Working-Class Resistance during the Third Reich and the Postwar Suppression of Its History

Patricia P Brodsky. Nature, Society, and Thought. Volume 11, Issue 2. April 30, 1998.

Ask any nonspecialist, German or American, about the German resistance to Hitler and fascism, and you will most likely be told about the White Rose and the July 20th plot. And there the response will end. These resisters came primarily from the privileged classes. The small group of university students around the brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl sprang mainly from the educated upper middle class–the group to which university attendance was by and large limited until after World War II. Their constituency, also, consisted primarily of fellow students and other members of the university community.

The July 20th group, whose failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, gave the Nazis an excuse for a devastating wave of arrests, was more heterogeneous. It included high-ranking military officers, diplomats, representatives of the conservative Prussian landed gentry, clergy, and a few Social Democrats. For the most part, its long-range goals were “restorative and authoritarian,” and its short-range ones were mainly damage control (Kershaw 1985, 779). Carl Goerdeler, one of the July 20th leaders, voiced a concern shared by most of the conspirators that “only Germany could stop Bolshevism. If Germany is weakened by the loss of the war and an unfavorable peace, Bolshevism will find an easier, perhaps all too easy, path to the West” (Gottschaldt 1985, 147). They hoped to form, after eliminating Hitler, a new government that could negotiate to maximum advantage with the Allies. Certainly none of the conspirators longed for a return of the ill-starred Weimar Republic, and few if any of them envisioned a democratic Germany after the war.

But there was a much more broadly based German resistance, carried on by ordinary working people with common economic experiences, a tradition of class solidarity, and a shared hatred of fascism. Although it touched the lives of far more people than the conservative resistance, grassroots working-class resistance was either ignored or vilified by many West German historians, journalists, and politicians after the war. In the German Democratic Republic this resistance took center stage, but in the Federal Republic it was not until a new generation of historians began to publish in the 1960s that the conservative gag on the “other” resistance was cast off. The true complexity of the movement then began to emerge (Muller 1986, 16; Peukert 1981, 3). Nor was this “other” resistance part of a postwar German education. Antje Dertinger, author of several books on the working-class resistance, wrote in 1987:

Aside from Stauffenberg and the other men of July 20 there were many other resistance fighters, about whom nobody spoke for decades. In school we learned everything about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, but hardly anything about the Edelweißpiraten and nothing at all about the other youth resistance groups. Don’t you think it’s time to speak about these nameless ones? (Dertinger 1987, 20)

In the following pages I will outline some of the forms this resistance took, and examine some of the reasons for its suppression.

Special circumstances prevailing in Germany made resistance particularly difficult there. It is generally easier to organize mass resistance to a foreign occupier than to a regime which, whatever its politics, is made up of one’s own countrymen. Thus the resistance to the Nazis in places like Poland, France, or Greece had mass popular support which was not available to the German antifascists. For a long time, the National Socialists kept the people cowed by a combination of carrot and stick, offering national pride and economic revenge to the lower middle class, while actively persecuting the working class and anyone else who overtly opposed Nazi policies.

The Nazi seizure of power in 1933 brought an immediate onset of political terror against the Left and the labor unions. All independent unions were banned, and German workers were forced into the Deutsche Arbeitsfront, the official Nazi union. Radical unionists had no chance of representation on the job, but they remained in contact secretly, through organizations like the illegal Reich Directorate of Unions (Peukert 1981, 11). All opposition parties were also banned, their presses and assets seized, and their leaders imprisoned. Those who escaped had to go underground, and the phase of illegal resistance began.

The Communist Party of Germany (the KPD), which had been targeted by political repression ever since its founding in 1919, was better prepared for the move underground in 1933 than the Socialists (the SPD), which had become an increasingly middle-class party. Both the KPD and the SPD fatally misjudged the strength and efficiency of the new regime. The Socialists thought the Nazis were a marginal phenomenon that would burn itself out, while the Communists believed that a popular revolution would soon overthrow them (Merson 1986, 43-44). In addition, the movement was split by a history of bad blood between the two parties. A major point of disagreement was the question of a United Front of the various antifascist forces. There was opposition and mistrust on both sides, and though the United Front eventually, in early 1935, became official Communist policy, it came too late to be of much help to the embattled activists in the underground.

