German Opposition to Hitler and the Assassination Attempt of July 20, 1944

The apathy of substantial parts of German citizenry, together with the entrenched obedience to the authorities and the hope of improving the standard of living meant that there were almost no people who were willing to endanger themselves in opposition activities against the regime

Left: Pamphlet by Wolfgang Müller about the overthrow, 1947, Right: Pamphlet by Karl Strölin, 1952

In the last general elections in Germany in March 1933, some 44% of the national electorate voted for Adolf Hitler’s National-Socialist party. This means that despite the strong show of support in this election, in which other parties had been suppressed by the Nazis even earlier, most Germans did not vote for Hitler. In theory, this situation might have given reason to hope that broad portions of the population had begun – at a certain stage – to act against the undesirable, cruel regime. And yet, during the entire Nazi period, from 1933-1945, opposition to the terrible dictatorship remained proportionately very small, and never led to tangible results. The apathy of substantial parts of German citizenry, together with the entrenched obedience to the authorities and the hope of improving the standard of living meant that there were almost no people who were willing to endanger themselves in opposition activities against the regime. New studies note that no more than 7,000 people took active steps against the Nazi dictatorship during these years. The academic world employs the somewhat sarcastic term of “an opposition without a people.”

The opposition activists hailed from all sectors of the German population: Communists, Social Democrats, laborers, students (the White Rose in Munich and in Hamburg), members of the bourgeois and elite (the Kreisau Circle), Jews (the group led by Herbert Baum), Catholics and Protestant Christians, individuals and groups, women and men. A few of them are somewhat well known, for example, Georg Elser (1903-1945), a carpenter from southern Germany, who already at an early stage had clearly understood the Nazi’s goals and refused to accept the reality. He prepared a bomb in Hitler’s favorite beer cellar in Munich where, every year on November 8, the Nazi leader gave a speech commemorating the overthrow attempt of 1923. Elser’s bomb exploded at the planned time on November 8, 1939, but Hitler, contrary to all expectations, had left the site approximately fifteen minutes earlier. This failed attempt was only one in a continuous series of similar events. But Hitler and his cronies survived them all almost unscathed.

The Jewish group of Herbert Baum (1912-1942) operated within a Communist ideology and in 1942 carried out an attack on a propaganda exhibition in Berlin entitled, “The Soviet Garden of Eden,” which mocked Soviet Communism. The White Rose students’ group composed pamphlets with anti-Fascist information and in 1942-43, sent them to specific individuals and also distributed them at the University of Munich. In most cases, those who received them delivered them to the police. Similar behavior is documented in the well-known novel Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, based on a true case of opposition by a working class couple in Berlin who distributed postcards with anti-Fascist texts, but almost all of them were handed over to the police by loyal citizens. Today, it is estimated that the great success of the Gestapo (the Nazi secret police) in repressing almost every opposition activity resulted not from its efficiency, but from the generous willingness of most German citizens to report views and acts that were not compatible with Nazi ideology.

The most elaborate opposition plot was that of the Wermacht officers and representatives of the liberal bourgeoisie (the Kreisau Circle and others) whose goal was to assassinate Hitler and arrest the chief leadership of the Nazis in order to halt the war. A few of them had always been opposed to Hitler’s regime, but most were ultimately pushed into action only after the defeat of the German Army at Stalingrad in January/February 1943, and following additional subsequent defeats.

The understanding that this war could no longer end in victory led many army members to a shift in direction, and to act in a manner that violated their oath as soldiers loyal to Germany and to Adolf Hitler, and this at a time when such an oath was a most serious commitment. At the focus of the plot to carry out the planned attack and overthrow were Ludwig Beck, a former general (who resigned from his job as Chief of Staff even before the outbreak of the war due to his opposition to its goals), Karl Friedrich Goerdeler, former mayor of Leipzig who was a liberal-conservative politician, General Friedrich Olbricht, Colonel Baron Claus Graf Schenck von Stauffenberg, and General Henning von Tresckow. The name of the overthrow plan was Operation Walküre.

