TODAY, THE BENDLERBLOCK is an innocuous looking office building in the Berlin’s Tiergarten district. But in 1944, the site was a key army headquarters as well as ground zero for a secret plot by a handful of Wehrmacht officers to bring down the Third Reich. Led by a disillusioned 36-year-old army colonel by the name of Claus von Stauffenberg, the conspiracy’s objective was the assassination of Adolf Hitler. The plan involved the detonation of a brief case bomb in the Fuhrer’s Wolf’s Lair headquarters near Rastenburg, East Prussia. With Hitler dead, the officers would order a military take-over of Berlin followed by peace overtures to the Allies. Codenamed Operation Valkyrie, the scheme quickly unraveled after the bomb, which was set off on July 20, 1944, failed to kill the Nazi dictator. Within hours of the blast, the SS swooped down on the Bendlerblock and shot von Stauffenberg and his compatriots right in the building’s courtyard.
The facility is now a museum dedicated to Germans from all walks of life who committed themselves to the destruction of the Third Reich. There’s a small plaque that stands in the open-air quad where the executions took place more than 70 years ago. It reads:
You did not bear the shame.
You bestowed the eternally vigilant symbol of change
by sacrificing your impassioned lives for freedom, justice and honor.
Here are just some of the people to whom this moving tribute is dedicated:
Josef “Beppo” Römer was one of the first to attempt to topple the Nazi regime. In 1934, the 42-year-old journalist and veteran of the First World War teamed up with a lawyer and anti-fascist named Nikolaus von Halem. The pair planned to hire a hit man to shoot the newly elected German chancellor. Details of the conspiracy leaked and the 42-year-old Römer was arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp. He was released in 1939, but rearrested on charges of treason in 1942 and executed two years later.
Other would-be assassins included Johan Georg Elser, a 36-year-old carpenter and trade unionist who planted a bomb in the famous Munich beer hall from which Hitler launched his abortive 1923 putsch. The device detonated 13 minutes after the Fuhrer finished speaking there on the 16th anniversary of the famed uprising. Elser was arrested and held for five years before being shot at Dachau exactly one month before the fall of Germany.
Not all opponents of Hitler sought to use violence to defeat the Nazis. The Berlin-based socialist faction the European Union resisted peacefully. So did the White Rose, a group of young intellectuals led by Hans and Sophie Scholl, two twenty-something siblings who were students at a Munich university. The society worked tirelessly throughout 1942 to educate Germans about Nazi war crimes using graffiti and pamphlets to get the message out. The members were eventually denounced by a university employee and turned over to the Gestapo. Both Scholls were executed by guillotine at Stadelheim Prison in 1943. Hans’ last words were “long live freedom.” Although forever silenced, their ideas would live on. Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, an army officer disgusted by German atrocities in the east and kingpin of the Kreisau Circle underground, smuggled some of the siblings’ writings out of Germany. They were eventually printed up as leaflets and dropped by Allied bombers over the Third Reich.
Another youth group opposed to the regime was the Edelweiss Pirates, a loose affiliation of teenage gangs that shirked military service. Unlike the famous Swingkinder or “Swing Kids” who rebelled against Nazi authorities through their love of American jazz, Edelweiss Pirates typically roamed the streets of German cities in packs seeking confrontations with the Hitler Youth. Others hid army deserters and distributed Allied propaganda. Nazi authorities arrested and detained key members in the gangs, often shaving their heads before releasing them. The fun and games ended in 1944 when Berlin ordered a bloody crackdown on the groups — more than a dozen of the teenaged dissidents were hanged.
