With the collapse of Communism and the disorientation of the Marxist Left, a poignant revaluation has overtaken the history of the European Resistance in World War Two. The gradual disappearance of the survivors would in itself have led to a dissipation of the Resistance’s sacred aura; but politics as well as demography is now at work. Of course, the history of the Resistance has always been especially vulnerable: for four decades in Italy it served to legitimate the vision of a Left that could embrace Communists and non-Communists alike; in France it justified the creation of the Gaullist Republic; in Yugoslavia it helped for forty years to hold together a precarious nationhood; in the Soviet bloc it furnished credentials for the Communist Parties that monopolised power after Hitler’s armies had been cleared out. In the early post-war years a source of pride and solace, the Resistance has by now become a troublesome, sometimes tiresome legacy.
Historians have sometimes seemed to share the dismissive attitude once displayed by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. Churchill did not want the Resisters, however brave, getting in the way of post-war conservative governments; De Gaulle and the Poles appeared to him to be obsessed with, respectively, personal status and frontiers. Stalin had a visceral distrust of peasant insurrection, whether it occurred in Yenan or Yugoslavia. Roosevelt believed in big battalions and in co-operation with Stalin. All three were correct in the narrow military sense: no Resistance force was able to stand up to a well-trained SS division. The danger was that they would either provoke reprisals or inspire hopeless insurrections that diverted resources from the steady slog against the Wehrmacht which victory required. In a war whose leaders indulged in many ‘sideshows’, the Resistance was the sideshow they could all agree was unjustified.
Although it still evokes passionate argument, this issue of effectiveness is an old one. What is new is the interest historians are taking in the morality and intentions of Resistance movements. It has become acceptable to point out that their fighters aimed to settle old scores and not just to cleanse their country of foreign occupiers and home-grown collaborators. The transformation has been most profound in Italy, as evidenced by the well-deserved success of Claudio Pavone’s Una Guerra Civile, subtitled ‘A Historical Essay on Morality in the Resistance’. Pavone provides what might be called the phenomenology of the Resistance in Italy, and presents as a civil war (with good on both sides) the partisan struggle which post-war ideology and historiography had depicted as a crusade. The violence of the reprisals carried out by the partisans, previously accepted as a justifiable aspect of the ‘purification’, emerges from the book as intensely problematic, and Pavone ponders its possible impact on Italian terrorism of the Seventies. Conservative or rightist historians had pressed such charges before but for most on the Left they had remained taboo. If one compares Bertolucci’s 1900 with the Taviani brothers’ Notte di San Lorenzo, in which Fascists and Resisters fight blindly with each other in a corn-field, one can see how much things have changed. If violence was redemptive in the earlier view of the Resistance, it is so no longer.
The historiography of the German Resistance raised problems of a different order. The Resistance there was small and fought against its own regime, not against the collaborators of a foreign conqueror. The Left in Nazi Germany did not mount nor could it have mounted an effective mass movement. The conspirators ultimately failed, and those who survived played little role in politics after 1945. Moreover, the most heroic of Hitler’s opponents were fragmented into small cells – some Catholic students in Munich, some Communists, some members of military counter-intelligence (the Abwehr) and of the Foreign Office, some on the fringes of the former Social Democratic Party, the group around Carl Goederler, and the so-called Kreisau circle, which included elements of the Prussian aristocracy. Many of these groups were pacifist and deeply conservative; they regarded Weimar as deficient because of what a later generation might have called an ‘overloaded’ democracy. Some thought that the Jews had become unhealthily influential before the advent of Hitler and aspired to a spiritual revolution that was not necessarily democratic. Most wanted to recover Germany’s 1914 frontiers in the East (if not Alsace-Lorraine). Some also wanted ethnically determined borders, which would mean that Germany retained Austria and the Sudetenland, a territory they felt had been peacefully ceded at Munich.
After the war these Resisters received praise from conservative, anti-Nazi historians – from the exiled Hans Rothfels at the University of Chicago; from Gerhard Ritter, the biographer of Carl Goerdeler; from Werner Conze, the biographer of Jakob Kaiser. But the historians of the Sixties tended to dismiss them. It was easy to show that many of them came from the same social and political circles that had helped to undermine Weimar democracy – above all, from the Prussian aristocratic families that had led German armies into France in 1870 and 1914. Some of their plans for a post-war constitution were quasi-authoritarian; they wanted to retain expansive borders and a hegemonic status for Germany. And they continuously sought assurances from first British and then American go-betweens (hardly ever from the French, however) that, were they to seize power, the Allies would negotiate with them to put an honourable end to hostilities. Critical historians wondered whether the German Resisters really represented a fundamental alternative to the regime.
The same disenchantment with Marxism that has deglamorised the Italian and Yugoslav partisans may now allow a more positive evaluation of the German Resistance. Historians are less preoccupied by the Resisters’ notions of the kind of government that should succeed Hitler’s and, in Chancellor Kohl’s assertive term, are perhaps less scandalised by great-power ambitions. Historians may, once again, be willing to see the Resisters’ effort to overthrow Hitler, no matter how belated, as heroic in its own terms.
This shift in attitudes was revealed at a conference in 1990 at Columbia University where the late Willy Brandt’s contribution above all helped us to move beyond the criticisms that might have set the prevailing tone a decade earlier. A renewed stress on individual commitment and bravery also marks Hanna Beller’s recent film. The Restless Conscience, which reconstructs the story of the German Resistance by means of documentary footage and interviews. Beller conveys the isolation and bravery of the anti-Nazis, but does not really probe their anachronistic programmes for after the war nor their vacillations. Witnesses are never cross-examined; interviewers stress the galvanising effect of Hitler’s Jewish policies, even though, until extermination got fully under way in late 1941, those policies hardly seemed to preoccupy many of the conspirators.
