There was a time – in my youth – in which everyone had some sense – however simplistic - of what the Nazis were and what they did. That was because World War II was still an important part of popular fiction and dramatisations. For some time however the topic has been off the agenda of popular culture. Now it seems to be back and we will be seeing a number of movies focusing on that time with Valkyrie as the first to hit cinemas.
I am one of those who is a bit wary of Tom Cruise movies. However Cruise can act well and can appear in decent movies. Valkyrie is a case-in-point. There is an excellent supporting cast including the fantastic and versatile Bill Nighy. I have never been a huge fan of war movies but Valkyrie is more of a spy movie if anything. The focus is on the intrigue and suspense of the upper echelons of the Third Reich surrounding the last of several assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler.
For ages I have known that the Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (played by Cruise) attempted to kill Hitler using a briefcase bomb in the Wolf’s Lair military bunker in July of 1944. What is new to me is that the assassination attempt was simply part of a much bigger plan to overthrow the Nazi Party and the Schutzstaffel (SS) by activating an existing military contingency plan (Operation Valkyrie) to use the reserve army to put down any attempted coup-de-tat. The movie focuses on all the delicate ins and outs of an operation in which timing is everything and (as one character remarks) military operations never go to plan.
The setting has an authentic feel and some of my favourite scenes are ones involving incidental characters. In particular the typing pool of the telegraph office which must convey orders all over the Reich is shown many times as command and counter-command are issued and the tension mounts.
Ultimately however I am interested in other forms of resistance than those depicted in Valkyrie. The military figures involved were in the best position of anyone in Germany to overthrow the Nazi regime both in the sense of the power position they were in and in the sense that they were warriors accustomed to dangerous decision-making. What interests me more is those civilians who resisted the regime even if they never had any hope of success.
Resistance took many forms in Germany. At one end of the scale was attempting to kill Hitler. At the other end was small acts like that of an ordinary shopper ensuring she was over-laden with bags so as to never have to give the Hitler salute. How effective such acts of defiance are depends on ones criteria. An assassination attempt will definitely have an immediate effect. Preserving ones own sense of independence in the face of totalitarian control of all aspects of life may only be worthwhile once the regime is gone and civil society needs dedicated citizens to resurrect it.
Resistance in Nazi Germany was fragmented and scant. It came from Germans of very different walks-of-life from soldiers like Colonel von Stauffenberg to clerics like Dietrich Bonhoeffer to entrepreneurs like Oskar Schindler. The story however that interests me the most is that of The White Rose…
The White Rose were a youth group – a handful of Munich uni students and a few supportive academics who for several months during 1943-44 produced and distributed pamphlets condemning the Nazi regime on moral grounds and calling for a return to human rights and the rule-of-law (rather than the arbitrary use of power that existed under the Nazis). These pamphlets were distributed in several cities and drew the attention of the Gestapo. Eventually the regime discovered who the White Rose were and most participants were executed.
One of the prime-movers of the group was Sophie Scholl whose story has been dramatized in a recent German film (which I must get my hands on). She was twelve at the time the Nazis abolished all political opposition. She was a teenager while Jews, Roma, queers, the disabled, and political dissidents were persecuted and killed. A background of oppression was the norm in her society and yet the defining activity of her young adulthood was to oppose and condemn that regime (for which she was executed at the age of 22). The contrasts markedly for me with Von Stauffenberg who was 26 as the Nazis came to power.
I think that resistance is “better late than never” but it seems that the best time to resist oppression is at the smallest indication that it is happening rather than once it is entrenched. There were all sorts of factors that contributed to the rise of the Third Reich that make it difficult to say that Germans should have known better. Changes can happen in incremental ways and then once the full implications of those changes become clear it may be too late to challenge them (safely).
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Nonetheless I think the more one has a sense of the signs the better one can prevent oppression from taking root. There is still plenty of it in the world today so limiting it is still as important now as it was last century.