Courage and resistance

To mark the 75th anniversary of Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July: resistance to the Nazi regime took place on many levels. We present an overview.

The German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin
The German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin dpa

German resistance following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 took many forms. While it is true that the great majority of the German population supported Hitler’s regime until 1945, various groups resisted. They were made up of men and women of every conceivable origin, profession and orientation, and included workers, officers, civilians, students and the nobility. The earliest and most consistent resistance to the National Socialists came from those groups that the Nazi regime had first turned on: communists, social democrats and trade unionists. Once their organisations had been disbanded, their members often operated underground or in exile.

The Stauffenberg assassination

The charismatic figure of Claus Graf von Stauffenberg, a professional officer and member of the nobility, came to symbolise the German resistance. Stauffenberg’s attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944  is regarded as the most important attempt to bring down the “Third Reich”. Hitler survived when the bomb that Stauffenberg had left in the former’s headquarters exploded. Over 200 people belonged to Stauffenberg’s network, which undertook the best-planned of all the attempted coups: conservative officers and civil servants, intellectuals and a number of socialists. Though this attack on Hitler’s life is the best-known, it was not the only one: by 1945 the dictator had survived at least 39 assassination attempts.

Claus Graf von Stauffenberg
Claus Graf von Stauffenberg with his children dpa

The invisible resistance to the Nazi regime

In many cases, regime opponents acted alone: from 1940, Elise Hampel and her husband Otto in Berlin distributed postcards and leaflets that called upon people to resist National Socialism. Better-known these days is the White Rose: this group of Munich students led by Hans and Sophie Scholl were caught distributing flyers. On 22 February 1943 the Scholl siblings and other members of their group were executed.

Other less visible forms of resistance were also significant: some established subversive information networks, concealed victims of persecution, forged passports for Jews, disseminated news from the BBC, secretly distributed bread among foreign forced labourers or refused to make the Hitler salute.

The historical significance of the resistance movement in Nazi Germany

Despite its apparent failure, the resistance to National Socialism symbolises the way remnants of humanity, empathy, courage and resistance managed to survive and could not be destroyed even under conditions of totalitarian rule. The resolute rejection of the regime that united the various resistance groups remains the most important legacy of the resistance for the formation of political traditions in Germany post-1945.

Dr. Stephan Malinowski
Dr Stephan Malinowski has taught European history at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh since 2012. The period of National Socialism is one of his areas of focus.

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