The stories emerging from the two world wars are endless and although they have been the subject of many books and movies, they are not nearly all told yet. This illuminating book by Randall Hansen deals with the Germans who both before the war and during it, opposed Hitler and, particularly towards its end, resisted Hitler’s scorched earth policy. It focuses on those “good” Germans who, before the war, tried to warn the other European countries about the danger of Hitler. As Hansen points out, resistance in Allied countries could count on help from abroad, but resisters within Germany were entirely on their own.
Of the three main groups opposing Hitler, their common flaw was to depend on the actions of a third party outside themselves – action that never came.
In July 1944, significant and senior elements of the German military, convinced that Hitler was mad, carried out an assassination plot at the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s military establishment in East Prussia. The plot extended well beyond the conference room in which a bomb exploded. The conspirators had made arrangements for the takeover of Berlin and the arrest of the SS and SD in Paris. Immediately after the bombing, convinced that Hitler could not have survived, the takeover was triggered, with disastrous results. Four senior officers died of their injuries in the explosion but Hitler escaped relatively unscathed. The plotters and suspected plotters were arrested, tortured and 4980 individuals were executed as a result of the assassination attempt.
Although they helped him to power much of the German military had come to despise Hitler. While they were well trained and willing to kill to accomplish a military goal, they finally realized that Hitler’s object was, in fact, the killing itself. Hitler order the liquidation of millions of citizens of occupied countries. And as the Allies advanced after the successful D-Day landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944, Hitler insisted that every city and town be defended to the last man, and that no facilities be left to the allies – in effect, that cities and towns be turned to rubble.
Some German officers resisted this call. Notably, in Paris, General Dietrich von Cholitz, while claiming to be planning the destruction of Paris, as ordered by Hitler, in fact did little to prevent the entry of the Allies to the City. He believed the war was lost and the destruction of this beautiful city was pointless. As a result of his action, or inaction and those of others, Paris was saved. He surrendered the city to the Allies in August 1944. Hansen notes that many French lives were likely lost as a result of the insistence by the Communists that an uprising continue. Cholitz was actually waiting for the arrival of the Allied army.
Cholitz survived the war, but other resisting officers were not so lucky. Lieutenant Colonel Josef Ritter von Gadolla, responsible for the defence of Gotha, in the German heartland, tried several times to surrender his city to prevent its total destruction. He was stopped by the SS and a German reserve company. The city was saved , but Gadolla was executed for treason.
This book is an important addition to the annals of World War II. Its contents may be known to many historians, but in the popular imagination, all Germans bought into Hitler’s mad dreams. As Hitler rose to power, these resisters were a lonely group but finally important in sparing cities and lives.
Disobeying Hitler is well written and compelling, but it sometimes seems not to be sure whether it wants to be an academic study or a populist account. It is very detailed and will be of particular interest to World War II buffs, but it is also an important read for the general public.
Disobeying Hitler is published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited