Friday, 22 March 2013

Resistance to Nazism: A failure to act

What were the greatest sources of potential resistance to the Nazi government, and why did they fail?

 It must be asked how between the years 1933 and 1939, such little success was made against the Nazi party through political resistance. How could an entire nation, with a population of approximately 66 million fail to overthrow what was ultimately an oligarchy that made up only a small fraction of the people? (Feldgrau, 2012).
 Prior to the war years and the attempt on Hitler’s life in 1944, the three largest sources of potential resistance to the Nazi regime were: the various underground left-wing movements, the remaining conservatives and aristocrats, and both the Catholic and Protestant churches. Despite their potential, and mass base of support, each of these groups failed for their own different reasons.
 The Left’s failure was due to lack of unity or leadership, the Right failed because of a refusal to speak out strongly enough, along with their mistaken belief that they could "tame" Hitler (Kershaw, 1998, pp.510), whereas the churches failed because they were too focused on their own survival and not necessarily resisting Nazi rule.

  The early years of the Nazi Party’s ascent to power saw it allying itself with conservatives such as von Papen and Hindenburg, the latter being a monarchist at heart, yearning for a return to the years prior to the establishment of the Weimar Republic. The NSDAP, having always been an enemy of the left wing parties, had to moderate itself to begin with. An example of this can be seen in the twenty-five point program of the German Worker’s Party (later renamed the NSDAP). Paragraph 17 clearly called for the “confiscation without compensation of land for communal purposes”  (Ludecke, 1937). This radical proposal would clearly have alienated the landowning class of Germany, thus costing the Nazi party their support. It was for this reason then, that Hitler re-interpreted this proposal to refer only to Jewish land, believing (as Goering recalled) that it had been written by “simple” folk (Goering, 1947).
 The blindness of the conservative Right in Germany, to the very real and increasingly obvious threat Nazism displayed, arose from a shared determination with Hitler to eliminative democracy and the threat of socialism. It was this blindness that, as Kershaw phrases it; "delivered the power of a nation-state containing all the pent-up aggression of a wounded giant into the hands of the dangerous leader of a political gangster-mob." (1998, pp.424).
As they soon found out, once Hitler had fully secured his place as the Fuhrer, he no longer needed to moderate himself for the approval of the aristocracy or the conservatives.  His true feelings towards the upper classes of Germany were finally expressed:
“Had Communism really intended nothing more than a certain purification by eliminating isolated rotten elements from among the ranks of our so-called 'upper ten thousand' or our equally worthless Philistines, one could have sat back quietly and looked on for a while." (Domarus, 1988, pp.892).
Some conservatives realised their mistake sooner than others. Franz von Papen, who had been largely responsible for his ascent, attempted to dilute the power Hitler had in matters of state. His strategy was to fill his office with as many Christians (mainly Catholic but with exceptions) conservatives, and aristocrats as possible. These included names such as Herbert von Bose, and the lawyer Edgar Jung. Jung himself contemplated an assassination attempt against Hitler, but valued his own future career in politics, believing that it would be put in jeopardy if he were to make such a proposal. Instead, he settled for Papen’s more moderate approach, which was to give a speech criticizing the excesses of Hitler and his SA, thereby rallying the army and the remaining old right wing forces together and to put them in their place.

 Papen delivered his speech (co-written by Jung) at the University of Marburg, which already had a large conservative population. (Burleigh, 2001, pp.677). Unfortunately, as was often the case with Papen, the contents of the speech were tame. Papen was careful to point out examples of great Nazi achievements, focusing primarily instead on the restrictions on freedom of speech that they had already enacted so far and advocating "discussion with the people with trust on both sides." as opposed to "threats against helpless segments of the people":
"If one wishes a close proximity to and a close connection with the people, one must not underestimate the good sense of the people; one must return their confidence and not constantly want to tell them what to do." (TotMWC, 1949).
 Perhaps the only point that resonated was Papen’s warning that a second Nazi revolution (as advocated within some of the fringe elements of the Nazi party such as the SA), would necessarily be succeeded by another: "talk of a second wave that will complete the revolution seems not to want to end... One who threatens with the guillotine is the one who is most likely to come under the executioner’s axe." (TotMWC, 1949).
 And despite his call for "discussion with the people with trust on both sides." this privilege was reserved only for "those who (had) put themselves at the service of National Socialism and its efforts without reservation and (had) proven their loyalty." This speech must not be mistaken for a great liberal polemic in defence of free speech, along the lines of John Stuart Mill or Thomas Paine, rather these declarations must be recognised as the conservative and highly authoritarian concerns they admittedly were: "If the liberal revolution of 1789 was the revolution of rationalism against religion, against attachment, so the counter-revolution taking place in the twentieth century can only be conservative..." (TotMWC, 1949).
  Although the speech was met with thunderous applaus (so much so that Goebbels sought to have it banned), Hitler had already considered Papen's warnings, and was fearful of them himself. It was precisely this fear of another revolution that drove him to carry out what would historically be known as the Night of the Long Knives. Ernst Rohm was in Hitler’s eyes, becoming a threat of his own, challenging not only his supremacy, but the place of the Wehrmacht too.
Hitler had to either make a bargain with the unruly and unpopular SA, or make an appeal to the army by crushing the former. Hitler chose the army, and on the 30th of June, the Night of Long Knives took place. Multiple arrests and several executions (including that of Rohm) took place. Hitler had successfully sated the Wehrmacht’s thirst for blood, thereby stripping Papen of the only ammunition he had in his speech.  In a last ditch effort; Papen managed to secure a meeting with President von Hindenburg on the same day. Hitler caught wind of this however, which only convinced him that he would be forced to target conservative opponents in the near future (Kershaw, 1998, pp.511).
Although Papen was spared, Hitler used the purge of the SA as an opportunity to kill his own predecessor General von Schleicher (who had been highly critical of Hitler in the past), as well as the head of the Catholic Action Party Eric Klausener. Undoubtably more alarming for Papen would be the discovery of Dr Jung, dead in a ditch on the 1st July.  It can be argued then, that the half-hearted nature of Papen’s protests against the Nazis had led to the worst backfire imaginable for him. His actions (or lack thereof) had given Hitler ample motive to strike directly against conservative opponents, yet had failed to rally the military behind his own cause. Instead, by killing General von Schleicher, Hitler had struck just the amount of fear he needed into the ranks of the military, as well as gaining the cooperation and respect of Reichenau and Defence Minister Blomberg, the latter of whom praised the Fuhrer for his "soldierly determination and exemplary courage" in his actions against the "traitors and mutineers." (Kershaw, 1998, pp.517).

 On the opposite side of the spectrum were Hitler’s other longstanding political rivals. Hitler had from the beginning been an opponent of the Left, in both its Marxist and Social Democratic forms. Despite his shared hatred of the aristocracy and capitalism, Hitler believed the communists would turn "flourishing countrysides into sinister wastes of ruins.” (Domarus, 1988, pp.839).
The Nazis had reason to fear the Left, as in the November 1932 election, the combined left wing parties received 13.1 million votes, against the NSDAP’s smaller 11.7 million. The Left, despite failing to overthrow the Nazi regime in the end, managed to resist them for a long period of time. The Social Democrats in particular were already prepared after having faced similar repression under Bismarck’s anti-socialist law of 1878-1890. Over several decades, the Social Democrats had created an impressive network of communication, distributing pamphlets and making secret radio broadcasts (Evans, 2006, pp.57).
Leon Trotsky in 1931 however, had warned that unless the Social Democrats and Communists united against Hitler, they would be trampled on:
“Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank. Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory. Make haste, worker-Communists, you have very little time left!” (Trotsky, 1931).
 The Social Democrats had, on one hand viewed Bruning as “the lesser of two evils”, while the communists on the other had viewed Hitler as the lesser (Trotsky, 1931). The communists in particular, had underestimated Hitler as a threat, insisting upon the Leninist line that Fascism was simply “capitalism in decay”. Ultimately they failed to grasp the potency of the Nazi party. This was because they clung dogmatically to an economistic view of history, and attempted to analyse the Nazis through a Marxist lens, believing that they were a party of the bourgeoisie. They deluded themselves into thinking that Fascism was only a temporary stage as capitalism entered its death throes, and that if they concentrated on maintaining the structure of their own party and made their presence known to the world, all would be well when the time came. All they did was leave their numbers open to attack (Burleigh, 2001, pp.667).
This division cut so deeply between the two factions that the communists on many occasions mockingly referred to the SPD as “social fascists”. The KPD focused their main assaults against the Social Democrats, viewing the fascists as a lesser threat that they could occasionally side with, an example being the 1931 referendum.
  As Borkenau observed, this was no longer "the belief that there was no difference between Fascism and democracy and that the Social-Democrats were just as bad as the Nazis… participation in the Nazi referendum implied more. It implied the view that to overthrow the last defence of German democracy, the Prussian government, in co-operation with the Nazis, meant progress, that a Nazi régime was preferable to a democratic régime." (Borkenau, 1983, pp.342-343).

