4 Forms of Resistance in Nazi Germany

Graham Land

3 mins

11 Feb 2015

Resistance (Widerstand) in Nazi Germany was not a united front. The term instead refers to small and often disparate pockets of underground rebellion within German society during the years of the Nazi regime (1933–1945).

A notable exception to this is the German military which, in addition to a handful of conspiracies, led an attempt on Hitler’s life, known as the 20 July plot of 1944, or part of Operation Valkyrie.

The plot was carried out by high-ranking members of the Wehrmacht who felt that Hitler was leading Germany into defeat and disaster.

While some participants may have objected to Hitler’s cruelty, many shared his ideology.

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Religious opposition

Some Catholic priests openly opposed and spoke out against Hitler. Many were punished, imprisoned and worse for doing so.

Dachau, the Nazi’s first concentration camp, began as a camp for holding political prisoners.

It had a separate barracks specifically for clergy, the vast majority of which were Catholic, though some Evangelical, Greek Orthodox, Old Catholic and Islamic clerics were also housed there.

Many clergy, most of whom were Polish, were tortured and killed at Dachau.

The Archbishop von Galen of Münster, though a conservative nationalist himself, was an outspoken critic of some Nazi practices and ideology, such as concentration camps, the ‘euthanising’ of people with genetic defects and other maladies, racist deportations and Gestapo brutality.

As a full-on confrontation with the Catholic Church would have been too politically costly for Hitler, religion was the only means of open opposition to Nazi policies during the war.

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Youth opposition

Groups of youths aged 14 to 18 who wished to avoid membership in the rigid Hitler Youth dropped out of school and formed alternative groups. They were collectively known as Edelweiss Pirates.

The flower was a symbol of opposition and adopted by some working class teens, both male and female. They were non-conformist and frequently clashed with Hitler Youth patrols.

Towards the end of the war the Pirates sheltered deserters and escapees from concentration camps, and attacked military targets and Nazi officials.

Members of one group, who were also part of the Ehrenfeld resistance group — an organisation that included escaped prisoners, deserters, communists and Jews — were executed for killing a member of the SA and shooting a police guard.

The White Rose, a group started in 1941 by University of Munich students focused on a non-violent campaign of information deploring the murder of Jews and the fascist ideology of Nazism.

Notable members included brother and sister Sophie and Hans Scholl and Philosophy Professor Kurt Huber, and the White Rose worked to secretly distribute anonymously penned leaflets designed to appeal to German intelligentsia.

Monument to the “Weiße Rose” in front of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Credit: Gryffindor / Commons.

Communist and social democratic opposition

Though non-Nazi affiliated political groups were banned after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the Communist Party and Social Democratic Party maintained underground organisations.

However, political differences between the parties prevented them from co-operating.

After the dissolution of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, members of Communist Party of Germany were involved in active resistance through a network of underground cells called the Rote Kapelle or ‘Red Orchestra’.

Among their resistance activities, German communists co-operated with Soviet agents and French communists in acts of espionage.

They also gathered information on Nazi atrocities, publicising, distributing and passing it on to members of the Allied governments.

Counterintelligence Corps 1947 file on Red Orchestra member Maria Terwiel. Credit: Unknown CIC Officer / Commons.

The SPD managed to maintain its underground networks during the war and had some sympathy among poor industrial workers and farmers, though Hitler remained very popular.

Members, including Julius Leber — a former SPD politician who was executed in January 1945 — conducted espionage and other anti-Nazi activities.

Other actors

Besides these groups and other smaller organisations, resistance took on different forms in daily life. Simply a refusal to say ‘Heil Hitler’ or donate to the Nazi Party could be seen as an act of rebellion in such a repressive society.

We should include individual actors like Georg Elser, who attempted to kill Hitler with a time-bomb in 1939.

There were also several military assassination plans in addition to Operation Valkyrie, though if all of these were in fact anti-Nazi is doubtful.

Image credit: Ruins of the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich after Georg Elser‘s failed assassination of Hitler in November 1939. Bundesarchiv / CC-BY-SA 3.0