The remnants of Communist and Social Democratic organizations sought to maintain underground networks capable – at least – of spreading anti-Nazi literature and gathering information on the success or failure of Nazi measures. Over time, other pockets of opposition developed among those Germans who were deeply troubled by the Nazi regime on the basis of strongly held political, ethical, and religious beliefs. A group of once powerful army officers under the effective leadership of Ludwig Beck (1880-1944), who resigned as chief of the army general staff in 1938, considered trying to remove Hitler by force in order to prevent war, but they failed to attract a critical mass among the military elite. Like other resisters, they were hampered by Hitler’s popularity and his various diplomatic triumphs.
At first, German military victories bolstered public confidence in the regime. The prewar distinction between activity considered treasonous by the regime [Hochverrat] and treason against the nation [Landesverrat] seemed to vanish once German soldiers, sailors, and pilots were engaged on the fronts. For some officers, the oath of loyalty they had sworn personally to Hitler (this was introduced in August 1934, immediately after Hindenburg’s death) was another inducement to shun the resistance. Moreover, plotting against the regime during wartime meant risking one’s reputation, since resisters would surely be depicted as trying to stab the German military in the back – Hitler’s standard (false) accusation against the revolutionaries of November 1918. And, of course, it also meant risking execution (and the execution of family members).
Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) drew attention to the spiritual isolation of those opposed to Nazism. He tried to explain the apparent lack of German “civil courage” by referring to the traditional German understanding of freedom – freedom that failed to call for individual responsibility. As a member of the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer was banned from preaching and teaching, but he managed for a while to continue his work illegally. During the war, he became involved with the resistance movement based in the Office of Military Intelligence of the High Command of the Wehrmacht. On April 5, 1943, the Gestapo arrested Bonhoeffer for undermining military morale. After being imprisoned for two years, he was executed on April 8, 1945, only a month before the war in Europe ended.
Based at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, the White Rose was one of Germany’s most articulate resistance groups. Its core consisted of five students, siblings Hans (1918-1943) and Sophie Scholl (1921-1943), Alexander Schmorell (1917-1943), Christoph Probst (1919-1943), and Willi Graf (1918-1943); they were later joined by Professor Karl Huber (1893-1943). The group mailed and distributed a series of six broadsheets that aimed to inform citizens and encourage active resistance. Their fifth broadsheet, issued in January 1943, is notable for the certainty with which it states that Germany was destined for military defeat. It is also significant that the broadsheet refers only fleetingly to the fate of the Jews – presumably the authors believed that this information was already public knowledge.