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Resisting Conformity: The Germans Who Refused to Follow Hitler's Third Reich
Book Essay on: Mary Alice Gallin, German Resistance to Hitler: Ethical and Religious Factors
by Lance Kosher
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Lance Kosher
I am a junior film studies major with a minor in history who has been studying Europe before, during and after the Second World War, particularly Germany. The theme of confrontation and resistance against the Nazi war machine has continued to be a topic of interest for many films and television programs, especially last year with the film releases of Valkyrie and Defiance. These films directed my focus of research, leading me to Gallin's book which dealt with instances of those who resisted Hitler's regime as well as describes their motivations for opposition.
Abstract (back to top)
Mary Gallin’s book German Resistance to Hitler: Ethical and Religious Factors gives an in depth study of five major personalities of the underground German resistance to Hitler. Gallin investigates the ideals of Colonial General Ludwig Beck, Former Mayor of Leipzig Carl Goerdeler, Count Helmuth von Moltke of the Foreign Officer faction, Colonial Count Claus von Stauffenberg, and Secretary of State Ernst von Weizsäcker to reveal how resistance was fueled by ethical and moral motivations rather than religious ones. In fact, Gallin includes chapters describing Protestant and Catholic Churches’ disapproval of any type of violent revolution against a state or government. This further emphasizes the break from these men’s religious guidance in an era where one’s sense of patriotism and ethical responsibility were redefined, trumping the direction of religion and ruling government regime. However, despite Gallin’s insightful and detailed history of resistance inside Germany, she also discredits the position of the church against the oppression of tyranny, making it apparent that both the Protestant and Catholic Church systems did little to nothing to resist Hitler’s orders.
Essay (back to top)
In a totalitarian state such as Nazi Germany, it is difficult to fathom how anyone was able to find courage to resist the physical oppositions of Hitler’s regime. With the threat of police power, failure of the court system to protect civil and individual rights, and the transformation of free media into propaganda, only a handful of Germans from different social, educational, religious, and political backgrounds were able to overcome such adversity to bring a change of regime. In Mary Alice Gallin’s book German Resistance to Hitler, she follows the underground movements of the German Resistance that sought to remove Hitler from power while also investigating their ethical and religious motivations.
Through her study of several groups of active resistance comprised of military and civilian leaders, Gallin concludes that these resistors’ motivations were inspired by the “human passion of freedom” as well as sense of duty and responsibility and that “religious belief was not a determining factor in the individual’s decision to fight against Hitler” (Gallin, 200). Opposition to Hitler developed from basic Christian principles and one’s own conscience (Gallin, 79), despite both the Catholic and Protestant church direction not to utilize violence or any type of revolution to remove the Nazis from power (Gallin, 229). Through extensive testimony, sermons, and letters of cardinals, fathers, and bishops, Gallin reiterates the fact that German theology at the time of the Nazis was pressing for other means dissenting peacefully, dedicating an entire chapter on it at the end. However, through her attempt to legitimize the church not supporting violent actions such as the attempted assassination on Hitler in 1944, she also inadvertently proved that the church promoted a sort of passive acceptance to Nazism among its followers.
Since it would prove difficult to investigate every individual’s actions, ideals, and motives to study the ethical factors, Gallin limits her focus to five major personalities around whom other resistors had gathered. They include Colonial General Ludwig Beck, Former Mayor of Leipzig Carl Goerdeler, Count Helmuth von Moltke of the Foreign Officer faction, Colonial Count Claus von Stauffenberg, and Secretary of State Ernst von Weizsäcker. Beck, known for being the head of the resistance, had from the beginning of the Nazi regime little to no respect for Hitler, who he believed was a lunatic (Gallin, 42). Gallin argues that Beck’s code of honor and sense of responsibility ingrained in his character shaped his criticism toward Hitler, who was leading Germany into a world war that Germany could not win. Beck thought that the army should only “serve a political organization which was fundamentally moral,” which Hitler’s policies negated (Gallin, 43). This helped shape Beck’s desire and plan to kill Hitler, relying on the power of the army to check the tyranny of the ruler rather than depending on the individual’s right to do so (Gallin, 50). Gallin states that this type of motivation resembles a Calvinist mentality which is also reflected in Beck’s strong regard for “hard work” and emphasis on responsibility and duty. However, other than these loose generalizations, Gallin believes that Beck’s actual motivations were rooted in a conviction of the unlawful character of the Nazi state and his firm belief to protect the people against the criminal acts of the government (Gallin, 50). Beck, who represents the face of the German Resistance, was motivated by morals and a sense of duty that disregarded the centuries-long religious traditions against the “evils of rebellion” (Gallin, 35).
