by Dr Martyn
Housden. University of Bradford
Summary: Accepting a narrow definition
of resistance as 'active participation in an organised
attempt to undermine the Third Reich' three types of
resisters are identified: those who became disillusioned
with the Third Reich, those who acted out of necessity and
those who resisted because of political, religious or moral
Different Definitions of Resistance
'RESISTANCE' HAS BEEN DEFINED in different ways.
Hans-Adolf Jacobsen says:
... [it] must comprise all that was done despite the
terror of the Third Reich, despite the suffering and
martyrdom, for the sake of humanity, for the aid of the
persecuted. And the word resistance in some cases applies,
too, to certain forms of standing aside in silence.1
This is a very wide definition indeed. It implies that a
German resisted Hitler if, for example, (s)he continued to
buy from a Jewish shop despite a boycott organised by the
Nazi Party or if (s)he gave pieces of bread to one of the
millions of starving forced workers brought to Germany from
eastern Europe during the Second World War. It could even
include failure to join a Nazi organisation.
Obviously a variety of courses of action were open to a
German who was opposed to the Third Reich and who wanted to
do something about it: but how many of them really amounted
to 'resistance'? Ian Kershaw has warned against applying the
concept too broadly. Trying to be more precise than
Jacobsen, he has distinguished 'dissent' (the spontaneous
voicing of anti-Nazi opinions) and 'opposition' (actions
only directed against limited characteristics of the Hitler
state) from 'resistance'. The latter he defines as the
'active participation in organized attempts to work against
the regime with the conscious aim of undermining it or
planning for the moment of its demise'.2 According to this
view, resistance was about action not words, organisation
and planning not spontaneity, the rejection of everything
Hitler stood for not just part of it. Resistance was nothing
less than a meaningful contribution to the destruction of
the Third Reich.
Kershaw's criteria are very exacting indeed. After all,
how many ordinary Germans could ever have hoped to destroy a
whole modern state system? But still his definition helps
remind us that while no small number of Germans at some time
or other made signs of defiance towards the Third Reich as
they went about their daily round, others were filled with
such a passionate desire to oppose Hitler that resistance
became the whole purpose of their lives. This essay will
deal with some of Germany's more passionate resisters. Who
were they, and how did their stories compare?
Resistance Through Disillusionment
The decision for a German to become a true resister often
was neither easy nor straightforward. This is shown clearly
in the cases of a number of teenagers. From 1934 on, reports
compiled by the police in the Ruhr and Rhineland described
the existence of groups of largely working-class youths who
dressed distinctively (often in cheescloth shirts and
leather shorts), who went on outings together and who were
'at daggers drawn' with the Hitler Youth (Hitler Jugend).
These groups were called Kittelbach Pirates, Navajos and,
most famously, Edelweiss Pirates. According to historian A.
Kenkmann, most of the teenagers involved here originally had
been happy to join the Hitler Jugend.3 They only
became Pirates when the Hitler Jugend proved unable
to meet their needs. Often there were very personal reasons
for this. For instance, some teenagers had had arguments
with Hitler Jugend leaders, others had been refused
promotion within the organisation, others again belonged to
families which could not afford the necessary Nazi uniforms.
