How did civilians, political and military movements, armies, artists etc. resist against Nazi Germany during the Second World War?
Between 1933-1945, the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party) ruled Germany under a totalitarian regime. During the second world war (1939-1945), Nazi Germany invaded and occupied the majority of Western and Eastern Europe. This unsurprisingly caused tensions with both the people of Germany and those in the occupied nations, which eventually led to opposition and resistance against the Nazis. In this essay, I will outline how different types of people, groups and professions, both within and outside of the Reich resisted fascist rule and the methods which they used. In addition to this, I will give examples of specific acts of resistance and analyse the causes and in some cases the effects.
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The scale categorising the severity of acts of resistance is not definite but for ease of study can be separated into two distinct groups: ‘passive’ and ‘active’ resistance. Historians define ‘Passive resistance’ (also referred to as ‘opposition’) to be any act which openly or otherwise defies the Nazi state and its desires in a non-violent way. This opposition occurred in many forms and could range from minor offenses such as refusing to offer a German officer a light to a cigarette, to extreme cases including attempted uprisings. ‘Active resistance’ is the label given to acts of resistance in which violence was used against the Nazis. Despite the former being more common during the regime, approximately ‘800,000 Germans were arrested for active resistance during the Reich’s 12-year reign’ .
Nazi Germany was a totalitarian state. Totalitarianism is an authoritarian political concept whereby the government is usually ruled by a dictator, in this case Adolf Hitler, in which the state attempts to control every aspect of public and private life and identifies no limits to its authority over the people. Due to this desire to control all aspects of peoples lives, the most common, basic and in some theoretical sense most effective act of opposition to the state was a refusal to accept the Nazi doctrine. This refusal to accept Nazi ideologies was in theory a refusal to mentally surrender to the occupiers. This type of passive resistance was encouraged by high ranking military figures and politicians of occupied countries.
In France, after the 1940 Nazi invasion, General Charles de Gaulle broadcasted a speech on BBC radio in which he urged his fellow citizens to ‘oppose foreign rule and subservience for the restoration of freedoms in France’ . He posed the hypothetical question, “what will be the fate of a France which has submitted to the enemy?” . Despite this being a question, the implications are that without opposition of any form France and its citizens could be in peril and hence encourages the people of France to withstand the occupation for the sake and honour of their nation and safety of its people. By listening to this speech, the people of France were passively resisting the rules dictated by the totalitarian occupiers as listening to allied radio networks was forbidden.
The effectiveness of de Gaulle’s speech and the French people’s willingness to oppose the Nazi’s is shown in J. Guéhenno’s ‘Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944. Collaboration, Resistance, and Daily Life in Occupied Paris’, with comments such as “my country, that country which is only an idea, has not been invaded and never will be” and “I will take refuge in my real country”  in which Guéhenno is clearly resisting the idea that his nation has been lost, and thus the Nazi doctrine generally. Guéhenno is also alluding to his France to be a theoretical concept, one which ‘will never be invaded’. De Gaulle’s speech also renewed people’s faith that France would once again be free, ending the speech with “Long live free France in honour and independence!”. Amongst the calls for passive resistance against the Nazis, de Gaulle additionally called for the people of France to “fight for the restoration of freedom” and that “all free Frenchmen, wherever they be, should continue the fight as best they may”. This encouraged the people to carry out more severe acts of passive resistance and ultimately commit acts of active resistance against the occupiers. De Gaulle’s call for resistance was answered in the form of the ‘French Resistance’. Following the speech, between 1940-1941, small resistance factions began to emerge throughout France. The resistance began by mainly distributing clandestine press that questioned the Nazi ideology, this soon progressed to acts of active resistance against the Nazi occupiers. The first example of violence against the occupiers came in August 1941, where an active resistance member and French Communist, Pierre Georges, assassinated a German Naval officer in a Paris Metro station.
Within Germany itself, opposition to the Nazi government despite being relatively uncommon with respect to the general population, still existed. This may in part be due to the idea that resisting the Nazis meant acting against their own nation and in some circumstances their fellow citizens. The act of resistance is also considered an act of high treason and hence was punishable by death. Despite this, it is well documented that German-national communists, socialists and trade unionists amongst others illicitly produced and distributed anti-Nazi propaganda in the form of leaflets, pamphlets and newspapers. Communists and fascists are theoretically politically opposite, extreme left and extreme right respectively, and therefore boast major ideological differences. For this reason, both considered the other to be the opposition, one that must be resisted and/or defeated.
The most notorious collection of communist led resistance groups against the Nazi’s were known as the ‘Red Orchestra’. Initially an espionage network, the collection soon began printing and distributing leaflets containing information regarding Nazi atrocities. The scale of this distribution was vast and is clearly displayed in Dr Housden’s 1998 article ‘Germans against Hitler. Who resisted the Third Reich and why did they do it?’ ‘in 1934, 1.25 million pro-Communist leaflets were seized…and the following year 1.65 million were seized’ . Despite these leaflets mainly being distributed within the Reich, some information and propaganda was shared with allied nations, in particular The Soviet Union and The United States.
