Germans against Hitler. Who resisted the Third Reich and

why did they do it?

by Dr Martyn Housden. University of Bradford

new perspective. Volume 3. Number 3. March 1998


Summary: Accepting a narrow definition of resistance as 'active participation in an organised attempt to undermine the Third Reich' three types of resisters are identified: those who became disillusioned with the Third Reich, those who acted out of necessity and those who resisted because of political, religious or moral principles.

Different Definitions of Resistance

'RESISTANCE' HAS BEEN DEFINED in different ways. Hans-Adolf Jacobsen says:

... [it] must comprise all that was done despite the terror of the Third Reich, despite the suffering and martyrdom, for the sake of humanity, for the aid of the persecuted. And the word resistance in some cases applies, too, to certain forms of standing aside in silence.1

This is a very wide definition indeed. It implies that a German resisted Hitler if, for example, (s)he continued to buy from a Jewish shop despite a boycott organised by the Nazi Party or if (s)he gave pieces of bread to one of the millions of starving forced workers brought to Germany from eastern Europe during the Second World War. It could even include failure to join a Nazi organisation.

Obviously a variety of courses of action were open to a German who was opposed to the Third Reich and who wanted to do something about it: but how many of them really amounted to 'resistance'? Ian Kershaw has warned against applying the concept too broadly. Trying to be more precise than Jacobsen, he has distinguished 'dissent' (the spontaneous voicing of anti-Nazi opinions) and 'opposition' (actions only directed against limited characteristics of the Hitler state) from 'resistance'. The latter he defines as the 'active participation in organized attempts to work against the regime with the conscious aim of undermining it or planning for the moment of its demise'.2 According to this view, resistance was about action not words, organisation and planning not spontaneity, the rejection of everything Hitler stood for not just part of it. Resistance was nothing less than a meaningful contribution to the destruction of the Third Reich.

Kershaw's criteria are very exacting indeed. After all, how many ordinary Germans could ever have hoped to destroy a whole modern state system? But still his definition helps remind us that while no small number of Germans at some time or other made signs of defiance towards the Third Reich as they went about their daily round, others were filled with such a passionate desire to oppose Hitler that resistance became the whole purpose of their lives. This essay will deal with some of Germany's more passionate resisters. Who were they, and how did their stories compare?

Resistance Through Disillusionment

The decision for a German to become a true resister often was neither easy nor straightforward. This is shown clearly in the cases of a number of teenagers. From 1934 on, reports compiled by the police in the Ruhr and Rhineland described the existence of groups of largely working-class youths who dressed distinctively (often in cheescloth shirts and leather shorts), who went on outings together and who were 'at daggers drawn' with the Hitler Youth (Hitler Jugend). These groups were called Kittelbach Pirates, Navajos and, most famously, Edelweiss Pirates. According to historian A. Kenkmann, most of the teenagers involved here originally had been happy to join the Hitler Jugend.3 They only became Pirates when the Hitler Jugend proved unable to meet their needs. Often there were very personal reasons for this. For instance, some teenagers had had arguments with Hitler Jugend leaders, others had been refused promotion within the organisation, others again belonged to families which could not afford the necessary Nazi uniforms.

The example of Hans Steinbrück is particularly interesting. He was a member of an Edelweiss Pirate group during the Second World War, and as a result was hanged in November 1944. Originally, however, he had been a leader in the Hitler Jugend and in due course tried to join the secret political police in Düsseldorf. Stupidly he started passing himself off as a secret policeman before his application had been approved and as a result he was not only rejected, but put in prison for a short while. Only after his release did Hans begin a career of resistance to the Third Reich. It culminated in him leading attacks by armed gangs on government buildings in war-torn Cologne. In other words, Hans only rejected the Hitler state after it had first rejected him.

Rather more famous resisters also started out in league with National Socialism. Claus von Stauffenberg was the army officer who planted the bomb which nearly blew up Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944. This member of the Schwabian nobility had enjoyed a very conservative upbringing. In an essay written at school, he identified only one profession as really honourable: fighting for your nation. Not surprisingly he joined the army and by 1930 had made up his mind that Hitler's political movement was the best hope for Germany. He participated in the campaign against Poland in 1939 and wrote home as follows: 'The population is an unbelievable rabble; there are a lotof Jews and a lot of cross-breeds.'4 When military men who were already trying to resist Hitler contacted von Stauffenberg in 1942, he refused to co-operate with them. For a very long time this man was widely in agreement with National Socialist values and loyal to the Third Reich.

Gradually, however, he was compelled to re-think. Von Stauffenberg was horrified by the war-time carnage he saw in Russia. He was outraged by the barbaric way German troops were ordered to treated Slavic civilians. At a conference in Vinnitsa in October 1942, he said it was scandalous that no senior military man would take a stand against the way Hitler was leading the war. His disillusionment deepened in January 1943 when the Sixth Army surrendered to the Russians at Stalingrad. From that time on, von Stauffenberg believed Germany was on the defensive. June 1944 saw first the D-Day landings in France and then a massive offensive by the Russians. To a professional military mind it was plain that to continue the war would only cause a phenomenal loss of life and the endangerment of the German nation itself.