But despite all their miscalculations, the working-class parties formed the backbone of a heroic struggle in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Both tried to maintain a centralized clandestine party structure. Their principal goals were to maintain a support network of dependable antifascists, give aid to fugitives from the Gestapo, and conduct propaganda and sabotage as far as conditions permitted. The SPD’s exile leadership coordinated the resistance from Prague, and later from Paris. The Communists directed activities from “Red Secretariats” in all the states bordering on Germany. Members of the resistance traveled back and forth, often at great risk, to consult with the leadership in exile. A decimating wave of arrests of antifascist forces, particularly in 1934-1935, caused a revaluation of the situation, and of the kind of actions that were attempted. Eventually the resisters of both parties were so isolated that their main energies went toward survival.

Much energy was expended on the distribution of printed matter. Presses were set up abroad, and illegal texts were smuggled into Germany. The need to avoid detection led to the use of Tarnschriften, camouflaged texts. To protect both the distributors and the readers, antifascist texts were printed with a harmless title on the book jacket (Emmerich 1976, 437). For example, Bertolt Brecht’s essay “Funf Schwierigkeiten beim Schreiben der Wahrheit” was smuggled in as “A Practical Guide for First Aid” (Emmerich 1976, 438). A selection of socialist songs including the “Internationale” crossed the border as On the Beautiful Blue Danube: Waltzes by Johann Strauss, and Das Nibelungenlied: Popular Edition hid a parody of the Nazis written in the style of a twelfth-century epic (Emmerich 1976, 438). In addition, instructions and guidelines were sent by party leaders to activists in Germany.

Like all clandestine activists, those publishing and disseminating antifascist materials trod a very fine line between effectiveness and safety. A balance had to be struck between speaking plainly enough to reach the intended readers, and avoiding the notice of the authorities (Schutz 1971, 19). Methods included so-called Klebezettelgedichte, political poems written on pieces of gummed paper that could be stuck up anywhere—factory walls, bus stops, an apartment entryway. Leaflets, fliers, posters, and graffiti were also used; most effective were simple, straightforward messages that could be passed on orally (Emmerich 1976, 434-35). Material describing current conditions was smuggled out of Germany in such disparate containers as ski poles and hollowed-out cakes. These texts, which informed antifascists in the democratic countries that the “other Germany” was not dead, helped to mobilize public sympathy and financial support for the fight against Hitler.

There were many who, for philosophical or tactical reasons, left the two major parties to form splinter parties and organizations. This was particularly the case with the SPD, which regularly ejected members whose views were judged too radical. Among the splinter groups were the Socialist Workers Party (SAP); the Independent Socialists (USPD); the Communist Party in Opposition (KPO); New Beginnings (Neubeginnen); and the International Socialist Fighters League, (ISK). The KPO was typical in many ways. Security dictated its structure, as it did with many organizations; groups with five members had minimal contact with one another (Dertinger 1987, 47-50). One of their most important activities was acting as couriers across the “green border” with Czechoslovakia, until the mountain passes were closed after the German annexation.

The ISK illustrates the pragmatism of the splinter groups. Unlike the major workers’ parties, its members believed that the Nazis were not going to disappear any time soon, and thus began as early as 1932 to prepare for going underground. They developed an impressive training program that included role-playing interrogations, court hearings, and house searches. They created new biographies, invented harmless cover stories for political activities, prepared hiding places for illegal documents, evolved a system of signals to warn one another of danger, and developed written codes (Dertinger 1983, 39ff). Thus they were well prepared when the time came to drop out of sight and begin their illegal work.

Like the Communists with their Agitprop theater troupes, the ISK showed imagination and a remarkable sense of humor in the most humorless of situations. They set off stinkbombs at Nazi rallies and released a canister of laughing gas at an official Nazi party function. A favorite ploy was a suitcase with foam rubber letters on the bottom, that left inked messages on the sidewalk where it had stood (Dertinger 1983, 50-53). Perhaps the most grandiose was the so-called Autobahn-Action of 19 May 1935. A stretch of new Autobahn was to be opened with great fanfare. The ISK did everything it could to spoil the opening ceremonies; they painted antifascist slogans on highway overpasses and on the roadway itself. They sawed part way through the legs of speaker’s stand, and cut the cables to loudspeakers. The Nazis got wind of the sabotage and tried to hide the slogans by sprinkling sand on the highway, but the rain kept washing away the sand and revealing the antifascist graffiti (Dertinger 1983, 55-58).

