Keystone Nazis

The German resistance considered as farce.

On the Road to the Wolf’s Lair: German Resistance to Hitler
By Theodore S. Hamerow;
Harvard/Belknap Press; 464 pages; $29.95

Plotting Hitler’s Death
By Joachim Fest (translated by Bruce Little)
Metropolitan Books; 419 pages; $30

Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany
By Nathan Stoltzfus
W.W. Norton; 386 pages; $30

Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944
By Peter Hoffmann
Cambridge; 424 pages; $39.95

The first question that has to be asked about the German resistance is: Did it exist? A good case can be made that it did not. To frame the question less contentiously: Did the scattered theologians, bureaucrats, army officers, and (in one case) ordinary housewives who defied Hitler act more as isolated individuals than as a concerted movement? On the large stage of history, do these brave individuals shrink to statistical insignificance? And is the so-called resistance movement therefore a kind of optical illusion, generated by a need to find some shred of goodness or worth in Germany under the Nazis? It has to be said that books about the resistance seem to greatly outnumber the resisters themselves. The stack before me now includes Theodore S. Hamerow’s On the Road to the Wolf’s Lair: German Resistance to Hitler (1997); Joachim Fest’s Plotting Hitler’s Death (1996); Nathan Stoltzfus’Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany (1996); and Peter Hoffmann’s Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944 (1995).

Certainly, these books are not mythographies. They are sober, sometimes skeptical historical accounts. Fest surveys resistance to Hitler from 1933 to 1945, paying particular attention to the military plot, whose deficiencies he chronicles mercilessly. Hamerow examines the motives of the resisters, both civilian and military; he shows them weaving sinuously between self-interest and idealism. Stoltzfus, writing of the 2,000 Berlin women who marched down Rosenstrasse in 1943 to protest the incarceration of their Jewish husbands, sees that his case is something less than a study in pure virtue: Germans cared nothing for Jews unless self-interest intervened. And yet–with one exception–I came away feeling these authors had exaggerated the significance of their subject. The exception is Hoffmann’s book on Claus von Stauffenberg, who nearly killed Hitler with a bomb on July 20, 1944. Stauffenberg was a very strange man who has to be considered as a phenomenon unto himself (and will be, next week in Slate).

Fest, the author of perhaps the best Hitler biography, begins his book with a chapter titled “The Resistance That Never Was,” which covers the 1933-37 period. His stage-setting narrative is a conventional one: Hitler cements his hold on Germany through a combination of rhetoric, political stratagems, and force. Fest states that the army was the only organization able to keep its structure intact, and therefore the only one in a position to mount a concerted resistance. He omits, however, certain successful–and un-military–protests in those years against Hitler’s policies. The nation more or less collectively decried Hitler’s plan to kill off the mentally and physically disabled. There were also protests against domestic austerities during the armaments buildup of 1935-36. As the historian Ian Kershaw has demonstrated, this kind of pinpoint, smaller-scale resistance was common in Nazi Germany. No general resistance emerged because very few Germans were generally unhappy with Hitler’s regime.

As Fest describes it, the military’s first plot against Hitler came in the tense weeks before the conclusion of the 1938 Munich agreement. Hitler seemed determined to lead Germany into a war for which military leaders felt neither ready nor eager. Had he marched toward Prague at that time, they would have arrested him–or assassinated him outright. The broader circle of conspirators–centering on Gen. Ludwig Beck, who had resigned as army chief of staff in protest of Hitler’s war plans–agreed to the idea of seizing and imprisoning Hitler. It was even proposed that he be declared insane by a panel of psychiatrists. An “inner” circle believed that Hitler should be summarily shot. This interesting debate became moot once Hitler abruptly changed his mind and accepted Chamberlain’s peace offer at Munich. The conspiracy fell apart because it depended too much on Hitler’s own plans.