Faced by the barbarity of Hitler's war and its impending failure, von Stauffenberg decided to act. As he put it: 'I could never look the wives and children of the fallen in the eye if I did not do something to stop this senseless slaughter.' Now working in association with a wider group of both military and civilian resisters, he attempted to assassinate the Führer during a briefing at the military headquarters in eastern Prussia. Later the same day, while trying to organise a coup in Berlin, he was shot by troops who had remained loyal to Hitler.  Steinbrück and von Stauffenberg had very different experiences in the Third Reich. What they shared was the frustration of the hopes and expectations which they had originally invested in it. For both of these individuals, resistance was born of disillusionment.

Resistance by Necessity

Once Hitler was Chancellor, various of types of people (for example gypsies and homosexuals) were persecuted with less and less mercy. This was particularly so for German Jews. In the first two or three years of the Third Reich they were banned from certain shops, thrown out of various jobs and had German citizenship withdrawn. In November 1938 concerted anti-Semitic violence swept the country in the form of the 'Crystal Night' pogroms. Thereafter German Jews were stripped of their financial assets. During the war, as German power stretched across Europe, genocide became the deliberate policy of the state. Under the circumstances, for a Jew to conform to the demands of the Third Reich meant at first abuse and imprisonment, later it meant death. So what were they to do?

These people had not expected to be singled out for such vitriolic persecution and they were not particularly well placed to deal with it. In fact, Germany's Jews comprised less than 1 per cent of the national population. None the less they managed to band together quickly to form a large number of self-help organisations. These raised 25 million Reich Marks to help sustain the poorer members of their community in 1935 alone. Increasingly, however, it became clear that the only way for German Jews to regain their freedom was to leave their homeland. Since 80 per cent of German-Jewish families had been established in Germany for centuries, this was a hard decision to take. It was also in conflict with the way government policy was developing. For example, the weight of taxation facing would-be Jewish emigrants was increasing dramatically. In 1934 these people could expect 60 per cent financial losses; by 1939 the figure was 96 per cent. Even so, 120,000 Jews emigrated between 1933 and 1937. A further 118,000 left in the wake of 'Crystal Night'. By October 1941 only 164,000 Jews were left in Germany. Of these, 50 per cent were  aged over 50 and only 13 per cent under 18. In other words, by the time the Holocaust had begun, the great majority of Germany's Jews, and the younger ones in particular, had left the country.

Emigration meant survival. In the context of a state which eventually aimed at annihilating all of Europe's Jews this was enough to constitute a type of resistance. But even the Jews who remained in Germany did not always await quietly the most tragic of fates. When the deportations from Germany began in Autumn 1941, 10-12,000 German Jews went into hiding. By 1943 5,000 were undercover in Berlin alone, and of these 1,402 survived. Of course, sometimes they had been helped by German Gentiles, and in 1971 Yad Vashem in Jerusalem honoured 69 of these kind souls.

As a result of emigration and hiding, by far the majority of Germany's Jews survived the Third Reich. But the alternatives facing them had always been especially stark: resist or else face degradation and murder. Their resistance was born of necessity.

Resistance by Principled Choice

Hans Steinbrück, Claus von Stauffenberg and surviving German Jews: all of these people chose, sooner or later, to resist the course of the Third Reich. Their choices in fact had a common denominator: they were reactions to specific developments in the world around them. That is to say, German Jews reacted to rabid persecution; Steinbrück reacted to his imprisonment; and von Stauffenberg reacted to barbarity and a threat to his country. And yet there were Germans who (unlike the Jews) could have conformed to the expectations of the Third Reich and still have survived, but who (unlike Steinbrück and von Stauffenberg) always chose to do otherwise.

Communists resisted Hitler by virtue of their political principles. In January 1933, the German Communist Party (KPD) had 300,000 members. With Hitler's seizure of power, they experienced a truly relentless persecution. In the wake of the Reichstag Fire Decree, which was based on a supposed Communist threat to the state, 10,000 KPD members were arrested. 14,000 more were arrested in 1935, 11,678 in 1936, over 8,000 in 1937 and 3,800 in 1938. By 1945 over half of Germany's Communists had been imprisoned or persecuted in some way. 25,000-30,000 of them had been murdered. To be a Communist in the Third Reich was clearly a high risk decision, and yet the hopes of many sympathisers remained alive. For example, the party set up anti-Nazi propaganda presses outside Germany. As a result 1.25 million pro-Communist leaflets were seized while being smuggled into Germany in 1934. During the next year 1.65 million were seized. Goodness knows how many more must have got through!

