German Resistance - Pre-war Resistance 1933–39

Pre-war Resistance 1933–39

There was almost no organized resistance to Hitler’s regime in the period between his appointment as chancellor in January 1933 and the crisis over Czechoslovakia in 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 neutralised. 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 minority tendency 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 program, 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 recruit new members from the industrial working class, who resented the stringent labour 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. 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 Nazi's 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 his period in 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 centre of opposition to the regime within the state apparatus was in the intelligence services, whose clandestine operations offered an excellent cover for political organisation. The key figure here was Colonel Hans Oster, head of the Military Intelligence Office from 1938, and a convinced anti-Nazi 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 recognised 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 Bavarian schools in 1941, 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 mobilise 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 the 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 favoured restoring the Hohenzollern dynasty, others favoured 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. In these circumstances the opposition was unable to form a united movement, or to send a coherent message to potential allies outside Germany.

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    How is freedom measured, in individuals as in nations? By the resistance which has to be overcome, by the effort it costs to stay aloft. One would have to seek the highest type of free man where the greatest resistance is constantly being overcome: five steps from tyranny, near the threshold of the danger of servitude.
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