In This Review
Plotting Hitler's Death: The Story of the German Resistance

Plotting Hitler's Death: The Story of the German Resistance

By Joachim Fest

Metropolitan Books, 1996, 400 pp.

This book is not "the story of the German resistance," but of the efforts of military men, of the conservative circle around Carl Goerdeler, the former mayor of Leipzig, and of the Kreisau Circle, led by Count Helmuth von Moltke, to overthrow and, if necessary, assassinate Hitler. It is beautifully told, and it is pathetic. Those who opposed Hitler, and prepared a coup to prevent the invasion of Czechoslovakia, failed to a large extent because the British refused to support them: the German resisters wanted Britain to assert its support of Czechoslovakia's integrity, but the British chose appeasement. Later, the resisters were caught in a dilemma: "Victories, they felt, made [Hitler] popular with the people and therefore unassailable, while defeats laid them . . . open to accusations of aiding and abetting the downfall of their own country." Thus, this is a story of failed plots. The biggest and most extensive, in July 1944, failed mainly for accidental reasons -- Count Stauffenberg used only one of the two bombs at his disposal, and the plot led to the annihilation of most of the resisters.

From 1938 to 1940, the military opposition feared the consequences for Germany of Hitler's recklessness. In 1943-44, they were also repelled by Hitler's crimes, including those against Jews. Many had, at first, served the regime; they ended as heroes. They received no more support from the British in 1943-44 than in 1938: by then, the Allies wanted unconditional surrender and were put off by the resisters' disorganization and insistence on preserving some of Hitler's conquests. The essence of the problem, however, was the resistance's own weakness. The bulk of the army remained loyal to the "legal" authority of Hitler, and the resisters were deeply divided -- between those, like Moltke, who wanted to shun violence, and those who deemed it necessary, or over plans for Germany's future. It was largely an upper-class movement that never reached the general population, unlike the resistance movements in occupied countries. Fest's compassion for these doomed men is moving. He shows that there was widespread opposition in important parts of German society and points out its limits. A large question remains: how much organized resistance is possible in a country ruled by a totalitarian regime that controls the levers of terror and propaganda and enjoys the support of the bulk of the population?