The group of young Communists led by Herbert Baum was, admittedly, a special case. Since all of its members were Jewish, they faced persecution regardless of their political beliefs, but still they managed to stage one of the most ambitious anti-Nazi stunts ever carried out on German soil. In 1942 Joseph Goebbels had opened an anti-Russian exhibition in Berlin entitled ironically 'The Soviet Paradise'. On 18 May, Baum and some friends fire-bombed the exhibition. Unfortunately it seems that one of the group was a police informer and soon they were arrested. Executions followed. Some churchmen resisted by virtue of their religious principles. Refusing to be subsumed under a pro-Nazi organisation called 'the German Christians', in Autumn 1933 some 6,000 Protestant clergymen led by Martin Niemöller set up 'the Confessing Church'. They committed themselves to preserving the purity of the scriptures as the only guide to true religious belief. Four years later Niemöller was arrested on Hitler's specific orders. As for the Catholic Church in Germany, the Vatican was over-hasty to accept the Concordat in July 1933. Some senior members of the Catholic clergy did prevent junior priests speaking out against Hitler's government. Even so, during the years of the Third Reich, between a third and a half of all priests were persecuted for placing Christian beliefs ahead of National Socialist political doctrine. In 1941, for example, Father Lichtenberg was arrested in Berlin for preaching about the need to extend compassion towards Germany's Jews. He died in prison two years later.

Individuals rejected the Third Reich because of independent moral principles. Helmuth von Moltke was a Silesian nobleman and qualified lawyer who worked for the international legal section of German military intelligence. He had never looked favourably on Hitler's movement and took every opportunity in government meetings to block measures with which he disagreed. Letters to his wife show how deeply he was affected when he learned of war-time atrocities committed by German soldiers against Serbian villagers and by the treatment he witnessed of Berlin's Jews. He decided to hold a series of secret political meetings on his family estate at Kreisau in 1942 and 1943. Present were like-minded people drawn from all social circles: from former-trades union officials to civil servants and military men. Some of them had contacts with von Stauffenberg. Together they discussed and planned for the way a broadly democratic German state should be constructed once Hitler was deposed. Unfortunately, von Moltke's activities were uncovered in early 1944. He was arrested and later executed.

Equally remarkable were the actions of the 'White Rose Group'. Led by Hans and Sophie Scholl, this collection of students at Munich University wrote five bitterly anti-Nazi leaflets during 1942 and 1943 which were distributed around the country. The pamphlets relied on moral arguments to persuade Germans to embark on passive resistance against the government and to sabotage the war effort. In one particularly memorable passage, the group pointed out that crimes without parallel were being carried out against Jews in Poland. They added that anyone who did not try to prevent them was guilty too.

On 18 February 1943, Hans (aged 24) and Sophie (aged 22) were caught tipping between 1,500 and 1,800 leaflets down the main staircase of Munich University. They were tried by a People's Court and executed. Munich's ordinary citizens were deeply shocked.

The Communists, churchmen and independent humanitarians discussed here were motivated by different beliefs. Yet each of these individuals had a core of principles so strong that it always dictated resistance to the Third Reich.


All of the figures populating this brief essay resisted Hitler. Each one had his or her own story about the decision to do so. Distinctions between those who took a stand after becoming disillusioned with the Third Reich, those who acted out of necessity and others who resisted because of political, religious or moral principles are highlighted. But whether we want to talk about von Stauffenberg's self-sacrifice, the courageous actions of the Scholls or the readiness of German Jews to start fresh lives in foreign lands, each and every one of them deserves the utmost understanding and respect. They are the bright lights in a dark period of German history.


1 H-A. Jacobsen, Germans against Hitler. July 20, 1944, Wiesbaden, 1969, p.162.

2 I. Kershaw, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich, Oxford, 1983, pp. 162-3.

3 A. Kenkmann, 'Navajos, Kittelsbach und Edelweisspiraten' in W. Breyvogel (ed.) Piraten, Swings und Junge Garde, Bonn, 1991, p. 140.

4 Quoted in H. Steffahn, Stauffenberg, Hamburg, 1994, p. 57.

5 M. Balfour and J. Frisby, Helmuth von Moltke. A Leader Against Hitler, London, 1972, pp. 171-3.

Words and concepts to note

vitriolic: very bitter, strong and damaging.

rabid: fanatical, violent, raging.

degradation: poverty, squalor or degeneration.

denominator: criteria for division.


Questions to consider

w How successful was the Third Reich in dealing with resistance?

w How important was organisation for resistance to be telling?

w Why is the looser resistance, as defined by Hans-Adolf Jacobsen difficult to quantify?

w Is it meaningful to make a moral distinction between the three types of resistance described in this article?


Further Reading: P. Hoffmann, Stauffenberg. A Family History, 1905-1944, Cambridge, 1995; M. Housden, Resistance and Conformity in the Third Reich, London, 1997; I. Kershaw, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich, Oxford, 1983; I.D. Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany, London, 1993. Germans against Hitler.

Who resisted the Third Reich and why did they do it? by Martyn Housden © new perspective 1998

Martyn Housden, Lecturer in the University of Bradford, is the author of Resistance and Conformity in the Third Reich, Routledge - Sources in History series, 1997.

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