While regrettably not widespread, resistance against the Nazi state was not as uncommon as many think – even within Germany.
The useful fiction of unanimous support for Hitler certainly served the Nazi regime when it sought to legitimise itself. It could even be said that presenting a monolithic vision of Germany that classified Germans and Nazis as the same thing was useful at the time to the Allied powers fighting Nazi Germany and finding it useful to simplify the enemy.
However this singular narrative of collective responsibility fails to distinguish between perpetrator and victim – of which there were many who were also German. But furthermore those who also fell into a third category: those who resisted, either directly or indirectly.
This phenomenon of German resistance to the Nazi regime is the focus of an entire museum in the German capital – dedicated to the people who risked and often paid with their lives whilst fighting the tyranny of National Socialist rule. From the White Rose movement led by a group of students from the University of Munich – including Hans and Sophie Scholl – to the activities of certain members of the church, Social Democrats, and Communists. But perhaps most significantly, the attempts that were made directly on Adolf Hitler’s life – that by some accounts amounted to more than 40 assassination efforts.
The most well known of these was coordinated from the Bendlerblock complex and headquarters of the German Army Reserve, when in July 1944 a group of army officers plotted to not only kill Adolf Hitler but also overthrow the entire regime from within. The plot centred around Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and Chief of Staff of the 2nd Army, Henning von Tresckow. Popularly referred to as Operation Valkyrie it would see Stauffenberg attempt to blow up Hitler using explosives at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters in nowadays Poland, followed by the implementation of an emergency continuity of government operations plan (Valkyrie) allowing the Reserve Army to seize control of the country and neutralise Nazi control.
The failure of this plot would lead to Claus von Stauffenberg’s execution in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock complex, alongside a number of his co-conspirators – now commemorated by a memorial statue and plaque.
Fittingly, it is this former German Army building – the Bendlerblock – that now serves as home to the three storey German Resistance Museum.
Two major assassination attempts against Hitler take up substantial real estate in the museum; that of the Stauffenberg plot in July 1944 but also that carried out by a carpenter named Johann Georg Elser nearly five years earlier. Elser’s elaborate attempt to dispatch many head Nazis, along with Adolf Hitler, at a beer hall in Bavaria failed when the gathering Hitler was attending was halted early, leaving Elser’s homemade bomb ticking away in a column next to the stage Hitler had been speaking from. Only to explode thirteen minutes later and cause serious damage to the beer hall while killing eight people in the audience.
Elser had acted alone, intent on removing the Nazi leadership, stating: “I reasoned the situation in Germany could only be modified by a removal of the current leadership, I mean Hitler, Goering and Goebbels …”
Elser’s attempt to decapitate the Nazi state is often cited as the textbook example of how one man, driven by personal conviction, can almost change history. And that, while not being a devout religious man or member of any political party, he was proof that it was possible for an ‘ordinary German’ to channel his outrage into something righteous.
Walking through the section of the museum dedicated to Elser’s story, it is possible to then encounter the room that served as the office of Claus von Stauffenberg during his time at the Reserve Army headquarters – and from where his role in the July 20th plot was coordinated.
It is now possible to tour ths museum online through a one hour video tour of the exhibition covering some eighteen different topics - including the July 20th plot, the Elser plot, the Red Orchestra, the White Rose, and resistance by artists and intellectuals.
This second floor room no longer features the desk and office equipment that would have adorned the interior, but some photographs of the young man who would try – and fail – to take Hitler’s life in 1944. A decorated war veteran who came from one of the oldest and most distinguished aristocratic Catholic families of southern Germany, Stauffenberg served in Poland, France, and the Soviet Union before being transferred to North Africa where he was invalided.
Following his rehabilitation, he was assigned to the staff of the Ersatzheer (Reserve Army) based at the Bendlerblock and came into contact with members of a growing officers resistance movement, with his superior General Friedrich Olbricht and staff officer Henning von Tresckow introducing Stauffenberg to the Valkyrie plan to sweep the Nazi regime from power in the event of Hitler’s death.
Deciding at the start of July 1944 that he would take personal responsibility for killing Hitler, Stauffenberg was forced to assume two critical roles: assassinate Hitler far from Berlin and trigger the overthrow operation in Berlin during office hours on the very same day.
Although the bomb Stauffenberg intended to use for the plot exploded, the detonation did not prove to be enough to kill Hitler, and when Stauffenberg returned to Berlin he struggled to implement the operational plan – only to be caught and executed less than 24 hours later in the courtyard of this building.
Originally opened in 1968, the German Resistance Museum was part of the attempt by the West Berlin government to reckon with the country’s Nazi past – at a time when student demostrations and calls for confronting the ‘hidden fascist remnants’ still lurking within the government were high. One year earlier, at the West Berlin Opera, a young man had been executed by a West Berlin police officer during a protest against a visit by the Shah of Iran. Many in the country saw this instance of police brutality as evidence of the unreformed sadism of the post-war state – where deNazification was deened less important than the formation of a strong and economically viable West Germany that could counter the threat of Soviet influence from the East.
The plaque in front of the Stauffenberg statue in the Bendlerblock courtyard has a important message for the generations of visitors to come: “You did not bear the shame. You resisted. You bestowed the eternally vigilant signal to turn back by sacrificing your impassioned lives for freedom, justice and honour.“ Although the sad reality is that beyond the many stories detailed in this museum there were many more of people who engaged in the brutal acts unleashed by the Nazi system, or who stood silently by and witnessed – either unmoved by the human suffering that was taking place or finding themselves incapable of interfering.
The evidence presented in this museum shows that resistance – even in the darkest times – is possible. But that is often the exception and should be celebrated for its exceptional nature. That to many it was impossible to imagine a situation where their actions could lead to anything but a voice screaming in the wilderness – and that the absurdity of holding out for the best is a strong factor in many people’s decision making process.
As noted at the entrance to the museum, from the diary of a German resistance member: “It is a strange feeling to wish upon your own country its destruction.”