On July 20, 1944, Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was executed in the courtyard of the Third Reich’s military headquarters in Berlin for attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler. A member of the unsuccessful plot to overthrow the Nazi government — codenamed Operation Valkyrie — Stauffenberg was shot by a firing squad along with his co-conspirators, and their bodies were dumped in a shallow grave.
Most discussions of German resistance during World War II end here, with the failed July 20 plot and the subsequent execution of its leaders. And yet this was far from the last act of disobedience carried out against the Nazi regime, as Randall Hansen reveals in his fascinating new book. Although “resistance” as a commitment to regime change all but ended with Stauffenberg, Hansen shows that if we consider resistance as disobedience — of orders to detonate a bridge, to wreck a factory, to destroy a harbor or to defend a city to the last man — then a very different picture emerges.
Resistance-as-disobedience continued, and indeed increased, throughout late 1944 and early 1945. And it had a more profound and lasting material effect on the war and its aftermath than did the military resistance culminating in Stauffenberg’s attempt on Hitler’s life. From the refusal to destroy Paris and key locations in southern France to the unwillingness to implement a scorched earth policy on German soil, disobedience in the Third Reich manifested in numerous ways after 1944, and ultimately impacted the course of the war by saving thousands of Allied and German lives, keeping supply lines open, and preserving cities and infrastructure.
In a period of thorough and at times fanatical obedience, the few instances of disobedience against the Nazi regime become all the more striking. Considering various forms of oppostion across the Western Front, Disobeying Hitler is a significant contribution to the literature on German resistance.
As the Allies approached Germany in September 1944, Hitler ordered two responses: defend and, failing that, destroy. The problem with the former was that the German army had already led — and put – exponentially more of its own soldiers to death than it had in World War I; it was running out of manpower.
Hitler responded by increasing the Nazi Party’s control over military strategy and by raising a militia. A September 20, 1944, decree announced that in the event of enemy forces reaching Reich territory, executive power would be transferred from the military commanders to the Reich Defence Commissioners (Reichsverteidigungskommissare), a position previously created by Hitler.
These were the Gauleiter, who were appointed by Hitler and answered to his secretary and chief of the Nazi Party Chancellery, Martin Bormann. In bestowing the title and authority of the Reich Defence Commissioner on most of his Gauleiter, Hitler hoped to establish them as rival commanders to the army. This was a further attempt to extend party influence over the army, and the army leadership was deter- mined to resist it.
A further Fuhrer decree, on September 25, 1944, authorized the creation of what came to be known as the Volkssturm, a militia organized by the Nazi Party from men who were not actively in military service.
The suggestion first came from Heinz Guderian, Chief of the Army General Staff, who wanted permission for the Wehrmacht to form a large militia in eastern Germany to raise manpower to the point where a long, defensive battle against the Soviets could be sustained. Bormann convinced Hitler that a militia under army control would lack the necessary zeal. The September 25 Fuhrer decree granted Bormann control over administrative and organizational matters and Himmler control of military matters.
In practice, however, the Volkssturm came under Bormann’s control. Partly through exploiting the ambiguity in “organization,” and partly through pure guile and determination, Bormann sidelined the SS.
Himmler gave up by December 1944 and noted that the organization had become “an instru- ment of power for Bormann . . . and the SS had no interest in it.” The matter was actually not that clear: although Bormann had the most power, the Gauleiter and Kreisleiter (who answered to Bormann but also retained some independence of action), the Wehrmacht, the SS, and – insofar as he protected labourers from conscription — even Albert Speer had some influence on the deployment of the Volkssturm.“
What was clear was that all civilian men between the ages of sixteen and sixty were to be called up, and these ill-trained, badly equipped “soldiers,” who had not been drafted into the army for good reasons, were ordered to defend the fatherland. Army commanders generally thought little of them.“ Most Volkssturm fired only enough ammunition to get themselves, and less often Allied soldiers, killed, to take out the occasional enemy tank, and to anger the Allies enough to launch an artillery barrage. The latter often heralded the total destruction of Germany’s already ravaged cities.
It was, perversely, a prospect that Hitler welcomed. On those occasions when he would entertain the possibility of defeat, “scorched earth” — the destruction of all public, industrial, and military infrastructure by a retreating army — had been Hitler’s backup plan for all fronts.“ This continued to hold true even when those fronts withdrew into Germany itself. On September 7, 1944, Hitler ordered that a ruthless scorched-earth policy be applied to German territory. Everything was to be destroyed: industrial facilities, bridges, gas distribution systems, waterworks, power plants, museums, theatres, opera houses, and all records.