Resistance was also carried out by persons who were not part of the underground networks, mainly working-class youth in the industrial cities. In Leipzig they were called Meuten (packs), and had strong SPD and KPD roots. In the Rhineland, the groups had names like Navajos or Edelweisspiraten. These 14-to-18-year-olds were aleady working at adult jobs; there was little in the Hitler Youth that could attract them (Peukert n.d., 309). Without party affiliation, they were antifascist by instinct. When Hitler Youths were sent by the Gestapo to beat them up, the Pirates fought back. Having once been criminalized by the regime, they began to engage in serious resistance, particularly in Cologne. They slashed the tires on Wehrmacht trucks and stole food for their own families and for slave laborers housed in factory barracks. They bought weapons on the black market (Finkelgruen 1987, 43ff), and even took part in the assassination of a Gestapo chief in 1944 (Peukert n.d., 317). As the war went on and disillusionment increased, their numbers were swelled by Wehrmacht deserters and escaped camp prisoners. The Pirates were finally arrested, and thirteen of them publicly hanged (Finkelgruen 1987).

The rarest type of resistance was the individual act, such as the attempt made on Hitler’s life by Georg Elser, a Swabian carpenter, carried out without the benefit of a network. On 9 November 1939, he planted a time bomb in the Burgerbrau Keller in Munich, and only Hitler’s uncanny luck allowed him to leave the restaurant thirteen minutes early, thus narrowly escaping death. Elser defended himself at his interrogation, “By my deed I wanted to prevent even more bloodshed” (Stem 1992, 220).

Perhaps the most difficult resistance of all was in the concentration camps. In August 1943, two hundred Treblinka prisoners armed with picks, spades, and a few liberated rifles killed several hundred guards. In October of the same year, prisoners at Sobibor rebelled, with aid from Polish civilians employed in the camp and using explosives obtained from Polish partisans. Himmler ordered both camps evacuated and shut down for fear the unrest would spread. In Auschwitz, six hundred members of the Sonderkommandos, the prisoners employed in the crematoria, revolted. One crematorium was blown up, and three hundred people escaped (Druks 1983, 55ff). The revolts were quelled, but even their limited success gave hope to all who heard about them–and hope was one of the central aims of resistance. The most successful and well-documented camp resistance was that in Buchenwald. Unique to Buchenwald were a camp police and a fire brigade made up of “reds,” that is, men who wore the red triangle of the political prisoners (Hackett 1995, 31, 50). They became Kapos (overseers) of crucial work details such as the infirmary and the camp records office and used these positions to develop a framework for resistance. As huge numbers of foreign prisoners began to enter the camp in 1942 and 1943, the resistance was divided into national sections, which were coordinated by the International Camp Committee (Hackett 1995, 264).

The immediate goals of resistance in Buchenwald were to save lives and to make the period of imprisonment as humane as possible. Workers in the camp laundry gave up their free Sundays to wash fellow prisoners’ uniforms. Prisoners targeted by the SS for punishment were hidden in the contagious disease ward, where the SS never ventured, or provided with false papers belonging to dead prisoners so they could officially “disappear” from the records. Extra food was smuggled from the kitchens for weaker prisoners. And at great risk, aid was given to the Jews and the Soviet POWs, both of which groups were isolated and singled out for even more brutal treatment. The resisters intervened wherever possible on behalf of the prisoners, but since all resistance had to be strictly secret, the organization remained small and many of the tens of thousands of prisoners never even knew of its existence, though they benefited from its activities.

Since camp inmates were used as slave laborers in war-related industries, many were able to carry out acts of sabotage. In the Gustloff munitions plant on the boundary of the camp, workers produced only 5500 rifle barrels a month, instead of the 55,000 expected (Hackett 1995, 94). At the Mittelbau-Dora camp, where parts for V-2 rockets were manufactured, prisoners used slowdowns and purposely assembled things wrong. Many of the rockets exploded on the launch pad or never reached their target (Crome 1988, 111).

The heart of the camp resistance was its military organization. Resisters built secret radio sets to get news from the front, and conducted regular military training with weapons stolen from the SS (Hackett 1995, 85). In April 1945, as the Americans were closing in on Weimar, the resisters went into action, cutting barbed wire, capturing guard towers, liberating the armory and taking 76 SS-men prisoner, before the American troops arrived at the gate (Hackett 1995, 333). The bravery, ingenuity and steadfastness of the Buchenwald resisters should have been the source of enormous pride and cause for hope, especially in the early postwar years, when the Germans had need of something to be proud of. But like working-class resistance in general, this resistance did not become part of the mainstream history of antifascism.

