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Courageous resistance: anti-Nazi Germany

Catrine Clay has chronicled the range of brave domestic opposition to the Nazi regime, says Nicholas Jacobs

19 December, 2020 — By Nicholas Jacobs

Von Schulenburg in the People’s Court on his day of execution in 1944

THE great historian of German Resistance, the Canadian-German Peter Hoffmann, calculated that 77,000 Germans lost their lives resisting Hitler. It is therefore surprising that it has taken nearly 80 years for the first book to appear in the English language written for the man and woman in the street on this important subject.

There have been good books in English on special aspects of resistance – the military resistance, the Church resistance, the Communist resistance, the Youth resistance – but this is the first book that successfully attempts to do justice to almost all forms of resistance.

Catrine Clay has read widely and deeply in the mainly, but not exclusively, German sources, and from them has performed the miracle of producing a continuous spellbinding, extremely moving, shocking and in the end inspiring story.

She does this by interweaving, without confusion, the stories of some 15 resisters, from the Communist party leader Ernst Thälmann (imprisoned from 1933 in solitary confinement), his wife and daughter, to the aristocrat, soldier and one-time Nazi, Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, whose wife and six children came to England after the war, and from the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once pastor of the parish of Sydenham (south London), to the outstanding leader of the German Social Democrats, Julius Leber and his wife Annedore.
He was executed but his wife lived on to become one of the first historians of the Resistance.

The labour and trade union movement, above all the Communists and the military, often – like Schulenburg – not just disillusioned with Hitler, but convinced the country could only be saved by his assassination, did most of the resisting, including effective industrial sabotage by workers, organised by communists like Bernhard Bästlein and Herbert Baum.

Julius and Annedore Leber

The aristocrats in the military, like Henning von Tresckow, who famously wrote in spring 1944: “The assassination must take place… Even if it does not succeed, we must still act… what counts is the fact that in the eyes of the world and History, the German Resistance dared to act”, and Claus von Stauffenberg, who did dare to act, but whose bomb Hitler narrowly escaped.

Also to be counted, if more passively, were the so-called “Beefsteaks” – those prison guards apparently Brown on the outside, but in fact Red inside. They account for letters getting through to prisoners and even for some illicit family visits. They also seemed to account for the fact that prisoners were often unexpectedly well-informed.

The author does well to remind us that two thirds of the German nation were not supporters of the Nazi regime, and that even a man in SS uniform could be on your side. It was all much more complicated than the war films on which many of us were brought up.

The author also tells the stories of Helmuth James von Moltke, at the centre of the so-called Kreisau Group, working on a post-Hitler government of national reconciliation, embracing Left and non-Nazi Right, and Adam von Trott, both aristocrats but not soldiers. They were diplomats and represent the strong anti-Nazi tradition of much of the German diplomatic corps, even under Hitler.

Von Trott was involved in one of the numerous attempts to get Britain actively engaged in opposing Hitler’s take-over of the Sudetenland, the majority German part of Czechoslovakia, which the German High Command was ready to oppose with an anti-Hitler coup, if they had even diplomatic support from the British.

But the British were more in fear of Russian Communism than German Nazism, and signed Czechoslovakia away at Munich to the shock of the senior General Ludwig Beck and the distinguished ambassador in Rome, Ulrich von Hassell.

Every single one of the men named above suffered the fate of death by hanging or guillotine (except General Beck, who committed suicide). They went to their deaths with incredible bravery, often leaving very moving last letters to their wives and children. One of the finest of all was from Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg to his wife Charlotte. It only came to light 10 years after his execution, and provides a fitting end to this outstanding and important book.

  • The Good Germans – Resisting the Nazis, 1933-1945. By Catrine Clay, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £14.99

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