Israeli study about the 20 Movement by Dani Urbach, 2009

Following a number of failed attempts to conceal a bomb near Hitler, an additional effort was made on July 20, 1944. A large discussion was scheduled for this day to evaluate the military situation in one of Hitler’s command centers in East Prussia. Baron Claus Graf Schenck von Stauffenberg was invited to the discussion, and he brought with him a bomb that had been hidden in a briefcase. Due to his serious injury from the war, von Stauffenberg had only one hand, and so he did not manage to properly activate the mechanism to detonate the bomb. Moreover, one of the men present at the discussion moved the briefcase, thus distancing it from Hitler. The explosion killed four people and critically injured seven more, but Hitler was only slightly injured and left the meeting room alive and in one piece. Announcements regarding the attack spread quickly across Germany, and mainly the news that the “Führer” had escaped the attack unharmed. The entire plan thus failed, since some of the officers who had not been totally convinced of supporting the overthrow repented immediately upon receiving the news that Hitler was still alive. Already the evening of that same day, a number of officers were executed in Berlin, including Ludwig Beck and von Stauffenberg, and others were arrested and interrogated by the SS and the Gestapo. Showcase trials were held, conducted by the fanatic Judge Roland Freisler. Over 200 people were executed, many of them even in the last weeks of the Third Reich, including almost 50 senior officers of the highest ranks, diplomats, politicians and others. The assassination attempt received wide attention within and outside of Germany, and was one of the signs signaling the end of the battle of the Nazi dictatorship.

Article on the assassination attempt in the Davar newspaper, July 23, 1944

Immediately after the end of the war, public discussion regarding the significance of the attempted overthrow, the civil duty to act against a tyrannical regime, and the question of whether the officers were traitors or heroes, was renewed. The few among them who survived the interrogation, torture and trials worked to spread their version of the events, both orally and in writing. One example is the pamphlet of former Colonel Wolfgang Müller, in which already in 1947 he describes his experiences prior to July 20, 1944, and afterwards. Müller tried to operate against a recurring phenomenon (which came into existence already after WWI), of conservative forces blaming the defeat on those who opposed the regime and the war. The title of his composition was: “Against A New Lie of ‘Backstabbing’.” A further example is the composition of Karl Strölin, Mayor of Stuttgart during the entire Nazi period, and also a member of the Nazi Party, who, towards the end, was able to see Germany’s dire situation and participated in the overthrow attempt, but did so carefully, remaining in the margins of the organizing activity. He titled his composition “Traitors or Patriots”? In recent decades, many studies have been conducted in different languages about the opposition, the various groups it comprised, and mainly, the people of July 20, 1944. Today, there is no longer any discussion regarding the question of whether these people were “traitors” or heroes, but it is still asked why so few people objected to the regime, and why many of them waited until the moment it became clear that the Nazi government was poised at the brink of the abyss and the war was already a lost cause.

The Nuremberg Laws

The Nuremberg Laws remained in effect until the end of the Third Reich, and were also implemented in Austria after it joined Germany in 1938, as well as in all of the territories occupied by Germany during WWII

One of the first editions of the Nuremberg Laws first editions, includes legal interpretation

From the moment of their appearance on the stage of history, the National-Socialist Movement, its leader Adolph Hitler, and his immediate associates, left no room for doubt regarding their racist views, mainly concerning Jews. The anti-Semitic assassinations carried out by the Nazis already in the days of the Weimar Republic were not exceptions, and Hitler himself often referred both in his speech and his writings to Jews, who, in his own view and in that of his supporters, were responsible for a long succession of ailments in German society particular, and in human society overall. These crude and unsophisticated thoughts were fed by old anti-Semitic prejudices that had existed in various European societies from as early as the Middle Ages. Beginning in the last years of the 19th century, anthropologists in the West accepted race theories, and many believed that the health of the human race depended upon the preservation of “racial purity.” The same applied to Germany. When this thinking even became a field of academic research, Nazi hatred of “the non-German races” found very fertile ground in which it could take root.

Antisemetic sighn in a German town, Fall 1935

With the Nazi rise to power on January 30, 1933, aggressive anti-Semitism became a guiding principle for the official policy of the German authorities towards Jews. Already in April 1933, a law was passed enabling the termination of employment of all state employees of Jewish origin. The new rulers of Germany, and the inhumane steps they took, caused many German Jews to immigrate to other countries, including Eretz Israel.

Beginning in 1927, members of the National-Socialist Party started convening in Nuremberg for their annual assemblies. Over time, Nuremberg became the permanent site of the party’s assemblies, which was held there consecutively from 1933-1938. For the seventh assembly of the Nazi Party, in September 1935, thousands of supporters of the regime gathered as usual, and at the last moment, all members of the Reichstag – the German parliament, or, more precisely, the grotesque form that remained after the Nazis took care to fill all the mandates from their own ranks – were also invited. In a supposedly democratic move, the heads of the Nazis introduced three laws for a vote in the Reichstag: the law concerning the German flag, the Reich Citizenship Law, and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor.

