have not offered the opposition any serious encouragement. On the contrary, they have again and again welded together the people and the Nazis by statements published, either out of indifference or with a purpose. To take a recent example, the Morgenthau plan gave Dr. Goebbels the best possible chance. He was able to prove to his countrymen, in black and white, that the enemy planned the enslavement of Germany. The conviction that Germany had nothing to expect from defeat but oppression and exploitation still prevails, and that accounts for the fact that the Germans continue to fight. It is not a question of a regime, but of the homeland itself, and to save that, every German is bound to obey the call, whether he be Nazi or member of the opposition.
On 20 July 1945 — the first anniversary of the failed attempt to kill Hitler — no mention whatsoever was made of the event. This was because reminding the German population of the fact that there had been active German resistance to Hitler would undermine the Allied efforts to instill a sense of collective guilt in the German populace.
Leading Up to July 20, 1944
By mid-1943, the tide of war was turning decisively against Germany. The last major German offensive on the Eastern Front, Operation Citadel, ended in the defeat for the Germans at Kursk, and in July Mussolini was overthrown. The Army and civilian plotters became more convinced than ever that Hitler must be assassinated so that a government acceptable to the western Allies could be formed and a separate peace negotiated in time to prevent a Soviet invasion of Germany. This scenario, while more credible than some of the resistance’s earlier plans, was based on a false premise: that the western Allies would be willing to break with Stalin and negotiate a separate peace with a non-Nazi German government. In fact, both Churchill and Roosevelt were committed to the unconditional surrender formula.
Since the Foreign Office was a stronghold of resistance activists, it was not difficult for the conspirators to reach the Allies via diplomats in neutral countries. Theo Kordt, based in the German Embassy in Bern, and advised by the Foreign Officers resisters Ulrich von Hassell and Adam von Trott zu Solz, communicated with the British via intermediaries such as Willem Visser ‘t Hooft, secretary-general of the World Council of Churches, based in Geneva. The Kreisau Circle sent Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Helmut von Moltke to meet George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, at a church conference in Stockholm. Bell passed their messages and plans on to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. An American journalist, Louis P. Lochner, carried coded messages out of Germany and took them to Roosevelt. Other envoys worked through Vatican channels, or via diplomats in Lisbon – a recognized site for indirect communication between Germany and the Allied countries.
All of these overtures were rejected, and indeed they were usually simply ignored. The western Allies would give the German resistance no assistance or even recognition. There were several reasons for this. First, they did not know or trust the resisters, who seemed to them to be a clique of Prussian reactionaries concerned mainly to save their own skins now that Germany was losing the war. This attitude was encouraged by visceral anti-Germans such as Lord Vansittart, Churchill’s diplomatic adviser, who regarded all Germans as evil. Second, Roosevelt and Churchill were both acutely aware that the Soviet Union was bearing the brunt of the war against Hitler, and were aware of Stalin’s constant suspicions that they were doing deals behind his back. They thus refused any discussions that might be seen as suggesting a willingness to reach a separate peace with Germany. Third, the Allies were determined that in World War II, unlike in World War I, Germany must be comprehensively defeated in the field so that another “stab in the back” myth would not arise in Germany.
Olbricht now put forward a new strategy for staging a coup against Hitler. The Reserve Army had an operational plan called Operation Valkyrie, which was to be used if the disruption caused by the Allied bombing of German cities caused a breakdown in law and order, or arising by the millions of slave laborers from occupied countries now being used in German factories. Olbricht suggested that this plan could be used to mobilize the Reserve Army to stage a coup. In the autumn of 1943, Tresckow revised Valkyrie plan and drafted supplemental orders to take control of German cities, disarm the SS and arrest the Nazi leadership after Hitler’s assassination. Operation Valkyrie could only be put into effect by General Friedrich Fromm, commander of the Reserve Army, so he must either be won over to the conspiracy or in some way neutralized if the plan was to succeed. Fromm, like many senior officers, knew about the military conspiracies against Hitler but neither supported them nor reported them to the Gestapo.
In August 1943, Tresckow met a young staff officer, Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, for the first time. Badly wounded in North Africa, Stauffenberg was a devout Catholic, a political conservative and a zealous German nationalist with a taste for philosophy. He had at first welcomed the Nazi regime but had become rapidly disillusioned. By 1942, he shared the widespread conviction among Army officers that Germany was being led to disaster and that Hitler must be removed from power. For some time his religious scruples had prevented him from coming to the conclusion that assassination was the correct way to achieve this. After Stalingrad, however, he decided that not assassinating Hitler would be a greater moral evil.
