Choosing Disobedience

A review of Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance after Operation Valkyrie, by Randall Hansen

In 1997, Martin Bormann Jr.—the son of Martin Bormann, the head of the Nazi Party chancellery and Hitler‘s powerful private secretary—described to me his personal experience as a 15-year-old in the chaotic last days of the Second World War.

He had been living in Munich, in a protected compound for the families of senior Nazis. On April 23, 1945, as the mayhem of imminent defeat spread, his entire class was dressed in SS uniforms and sent to the southern front in Italy to battle the Americans—without guns or ammunition. He and his friends drove around in a panic trying not to meet the enemy. On April 30, they learned that Hitler had killed himself. Eight of the adults in their group committed suicide on the spot. The boys were ordered home to their families.

Bormann Jr. believed his father was dead—he knew he was in the bunker with Hitler—and he had no idea where his mother was. So he ran without direction until he stumbled upon a farm on the German side of the Austrian border. He lied about his name—the children of Nazi elites had been told at school never to say who they were—and the farm family took him in, no questions asked.

This conversation came to mind as I read Randall Hansen’s powerful new work, Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance after Operation Valkyrie, which recounts the frenzied last months of the war in both France and Germany. Using archival sources in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, Hansen—a political scientist at the University of Toronto with a specialty in 20th-century history and public policy—has written a masterful study of the period. As the Allies marched across the continent after the June 6 landing in Normandy, a few German military officers, civilian officials and finally ordinary citizens made tactical, and sometimes moral, choices in the face of Hitler’s irrational orders. To be clear, these choices had little, if anything, to do with saving Jews: many (although not all) resisters remained fierce anti-Semites to the end. Rather, they involved saving German and German-occupied cities from total destruction and civilians from near-certain death.

The events of the book take place between July 20, 1944, when Operation Valkyrie—the failed attempt on Hitler’s life led by the aristocratic Wehrmacht colonel Claus von Stauffenberg—was mercilessly crushed, and May 9, 1945, the day the war came to an end. Hansen’s primary focus is the fate of occupied France, especially Paris, and that of Germany, itself.

There had been resistance to the Nazis before Stauffenberg from the German communist and social democratic left and a small number of church leaders (the Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller, author of the cautionary epistle “First they came for the Communists…,” spent seven years in a concentration camp for his efforts). But the Stauffenberg conspiracy fostered a new level of resistance, according to Hansen. Stauffenberg and the high-born officers who plotted with him to overthrow the regime were angered by Hitler’s incompetent command following the 1939 invasion of Poland and the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, both of which had led to massive army deaths. Stauffenberg, a believing Catholic, was repelled by the atrocities being carried out against Jews and other civilians on the eastern front. He and his co-conspirators believed their honour as professional army leaders was being undermined by these grotesqueries. They also knew enough international law to realize that these acts were war crimes that might one day be brought to trial.

Claus von Stauffenberg and his colleagues were executed by firing squad on July 21, 1944, the day after the failed coup d’état, but as the Nazi defeat loomed and the control structure weakened, their abortive rebellion preoccupied other key individuals within the German military. Hansen builds his narrative from this foundational thesis, starting with the strategic efforts of Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of occupied Paris, to save the world’s most beautiful city from being reduced to ruins as Hitler had ordered.

Choltitz was a latecomer to Paris, meaning (luckily for his legacy) that he was not present during the worst of times starting in 1942 when young Frenchmen were sent as forced labourers to Germany, members of the Resistance were hunted like prey, and the mass arrests and deportations of Jews began. By the time he arrived on August 10, 1944, less than three weeks after Stauffenberg’s execution, the approaching Allies were just days away from the capital. Hitler’s direct orders to him were to defend Paris “from the rubble.” The Germans were to fight to the last man. But the Führer’s policies were more sinister still. Anyone who refused to obey would be arrested and executed. Family members also would suffer arrest.