The three laws were brought up for vote with the national scenery in the backdrop, at a mass, showcase event. The members of the Reichstag, needless to say, approved the three laws unanimously. The new laws received the status of Basic Laws, i.e. laws with a fundamental and special significance in terms of the constitutional structure of the country. For those living at the time in Germany – German-Jewish and non-Jewish citizens – the significance of the new legislation was not sufficiently clear. It quickly transpired, however, that the laws passed at Nuremberg, which later were named after the city, in effect brought an end to the process of the emancipation of German Jewry and relegated them to the lowly status of second-class citizens.

Another antisecmitic sigh in Germany, Fall 1935

The practical significance was that the laws derogated the basic rights of Jews, such as the right to vote in political elections, and prohibited marital and extra-marital relations between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans. Persons caught in such relations with a Jew were subject to punishment, and new marriages between Jews and German became impossible. Any new couple of this type was considered guilty of “blood defilement” (Blutschande). Later, terminology was devised for various gradations of “Jewish blood” based on one’s family tree, and categories were established such as “full Jew” (Volljude), “half Jew” (Halbjude) and “quarter Jew” (Vierteljude), in order to define to whom exactly the Nuremberg Laws applied. During the years of the Nazi regime, these categories determined who would live and who would die, and tremendous numbers of people were influenced by them since they were dependent on the legal status accorded to them by the laws, Understandably, within Nazi Germany no voice of protest against the Nuremberg Laws was sounded, but also outside of Germany, the laws and their ramifications aroused no outcry or noteworthy public response. As is known, less than one year after the Nuremberg Laws went into effect, most of the world did not see cause to refrain from participating in the Berlin Olympic Games, and today, it is known that many of the delegations adhered to the racist German policy: not only did Germany prevent Jewish athletes from participating in the competitions, but even the American delegation hesitated to permit Jews to appear in the games.

The Nuremberg Laws remained in effect until the end of the Third Reich, and were also implemented in Austria after it joined Germany in 1938, as well as in all of the territories occupied by Germany during WWII. In September 1945, these laws were annulled by the Allied Powers while they were administering occupied Germany. Both the Nazi assemblies in Nuremberg and the demonstrative act of legislating the Nuremberg Laws in the same city, served as criteria for the selection of Nuremberg as a symbolic site for the foundational event at the end of the war: the trials against the heads of the Nazi regime and its chief criminals, which began in November 1945, held in the city whose name signified the race laws. Now, the city would be forever branded by the expression “Nuremberg Trials.”

Wilhelm Stuckart and Hans Globke’s interpretation of the race laws, 1936. This copy was part of the chief prosecutor’s library in Vienna, even before Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, as can be seen by the seal.

In this context, it is fitting to tell the story of one Dr. Hans Globke, a legal expert who was among those quick to praise the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, yet when they were cancelled with the defeat of Germany, his legal career did not end. As a senior official in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, Globke was one of the first lawyers who published a scholarly interpretation of the Nuremberg Laws. In 1936, together with Wilhelm Stukart, he published a detailed commentary with a long introduction, a text that exuded Nazi ideology. However, with the end of WWII, his great legal knowledge opened new horizons for him in the “new Germany.” After 1949, he became a close associate of Chancellor Adenauer and ultimately, even to the director of the Office of the Chancellor of West Germany. Until Adenauer’s resignation in 1963, Globke continued filling a key role in West Germany. The burgeoning career of a person who had been an ardent supporter of the Nazi race laws aroused grave doubts among many in Germany and the world as to the reliability and validity of the “new Germany” that emerged after WWII and the Third Reich.

German Literature Abroad and Dutch Publisher Allert de Lange

Many authors sought political asylum and a place that would enable them to create in their genre

The catalogue of the German unit of Allert de Lange, 1939

On rising to power in January 1933, the Nazis immediately began implementing their ideas regarding “pure” German culture. Culture, according to the Nazis, including literature, left no room for the creativity of the works of humanists, democrats, Communists, and generally: Jews. Publishing works by Jews was completely prohibited, and beginning in the spring of 1933, supporters of the new regime gathered at many locations and burned all works that were not to their liking. Often, these works were the finest in German literary history.

