On September 1, 1939, aggressive Nazi forces, under the command of Adolf Hitler, marched into Poland in an attack named Operation White. By the end of the month, Nazi forces had outdone Polish military resistance and the whole of Poland fell under Nazi command. This act of aggression marked the onset of the Second World War and signaled Hitler’s intention to occupy the rest of Europe. Following Poland’s invasion, Britain and France joined the war in an attempt to stop Nazi’s move across Europe. By 1940, the war had led to the invasion of Denmark and Norway in an attempt to secure iron ore shipments from Sweden (William, 1990). The Germans further advanced to France, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg with Netherlands and Belgium offering little resistance while France initially put up a stronger resistance before finally succumbing following Italy’s reinforcement of German forces. Following France’s defeat, Hitler’s forces traded their guns on Britain with a series of air bombardments but Britain, under Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, prevented the attacks and German occupation.
Later in 1940, Germany, Italy and Japan formed a tripartite pact (known as the axis) that was later expanded by the inclusion of Hungary, Slovakia and Romania (Roberts, 2006). The aim of the pact was to protect each other against any military attack and at the same time attack other countries such as Greece by the Italians, Libya by the Germans, Indo-china by the Japanese and the Soviet Union by the combined axis forces in an attack code named Barbarossa in 1941. The United State was left in the war following Japan’s attack on American fleets at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The United States and her allies responded by declaring war on the affiliation members who in turn, declared war on the United States. The war had gone global and was not to end till 1945. Throughout the war, several countries resisted the Nazi’s advance across Europe. Some resistance came from German nationals who wanted to see an end to the war.
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Resistance was in the form of civil disobedience, formation of resistance movements, sabotage, coup attempts against the Nazi advances and assassination attempts on Hitler. This paper explores German and European resistance to Hitler.
German resistance to Hitler’s ideology and military advance across Europe consisted of small militant groups that had their roots in German opposition political parties.
The groups were made up of movements such as the Social Democrats, the Communist Party, the Anarcho – Syndicalist Union, The Freie Arbeite Union and the Red Orchestra Group (Ian, 2000). All these groups had organized resistance and concerted their efforts by distributing anti-Hitler propaganda and assisting Jews to flee Germany. Their efforts were supported by the German Catholic Church which challenged the Nazi ideology through church sermons although it did not take part in any physical confrontations against the regime. The Anarcho-Syndicalist Union was made up of wage workers united by a goal of opposing and abolishing the industrial system in Germany. The industrial system favored the industrialists at the expense of the wage earners. The social democratic party (SDP) which was Germany’s oldest political party, adopted social equality leading to their opposition to Hitler’s anti Semitism.
The Communist Party’s resistance was motivated by elimination of its leaders following Hitler’s ascent to power. Consequently, most of its leaders fled to the Soviet Union from where they continued to formulate resistance against the Nazi regime. The Freie Arbeite Union was a Trade Union that had been banned by the Nazi regime prior to the war. However, it continued to engage in political warfare against the Nazi.
The Red Orchestra group was a communist-based group that specialized in acts of sabotage against the regime. These groups operated through underground networks and recruited their members from industrial wage-earners. The wage-earners were opposed to the stringent industrial conditions set by the Nazi regime (Ian, 2000). They organized industrial strikes in an attempt to stultify Germany’s industrial sector which was significant to the success of Hitler’s advance across Europe. However, Hitler’s informants infiltrated most of these groups leading to the subsequent arrests and sometimes executions of its leaders and members. This resulted to weakening of the groups’ activities. The fact that Hitler had considerable public support among Germans, made it risky for the concealed groups to execute their activities in public and subvert Hitler’s authority.
These groups found support in the unlikely form of dissenting intelligence service officers notably, Colonel Hans Oster. He was the Chief Intelligence Officer in Hitler’s regime who offered intelligence to the resistance groups and secured escape from the Nazi regime for other dissenting military and intelligence officers. Other dissenting officers were in the foreign office and together they offered considerable support to the resistance groups. Besides the organized groups, there were other smaller groups and individuals who also played a significant role in offering resistance to Hitler’s forces. This was done by hiding Jews in their houses and exercising other acts of defiance against the regime in an attempt to sabotage the ruling advances.
At some point, German youths refused to be engaged in the Nazi Youth League which was a transitory progress towards serving in the Nazi army.
The 1939 coup attempt
In August 1938, General Ludwig Beck who was Hitler’s well-regarded Chief of Staff, resigned from his position. His replacement was General Franz Halder who, together General Beck and Colonel Hans Oster, staged a military coup against Hitler.
