Opposition to the Nazis existed but it was notoriously difficult. Dissenters and protestors against the Nazi regime risked both their freedom and their lives.
Despite this, there was a good deal of criticism of and resistance to the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1939. Much of this resistance was conducted in secret because of the expansive Nazi police state and the extensive powers of agencies like the Gestapo. The Nazi regime’s decisive leadership and economic successes also meant it remained popular with many Germans, some willing to denounce others for anti-Nazi behaviour.
Sources of anti-Nazi sentiment
Opposition movements took several forms across different sections of society. There were several resistance groups formed from the remnants of political parties disbanded by the Nazis in mid-1933. There was opposition among industrial workers and former trade unionists.
University halls and campuses were notable sources of anti-government criticism and protest. There was also anti-Nazi activity among some urban youth groups.
Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant, opposed the imposition of Nazi ideology on German life. Some members of these churches gave shelter to those persecuted by the regime, such as dissidents and Jews.
There was even opposition to the Nazis in the ranks of the German military. Some high-ranking officers in the Wehrmacht despised Hitler and there were occasional discussions about removing him from power.
Germany’s largest non-Nazi political group, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was arguably the largest source of resistance.
The SPD was declared illegal in May 1933, robbed of its funds and forced to disband. The party leadership relocated to Prague, where they continued to operate, calling this exiled party Sopade.
Many SPD members also remained in Germany and went ‘underground’, forming a resistance group called Roter Strosstrupp (‘Red Strike Troops’). By late 1933, this group had around 3,000 members. They produced a fortnightly newspaper highlighting Nazi abuses of power and calling on a workers’ uprising to overthrow the regime.
By mid-1934, the SPD’s underground activities in Germany had been suppressed. The Gestapo located and arrested leaders of Roter Strosstrupp, while the Nazi regime was accepted by too many Germans to incite an effective counter-revolution. Another SPD-led group called ‘New Beginnings’ operated through the mid-1930s but continued pressure from the Gestapo rendered it largely ineffective.
Opposition to Nazism also came from members of the German Communist Party (KPD). Before the rise of Nazism, the KPD had boasted more than 350,000 members, making the world’s largest communist party outside Soviet Russia.
The KPD was targeted in the wake of the Reichstag fire, for which it shouldered much of the blame. Party offices were raided, equipment was destroyed and property confiscated; thousands of KPD members were arrested, hauled before Nazi courts or detained in concentration camps.
Despite this relentless campaign, more than 30,000 KPD members were able to continue their underground resistance. Die Rote Fahne (‘The Red Flag’), the KPD’s official newspaper since 1918, continued to be printed and circulated across Germany. KPD agents also published millions of anti-Nazi leaflets and pamphlets between 1933 and 1935, highlighting Nazi mistreatment of German workers. This literature found its way into many factories, workplaces and beer halls.
Resistance in the workplace
German workers who were not affiliated with political parties also organised resistance campaigns, such as strikes and go-slows. These were usually motivated by deteriorating working conditions or rising food prices, rather than ideological opposition to Nazism.
Some workers took individual action by refusing to give Nazi salutes, not turning up for work or sabotaging factory machinery or equipment. The usual Gestapo response was to arrest organisers or rabble-rousers and detain them in concentration camps or conventional prisons.
In 1939, a factory worker named Georg Elser was so incensed by the erosion of workers’ rights that he planted a bomb in a Munich beer hall where Hitler was scheduled to speak. Elser’s timing was perfect, however, Hitler finished his speech several minutes earlier than planned and left the stage before the bomb detonated.
The ‘Edelweiss Pirates’
Younger Germans also flouted Nazi organisations and values. Some German teenagers shunned the conformity and politicised tone of Nazi youth groups, setting up their own movement called the Edelweisspiraten (‘Edelweiss Pirates’).
Unlike the Hitler Youth, the Pirates were not led or organised by adults. Membership was open to males and females aged 12-18, though the vast majority were boys, many of whom had left school.
The Pirates had chapters in various German cities, including Berlin, Cologne and Dusseldorf. They dressed flashily, in contrast to drab Nazi uniforms; checked and coloured shirts were commonly worn.
The favourite activity of Pirate chapters was ridiculing and antagonising the Hitler Youth and its members. They told dirty jokes about them; sang insulting parodies of Hitler Youth anthems and hymns; taunted and sometimes beat up members. The Pirates also engaged in petty resistance, such as vandalism of Nazi propaganda or buildings.
Hitler’s plans for rearmament and expansion won over many military men – but there was a sizeable contingent that still distrusted the Nazis and their leader. From the mid-1930s, there were several abortive plots to either assassinate Hitler or remove him with a military-led putsch.
Generaloberst Ludwig Beck was one long-time opponent of Hitler and his ambitions. In 1938, Beck tried to convince his fellow generals to refuse Hitler’s order to invade Austria. If they did, Beck believed, it would spark a confrontation between the Wehrmacht and the NSDAP that would end with Hitler’s removal. Beck’s plan failed because he could not muster enough support among other generals.
Another 1938 plot was concocted by Hans Oster, a colonel in the Abwehr who feared Hitler’s aggression against Czechoslovakia would spark a war for which Germany was poorly prepared. Along with other high-ranking officers, Oster began planning a raid on the Chancellery. Oster’s plan was to murder Hitler and install a more moderate government. He and his conspirators abandoned this plan after the Munich agreement, which temporarily eased the threat of war.
The White Rose
The onset of World War II saw opposition to the Nazis within Germany expand and increase.
The best-known resistance group to emerge during this time was Die Weisse Rose (‘The White Rose’). Run by a small group of university students in Munich, the White Rose produced anonymous leaflets, calling on intellectuals and professionals to unite and stand against the Nazi regime.
Wiesse Rose leaflets used passages and ideas from a range of classic texts, including the Bible, philosophical works and German poets. They also criticised and condemned the Nazi reliance on terror, euthanasia and slave labour. One of their volunteers, 23-year-old Hans Scholl, accused the Nazis of bringing shame on the German people:
“It is certain today that every honest German is ashamed of their government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children, when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes – that infinitely outdistance every human measure – reach the light of day.”
The Gestapo spent weeks searching for the creators of the White Rose pamphlets. In February 1943, a tip-off led to the arrest of three students, including Hans Scholl and his 21-year-old sister, Sophie Scholl. They were interrogated, tortured, tried and executed, all within six hours. More arrests and executions followed over the coming weeks.
The final White Rose pamphlet was obtained by the Allies, printed in bulk and dropped by air all over Germany.
1. Opposition to the Nazis was a dangerous proposition because of their totalitarian rule and extensive security network.
2. Some initial opposition came from banned political parties, who organised underground meetings and publications.
3. Communists whipped up opposition to Nazi labour policies and funnelled information to Soviet Russia.
4. The ‘Edelweiss Pirates’ were German teenagers who shunned and sometimes attacked the Hitler Youth.
5. The best-known group to stand against the Nazis was the White Rose Movement, a collection of Munich students who condemned the regime in print in the early 1940s.