An Honourable Defeat:
A History of German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-1945
The numbers were small, and their cause hopeless. Scattered across the landscape that was Nazi Germany, the Resistance looked puny: too little, too late. And yet it was made of many heroic men and women who were not afraid to risk their lives to stand up to a regime they knew was wrong. For those who have never known life under such a regime, it is hard to grasp the daily terror that makes an act of political graffiti a capital offense, that labels resistance “treason.” Now, drawing on archival materials and on interviews with those few resisters who survived, Anton Gill brings their story to light. Here are union leaders and businessmen, priests and communists, students and factory workers; above all, here are the only people who had any real chance at more than symbolic resistance: those in the Army, the Foreign Office, the Abwehr. For these, obeying the dictates of conscience meant betraying the demands of government, and every day brought the risk of denunciation and death.
For those of us who were born after World War II (not to mention those of us who were born on a different continent as well), Hitler’s rise to power may be forever inexplicable . . . but reading An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-1945 by Anton Gill did answer, at least in part, some of the questions of how the German people, and especially the German Army, allowed him to get — and stay — there.
For me, the book raised more questions than it answered. And, especially in the beginning, the pace could be slow. I found myself wondering whether the gap between what the author seems to assume readers do and do not know reflects more on my education, his understanding, or the difference between American and British readers. I don’t know the answer. In the early chapters, the book dwelt in detail on many things that I knew quite well, especially in chronicling how Hitler came to power. It is by no means as detailed as William Shirer’s excellent The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and I found little here that I didn’t remember from high school some 40 years ago. Yet, the author also seemed to expect me to know more about some of the plots to assassinate Hitler than I did, and constantly referred to details that he had yet to describe and that were not known to me. I also found the organization of the book distracting. The book is divided into three parts, each dedicated to a span of years (1933-1938, 1938-1944, and 1944-1945), yet the author often jumps around in the same paragraph from early in the regime to the end of the regime and by no means always involving the same characters. I’d have to page back and double-check to be sure I knew who was involved, when the events were occurring, and what the connection was between the two times and the two (or more) groups of resistors.
I’m glad I persevered, even when it was tiring, because I do think I have a better understanding now of the reactions of many within Germany to Hitler, to what they did or did not do, and to why they didn’t do more and do that sooner. It is appalling to realize how much harm was done to those who would have overthrown him by those who would have to fight and ultimately defeat him. And, yet, I, too, have doubts about the true intentions of some of those who seem to have plotted against Hitler, and am not convinced that everyone categorized as part of a Resistance was actually participating in such.
One thing that is clear: The opposition to Hitler within Germany was never as organized as the opposition to Hitler outside Germany. It couldn’t have been, of course, and the lack of organization appears to have been a major obstacle to defeat from within. Finally, I found rather a bit of irony in the title, as the one thing those who opposed Hitler within Germany managed to bring about was a defeat with honor. But perhaps that’s the point: Germany couldn’t have honor once Germany had Hitler.
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