German youths played a role in resisting the Nazi regime. After 1936, it was compulsory for youths aged between 14-18 to be members of the Hitler Youth movement. The ‘Edelweiss Pirates’ were a loosely organised group of youths who opposed the manner in which the Hitler Youth had taken control of the lives of German Youths. The ‘Pirates’ (as they are commonly known) were diametrically opposed to the Hitler Youth movement’s regimentation and militarisation of youths. At the beginning of the war, the ‘Pirates’ were known for collecting and distributing British anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets explicating the importance and necessity of resistance and were thus only considered ‘small-scale irritant’ by the Nazi authorities. However, this changed as the war progressed with changes from acts of passive resistance to active resistance due to the Pirates’ desire to defeat Nazism by any means hence including using violence to do so. This escalation of violence is shown clearly in Biddiscombe’s (1995) journal article (p.40) – ‘The Enemy of Our Enemy’: A View of the Edelweiss Piraten from the British and American Archives in which it reads “there was an increasing scale of violence undertaken by the Edelweiss: in some western German cities, teenage Piraten had graduated from beating up HJ [Hitler-Youth] leaders to full-scale assassination attempts against Party and SS-police functionaries” . Much like the Edelweiss Pirates, another lesser known youth group who despised the Nazi ideology, specifically the Hitler Youth movement were the ‘Swingjugend’, directly translating as swing-kids. This group was united in its fascination and love of British and American culture specifically centring around swing music. They opposed the regime by wearing British clothing and listening to American swing music in underground clubs, both of which were banned in Hitler’s totalitarian state. The ‘White Rose’ anti-Nazi youth group, led famously by Hans and Sophie Scholl between June 1942 and February 1943. Members of the movement were students who attended Munich University all of whom shared the same anti-war sentiment and knew each other closely. They showed their disdain towards the Nazis by distributing 6 self-made leaflets focussed around their anti-war and anti-Nazi beliefs encouraging the German people, particularly German Youths, to resist the doctrine and fight against the regime. This is shown clearly in the quotes ‘Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure!’ and ‘For us there is but one slogan: fight against the party!’  taken from the first and sixth White Rose Movement leaflet respectively. ‘The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals’  shows the party not only calls for the people to resist but also criticizes the lack of concern shown by the German population regarding the treatment of Jews, youths and other minorities in the Reich.
The Wehrmacht is the collective of Nazi armed forces (army, navy and air force). Despite the members fighting for Hitler and the Nazis, some still opposed the Nazi ideology and carried out acts of resistance against the state and Hitler himself. During Hitler’s leadership, there were several unsuccessful military-led coups and assassination attempts. One resistor prominent throughout the war was military General Ludwig Beck. In 1938, as Chief of General Staff, Beck initially opposed Hitler’s decision to militarily annex the Sudetenland and to invade Czechoslovakia. General Beck’s opposition was generally against the timing of the actions rather than the fundamentals behind them as he believed Hitler to be prematurely escalating military involvement. Beck attempted to convince senior officers of the Wehrmacht to resign on mass as he believed ‘a “house cleaning” of the Nazi German government was necessary’ . This he hoped, would result in a delay to what he considered an ‘unwinnable war’. The attempted overthrow organised by Beck failed, despite many officers sympathising with the Chief of General Staff’s views, due to the failure of mass resignation to materialise. Nonetheless, Beck had established himself as someone who opposed the Führer, and was subsequently forced to resign from his position.
This public opposition led to the ex-General to be contacted by a small group of senior officials conspiring against Hitler. It was reported “[some] officers began to accept that victory for the Nazis would be worse than defeat”  and that the ‘first step in any successful putsch was the elimination of Hitler’ . Henning von Tresckow, an officer in the German Army, stated “The assassination must be attempted, at any cost. Even should that fail, the attempt to seize power in the capital must be undertaken.” . Hence in 1944, after 2 abortive assassination attempts on Hitler’s life in the year prior, Beck amongst other military officials including Tresckow, holding senior ranks in the Wehrmacht planned a bomb attack with the intention of removing Hitler from power. ‘Project Valkyrie’ as it was known was a plot which after the assassination of Hitler would follow a military coup alongside plans to overrun key locations in Berlin with the overall intention of making peace terms with the Allies and thus ending the war. On 20th July 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a young proactive member of the resistance group and war veteran decorated with the Iron Cross “allotted the task of assassination to himself”  and planted a bomb concealed within a briefcase under the Hitler’s table at a conference in Rastenburg, East Prussia. After the explosion, the Lieutenant Colonel thinking Hitler to be dead flew to Berlin to instigate ‘Operation Valkyrie’ alongside Ludwig Beck, Erwin von Witzleben and Friedrich Fromm. The coup failed as the group waited for official confirmation of Hitler’s death. Contrarily, confirmation of Hitler’s survival was announced on public radio and the plotters were apprehended and subsequently executed on charges of high treason.
Whether resistance was active or passive, all was carried out to combat a fascist ideology which oppressed and was responsible for the murder of millions. Whether producing and distributing anti-Nazi literature, attempting to assassinate the Führer or anything in between, all acts showed there was physical opposition to the state and all was on some level responsible for the eventual demise of it due to the continued internal battle being waged. Despite having only discussed a small minority of groups in this essay, resistance and opposition was performed by people of all ages, nationalities, creeds and occupations in many different forms. Often acts of resistance went unreported to the public as the acts were considered ‘too small’ or inconsequential to report, or were deemed to show a weakness of the state. Therefore, the true extent of resistance against Nazi Germany is unknown. The consequences of these actions against the state were often dire and thus the decision to oppose was honourable, principled and courageous beyond comprehension.
 – Brysac, S. B. (2000). ‘At Last, Recognition and Praise for the Resistance in Nazi Germany’. [online] Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/07/arts/at-last-recognition-and-praise-for-the-resistance-in-nazi-germany.html [accessed 17/02/19].
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 – Biddiscombe, P. (1995). ‘The Enemy of Our Enemy’: A View of the Edelweiss Piraten from the British and American Archives. Journal of Contemporary History, Vol 30, No. (1), p.40.
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