The Good Germans: Resisting the Nazis
By Catrine Clay
London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2020, 361pp.
A common belief among British soldiers who fought against Nazi Germany during WW2 was that there were “No good Germans” during the years of the Nazi regime (1933–45). This is a view expressed by historian Catrine Clay’s father who fought in that war.
In Good Germans, Clay has found that, contrary to this view, there was significant resistance and opposition to the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. Before 1933, two-thirds of Germans had never voted for Adolf Hitler, and the Nazis lost votes and seats in the November 1932 elections. It was thanks to a coalition of smaller right-wing parties supporting the Nazis that Hitler became Chancellor on January 30, 1933.
However, once Hitler took office, the Nazis swiftly acted to consolidate power by banning opposition political parties, trade unions, churches, civil society and other organisations not affiliated to the Nazi regime. Surrounded by the Nazi terror, with its propaganda and fake news, most of those who had been opposed to the regime tried to keep their heads down to avoid trouble and protect their families.
However, hundreds of thousands of Germans from all walks of life, including Communists, Social Democrats, Catholics, Protestants, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, teachers, shopkeepers, Prussian aristocrats, priests, army officers, factory workers, parents and grandparents all engaged in various acts of resistance to the Nazis, facing the risk of imprisonment, torture and even death.
Good Germans focuses on six resisters: including Irma Thalmann, the young daughter of German Communist Party (KPD) leader Ernst Thalmann; Prussian Aristocrat Fritzi von der Schulenburg; Bernt Engelmann, a Dusseldorf schoolboy from a Social-Democratic Party (SPD)-supporting family; Julius Leber, a leading SPD deputy in the Reichstag; Fabian von Schlabrendorff, a law student in Berlin; and Rudolf Ditzen, better known as author Hans Fallada.
Thirteen-year-old Irma Thalmann, like her father and mother Rosa, was a dedicated Communist, joining the Red Young Pioneers at age six and becoming one of its leaders by age 11. The Thalmann family would suffer greatly, with Ernst being among the 10,000 KPD members immediately arrested in 1933. Irma would frequently endure beatings at school because she refused to give the Nazi salute.
Irma and Rosa maintained contact with Ernst through prison visits and letters before Ernst was murdered by the Nazis in a concentration camp in 1944. Eventually, as active resisters, both were captured by the Gestapo and placed in a concentration camp. The camp was liberated by the Soviets in 1945. Their activities reflected the widespread Communist resistance.
Due to the immense repression the KPD suffered, with thousands of members and leaders arrested, the remaining leadership organised the KPD into small local cells by 1935, with members engaging in various acts of sabotage; smuggling literature, funds and people in and out of Germany; and engaging in intelligence networks such as the Red Orchestra from 1939-42.
By the end of WW2, thousands of KPD members had been imprisoned, tortured and murdered by the Nazis. Due to the Cold War, the role of KPD members in the anti-Nazi resistance was downplayed in West Germany and only began to be acknowledged in the late 1960s.
The SPD would maintain contact with their members through informal sports and social club networks and activities at open-air baths and outings by bicycle, hiking, train and boat. Women played a prominent role in spreading information to contacts. Some even distributed anti-Nazi literature. Engelman and Leber would both play key roles in SPD resistance activities, with Leber continuing his activities even after being released from a concentration camp in 1937.
Von Schlabrendorff, another committed anti-Nazi, was by 1938 a practicing lawyer, but was working undercover developing resistance networks that came to be involved in various plots to topple Hitler. Among those plotters was Von der Schulenburg (Fritzi), who, like most of his family, had been an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis, but by 1938 had become disenchanted by the regime’s atrocities, such as its treatments of the Jews, especially after Kristallnacht in November 1938.
Ditzen, known to the world as Hans Fallada, author of Alone in Berlin, was a famous but flawed writer who suffered numerous addictions. He was a prolific writer who found himself under pressure to write Nazi propaganda, but was just able to resist doing their bidding. In 1944–45 as it became clear Germany was losing the war, he smuggled out the manuscripts of his story A Stranger in my Country, an account of the horrors of the Nazi regime.
Ditzen died of a heart attack in 1947, the year Alone in Berlin was published. He was fortunate to survive the Nazi regime. Not all the characters in this book were so fortunate. Knowing the horrific consequences that could occur for anti-Nazi resisters during this period, Good Germans shows how many Germans courageously engaged in this resistance and how widespread it truly was.
This makes this story so important, especially now, considering we face capitalist economic crisis, runaway climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and the emergence of the far right.