It is a great irony that the German resistance to Hitler is held up as a shining example of what Germans ought to stand for, by a state that many of them would have despised. Many of the most important figures of the German resistance shared next to nothing with the values of the liberal, capitalist, anti-nationalist Germany of today. Indeed, many of them opposed Nazism not because it was too illiberal, but because it was insufficiently illiberal. Some of the most active members of the German resistance emerged from the Prussian aristocracy, the Conservative Revolutionary milieus, and the Communists, movements not particularly well-disposed towards liberal democracy. Instead of building upon this alternative heritage of Germany to construct a new German nationalism free from Nazism, they are held up as nothing more than noble deviations from a uniformly guilty German people whose national consciousness should never rise again. The memorial plaque near the spot where the conspirators who attempted to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944 were executed, which is now part of the “German Resistance Memorial Center,” reads, “You did not bear the shame. You resisted. You bestowed the eternally vigilant symbol of change by sacrificing your impassioned lives for freedom, justice, and honor.” This implies that everyone else bore the shame, and that the conspirators were free of it because of their sacrifice for extremely vague concepts of “freedom, justice, and honor.” Such crude propaganda hides a far more interesting truth.
Aristocratic Prussians gathered in a cell of resistance known as the Kreisau Circle, which was named after the town where it was based, specifically the grand estate of Helmuth James Graf von Moltke. Von Moltke came from an esteemed Prussian military family. Many Germans of various backgrounds gathered there, from the liberal Left to old monarchists, to discuss their visions for a new Germany. However, as the pursuit of peaceful resistance within the group vacillated, some members, such as the Prussian aristocrat Adam von Trott zu Solz, sought a more active role and threw their lot in with the July 20 plotters, under the leadership of Conservative Revolutionary Claus von Stauffenberg. Von Trott zu Solz and Graf von Moltke would both be executed for their roles in the plot.
Several of the members of the Kreisau Circle had a background in the earlier Conservative Revolutionary movement of the Weimar era. While it was a broad and intellectually diverse movement, the general ideology characterizing the Conservative Revolution merged socialist and nationalist ideas with a critique of mass liberal democracy, often demanding rule by a military elite. Gérard Sandoz, in his book These Germans Who Defied Hitler, wrote of the July 20 plotters:
It is clear from the many documents prepared by the plotters that the majority of them considered the National Socialist regime not as a regression from parliamentary-style democracy, but as a particularly atrocious manifestation of the “decline” or “decadence” of the modern world. For them – they often said it – National Socialism was the exact reflection of a “mass” society, in any case the opposite of a conservative society guided by an “elite” which corresponded to their ideal. And that’s what appears as the relation between the struggle that the majority of these men who were tied to the plot they had earlier led against the Weimar Republic in the name of “Conservative Revolution” and their attitude regarding National Socialism. We recall that Goerdeler, Ulrich von Hassel, Ludwig Beck, and von Stauffenberg themselves detested the first German republic, this fragile democracy born the day after the military defeat. For them, a “Conservative Revolution” should precisely surmount the misfortunes that had struck Germany.1
One of the most influential figures of the Conservative Revolutionary movement, Edgar Julius Jung, would be killed during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. Jung criticized all forms of politics that were based on an appeal to the masses, including Nazism, which he took be a sign of the “reign of mediocrity,” and in the famous Marburg speech which he drafted for Chancellor von Papen, he stated that the Hitlerian cult of personality was “the least Prussian kind of thing one could imagine.” The Stauffenberg brothers shared this sentiment, as Berthold stated: “The little men who exercise uncontrolled power have replaced the predestined leaders at the top.” For the July 20 plotters such as Stauffenberg, they desired a new, hierarchical Germany rather than a return to the politics of Weimar liberalism. As Robert E. Norton’s book Secret Germany notes:
Claus von Stauffenberg’s death, as well as that of many other members of the resistance who were subsequently caught and killed, was an honorable one in a dishonorable time, and he indisputably deserves the respect he now receives. He did not die in the name of democracy, though. He and several of his co-conspirators had drawn up a document in which they declared their shared ideals, the principles on which they imagined Germany should rest once the tyrant had been toppled. This “oath” asserted that they believed “in the future of the Germans,” a people, it claimed represented a “fusion of Hellenic and Christian origins in its Germanic being.” Allowed to cultivate their proper essence, the Germans, the document read, had a calling “to lead the community of the Western peoples to a more beautiful life.” This projected “New Order” would involve all Germans, it continued, and would guarantee “rights and justice.” At the same time it announced that the conspirators “despise the lie of equality, however, and bow before the ranks assigned by nature.” It ended, “We commit to join an inseparable community that through its attitude and actions serves the New Order and the forms the fighters for the future leaders – Fuhrer – which they will need.2
Emerging from the Conservative Revolutionary milieu was its most radical iteration, the National Revolutionary movement. The National Revolutionaries saw that the domination of capitalism was intimately linked with the dominance of the Versailles powers over Germany, and they advocated a socialist revolution as a means of national liberation. Social revolution and national liberation were two sides of the same coin. As Alain de Benoist noted his preface to the French edition of the works of the noted National Revolutionary, Ernst Niekisch:
To fight for national independence and against the submission of Germany to foreign interests (Verfremdung) thus implied social revolution. Conversely, the struggle against capitalism required the reestablishment of German sovereignty. Relying on the “anti-capitalist nostalgia of the German people” (Gregor Strasser), the National Revolutionaries attacked capitalism, for the reason that its ideological inspiration was of “foreign” origin, that is to say Western: the capitalism of the time was a materialist system, the economic system of the victors, and a system foreign to the German spirit.
