(Virtual) Event: Catrine Clay in conversation with Anne Chisholm

posted 16 Feb 2021 4 mins

Our World War 2 History Series continued on 16 February with a fascinating virtual talk by Catrine Clay, author of The Good Germans: Resisting the Nazis, 1933-45 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020).

In conversation with biographer, editor and critic Anne Chisholm, Catrine shed light on the largely untold story of the German Resistance. Unlike their counterparts in France, she pointed out, German resisters were not glamourised by their countrymen. Much less were their efforts appreciated in the UK.

‘My father was in the Royal Navy for all five years of the war,’ said Catrine. ‘In his view there was no such thing as a good German and I think that in this respect he was absolutely typical of his generation. Even now you will sometimes hear there was a handful of Prussian nobility who resisted the Nazis, but it is rarely acknowledged that two-thirds of Germans – some 40 million people – never voted for Hitler.’

Popular resistance to the Third Reich often coalesced around left-wing or left-leaning organisations. This, Catrine argued, did not fit the broader narrative of post-war Europe: ‘You can forget about the Social Democrats, the Communists, the church people and the teachers who risked everything to make a stand for the country they loved. Because the big story after the war was to be anti-Communist; there could be no Communist heroes, and possibly not many Social Democrat ones either.’

Drawing examples from a broad spectrum of German society, The Good Germans offers an intimate portrait of six resisters, from Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, an aristocratic, old-school nationalist, to the teenaged daughter of Ernst Thälmann, leader of the German Communist Party. Details of ever-more restricted freedoms build a compelling picture of democracy in shutdown:

‘Almost overnight once the Nazis came to power in January 1933, Germans had to bear a brutal terror regime,’ Catrine explained. ‘No more free press, no more political parties, no more free churches and, in particular, something really horrible called Gleichschaltung, which meant you had to be seen to politically aligned to the Nazis. If you weren’t, the most appalling things could happen to you. If you said “Heil Hitler!” with insufficient zeal and someone reported you, you’d have the Gestapo on your doorstep the next morning; you could spend years in a concentration camp and be shot trying to escape. So the courage for tiny acts of resistance in Germany had to be huge.’

Attempts to overthrow Hitler (such as the 20 July plot) were supported by a network of civil servants preparing a ‘government in waiting’. In many cases, however, resistance took the form of small acts of sabotage:

‘The reason why the output of the German war economy never matched the Allies’ was very simple. There was sabotage everywhere. People put to slave labour weren’t going to work hard. Jewish women working in munitions would go at a deliberately slow rate. Sabotage alone accounted for hundreds of thousands of resisters in factories and on farms. So contrary to propaganda, the Nazis were on the back foot all along.’

Similarly, images of crowds cheering Hitler in the streets were far removed from the truth: 

‘Hitler hardly ever went out. Most of the time he was up at Berchtesgaden or in his Wolf’s Lair on the eastern front and from about 1942, he was pretty much drug-addicted. On the rare occasions he did go out, he was in a bullet-proof vest and cap with a triple ring of SS around him. But of course wherever he went, Goebbels was there, filming away, to make him look like a man of the people.’

Often ‘good Germans’ assumed a mask of unquestioning obedience to the Party: ‘A lot of resisters joined the Party or the army because they felt it was the only way they could protect themselves and their family. And of course it meant that after the war, there was a terrible muddle as no one knew who had been wearing a mask and who hadn’t. But you can see how it happened. Because people are human, aren’t they?’

As ever, our virtual audience had plenty of questions for the speaker, with many customers sharing personal or family recollections of the war. Hosted by Audrey Hoare and Venetia Hoare, the event was a great opportunity for the whole bank community to come together and thanks are due to all who made it such a memorable evening.