The Real German Resistance to Hitler: The Social Democrats

In the course of an interesting article denouncing Valkyrie and The Reader, Ron Rosenbaum says:

And then there was Cruise’s character, Claus von Stauffenberg, very brave, it’s true, in 1944. But back during the brutal war crime that was the 1939 invasion of Poland (the British magazine History Today reminds us), he was describing the Polish civilians his army was slaughtering as “an unbelievable rabble” made up of “Jews and mongrels.” With friends like these …

Moral: Don’t go looking for heroes in the largely mythical “German resistance” to Hitler. The German resistance was not much more real or effectual than the French Resistance—its legend outgrew its deeds after the war.


I think this is too quick. There was very real German resistance to Hitler. It just didn’t come from the army or other elements of the German conservative establishment. And it wasn’t able to stop anything in 1939 or 1944 because it had already been crushed. The opposition came primarily from the German Social Democratic Party. Rosenbaum knows this because it wrote about it in his book, but for the purpose of this article he’s glossed over it. But emphasis on Germany complicity in Nazi atrocities shouldn’t obscure the fact that a large swathe of the German public tried—very hard—to prevent Hitler from coming to power throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. The problem was that they were undercut by a non-trivial Communist Party that absurdly alleged that there was no difference between social democracy and fascism (they used the term “social fascists”) and by the fact that when the chips were down, both the Catholic political movement and the traditional Protestant conservatives didn’t like Hitler but preferred him socialism.

In Prussia, for example, Otto Braun’s SDP coalition was happily in power through democratic means until July of 1932 when the federal Chancellor Franz von Papen decided to abrogated constitutional government, kick Braun out of power, and start running the state himself. Papen also re-legalized the previously banned Nazi SA paramilitary organization in an effort to lure them into supporting his coalition, and then eventually agreed to serve as Vice Chancellor in a Hitler-led cabinet. After the reichstag fire, the conservative and centrist parties voted for the Enabling Act that gave Hitler dictatorial powers, but the SDP voted no, even though they knew they were doomed to lose the vote. At this point their leaders either went into exile (like Braun) or were generally sent to concentration camps. This, unlike the von Stauffenberg plot, was legitimate ahead-of-the-curve resistance to the Nazis.