Paddy Ashdown on resistance to Hitler
Speaking about his new book at the Malvern Festival of Military History, Lord Ashdown reveals the extraordinary story of high-level German resistance against the Third Reich
History of War’s Tom Garner talks to the Liberal Democrat peer about his new book on the Germans who defied the Nazis
Occupied Europe became famous for its various resistance networks to Nazi tyranny, but the fight against Adolf Hitler’s regime inside Germany has received less attention. Paddy Ashdown’s new book Nein! tells the story of those within Hitler’s high command who became committed to destroying the German leader both before and during World War II.
This powerful internal resistance to Nazism included many plots to kill Hitler, as well as the systematic passage of military secrets to the Allies through determined spy rings. Those authorising these actions included generals and the head of the Abwehr (German military intelligence), Viceadmiral Wilhelm Canaris.
Speaking at the Malvern Festival of Military History, Ashdown revealed the plotters’ motives, Allied complacency and how the dangerous world of the 1930s-1940s echoes our own unstable times.
WHAT ASPECTS Of THE GERMAN RESISTANCE DOES THE book COVER?
This is not about the ‘small people’ in the German resistance like the White Rose student movement or Georg Elser, although they were remarkable too. This is about people at the very top of Hitler’s regime, including his generals and the head of his spy service.
From 1934-35 onwards, they quite deliberately set out to frustrate his plans, attempted to assassinate him on several occasions, passed his plans on to the Allies to tell them what he was going to do and sue for an early peace if that was possible.
It’s an extraordinary story, but it has almost been totally forgotten, and there is a reason for that. After WWII, it was inconvenient for us to believe that there were good Germans. They were not flawless but they did understand the evil he posed and understood it early on. I think it’s time to bring it back to light, not as an alternative history but a complementary part of World War II.
WHAT WERE THE MOTIVES Of THOSE WHO RESISTED THE THIRD REICH?
They were often very strongly motivated by religious principles. Most of them were Lutherans and many were also Catholics, including Wilhelm Canaris and Claus von Stauffenberg. It’s a bit romantic, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that their Germany consisted of Beethoven, Schiller and Goethe. It wasn’t the Germany of Hitler and it was so offensive to all of the basic things that they believed existed in a broadly liberal society.
They felt that they could do nothing other than oppose Hitler by treachery.
ONE Of THE key MOMENTS IN THE book WAS AN ATTEMPTED Coup TO REMOVE HITLER IN SEPTEMBER 1938. HOW did THAT plot unfold?
In August 1938 Ewald von Kleist-schmenzin, the personal representative of the German General Staff, flew to London about six weeks before the invasion of the Sudetenland. He saw [Under-secretary for Foreign Affairs] Robert Vansittart and Winston Churchill and told them the date of the invasion was 28 September. He also told them that a coup was being assembled and that if the British stood up to Hitler, the Germans would remove him. Churchill rang Lord Halifax and drafted a letter for Kleist-schmenzin to take back [to Germany] saying that the British would oppose Hitler if the invasion happened.
In September, the diplomat Erich Kordt went through the back door of 10 Downing Street and reconfirmed the invasion date and planned coup to Halifax. Halifax gave him a rather equivocal answer, but on 28 September the coup was in place with some 60 armed ‘desperadoes’, including
“It’s an extraordinary story but it has almost been totally forgotten, and there Is a reason for that. after wwii, it was Inconvenient for us to believe that there Were good germans”
Paddy Ashdown is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, but he began his career as an officer in the Royal Marines and Special Boat Service
Ashdown’s new book explores the high-ranking German conspiracies to remove Hitler