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)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project