The conspirators settled on General Halder to take charge of the coup plot and recruit other conspirators. They found support in Hitler’s army commander, General Walther von Brauchitsch, who failed to inform Hitler of the plan despite the fact that he was a cognizant of the coup plot. The conspirators’ plot was thrown in disarray in September 1939, when the then British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced plans to hold talks with Hitler and defuse the imminent Czechoslovakia attack.
Chamberlain’s talks with Hitler failed and the coup plans were revived. However, support for the coup had waned significantly and General Halder became ambivalent as to whether they would succeed. This was coupled by Britain’s and France’s inflexibility in offering support to the dissenters whole heartedly, but instead preferring a military confrontation with Hitler over Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s subsequent attack on Czechoslovakia and the breakout of the war made the coup plans unsustainable. However, the coup attempt acted as a precursor for another daring attempt that was named as Operation Valkyrie.
In June 1944, Hitler appointed Claus von Stauffenberg as the chief staff of the reserve army. Stauffenberg was not supportive of Hitler’s ambitions and was among a group of dissenters in Hitler’s inner circle. Stauffenberg, together with other dissenters including the commander of the reserve army General Fromm, staged a plan to assassinate Hitler and take control of Germany. Stauffenberg had the task of placing a bomb inside a room during one of Hitler’s briefings which Stauffenberg used to attend while General Fromm was chosen to take charge of Germany following Hitler’s planned assassination. On July 20, 1944, Stauffenberg attended a military briefing that was held at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia carrying a briefcase that contained a bomb. The plan was to detonate the bomb during the briefing and fly back to Berlin to join the rest of the dissenters, during which General Fromm was to mobilize the reserve army and take command of key installments in Berlin and the rest of Germany. The timed bomb went off as planned after Stauffenberg had left the briefing room killing several officers. Convinced that Hitler had not survived the blast, Stauffenberg flew back to Berlin, as planned, and informed the plotters that Hitler was dead.
Despite conflicting from East Prussia, this indicated that he had survived the blast apparently because one of the officers had moved the briefcase containing the bomb away from him (Ian, 2000). Despite the confusion, the coup was carried out by officers who believed that Hitler was dead. They subsequently arrested several Nazi officers and Hitler’s loyalists. The confusion regarding Hitler’s survival was finally put to an end when he made a national radio address stating that he was alive.
This divided the coup plotters with some, including Stauffenberg, calling on the coup to continue and others like General Fromm called on his co-conspirators to surrender. Hitler’s loyalists eventually rounded up the coup plotters who were court marshaled and sentenced to death by firing squad. That marked the end of Operation Valkyrie.
Other assassination attempts
Besides Operation Valkyrie, other attempts had been made on Hitler’s life. One of the key attempts was the one by George Elser in 1939 that planned to assassinate Hitler by detonating a bomb during an event Hitler was attending. The powerful bomb went off as planned killing eight people excluding Hitler who had left earlier. Another assassination attempt was staged in 1942 by Colonel Henning von Tresckow and General Friedrich Olbricht who were opponents of the Nazi ideology.
The plot was to conceal a bomb in Hitler’s plane and detonate it mid air. The bomb was to be concealed inside two wine bottles. The bomb detonator went off but the bomb failed to explode apparently because the mechanism of the bomb’s chemical detonator became faulty mid air (Hamerow, 1997). The explosives were retrieved by one of the conspirators and the plot was not immediately unearthed.
Resistance across Europe
In his quest to spread his ideology across Europe, Hitler invaded several countries notably Albania, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Yugoslavia, Russia, Finland, Holland and most of the Balkan states. Most of these countries offered armed resistance to the invasion while some offered covert assistance to the allies by destroying Nazi communication links and aiding Nazi Prisoners of War to escape. Two cases of resistance and collaboration with the allies are mentioned below.
The Warsaw Uprising
Under the support of General Tadeusz ‘Bor’ Komorowski, Poland mobilized the polish Underground Home Army (UHA) in an attempt to repulse the Germans out of Poland.
