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Resistance in the Third Reich

LAURENCE REES: With resistance, some would say that as long as things are going really well, most people buy into everything, and when things aren’t going really well they need to find a way out.

MARY FULBROOK: You can certainly say that, though I think the history of the failure or the lack of adequate resistance is a bit more complex in the long term. I think one of the things that’s under estimated is the sheer difficulty right from the spring of ‘33 onwards for anyone on the left to organise resistance. I mean the massive terror against communists and socialists in March ‘33 and other things just made it impossible for people who were not well placed and not close to Hitler to organise any kind of effective opposition and resistance right from the very earliest moment. If you look at those elites who should have stood up against Hitler, my view is that I find it just extraordinary that in the summer of ‘34 they took the mass murders of the Roehm Putsch as an occasion for swearing an oath of allegiance to Hitler. If Gordon Brown or Tony Blair had decided to knock off tens of dozens or over a 100 of his political opponents, we would have locked them up, we would not have gone and sworn an oath of allegiance to him. And then to use the oath of allegiance as the soldier’s honour, I find that just extraordinary.

So you don’t have to be unduly cynical and you don’t have to go as far as ‘44 to say what the heck is going on here, this is crazy that people are prepared to buy into a regime and cooperate with it and go along with it in this way. Then when you look at later attempts at resistance, not all of the right heroes have been sung, you know you just look again and again and again at people being imprisoned and beaten to death or tortured to death for their attempted opposition in low places. You can look at people doing their best to spread propaganda, the White Rose group and so on and many others as well, and these haven’t received quite as much publicity. But there’s an awful lot of that going on. It’s when you come to these people in high places who are constantly sort of on again off again, vacillating: is the time right, no, suddenly everything’s going well, we wouldn’t have the support. You can actually then plot that in the way that you’ve suggested which is, well, the summer of ’44, this the only way to save Germany, because they had that very strong ambivalence about being a traitor to the fatherland, which is what it would be to try and knock out Hitler. ‘44 is really when they begin to see that resistance is the only way to save the fatherland, and that I think is quite a crucial shift at that point.

LAURENCE REES: And what about German guilt?

MARY FULBROOK: The anatomy of German guilt is a very interesting one and my slightly cynical summary of it would be that the people who should feel guilty feel the least guilty and the people who shouldn’t, feel the most. And if I can just take one example, there is a woman whose father was arrested in 1934 for being very active in the socialist resistance to Hitler in Berlin and she had to go and identify his dead body in prison in 1943, I think it was. He spent 8 years before he died as a result of brutality and torture in prison. And she is still writing to her school friends in the 1980s saying I feel so terribly guilty that I tried to live through the war years as if I was having a perfectly normal life. She was a young woman and she was still trying to go to parties, she was a journalist and her brother worked with her quite a lot, and then she became a historian and she felt deeply guilty simply because she tried as a young woman to deal with her own personal tragedy of her father being murdered by the Nazis by trying to lead as ordinary a life as she could. So this is a woman who has no need to feel guilt. I’ve met loads of young German students who are now talking about their grandparents generation and who still feel somehow ashamed to be German and I have to talk to them at length and say why should you feel ashamed? It’s your grandparents generation. And yet the people who really were keen to make all of this possible who maybe weren’t on the front line and actually shooting, but who had high positions in the civil service or in industry and who went on after the war to have brilliant post war careers in Germany, never seemed to have had a whiff of guilt. So I think it’s the wrong way round, the German guilt complex.