Hans Mommsen. Germans against Hitler: The Stauffenberg Plot and Resistance under the Third Reich. Translated by Angus McGoecht with introduction by Jeremy Noakes. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009. xiii + 313 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-84511-852-5.
Reviewed by Patricia Kollander (Department of History, Florida Atlantic University)
Published on H-German (December, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The Flawed Nobility of the Conservative Anti-Hitler Resistance
Germans against Hitler updates Hans Mommsen's Alternatives to Hitler: German Resistance under the Third Reich (2000) with a new preface that makes it clear that the political development of Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg--ringleader of the abortive July 1944 coup d'état against Adolf Hitler--set the tone for his colleagues in the conservative resistance movement. In contrast to the communist resistance, which made its anti-Hitler stance clear from the beginning, for Stauffenberg and many others like him, resistance was anything but automatic. Rather, it involved a long and drawn-out process that went from initial acceptance of Hitler, to doubt, rebellion, and willingness to die to bring his system down.
Jeremy Noakes's introduction provides a brief but very informative historiography of the resistance movement, emphasizing its complex character. The political identity of the resisters, and the political point of view of those writing about them, at first heavily colored the history of the resistance after World War II. For East German scholars, members of the conservative resistance resisted too little, too late. West German scholars, for their part, accused communist resisters of hoping to install a totalitarian left-wing regime that would have been no better than its National Socialist counterpart. The general German public, on the other hand, remained ambivalent towards many of the resistance leaders, criticizing their shift in priority from winning the war to eliminating those who were trying to win it. From this perspective, motives notwithstanding, the resistance derailed a life-or-death struggle against Germany's enemies during the most crucial phase of the war.
Mommsen then explains why the decision to resist was so difficult. Resistance did not merely constitute an act of turning against an increasingly irrational fascist dictator. Rather, it had to begin with the idea of rebellion against a legally constituted government. This rebellion was all the more difficult for Germans, Mommsen explains, because the concept of resistance had a checkered history in Germany. As he puts it, "the notion that there could be justified protest against arbitrary acts by the state ... may have been alive during the first half of the nineteenth century, but in the wake of the newly acquired confidence of the German Empire it became completely obsolete" (p. 13). This emphasis on legality, Mommsen believes, was the Achilles' heel of the resistance movement; it "handicapped the German political elite in making a decisive move against Hitler. On the one hand, the idolizing of Hitler as head of state led to his being dissociated from the crimes of the regime ... on the other hand the elite was prevented from acting by an exaggerated fear of a revolution from below, which represented an indirect reaction to Germany's traditional lack of a right of resistance" (p. 16).
In short, the pretext for resistance was shaky at best, and on this uncertain foundation, the anti-Hitler group had to try to find a basis for action, but also look to build a post-Hitler future. Indeed, Mommsen devotes his lengthiest chapter to the social vision and constitutional plans of the resistance, which shows the extent to which its participants were committed to the reconstruction of the German state. Other chapters highlight the thought processes and political visions of prominent members of the movement such as Fritz Dietlof von Schulenberg, Julius Leber, William Leuschner, Carlo Mierendorff, and Adolf Reichwein.
Though it is brilliantly articulated throughout the book, Mommsen's attitude towards the movement is ultimately ambivalent. On several occasions, he follows his acknowledgement of and appreciation for what the resistance did with a stinging criticism of what it failed to do. He writes, "it would be a mistake to measure the legitimacy of the resistance only by their social and constitutional ideas ... the German resistance was fighting for the dignity and Christian destiny of mankind, for justice and decency" (p. 132). But then, he quickly adds that the failure of Stauffenberg's coup d'état showed that "by reason of Germany's traditional political conduct and narrowness of its political thinking ... German society proved incapable of developing modern and relevant alternatives to Hitler's profoundly reactionary dictatorship" (p. 133). Also, while he pays ample attention to the bravery and dedication exhibited by Stauffenberg and his colleagues, it is telling that the final chapter of this book, "The Nazi Persecution of the Jews," emphasizes the depressing extent to which some of the resistance members bought into some aspects of Nazi antisemitism. Schulenberg, for example, supported the removal of Jews from the civil service. Even Dietrich Bonhoeffer was heavily influenced by "Lutheran anti-Judaism, which saw the Jews as bearing the curse of Christ's murderers" (p. 262).
In the end, however, this work remains a major--if not unparalleled--contribution to the history of the resistance movement. Unlike so many works that essentially present plot narratives of the resistance, Mommsen creates a more comprehensive picture of resisters' motives for action and their plans for a Germany without the Nazi menace. Although Stauffenberg and his colleagues may have acted later than they should have, what they ultimately did, by their actions and their martyrdom, was to set a moral foundation for the new German state to come.
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Patricia Kollander. Review of Mommsen, Hans, Germans against Hitler: The Stauffenberg Plot and Resistance under the Third Reich.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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