The Good Germans

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Tom Segev
Tom Segev

Valkyrie: Hahitnagdut Hagermanit Lehitler (Valkyrie: German Resistance to Hitler ), by Danny Orbach Yedioth Ahronoth Books (Hebrew ), 382 pages, NIS 98

Two and a half months after the start of World War II, Adolf Hitler participated in a gathering of veteran supporters at a Munich beer hall. A bomb exploded there only minutes after he left, causing the deaths of several of those present. It is very possible that the bomb would have killed Hitler, too, had he lingered. The attack was carried out by a previously unknown carpenter named Georg Elser. He acted alone, a simple man who was not particularly interested in politics, but who from 1938 onward understood that Hitler was poised to drag Germany into war and ruin, and consequently decided to assassinate him. Elser was captured and executed in 1945.

Until Hitler committed suicide near the end of the war, there were several other failed attempts to kill him, including one on July 20, 1944, when an officer named Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb under a conference table at a field headquarters in East Prussia. Stauffenberg was acting as part of an organized conspiracy codenamed Valkyrie. There were also some students at the University of Munich, led by Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, who belonged to a group calling itself the White Rose that distributed posters against the regime throughout Germany.

There were others. All of them failed. Most opponents of the regime were captured and executed. In the 1950s, many Germans still tended to condemn these attempts to bring down Hitler's regime, which were construed as "treason against the homeland." But by the 1970s, the Germans were inclined to take pride in these conspirators, describing them as part of the "resistance movement," which seemingly proved that many Germans were actually against Nazism.

Danny Orbach believes in the myth of German resistance. He rightly admires the courage of the few who dared to put their lives at risk for the sake of their country. Nonetheless, this young Israeli historian tends to assign them an exaggerated role in the history of the Third Reich. Yes, the Nazis used concentration camps and other means of suppressing resistance and intimidating would-be opponents of the regime, but the truth is that most Germans supported Hitler until the very end of the war. That is the major story. The "resistance movement" essentially deserves no more than a footnote. Nonetheless, the story is an attractive one, and Orbach tells it well. His book makes for worthwhile reading. "Valkyrie: German Resistance to Hitler" focuses on the personal stories of opponents of the regime and attempts to understand their motives, which is undeniably the most interesting question. The answer varies from instance to instance, only enhancing the story.

One of Orbach's heroes is Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, a fascinating figure, partly because he was a German mayor who was also a Zionist who had met with Chaim Weizmann. Goerdeler quit as mayor of Leipzig in 1937, preferring to tender his resignation rather than follow a Nazi order to remove a statue of Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn from one of the city squares. Goerdeler opposed persecution of Jews, although he did not believe that all Jews were worthy of the same rights as German citizens. He supported Zionism partly because he viewed it as a good way to be rid of the Jews, a phenomenon Theodor Herzl had foreseen many years earlier, when he predicted that the greatest supporters of Zionism would be the anti-Semites.

When did they act?

In this context, it would be interesting to know the extent to which Hitler's opponents acted in response to the war crimes of the Third Reich, including the annihilation of the Jews, as opposed to the extent to which they acted only when it became clear to them that Germany was about to lose the war. Orbach's stand is clear: Time and time again, he seeks to prove that opposition to the genocide of the Jews was a primary motive. He relies, among other things, on documents discovered in recent years in archives from the former Soviet Union.

Orbach is impressed with Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of military intelligence, who was executed for his part in the July 20 conspiracy. He and his aides helped to rescue Jews (including by getting them to Spain ). However, it appears their activities were legal and did not involve a risk to their own lives. They saw in the 1940 rescue of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was stuck in occupied Warsaw, an operation that could improve links between the Third Reich and the United States; the Chabad movement in the United States was doing everything it could to save the rabbi, and America had not yet joined the war. Canaris and his men were personally acquainted with some of the Jews, whom they rescued in conscience-cleansing acts of personal protection; they succeeded in saving one woman after receiving a personal authorization from Adolf Eichmann himself.

Claus von Stauffenberg, who is now a well-known figure thanks to the 2008 film "Valkyrie," comes across in Orbach's book as being even more like Tom Cruise,who played him in the movie, than Cruise himself. Orbach dismisses an anti-Semitic letter that was written by Stauffenberg, arguing that it merely rehashes trite Nazi cliches. This constitutes the weak point of Orbach's book. There were those who opposed the regime even before the war broke out, but there is no reason to assume the conspirators would ever have tried to liquidate Hitler had they believed that Germany could both win the war and murder the Jews.

The subject of resistance to the Nazi regime could have given rise to a long series of philosophical questions about refusal to follow orders, not only in the government and the army, but also in the daily life of every citizen. Orbach does not take his book in that direction, and that's a good thing. The one exception is a single sentence, at the end of the book, in which he states that someday "every society" may find itself needing people like Stauffenberg and his colleagues. That's a sentence that calls out for either explanation or deletion, and is proof of the need for more meticulous editing. The same is true for this sentence: "Nor is it possible to discount the weight of Nazi ideology in Hitler's perception of the world." Elsewhere, Orbach expresses "astonishment" at the fact that the conspirators against Hitler did not receive a fair trial. There are also various haphazard inaccuracies that were not filtered out.

Part of history

Orbach is a young man, and judging by his appearance on television, he is a historiography wunderkind of sorts. He has a B.A. in general history and Asia studies; he studied for two years at the University of Tokyo and has begun doctoral studies in history at Harvard. In 2003, Orbach got several historians to appeal to the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous, the Yad Vashem committee that designates the "Righteous Among the Nations," to state their objections to the Israeli Holocaust museum's decision not to grant the title to one of Canaris' cohorts. Orbach's efforts led to a reversal of the decision, and Hans von Dohnanyi was posthumously awarded the title.

"This was the first recognition ever granted by the Yad Vashem institution to the resistance movement in Germany," writes Orbach. Actually, the title has been awarded to more than 400 Germans, nearly all of them simple people who acted in accordance with their own conscience and instincts of decency, often at great risk to themselves. For Orbach, this is inadequate. He demands that the title be conferred on Canaris himself.

"The time has come to recognize the fact that in the heart of the heavy Nazi gloom, even in the high echelons of the German military and government, there were other Germans, who acted in other ways," writes Orbach.

Tom Segev writes the weekly column "The Makings of History" for Haaretz.

Haaretz Books, February 2010,