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Resistance in Germany

LAURENCE REES: How important in contemporary German culture is the notion of resistance, and Operation Valkyrie - the 20th July plot - in particular?

NORBERT FREI: Well, first of all, there is no absolute pure, genuine hero around. All people have pros and cons and this is also true for these people who are to be highly respected for what they tried to do in the summer of 1944. But if you look at them more closely you will find that they have their history: some of them were former convinced followers of Hitler and some of them were always distant. I mean, it’s also a problem whether you are talking just about those who were within the Wehrmacht or whether you look for these opposing groups which were part of another attempt to think about a Germany after Hitler, where these two fields come together, military people, civilian people in this case, people from all political strengths.

But if you look at the actual plotters, these people were generally speaking conservative Germans, from this conservative tradition, sometimes with a romantic idea of a holy Germany, a word which Stauffenberg at the end uses, so for them it was not easy to make themselves comfortable with the idea that the head of the state had to be killed in order to save the nation. And this is part of why they took so long to come up with this attempt. But there are millions of plausible reasons why it is much harder for us to understand today why it was so complicated and why they were reflecting so much before they finally decided to do something. It’s an important point that to a large extent they were ok with the war. It’s not that there weren’t enough military leaders who were in favour of the war against Poland and who weren’t opposed to the war against the Soviet Union. The anti-Communism in this Wehrmacht was rather strong so it took them probably right until they understood the meaning of the actual Holocaust to produce this sign. I mean, they knew when they were finally plotting that the war was lost and it was in some respect meant as a sign of morality to attempt to stop it now.

LAURENCE REES: And is there another way of seeing it, which is that they were not attempting to kill Hitler when the war was going well and it looked like Germany would have a great empire in the East and they would benefit? So it’s not quite as simple as 'morality' is it?

NORBERT FREI: No it’s not just morality, it has to do with strategy from the other point of view. Given the support Hitler had for all these years among the Germans, how do you make a very small group of military people accept the assassination of Hitler? You have to overcome opposition from inside Germany. And if you look at the reactions of the ordinary Germans after Hitler survived the plot, they were all over Germany and there were priests celebrating in their church, thanking God for saving Hitler. School children would be brought together in the morning and thank God that Hitler survived this terrible attempt of these ruthless officers. So even if they would have succeeded they would have had a hard job to make their strategy understandable to the majority of the Germans.

LAURENCE REES: And of course these plotters didn’t want a democracy in Germany.

NORBERT FREI: No, Germany wasn’t prepared at that point for having a democracy. There are still people around now, even contemporaries of that time who are saying 'thank God this plot failed', because unless Germany was totally defeated there would not be a chance to build a new and a better and a democratic Germany.