The topic of the last Levy Lecture for the 2019 season, presented on Dec. 10 at the Levy Center by German historian Anette Isaacs, was “Silent Heroes: the Resistance Movement in Nazi Germany.”
The capacity crowd listened attentively as Ms. Isaacs described how ordinary German citizens, working covertly and independently, made several attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler, only to fall short for a myriad of reasons.
The German resistance movement paid dearly for trying to stem the tide of state-sponsored atrocities in the years leading up to and during World War II. During the 1930s, as acts of resistance and later, desertion from the army, increased, the number of death sentences handed down by the German courts increased exponentially. More than 30,000 Germans were killed by their countrymen.
One of the most notorious German legal functionaries was Judge Roland Freisler. A strident National Socialist, he was appointed to the Reich Ministry of Justice in 1934 and served until 1942 when Hitler promoted him to the presidency of the People’s Court. There he personified the evils of Nazism and became the most feared judge in Germany: Nearly 90% of defendants who stood before him in court were sentenced to death or life imprisonment; 2,600 of those sentences were decreed during the Court’s First Senate.
Perhaps the most compelling of Ms. Isaacs’ stories was that of Georg Elser, a master carpenter, amateur musician and believer in individual freedom. In 1937, four years into Hitler’s regime, he decided on his own that Hitler, Josef Goebbels and Hermann Görring needed to be killed to save Germany. He moved to Munich and found work at a quarry, a job that gave him ready access to explosives, which he stole and hid as part of his long-range plan.
After the Munich Conference of September 1938, in which the governments of Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy acquiesced to Germany’s demand to annex the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, Mr. Elser set his plan in motion. It was widely known in Germany that every year on Nov. 8, Hitler attended a Nazi reunion at the cavernous Bürgerbräukeller restaurant, the site of the unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch of 1923.
In August 1939, Mr. Elser was hired by the restaurant. For more than 30 nights he quietly and stealthily created a cabinet inside a large pillar directly behind the speakers’ podium, making sure it was large enough to hide a bomb equipped with a timer. In the early hours of Nov. 8, he placed the bomb into the pillar’s cabinet and activated the timer. The bomb was set to go off at 9:20 p.m., perhaps 30 minutes into Hitler’s speech. Mr. Elser made sure to leave the restaurant that afternoon. He caught a train to Switzerland, where he planned to seek asylum.
Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate with his plan. Hitler was scheduled to fly to another city later in the evening, but because of heavy fog, he was forced to travel by train and needed to be at the train station by 9:30 pm. At 9:07 pm Hitler and his aides left the Bürgerbräukeller restaurant to go to the train station. The bomb exploded at the scheduled time, killing eight people and injuring 60. Hitler was unscathed.
Elser’s plan failed by only 13 minutes.
The Levy audience gasped aloud when Ms. Isaacs emphasized this point. The difference between life and death for millions of people came down to 13 minutes.
Meanwhile, Mr. Elser had forgotten his passport and was stuck on the northern border between Germany and Switzerland. The border guards had heard on the radio about the attempt to assassinate Hitler. They searched Elser’s suitcase and found suspicious items, and he was apprehended that very evening. Without a trial, he was quickly deported to Dachau concentration camp and assigned to hard labor.
Hitler intended to “save” Mr. Elser for a show trial after the war, but once Germany’s defeat became clear, Mr. Elser was killed 20 days before the end of the war. A monument see photo) honoring his life and sacrifice was designed by Ulrich Klages and installed in 2011 on Wilhelmstraße in Germany at the former site of Hitler’s vice chancellery. It is 55 feet tall and illuminated at night. The imposing work is an outline of Mr. Elser’s face, but is meant to represent Everyman and Everywoman confronting evil.
Otto Weidt was another resister. He was legally blind and ran a broom workshop, and he managed to have his brooms classified as “strategic material” as part of the war effort. He specifically recruited blind and deaf Jews to work for him, and kept many of them alive throughout the war.
An example of what Ms. Isaacs describes as “resistance of the heart” is known as the Rosenstrasse protest of 1943. Josef Goebbels was by this time the Minister of Propaganda and the Gauleiter (leader) of Berlin. The Nazi policies had outlawed mixed marriages, or marriages between Jews and non-Jews. There were many such marriages in Germany, affecting thousands of people. One week the Nazis went out and rounded up the known Jewish men who were married to German women. Most were jailed but some were deported to Auschwitz. Their wives were so outraged that they protested in front of the jail at all hours for one full week, shouting “Give us our men back” and creating a disturbance. Amazingly, the protest worked, and the men were released from the jail – including the ones en route to Auschwitz, who were sent back to Berlin.
Throughout the war, there were at least 40 separate attempts to assassinate Hitler. None of these was successful, but the attempts speak to the courage of many ordinary Germans who recognized how evil he was and tried to stop him.