The example of Hans Steinbrück is particularly
interesting. He was a member of an Edelweiss Pirate group
during the Second World War, and as a result was hanged in
November 1944. Originally, however, he had been a leader in
the Hitler Jugend and in due course tried to join the secret
political police in Düsseldorf. Stupidly he started passing
himself off as a secret policeman before his application had
been approved and as a result he was not only rejected, but
put in prison for a short while. Only after his release did
Hans begin a career of resistance to the Third Reich. It
culminated in him leading attacks by armed gangs on
government buildings in war-torn Cologne. In other words,
Hans only rejected the Hitler state after it had first
Rather more famous resisters also started out in league
with National Socialism. Claus von Stauffenberg was the army
officer who planted the bomb which nearly blew up Adolf
Hitler on 20 July 1944. This member of the Schwabian
nobility had enjoyed a very conservative upbringing. In an
essay written at school, he identified only one profession
as really honourable: fighting for your nation. Not
surprisingly he joined the army and by 1930 had made up his
mind that Hitler's political movement was the best hope for
Germany. He participated in the campaign against Poland in
1939 and wrote home as follows: 'The population is an
unbelievable rabble; there are a lotof Jews and a lot of
cross-breeds.'4 When military men who were already trying to
resist Hitler contacted von Stauffenberg in 1942, he refused
to co-operate with them. For a very long time this man was
widely in agreement with National Socialist values and loyal
to the Third Reich.
Gradually, however, he was compelled to re-think. Von
Stauffenberg was horrified by the war-time carnage he saw in
Russia. He was outraged by the barbaric way German troops
were ordered to treated Slavic civilians. At a conference in
Vinnitsa in October 1942, he said it was scandalous that no
senior military man would take a stand against the way
Hitler was leading the war. His disillusionment deepened in
January 1943 when the Sixth Army surrendered to the Russians
at Stalingrad. From that time on, von Stauffenberg believed
Germany was on the defensive. June 1944 saw first the D-Day
landings in France and then a massive offensive by the
Russians. To a professional military mind it was plain that
to continue the war would only cause a phenomenal loss of
life and the endangerment of the German nation itself.
Faced by the barbarity of Hitler's war and its impending
failure, von Stauffenberg decided to act. As he put it: 'I
could never look the wives and children of the fallen in the
eye if I did not do something to stop this senseless
slaughter.' Now working in association with a wider group of
both military and civilian resisters, he attempted to
assassinate the Führer during a briefing at the military
headquarters in eastern Prussia. Later the same day, while
trying to organise a coup in Berlin, he was shot by troops
who had remained loyal to Hitler. Steinbrück and von
Stauffenberg had very different experiences in the Third
Reich. What they shared was the frustration of the hopes and
expectations which they had originally invested in it. For
both of these individuals, resistance was born of
Resistance by Necessity
Once Hitler was Chancellor, various of types of people
(for example gypsies and homosexuals) were persecuted with
less and less mercy. This was particularly so for German
Jews. In the first two or three years of the Third Reich
they were banned from certain shops, thrown out of various
jobs and had German citizenship withdrawn. In November 1938
concerted anti-Semitic violence swept the country in the
form of the 'Crystal Night' pogroms. Thereafter German Jews
were stripped of their financial assets. During the war, as
German power stretched across Europe, genocide became the
deliberate policy of the state. Under the circumstances, for
a Jew to conform to the demands of the Third Reich meant at
first abuse and imprisonment, later it meant death. So what
were they to do?
These people had not expected to be singled out for such
vitriolic persecution and they were not particularly well
placed to deal with it. In fact, Germany's Jews comprised
less than 1 per cent of the national population. None the
less they managed to band together quickly to form a large
number of self-help organisations. These raised 25 million
Reich Marks to help sustain the poorer members of their
community in 1935 alone. Increasingly, however, it became
clear that the only way for German Jews to regain their
freedom was to leave their homeland. Since 80 per cent of
German-Jewish families had been established in Germany for
centuries, this was a hard decision to take. It was also in
conflict with the way government policy was developing. For
example, the weight of taxation facing would-be Jewish
emigrants was increasing dramatically. In 1934 these people
could expect 60 per cent financial losses; by 1939 the
figure was 96 per cent. Even so, 120,000 Jews emigrated
between 1933 and 1937. A further 118,000 left in the wake of
'Crystal Night'. By October 1941 only 164,000 Jews were left
in Germany. Of these, 50 per cent were aged over 50 and
only 13 per cent under 18. In other words, by the time the
Holocaust had begun, the great majority of Germany's Jews,
and the younger ones in particular, had left the country.
Emigration meant survival. In the context of a state
which eventually aimed at annihilating all of Europe's Jews
this was enough to constitute a type of resistance. But even
the Jews who remained in Germany did not always await
quietly the most tragic of fates. When the deportations from
Germany began in Autumn 1941, 10-12,000 German Jews went
into hiding. By 1943 5,000 were undercover in Berlin alone,
and of these 1,402 survived. Of course, sometimes they had
been helped by German Gentiles, and in 1971 Yad Vashem in
Jerusalem honoured 69 of these kind souls.
As a result of emigration and hiding, by far the majority
of Germany's Jews survived the Third Reich. But the
alternatives facing them had always been especially stark:
resist or else face degradation and murder. Their resistance
was born of necessity.
Resistance by Principled Choice
Hans Steinbrück, Claus von Stauffenberg and surviving
German Jews: all of these people chose, sooner or later, to
resist the course of the Third Reich. Their choices in fact
had a common denominator: they were reactions to specific
developments in the world around them. That is to say,
German Jews reacted to rabid persecution; Steinbrück reacted
to his imprisonment; and von Stauffenberg reacted to
barbarity and a threat to his country. And yet there were
Germans who (unlike the Jews) could have conformed to the
expectations of the Third Reich and still have survived,
but who (unlike Steinbrück and von Stauffenberg) always
chose to do otherwise.
Communists resisted Hitler by virtue of their political
principles. In January 1933, the German Communist Party (KPD)
had 300,000 members. With Hitler's seizure of power, they
experienced a truly relentless persecution. In the wake of
the Reichstag Fire Decree, which was based on a supposed
Communist threat to the state, 10,000 KPD members were
arrested. 14,000 more were arrested in 1935, 11,678 in 1936,
over 8,000 in 1937 and 3,800 in 1938. By 1945 over half of
Germany's Communists had been imprisoned or persecuted in
some way. 25,000-30,000 of them had been murdered. To be a
Communist in the Third Reich was clearly a high risk
decision, and yet the hopes of many sympathisers remained
alive. For example, the party set up anti-Nazi propaganda
presses outside Germany. As a result 1.25 million
pro-Communist leaflets were seized while being smuggled into
Germany in 1934. During the next year 1.65 million were
seized. Goodness knows how many more must have got through!
The group of young Communists led by Herbert Baum was,
admittedly, a special case. Since all of its members were
Jewish, they faced persecution regardless of their political
beliefs, but still they managed to stage one of the most
ambitious anti-Nazi stunts ever carried out on German soil.
In 1942 Joseph Goebbels had opened an anti-Russian
exhibition in Berlin entitled ironically 'The Soviet
Paradise'. On 18 May, Baum and some friends fire-bombed the
exhibition. Unfortunately it seems that one of the group was
a police informer and soon they were arrested. Executions
followed. Some churchmen resisted by virtue of their
religious principles. Refusing to be subsumed under a
pro-Nazi organisation called 'the German Christians', in
Autumn 1933 some 6,000 Protestant clergymen led by Martin
Niemöller set up 'the Confessing Church'. They committed
themselves to preserving the purity of the scriptures as the
only guide to true religious belief. Four years later
Niemöller was arrested on Hitler's specific orders. As for
the Catholic Church in Germany, the Vatican was over-hasty
to accept the Concordat in July 1933. Some senior members of
the Catholic clergy did prevent junior priests speaking out
against Hitler's government. Even so, during the years of
the Third Reich, between a third and a half of all priests
were persecuted for placing Christian beliefs ahead of
National Socialist political doctrine. In 1941, for example,
Father Lichtenberg was arrested in Berlin for preaching
about the need to extend compassion towards Germany's Jews.
He died in prison two years later.
Individuals rejected the Third Reich because of
independent moral principles. Helmuth von Moltke was a
Silesian nobleman and qualified lawyer who worked for the
international legal section of German military intelligence.