They co-opted Russian forces who attacked the Germans from the East with the Polish army advancing from the West in the cities of Vilnyus, Lublin and Lvov. The joint Polish-Russian assault successfully repulsed German forces from these cities and they subsequently trained their sights on the capital Warsaw. However, things did not go well in Warsaw as it had been in the three cities. The Polish Home Army consisted of 40,000 troops but were lacking in weapons with only 2,500 weapons at their disposal and ammunition to last only seven days. The German troops, on the other hand, consisted of 15,000 troops in Warsaw and 30,000 troops in nearby cities and adequately backed by an armory of weapons (Stephen, 2004). The Germans had marked Warsaw as a strategic city (due to the presence of River Vistula that was a crucial communication channel) that had to be defended at all costs hence the heavy military presence (Stephen, 2004). The confrontation ensued with Russian forces battling German forces to the east of River Vistula with Polish fighters advancing from the East with the intention of consolidating forces with Polish nationals in Warsaw.
The Polish assault was initially successful due to the nature of the attack and they consequently captured several German weapons. However, they were handicapped by lack of adequate weapons and ammunition as well as the superiority of German weapons. Moreover, the head of the German forces in Warsaw was Commander Bach Zalewski who was an expert in suppressing uprisings (Stephen, 2004). German air raids on Warsaw led to death of civilians whom the home army was counting on to help with the resistance. The Russian Red Army had made considerable progress by driving away German troops on the banks of River Vistula. However, the Germans reinforced their positions by sending in extra troops who ruthlessly contained the Home Army and the Polish nationals in Warsaw.
A ceasefire was negotiated by the Polish Red Cross leading to the surrender of the home troops.
The Norwegian Heavy Water Sabotage
In 1934, the Norwegians built a plant capable of producing Heavy Water (Deuterium Oxide) that was used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. During the war and prior to Norway’s invasion by Germany, the allies moved what was left of the heavy water to France where it was to be destroyed. Germany subsequently invaded Norway and the allies became concerned that the Germans would use the facility to make Heavy Water and manufacture nuclear weapons. The plant had to be destroyed to prevent this from happening.
In a series of attacks, allied bombings destroyed the plant to prevent production. In one such attack named Operation Grouse, an advance team of four Norwegians were sent to the area surrounding the plant on a reconnaissance mission to guide subsequent attacks. In 1942, the allies launched an air raid on the plant that ended unsuccessfully with the crashing of the bombers.
In 1943, another team of Norwegian troops successfully infiltrated the plant and strategically placed bombs all over the plant, effectively destroying it, an act hailed as the most successive sabotage during the war (Thomas, 2002). The Germans tried to transport the remaining heavy water that was salvaged from the plant out of Norway but the ferry transporting the cargo was sank by Norwegian saboteurs on its way to Germany.
Hitler’s oppressive holocaust campaign targeted Jews who, even though could not match Hitler’s military might, offered some resistance in the form of armed confrontations, acts of defiance and civil disobedience. In May 1943, Jewish youth in Warsaw engaged in a physical confrontation with the German forces protesting the imminent supplanting from their homes to a Concentration Camp. The confrontation was quelled by the German forces that eventually moved the Jews to the Concentration Camp (Gilbert, 1986). In “ The Holocaust: A Jewish Tragedy”, Gilbert (1986) gives an account on how Jews at the Treblinka Concentration Camp obtained weapons and revolted against the Nazi oppressors in August 1943.
Several German guards were killed, warehouses burned and weapons stolen. The Germans responded by shooting 1,500 Polish inmates. Gilbert gives another account on how in October 1943 at the Sobibor Concentration Camp, polish prisoners revolted and killed several guards, an attack that forced the Nazis to close the camp. Another revolt occurred in Auschwitz in October 1944. Jews in Germany took part in the resistance through various acts of sabotage and by supporting allied forces. However, their resistance was not limited to covert practices.
For instance, the Baum Group that was made up of mostly Jewish youth took part in various demonstrations and other acts of aggression (Gilbert, 1986).
End of the war
In February 1945, allied troops crossed the Rhine River and landed in Germany and by April, Red Army troops had taken over Berlin from German control. In other parts of Europe, German forces were overrun by allied troops and subsequently surrendered. Japanese forces, still oblivious to the change in tide, continued their war against the allies.
The United States responded by dropping two atomic bombs on two Japanese cities with devastating effects. The Japanese finally surrendered in August 1945. The war had effectively ended.
The allies’ success in defeating German forces in the Second World War was aided by resistance movements, not only in Germany, but in other countries that had been invaded by German troops.
Resistance was in the form of armed confrontation like the Warsaw uprising, sabotages, civil disobedience, coup attempts on Hitler and perhaps more significantly, through resistance by Hitler’s own commanders such as Stauffenberg. The allies’ victory was also aided by individuals such as Raoul Wallenberg who offered Jews an escape route out of Germany. All these actors collectively contributed to victory by offering resistance to Hitler’s ruthless and oppressive regime.
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