Gallin’s thesis about the motivation of the German Resistance is further strengthened by the study of the politician Carl Goerdeler, who was also instrumental in the assassination plot of Hitler. Goerdeler denounced the use of Nazi propaganda against Christian churches as well as extreme militarism and racial persecutions and was not afraid to express his opinion publicly. However, as Goerdeler became more involved with the underground networks of resistance, he had to censor what he said. Goerdeler was convinced that Hitler was Germany’s evil spirit and that it was imperative that he be removed in order to restore law and order and save Germans from the moral decomposition of the Third Reich (Gallin, 54). Goerdeler was an optimist who was “motivated by love of truth and justice” serving his duty for all decent and honorable men against the ruling government of terror. Despite being a strong Lutheran, Gallin concludes that there was no evidence that Goerdeler was motivated by Luther’s condemnation of active resistance or any type of religious scruple (Gallin, 57). Instead, like Beck, Goerdeler resisted as a matter of conscience and logical reasoning to fulfill his moral duty for the betterment of the masses.
The Kreisau group, centered around its leader, Count Helmuth von Moltke, was predominantly a youth group interested in social justice, religion, and other primary problems in east Germany (Gallin, 16). Deeply moved by the persecution of Christian Churches, the measures against Jews, the denial of free speech, and the foreign policies of Hitler, Moltke’s motives for opposition were quite apparent as demonstrated in his letters that recognized the inherent tendency towards nationalism among Germans (Gallin, 62). Opposing these tendencies, Moltke envisioned the establishment of a fully Christian state comprised of a new social order based on Christian principles (Gallin, 63). Moltke realized that the only way to bring about this social change was by removing Hitler from power, yet refused to allow this to happen through an “act of violence like that of July 20, 1944,” which would go against his Christian ideals of passivity (Gallin, 66). Even though Moltke wanted to create a solid Christian foundation for the future New Germany, he still resisted the perversion of the human spirit and wished to maintain the dignity of man for the further development of political and economic democracy (Gallin, 67), breaking from German religious traditions and philosophies.
The complete opposite of Moltke’s non-violent stance against the Nazis was Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg who had a deep-rooted opposition to Hitler motivated by his Christian faith and training. Believing that Hitler himself was controlled by a diabolic power, Stauffenberg was convinced that by assassinating Hitler, “he would be removing a creative actually possessed, body and soul, by the devil (Gallin, 70).” Personally attempting to kill Hitler himself, Stauffenberg played an integral part in the German Resistance’s attempted coup d’état. Furthermore, Stauffenberg’s ordered execution after the coup attempt failed proves how the plot was derived from within Hitler’s Reich in an effort to return to a life of law, morality, stable economy, and, most importantly, peace. Gallin undoubtedly recognizes Stauffenberg’s loyalty to his nation and bravery but does not believe his faith was ultimately his guiding hand since she could find little to no evidence of his “devotion.” In addition, the act of murder, no matter what reason, violates the Ten Commandments and the foundations of Christianity itself.
The fifth and final person Gallin selected for her study on the motivations of the German Resistance was Secretary of State Ernst von Weizsäcker. Torn between his religious beliefs, moral principals, and duty to serve his country, with the full power of his office, Weizsäcker devoted himself to the model of an ideal civil servant, making it his duty to not serve any particular regime but the fatherland itself (Gallin, 77). He sought to prevent war and bring about peace despite Hitler and Ribbentrop’s wishes, even objecting to the crisis before Munich and trying to sabotage the Nazi plans to take over Czechoslovakia (Gallin, 77-78). Gallin, again illustrates another example of a participant in the German Resistance who decided to follow a set of morals different from the teachings and traditions of Christianity. This brings forth the issue of whether a person holding an office under a tyrannical government should resign in protest or serve the resistance by using their position for reasons of sabotage. This moral dilemma between patriotism and treason became the focus of these individuals as they debated whether or not they should use their positions to try and overthrow Hitler.
