Books: White rose heroes and God's ten men: The plot to kill Hitler is 50 years old this week. Daniel Britten on the resistance; plus Stauffenberg's bomb

The scale of the resistance to Hitler within Germany was always under-estimated by the Western powers. The Allies, especially Britain, preferred to see the enemy as homogeneously evil rather than admit that significant numbers of Germans were opposed to Nazism and wanted peace. Acknowledgement of a Resistance and sympathy for Germans was perceived as undermining to the war effort. After 1943, overtures from the Resistance to Britain were staunchly rebuffed as, in the words of English historian John Wheeler-Bennett, giving help 'would have been to abandon our declared aim of destroying German militarism.'

The introduction to Conscience in Revolt, edited by Annedore Leber (with KD Bracher and Willy Brandt, Westview Press, pounds 16.95), states that the British public saw little to suggest evidence of resistance to Hitler. Such an impression was supported by Churchill, who was disparaging about the July 1944 plot and tried to censor the film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp because it featured a sympathetic German character.

After the war Churchill revised his stance, saying 'In Germany, there was an Opposition . . . We hope the day will come when this heroic chapter of the internal history of Germany is duly appreciated.' Other historians were less humane, claiming the German character was innately militaristic and that Nazism was an inevitable consequence of historical forces.

Attention that has been paid to the German Resistance has focused on the July 1944 assassination attempt carried out by members of the army. This is natural because of its sensational nature (Hitler narrowly escaped a bomb which exploded under his table), but also because, with the universities and the church, the army came to constitute the central power base for the Nazi regime.

In these three institutions, opposition was assumed to emanate either from a snobbish disdain for Hitler's lowly social status or from practical objections to his increasingly insane military ambitions. Never was it suggested that some Germans actually objected to his methods on moral grounds. The Nazis, with an eye for propaganda, confirmed the impression: Hitler described the July plotters as a 'very small clique of ambitious, criminal, stupid officers'.

The publication by Westview Press of a series of books under the banner 'Der Widerstand: Dissent and Resistance in the Third Reich' will go some way towards correcting misconceptions about the German Resistance. The books are reissues, many of which were overlooked on their original publication in the Forties and Fifties. What is evident is the extent to which opposition was based on conscience rather than necessity.

By far the most moving is Conscience In Revolt, whose editor is the widow of Julius Leber, one of the leaders of the political Resistance. Its 64 biographies of people who died opposing the Nazis reveal a wide range of dissent, from well-known conspirators such as Claus von Stauffenberg who placed the bomb under Hitler, and Nobel Prize winning journalist Carl von Ossietzky, to outspoken priests Karl Friedrich Stellbrink and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many of the stories depict a level of courage that is nothing short of martyrdom and are exceptional in the way the condemned, often in diaries or letters, expressed the appallingness of their position. Each one, as Leber said, represented thousands of similar cases.

Sophie Scholl, 20, was a member of a student organisation known as the White Rose who distributed leaflets from suitcases between 1942-3. At her trial she declared, 'What we have written and said is in the minds of you all, but you lack the courage to say it aloud.'

Resistance was wide-spread throughout the social hierarchy and could be passive or active. Jonathan Stark was a 17-year old Jehovah's Witness who refused to swear allegiance to Hitler because his faith forbade him, and was hanged a year later. A fellow intern said, 'He remained serene and in control of himself to the end, so much so that his behaviour won the admiration even of the SS.'

Some opposition was almost inadvertent, but drew from its perpetrators an unsuspected degree of courage. Heinz Bello, a 24-year-old sergeant in the Medical Corps, was reported by 'friends', for speaking harsh words about National Socialism and party informers. Twice during his trial fate offered him a chance to escape but he declined and was shot for 'undermining morale'.

Conscience in Revolt emphasises a depth and strength to the Resistance far beyond the military and political parameters by which it was hitherto defined. The extent to which personal belief motivated acts of heroism, rather than duty or social pressure, was unprecedented. Between 1933 and 1945 three million Germans were confined for political crimes, as opposed to the 40,000 exiles.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who returned to Germany in 1939 despite being offered a professorship in America, and was arrested in 1943. In his last memorandum he said: 'The great masquerade of evil has wrought havoc with all ethical ideas. The fact that evil appears in the form of light, or benificence . . . is utterly confusing for someone nurtured in our traditional ethical system.'

Anton Gill's book, An Honourable Defeat (Heinemann, pounds 20) is a comprehensive, well-researched introduction to the Resistance and draws on recent reinterpretations of history. Its major failure, however, is that it fails to draw out the emotional power implicit in the stories it so tirelessly chronicles.

As Gill's title suggests, in terms of immediate impact the Resistance failed. But there were successes. In his personal account of the Resistance, The secret war against Hitler (Westview Press, pounds 16.95), Fabian von Schlabrendorff cites the extraordinary case of a district attorney who dropped charges against a concentration camp convict and put the camp commandant on trial instead. This was an exception, though, as Hitler's regime was ruthlessly efficient at rooting out opponents. Sooner or later almost all of them came to grief, in most cases believing their actions to have been in vain. Von Schlabrendorff's book adds another dimension to their contribution by outlining the value of sacrifice in itself.

It has been said that the character of a people is revealed in its heroes. But for the Resistance, there would have been little hope for future generations of Germans to draw on. Henning von Tresckow, one of the principal conspirators in the July 1944 plot best summarised it when he said, before killing himself, 'When God once told Abraham that he would spare Sodom if only ten just men could be found in the city, so I hope that God will not destroy Germany, because we stood firm for our country.' Germany survived, partly thanks to the heroism of its victims.

(Photograph omitted)