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Many of the key historical questions relating to Nazi Germany revolve around the extent of resistance to that movement by the German people- from the simple- What forms of resistance were there?- to the complex- was the lack of resistance to Nazism indicative of support for that regime, and did that support depend on uniquely German cultural factors or could it have been achieved anywhere?

However, answering even the simplest of these questions is made difficult due to the challenges of actually defining resistance within the Nazi state. Your interpretation of what does or does not constitute resistance will necessarily impact on how widespread in German society you see resistance, and hence your evaluation of how popular the regime actually was. As such, the study of differing interpretations of resistance is of particular interest in Nazi historiography.

The problem is further complicated by politically motivated interpretations in the post war years. Both the East and West German Governments stood to gain from promoting certain views of resistance and ignoring others.

To Communist historians of the GDR (East Germany) Nazism was interpreted as the tool of big business with the intention of destroying the working class (or at least, removing the political awareness amongst the working class that is required for communism to emerge). As a result, the only resistance they considered of merit was that which originated from the working class and in particular the Communist Party (KPD). Military or religious resistance to Nazism was perceived as internal struggling between equally undesirable imperialists with no concern for the interests of the working class, and hence such resistance was of no value.

As previously suggested, such an interpretation also carried political benefits. Stressing the sole importance of Communist resistance helped to justify the existence of the unelected GDR in East Germany that kept its power largely by the presence of the Red Army. By emphasising the anti-Nazi credentials of the KPD before the Nazis had even come to power in 1933, as well as portraying it as both the most active and most persecuted resistance group during the Nazi years, the Communists could claim a right to have a key role in post-war Germany for having continued to resist where all others had failed.

In the West the Federal Republic also had a challenge in justifying its existence to its subjects, as although its government had been elected, democracy itself was not a popular concept in Germany. The only example of a democratic system for the majority of West Germans was the Weimar Republic that had been created after the first world war and whos failings could in part be blamed for the ability of the Nazis to come to power in the first place. With this less than glowing endorsement, democracy was perceived as a system imposed by the western allies to fit their beliefs. Whilst it is not true that West German leaders were puppets of the allies, they did depend to some extent on their sponsorship.

For the Federal Republic, legitimacy needed to be stressed to suspicious western countries that had concerns about the rapid unification of West Germany. Emphasis on military and religious resistance, dismissed by the GDR, was beneficial as it represented a nationalist, conservative anti-Nazism which implied that the majority of Germans had remained loyal to these ideas rather than becoming Nazis and that 1933-45 simply represented dark years that had failed to crush entirely the pre-nazi, respectable Germany. The first president of the Federal Republic, Theodor Heuss, stated that "The blood of martyred resisters has cleansed our German name from the shame which Hitler cast upon it.

Under this interpretation, the highlight of the resistance movement was the bomb plot of 20 July 1944 as the pinnacle of conservative, nationalist resistance. As the East had ignored conservative resistance, so the west rejected the validity of trade union, socialist or communist activity as resistance. This was due to their definition of resistance as the attempts to restore legitimate government to Germany and hence Communist resistance, which if successful would have established another illegal dictatorship (in the eyes of the western allies) was not true resistance. This view, of conservative resistance as the only important movement, was accepted in most of the western world until the early 1960s and remains evident today through a continued emphasis on events such as the bomb plot.

However, with the emergence of a new generation of more radical historians in 1960s West Germany, these views have been re-evaluated and it has been recognised that all forms of resistance had both merit and flaws. The traditional western view of resistance was criticised on the grounds that few individuals openly rejected Nazism outright, and only spoke out when Nazism encroached too far into their existing beliefs (for example, the general tolerance of the Nazis by the Church provided that they keep out of church matters). The Western historians began to seriously consider left-wing resistance, as well as examining groups such as homosexuals, women and the young which previously had been essentially ignored.

In effect, the assessment of resistance moved from considering individual social groups to looking at various scales of resistance and seeing which groups fitted where on the scale- and to what extent groups could range across the scale. For example, a concept that emerged was Alltagsgeschichte – the history of everyday life, concerning itself with small acts of non-conformity that suggested a general apathy to Nazi ideology without being an outright challenge- acts such as telling anti-nazi jokes, failure to display flags on Nazi-introduced holidays or giving the traditional greetings instead of the Hitler Salute

What emerged was a much broader definition that meant a range of activities could be included. The “Bavaria Project”, the purpose of which was to examine all aspects of Bavarian social history under Nazism, defined resistance as follows:

“Resistance is understood as every form of active or passive behaviour which allows recognition of the rejection of the National Socialist regime or a partial area of National Socialist Ideology and was bound up with certain risks”.

A further distinction was made by the Bavaria project’s second director, Martin Broszat. The German words Widerstand and Resistenz both translate to English as resistance, but the first implies taking action against something, whilst the second is more akin to electrical resistance. Both are useful for categorising resistance in Nazi Germany- Widerstand covering conscious action against the regime, Resistenz highlighting a general innate resilience to Nazi Ideology that lead to passive acts of resistance such as those described by the concept of Alltagsgeschichte.

Further distinctions can be drawn if resistance is considered by the extent to which it entails rejection of Nazi Ideology. The purest form of resistance under this theory would cover actions that were motivated by outright rejection of Nazism and with the aim of destroying it. Opposition would be considered as action prompted by rejection of individual policies but not the regime as a whole- the aim being to change this policy. The simplest level would be non-conformity, rejection of day-to-day intrusions of Nazism into everyday life.

It can therefore be seen that our definitions of resistance have become increasingly broad in scope and this is reflected in other changes in the historiography of the Nazi state. In effect, politically convenient but restrictive views have been reappraised and integrated along with studies of a wider sample of society and a shift towards considering resistance in terms of scale rather than by social group.


At time of writing I was studying the Historiography of the Nazi state as part of my A-level studies. As such, this is not the work of an expert but nonetheless should be a useful starting point for anyone considering these issues. If you can provide more information then please do so- I’d be particularly interested in more-recent Marxist / socialist interpretations of resistance, especially any that have emerged since the end of the GDR.

As part of my studies on this topic I attended a lecture by Dr Gareth Pritchard of the University of Swansea and the notes from this lecture are a particular influence on this write up- especially the final model of resistance (resistance, opposition and non-conformity). More information on the topic (to university level) can be found at his website: Http://www.swan.ac.uk/history/staff/pritchard/basic.htm.

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