My previous knowledge of resistance during World War II was limited to the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and its American counterpart – the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The main priority of both covert organizations was to gather intelligence through espionage in order to carry out sabotage and assist in local resistance efforts. I had studied many different facets of those groups but from the viewpoints of the Allied Forces. Sure, I had heard about Operation Valkyrie which was, arguably, the closest attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life by members of the German Army. [Actor Tom Cruise portrayed Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the organizers of the infamous failed plot, in the 2008 film Valkyrie.] Additionally, I knew a little about the Jewish resistance when it came the Bielski partisans thanks to another 2008 film, Defiance. However, my knowledge of German resistance in general was almost non-existent, which makes Randall Hansen’s Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance After Valkyrie an interesting read.
Hansen, a Canadian historian and Professor of Politics at the University of Toronto, has previously written about World War II. He is the author of five other books, including a well-received monograph on the Allied bombings of Germany called Fire and Fury. The topic of German resistance is not one that is discussed much as Germans, in general, get lumped together. There were actually Germans (both everyday citizens and highly appointed members of the government and military) who did not agree with Hitler and the Nazi policies. Operation Valkyrie on July 20, 1944 may have failed in its purpose to assassinate Hitler. It did, however, proclaim that not only were some Germans against Hitler, some were actively resisting or in open disobedience to the Führer.
As Communism rose to power, there was resistance and sabotage – from spies passing on information to Nazi enemies to anti-Communist groups launching leaflet campaigns in an attempt to educate those in and outside of Germany. However, both leading up to WWII and during the war, Nazi police (Gestapo) crushed the resistance. Like weeds though, when you pull one, more pop up. While Hitler was at war with the Allies, he was also facing the constant threat of internal resistance. The book begins by setting the European stage.
In 1943, after facing off against the Soviets, the German army retreated out of Russia. Under Hitler’s order, the army burned and destroyed everything in its path – what is called a scorched earth policy. While this policy was done numerous times by multiple forces over history, Hitler decided he wanted to apply it against all his enemies. He wanted European cities (such as Paris) to be reduced to rumble, historical monuments were to be torn down, and every German person was to defend – to the death – every part of Germany against enemy advancement. In a September 7, 1943 editorial piece, Hitler exclaimed, “Not a German stalk of wheat is to feed the enemy, not a German mouth to give him information, not a German hand to offer him help. He is to find every footbridge destroyed, every road blocked – nothing but death, annihilation and hatred will meet him” (p. 1-2). As we know now, Paris still stands as do historical monuments around the continent. So, what happened? Military officials, soldiers, everyday citizens disobeyed Hitler’s orders.
In that context, Disobeying Hitler is more about blatant disobedience than actual resistance, something that Hansen does point out. War in and of itself is a brutal thing. During WWII, the tactics used by Hitler and the German commanders (such as the scorched earth policy) took on a new form of brutality. From using starvation tactics against Leningrad, complete destruction and mass killings in Poland, and the systematic murdering of Jews. Hansen points out that the brutality shown by the SS and German Army did two things, “they radicalized the majority and alienated a minority of the German officer corps” (p. 17). While the majority of military officials approved of the brutality and actively engaged in it, a minority of officials were ashamed of the actions.
I especially enjoyed reading about Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel and his disobedience against Hitler. Even though the two had many similarities – childhood backgrounds, World War I experience, desire to spread Nazi interests, and even “vain, ambitious, and self-promoting” personalities – they were also very different (p. 48). Rommel inspired great loyalty from his men as he took an egalitarian approach. A smart, cunning military man, he knew when to stay and when to pull out. At El Alamein, Rommel encountered British General Bernard Montgomery. Rommel’s men were outnumbered, retreat was the logical step. Hitler ordered Rommel’s men to stay and either win (stay alive) or lose (die). Rommel tried one last effort to appease the order before retreating – in direct disobedience to Hitler. This was not the only time Rommel ignored or “cherry picked” Hitler’s orders. According to Hansen, there is no proof that Rommel interrogated or mistreated civilians or Allied POWs. Hitler’s policy on civilians and POWs was harsh and the SS in particular were known to engage in torture and mass executions. However, Rommel would not have none of that – which also earned the respect of Allied officials and soldiers.
Book Structure & Content
Disobeying Hitler is composed of 26 chapters, all of which are given various titles such as “To Destroy Germany: Hitler and Scorched Earth” (chapter 15), “A Citizen’s Revolt: Augsburg” (chapter 21), and “Saving Caspar David Friedrich’s City” (chapter 24). The chapters tended to be sectioned together based on location and topic. If you wanted to read about Paris during WWII, you could just read chapters 3-10. As a compilation, the chapters creates an engaging monograph, but each section could very well be read separately and individually based on the reader’s interests.
Hansen does more than discuss the disobedience and resistance, he also addresses legends and tall tales. One being the story of how one man – General Dietrich von Choltitz – single-handedly saved Paris. Hansen quickly points out that Choltitz did not have the resources to ruin Paris. Although one man saving such a famous city makes for a good story, it was not necessarily the entire truth. In actuality, it was the disobedience of several German officers (Hitler wanted Paris or, if the city was lost to the Allies, he wanted it destroyed). Though it should be noted that Cholitiz’s role, although smaller than the sensationalized story, should not be discounted.
Choltitz did not have the men or the materiel [sic] to destroy Paris. He could, however, have seriously scarred it and killed many more people in the process. but the central point is this: Choltitz made no effort to try. . . . Before Choltitz arrived in Paris, preparations for the sabotage of gas installations, power plants, and telephone exchanges had begun. Choltitz made no effort to continue them (p. 118).
At 480 pages, Disobeying Hitler seems like a lengthy read. In actuality, the book concludes on page 332. After that page, the author includes additional sections: “Notes on Approach, Sources, and Acknowledgements”, “Notes”, “The Defense and Surrender of German Cities in 1945″, Glossary”, “Works Cited”, and “Index”. The “Notes” section is over 115 pages of detailed chapter notes, adding to the overall reading experience. In the center of the book are also a handful of photographs. I would have preferred more as they aid in visualizing the story.
As I am not all that familiar with the hierarchy of the German government or military personnel, there were a few times I had to stop and remember exactly who the person being discussed was and their role in the events. Additionally, a few moments in the book that felt weighed down by ‘extras’ when it could have been simplified a bit. This also caused those same sections to read on the drier side. It is without doubt that Hansen put considerable research and work into Disobeying Hitler as the detailed chapter notes and cited sources clearly indicate.
I liked the flow of the chapters and how he discussed one area/person completely before moving onto the next. I could see how easily this method could make the text choppy but Hansen carefully constructed a well-rounded book. Disobeying Hitler gave interesting insight, backed by extensive research, into topics I knew very little about prior to reading. I would recommend this book to those who enjoy reading about World War II, military history, and perhaps even general history buffs.