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Disobeying Hitler

German Resistance in the last year of WWII

 

Randall Hansen

Faber & Faber, 21 August 2014

ISBN 9780571284511

This is a work of great research and scholarship – the footnotes extend to almost 90 pages! It really hits its stride in the second half, when it as much about the crumbling of the Third Reich as the resistance movement. Indeed in the first half I felt a little cheated – I was expecting a chronicling of the numerous groups who were anti-Nazi both before and during the war. The book does not cover these groups in depth. But it becomes starkly clear that anyone standing up to the Nazi machine was endowed with bravery, that needed to be greater as the years rolled on, and the Nazi apparatus become ever more ruthless. The first half  does include, as one would rightly expect, a thorough review of the development, execution, and collapse of the Stauffenburg plot. In this episode the role of officers in Paris is of interest. Hansen is also good in showing the factors that contributed to Rommel’s demise. Hindsight shows that the Reich could not afford to dispense with such generals.

 

The liberation of Paris has attracted many historians of note (I enjoyed the book that Anthony Beevor wrote with his wife a few years back [see right], which is but a subsidiary source for this passage). From these pages emerges one of many largely unsung heroes, one Raoul Nordling “a portly Swedish businessman and consul general to France”, who took upon himself to  pressure the senior Nazis into, first liberating the capital’s political prisoners, and later surrendering before there was a maelstrom. The posturing and jostling of the Free French amongst the Allied camp receives another (worthy) airing. General Leclerc’s staff lied to their Allied superiors about their movements and intentions at the entry to Paris. Likewise the ranks of brave Parisian resisters swelled immeasurably once it became clear that their capital had been retaken, and retribution on captured Germans could be brutal – “deeply unedifying” in the words of a more sensitive Parisienne. One of the book’s themes is the bestiality of the SS; their behaviour in the dying days of their Paris tenure is reminiscent of Ancient Rome.

 

After the capture of Paris, Hansen devotes rather more time to the evolution of the Allies sweep towards the Rhine than would be justified by the book’s title. But as the battles reach Germany’s borders, Hansen neatly sums up the dilemma confronting Wehrmacht officers “along with party officials, industrialists, civil servants, and even average citizens [they] had to decide if they were to be complicit in the destruction of a country from within that they were supposedly defending against attacks from without.” However the book loses some of its pace when Hansen descends into discussing the steps taken to protect the civil infrastructure of each city in turn. What is clear is that (the majority of) “German civilians everywhere were desperate to surrender”. The last half of the book is less about German resistance than the death throes of the Third Reich.

 

Soon it was evident that only the Waffen-SS would fight to the bitter end, having no qualms on murdering surrendering civilians, or even Wehrmacht officers seen parlaying with the Allies. The murder of Oberstleutnant Josef Ritter von Gadolla, in charge of the city of Gotha, is particularly touching. Other tales, such as the self-immolation of a dinner party, demonstrate to the most hardened reader that civilisation was incompatible with Nazi philosophy. The narrative continues to unearth unlikely heroes or heroines – such as two sixteen year-old girls who were instrumental in saving the gorgeous city of Heidelberg.

 

On the debit side, Keitel emerges from the pages as one of the more extreme commanders, devoid of compassion, and increasingly divorced from reality. The book’s concluding chapter – the conclusion – contains some forceful insights. “The vast majority” of German generals opted to support Hitler et al, as opposed to Stauffenburg et al, in July 1944.  “And over the next nine and a half months, they fought a brutal defensive war that led to the deaths of more Germans and the destruction of more German cities  than had the previous five years combined.” Hansen also points out that the preservation of Paris was a pre-requisite of the successful rebuilding of harmony between France and Germany in the aftermath of war. Whilst indeed the acts of “resisters”, in the loosest sense, was vital in ensuring that there was enough left of Germany’s infrastructure to ensure a relatively rapid rebuilding of the German economy. Significant, therefore, that the scorched earth policy of the Russian invaders – and the extreme antipathy of the invaded -  were underlying factors in the under-performance of the economy of East Germany.

 

So overall, an interesting book that strays way beyond its remit, and does not deliver quite what I expected.

 

An aside

 

From time to time, Hansen is prone to overblown prose: “On June 2, Manstein ordered an artillery and aerial bombardment of Sevastopol. As the Luftwaffe hammered the city from the skies, great mortar guns shelled it below. Over one thousand tons of shells landed in the city, destroying it block by block. A single shell could pulverise anything in its path”. Unlike other shells that were no more than split peas, presumably?!

And on Monty

 

As Eisenhower put it after the war, ‘Montgomery had become so personal in his effort to make sure that the Americans… got no credit, that, in fact, we hardly had anything to do with the war, that I finally stopped talking to him.’”