For Weizsäcker, along with the other examples Gallin uses, these men used the advantages of their office positions to secure valuable information to the Resistance movement as well as assert control over parts of the government, causing the base of Hitler’s support to crumble (Gallin, 201). These actions against Hitler redefined the resistors’ ethical and moral views, causing the overthrow of the Nazi government to be actions of patriotism. Gallin concludes that “loyalty to one’s country must not be identified with passive acceptance of domestic tyranny and an aggressive war policy but rather the fearless rejection of such a ruler for the sake of the common good would be true patriotism (Gallin, 201).” This evidence helps to prove Gallin’s thesis that the German Resistance was founded upon the individual’s decision to fight Hitler. These decisions were determined by their official position within the Reich, sense of duty, Christian ideals, and military responsibility to the fatherland and its citizens against the criminal actions of Hitler and the Nazi Party. Christian faith itself, as Gallin describes it, fails to make an impact upon the German Resistance since its traditions and teachings under Nazism did not encourage or support any plans for a revolution to displace the Nazis from power (Gallin, 229). Gallin makes it clear throughout the book, especially in her “Kreuz und Hakenkreuz” and “The Church and Political Resistance” chapters that the church relied on weapons of noncompliance and protest against the Nazi aggressors to try and work towards a better church-state relationship (Gallin, 197). However, I agree with the review by Harrigan, “German Resistance and Conscience,” that argues that the resistance of the churches are somewhat poorly coordinated. The purpose of these chapters is to give the Catholic and Protestant churches a sort of legitimacy concerning the German Resistance. It was as if Gallin, being herself a Catholic nun, engineered a biased chapter on the churches involvement, which in reality, along with her study, had a miniscule impact on the moral and ethical factors of those who resisted. Despite her evidence and argument being well-researched and in-depth, she contradicts her whole thesis of religious beliefs not being a determining factor in individuals’ decision to resist by trying to redeem the church’s image with quotes by bishops demanding Catholics resist Nazi laws, but not to the extent of overthrowing the government. It was those who disobeyed not only the Nazis, but the churches themselves, who are the ones remembered and called heroes because they followed their hearts and sense of right, while others did nothing.
Gallin’s work on the churches passive resistance during the Nazi period serves to highlight the champions of peace and moral righteousness within the nation itself. Her treatise on the individuals in Germany that fought for ethical and lawful treatment of all citizens under the Nazi regime proves that the moral values espoused by the Church in Germany were not crucial to the undercurrent of virtuous anti-Nazi actions. However, in Gallin’s treatment of the non-violence tendencies of the church during this time, the failure of the religious community to successfully unite against Nazism to take any sort of concrete and definite stance against the Nazis is also called to light.
Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/09)
Deninger, Whitaker. The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 15,
No.4 (Dec. 1962). pp. 743-744.
Harrigan, William. The Review of Politics, Vol. 25, No.4 (Oct.
1963). pp. 580-581
Shanahan, William. The Catholic Historical Review, Vol.42, No.
3 (Oct. 1956). Pp. 368-370.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum “Non-Jewish Resistance: Overview”
Michael Hakeem, “Holocaust Part 4: Catholic Reaction to the Nazi Holocaust
(January. February 1993)” http://www.ffrf.org/fttoday/back/hakeem/holocaust4.html
Danny Orbach, “The Fight for Freedom-The Story of German Resistance
to Hitler” http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Academy/1148/july.html.
Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, (New York:
McGraw Hill, 1964), 416 pages. UCSB:BX1536.L4.
Hans Mommsen, Alternatives to Hitler: German Resistance under the
Third Reich, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 313 pages.
UCSB: DD256.3 .M67413 2003.
Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: