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One perplexity of Nazi Germany is how weak the internal resistance to the Nazis was. There were a few individual heros, certainly, and there were some small underground groups that managed to smuggle out a few Jewish people, and then there was a handful of bungled aristocratic plots (like “Valkyrie”), but personally I’ve always felt there should have been more than that. I’ve always wanted to find a network of armed resisters, a maquis perhaps, in Germany. But of course there was little material to build a network with. Hitler had been erasing political opponents and organizations since 1933. Many thousands of opponents were killed or sent to the camps. And as long as World War 2 was mostly going his way, Hitler’s position was all the more difficult to challenge.
The war stopped going Hitler’s way at Stalingrad, where finally, in early 1943, the Russians started to push the Germans back. By July 1944 — the month of Valkyrie, the attempt to take Hitler out with a briefcase bomb — the Russians had reached Poland, the Allies were spreading out from Normandy, and Italy had already surrendered. Many Germans realized that they were bound to lose the war.
I had hoped that Disobeying Hitler: German resistance after Operation Valkyrie, by University of Toronto poli-sci prof Randall Hansen, would reveal a respectable late-war resistance in Germany. I’m not sure it did.
Hansen’s book focuses on the period from September 1944 to May 1945 as the Allies advanced into Germany and the Nazi regime and its mighty Wehrmacht were collapsing. With increasing stridency, orders rained down from the Nazi leadership to defend the vaterland to the last drop of blood. Make each town a fortress, said Hitler, make each house a bunker. The peak, if you could call it that, was the so-called “Nero Order” of March 19, 1945, where Hitler called for the destruction of all industry, communications, and valuables in the country rather than let them fall into enemy hands. So the master race was going to exit this world in a flaming, spiteful Gotterdammerung.
Orders sent, however, were not necessarily orders obeyed. Randall Hansen estimates that half of Germany’s cities surrendered without a fight. In most cases the choice of defending or surrendering a city (hence of destroying or preserving it) was a local one, with civilians often playing a decisive part as they tried to prevent their own troops from dynamiting infrastructure such as bridges and municipal utilities and from setting up defences that would bring down a hail of artillery fire upon the city. Sometimes citizens were able to persuade military commanders to leave the vicinity after a token defence effort, so that with minimal death and destruction the city could be handed over to the Allies. In fact, as the Nazi chain of command broke down, some military commanders had leeway to misinterpret scorched-earth orders or to claim they had not received orders at all.
In other instances, sometimes with the local constabulary on their side, civilians tried to work a coup against local Nazi bosses, some of whom had been quite willing, even zealous, to see their communities razed to the ground.