The Suppression of History

At the end of the war, historians tried to undo the damage of twelve years of fascist propaganda. Many of the histories of the Nazi period that appeared in the second half of the 1940s were written by former camp inmates and resisters. In their thoughtful works, they sought to juxtapose the concept of the “other Germany” to the sweeping assumption by the Allies of collective guilt. They felt an urgent need to educate both their former enemies and their own people about the German tradition of resistance (Muller 1986, 14). But the majority of Germans, eager to put the past behind them, seized on simplified versions of events, propagated by politicians and the media, which allowed them to feel innocent, or vindicated, or even unfairly treated by history. As the Cold War succeeded the hot one, the political climate in West Germany became increasingly hostile to the very concept of a German resistance. The Western occupation governments gave mixed signals. On the one hand, they insisted that National Socialist organizations and their postwar spinoffs be permanently forbidden, and imposed the policy of so-called “denazification” to weed out former Nazis. Many Germans complained about the Allies’ “harsh” antifascist policies. Denazification was the greatest single issue for German voters after the war; like the Nuremberg trials, it was regarded by many as mere “victors’ justice,” as ill-concealed revenge. But in fact the process was inefficient, often half-hearted, and ultimately a sham. Thousands of Nazi party members slipped through the coarse mesh of the investigations, and many middle- and high-ranking Nazis remained untouched, and soon were filling important positions throughout society with the blessings of the Allies, particularly the United States.

But at the same time, the Allies were cracking down on leftist groups and anticapitalist sentiments in Germany. In the spring of 1945, former resisters had formed antifascist committees, on the assumption that they would be crucial players in the national renewal. But the committees were soon dissolved in all four zones of occupation (Brandt n.d., 78). A 1946 plebiscite in the state of Hessen, in which 72 percent of the voters supported the nationalization of banks and major industry, was annulled by the U.S. military government. In March 1947, President Truman promised aid to “peoples whose freedom is threatened,” and overtly embraced the policy of containment of the recent U.S. ally, the Soviet Union (Brandt n.d., 80). By March 1948, the United States began pressing the Germans for an end to the denazification program (Brandt n.d., 81).

There was clearly no place for a left-oriented and working-class-based voice in a Germany increasingly shaped by America’s Cold War ambitions. A case in point is the censorship of the newspaper Der Ruf (the Call). First published by German POW’s in Massachusetts, this publication was revived in Germany as a forum for discussion of a future democratic Germany. But Der Ruf was closed down in April 1947 by the U.S. military government as too radical. Another Cold War attack on the cultural Left was the formation, in June 1950, of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, conceived and funded by the CIA. Its goal was an anticommunist and antineutralist crusade using freedom of expression as a pretext (Coleman 1989, 31-32).

The reactionary forces in Germany were able to read these signals easily, and so, sooner than anyone could have imagined, the erosion of the new democracy began. One of the first laws passed by the parliament of the Federal Republic was the Amnesty Act of 1949, which amnestied over 800,000 persons, including tens of thousands of ex-Nazis (Frei 1996, 18ff). In 1951 the Bundestag unanimously passed paragraph 131 of the federal constitution, which declared that civil servants and professional soldiers who had lost their positions after 8 May 1945 should be reinstated at rank, or if retired, given state pensions. Among those affected were many ex-Gestapo and SS members, as well as concentration-camp personnel, commanders of Einsatzgruppen (murder teams), and manufacturers who had been convicted of using slave labor (Frei 1996, 21). Faculties of schools and universities had to reabsorb numerous unreconstructed supporters of the Nazi regime.

As a result, thousands of fascists were reintegrated into German society, often in positions of power. The legal system was flooded with judges who a few years before had ruled against resisters. The number of former Nazi party members in the new government itself grew rapidly, and in October 1953 Hans Globke, who had helped draft the racist Nuremberg laws in 1935, became secretary of state (Wagenbach 1994, 454). On the heels of this early legislation came other attacks on the Left and on active democracy. In April 1951 a public opinion poll about rearmament was forbidden by the Federal government. That July the Organization of Victims of the Nazi Regime was forbidden as a “threat to the constitution.” In June 1956 the military draft was reinstated, and in August the KPD was again declared illegal (Wagenbach 1994, 454). As politicians legitimized the undercurrent in society that wished only for denial, forgetting, and normalization, the fundamentally criminal nature of the NS regime was relativized and diminished in popular perception.

It is no wonder that, in such a climate, attitudes toward the resistance, and particularly working-class resisters, deteriorated. During the 1950s, the operative principle in West Germany was anticommunism, rooted in the strong anticommunist bias of the Nazi era, and validated and encouraged by the western occupiers, particularly the United States. Right-wing members of parliament publicly accused resisters of treason (Frei 1996, 23). And while the energies of the legislature were focused on palliating the sufferings of former Nazis, actions in the cause of their victims crawled at a snail’s pace. Eight years passed before there was a central office to investigate National Socialist crimes, but by 1949 the Federal Justice Department had already created a section devoted to protection of the rights of German prisoners in Allied prisons in Germany, including the top war criminals in Spandau (Frei 1996, 21-22).