During late 1943 and early 1944, there were a series of attempts to get one of the military conspirators near enough to Hitler for long enough to kill him with a bomb or a revolver. But the task was becoming increasingly difficult. As the war situation deteriorated, Hitler no longer appeared in public and rarely visited Berlin. He spent most of his time at his headquarters in East Prussia, with occasional breaks at his Bavarian mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. In both places, he was heavily guarded and rarely saw people he did not already know and trust. Himmler and the Gestapo were increasingly suspicious of plots against Hitler, and specifically suspected the officers of the General Staff, which was indeed the place where most of the young officers willing to sacrifice themselves to kill Hitler were located. All these attempts, therefore failed, sometimes by a matter of minutes.
Further blows came in January and February 1944 when first Moltke and then Canaris were arrested. By the summer of 1944, the Gestapo was closing in on the conspirators. On 4 July Julius Leber, who was trying to establish contact between his own underground SPD network and the KPD’s network in the interests of the United Front, was arrested after attending a meeting which had been infiltrated by the Gestapo. There was a sense that time was running out, both on the battlefield, where the eastern front was in full retreat and where the Allies had landed in France on 6 June, and in Germany, where the resistance’s room for maneuver was rapidly contracting. The belief that this was the last chance for action seized the conspirators. Few now believed that the Allies would agree to a separate peace with a non-Nazi government, even if Hitler was assassinated. Leber, in particular, had argued that unconditional surrender was inevitable and the only question was whether it would be before or after the Soviets invaded Germany.
By this time, the core of the conspirators had begun to think of themselves as doomed men, whose actions were more symbolic than real. The purpose of the conspiracy was seen by some of them as saving the honor of themselves, their families, the Army and Germany through a grand, if futile, gesture, rather than altering the course of history. Tresckow said to Stauffenberg through one of his aides, Lieutenant Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort: “The assassination must be attempted, coûte que coûte [whatever the cost]. Even if it fails, we must take action in Berlin. For the practical purpose no longer matters; what matters now is that the German resistance movement must take the plunge before the eyes of the world and of history. Compared to that, nothing else matters.”
In retrospect, it is surprising that these months of plotting by the resistance groups in the Army and the state apparatus, in which dozens of people were involved and of which many more, including very senior Army officers, were aware, apparently totally escaped the attention of the Gestapo. In fact, as was noted earlier, the Gestapo had known since February 1943 of both the Abwehr resistance group under the patronage of Canaris and of the Goedeler-Beck circle. If all these people had been arrested and interrogated, the Gestapo might well have uncovered the group based in Army Group Centre as well and the July 20 assassination attempt would never have happened. This raises the possibility that Himmler knew about the plot and, for reasons of his own, allowed it to go ahead.
Himmler had had at least one conversation with a known oppositionist when, in August 1943, the Prussian Finance Minister Johannes Popitz came to see him and offered him the support of the opposition if he would make a move to displace Hitler and secure a negotiated end to the war. Nothing came of this meeting, but Popitz was not arrested and Himmler apparently did nothing to track down the resistance network which he knew was operating within the state bureaucracy. It is possible that Himmler, who by late 1943 knew that the war was unwinnable, allowed the July 20 plot to go ahead in the knowledge that if it succeeded he would be Hitler’s successor, and could then lead to a peace settlement. Popitz was not alone in seeing in Himmler a potential ally. General von Bock advised Tresckow to seek his support, but there is no evidence that he did so. Gordeler was apparently also in indirect contact with Himmler via a mutual acquaintance Carl Langbehn. Canaris’s biographer Heinz Höhne suggests that Canaris and Himmler were working together to bring about a change of regime. All of this remains speculation.
Himmler, in fact, knew more about the real level of opposition to the Nazi regime than did the opposition itself. To the resistance activists, it seemed that the German people continued to place their faith in Hitler no matter how dire the military and economic situation had become. But Himmler was receiving regular reports from the SD (Security Service, the intelligence arm of the SS), about the real state of German morale. These were compiled by SS-Gruppenfüher Otto Ohlendorf and were drawn from the SD’s wide range of contacts all over Germany. They showed a sharp decline in civilian morale and in the level of support for the Nazi regime, beginning after Stalingrad and accelerating through 1943 as the military setbacks continued, the economic situation deteriorated and the Allied bombing of German cities grew more intense. By the end of 1943, Himmler knew that most Germans no longer believed that war could be won and that many, perhaps a majority, had lost faith in Hitler. But fear of the Gestapo meant that this disillusionment did not translate into political opposition to the regime — even though, as the Rosenstrasse protest showed, it was possible even as late as 1943 for courageous opponents of Nazi policies to make public and successful protests.
