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Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance after Operation Valkyrie

Operation Valkyrie – the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and popularized in the 2008 film Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise  happened nearly 70 years ago.

Randall Hansen’s latest book, Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance After Operation Valkyrie is about the period following the last attempt on Hitler’s life and the impact German resistance had on the final months of World War II.        

Hansen is a professor of political science and director of the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Affairs at the Munk School of Global Affairs. His research examines migration and citizenship, demographics and population policy, and the effect of war on civilian populations.

Writer Kelly Rankin spoke to Hansen about his research, Disobeying Hitler, and what drives people to disobey authoritarian regimes.

Tell us a bit about your research. How does your work on immigration and integration in Europe and North America relate to your research into German history, in particular during and after World War II?

In all my research, I am not much interested in contrasting good and evil, ‘us’ and ‘them’ but, rather, in exploring the interaction of the powerful and the powerless.

For example, my work on immigration examines the effect of public policy on migrants. My book on bombing, Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-1945, examined both Allied and German strategy during the air war and the experience of living through carpet-bombing in Britain and Germany. My work on eugenics and sterilization told the story from the perspective of leading eugenicists, doctors who coercively sterilized people with mental disabilities, and the sterilization victims themselves. And Disobeying Hitler looks, in part, at how average Germans experienced the last months of the Second World War. 

What inspired you to write Disobeying Hitler? And why is it important to tell this story?

Well, I’ve long had a personal fascination with the German resisters who gave up their lives trying to stop Hitler. Why, when so many slavishly followed Hitler to the awful end, did others consciously risk everything to stop him simply to show the world that there was another Germany?

But there’s been a lot of work on the July 20 attempt on Hitler’s life and the events leading up to it. It’s been largely assumed that there was no resistance after that date. I began with the hunch that there was more resistance than scholars had allowed; there was, and it had a material impact on both the course of the war and German recovery after it. 

I was also interested in questions of broader appeal: how do people react when military duty and citizenship demand that they obey orders that they know to be irrational and immoral? How do they resolve the conflict between their citizenship and their consciences? And how, if it all, does the process differ between senior military officers on the one hand and ordinary people on the other?

So, the book matters both for a fuller, and perhaps more nuanced, account of the last year of the war and for a broader understanding of how and why people disobey authoritarian regimes. 

Would you say more about what drives people to disobey authoritarian regimes?

There’s a large and complex literature on this point in political science, but the central conclusion of the book concerns the moment when regimes crumble under external or internal pressure. At that moment, as chains of command break down and the old regime shows its weaknesses, the bar to resistance lowers and more people disobey. It’s an exciting and hopeful moment, but also a dangerous one because what follows can either be stability (Germany, Japan) or political chaos and/or sectarian violence (Libya, Syria, and in a more complicated way Egypt).

Would you call Operation Valkyrie a catalyst for German resistance?

Without a doubt it was.

In the military, Dietrich von Choltitz, commander of Paris, knew and respected Claus von Stauffenberg (the leader of the Valkyrie plot). Many of his subordinates in Paris had actually been directly involved in the events of July 20 in Paris, when the entire SS and Gestapo was arrested and the German resisters prepared to hand Paris over to the Allies. Among average citizens, many saw themselves picking up the torch of resistance that had fallen from Stauffenberg’s failing hands.

Is there any evidence of a German resistance before Valkyrie? 

Absolutely.

The first resisters to Hitler and the Nazis emerged from the political left – Social Democrats and Communists; the Gestapo, relying on informants, arrested most of them, and many died in concentration camps.

The Kreisau Circle was a group of aristocratic resisters, including the famous Adam von Trott zu Solz and Helmuth James Graf von Moltke. They were opposed to killing Hitler. They thought Germany had to be totally defeated and met to write about how to create a postwar Germany.

We also shouldn’t forget Georg Elser, a lone working-class resister, who came within a hair’s breadth of killing Hitler in a Munich pub in 1939. In the Wehrmacht (the German military), there were resisters from the mid- to late 1930s, and the first plan to depose Hitler dated to 1938. It involved waiting for the Allies to reject Hitler’s debates for the Sudetenland at Munich and then to arrest him. However, it didn’t work out that way.

There was a similar plan for 1939, but Hitler’s stunning victories in Poland and, in 1940, in Western Europe scuttled all resistance efforts. The slaughter on the eastern front, including the murder of the Jews, rekindled the flame of resistance, and the first military attempt to kill him occurred in 1943, when Henning von Tresckow planted a bomb on Hitler’s plane; it failed to go off and Tresckow had to retrieve it before being found out.

Then came Stauffenberg and his 1944 attempt. Overall, there were fifteen attempts by Germans to kill Hitler; with what Ian Kershaw calls “the luck of the devil,” the dictator survived them all, and the entire world – including Germany itself – paid an incredibly awful price.

View a panel discussion about Disobeying Hitler with Hansen, Professor James Retallack and Professor Doris L. Bergen.