Manfred Zeidler. Der 20. Juli 1944: Eine Replik. Göttingen: V&R unipress, 2005. 106 S. EUR 15.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-89971-213-1.
Reviewed by Edward N. Snyder (Department of History, University of Minnesota)
Published on H-German (February, 2008)
The July 1944 Conspiracy, Sixty Years Later
Written on the sixtieth anniversary of the well-documented July 20, 1944, attempt to decapitate the Nazi regime by assassinating Adolf Hitler, Manfred Zeidler's brief study of the July 1944 conspiracy is an attempt to "problematize" the history of the resistance while also summarizing the current research themes and historiographical debates surrounding the plot (p. 8). Zeidler writes that for many Germans, the July plot serves as a "moral instance" on which the "democratic new beginning of Germany was founded after 1945" (p. 7). Yet an investigation of the plot and its historiography reveals that the goal of the conspiracy was simply to remove Hitler and the Nazis from power, not to establish a liberal, democratic state. As Zeidler indicates, his goal with this brief study is not to provide a new examination of the July 1944 plot, but rather to examine the treatment of specific questions, such as the political and moral motivations of the conspirators, within the historiography of the last sixty years. Unfortunately, Zeidler's book does not contribute anything new to the historiography of the German resistance. Although the subtitle of his work is "a reply" (eine Replik), it is certainly not a reply to any major study of the German resistance. He provides, at best, a very brief review of the major debates within the historiography, but fails to offer any insight or analysis on the arguments made by individual scholars. With just over seventy pages of text, however, Zeidler does not offer a satisfying survey of the wealth of studies and debates about the German resistance.
Zeidler's book is intended primarily for Germans attempting to understand better the July conspiracy and its legacy within German history. It is thus "a reply" to the segment of the German population that believes the July plot was an attempt to replace Hitler with a liberal democracy similar to the Weimar Republic, which was destroyed by the Nazis. It functions best as a concise summary of the important questions of historical inquiry and the debates surrounding those questions. In this respect, the book, with its appendix of primary sources, has a particular pedagogical benefit for instructors looking to grasp quickly the important points of debate surrounding the plot. At the same time, Zeidler's historiographical summaries and extensive bibliography will make it a useful source for German undergraduates looking to familiarize themselves with the historiography before pursuing their own, more in-depth research. This study, however, may be less useful to an English-speaking audience, as it would be easier to read the translated work of historians such as Hans Mommsen and Peter Hoffmann for many of the ideas Zeidler discusses.
Zeidler's study is divided into eight short chapters, with the bulk of his discussion focusing on moral and political aspects of the conspiracy. He begins by discussing the moral role of the July plot in postwar Germany, emphasizing that the goal of the conspirators was "not to help achieve the Allied war goals, but rather to rescue Germany "(p. 17). The conspirators realized that the Allies were not fighting a war against Hitler and the Nazis, but against Germany itself. To go along with the Allies would have inevitably resulted in the loss of German territory east of the Oder and Neiße rivers. Therefore, the successful assassination of Hitler would not have resulted in an immediate end to the fighting, but rather a continuation of the war with the hopes that the new German government could achieve the best possible settlement for Germany.
Zeidler then proceeds to discuss briefly the evolution of resistance historiography in postwar Germany. While he traces the evolution of scholarship in both the East and West, his discussion of scholarship in the East is particularly interesting. In September 1945, Otto Grotewohl, who would go on to become the first Minister President of the GDR, characterized July 20, 1944, as nothing short of "revolutionary" (p. 23). With the development of the Cold War, however, the conspirators came to be seen as "volksfeindliche" imperialists whose goal was to exclude the "working class and the working masses from the leadership of the state" (p. 25). While historians' assessments of the July plot did not change significantly during the Cold War, Zeidler's survey of the historiography demonstrates how scholars in the GDR worked to assess the resistance through their own "terminology" (p. 27).
One of Zeidler's main goals is to break down the false understanding of the plot as an attempt to restore a liberal, parliamentary democracy in Germany. Citing primary documents, as well as the research of Hoffmann and Mommsen, Zeidler shows how the resistors rejected both the Nazi dictatorship and Weimar democracy. They were especially critical of Weimar as a state characterized by the "absolutism of the parties and the parliament," which paved the way for a group like the Nazis to assume power (p. 41). Their solution, Zeidler contends, was not a restoration of the pre-1914 government, but rather a new corporatist system with a "protective mechanism against demagoguery" (p. 43).
Morally, the conspirators were less concerned with establishing a new postwar order for Germany than with the immediate problem of removing Hitler from power. Although the SPD's political worldview strongly differed from that of the military and conservative elements of the conspiracy, Gustav Dahrendorf, an SPD member who joined the conspiracy, wrote that the SPD made a "pact with the devil" and allied itself with the Right, realizing that such an alliance was the "only chance for success" in removing Hitler and ending the war (p. 51). While the conservative elements of the conspiracy had initially supported Hitler as a revisionist who would amend the hated Versailles Treaty, Zeidler argues that it gradually became clear to them that Hitler sought instead to create a boundless German empire and would destroy Germany in pursuit of his goals. That the conspirators resorted to assassination and a coup d'état, "not weapons of political conflict," indicates the magnitude and severity of the problem presented by the Nazis (p. 54). By 1944, Zeidler argues, the conspirators' grievances with the regime ceased to be just political, but became ethical and moral, as they grew to believe the future of the German nation was threatened by the regime's leadership in the war. Therefore, when a potential conspiracy ceased to be "just about Hitler, not about the Fatherland ... but about the entire German Volk," a radical option such as assassination became acceptable (p. 54).
Zeidler provides a decent survey of resistance historiography and some of the persisting misconceptions in the public mind regarding the goals of the plot, but does not go any further. It would have been interesting if Zeidler had attempted to situate the July plot within the changing definitions and conceptions of resistance over the past sixty years. These rather frequent reconceptions have expanded the numbers that could be studied under the rubric of "resistance"--one thinks of the 1970s project by the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, which introduced the term Resistenz to characterize actions that, while not intended to bring about the destruction of the regime, nevertheless limited its ability to act effectively. In addition to Broszat's use of Resistenz, historians have also introduced terms such as "protest," "opposition," "refusal," and "non-conformity" to assess the myriad of ways in which Germans interacted with the regime . In general, it would have been helpful to read a discussion of how historiographical trends have influenced scholarly and public views of the conspiracy, especially in their tendency to focus on the effects of resistance, rather than the intent of participants in it.
Given that this aspect of German history is so well documented, it would also have been helpful had Zeidler offered some thoughts on possible future areas of inquiry for scholars interested in the German resistance. Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, with an extensive bibliography and appendix of primary sources, this work serves as a decent introductory survey for scholars interested in the German resistance.
. See Martin Broszat, "Resistenz und Widerstand," in Bayern in der NS-Zeit: IV, Herrschaft und Gesellschaft im Konflikt, Teil C, ed. Martin Broszat, Elke Fröhlich, and Anton Grossmann (Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 1981).
. See Detlev J. K. Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition and Racism in Everyday Life, trans. Richard Deveson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).
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