​Writers suffered from the new situation from two aspects: not only did the Nazi regime pose a direct threat to their freedom and lives, but furthermore, the prohibition against their works obviated any possibility of earning a livelihood within the new political reality. German book stores were forced to destroy the undesired literature and publishers who had published books by Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Stefan Zweig, Else Lasker-Schüler, Joseph Roth and many others – sometimes with great success – were forced to adjust their sales policy to the dictates of the new era. Free and progressive literature suddenly became a rare commodity in German bookstores. The sale, purchase and even reading of such works became dangerous almost overnight.

Works included in the catalogue. Among the authors: Bertolt Brecht, Max Brod, Sigmund Freud

Many authors sought political asylum and a place that would enable them to create in their genre. Many tried to flee to neighboring countries, while others continued on their way to America, Eretz-Israel or other places, if the authorities allowed them to do so. Between 1933 and 1940, the community of exiled authors in the pastoral town of Sanary-sur-Mer in the south of France was perhaps the largest and most interesting group of authors during the fascist regime, including an impressive group of writers in the German language. After finding refuge, the authors sought ways of publishing their books. This was no simple matter: the main country where the German language was spoken was no longer an option, such that at first glance, all that remained was the limited possibility of Austria and Switzerland. Publisher Emil Oprecht operated in Zurich and publishers Herbert Reichner and Bermann-Fischer in Vienna. And yet, already beginning in 1933, a number of new publishers established themselves in Holland, in the city of Amsterdam: Querido and the German unit of well-established publisher Allert de Lange, which was based in Amsterdam.

The two Dutch publishers worked on a relatively large scale until 1940, the year Holland was occupied by the Nazis, and published dozens of titles by German authors who were not prepared to compromise with the Nazis or could no longer publish in their homelands because they were Jewish. The Querido Publishing House had a clear left-wing orientation, while Allert de Lange took care to maintain a more “bourgeois” profile, although during the existence of the German unit, this publisher broadened the circle of authors it published. Allert de Lange’s German unit had two chief editors, both German-born Jews: Walter Landauer (1902-1944) and Hermann Kesten (1900-1996). Until 1933, both had been staff editors with German publisher Gustav Kiepenheuer. Thanks to their tremendous experience, the two managed within a short time to achieve great success in the publication of the German authors. The list of writers is quite impressive: Bertolt Brecht, Max Brod, Joseph Roth, Shalom Asch, Stefan Zweig and Sigmund Freud were surely the most popular among them, and ensured that there would be many readers, though almost all of them were outside of Germany. The growing stream of Jewish refugees from Germany who found temporary asylum in Holland formed a local clientele for books printed in Holland. The list of books published in German by Allert de Lange from 1939 is most impressive and is testimony to the fact that the best of German literature found a suitable site for publication – in Holland, of all places.

The editions of the German unit at Allert de Lange publishers were tastefully designed. For example, the editions of Joseph Roth’s last book, The Legend of the Holy Drinker (Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker) is striking in its simple and elegant design. Paradoxically, the Nazi ideologues also purchased the books of the Dutch publisher, as can be seen in the copy of the book in the National Library’s collection: it bears the stamp and item serial number of the library of the Third Reich Institute for New German History (Reichsinstitut für die Geschichte des neuen Deutschland) in Berlin.

The front page of Roth’s novel, bearing the stamp of the Nazi institution in Berlin
After the German invasion of Holland in May 1940, the publisher’s German unit was closed, as was the parallel company, Querido. The book warehouses were partially destroyed and the staff was forced to flee or be arrested. One of the chief editors, Walter Landauer, was murdered during the Holocaust.
For many years, the German “exilic literature” has been considered the most interesting German literature of the 20th century, and has attracted the attention of many scholars. The books produced during those years and under the special circumstances that prevailed at the time, are testimony to the free and democratic spirit that was crudely cast out of Germany by the Nazis from 1933 to 1945, but which continued to exist and thrive outside of its borders.

The Book That Survived Kristallnacht and Made It to the Land of Israel

A battered copy of “In the Heart of the Seas,” rescued from anti-Semitic riots in Germany, was returned to its author, S.Y. Agnon, with a letter telling the incredible story of its survival

The day after Kristallnacht, November 11, 1938

In the cultured, sophisticated environment of Germany’s Weimar Republic in the 1920s and early 1930s, Jews made up an integral part of German society, experiencing the best that the country had to offer. When the Nazi Party took control of Germany in 1933, life as the Jewish community knew it was quickly brought to an end.

On November 3rd, 1938, a young Jewish man named Herschel Grynszpan, in an apparent reaction to his family’s deportation from their home in Germany to Poland, shot a German diplomat in Paris where he was living at the time.

