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Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance After Valkyrie

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Adolf Hitler was a madman bent on destroying nations, enemies, and millions of innocent people. It’s surprising, then, that he was able to retain power until the final days of  World War II.

It wasn’t until 1944, after the tide of war had turned against the Germans, that some military leaders began to plot his overthrow. Led by Claus von Stauffenberg, military leaders in the West plotted to assassinate Hitler under the code name Valkyrie. Because of a last-minute change of venue from an underground bunker to an above-ground boardroom, the bomb von Stauffenberg had placed under a table failed to kill Hitler.

In another military-led move to try to thwart Hitler called Operation Barbarossa, a lawyer and an air force officer alerted the Soviets to Hitler’s intention to invade. Much less has been written about that, perhaps because the Soviets seemingly ignored the warning.

But little has been written about the thousands of Germans who resisted Hitler from the beginning, horrified by his brutal exterminations of Jews, the mentally ill, and the physically disabled. These citizens were driven into secrecy, aware that they would pay with their lives if they dared to speak truth to power. My father had the wisdom and luck to immigrate to Canada when he experienced Nazi hatred for the Jews who owned the soccer team for which he played.

Although von Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt failed, it had a profound impact on the subsequent battles across Eastern Europe. In Disobeying Hitler, Hansen documents how military leaders who sympathized with von Stauffenberg disobeyed Hitler’s “scorched earth” orders to destroy the harbors at Marseille and Toulon; those became crucial ports for delivering Allied armaments. By contrast, the ports along the north coast were all either held or destroyed by the Nazis.

Hansen documents how General Dietrich von Choltitz conspired to thwart Hitler’s instructions to defend Paris to the last bullet and last drop of blood, instructions that would have resulted in Allied air force and artillery bombardments and reduced the beautiful city to a pile or rubble. Similarly, other military leaders ignored Hitler’s “scorched earth” orders and surrendered key cities.

Albert Speer, one of Hitler’s most trusted and intimate executives, used his influence to preserve infrastructure, including electricity, water, sewage, and transportation systems. He was head of the Nazi manufacturing network and managed to save almost all of the factories that Hitler had ordered destroyed. Speer and others also saved bridges from Nazi destruction, allowing Allied troops an easier and faster advance.

Although documentation is more difficult to come by, Hansen devotes a chapter to the internal German resistance along the Eastern front where the Soviets took control. The German populace there lived in dread fear of the Soviet conquerors; in the West, the Allies were often welcomed by German citizens as their liberators. White surrender flags waved troops into the cities, despite the very real danger that SS troops would kill them for even suggesting that the war was going badly for the Germans, let alone surrendering.

Hansen packs an amazing amount of detail into his thesis that the resistance was widespread and effective in sparing thousands of lives and mass destruction of German infrastructure.

I wish the publishers had added an index that would make it easier to revisit accounts related to specific people, places, and events. But even without an index, this is a fat and heavy volume. (Oxford University Press)

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