The Social Democrats were resented by the KPD, not only for ideological reasons, but also for the events in 1919.  In response to the attempted coup by the Spartacists, the Social Democrats requested that the right wing Freikorps crush them. The Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were both executed. Ever since then, the Communists had harboured a deep-seated hatred towards the SPD. Their attitude to the relationship between the Fascists and the Social Democrats can be summed up by a statement made in the communist newspaper Arbeiterzeitung, in response to the Nazi party’s decision to remove a statue of Frederich Ebert in Frankfurt:
“Without Ebert… it would have been impossible for the SA and SS to be running around today. We Communists have a suggestion to make to the Nazis: put the statue of Ebert back in its former place and put the highest Nazi medal around his neck for his undying services to the reaction.” (Burleigh, 2001, pp.666).
Many of the more left-leaning members of the SPD shared the Marxist view of history with the KPD, themselves also overlooking the permanence of the Nazi threat. However, the greatest cause for inactivity within the SPD was their undying hope that their exiled leadership in Prague would return to them. In the meantime, they concentrated on maintaining communications both internally and externally. However, as more of their reports came to the exiled leadership, the more the latter began to realise how little chance they had in staging a revolt (Evans, 2006, pp.57).
 As soon as Hitler became the chancellor on Jan 30 1933, and Goering was appointed to the position of Prussian Minister of the Interior, the latter's first goal was to purge the state's police force and replace them with Nazi loyalists, including members of the SA and SS. Goering had the KPD election meetings in Prussia banned, and had Nazi thugs deployed to break up the meetings of various other opposition parties (Irving, 2010, pp.114). As the Italian consul general Giuseppe Renzetti reported, Goering was "waging a merciless fight against the left'." (pp.115).
 Within a year, NSDAP had control of 86 newspapers with 3,200,000 readers. Laws were then enacted closing down 120 Left wing plants, and these were cheaply sold to the party. Max Amann (president of the Reich Media Chamber and Reich Press Leader) now controlled an empire of 700 newspapers (Irving, 2001, pp.15-16).
Many of the members of the SPD became disillusioned with the passivity of the SPD, and formed their own splinter groups such as the Red Shook Troops, and the International Socialist Fighting League (Evans, 2006, pp.58). By this point, all hope for a successful organised overthrow by the left was finished.

The final source of potential opposition came from the religious institutions in Germany. Hitler had always had nuanced views towards the churches. According to Albert Speer, Hitler would adopt different tones regarding religion, depending on whom he was addressing. When amid his political associates in Berlin, he would criticize the church harshly, whereas in the presence of women he would adopt a more approving and conservative attitude. Hitler wished to unite the Catholic and Protestant churches, although the appointed Reich’s Bishop Muller was not up to the task in Hitler’s eyes (Speer, 1995, pp.148-149).  Hitler had no intention of replacing the Church “with something equivalent”, to him “that would be terrifying.” (Trevor-Roper, 1973, pp.6-7).  Instead, Hitler believed the Churches would learn to adapt to the goals of National Socialism, as it always had done throughout History (Speer, 1995, pp.149). Hitler’s predictions were correct, especially in regards to the protestant church. Since the church had described the First World War as a “holy crusade”, Nationalism and Protestantism had long been considered two sides of the same coin (Evans, 2006, pp. 220). The behaviour of the Protestant churches is also not surprising, given the long history of figures such as Martin Luther, making inflammatory statements about the wrath Jews would soon face for turning their backs to Christianity and Jesus Christ:
“And if there were a spark of common sense and understanding in them, they would truly have to think this: O my God, it does not stand and go well with us; our misery is too great, too long, too hard; God has forgotten us, etc. I am no Jew, but I do not like to think in earnest about such brutal wrath of God against this people, for I am terrified at the thought that cuts through my body and soul: what is going to happen with the eternal wrath in hell against all false Christians and unbelievers?”
(Hilberg, 2003, pp.3).
The Catholic Church also had its own history of anti-Semitism. There are striking similarities between the Canonical Laws and the various anti-Jewish decrees made by the Nazis, one of many examples being the marking of Jewish houses required in 17th century Frankfurt and the April 1942 mandatory marking of Jewish apartments (Hilberg, 2003, pp.10,12). Given this dark history, it should be no surprise that Cardinal Faulhauber, despite protesting against the persecution of non-Aryan Catholics, had nothing to say regarding the treatment of non-Catholic Jews (Evans, 2006, pp.235).

By 1941, the Nazis had murdered 11 percent of the Catholic clergy and most of the churches and chapels in the diocese of Posen-Gnesen had been shut down. In truth, despite there being a few outspoken martyrs such as Dietrich Bonheoffer, the Catholic Church largely concentrated on preserving their own way of life. Since the concordat in 1933, the Catholic Church had agreed to remain politically neutral and abandon the Catholic Centre party.