Nevertheless, organized resistance begun to stir during 1944. While the SPD and KPD trade unions had been destroyed in 1933, the Catholic unions had voluntarily dissolved along with the Centre Party. As a result, Catholic unionists had been less zealously repressed than their socialist counterparts and had maintained an informal network of activists. Their leaders, Jakob Kaiser, and Max Habermann, judged by the beginning of 1944 that it was time to take action. They organized a network of resistance cells in government offices across Germany, ready to rise and take control of their buildings when the word was given by the military that Hitler was dead.
20 July Plot
On 1 July, Stauffenberg was appointed chief-of-staff to General Fromm at the Reserve Army headquarters on Bendlerstrasse in central Berlin. This position enabled Stauffenberg to attend Hitler’s military conferences, either in East Prussia or at Berchtesgaden, and would thus give him a golden opportunity, perhaps the last that would present itself, to kill Hitler with a bomb or a pistol. Conspirators who had long resisted on moral grounds the idea of killing Hitler now changed their minds – partly because they were hearing reports of the mass murder at Auschwitz of up to 400,000 Hungarian Jews and the culmination of the Nazi Holocaust. Meanwhile, new key allies had been gained. These included General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the German military commander in France, who would take control in Paris when Hitler was killed and, it was hoped, negotiate an immediate armistice with the invading Allied armies. The demands of the plotters regarding armistice with Allies included Germany retaining its 1914 eastern borders, including the Polish territories of Wielkopolska and Poznań. Other demands included keeping such territorial gains as Austria and the Sudetenland within the Reich, giving autonomy to Alsace-Lorraine, and even expansion of the current wartime borders of Germany in the south by annexing Tyrol as far as Bolzano and Merano. Non-territorial demands included such points as the refusal of any occupation of Germany by the Allies, as well as refusal to hand over war criminals by demanding the right of nations to deal with their own criminals. These proposals were only directed to the Western Allies – Stauffenberg wanted Germany only to retreat from western, southern and northern positions while demanding the right to continue military occupation of German territorial gains in the east.
The plot was now as ready as it would ever be. Twice in early July Stauffenberg attended Hitler’s conferences carrying a bomb in his briefcase. But because the conspirators had decided that Himmler, too, must be assassinated if the planned mobilization of Operation Valkyrie was to have any chance of success, he had held back at the last minute because Himmler was not present – in fact, it was unusual for Himmler to attend military conferences. By 15 July, when Stauffenberg again flew to East Prussia, this condition had been dropped. The plan was for Stauffenberg to plant the briefcase with the bomb in Hitler’s conference room with a timer running, excuse himself from the meeting, wait for the explosion, then fly back to Berlin and join the other plotters at the Bendlerblock. Operation Valkyrie would be mobilized, the Reserve Army would take control of Germany and the other Nazi leaders would be arrested. Beck would be appointed the head of state, Gordeler Chancellor, and Witzleben commander-in-chief. The plan was ambitious and depended on a run of very good luck, but it was not totally fanciful.
Again on 15 July, the attempt was called off at the last minute, for reasons which are not known because all the participants in the phone conversations which led to the postponement were dead by the end of the year. Stauffenberg, depressed and angry, returned to Berlin. On 18 July rumors reached him that the Gestapo had wind of the conspiracy and that he might be arrested at any time – this was apparently not true, but there was a sense that the net was closing in and that the next opportunity to kill Hitler must be taken because there might not be another. At 10:00 hours on 20 July, Stauffenberg flew back to the Wolfsschanze for another Hitler military conference, again with a bomb in his briefcase. It is remarkable in retrospect that despite Hitler’s mania for security, officers attending his conferences were not searched.
At about 12:10 the conference began. Stauffenberg, having previously activated the timer on the bomb, placed his briefcase under the table around which Hitler and more than 20 officers were seated or standing. After ten minutes, he made an excuse and left the room. At 12:40 the bomb went off, demolishing the conference room. Several officers were killed, but not Hitler. Possibly he had been saved because the heavy oak leg of the conference table, behind which Stauffenberg’s briefcase had been left, deflected the blast. But Stauffenberg, seeing the building collapse in smoke and flame, assumed Hitler was dead, leaped into a staff car and made a dash for the airfield before the alarm could be raised. By 13:00 he was airborne.
