The Good Germans

On this day in 1943, the main members of the nonviolent White Rose resistance movement were arrested and later executed by the Nazi government. In recognition of these and other tragically unacknowledged “Good Germans”, Foreign Affairs re-posted a 2014 review by Peter Hoffmann of the book, No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State, by Elizabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern.

The book focuses on two even more obscure yet prominent German resistance figures, a Lutheran theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his brother-in-law, jurist and judge Hans von Dohnanyi. In addition to telling the harrowing stories of these brave men, the book provides an in-depth look into Germany’s little-known anti-Nazi underground., which was overwhelmingly motivated, at least in large part, by moral objection to the mass murder of Jews (other, usually secondary, reasons included the suppression of civil liberties, the callous disregard for German soldiers serving on the Eastern Front, and the barbaric treatment of Soviet POWs).

As one could imagine, the experiences of these two unsung heroes was rife with tumult, courage, and ultimately tragedy — following two years of imprisonment for their active resistance, which including torturous conditions and interrogations, the two men were executed just weeks before the war’s end.

Hoffmann’s review expands on No Ordinary Men’s insights into why Germans never resisted in great numbers, and why the few disparate men and women who did, found little success or support for all their efforts.

Most Germans worried primarily about their own survival and thus, as information began to leak out about the deportation of Jews and other Nazi abuses, they kept any concerns they might have had to themselves. After all, mentioning such matters could carry the death penalty, as could listening to foreign radio stations and spreading rumors. The threat of harsh punishment largely worked: the Nazis effectively sealed off most Germans from outside information, and anyone who did learn the truth and was troubled by it risked a great deal by acting on such thoughts. The brave few who did join in resistance were painfully aware of their lack of internal or external support, but it came as no surprise to most of them.


After months of interrogating and torturing [..] conspirators, the Gestapo concluded that:

the entire inner alienation from the ideas of National Socialism that characterized the men of the reactionary conspiratorial circle expresses itself above all in their position on the Jewish Question. . . . They stubbornly take the liberal position of granting to the Jews in principle the same status as to every German.

Why did the attempts on Hitler’s life between 1938 and 1944 consistently fail? A central reason was that the Nazis were unsparing in suppressing dissent inside Germany. Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis, using state-sanctioned procedures, executed some 77,000 Germans for political offenses and murdered innumerable domestic opponents in concentration camps without any semblance of due process. German courts-martial executed some 25,000 German soldiers. (By comparison, Allied courts-martial relating to World War II resulted in fewer than 300 death sentences.) Gestapo informers regularly thwarted attempts at forming coalitions. The radio was exclusively in government control; that left duplicating and spreading leaflets by hand, an inefficient method quickly detected and easily halted by the police.

And given how difficult it was just to distribute anti-Nazi leaflets, devising a plan to assassinate Hitler was far from simple. Several plots came close to succeeding, however, and most were frustrated by bad luck, technical malfunctions, or unpredictable changes in Hitler’s schedule.

But even in light of these stifling conditions, many resistors and historians alike lay the blame for the Nazis firm hold on power to the German masses, the majority of whom continued to tacitly support the regime until the very end.

In the weeks leading up to his execution, Dohnanyi offered [an] explanation for the resisters’ lack of success: “The obtuseness and cowardice of people of property and influence, and the stupidity of most officers, frustrated all efforts”. This kind of thinking, of course, was a common refrain of German resisters bemoaning the weakness of their own movement. “Since the conquest of Poland, three hundred thousand Jews in this land have been murdered in the most bestial manner”, read one 1942 leaflet distributed by the White Rose, a student resistance group at the University of Munich. “The German people are again sleeping on in obtuse, stupid sleep, giving these fascist criminals the temerity and opportunity to continue to rage — and they are doing it. . . . Everyone is guilty, guilty, guilty!” (The group’s leaders, Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie Scholl, were beheaded the following year.)

I for one am uncertain as to what degree the German people — and for that matter, many the citizens of other Axis powers and their occupied territories — are complicit in the atrocities carried out by their governments. As noted before, the government had an airtight grip on all means of communication, to say nothing of its readiness to brutally suppress anyone who did not get in line (including even conscientious objection to serving in the Nazi war machine).

I suppose culpability depends on whether one believes that tyranny should be resisted regardless of the consequences; but as humanity has seen time and again, risking one’s own life — and the lives of their loved ones — is much easier in theory than in practice. While mass action culminating in revolution might have proved too much for the Nazis to suppress, it would have been hard for any individual German to know whether their courage would amount to much in the aggregate; how do you trust that your loved ones and neighbors will join?

The sociological and psychological factors involved in moral resistance against totalitarianism warrants a whole other discussion; suffice it to say, this is a complex and sadly still very relevant issue that I must devote more time, too.

Unfortunately, for all their heroism, those who stood alone against Nazi barbarity not only remain largely forgotten, but regarded with a certain degree of discomfort.

Sifton and Stern conclude their book with a look at how even after the Nazis’ defeat, the Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi families faced public and official calumny for being relatives of traitors. In Germany today, of course, the two resistors are officially honored. But if the stories of the men and women who did oppose Nazi rule are still not widely known, it is in part because they shame those who did not resist, whether owing to a pre­occupation with survival, lack of opportunity, weakness of character, or active support for the Nazi regime. Sifton and Stern, then, have done an important service, exploring the lives of two men who took the path that, in Dohnanyi’s mind, “a decent person inevitably takes”.

What are your thoughts?

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