Living until one’s 100th birthday is not given to everyone. Under different circumstances, a woman from southwest Germany named Sophie Scholl, born May 9, 1921, would have seen hers these days. Yet she did not even live to see her 22nd – having been executed for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets on February 22, 1943. This post traces the various forms of German resistance to Nazi rule – socialist, Christian, conservative and military, as well as the non-conformists like Sophie Scholl. Finally, it looks at what remains from the German resistance – in public memory and board games.
The most numerous agents of resistance against Nazism were socialists of all stripes (from moderate Social Democrats to the most revolutionary Communists). They were also among the least successful. As the Nazi regime was ardently anti-socialist, active socialists were persecuted from the moment the Nazis took power, and they made up the bulk of the first concentration camp inmates. The remaining socialists either made their peace with the regime or turned to passive forms of resistance – be that help for the persecuted, underground publishing, or emigration (like Willy Brandt, who would be elected chancellor of post-war Germany in 1969).
One special case of socialist-inspired resistance was the carpenter Georg Elser, who’d joined the Communist Party’s paramilitary organization in the 1920s without ever becoming active there. Elser opposed the Nazis from the beginning, refusing to listen to Hitler speeches on the radio or giving Nazi salutes. As the German rearmament was accelerated and the regime’s rhetoric grew more martial in the late 1930s, Elser was convinced that the Nazis were planning for war. In late 1938, he decided to assassinate Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels, assuming that their successors would be less warlike. His plan was to detonate a bomb at the annual Nazi gathering in memory of the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, always to be held in Munich on November 8. Elser had one year for his plan to come to fruition. He took a job in a quarry and frequently stole small amounts of explosives. At home, he used his technical skills to plan out his bomb and conduct small test explosions in his parents’ orchard. Once he had gathered enough explosives, he quit his job and resettled to Munich where he lived as a lodger under the pretext of looking for business opportunities with an invention of his. While he lived in Munich, the German invasion of Poland set off World War II. Elser’s original plan of preventing the war was shattered, but he hoped that his plan might still bring about a government more inclined to end the war soon.
Elser’s attempt to gain employment at the beer hall where the gathering was to be held had failed, so he had to go there in the evenings as a guest, take a cheap meal, and disappear in a hiding place until the beer hall was closed. Then he would come out and begin hollowing out the pillar right behind the speaker’s place in the hall. Elser remained undetected and finally, after many nights of work, could place his bomb in the hollow pillar. He set it to 21:20, in the middle of Hitler’s scheduled speech. Hitler as the speaker would be closest to the pillar, but the rest of the Nazi leadership would be gathered around him as well. Yet as a storm prevented Hitler’s return to Berlin by plane, the schedule was changed to accommodate a return by train. Hitler left by 21:07. When the bomb exploded 13 minutes later, no one of the Nazi leadership was still in the beer hall.
Elser had left Munich earlier that day already. He wanted to be in Switzerland by the time the bomb went off, yet he was arrested at the border. As he still had parts of a fuse and a postcard of the beer hall in his pockets, he was soon connected to the assassination attempt. Elser was interrogated by the Gestapo and then kept in a concentration camp for a show trial to be held after the presumed victory in the war. When it was clear even to the most ardent supporters of the regime that such a victory would not happen, Georg Elser was murdered in Dachau on April 9, 1945.
Christian resistance against Nazism was a mixed bag. The vast majority of Germans were members of either the Protestant or Catholic churches, yet only a few perceived a discrepancy between faith and government big enough to compel them to act. Often, the opposite was the case: The Vatican’s concordat with Nazi Germany, negotiated in the first six months after the Nazis took power, gave the regime a legitimacy which the preceding democratic Germany had never enjoyed in the eyes of many Catholics. Within the Protestant churches, the movement of the “German Christians” actively worked to align the church with Nazism.
And yet where members of the church defied the Nazis, they could rely at least partially on the tradition and the influence of their institutions which made the Nazis more receptive for their pleas and often shielded the dissenters from persecution. When bishops of both denominations protested against the mass murder of people with disabilities (“Aktion T4”), most forcefully the Catholic bishop of Münster, Clemens August Graf von Galen, the Nazi leadership suspended the operation in summer 1941. (It seems possible, though, that the decision was also influenced by the beginning of the war against the Soviet Union – this was the focus of the Nazis’ plans for their violent racial transformation of Europe, and they might have simply deemed the murder specialists of Aktion T4 more needed for the genocide in Eastern Europe.)
On the Protestant side, the dissenters formed in the so-called “Confessing Church” which opposed the German Christians. The most famous anti-Nazi among them, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, used his contacts to members of the conservative resistance to be enlisted as an agent of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. While Bonhoeffer was prohibited from preaching or writing, he travelled to the occupied and neutral countries of Europe as an Abwehr agent, delivering information about the German resistance. After the failed assassination attempts on Hitler in 1943, Bonhoeffer, who’d been in touch with some of the conspirators, was arrested. Over a year later, after another assassination attempt – the July 20, 1944 one, see below – evidence about his connection to the resistance was uncovered and Bonhoeffer was transferred from investigative custody to a concentration camp. Like Elser, he was murdered when the end of the war was near – also on April 9, 1945.
