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

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star