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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 179 Contents

Socialist Review, October 1994

Martin Smith


The flickering flame


From Socialist Review, No. 179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


An Honourable Defeat: A History of the Resistance to Hitler
Anton Gill
Heinemann £20

One of the most commonly held beliefs about Nazi Germany is that the majority of German people supported the regime or at best ignored the atrocities committed by Hitler and his followers.

The strength of Anton Gill’s book is that he dispels this myth. He shows there was a wide range of opposition to the Nazis in the factories, universities, the army and even in a youth movement – Edelweiss Pirates – that grew up in opposition to the Hitler Youth Movement.

It is hard to measure the level of resistance that took place. You were not only executed for plotting to overthrow the Nazi regime, you could also receive the death penalty for writing ‘Down with Hitler’ in chalk on a wall. As if this was not enough, those sentenced to death had to pay the cost of their trial and execution.

The opposition developed under the most difficult circumstances. By 1933 the working class was smashed and all the political parties, with the exception of Hitler’s NSDAP, were banned. By the mid-1930s even individuals belonging to conservative organisations like the church and army found themselves at odds with the regime. Gill sees the opposition developing in two main ways. Firstly from below and secondly from within the regime.

Even though working class organisations were smashed, the flames of resistance still flickered. Auto union workers in Berlin struck during the Olympic Games in 1936 to bring to the attention of the world’s media and foreign athletes the true nature of the regime. Gill traces the growth of the underground cells who distributed anti-fascist propaganda and who were also involved in industrial sabotage.

Although the Nazis were able to block most traditional methods of protest, other forms quickly developed. During the early years of the Third Reich mass protest often took the form of enormous religious gatherings. Over 800,000 people made a pilgrimage to Aachen in 1937 to protest at the murder of a Catholic who spoke out against political oppression. The entire population of Bamberg (60,000) attended mass despite threats by the Nazi regime. However, with the exception of some brave individuals, the church turned a blind eye towards the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

Although Gill provides a fascinating insight into the resistance to Hitler from ordinary people, he spends much of the book looking at Stauffenberg’s failed attempt to blow up Hitler in the 1944 July Plot. Gill sees this as the only realistic method of removing Hitler. But in my view there are several problems with this. Firstly, to remain inside the Nazi hierarchy, the opposition was forced to carry out the policies of the Nazis. For example Nebe, one of the leaders of the plot, maintained his cover by leading a force of SS troops who carried out the ‘final solution’ behind the frontlines. He admits to having been responsible for the death of 45,467 innocent civilians.

Secondly, many of those involved in the plot were not even anti-Nazis. Another of the leaders, Canaris, was involved in the murder of German socialists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Their vision of postwar Germany differed greatly from that of the socialist underground.

The tragedy for the resistance was that by 1943 the Allies had already decided Germany’s fate. They were not interested in supporting those resisting the Nazis. Instead they decided to destroy Germany and divide it between themselves. In fact the carpet bombing of Dresden and Berlin by the Allies pushed many away from the resistance.

All those interested in the struggles against the Nazis should read this book. It is a testament to the courage of the men and women who stood up to one of the most vicious regimes of the 20th century.

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