Studying the Germans who fought Hitler

Family revelation leads to life's work

by Daniel McCabe

According to the Economist magazine, Germans were long divided on the subject of the German resistance movement during Hitler's rule. How many Germans plotted against Hitler during his reign and who were they? "The subject was wide open to sensationalists, propagandists and people inflating their own egos or attacking personal enemies. Mr. Hoffmann changed all that overnight."

The "Mr. Hoffmann" touted by the magazine is McGill history professor Peter Hoffmann. Thanks to an impressive string of books devoted to the subject of Germans who resisted the Nazis, Hoffmann is clearly regarded as one of the world's top authorities on the subject, a reputation he has bolstered by recently publishing Stauffenberg: A family history, 1905 1944.

The book, a translation and updating by Hoffmann of a seminal work he produced in German in 1992, recounts the story of Count Claus von Stauffenberg, a high-ranking military officer and the key figure in the most dramatic assassination attempt on Hitler's life.

Hoffmann was recently flown back to Germany by the top-rated CBS show 60 Minutes for a yet-to-be aired segment on Stauffenberg.

Hoffmann was born in Dresden in 1930. When he was a young scholar pursuing graduate studies at the University of Munich, "my dissertation was about something else entirely." But then he learned that his father had been active in the resistance movement against the Nazis and had even played a small role in Stauffenberg's plot to kill Hitler.

"One of the men who was hung for his involvement in the assassination attempt could have named my father. If he had, my father would have been executed," says Hoffmann.

"Friends of my father, who were also involved in the resistance, asked me if I would be interested in writing about their experiences. I had nothing else planned and they offered me access to documents that no other historian had ever seen. To be the first scholar to examine important records­that's almost impossible to resist."

And so Hoffmann embarked on the subject that would become the focus of his life's work.

Hoffmann's approach to his scholarship has earned him a Killam Fellowship and an H. Noel Fieldhouse Award for distinguished teaching.

The author of Hitler's Personal Security and German Resistance to Hitler, Hoffmann's latest work details an intricate conspiracy which ended in a failed attempt to kill Hitler in 1944.

The book focuses on Claus Stauffenberg and his brothers Berthold and Alexander. Staunchly Catholic, born to the nobility and highly educated and principled, Hoffmann argues that the Stauffenbergs were loyal to a tradition of German honour and integrity which Hitler and his cronies manipulated for propaganda purposes.

After struggling to little avail to get military leaders to recognize the damage Hitler was inflicting on their society, Claus Stauffenberg became the central figure in the plot to kill the Führer.

Stauffenberg left a briefcase filled with explosives in a briefing room with Hitler present. But in the panic of last minute preparations, one of the bombs meant for the briefcase was left behind and the resulting explosion only managed to bruise Hitler. Claus, Berthold and several co conspirators were executed.

The Stauffenbergs and their allies aren't exactly fabled heroes in present day Germany, says Hoffmann. Germans have deeply ambivalent feelings about the resistance movement.

"On the one hand, this is proof that there were brave and just people in Germany. On the other hand, there clearly weren't enough of them. It forces people of that era to realize that there were Germans who fought against the Nazis and that they were not among them. Certainly the resistance achieved some things­they managed to save the lives of some individuals­ but on the whole, it was too small. It was completely ineffectual."

Recent polls indicate a growing interest in the resistance movement, says Hoffmann. For years, many Germans discounted its relevance altogether or believed that tales of the resistance stemmed from a desperate search to find something noble about the Germany of the Nazi period.

"Some thought this was a way to search for alibis­'Look we had these resisters, it wasn't all bad.' Of course, it doesn't work that way," says Hoffmann. "Today you see the young people in Germany who are wondering how it all could have taken place. They are furious about what their (forebears) allowed. When I was younger, I was very ready to blame my parents' generation for letting Hitler come to power."

Hoffmann says there are no excuses for hosting a regime guilty of some of humanity's greatest crimes, but he says it's important to realize what it was like to actually live in the Germany of that period­especially as the country grew more repressive. "In a police state, your first priority is the survival of your own family."

Indeed, says Hoffmann, it was only in the wake of evidence of horrible abuses of power and cruelty that Stauffenberg's plot to kill Hitler was set into motion. For one thing, knowledge of the wholesale slaughter of Jews in concentration camps was growing. For another, reports that Soviet prisoners of war were being purposely malnourished and left for dead were being sent back from the Russian Front.

"Two million Soviet prisoners of war died in 11 months. The Nazi commanders wouldn't allow the local population to feed them. After a typhoid outbreak, the internment camp was sealed and the prisoners were left to die."

Hoffmann argues that it was because of these atrocities, and not out of a cynical desire to get Hitler out of the way in order to cut a deal with the Allied Forces, that Stauffenberg and others in the resistance movement acted.

"There was no question they could 'save' Germany. It was much too late for that. There was no chance for a negotiated end to the war. Germany was facing occupation and it had reason to fear for the worst. The Allied forces were bombing the hell out of German cities. The Soviets were likely to be vengeful. The resistance could hope to achieve nothing except stopping the Nazis' crimes."

Hoffmann says that Germans today are probably better prepared than ever before to re-examine their country's history during the Nazi reign.

"The young have questions to ask and the old generation of teachers are dying off, people who didn't want to deal with awkward questions about what they did and what they knew. Attitudes are becoming more relaxed about this."

Hoffmann notes that Germany has quietly been enormously supportive of the state of Israel since its inception­providing billions of dollars worth of assistance and even arms shipments.

"These things aren't well publicized, but it creates tension between Germany and the Arab countries with which Germany has long maintained close relations."

Hoffmann says that these days in Germany, "it's politically incorrect to criticize a Jew in any context."

He describes the country's neo-Nazi movement as "very much a fringe group. Their support is in the thousands, rather than in the tens of thousands." He suspects the movement has far more to do with the cynicism, poverty and perceived lack of opportunity of youths from the former East Germany than with anti-Semitism.

Originally, Hoffmann believed the Stauffenberg book would be his last work on that period of German history. "But, one way or another, I'm still preoccupied by those issues."

Hoffmann says there are still no explanations for how a regime could behave in such a depraved manner. He also continues to wonder about the nature of resistance movements­what will finally motivate a people to battle a brutal, powerful police state?

"I wish it were only an academic question, but you need only look at what's going on in the former Yugoslavia to realize that isn't the case."