From such a perspective, the German people appeared doubly proletarianized. From one part, on the inside, they were severely exploited by the propertied bourgeoisie: one finds here the Lassallian idea according to which the vast majority of the people are dominated by a “thin layer” of capitalists. On the other hand, Germany was itself, from a global perspective, a proletarian country to such a degree that it was alienated from its own essence by the Western bourgeois states. The two ideas then mutually animated themselves. The bourgeoisie could bluster against Versailles, but it proved itself incapable of renouncing its privileges, because it remained attached to the same mode of life as the authors of the Diktat. Only a social revolution could revitalize Germany and constitute the people as a nation (Nationwerdung), and on the other hand, only national liberation could provide the energy and create the necessary conditions for a social revolution. A double consequence thus followed. Socialism, whose central objective was to realize the nation, the cause of the people, and the cause of the nation are one in the same cause: the divide between the Right and the Left was obsolete.3
The ranks of the National Revolutionaries would include many who were destined to become great resistance fighters. They saw Hitler’s Nazism as a betrayal of the socialist cause as he aligned with big business and the industrialists to gain parliamentary power, a betrayal compounded by the fact that they also rejected parliamentary democracy. This betrayal became more evident as the radical socialist factions of the NSDAP were purged in the Night of the Long Knives, which claimed the lives of Gregor Strasser and the SA leader Ernst Röhm, who had advocated a “second revolution” against the large property owners in order to put control of the economy into the hands of the common German worker. Furthermore, Hitler’s vitriolic anti-Soviet rhetoric alienated the National Revolutionaries, as they saw in the USSR a possible ally in the fight against the Diktat of Versailles. By turning against the East, Ernst Niekisch, who was also one of the earliest nationalist opponents of Hitler, stated that Hitler had become a “gendarme of the West,” doing the bidding of the Versailles powers against the threat of Communism. He remarked in his seminal anti-Hitler tract, Hitler: A German Fate, that Hitler’s devotion to “defending the West” against Bolshevism put him on the same page, strategically, as the Versailles powers looting Germany:
Against Russia, Hitler has made a common front with all the Western powers. Given the global arrangement of powers, we must opt either to be for the order of Versailles, or to be for the Bolshevik order. Those who combat the first take, from this fact, the defense of the second. He who is attached to the spiritual values and the civilizing goods of the West is a partisan of Versailles. He sacrifices Germany to prevent these goods and values from being put in danger…
For Germany, Versailles is incomparably more dangerous than “Bolshevism.” Versailles caused the loss of the essence of the German people. Versailles signifies its true death. In the measure where Bolshevism is truly poisonous, the toxic effect is neutralized by the force with which Germanism affirms itself, Germanism that, as always, better knows how to resist the Slavic-Asiatic spirit than the Latin spirit. Ultimately, “German Bolshevism” would lead to a Machiavellian system, an effective instrument permitting Germany to wreck the West.
Anti-Bolshevism, for him, is a social position and not political: we fear for our wealth and not for our country. Versailles, on the other hand, is a true political question. Only those who oppose it, without making concessions, adopt an exclusively political position. The exaggerated din against Bolshevism wants to hide the fact that, at present, negotiations concerning a secret entente with Versailles have begun. The vehement anti-Bolshevism of Hitler indicates that he does not consider Versailles the true enemy. If he reclaims arms and uniforms, it is not to combat Versailles, but to become the gendarme of the West against Bolshevism. He does not want to reverse the order of Versailles, no, he wants to extend it to the Urals, or even to the coasts of the Pacific. In this way, we can only win a balance of misery, and not the liberty of Germany.