By the time Stauffenberg’s plane reached Berlin at about 15:00, General Erich Fellgiebel, an officer at Rastenburg who was in on the plot, had rung the Bendlerblock and told the plotters that Hitler had survived the explosion. This was a fatal step (literally so for Fellgiebel and many others), because the Berlin plotters immediately lost their nerve, and judged, probably correctly, that the plan to mobilize Operation Valkyrie would have no chance of succeeding once the officers of the Reserve Army knew that Hitler was alive. There was more confusion when Stauffenberg’s plane landed and he phoned from the airport to say that Hitler was dead. The Bendlerblock plotters did not know whom to believe. Finally at 16:00 Olbricht issued the orders for Operation Valkyrie to be mobilized. The vacillating General Fromm, however, phoned Keitel, who assured him that Hitler was alive, and demanded to know Stauffenberg’s whereabouts. This told Fromm that the plot had been traced to his headquarters and that he was in mortal danger.
At 16:40 Stauffenberg arrived at the Bendlerblock. Fromm now changed sides and attempted to have Stauffenberg arrested, but Olbricht and Stauffenberg restrained him at gunpoint. By this time Himmler had taken charge of the situation and has issued orders countermanding Olbricht’s mobilization of Operation Valkyrie. In many places the coup was going ahead, led by officers who believed that Hitler was dead. The Propaganda Ministry on the Wilhelmstrasse, with Joseph Goebbels inside, was surrounded by troops. In Paris, Stülpnagel issued orders for the arrest of the SS and SD commanders. In Vienna, Prague and many other places troops occupied Nazi Party offices and arrested Gauleiters and SS officers.
The decisive moment came at 19:00 when Hitler was sufficiently recovered to make phone calls. By phone he personally empowered a loyal officer, Major Otto Remer, to regain control of the situation in Berlin. At 20:00, a furious Witzleben arrived at the Bendlerblock and had a bitter argument with Stauffenberg, who was still insisting that the coup could go ahead. Witzleben left shortly afterward. At around this time, the planned seizure of power in Paris was aborted when Kluge, who had recently been appointed commander-in-chief in the west, learned that Hitler was alive, changed sides with alacrity and had Stülpnagel arrested.
The less resolute members of the conspiracy in Berlin also now began to change sides. Fighting broke out in the Bendlerblock between officers supporting and opposing the coup, and Stauffenberg was wounded. By 23:00, Fromm had regained control, hoping by a show of zealous loyalty to save his own skin. Beck, realizing the game was up, shot himself – the first of many suicides in the coming days. Fromm declared that he had convened a court-martial consisting of himself, and had sentenced Olbricht, Stauffenberg and two other officers to death. At 00:10 on 21 July, they were shot in the courtyard outside. Others would have been executed as well, but at 00:30 the SS-led by Otto Skorzeny arrived on the scene and further executions were forbidden. Fromm went off to see Goebbels to claim credit for suppressing the coup. He was immediately arrested.
That was the end of the German resistance. Over the coming weeks Himmler’s Gestapo, driven by a furious Hitler, rounded up nearly everyone who had had the remotest connection with the July 20 plot. The discovery of letters and diaries in the homes and offices of those arrested revealed the plots of 1938, 1939 and 1943, and this led to further rounds of arrests, including that of Halder, who finished the war in a concentration camp. Under Himmler’s new Sippenhaft (blood guilt) laws, all the relatives of the principal plotters were also arrested. Many people killed themselves, including Tresckow, Stülpnagel, Kluge, and Rommel under Hitler’s orders.
Very few of the plotters tried to escape or to deny their guilt when arrested. It was as if they felt that now that honor had been satisfied, there was nothing further to be done. Hassell, who was at home in Bavaria, returned to his office in Berlin and awaited arrest. Others turned themselves in. Some plotters did manage to get away – Gisevius to Switzerland, for example. Others survived by luck or accident. It appears that none of the conspirators implicated anyone else, even under torture. It was well into August before the Gestapo learned of the Kreisau Circle. Goerdeler was not arrested until August 12.
