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Germany: Overview
THE PARTISAN HUNTERS
Nacht und Nebel
Germany: Profiles

HEROES OF THE RESISTANCE

Germany

From the moment Hitler rose to power in 1933 to the final days of his life, some Germans resisted him and the Nazi regime he headed.

Over 77,000 German citizens were killed for resisting Nazism, an astonishing number given the nature and the brutality of the regime. Many served in the government, military, or civil positions, which enabled them to engage in subversion  and conspiracy. 

In addition, tens of thousands of communists, trade unionists, clergy and ordinary citizens were rounded up, sent to concentration and prison camps and murdered. 

During the 1930s there was little organised resistance but that did not stop the Nazis suppressing all opposition political parties and left wing activism. One exception were elements in the German intelligence services, among them Colonel Hans Oster, head of the Military Intelligence Office from 1938, and an anti-Nazi from as early as 1934. He was protected by the Abwehr chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, who was later executed for high treason. Other prominent figures included Hans Bernd Gisevius, a senior official in the Interior Ministry, and Hjalmar Schacht, the governor of the Reichsbank.

The main Christian opposition to the Nazis came from sections of the Catholic Church, whereas the main Protestant churches were pro-Nazi. 

During the 1930s there was little organised resistance to the Nazis

There were a number of assassination attempts against Hitler, the first originating from Georg Elser, a carpenter from Württemberg, who hatched a plot by himself to bomb the Nazi leader in a Munich beer hall in 1939. The most famous and organised attempt on Hitler’s life was the 20 July plot in 1944, which is probably more accurately described as a coup d’état, as it attempted to seize control of Germany and its armed forces from the Nazi Party, in order to make peace with the Western Allies as soon as possible. 

The failure of the assassination attempt and the intended military coup led to more than 7,000 people being arrested, of which 4,980 were executed. 

Organised and public resistance within Germany was obviously difficult, so many people went to extraordinary lengths to more privately show their opposition. One of the most ingenious efforts was by Otto and Elise Hampel, who left postcards urging resistance against the regime around Berlin. It took two years before they were caught, convicted and then put to death.

THE PARTISAN HUNTERS: THE SS-SONDERKOMMANDO DIRLEWANGER

The actions of the Dirlewanger Brigade, a German anti-partisan unit, demonstrate the extreme brutality of the Nazi counterinsurgency, and the risks and the costs of engaging in anti-Nazi activity in Eastern Europe. A willing participant in several of the most heinous acts of WWII, as historian Timothy Snyder writes, “in all the theatres of the Second World War, few could compete in cruelty with Oskar Dirlewanger”. 

Oskar Dirlewanger was a veteran of WWI, of Weimar Era far-right militias, and the Spanish Civil War. He was also a petty criminal and a child molester, described in a police report as “a mentally unstable, violent fanatic and alcoholic, who had the habit of erupting into violence under the influence of drugs”. Nonetheless, he was blessed with friends in high places, and ahead of the invasion of Poland, he was made an Untersturmführer of the Waffen-SS. 

Forming a unit comprised of press-ganged criminals in March 1940, which came to include an ever-worsening array of convicted murderers and rapists as the war progressed, Dirlewanger was assigned to security duties in Lublin, Poland, quickly earning a reputation within the SS for excessive violence. The unit was relocated to Belarus in February 1942, ostensibly to combat partisans, but focused its energies primarily on massacring civilians, rounding them up into barns, setting them alight, and then gunning down anyone who tried to escape the blaze. At least 30,000 civilians were murdered by the Dirlewanger unit in Belarus.

Oskar Dirlewanger
Oskar Dirlewanger

 

As historian Peter Longreich writes, Dirlewanger’s leadership “was characterised by continued alcohol abuse, looting, sadistic atrocities, rape and murder”. Whilst there were complaints from within the SS, partly due to the influx of criminals into its ranks, the Nazi leadership urgently depended on the likes of Dirlewanger in its bloody campaign against “subhumanity”. 

Assigned to put down the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, and permitted to indiscriminately slaughter, on 5 August the Dirlewanger Brigade, alongside other veterans of the Eastern Front, embarked on a frenzy of killing that saw between 30,000 and 40,000 civilians die in Warsaw’s Wola district in a matter of days. This included burning a number of hospitals with the patients trapped inside, and massacring hundreds of children with bayonets and rifle butts to save ammunition. As many as 200,000 died in the uprising, with huge portions of the city reduced to rubble. 

Oskar Dirlewanger was a willing participant in several of the most heinous acts of WWII

The Dirlewanger Brigade was also involved in the brutal suppression of the Slovak national uprising in September and October 1944, though not without suffering heavy casualties themselves. In addition to killing those directly participating in the uprising the unit were involved in the execution of thousands of Slovaks suspected of aiding the rebels as well as Jews who had avoided deportation until then. Attacks took place on 93 villages, with several burned to the ground and all their inhabitants murdered. 

The unit was eventually smashed by the Red Army in early 1945. Dirlewanger was captured by the Allies in Germany, and reports suggest that he was beaten to death by his guards in June 1945.

Soldiers from the Dirlewanger Brigade participating in the suppression the Warsaw uprising - August 1944.

(Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Nacht und Nebel

Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) was a directive issued by Adolf Hitler on 7 December 1941 targeting political activists and resistance “helpers” to be imprisoned or killed, while the family and the population remained uncertain as to the fate or whereabouts of the Nazi state’s alleged offender. 

Victims who disappeared in these Night and Fog actions were never heard from again. 

On 7 December 1941, the leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, issued the following instructions to the Gestapo: 

“After lengthy consideration, it is the will of the Führer that the measures taken against those who are guilty of offenses against the Reich or against the occupation forces in occupied areas should be altered. The Führer is of the opinion that in such cases penal servitude or even a hard labor sentence for life will be regarded as a sign of weakness. An effective and lasting deterrent can be achieved only by the death penalty or by taking measures which will leave the family and the population uncertain as to the fate of the offender. Deportation to Germany serves this purpose.” 

A few days later, Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, of the German Armed Forces High Command, expanded on Hitler’s directive:

“Efficient and enduring intimidation can only be achieved either by capital punishment or by measures by which the relatives of the criminals do not know the fate of the criminal." 

Interior of a Holocaust train boxcar used by Nazi Germany to transport Jews and other victims during World War II. The boxcar is located inside the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Photo: zenobia_ joy

He later added that any resistance prisoner not killed within eight days of capture should be handed over to the Gestapo and transported to Germany, where they would vanish without trace and their whereabouts and fate never revealed in order to intimidate local populations and scare off resistance. 

No record of those who vanished was ever kept, though by April 1944 it is believed that almost 7,000 “transformed into mist” – as the Germans described it. Unsurprisingly, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg described the Nacht und Nebel programme as a war crime. 

he shouted “Alles für Deutschland!” just before the trap door opened beneath his feet

Keitel later testified at the Nuremberg Trials that of all the illegal orders he had carried out, the Nacht und Nebel decree was “the worst of all". However, there was no remorse from the German Field-Marshal as he shouted “Alles für Deutschland! Deutschland über alles!” just before the trap door opened beneath his feet. 

Robert H Jackson, the former Supreme Court Justice and chief prosecutor at the international Nuremberg trial, listed the “terrifying” Nacht und Nebel decree with the other horrific crimes committed by the Nazis in his closing address.

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