Niekisch was not the only one to turn towards the Soviet Union as a geopolitical ally against the forces of Versailles. In 1932, the Association for the Study of the Russian Planned Economy (ARPLAN),which included not only Ernst Niekisch, but also the great war hero and his collaborator on the journal Widerstand (Resistance), Ernst Jünger; the National Revolutionary writer and future Red Orchestra member Arvid Harnack; and the pagan revivalist, Conservative Revolutionary, and future resistance member Friedrich Hielscher, made a visit to Russia in the spirit of friendship and mutual collaboration.
With the rise of Hitler, the possibility of a great collaboration with the Soviets in a common front against the forces of Versailles was broken. Niekisch was one of the first and most vocal critics of Hitler. He attacked the nationalist credentials of Nazism, writing to Goebbels, whom he wanted to draw away from Nazism: “You pretend to be National Socialists, but is there anything national in your movement? Your salute is Roman, your flag equally so, the color of the uniforms of your troops makes one think of a Balkan occupation army, your military parades of Catholic high masses! No, the German nation is another thing, it was not born in the fever of Bavarian beer halls! It was born in the protest against Rome, with the clear breeze of Protestantism and of the Prussian spirit.” Between 1933 and 1937, Niekisch traveled widely, establishing a covert network of resistance and continuing to write. In 1937, Niekisch, along with 70 other members of his circle which was gathered around his journal, Widerstand, were arrested. Niekisch would remain in prison until 1945, when he was liberated by the Red Army, emerging nearly blind and unable to walk. Jünger would later remark about the courage of his friend, “Ernst Niekisch is among these exceptional beings who, in the Civil War, had courage. I could not have imagined, before the events, that this courage would be astonishingly rare… I saw how one man such as Niekisch stood in his refusal to capitulate. Dead silence all around.” Other National Revolutionaries, who had rallied to Niekisch during the Weimar Republic, would also engage in resistance.
Jünger would quietly resist Nazism, offering shelter to Niekisch’s wife and son. His residence was raided several times by the Gestapo for such connections. In response to a Nazi attempt to publish his work without permission, he would respond harshly in the Nazi Party’s newpaper, forsaking all association with it:
In the supplement Junge Mannschaft of the Völkischer Beobachter, on 6-7 May 1934, an extract from The Adventurous Heart was reproduced. This excerpt was made without indicating its source. The impression could be given to the reader that I am one of the collaborators of your journal. That is not the case, especially because, for many years, I no longer express myself in the press. Under the circumstances, I underline my incomprehension: on one side, the official press attributes to me the role of “collaborator”; on the other, a communique in the equally official press forbids me from publishing the text of my letter of November 18, 1933 to the Academy of Literature. I absolutely do not wish to see myself cited in these journals, and I do not want to allow the least uncertainty as to the nature of my political sentiments.
His allegorical novel, On the Marble Cliffs, would be highly critical of the Nazi regime, and Nazi Party members began to call for his head. Only the respect that Hitler had for his heroism in the First World War spared his life. Unfortunately, many of Jünger’s National Revolutionary contacts would not be so fortunate. To cite one example, his fellow contributor to the magazines Vormarsch and Widerstand, Hartmut Plaas, who became involved with the resistance alongside Admiral Canaris, would be executed in Ravensbruck in 1944.
Another resistance figure who emerged from the nationalist youth movement (Jugend-bewegung) greatly inspired by Jünger was Karl Otto Paetel. Paetel directed the Nationalist-Social Revolutionary Group (Gruppe Sozialrevolutionärer Nationalisten, or GSRN), which would publish the magazine Die sozialistche Nation, openly proclaiming class struggle as a tool of national liberation. GSRN would be suppressed after the Reichstag fire, but would be reconstituted as the Socialist Nation Group. This group would publish an anti-Nazi paper, Antifaschistiche Briefe. For his resistance actions, Paetel would be condemned to death, and he eventually fled into exile. His collaborator in the endeavor, Theo Hespers, who had published a nationalist youth magazine, Kameradschaft, would not be so lucky, as he was executed for his activities on September 9, 1943.
