A FEW years ago a picture went viral on the internet of a 1936 Nazi rally in Hamburg.
The picture went viral because one man stands with his arms folded amongst the massed ranks of Germans giving the Hitler salute, refusing to join in the mass obeisance to Nazi power.
The picture is emotionally powerful. It is a reminder that not everyone is a conformist and that there can be simple, dignified resistance even under the most vicious of dictatorships. Part of the picture’s power is that it asks the viewer whether they would have the courage to maintain their individual humanity under such a system? Most of us, if we were honest, would probably have to admit that we would not be so brave, that we would go with the tide.
A little digging into the story behind the Hamburg photograph, however, shows that bravery and non-conformism can be the products of circumstance and of things that we can imagine, as well as of innate courage that we may know we lack.
The man in the photograph, August Landmesser, had been a member of the Nazi party until 1935. His route to non-conformism was because he fell foul of the Nazi authorities when he married a Jewish woman. Landmesser’s courage is not diminished by this discovery, but it becomes something that we can more easily understand. It is something that might also move us: love for the most important people in our lives.
More Germans were forced to discover their ordinary human courage as the war ended and they found themselves caught between the advancing allied armies and Hitler’s fanaticism.
Hitler’s response to his imminent defeat was as irrational as anything else that he’d done. In his warped mind defeat showed that the German people had betrayed him and proved themselves unworthy of surviving the racial war to which he had committed them. Germany should therefore be destroyed, not just to deny the enemy use of its resources but also to avenge his personal sense of having been betrayed by his own people. Vengeance and destruction were also supposed to be wreaked on foreign cities that the Nazis were forced to abandon by the advancing allies.
Randall Hansen’s Disobeying Hitler looks at who chose to disobey Hitler’s orders to destroy everything around them and to fight to the last man and the last bullet in the rubble. It was dangerous to actively seek to preserve life and property by surrendering. Faced with the destruction of their power many Nazis still enforced Hitler’s instructions to execute anyone who was a ‘traitor’ or a ‘defeatist’. As usual Nazis following Hitler’s orders were often hypocrites of the highest order. They would execute civilians and soldiers who looked to end a futile battle and then immediately flee.
Hansen’s focus is very much on the Western Front opened by the D-Day landings of June 1944. The D-Day landings galvanised the main plot against Hitler in the army to take action. The attempt to kill Hitler by Klaus von Stauffenberg with a bomb on June 20 , 1944 was an effort by traditional conservative German officers to take control of the war so as to bring it to a close at least in the West.
The story of the June 20 plot and its failure is well known but Hansen retells it very well. The failure of the June plot probably helped to prolong the war in the West since it deprived the German army of some of the officers who were most willing to surrender. One of these was Rommel, who might have been amenable to surrendering parts of the Western front. Rommel fell under suspicion after the plot and was forced to commit suicide.
Without any support from their top leadership German officers’ willingness to disobey Hitler and surrender was uneven. Some surrendered when they were clearly cut off and in a hopeless military position, but others fought on. Occasionally calculation of how resistance to the allies would play out after the war came into play. This was probably the case in Paris. Hitler ordered its destruction, but the German commander signalled his unwillingness to follow orders and managed to surrender after a token display of resistance. It was certainly the case with Albert Speer, a Hitler favourite, who used his position as head of the arms industry to countermand Hitler’s scorched earth orders.
Making a token display of resisting the allies was essential to many would-be defectors. Hitler had decreed that punishment for surrender would be meted out to the families of surrendering commanders as well as to the guilty party. This probably deterred some officers from surrendering, but it is more likely that many units fought on because they were indoctrinated in Nazism.
This began to change as the war moved into Germany itself.
The reason for this is that German civilians began to agitate for surrender. It is at this point that Hansen’s book really takes off and becomes more than just a military history. Resisters came from all walks of life and from across the political spectrum.
The richness and diversity of German society that the Nazis had tried to replace with ideological homogeneity reasserted itself. Like the picture of August Landmesser the stories of ordinary Germans trying to seize back control of their fate as their towns and families are threatened, are affecting and powerful because of their ordinary courage.
Hansen uncovers a series of local coups against the Nazi party and the SS. Soldiers with a conscience led some of these revolts, but most were organised by ordinary citizens, some of whom had formed hidden resistance groups that were waiting for the approach of the allies to reveal themselves and take action. Others were more spontaneous appeals for the army to see sense.
The success of these efforts to dislodge the Nazis often came at great personal cost.
Many of revolt leaders were captured by loyal Nazi forces and executed. Some attempts at organising surrender failed altogether, particularly where the SS was responsible for the military effort.
Overall, however, Hansen judges opposition to the Nazis a success. Over half of German towns surrendered peacefully, helping to end the war sooner than would have been the case and at less human cost. Hansen’s book is a fine tribute to the courage that many ordinary Germans displayed in the last days of the war.