A fter a long period of disillusionment–uncomfortably mixed with exhilaration at the success of the blitzkrieg–and as soon as Hitler decreed the invasion of the Soviet Union, the officers began to plot again. In March of 1943, Henning von Tresckow concealed a bomb in two bottles of Cointreau and had them carried onto Hitler’s plane. The bottles mysteriously failed to explode. Later that month, one of Tresckow’s associates had a bomb wired to his body, and followed Hitler through an exhibition of military trophies; Hitler mysteriously exited through a side door. Another attempt fell through when a scheduled presentation of military uniforms never took place. In March of 1944, Eberhard von Breitenbuch announced that he would shoot Hitler in the mouth at a briefing. He was pulled away from the Führer at the last minute because of a change in agenda. The last and most nearly effective of the plots was Stauffenberg’s, which hinged not only on the bomb he brought into Hitler’s “Wolf’s Lair” headquarters in East Prussia, but also on coordinated strikes against the Nazi power structure in Berlin and all across Europe.

The military conspirators tended to defeat themselves at every turn. To begin with, there was a high ratio of memorandum-writing to action. Much thought was given to a new constitution, Germany’s proper postwar borders, and other untimely meditations. (Reading Fest’s book, I was often reminded of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which anti-Roman conspirators of the People’s Front of Judaea respond to a new crisis by shouting out, “Right! This calls for immediate discussion!”) As Fest notes, the plans were always contingent; they were also needlessly intricate. One bomb plot fell apart when a newfangled detonating mechanism proved too complicated for anyone in the high command to understand.

Should the plotters receive credit for their intentions, rather than their actions? Hamerow takes up this question. He asks whether the resisters were driven by genuine dislike of Hitler and his ideas, or whether they decided that Hitler was superfluous only after his string of victories turned into a string of defeats. Hamerow comes up with a mass of contradictory evidence. Some conspirators, certainly, were cold-blooded pragmatists; others were disaffected front-line officers who had suffered on the Eastern front. More than a few were Christian and monarchist conservatives who deplored Hitler’s tendency toward self-deification. Almost all were devoted to the traditions of the German military and infuriated by Hitler’s peremptory directives from on high.

Sometimes, there was also a moral strain to their deliberations. Several of these men seemed to sense the full dimensions of the Holocaust. Axel von dem Bussche reeled in shock from a mass execution of Jews in the Ukraine; Peter Yorck von Wartenburg stated at his treason trial in 1944 that the escalation of anti-Semitism into genocide was the single cause of his “inner break” with Nazism (a claim that gained him nothing before a Nazi court); and Tresckow understood the genocidal implications of the orders accompanying plans for the Russian invasion. Hamerow quotes a moving statement by Tresckow: “If God once promised Abraham that he would destroy Sodom if only 10 righteous men lived there, then I hope that because of us God will also not destroy Germany.” Departing dramatically from the cautious analysis that guides the main body of his book, Hamerow names Yorck and Tresckow in just such a circle of the righteous, “for whose sake God would spare Germany.”

Hamerow is in dubious pursuit of a select circle of absolutely “good Germans,” and his emphasis on intentions over outcomes leads to strange choices. His pantheon also includes Helmut von Moltke, one of the leaders of the Kreisau Circle, a religious-philosophical group that spent most of its time imagining an ideal future German society. But Moltke was firmly opposed to the use of force; when he was put on trial with the other conspirators after the 1944 plot, he was impressed–almost heartened–that the judge gave him a death sentence simply for thinking about Germany without Hitler. (It testified, he thought, to the power of the mind!) Meanwhile, Hamerow “demotes” Stauffenberg on the grounds that his brother Berthold failed to dissociate himself completely from anti-Semitic thinking at his trial. To consider Moltke more “righteous” than Stauffenberg–the one who actually did something–borders on the perverse.

History sometimes tells simple stories. The fact that none of the various attempts, plans, and general conspiratorial notions to assassinate Hitler succeeded–and that all but Stauffenberg’s never seemed plausible–speaks for itself. Hitler was an easy target; he liked to show himself in public and did not always travel in conditions of airtight security. The resistance literature often comments on Hitler’s “amazing luck,” or his “uncanny” ability to sense danger; but the failures of the resistance might be better ascribed to the calculated unluck of the resisters, their own ability to sense danger and step away from it, and their overall minuscule number. Hitler’s death by his own hand cannot be counted as one of history’s accidents. Germany could not imagine any other death for him.

(Next week: The mysterious motives of Hitler’s would-be assassin.)