The Palestine Post, November 8th, 1938

The death of the diplomat sparked rage in the Nazi party, which decided to use this incident as an excuse to carry out a widespread pogrom against the Jews of Germany.  Testimonies that came forth following the events told of how the press was instructed to push the story and to exaggerate the details of the incident to inspire anger among the public while the Nazis prepared for a carefully orchestrated night of violence against the Jews.

November 9th, 1938. Kristallnacht. Some 90 Jews were murdered, more than 30,000 were arrested. Over 7,000 Jewish businesses, so carefully grown and cultivated, were trashed, looted, and burned to the ground along with more than 1400 beloved synagogues.

On that fateful night, Felix Pinczower, a resident of Berlin at the time, found himself in the streets, amid a maelstrom of anti-Semitic violence. He was pushed into a large crowd and witnessed a mob looting a Jewish book store. The vandals had shattered the store windows and were systematically throwing the books out into the street for the pages to be torn out and stomped on before being discarded into a large trash heap.

As he watched the violence unfold, Piczower noticed a copy of “In the Heart of the Seas,” a book by the famed author, S. Y. Agnon, in the original Hebrew, lying on the ground. The book tells the story of a group of Hasidim on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This particular book was spared the fate met by thousands of other volumes which were destroyed that night. This copy of “In the Heart of the Seas,” with its simple white cover, was saved by Felix Pinczower on the terrible night of bloodshed and cruelty which shattered Germany’s Jewish community.

The cover of the rescued copy of “In the Heart of the Seas,” by S.Y. Agnon, from the personal archive of S.Y. Agnon at the National Library.

As the mob around the book store was broken up, Pinczower was arrested along with thousands of others who were rounded up on Kristallnacht. He was taken to a concentration camp where he stayed for six long weeks. Pinczower was eventually released from the camp once his official request to leave Germany was approved.

On May 8th, 1939, he sent the rescued book along with a descriptive letter of the violence he had experienced to S.Y. Agnon, the book’s author, after immigrating to the Land of Israel and establishing his new home in Tel Aviv.

In his heartfelt letter, Pinczower described how, upon witnessing the scene at the Jewish bookstore, he had become consumed with rage.  Just as he was about to take action, something that could have cost him his life, a gust of wind picked up and a small, simple-looking book landed at his feet. He quickly picked it up, brushed off the cover, and took it home.

“The little book eluded my memory,” wrote Pinczower.  “Only when my belongings was being packed beneath the eyes of the customs clerks, did it reemerge. ‘Do you want to take this dirty book with you?’ the customs man asked. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘It’s an interesting book that contains a special story.’ He nodded and examined it again. Suddenly, he had an idea. I saw how his face was contorting into a devilish smile. He uttered not a word, but flipped through the book, page by page, checking it against the light, apparently with the thought that foreign currency was hidden among its pages. And then, when the inspection yielded nothing, he returned the book to me. I expressed my preference to place the book in my carry-on luggage, rather than stowing it in the baggage compartment, so that I might read it on the voyage.”

The letter sent to S.Y. Agnon from Felix Pinczower on May 8, 1939, from Agnon’s personal archive at the NLI

It was only once he had boarded the ship to take him to safety that Pinczower finally had the opportunity to properly examine and read the book. He was amazed at what he found between the stained covers: the story of a group of Hassidim who set out on a sea voyage lasting several months before finally arriving at their destination – the Land of Israel.

“Was it not a direct sign from heaven that this, of all books, fell into my hands, truly in the literal sense of the expression? I do not believe in coincidence in life,” wrote Pinczower.

“Is it not true that today, as well, ships set sail and make their way over months at sea in order to bring refugees to Eretz Israel? People waiting in anticipation for the land of their longing, with the same sentiment.”

The book became Pinczower’s companion, a constant reminder of what awaited him on the other side of his journey. Once he had arrived safely in Mandatory Palestine and settled into his new home, Pinczower felt the time had come for the book to return to its author and to tell the story of its incredible journey.

He concluded his letter with a simple request of Agnon, “to integrate the book into your library as an anecdotal item – a book that has its own story, like that of any human being.”

“If only this book, which came out of Zion and returned to Zion, might serve as a symbol of the ingathering of our dispersed writings, which are held in unworthy hands.”

Today, the letter and book sent by Felix Pinczower to S.Y. Agnon, can be found in the personal archive of S.Y. Agnon, housed at the National Library of Israel.

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