Having privately resolved that Hitler was a madman and the war was lost, Choltitz had already determined not to mount a razed-ground defence of Paris; however, events immediately forced his hand. On the very day of his arrival, Parisians, buoyed by the imminent arrival of the Allies, took to the streets. By August 14, the same French police who had so willingly collaborated with the Nazis by delivering tens of thousands of Jews for deportation had joined in, swelling the massive insurrection.

Hansen captures the deceits and subterfuges that Choltitz concocted to appease Hitler, who was becoming angrier by the day; for example, Choltitz falsely claimed to lack manpower and materiel. At the same time, he furthered his plan to surrender the city without destroying its famous landmarks. Whatever means he adopted, he needed to worry about being stymied by the ever-fanatical SS and Gestapo. The consequences of being found out would be life-threatening for himself, for his family back in Germany and for other covertly sympathetic German officers in Paris. On August 21, the Parisian street barricades went up. People cut down trees and dug up cobblestones. Hitler’s missives ordering murderous destruction grew ever more urgent.

Nothing substantive could happen in the city until Choltitz formally surrendered, something he secretly arranged to do through a sympathetic third party. August 25, 1944, was the opportune day. It was then that the French general Philippe Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division entered Paris.

Later that afternoon, Dietrich von Choltitz formally surrendered to the French general. He had successfully disobeyed Hitler against fearful odds. The city of Paris was spared.

Hansen notes that the French forces had been adamant that they, not the British, or the Americans, be the first to enter Paris; and although the Americans were in firm control, they wisely let this happen. As a result, the liberation of Paris on August 25, by the French army, in concert with the citizens of the city, became a day of celebratory historical memory.

It still is. In July 2014, I chanced to visit a remarkable exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet, the Museum of the History of Paris, located in the city’s Marais district. Called Paris libéré, Paris photographié, Paris exposé, the exhibition was a reprise of an earlier presentation of photographs by Robert Doisneau, René Zuber, Jean Séeberger and other fabled names that was hastily organized in November 1944, less than three months after the final street battle to liberate the city from the Nazis. The purpose of the repeat exhibition, according to the curators, was to display images taken in the heat of the liberation struggle that evoked the emotion of the day. The images were compelling: young snipers leaning dangerously out of windows; children piling up sandbag barricades; women nursing the wounded; repatriated prisoners waving happily in front of the Place de l’Opéra; terrified-looking Nazi soldiers—Choltitz’s men—leaving the Hotel Meurice in surrender, their hands raised high; General Charles de Gaulle, triumphant, at the Place de la Concord. Contemporary visitors to Paris may notice wall plaques to the fallen of August 25 in the Latin Quarter and other districts where the fighting was intense. Given the intensity of French memory, the 2014 exhibition was, as expected, a roaring success.

Disobeying Hitler gets even better as the story of German resistance moves to the heartland of Germany, itself. As the Allied armies breached the Rhine and Soviet forces pushed west, Hitler called for a scorched earth policy on German soil. The retreating German army was to destroy all public, industrial and military infrastructure, including bridges, roads, waterworks, electrical facilities, theatres and museums. (This policy was appropriately known as the Nero Decree.) Hitler’s response to opposition by his architect and personal friend, Albert Speer, who told him that these attacks would destroy the lives of ordinary Germans was: “If the war is lost, the people will be lost [and] it is not necessary to worry about their needs for elemental survival.” It seems the Germans, themselves, were now Untermenschen.

As German battle lines were squeezed from both the east and the west, covert disobedience grew. Hansen explores this territory in more detail than the general reader might wish to follow, but his central focus on the resistance role played by the mercurial Speer, Hitler’s minister for armaments and war production, is riveting. He has remained a controversial figure since the war’s end, not least because he promoted himself in memoirs and in interviews as the saviour of the land. Hansen concurs that Speer was, indeed, courageous and influential while the Nero Decree was in effect. Like Dietrich von Choltitz, Speer had concluded that Hitler was insane. Bravely, he used his close relationship with the Führer and his ministerial role to subvert Hitler’s orders.