Catholics within Germany were among some of the most organized and outspoken critics of Hitler’s racial policies, particularly the Nazi euthanasia program. The murderous campaign, which was dubbed T4, targeted the mentally and physically handicapped. More than 70,000 Germans were put to death under the scheme, which ran from 1939 to 1941. The Bishop of Munster, Clemens August Graf von Galen, loudly condemned the policy as barbaric and used his pulpit to mobilize opposition to it. Peaceful demonstrations were held throughout the country at his insistence. Some protesters in Nuremburg even shouted down Hitler when he visited the city. Many within the party called for Galen’s head; the persecution of Catholic clergy was widespread. Ultimately the clamour to end T4 became so great, the regime was forced to scale back the killings and then conceal them.
Speaking of public protests, the winter of 1943 saw one of the more remarkable acts of open defiance of the Third Reich. In February and March of that year, several hundred Berlin women assembled in front of a Nazi jail to demonstrate against the arrest of their Jewish husbands. The unfortunate spouses had been swept up in a massive operation that saw the last few thousand Jews living in the German capital deported to extermination camps. “I thought I would be alone there the first time I went. There was always a flood of people there,” Elsa Holzer, a surviving protester told The Jewish Press in 2013. “I didn’t necessarily think it would do any good, but we wanted to show that we weren’t willing to let [our husbands] go.” The Gestapo threatened to fire into the growing crowds, but party chiefs, ever mindful of the optics of such a massacre, chose instead to withhold rations for the dissidents.
Some of the fiercest opponents of the Third Reich came from those closest to party’s inner circle. Case in point: Albert Goering, younger brother of the famous Nazi Reichsmarschall. Unlike his illustrious sibling, Albert was anything but a devoted follower of Hitler. In fact, the powerful industrialist did what he could to thwart the regime at every turn. Tales abound of his various acts of defiance against Nazi policies, particularly the persecution of the Jews. Goering once reportedly joined a Jewish work detail forced to clean the streets of Berlin as a form of protest against their mistreatment. He then used his notorious bother’s credentials to escape retribution. Albert also leveraged his influence to free prominent Jews from the clutches of the SS, sometimes even forging his sibling’s signature to have concentration camp inmates diverted to his factories for protection. Later, when his plants were ordered to produce armaments for the army, Albert did as much as he could to disrupt production, even going so far as to coordinate acts of sabotage with local resistance agents. The younger Goering lived through the war, but became a social pariah because of his last name. Generous to the end, Albert married his own housekeeper on his deathbed so that she would receive his pension. It wasn’t until after his passing that Goering’s anti-Nazi exploits became widely known.
Hitler’s own intelligence chief, Wilhelm Franz Canaris, was yet another secret opponent of Hitler. As early as 1938, the decorated head of the Abwehr lobbied Berlin to avoid war and even passed secrets to the British in hopes of warning them of the German chancellor’s militaristic ambitions. The following year, he confronted the Fuhrer personally to denounce atrocities being committed against Polish civilians. As the war continued, Canaris made contact with anti-Nazis inside the military (a group the Gestapo codenamed the Black Orchestra) and began plotting the assassination of Hitler. In 1942, he travelled to Spain, ostensibly to enlist Francisco Franco’s aid in the Axis war effort. In reality, he was there to caution Madrid against entering the war. While visiting, he also met with British agents to inform them of the plot to kill the Fuhrer. Suspicions regarding the admiral’s loyalty grew and in early 1944, SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered Canaris arrested. The admiral was executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp four weeks before the end of the war. As a final insult, the SS forced Canaris to go to the gallows naked.
Despite devoting himself to defeating Allied armies on the battlefield, Erwin Rommel was a sworn enemy of Hitler and the Nazis. He openly flouted directives from Berlin to round up Jews and execute Allied commandos. As the war continued, Rommel personally wrote to the Fuhrer to denounce atrocities committed by the SS. He also famously blasted the editors of the party newspaper Das Reich over their attempts to paint him as a fervent National Socialist. Although in contact with the organizers of the July 20 conspiracy, the 52-year-old field marshal was still opposed to assassinating Hitler. But just his association with the plotters was enough to seal his fate. Rommel was arrested and forced to commit suicide on Oct. 14, 1944.
(Originally posted on MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Feb. 15, 2015)