The dominant historical paradigm was the insidious totalitarianism theory, which sought to equate all “totalitarian” regimes (that is, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia), and thus relativize the crimes of the Third Reich. Consequently, in histories of the period, the Communist resistance was often denied legitimacy. In addition, both the economic roots of fascism and the overtly anticapitalist nature of working-class resistance were suppressed. This was not a historical connection which reactionary historians and politicians wanted made (Gottschaldt 1985, 18). By emphasizing the conservative resistance, and by condemning both brown and red “totalitarianisms,” an impression was created that the only German resistance against the Nazis had been that of the military and the conservative establishment. This resistance was simultaneously heroicized, monumentalized, and falsified. The working-class resistance was to be written out of German history, if possible, or used in the propaganda war against the Left.

Typical of the climate was the treatment of the Edelweißpiraten immediately after the war. Using Gestapo records and even ex-Gestapo members’ testimony as a basis for its decision, city officials in Cologne refused pensions or reparations to the families of the youngsters who were hanged. They considered the Pirates terrorists, not “real resisters,” and declared that they deserved to be punished (Finkelgruen 1987, 127-28). “To call this gang a `resistance movement’ must be rejected, for the sake of the honor of the real opponents of National Socialism” (Finkelgruen 1987, 130).

The case of Buchenwald also shows the twists and turns of the official postwar treatment of working-class resistance. In their preliminary report, the first American officers to enter the camp

particularly stress[ed] the role of the communist-dominated inmate leadership. They could not help being impressed that “instead of a heap of corpses, or a disorderly mob of starving, leaderless men, the Americans found a disciplined and efficient organization in Buchenwald.” (Hackett 1995, 5)

As the first major camp to be liberated while still full of prisoners, Buchenwald initially received more publicity than any other. General Dwight Eisenhower came to see the conditions for himself on 13 April, two days after the liberation. He was followed by delegations from the U.S. Senate and the British Parliament, and by journalists, labor leaders, and clergy. Soon thereafter the U.S. Army’s Psychological Warfare Division commissioned a detailed report. The report, compiled in April and May 1945 by a team of inmates who helped conduct interviews, presents in painstaking detail every aspect of daily life in the camp, including extensive discussions of the centrality of the resistance, and its political origins, goals, and strategies.

It was apparently intended for extensive distribution, as a record of both atrocities and resistance. But Eisenhower’s comment about his own visit was to prove prophetic:

I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to “propaganda.” (Hackett 1995, 10)

And indeed, the report soon fell victim to the postwar political climate. It may have been used as supporting evidence at Nuremberg, but then it disappeared from view. Scholars who tried to locate the materials in the 1950s ran into a stone wall of classified documents (Hackett 1995, 19). One must ask why a documentary report written by an official committee should be classified. A drastically revised version of the report was published in German in 1946 by Egon Kogon, its principal author, and again in 1949, with “a new concluding chapter that reflected the emergence of the cold war” (Hackett 1995, 19). But probably less than ten percent of the original Buchenwald Report was ever published except in excerpted form (Hackett 1995, 20).

That the report resurfaced at all is pure chance. The Intelligence officer in charge of interviewing the inmates at Buchenwald, Albert G. Rosenberg, had kept a copy, and in 1987 he gave his German original to an academic colleague, David Hackett, whose translation of the report finally appeared in 1995 (Hackett 1995, xvii). Even the rather conservative Hackett admits it is

likely that increasing cold war tensions contributed to the burial of the original version of the report in bureaucratic obscurity. By 1946-1947 the prominent role of Communist camp leaders in administering the camp increasingly attracted the attention of US war crimes investigators, who put some of the Buchenwald kapos on arrest lists. No doubt the Communists’ influence at Buchenwald would have led many US investigators to treat the report with some suspicion. In any case, the Buchenwald report never surfaced again, until the present publication. (1995, 19)

By 1946, the Americans were already shifting their attention from the Nazis to the Nazis’ victims. In 1949 the German government launched its campaign of rehabilitation. The KPD was once more illegal by 1956. The postwar SPD turned its back on its radical history as something of an embarrassment, while union leaders chose to pursue a policy of cooperationism and discouraged a revival of labor culture (Adamek 1987, 56). Thus it would be many years before the proud story of the working-class resistance was given a suitable voice and its proper place in German history.