Pieces de resistance

Conscience in Revolt - The Flame of Freedom - The Secret War against Hitler - The Von Hassell Diaries
September 22, 1995

These four classic works published in reprinted editions to mark the 50th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler represent four distinct genres within the historiography of the German resistance: the contemporary diary, the martyrology, the memoir and the historical narrative.

Ulrich von Hassell's Diaries were first published in Germany in 1946; the present edition in English appeared in the following year. Hassell came from that socially elevated, civil-servant milieu that furnished the basis for the emergence of the national conservative opposition. Despite his excellent contacts, he moved, like many of the resisters, in a fog of confusion, distrust and uncertainty. It was very hard to read the mood of the regime's fissured leadership. Equally striking is Hassell's deep lack of confidence in the military leadership. "These generals," he wrote, "would have the same government they wish to overthrow give them the orders to do so." The reprinted English edition is based on a text that was heavily edited for publication by Ilse von Hassell and the Swiss publisher Max Hurlimann. Although a more comprehensive and better edited version of the diaries is now available in German, the differences are not such as to alter the impact of the book.

Fabian von Schlabrendorff was closely associated with the military conspirators who operated from the headquarters of Army Group Centre on the eastern front. In the spring of 1943, when a bomb planted on Hitler's plane failed to detonate, it was Schlabrendorff's unenviable task to retrieve the device from Berlin without attracting attention to himself. The Secret War Against Hitler was originally published in English in 1948 (German 1946). Of the four works under review, Schlabrendorff's has aged least well. The memoirs retain their interest, but there are also passages of polemic and crude historical argument. The vehemently apologetic tone of Schlabrendorff's book is easier to understand if one remembers that many Germans in the late 1940s still saw resisters as traitors to their country. All the works under review had an important role to play in supplying public opinion in post-war Germany with a positive moral perspective from which to condemn the crimes of the National Socialist regime.

Conscience in Revolt was compiled and written by Annedore Leber, widow of the murdered Social Democrat Julius Leber, with the assistance of Willi Brandt and the historian Karl Dietrich Bracher. The book's focus on individual portraits reflects the preoccupation with individual motivation and personal agency that was characteristic of the "monumentalist phase" (Hans Mommsen) of resistance historiography. But it is precisely this individualism, underscored by brooding photo-portraits and passages from last letters, that assures the book its lasting impact. The book juxtaposes resisters proper with men and women who were executed for momentary gestures of annoyance or frustration with the regime, anticipating the broader focus of later studies.

Eberhard Zeller's The Flame of Freedom (German edition1963) is a work of research-based history, but its intention was also to memorialise and the narrative teems with potted biographies and penned "monuments" to fallen resisters. Readers of the reprint will be struck by the author's passionate and utterly uncritical identification with the political aspirations of the resisters. In a revealing passage near the end of the book he criticises the wartime allies, suggesting that if they had not "succumbed to their own propaganda, folly and hatred", they might have taken the resistance more seriously as a political alternative to Hitler. Such arguments now have a quaint and dated ring.

Zeller's book remains a useful introduction to the subject, but it also reminds us of how much resistance studies - and their political context - have changed since the 1960s.

Christopher Clark is a fellow, St Catharine's College, Cambridge.

Conscience in Revolt: Sixty-Four Stories of Resistance in Germany, 1933-45

Author - Annedore Leber, assisted by Willi Brandt & Karl Dietrich Bracher
ISBN - 0 8133 2185 9
Publisher - Westview
Price - £16.95
Pages - 0
Translator - Rosemary O'Neill

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