Patron Saints

Jean McNicol

  • Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich by Alison Owings
    Rutgers, 494 pp, £24.95, October 1993, ISBN 0 8135 1992 6
  • Solidarity and Treason: Resistance and Exile, 1933-1940 by Lisa Fittko, translated by Roslyn Theobald
    Northwestern, 160 pp, £29.95, December 1993, ISBN 0 8101 1129 2

On 1 April 1933, around two months after Hitler became Chancellor, Germans were instructed to take part in a boycott of Jewish businesses. Martha Brixius and her mother braved the SA men at the door of a shop in Marburg:

It was so terrible – such a very large store and completely empty. The owner came over to us. He was so thankful that someone came. My mother really had nothing to buy ... so she bought two small spools of thread. And in his zeal and happiness that someone was there, this man, Herr Blumenfeld, said: ‘Shall I have them sent to your home?’

The boycott was quickly cancelled amid fears that it would affect foreign investment, but it did have some of the effects Hitler wanted: the Times claimed that it ‘revealed strikingly how preponderant Jewish influence is in business life’; and although Frau Brixius and her mother were not alone in their defiance, most people were either already afraid, or not altogether sure that they didn’t agree with the Nazis. Several of the 29 women who told Alison Owings about their lives during the 12 years of the thousand-year Reich admit that they wanted the Jews ‘pushed back’. But ‘that they would be killed, that would never have been the idea,’ Ursula Meyer-Semlies says, after reeling off a list of businesses in her hometown owned by Jewish people, culminating in the coffin works on the banks of the Memel River.

In Berlin, Lisa Fittko had already become an ‘illegal’ by the time of the boycott: she was left-wing and known to the Nazis. In Solidarity and Treason, her account of her years in the Resistance, in Germany and later in exile, she writes vividly, if somewhat breathlessly, of producing flyers, typing the text to the accompaniment of the triumphal march from Aïda in an attempt to drown out the noise; of the difficulty of maintaining cells of resisters which were continually being depleted as members were arrested; and of the anxious wait to find out if those who were caught would betray their comrades. Many were murdered or sent to camps, others were let go:

Then they shadow them. They watch to see whom these people will contact ... Then they strike: everything is shattered, communications are lost. That’s why everyone released has to be ‘put out in the cold’ at first ... What must it be like to be suspected and shut out by your own comrades! To be entirely alone.

Martha Brixius’s trip to the haberdasher was probably the height of her active resistance to the Third Reich. As Claudia Koonz writes in Mothers in the Fatherland, the ‘silent opposition’ – sometimes described as ‘internal emigration’ – which Brixius and many other Germans now claim to have engaged in during the Third Reich cannot be thought of as resistance ‘if resistance is to have any meaning at all’. Brixius herself says that ‘one cannot expect every human being to be so courageous’ and adds that women were less likely to take that kind of action because they had children to think of. In fact, women were suited to resistance, especially in Germany where it was non-violent and depended largely on an ability to evade notice – it also helped that women were thought by the Nazis to be beneath notice. They could extend their housewifely role by feeding and hiding people, they could conceal leaflets in prams or shopping bags, and like Lisa Fittko, they knew how to type.

Conservative resisters were probably quite content that the jobs best-suited to the women in their groups involved nothing more unconventional than cooking and babysitting. Alison Owings spoke to Freya von Moltke, whose husband, an aristocrat from a famous Prussian military family, was executed shortly before the end of the war (his wife believes he survived as long as he did on the strength of his illustrious name). The von Moltkes founded what the Nazis called the Kreisauer Kreis or Kreisau Circle (she says it’s an excellent name), a talking-shop of patrician resisters who were trying to write a new constitution for a post-Nazi Germany – an action predicated on German defeat and thus treasonable. According to Owings, who read the transcripts of their meetings, to vote in this new state one would have had to be 27 and male. Freya von Moltke believes this is a mistake: ‘I know my husband didn’t think that way.’ Whatever the truth, middle-class resistance groups were often anti-feminist and authoritarian and saw themselves as the natural rulers of their country: the Kreisauer Kreis was opposed to attempts to assassinate Hitler partly because they would endanger the lives of those needed to govern post-war Germany.

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