He had never looked favourably on Hitler's movement and took
every opportunity in government meetings to block measures
with which he disagreed. Letters to his wife show how deeply
he was affected when he learned of war-time atrocities
committed by German soldiers against Serbian villagers and
by the treatment he witnessed of Berlin's Jews. He decided
to hold a series of secret political meetings on his family
estate at Kreisau in 1942 and 1943. Present were like-minded
people drawn from all social circles: from former-trades
union officials to civil servants and military men. Some of
them had contacts with von Stauffenberg. Together they
discussed and planned for the way a broadly democratic
German state should be constructed once Hitler was deposed.
Unfortunately, von Moltke's activities were uncovered in
early 1944. He was arrested and later executed.
Equally remarkable were the actions of the 'White Rose
Group'. Led by Hans and Sophie Scholl, this collection of
students at Munich University wrote five bitterly anti-Nazi
leaflets during 1942 and 1943 which were distributed around
the country. The pamphlets relied on moral arguments to
persuade Germans to embark on passive resistance against the
government and to sabotage the war effort. In one
particularly memorable passage, the group pointed out that
crimes without parallel were being carried out against Jews
in Poland. They added that anyone who did not try to prevent
them was guilty too.
On 18 February 1943, Hans (aged 24) and Sophie (aged 22)
were caught tipping between 1,500 and 1,800 leaflets down
the main staircase of Munich University. They were tried by
a People's Court and executed. Munich's ordinary citizens
were deeply shocked.
The Communists, churchmen and independent humanitarians
discussed here were motivated by different beliefs. Yet each
of these individuals had a core of principles so strong that
it always dictated resistance to the Third Reich.
All of the figures populating this brief essay resisted
Hitler. Each one had his or her own story about the decision
to do so. Distinctions between those who took a stand after
becoming disillusioned with the Third Reich, those who acted
out of necessity and others who resisted because of
political, religious or moral principles are highlighted.
But whether we want to talk about von Stauffenberg's
self-sacrifice, the courageous actions of the Scholls or the
readiness of German Jews to start fresh lives in foreign
lands, each and every one of them deserves the utmost
understanding and respect. They are the bright lights in a
dark period of German history.
1 H-A. Jacobsen, Germans against Hitler. July 20, 1944,
Wiesbaden, 1969, p.162.
2 I. Kershaw, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in
the Third Reich, Oxford, 1983, pp. 162-3.
3 A. Kenkmann, 'Navajos, Kittelsbach und Edelweisspiraten'
in W. Breyvogel (ed.) Piraten, Swings und Junge Garde,
Bonn, 1991, p. 140.
4 Quoted in H. Steffahn, Stauffenberg, Hamburg,
1994, p. 57.
5 M. Balfour and J. Frisby, Helmuth von Moltke. A
Leader Against Hitler, London, 1972, pp. 171-3.
and concepts to note
vitriolic: very bitter, strong and damaging.
rabid: fanatical, violent, raging.
degradation: poverty, squalor or degeneration.
denominator: criteria for division.
Questions to consider
successful was the Third Reich in dealing with resistance?
important was organisation for resistance to be telling?
w Why is the
looser resistance, as defined by Hans-Adolf Jacobsen
difficult to quantify?
w Is it
meaningful to make a moral distinction between the three
types of resistance described in this article?
P. Hoffmann, Stauffenberg. A
Family History, 1905-1944, Cambridge, 1995;
Resistance and Conformity in the Third Reich, London,
I. Kershaw, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent
in the Third Reich, Oxford, 1983;
Inside Nazi Germany, London, 1993.
Germans against Hitler. Who resisted the Third Reich and why did they do it? by
Martyn Housden is © new perspective 1998
Martyn Housden, Lecturer in the University of Bradford,
is the author of Resistance and Conformity in the Third
Reich, Routledge - Sources in History series, 1997.