Among Paetel’s previous collaborators in the magazine Vorkämpfer were the resistance members Friedrich Lenz and Arvid Harnack. Lenz was an economist who had been influenced by the nationalist economics of Friedrich List, and he would help direct ARPLAN with Arvind Harnack. He would also participate in the resistance activities of the Kreisau Circle, from which the July 20 plotters emerged. As for Harnack, he would become involved in the Soviet espionage ring, the “Red Orchestra.” He would be executed for this, along with another Red Orchestra member who had been a veteran of the National Revolutionary milieus, Harro Schulze-Boysen, a Luftwaffe pilot and one-time fighter against the French occupation of the Ruhr. He was involved with the magazine Gegner, an Expressionist magazine advocating a National Revolutionary line, which counted among its circle Ernst von Salomon and the future youth resistance leader, Eberhard Köbel. Köbel had left the nationalist youth movement to join the Communist Party (KPD), and then the Hitler Youth as an infiltrator. He would die in exile. Another nationalist who had contact with the Communist Party was Captain “Beppo” (Joseph) Römer, a veteran of the Oberland Freikorps and a hero of the fighting in Silesia in the aftermath of the First World War. He would be imprisoned in Dachau until 1939 for a plot to kill Hitler. After his release, he would begin organizing cells of resistance and formulating a new assassination plot, which would unfortunately be exposed, leading to his execution on September 25, 1944.
The fact that many nationalists would rally to Communism may seem odd, but in the Weimar Republic, the Communists were rallying to nationalism as well. In 1923, the Communist leader Karl Radek invoked the sacrifice of the nationalist Freikorps fighter Leo Schlageter, who had been executed for sabotage actions against the French occupation of the Ruhr. He stated:
But we believe that the great majority of the nationalist-minded masses belong not to the camp of the capitalists, but to the camp of the workers. We want to find, and we shall find, the path to these masses. We shall do all in our power to make men like Schlageter, who are prepared to go to their deaths for a common cause, not wanderers into the void, but wanderers into a better future for the whole of mankind; that they should not spill their hot, unselfish blood for the profit of the coal and iron barons, but in the cause of the great toiling German people, which is a member of the family of peoples fighting for their emancipation.4
The new Schlageter line of the KPD stated that the German proletariat was being oppressed by the powers of Versailles, and that it was no longer feasible to ignore the question of patriotism. KPD leader Ernst Thälmann, who would later be executed by the Nazis, said, “The KPD is the only party that has the right to claim that they uphold the protection of the nation. The 90% of the working people embody the nation, and we fight for their interests.”5 In 1930, the KPD released the Program for the National and Social Liberation of the German People, which was written by Anton Ackermann and demanded total mobilization against the Young Plan and the Diktat of Versailles. Ackermann would survive the Nazi era and become involved with the leadership of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). His patriotic line would eventually find a home there. The official ideological line of the DDR did not stigmatize the German people as a whole for the crimes of Nazism. Rather, it stated that the German people were “double victims” of competing capitalist forces represented by the Western allies as well as Nazism. Moreover, attempts to shake down East Germany for reparation money for Israel were firmly rejected, unlike in the West. In contrast, East Germany gave its support to the national liberation struggle of the Palestinians. It seems that in the East, an echo of the call for social and national liberation still resounded.
In today’s Germany, based on Western liberalism and free market capitalism as it is, the true nature of the struggle undertaken by so many resistance fighters has been conveniently swept aside. They were not fighting to affirm the Weimar liberal status quo, but to construct a nationalist and socialist alternative to Hitler’s Nazism. Instead of embracing the alternative that the brave resistance embodied and never retreated from, even in the face of death, the new German republic besmirches their memory, reducing them to toothless caricatures who died in the service of an ideology they despised. They have been doubly assassinated, first by the Nazis, and then by today’s liberals. The Nazis may have killed them, but the liberals seek to obliterate their spirit. If the German people wish to honor the sacrifices of the resistance, those who fought to save Germany from utter annihilation in the course of a misguided war, then they must reject the national annihilation being offered by their current political elites. They should rally to the cause of the people and the nation and stand tall in the face of overwhelming opposition, in the spirit of Stauffenberg, Niekisch, Harnack, Jung, and so many others who had the courage to challenge the fatal course of Hitler. Hitler led Germany to defeat, humiliation, and occupation. Those who accept such a legacy, including the political elites who never hesitate to wallow in the national guilt that was imposed on them in defeat, dishonor the legacy of those resistance fighters who sacrificed everything to prevent the destruction of the German people. In the face of German defeat, the spirit of resistance cries out once again for the liberation of the German people.
- Sandoz, Gérard. Ces Allemands qui ont défié Hitler: 1933-1945 (Paris: Pygmalion, 1980). Cited in “The National-Bolshevik Resistance to Nazism” by Luc Michel.
- Norton, Robert E. Secret Germany: Stefan George and His Circle (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002).
- Niekisch, Ernst, et al. Hitler-une fatalité allemande: et autres écrits nationaux-bolcheviks (Puiseaux: Pardès, 1991).