The History of the German Resistance, 1933-1945

As in other areas of Third Reich history, the literature on the German resistance against Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist dictatorship has continued to burgeon since the end of World War II. Peter Hoffmann, who since 1970 has occupied the Chair of German History at McGill University in Montreal, has contributed numerous articles in German and English on the various attempts to assassinate Hitler. In 1969 and 1970, respectively, Hoffmann brought out the first and second German editions of The History of the German Resistance, the title under which the English edition appeared in Great Britain and the United States during 1977. Hoffmann has extensively revised and expanded the book in preparation for the English translation in order to incorporate the findings of his own recent research as well as those of other authorities. What emerges, then, is the most comprehensive study to date on the vast and complicated subject of German resistance against Nazi tyranny.

Hoffmann, in taking cognizance of the thousands of books and articles written by others on the subject of resistance against the Nazi regime, believes that these publications, whatever their individual merit, all share one failure, namely, an inadequate basis of source material. Such a deficiency where present in other works certainly does not apply in the case of Hoffmann’s book, as its forty-one pages of bibliography—half of it consisting of unpublished source material—would readily attest. In writing what may be the definitive account on the German resistance against Nazism, Hoffmann is convinced that the plot against Hitler of July 20, 1944, and its tragic failure can only be understood if the previous history of the movement is known in detail. Accordingly, the author states that his primary concern in writing the book is “to clarify the course of events connected with those numerous attempts to overthrow the regime or assassinate its leaders which progressed beyond the stage of mere thought and discussion.”

An examination of the general scope of the book does indeed reveal a thorough analysis of the numerous plans for a coup against the National Socialist regime and the planned or attempted assassination of Hitler and his minions. Main areas of concentration include, among others, those plans for a coup between 1938 and 1940, which stopped short of the assassination of Hitler; the views of key resistance leaders and groups on the political reorganization of post-Hitler Germany; the many assassination attempts against Hitler between 1933 and 1943; and the dual role which Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg agreed to play in 1944 as assassin of Hitler and leader of the coup against the Nazi state. Hoffmann devotes more than one-third of his account to Stauffenberg, whom he describes as the real driving force, from late 1943 to July 20, 1944, in the attempt to assassinate Hitler. Throughout the book as a whole, Hoffmann pays more attention to the conspiracies of the military establishment than to those of the various political factions, which ranged from conservative to Communist. He does, however, discuss at some length the uneasy cooperation which developed during 1944 between Stauffenberg and Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, Mayor of Leipzig to 1937, who was largely recognized throughout the war as the top civilian leader of the resistance movement.

Unfortunately, the author’s devotion to detail in discussing the complexity of the resistance movement is not always synonymous with his announced intention to clarify the course of events which eventuated in the plot of July 20, 1944. The book is divided into ten parts, which in turn are subdivided into a total of forty-eight frequently overlapping chapters of very uneven length, some running only two or three pages. Within this awkward framework, the chronology and descriptions of some key events are often muddled at best. Thus, for example, the author at one point seems to indicate that in the fall of 1943, Stauffenberg had a hand in drafting both a list of reliable political figures in districts throughout Germany and a comparable list of trustworthy military liaison officers. In subsequently elaborating on these lists, the author makes no mention of any contribution by Stauffenberg to the list of political conspirators. Similarly, the description of Stauffenberg’s daily progress in July, 1944, is marred at points by a confusing and sometimes snarled juxtaposition of dates and events.

These defects, however, do not obscure certain trends in the history of the German resistance movement which the author seeks to convey. Aside from isolated attempts by disgruntled malcontents to kill Hitler, the assassination of the Führer generally did not figure in the plans of the military conspirators prior to the beginning of 1943. One notable exception to this general rule during the first part of the war is to be found in the plans of a small group of...

(The entire section is 2026 words.)