Those who survived interrogation were given perfunctory trials before the People’s Court and its bullying Nazi judge Roland Freisler. Eventually, some 5,000 people were arrested and about 200 were executed – not all of them connected with the July 20 plot since the Gestapo used the occasion to settle scores with many other people suspected of opposition sympathies. After February 3, 1945, when Freisler was killed in an American air raid, there were no more formal trials, but as late as April, with the war weeks away from its end, Canaris’s diary was found, and many more people were implicated. Executions continued down to the last days of the war.
One of the final acts of resistance was Aktion Rheinland, an operation carried out by the resistance group in Düsseldorf led by Karl August Wiedenhofen. The goal was to surrender the city of Düsseldorf to the advancing Americans without any fighting, thereby preventing further destruction. The action occurred during the latter stages of the encirclement of the Ruhr Pocket, with Wiedenhofen’s group briefly taking over police headquarters on 16 April 1945. Despite the plan being betrayed leading to the execution of five Resistance fighters, other fighters managed to reach American lines, leading to the virtually bloodless capture of the city on 17 April.
Historiographical debates on the subject on Widerstand have often featured intense arguments about the nature, extent, and effectiveness of resistance in the Third Reich. In particular, the debate has focused on what to define as Widerstand (resistance).
Within both the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, the memory of Widerstand was harnessed after 1949 as a way of providing legitimacy to the two rival German states. In East Germany, the focus was unabashedly on celebrating the KPD, which was represented as the only anti-fascist force in Germany; non-Communist resistance was either ignored or slighted. In East Germany, historical work on the subject of widerstand was highly politicized and portrayed members of the KPD resistance as heroes. The general tone of East German work on the subject was well summarized by the introduction to the 1974 book Die deutsche antifaschistische Widerstandsbewegung, which stated: “The German anti-fascist resistance movement, especially the KPD and the forces allied to it, embodied the progressive line of German policy. The most consistent political force of this movement, the KPD, carried out from the first day of the fascist dictatorship, organized and, centrally directed the struggle against imperialism…The expression of the victory of the resolute anti-fascists after the smashing of fascism by the Soviet Union, and the other states of the Anti-Hitler coalition, and the defeat of German imperialism is the existence of the GDR in which the legacy of the best of the German people who gave their lives in the anti-fascist struggle was realized.”
In West Germany, the first works to appear on the subject, such as the books by Hans Rothfels and Gerhard Ritter, were intended both to rebut the collective guilt accusations against the German people by showing the existence of the other Germany, and to prevent another Dolchstoßlegende from emerging by portraying those involved in Widerstand activities in as heroic light as possible. Under the influence of the Cold War, starting in the late 1940s, and continuing throughout the 1950s, historiographical work on the subject in the Federal Republic came to increasing exclude the KPD, and assigned a minor role to the SPD. In his biography of Goerdeler, Ritter drew a distinction between those Germans working for the defeat of their country, and those Germans working to overthrow the Nazi regime while being loyal to Germany. Thus, in Ritter’s view, Goerdeler was a patriot while those involved in the Rote Kapelle were traitors who deserved to be executed. In general, West German historians in the 1950s came to define Widerstand as only including national-conservatives involved in the July 20 plot, and a ‘monumentalization’ and ‘heroicization’ of Widerstand occurred with those being involved being credited as acting from the highest possible ethical and moral motives. In the 1950s, resistance was depicted as middle-class and Christian with the emphasis on the heroic individual standing alone against tyranny.