Conservatives and Military Men
Bonhoeffer’s connection to the conspirators brings us to the next group – the conservative and military resistance. Resistance among conservatives and members of the military was rare, but all the more impactful because of their access to power: Most conservatives as well as the members of Weimar Germany’s fledgling military had hailed the Nazis as the restorers of German greatness. As the regime consolidated its power and adopted a more aggressive foreign policy, some – many of them in the Abwehr – got second thoughts. A military conspiracy to remove Hitler from power got underway in 1938 over the Sudeten Crisis, when war between Germany on one side and Czechoslovakia aided by Britain and France seemed likely. However, he conspirators did not dare to strike initially, and then the western powers gave in, allowing Hitler to annex the Sudetenland – a triumph for Nazi foreign policy, and a disaster for the morale of the conspirators.
Thereafter, more Nazi political and military victories followed. While the resistance members in the military kept planning to assassinate Hitler, they dared not hope for a full political transformation afterward. Their various assassination attempts remained as fruitless as undiscovered.
This is a crucial part of Black Orchestra (Philip duBarry, Starling Games): Conspirators begin as “timid” and have to increase their motivation until they can take decisive action – the most decisive being the assassination attempt. On the other hand, they need to avoid suspicion lest their plot is uncovered and they are arrested.
By late 1943, the situation had changed: As the Soviets had defeated Germany in Stalingrad and around Kursk and the Western Allies had liberated all of northern Africa and landed in Italy, Nazi Germany was firmly on the defensive now. A German victory did not seem likely anymore, and so the conspirators’ alternative solution, pushed by colonel Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg, attracted more support: Assassinate Hitler, ideally Himmler and Göring too, take control over the armed forces (several generals were in on the plot), take Berlin by launching Operation Valkyrie (a contingency plan for subduing inner unrest with the armed forces stationed in Germany) and make peace with the Allies. (The latter might have proven difficult, given that the Allies were committed to accept nothing but unconditional surrender; and given that many of the conspirators were under the illusion that the Allies would recognize at least part of the German annexations and conquests.) Several attempts on Hitler’s life were planned – but did not come to fruition, as Hitler cancelled scheduled appointments, lower-ranking officers were not admitted to meetings, and once the designated assassin’s nerves failed.
By then, the Allies had landed in Normandy and the Soviets were annihilating Army Group Center in the east. Military defeat seemed imminent. In a desperate move, Stauffenberg decided to kill Hitler himself by planting a bomb in a briefing at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia. For his plan to work, he had to get to Berlin as soon as possible afterward to direct Valkyrie operations – a crucial flaw in the plan: Stauffenberg left the headquarters in a hurry and could not ascertain that the explosion had in fact killed Hitler – and it hadn’t. As contradictory reports reached his fellow conspirators in Berlin, they had not taken energetic action. No strategic points in the capital were occupied, and they had not even gotten word out to the forces on the front. Stauffenberg tried to save the situation, but it was too late too salvage the ill-planned coup with its half-hearted conspirators. Troops loyal to the Nazis put down the conspiracy and arrested its perpetrators. Stauffenberg was executed the same night. Most of the other conspirators were put on show trials and sentenced to death or died in concentration camps.
Not everybody could be neatly put into one of these larger currents of resistance (Elser already being an edge case who, while personally a socialist, was not much in touch with organized forces of socialism). That brings us to Sophie Scholl, to whom this post is dedicated. What got her into resistance against the mighty Nazi regime? – After all, the young Sophie Scholl had – like her older siblings Inge and Hans – enthusiastically joined the Hitler Youth years before membership became mandatory, and had defied her Nazi-skeptical parents in that regard. While the outdoor activities of the Hitler Youth remained fascinating to her, her thoughts turned more independent, with a keen sense for justice. As Scholl grew up, her evolving thought rested on three pillars: First, her undogmatic Christian faith, second, her humanitarian regard for those weakest, third, her pacifism. Scholl’s rejection of the military was practiced and argued over for years with her friend (and later fiancé), the young officer Fritz Hartnagel in their exchange of letters, and Scholl’s stance only hardened after the beginning of World War II. (Hartnagel’s war experiences would make him come around to her views over time.)
After Scholl graduated from high school, she performed mandatory labor service, whose dull stupidity reinforced her dislike for the Nazi regime. In spring 1942, Scholl moved to Munich for university where she reunited with her brother Hans who studied medicine there. Hans had turned away from his youthful excitement for Nazism as well, and his experience in the occupied countries of Europe – medicine students spent most of their semester breaks as frontline medics – had made him a staunch opponent of the regime. He and his friend Alexander Schmorell started typing anti-Nazi leaflets which they sent to intellectuals. The leaflets decried the moral bankruptcy of the regime’s war – and the atrocities that were committed for it, including the mass murder of the European Jews. Sophie found out about these activities and joined their dissident group, pushing to enlarge print runs and widen their audience. The White Rose, as it became known, turned to more public forms of resistance. They painted crossed-out swastikas on the walls at night and started distributing their leaflets to random mailboxes as well as sending them to other cities to give the impression of a national resistance group. As their leaflets spread, so did the fame of the White Rose, which was about to establish contacts with members of both the conservative and the Communist resistance.