Klemens von Klemperer, an émigré German historian from Smith College and the biographer of the Austrian Christian-Socialist prime minister of the Twenties Ignaz Seipel, was an adviser on Beller’s film as well as a participant at the Columbia discussion. Klemperer has always argued that the essential feature of the Resisters was not their projects for after the war but their willingness to put their lives on the line. They understood that the majority of their fellow Germans would interpret their actions as the betrayal of an oath to serve the Fuehrer and, even worse, as treason.
Klemperer’s new book focuses on the efforts of various Resistance groups to get support from abroad. Although he is always careful to acknowledge that it would have been difficult for Churchill or Roosevelt to encourage the Resisters – the Allies didn’t know who they represented, why they were reluctant to act on their own, whether they had territorial interests – he clearly believes that an opportunity was missed. Klemperer argues that World War Two inaugurated a fundamentally new model of international relations, which he terms ‘resistance diplomacy’, much as Woodrow Wilson’s disavowal of balance-of-power methods brought about the ‘new diplomacy’ of 1917-19. Resistance diplomacy involved a confusing array of mediators who sought assurances from the Allies as the prelude to mounting a coup in Germany. German Resistance against Hitler is an authoritative account of these various strands, which proliferated from before Munich until the invasion of the Soviet Union, working through the diplomatic service, intermediaries in Switzerland or at the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, intelligence and counter-intelligence, and such German experts in Britain as John Wheeler Bennett. But it is questionable whether this tissue of unsubstantiated promises – comprised as it was of many, often contradictory, fugitive contacts, indirect reports and indiscreet conversations – really amounts to a model of international relations.
Perhaps it is because of his fascination with the enigmatic Adam von Trott, whose correspondence with Sheila Duff he previously edited (A Noble Combat, 1988) that the theme of Resistance diplomacy looms so large for Klemperer. Klemperer seeks urgently to justify this ambivalent Rhodes Scholar, who was evidently deeply torn between his ambitions for Germany and his hostility to Nazism. It is not always clear where the line should be drawn between the conspirator and the Trott who travelled, if only as a cover, as a representative of the German foreign service. In the summer of 1940 he went so far as to counsel British friends that if their country were defeated, ‘efforts should be made to secure that some of the best elements in the country co-operate with the new regime’, advice hardly calculated to convey a steadfast disavowal of the New Order.
Klemperer has spent many years interviewing, writing to survivors, tracking down their papers, and studying the larger history of the Resistance. His work traces authoritatively the dead-ends as well as the main threads of Resistance diplomacy. It is imbued with a moral earnestness that all who know the author will recognise as authentic. Those of us who have attended scholarly conferences at which Klemperer has been present recall how at an appropriate moment in the discussion he will rise with his small notebook in his hand to make the point that the conservative or socialist stance of the Resisters was less important than their commitment to political decency. Aptly, this book devotes a significant degree of attention to the theology of Resistance, as developed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others in the anti-Nazi ‘confessing Church’. For Klemperer, the heroes outside Germany, to whose memory he dedicates his volume, were Willem Visser t’ Hooft, director of the World Council of Churches, who was preoccupied by the divisions of Protestantism, and the persistent George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who so irritated Churchill and Eden.
Yet there are difficulties with Klemperer’s emphasis. He takes at face value the assurance of the German plotters, pre-eminently Ludwig Beck, Chief of the General Staff before Munich, that if only the British had remained firm, the plotters would have removed Hitler. Similarly, Klemperer seems to accept that there was a chance that an acceptable peace might be negotiated during the phoney war of 1939-40; and even after the fall of France, he seems to endorse Trott’s eirenic vision of a German hegemony sans Hitler. Finally, he regrets that the Allies never pledged that they would desist from an offensive against Germany were a successful coup to be mounted in Berlin.
It is true that the Foreign Office in London remained dismissive of the would-be Resisters. But what sort of Resistance was it that required such reassurance? If the Germans were brave enough to plot the assassination of Hitler, why were they so insistent until late in the day on having a British guarantee? And Churchill surely was right, once the war had widened into a coalition struggle, to sense that any whiff of negotiations being conducted might expose the Allies to charges of bad faith. That the Soviets were perhaps willing to play a double game did not mean that Britain had the same freedom of action.
No matter how insistently the Resisters spoke of Christian renewal, or how saintly Bonhoeffer’s own stance, Christian precepts determined little: their insistence on the radical disjunction between a fallen political world and a remote divinity hardly stipulated that post-war Germany should be a liberal democracy, much less laid down its appropriate frontiers. Nor did all Christians feel a community of fate with the non-Christians who were being deprived of citizenship, herded together, and ultimately murdered. By insisting on the differences among the Germans, Klemperer underplays the adulation that Hitler’s successes achieved. Churchill’s scepticism about the depth of internal opposition was not short of supporting evidence: he had only to recall the cheering crowds. For all the Allies’ subsequent disillusion with the Soviets, it is difficult to accept Trott’s bottom line: that negotiations which left, say, Goering as the German leader, would have been preferable to letting the Russians into Eastern Europe. Perhaps Trott’s friends would have succeeded in bringing about a more fundamental transformation, but Resistance diplomacy did not promise one, and Resistance initiatives did not even deliver this minimum. Klemperer’s scholarship and commitment can only confirm that, despite their bravery and their piety, it was inevitable that the German Resisters should be rebuffed by the Allies.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.