Starting in the 1960s, a younger generation of West German historians such as Hans Mommsen started to provide a more critical assessment of Widerstand within German elites and came to decry the ‘monumentalization’ of the 1950s. In two articles published in 1966, Mommsen proved the claim often advanced in the 1950s that the ideas behind ‘men of July 20’ were the inspiration for the 1949 Basic Law of the Federal Republic was false. Mommsen showed that the ideas of national-conservative opponents of the Nazis had their origins in the anti-Weimar right of the 1920s, that the system the national-conservatives wished to build in place of Nazism was not a democracy, and that national-conservatives wished to see a Greater Germany ruling over much of Central and Eastern Europe. As part of a critical evaluation of those involved in anti-Nazi work, the German historian Christof Dipper in his 1983 essay Der Deutsche Widerstand und die Juden (translated into English as The German Resistance and the Jews) argued that the majority of the anti-Nazi national-conservatives were anti-Semitic. Dipper wrote that for the majority of the national-conservatives ‘the bureaucratic, pseudo-legal deprivation of the Jews practiced until 1938 was still considered acceptable.’ Though Dipper noted no-one in the Widerstand movement supported the Holocaust, he also commented that the national-conservatives did not intend to restore civil rights to the Jews after the overthrow of Hitler. Dipper went on to argue that based on such views held by opponents of the regime that for “a large part of the German people…believed that a ‘Jewish Question’ existed and had to be solved… .” In response to Dipper’s charges, the Canadian historian Peter Hoffmann in his 2004 essay The German Resistance and the Holocaust sought to disapprove Dipper’s thesis. Hoffmann argued that the majority of those involved in the July 20th Putsch attempt were motivated in large part to moral objections to the Shoah. In particular, Hoffmann used the example of Claus von Stauffenberg’s moral outrage to witnessing the massacre of Russian Jews in 1942, and of Carl Friedrich Goerdeler’s advice in 1938–39 to his contact with British intelligence, the industrialist A.P. Young that the British government should take a tough line with the Nazi regime in regards to its anti-Semitism. The Israeli historian Danny Orbach in his 2010 book Valkyrie: Hahitnagdut Hagermanit Lehitler defended the German resistance fighters, particularly Goerdeler, against the charge that they were anti-Semitic by noting Goerdeler’s strong support for Zionism, the importance of the Holocaust in the motives of the National-Conservative resistance, as well as attempts of other German resistance fighters to save persecuted Jews. In a recent article, Orbach also argued that Dipper’s accusations of antiseminitsm are based on a misreading, if not distortion, of the primary sources, above all Goerdeler’s memoranda on the Jewish Question.
Increasingly, West German historians started in the 1960s and 1970s to examine Widerstand outside of elites, and by focusing on resistance by ordinary people to challenge the popular notion that had been resistance without the people. An example of the changing trend in historical research was a series of local studies of varying degrees of quality on working-class resistance movements associated with the SPD and the KPD published in the 1970s, which shed much light on these previously little-known movements. As the historical genre of Alltagsgeschichte (history of everyday life) started to enjoy increasing popularity as a research topic in the 1970s–80s, historians became more preoccupied with what they considered to be everyday resistance by individuals acting outside of any sort of organization. The so-called Bavaria Project of the 1970s, an effort made by the Institute of Contemporary History to comprehensively document everyday life in Bavaria during the Third Reich did much to spur research into this area. The first director of the Bavaria Project, Peter Hüttenberger defined Widerstand as ‘every form of rebellion against at least potentially total rule within the context of asymmetrical relations of rule’. For Hüttenberger, symmetrical rule occurs when there is a bargain struck between the different interests of the rulers and ruled which leads more or less to a balance; asymmetrical rule occurs when there is no bargain and the state seeks total Herrschaft (domination) over the ruled. For this reason, Hüttenberger discounted the East German claim that the KPD had been engaging in anti-Nazi resistance during the Weimar Republic. Hüttenberger argued that democracy is a form of symmetrical rule, and therefore merely being an opposition party under a democracy does not qualify as resistance.
Seen within this perspective as defined by Hüttenberger, any effort made to resist the claim of total Herrschaft, no matter how minor was a form of Widerstand. Thus, the six volumes which comprised the Bavaria Project edited by the project’s second director, Martin Broszat depicted actions such as refusal to give the Nazi salute or regularly attending church as a type of resistance. Moreover, the emphasis upon resistance in everyday life in the Bavaria Project portrayed Widerstand not as a total contrast between black and white, but rather in shades of grey, noting that people who often refused to behave as the Nazi regime wanted in one area often conformed in other areas; as an example the Bavarian peasants who did business with Jewish cattle dealers in the 1930s despite the efforts of the Nazi regime to stop these transactions otherwise often expressed approval of the anti-Semitic laws. Rather than defining resistance as a matter of intention, Broszat and his associates came to define Widerstand as a matter of Wirkung (effect) as a means of blocking the Nazi regime’s total claim to control all aspects of German life, regardless of whether the intentions were political or not.
Realizing that not every action that blocked the Nazi regime’s total claims should be considered a form of Widerstand, Broszat devised the controversial concept of Resistenz (immunity). By Resistenz, Broszat meant that certain sections of German society were reasonably able to maintain their pre-1933 value system without seeking to fundamentally challenge the Nazi regime. The Resistenz concept was often criticized by other historians for seeking to change the focus from behavior and intentions towards the Nazi regime towards the effect on one’s actions on the regime. One of Broszat’s leading critics, the Swiss historian Walter Hofer commented that in his view: “The concept of Resistenz leads to a leveling down of fundamental resistance against the system on the one hand and actions criticizing more or less accidental, superficial manifestations on the other: the tyrannicide appears on the same plane as the illegal cattle-slaughterer”. Moreover, Hofter noted that the things that Broszat labeled Resistenz had no effect within the grander scheme of things on the ability of the Nazi regime to accomplish its objectives within Germany. Another of Broszat’s critics, the German historian Klaus-Jürgen Müller argued that the term Widerstand should apply only to those having a will to overcome the system and that Broszat’s Resistenz concept did too much to muddy the waters between by speaking of societal immunity to the regime. A more sympathetic appraisal of the Resistenz concept came from the historians Manfred Messerschmidt and Heinz Boberach who argued that Widerstand should be defined from the viewpoint of the Nazi state, and any activity that was contrary to the regime’s wishes, such as listening to jazz music, should be considered as a form of Widerstand. Hans Mommsen wrote about the Resistenz concept that:
“This raises, of course, the issue of how to distinguish between resistance that intended to overthrow the system, and active Resistenz (though judged from the angle of convictions of the individual, this constitutes an artificial separation). Those who risked their lives to hide Jewish fellow citizens and acquire forged exit permits for them, those who tried to help Russian prisoners-of-war, those who, at their workplaces, fought for the rights of workers and refused to be indoctrinated by the German Labour Front, those who protested against the treatment of the Jewish population or publicly denounced the euthanasia programme, those who refused to obey criminal orders, those who as a powerless protest against Nazi war policies daubed slogans on walls at night-time, those who protected the persecuted and shared their ration cards with them-in a wider sense they all belonged to the resistance”.
Another viewpoint advanced in the debate was that of Mommsen, who cautioned against the use of overtly rigid terminology, and spoke of a wide type of resistance practice (Widerstandspraxis), by which he meant that there were different types and forms of resistance and that resistance should be considered a process, in which individuals came to increasingly reject the Nazi system in its entirety. As an example of resistance as a process, Mommsen used the example of Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, who initially supported the Nazis, became increasing disillusioned over Nazi economic policies while serving as Price Commissioner in the mid-1930s, and by the late 1930s was committed to Hitler’s overthrow. Mommsen described national-conservative resistance as “a resistance of servants of the state”, who, over time, came to gradually abandon their former support of the regime, and instead steadily came to accept that the only way of bringing about fundamental change was to seek the regime’s destruction. In regards to the idea of resistance as a process, several historians have worked out typologies. The German historian Detlev Peukert created a typology running from nonconformity mostly done in private and not including total rejection of the Nazi system, refusal of co-operation (Verweigerung), protest, and finally, resistance – those committed to the overthrow of the regime. The Austrian historian Gerhard Botz argued for a typology starting with deviant behavior (minor acts of non-conformity), social protest, and political resistance.
The British historian Sir Ian Kershaw has argued that there are two approaches to the Widerstand question, one of which he calls the fundamentalist (dealing with those committed to overthrowing the Nazi regime) and the societal (dealing with forms of dissent in everyday life). In Kershaw’s viewpoint, the Resistenz concept works well in an Alltagsgeschichte approach but works less well in the field of high politics, and moreover by focusing only on the effect of one’s actions, fails to consider the crucial element of the intention behind one’s actions. Kershaw has argued that the term Widerstand should be used only for those working for the total overthrow of the Nazi system, and those engaging in behavior which was counter to the regime’s wishes without seeking to overthrow the regime should be included under the terms opposition and dissent, depending upon their motives and actions. Kershaw has used the Edelweiss Pirates as an example of whose behavior initially fell under dissent, and who advanced from there to opposition and finally to resistance. Similarly, the American historian Claudia Koonz in her 1992 article Ethical Dilemmas and Nazi Eugenics, argued that those who protested against the Action T4 program, usually for religious reasons while remaining silent about the Holocaust cannot be considered as part of any resistance to the Nazis, and these protests can only be considered as a form of dissent. In Kershaw’s opinion, there were three bands ranging from dissent to opposition to resistance. In Kershaw’s view, there was much dissent and opposition within German society, but outside of the working-class, very little resistance. Though Kershaw has argued that the Resistenz concept has much merit, overall he concluded that the Nazi regime had a broad basis of support and consensus, and it is correct to speak of resistance without the people.