Resisting Tyranny: German People Who Defied the Nazis | History Hit

Resisting Tyranny: German People Who Defied the Nazis

German Democratic Republic stamp of Hans and Sophie Scholl from 1961. 2,000,000 went into circulation.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

German resistance during the Second World War ranged from non-compliance with the Nazi regime to full-blown attempts to assassinate Hitler. Resistance movements made up of students, the clergy, disillusioned politicians, and even swing jazz music groups operated in the face of severe consequences.

It is difficult to calculate the impact of such resistance groups; many saved the lives of those who would have otherwise died, yet the lives of many resistance members were lost as they were hunted down and executed.

Such movements were, however, a way of communicating the horrors of the Nazi regime both inside and outside Germany, which in turn worked to undermine Hitler’s power. Here are 6 of the most striking examples of German people who stood up to the Nazis.

1. Hans and Sophie Scholl

Sophie Scholl in Blumberg, 1938.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain / CC

Along with their parents, siblings Sophie and Hans became outward critics of the Nazi regime. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Sophie Scholl joined the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls), and was quickly disillusioned. Both she and Hans joined anti-Nazi youth groups. In spite of these groups being banned in 1936, Hans remained active in one and was arrested in 1937, which spurred the siblings on to resist Nazi tyranny.

By 1942, Sophie and Hans were students in Munich, where they founded the White Rose. This resistance group distributed thousands of leaflets condemning the actions of the Nazi government and raised awareness about the ongoing genocide. Sophie and Hans were arrested, endured a show trial, and were executed in February 1943.

Though their deaths were not widely reported in Germany, Sophie and Hans did not die in vain. Word travelled, and mere months later The New York Times wrote about student opposition in Munich, and a BBC broadcast which was aimed at Germans spoke of the White Rose’s actions. In July 1943, the text of the sixth leaflet was smuggled into the United Kingdom where they were mass reprinted and dropped over Germany by Allied planes.

2. Archbishop von Galen

Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen was a Roman Catholic bishop of Münster, Germany. Owing to the Nazi regime’s anti-Catholic propaganda and racism, von Galen quickly became an influential critic of the Nazis. He frequently personally complained to Hitler that his government was violating the 1933 Concordat, which guaranteed the Catholic Church certain protections.

In 1941, von Galen publicly spoke out during a sermon against the Nazi government’s euthanasia program directed at the sick, elderly, mentally ill, physically infirm, and disabled Germans. Details of the sermon were sent out of the country, with the BBC broadcasting about it and the RAF dropping a number of copies of it all over Germany.

It was in part because of van Galen raising the program’s profile that it was formally halted, though it continued clandestinely. Documents later demonstrated that the Nazis were close to hanging von Galen but didn’t want to martyrize him: instead, they wanted to wait until they had achieved a victory in the Second World War.

Under increasing pressure from the Nazi regime, Von Galen later shied away from his outspoken anti-Nazi sermons, but his words continued to inspire others to resist the tyranny of Nazism.

3. Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg

The Wolf’s Lair after the explosion, July 1944

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC / Public Domain

Colonel Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg was a German army officer who tried to assassinate Hitler. Raised Catholic, he displayed a strong sense of social responsibility based upon social and ethical principles he believed in from a young age. These principles were put to the test during the war, at which time von Stauffenberg was convinced of the strategic inability and recognised the criminal nature of the National Socialist party.

During his recovery from a severe injury, he was appointed Chief of Staff in the General Army Office. Stauffenberg was approached by a group of conspirators, and decided to personally carry out the assassination attempt against Hitler as part of an operation named ‘Operation Valkyrie‘.

He succeeded in smuggling an explosive device in his briefcase into Hitler’s secretive eastern headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, and detonating it during a daily briefing. Owing to the explosion being weaker than expected, Hitler leaning over an oak table which shielded him from the blast, and the meeting being moved to a location that would not structurally intensify the explosion, the assassination attempt failed. Stauffenberg and other leading conspirators were arrested and shot in Berlin later the same day.

4. Die Swing Youth

Die Swing Youth was a collection of like-minded teenagers across cities in Germany, Austria, and other countries in Europe who shared a love of jazz music and British and American pop culture and a hatred of German nationalism, military regulation, and uniformity.

Jazz first appeared in Germany in the 1920s, and in the 1930s, a new popular form of jazz called swing music made its way across the Atlantic. Though it was initially not forbidden by the Nazi regime, its Black roots, perceived Jewishness, and lack of restraint meant that the broadcasting of jazz was forbidden as early as 1935.

The first ‘Swing Cliques’ originated in Hamburg, Berlin, and Frankfurt in 1935-6. During the first years of the war, the liberal, non-conformist Swingjugend movement developed into a protest against the Nazi state’s authoritarianism. It escalated, with its members refusing to join relevant Nazi youth groups or serve in the military.

It eventually became a criminal act to be a member, with around 40-70 members being deported to Nazi camps, and many more being tortured and interrogated by the Gestapo. In spite of this, the Nazi regime were never able to exercise full control over the Swing Youth: their music became a form of intellectual resistance which was only strengthened by years of persecution for their love of jazz, freedom, liberalism, self-determination, and internationalism.

5. Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind

Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind, which is now a museum.

Otto Weidt was a Berlin-based manufacturer and an anarchist and pacifist who hated the Nazis. During the Second World War, he employed primarily blind and deaf Jewish people to make brooms and brushes as part of his small business. Some of these were made for Germany’s Wehrmacht, and were thus deemed to be ‘wehrwichtig’ – important for the military – and in need of a production workforce.

The brushes and brooms were also sold on the black market as wedding presents. When the Gestapo came for his employees, Weidt bribed them with cigars, champagne, and perfume he had purchased from the black market. He went further, falsifying documents and passports for his employees, and by the end of the war when it was declared that Berlin be entirely Jew-free, he hid many Jews in a room behind a backless cupboard in his workshop and in various locations around the city.

It is believed that he was in love with one of his employees, Alice Licht, who had gone to join her deported parents, and was later helped by Weidt to escape Auschwitz by him personally travelling to Auschwitz. After the war ended, Weidt established an orphanage for concentration camp survivors.

6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Protestant theologian whose opposition to National Socialism eventually led to his execution. Two days after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer took to the radio and denounced the Nazis, accusing them of being a dictatorship and anti-Semitic. He was cut off before he could finish.

He continued to criticise the government, becoming a leading spokesperson for the Confessing Church, which was the centrepiece of German Protestant Nazi resistance. With only a few exceptions, the Confessing Church remained silent about the persecution of German Jews; Bonhoeffer, however, was fierce in his defence of a non-racial definition of Jews, and his views on international affairs were close to pacifist.

His continued vocal objections to Nazi policies resulted in him being barred from lecturing or publishing. He joined the German resistance movement, and was even part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 after plotting to get Jews out of Germany by giving them papers as foreign agents. Evidence that implicated him in the coup plot resulted in him being sentenced to death.

While imprisoned at Buchenwald and then Flossenbürg concentration camps, he acted as a pastor and confidant to prisoners of all denominations. His ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’ was published posthumously, and he remains a celebrated figure for his theologian works.

Dan sits down with Paddy Ashdown to talk about German attempts to kill Hitler.
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Lucy Davidson