In a certain sense, the Catholic Church found itself outmanoeuvred by Hitler in very much the same way von Papen and the conservatives had. The ambiguity of the Party’s stance towards established religion made it difficult to decide upon their own relationship with it. The Protestants however, were charmed all of the more easily. For instance, although he was raised a Catholic, Hitler assured them that he “thought like a protestant” thereby ridding the Protestant clergy of fears of a third Catholic chancellor (Conway, 1968, pp.20). In all cases however, the aim for both German Catholic and Protestant churches was to survive, and not to rebel against the Nazis.
This lack of activity against the Nazi regime cannot by tied to the inability to act. Rather, it was due mainly to an unwillingness to act. In 1934, the Nazi puppet church known as the “German Christians”, called for the eradication of the Old Testament from their doctrines, and advocated the compulsory retirement of non-Aryan ministers. This was met with a quick response from Martin Neimoller and a large portion of the Protestant ministers, who formed the “Emergency League” (Burleigh, 2001, pp.720-721). This shows that the Protestant Church had the ability to act radically when they saw it was necessary.
The same criticism can also be made against the Catholic Church. Despite the concordat with the Vatican, (trading peace with the Catholic Church in exchange for political neutrality), by 1937 hostile behaviour by the Nazis towards the Church had escalated. Catholic spokesmen complained about the countless informants, spying on their activities. The Hitler Youth Groups were harassing Catholic Youth groups, and nativity plays had now been banned by Goebbels’ Theatre Chamber on the grounds of it being a form of political propaganda, and thus a breach of Catholic neutrality (Evans, 2005, pp.241-242).

The response to this was quick. In January of that year, a large group of senior bishops and cardinals travelled to the Vatican in order to denounce the increasing anti-Catholic attacks. Pope Pius XI himself, expressed his disapproval of Hitler’s actions, complaining of Hitler’s “deification” of Nazi dogma in the manner of a “cult”, declaring the treatment of the Catholic church “as illegal as it (was) inhumane” (Conway, 1968, pp.164-166).
Clearly then, when it came to their own flock the Catholic church was more than capable of standing up and defending itself, and therefore their failure to combat Nazi repression didn’t not come out of any lack of ability.
It must be acknowledged however, that the Catholic Church had initially taken a firm stance against the euthanasia proposals by the Nazis, including the draft sterilisation law. However, their protests were deliberately cut short so as not to go against the terms of the concordat. In addition to the assorted outspoken Catholics putting their lives and careers in jeopardy by objecting to the Nazi ideas of euthanasia, were those who advocated it. Though it may have contradicted the Catholic ideal of the “sanctity of life”, the theologian Mayer placed the health of the community above that of the individual, and former Jesuit Muckermann taught eugenic studies at his university and eventually came to advocate euthanasia as a means to an end. Therefore, even this one claim to resistance the Catholic Church can rightfully lay claim to is also tainted by the actions of certain individuals (Burleigh, 2001, pp.363). As Hockenos aptly put it:
 “It is imperative to understand the church’s opposition to the state for what it really was: occasional critiques by a small group of churchmen against particular state policies. Such as the Nazi euthanasia program and most importantly Nazi church policy.”
(Hockenos, 2004, pp.16).
Ultimately then, as Victoria Barnett argued, at the heart of these failures was the fact that the Churches sought to act in their own, short-sighted interests. The Churches had no desire for self-sacrifice or heroism, and focused mainly on "pragmatic" and "strategic" measures that would supposedly protect these institutions' autonomy in the Third Reich. Public institutional circumspection carried to the point of near numbness; an acute lack of insight: these are the aspects of the Churches' behaviour during the Nazi era that are so damning in retrospect (Barnett, 1998).

In conclusion, despite the obviously uniform state repression against each, there is no single unified reason why these assorted groups failed to resist the Nazi regime. The conservatives such as Papen were too half-hearted in their protests against the Nazi’s, and were unable to inspire dissent and provide a robust critique of their policies. The Left, despite being large in size, refused to unite against the Nazi threat, and ultimately underestimated the danger it presented, carrying on with its own infighting and factionalism. Despite these differences, there is one similarity between the failure of both the Left and that of the religious institutions. Neither had strong leading opposition within the country itself, relying instead on the guidance of leaders from abroad, such as the exiled SPD members and the Vatican. Furthermore, both groups were content to weather the storm and concentrate on their own survival, rather than unite with other groups against persecution on a national scale.


Barnett. V, (1998), The Role of the Churches: Compliance and Confrontation. Dimensions. 12 (2)

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