Finally, they decided to distribute this sixth leaflet at their university as well. They spread them over the floors shortly before the end of a lecture, and Sophie pushed a stack of leaflets over the balustrade into the inner courtyard of the university. The whirl of paper was spotted by a janitor who promptly took Hans and Sophie Scholl into custody. As their leaflets were deemed treasonous, they faced a show trial and were sentenced to death. Hans and Sophie Scholl were executed on February 22, 1943. Their last leaflet, however, was smuggled abroad by Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, the leader of the cross-ideological resistance group “Kreisau Circle”, and the British forces printed and dropped hundreds of thousands of copies of it over Germany. As the White Rose had assured in their leaflets, they were Germany’s guilty conscience.
The Legacy of the German Resistance
German resistance against the Nazis was rare – Germany was the only European country under Nazi rule without a broad resistance movement. As Helmuth James Graf von Moltke observed, national and moral duty aligned for the people in the occupied countries, but they were at odds in Germany – national duty called for supporting Germany in the war, but moral duty required the removal of the Nazi dictatorship.
That broader base of resistance is incidentally also reflected in more board games: In France, the Résistance became the foundational myth of the post-war nation (even though participation was much exaggerated after the war, partially to wipe out the stain of collaboration with the occupation forces). The French anti-Nazi fighters have also been popular in games recently: La Résistance (Mark H. Walker, Flying Pig Games) and the forthcoming In the Shadows (Chris Bennett/Daniel Bullock/Joe Schmidt, GMT Games) are both rules-light games with a not-so-light theme. Other countries have their resistance games as well: The Yugoslavian partisans were the heroes of the 1980 classic Tito and his Partisan Army: Yugoslavia 1941-45 (Dick Rustin, SPI), and in Denmark there was even a resistance game designed during the German occupation! Sabotage (Christian Gabriel Bach/Jørgen Milners/Viggo Torstensson, self-published) was designed and distributed by a group of Danish resistance fighters. The game does not shy away from a hot topic – there are not only the eponymous saboteurs trying to damage a factory used by the Germans, but one or two of the players have to take the role of the guards who attempt to thwart the sabotage.
In post-war Germany, resistance had none of the heroic touch with which it was treated elsewhere in Europe. Instead, it was tainted with the mark of leaving one’s country in the lurch – an argument avidly advanced by those who wanted to justify why they had not resisted the Nazi regime themselves. Even the most passive forms of resistance were suspicious in their eyes: When Willy Brandt ran for West German chancellor in 1961, his political opponents decried his emigration to Norway: “What have you done for twelve years [1933—1945] out there?”, asked the leader of the Bavarian conservatives, Franz Josef Strauß, and added ominously: “We know what we did in here.”
Cold War considerations further overshadowed the resistance. In East Germany, the Christian, conservative and military resistance was mostly glossed over, as was the non-conformist socialist Elser (partially due to him being slandered as either a British agent or the perpetrator of an SS false flag operation by some of his fellow concentration camp inmates). Only card-carrying Communists were acceptable agents of resistance for the Communist leadership.
In West Germany, any resistance was deemed treasonous for the first few years after the war. Under its initial conservative, anti-fascist, and, most of all, anti-communist leadership, the country came around to recognize Christian and conservative/military resistance. Especially the conspirators of the 20 July plot were put on a pedestal (and the involved officers were invoked as ideals in the founding of the new West German army). Socialist resistance was broadly overlooked. Only in the last decades have the German scholarship and especially the public caught up with this oversight.
The White Rose is the rare example of anti-Nazi resistance acknowledged and honored early on in both parts of Germany. Until this day, their members – particularly Sophie Scholl – are held in high regard and have many a public square, street, and particularly school named after them. Is it their dedication to humanitarian values that still draws people to their memory? Their independence in thinking and acting? Their youth? – Probably it’s all of them. Sophie Scholl – and with her, all the other members of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany – would deserve to be recognized more in board games as well.
The German resistance has gotten most scholarly attention within Germany. Thus, all of the following books were published in German (van Roon’s book, however, is translated from the original Dutch):
For a succinct overview which shines in its description of the conservative and military resistance, see van Roon, Ger: Widerstand im Dritten Reich [Resistance in the Third Reich], Beck, Munich 1998.
For a recent biography of Sophie Scholl which is synthesized deeply from all the sources, see Gottschalk, Maren: Wie schwer ein Menschenleben wiegt. Sophie Scholl: Eine Biographie [How heavy does a human life weigh. Sophie Scholl: A Biography], Beck, Munich 2020.
The full text of all six leaflets which the White Rose published can be found online at the German Federal Agency for Civic Education website (in German) and translated into English on the website of a Oxford University student project.
Finally, if you’re interested in the particular case of Georg Elser, the following book combines a classic biography with a summary of the reception of his person and deed and several full-length primary sources: Steinbach, Peter/Tuchel, Johannes: Georg Elser. Der Hitler-Attentäter [Georg Elser. The Hitler Assassin], be.bra, Berlin 2010.