German Resistance - The Nadir of Resistance: 1940–42

The Nadir of Resistance: 1940–42

The sweeping success of Hitler’s attack on France in May 1940 made the task of deposing him even more difficult. Most army officers, their fears of a war against the western powers apparently proved groundless, and gratified by Germany’s revenge against France for the defeat of 1918, reconciled themselves to Hitler’s regime, choosing to ignore its darker side. The task of leading the resistance groups for a time fell to civilians, although a hard core of military plotters remained active.

Carl Goerdeler, the former lord mayor of Leipzig, emerged as a key figure. His associates included the diplomat Ulrich von Hassell, the Prussian Finance Minister Johannes Popitz, and Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, heir to a famous name and the leading figure in the Kreisau Circle of Prussian oppositionists, which included other young aristocrats such as Adam von Trott zu Solz and Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, and later Gottfried Graf von Bismarck-Schönhausen, who was a Nazi member of the Reichstag and a senior officer in the SS. Goerdeler was also in touch with the SPD underground, whose most prominent figure was Julius Leber, and with Christian opposition groups, both Catholic and Protestant.

These men saw themselves as the leaders of a post-Hitler government, but they had no clear conception of how to bring this about, except through assassinating Hitler – a step which many of them still opposed on ethical grounds. Their plans could never surmount the fundamental problem of Hitler’s overwhelming popularity among the German people. They preoccupied themselves with philosophical debates and devising grand schemes for postwar Germany. The fact was that for nearly two years after the defeat of France, there was little scope for opposition activity.

In March 1941 Hitler revealed his plans for a “war of annihilation” against the Soviet Union to selected army officers in a speech given in Posen. In the audience was Colonel Henning von Tresckow, who had not been involved in any of the earlier plots but was already a firm opponent of the Nazi regime. He was horrified by Hitler’s plan to unleash a new and even more terrible war in the east. As a nephew of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, he was very well connected. Assigned to the staff of his uncle’s command, Army Group Centre, for the forthcoming Operation Barbarossa, Tresckow systematically recruited oppositionists to the group’s staff, making it the new nerve centre of the army resistance.

American journalist Howard K. Smith wrote in 1942 that of the three groups in opposition to Hitler, the military was more important than the churches and the Communists. Little could be done while Hitler’s armies advanced triumphantly into the western regions of the Soviet Union through 1941 and 1942 – even after the setback before Moscow in December 1941 that led to the dismissal of both Brauchitsch and Bock. In December 1941 the United States entered the war, persuading some more realistic army officers that Germany must ultimately lose the war. But the life-and-death struggle on the eastern front posed new problems for the resistance. Most of its members were conservatives who hated and feared communism and the Soviet Union. How could the Nazi regime be overthrown and the war ended without allowing the Soviets to gain control of Germany or the whole of Europe? This question was made more acute when the Allies adopted their policy of demanding Germany’s “unconditional surrender” at the Casablanca Conference of January 1943.

During 1942 the tireless Oster nevertheless succeeded in rebuilding an effective resistance network. His most important recruit was General Friedrich Olbricht, head of the General Army Office headquartered at the Bendlerblock in central Berlin, who controlled an independent system of communications to reserve units all over Germany. Linking this asset to Tresckow’s resistance group in Army Group Centre created what appeared to a viable structure for a new effort at organising a coup. Bock’s dismissal did not weaken Tresckow’s position. In fact he soon enticed Bock’s successor, General Hans von Kluge, at least part-way to supporting the resistance cause. Tresckow even brought Goerdeler, leader of the civilian resistance, to Army Group Centre to meet Kluge – an extremely dangerous tactic.

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