German resistance to Nazism

Memorial plaque for resistance members and wreath at the Bendlerblock, Berlin.
The Memorial to Polish Soldiers and German Anti-Fascists 1939–1945 in Berlin.

German resistance to Nazism (German: Widerstand gegen den Nationalsozialismus) was the opposition by individuals and groups in Germany to the National Socialist regime between 1933 and 1945. Some of these engaged in active resistance with plans to remove Adolf Hitler from power by assassination 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,[1] 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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] The resistance in Germany included German citizens of non-German ethnicity, such as members of the Polish minority who formed resistance groups like Olimp.[4]


The German opposition and resistance movements consisted of 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 organisation 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.[5] The Foreign Office and the Abwehr (Military Intelligence) also provided vital support to the movement.[6] 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,[7] communists, socialists, and trade union leaders[8] and aggressive foreign policy, bringing Germany to the brink of war; it was at this time that the German Resistance emerged.[9]

Those opposing the Nazi regime were motivated by such factors as the mistreatment of Jews, harassment of the churches, and the harsh actions of Himmler and the Gestapo.[10] 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...".[11]

Banned, underground political parties contributed one source of opposition. These included the Social Democrats (SPD)—with activist Julius LeberCommunists (KPD), and the anarcho-syndicalist group the Freie Arbeiter Union (FAUD), that distributed anti-Nazi propaganda and assisted people in fleeing the country.[12] 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.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Sigurdshof, 1939.

Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant, contributed another source of opposition. 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 co-ordinate 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".[13] 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 Clemens August Graf 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.[14] 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.[15]

Individual Germans or small groups of people acting as the "unorganized resistance" defied the Nazi regime in various ways, most notably, those 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 recognised for this.[16] 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.

The German Army, the Foreign Office and the Abwehr, the military intelligence organization became sources for plots 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.)[17] "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")

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