He accomplished this by issuing coded counter orders with multiple levels of decision making he hoped Hitler would not see through. The object was delay: Speer ultimately hoped that the bridges, factories and other elements Hitler had ordered destroyed would fall into Allied hands first, and therefore be saved.

Beyond his evident commitment to preserve Germany for a post-war future, Speer’s special concern was to save his own architectural and industrial works from destruction. He was, Hansen concludes, concerned not “for his Leben (life) but, rather, for his Lebenslauf—his curriculum vitae.” Subtle, charming, lively and intelligent, Albert Speer did not doubt his ability to survive. He had entranced Hitler. He believed his wiles and personal charisma would carry him through—and they did.

In a final section, Hansen explores resistance efforts to save the cities of Dusseldorf and Hamburg, including the acts of now-desperate citizens. In response, the Gestapo hunted down suspects and the SS turned on members of the population as they fled, torturing and murdering them as purported enemies of the Reich. (In hindsight, Martin Bormann Jr.’s teachers may have dressed their students in SS uniforms expressly to save them from the SS.) Flying white flags of surrender to the Allies in hopes of being saved at the eleventh hour was an act of “treason” and punished accordingly. Until the last days of the war, the Hitlerian rhetoric continued: “The enemy, who has launched under Jewish leadership a pitiless war against us, lies in his words … as he has always lied … The American and English plan for us … is mass starvation. Germans are to live as slaves.”

This was particularly rich since the Nazis had planned post-war slavery for the Slav nations and practised starvation as a war tool.

Why did a few choose disobedience while the majority remained loyal to Hitler? Why did they take these risks?

Hansen identifies timing as an important factor. Imminent defeat did certainly sharpen perceptions and force immediate decision making; and the subsequent weakening of command structures made taking action somewhat easier. He also notes “personality,” without much further elaboration. This reader wished he had had more to say on this subject, since he identified it from the outset as something he wished to explore.

In the aftermath of the war, many have studied the intriguing phenomenon of differing behaviour under wartime stress: those who obey, or collaborate; those who stand on the fence, waiting to see which way the wind will blow; and those who undertake different forms of resistance. With this in mind, it is certainly possible that more rigid personalities were drawn to the SS and the Gestapo than to the Wehrmacht. The former were organizations where sympathy and empathy were rooted out and where the common watchword was “hardness” of mind and body. The army, on the other hand, was an institution that predated the Nazi era. It was composed of men whose professional training was to win battles, not murder civilians. Wehrmacht soldiers may also have experienced less exposure to Nazi hate propaganda than the police and Hitler Youth, for whom hatred was a cardinal principle that underscored their duties.

On the other hand, Hansen’s point that disobedience involved the few, not the many, is an important one. In the late 1990s a controversial exhibition toured Germany. It contained graphic photographs of ordinary Wehrmacht soldiers involved in war crimes and genocide in the East. Most people obeyed orders, including criminal ones. Claus von Stauffenberg, his co-conspirators, and all the other strong personalities profiled in this book were outliers.

The cautionary tale embedded in Disobeying Hitler is that the few can make a difference. These resisters focused their efforts not on individuals, and certainly not on Jews, but their brave attempts to outwit Hitler and preserve what they were ordered to destroy did mitigate the outcome of the war.

Among its sterling qualities, Disobeying Hitler is a model of the genre known as literary non-fiction. An author’s ability to write well will transport his or her book from the desks of scholars into the hands of the educated general public. Hansen has a firm grasp of the tools: he varies his sentence structure; he has a fine eye for the telling detail; he understands the effectiveness of pointed descriptions, revealing anecdotes and direct quotation. He knows the value of storytelling.

It is enlightening to realize that 70 years after the Second World War, diligent scholarship can still enhance our understanding of that violent era. We are fortunate that Randall Hansen has turned what might have been a dull compilation of military history into a fine narrative with broad appeal.