Dissent in Nazi Germany

It complicates our received idea of totalitarianism to learn that there were successful protests in Nazi Germany. This is the story of three of them: protests that forced changes in policy, including, in one very special case, the release of Jews slated for the death camps.

On April 1, 1943, the American Legation in Bern sent this dispatch to Washington: “Action against Jewish wives and husbands on the part of the Gestapo … had to be discontinued some time ago because of the protest which such action aroused.” The protest to which this dispatch referred had been a street demonstration a month earlier in Berlin. The demonstration was remarkable for the courage of the people who participated in it, for the sheer fact of its occurrence, and above all for its outcome. For it marked the single instance of group protest by Germans of the Third Reich in behalf of fellow citizens who were Jewish—and it worked. This article, which is based on more than two years of research and interviews in the former West and East Germanys, seeks to tell the story of that protest, and two others of other kinds. The story, known to only a few close students of the Third Reich, raises a question that goes far beyond it: If nonviolent mass protests by Aryan Germans worked in Berlin in 1943, could it have slowed or stopped the destruction of German Jewry?

The question, of course, is provocatively abstract. Whether or not it could have, history shows only that the mass of Germans either did nothing or supported the Nazi regime. It is important to say this at the outset of an article about why a handful of Germans protested.

On the Rosenstrasse

Until early 1943 the Nazi regime had exempted from the Final Solution Jews married to Aryans. But during a mass arrest of the last Jews in Berlin, beginning on February 27, 1943, a change was made. Unannounced, the SS burst into Berlin’s factories at daybreak that Saturday morning and arrested all Jews. Simultaneously the local Gestapo, assisted by the municipal police, kidnapped Jews from their homes. Anyone on the streets wearing the Star of David was carted off without explanation and taken with other Jews to huge “collecting centers” in central Berlin, in preparation for large-scale deportations to Auschwitz.

This was the most brutal chapter of the expulsion of Jews from Berlin. The Gestapo referred to it simply as the Judenschlussaktion (final roundup of Jews). Meant to be a precedent-setting action against Jews married to Aryans, it employed special national forces. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring converted the riding stable of his air force in central Berlin into a collecting center. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler participated in planning the action and made Adolf Eichmann’s deputy, Rolf Günther, one of the three executive managers of it. Adolf Hitler himself authorized a two-day loan of the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, the SS division originally created for his personal protection. The Führer was reportedly offended that so many Jews still lived in Berlin, and Joseph Goebbels, as the Nazi Party regional director for greater Berlin, was determined to make the Reich capital judenfrei in time for the Führer’s fifty-fourth birthday, in April.

Of the 10,000 Berlin Jews arrested in the Final Roundup, 8,000 were murdered at Auschwitz. The remaining 2,000 were to experience a different fate. These Jews, related by marriage to Aryan Germans, were locked up at Rosenstrasse 2-4, an administrative center of the Jewish community in the heart of Berlin. By the repellent racial logic of the Nazis, the leadership had reason to deport these Jews before all other Jews. The Aryan spouses, who were mostly women, hurried alone or in pairs to the Rosenstrasse, where they discovered a growing crowd. A protest broke out when the hundreds of women at the gate began calling out, “Give us our husbands back!” Day and night for a week they staged their protest, and the crowd grew larger.

On different occasions armed guards commanded, “Clear the streets or we’ll shoot!” This sent the women scrambling into surrounding alleys and courtyards. But within minutes they began streaming out. Again and again they were scattered by threats of gunfire, and again and again they advanced, massed together, and called out for their husbands, who heard them and took hope.

The square, according to one witness, “was crammed with people, and the accusing, demanding cries of the women rose above the noise of the traffic like passionate avowals of a love strengthened by the bitterness of life.” One protester described herself as feeling deep solidarity with those sharing her fate. Normally people were afraid to dissent, fearing denunciation, but in the square they knew they were among friends. A Gestapo man, impressed by the display, announced to the Jews, “They are calling for you out there. They want you to come back—this is German loyalty.”

The headquarters of his section of the Gestapo was just around the corner, within earshot of the protesters. A few bursts from a machine gun could have emptied the square. But instead the Jews were released. Goebbels decided that the simplest way to end the protest was to give in to the protesters’ demands. “A large number of people gathered and in part even took sides with the Jews,” Goebbels complained in his diary on March 6. “I ordered the [Gestapo] not to continue Jewish evacuation at so critical a moment. We want to save that up for a couple of weeks We can then go after it all the more thoroughly.”

But the Jews married to Aryans remained. They survived the war, officially registered with the police, working in officially authorized jobs, and officially receiving food rations.

The protest by Aryan women on the Rosenstrasse was the culminating act of allegiance to their families. It followed naturally in a trajectory of acts of resistance to measures of the state intended to tear their husbands and children from them. The Nazis prohibited sexual relations between Aryans and Jews. Rassenschande—literally “racial shame”—was their name for this crime. In July of 1938 the government eased the divorce laws to enable Aryans married to Jews to end these incriminating unions. At the same time, many of them began receiving orders to appear at Gestapo offices, where they were pressured to divorce. A decree in October of 1941 went further. It made “friendly relations” of any kind with Jews punishable by imprisonment. A decree of 1942 made it a crime even to supply newspapers to Jews. Aryans married to Jews were forbidden to take civil-service jobs, were blocked in their work and professional careers, were given radically reduced rations yet were expected to work, were treated as pariahs by their neighbors, and were even forbidden to seek refuge in the same air-raid shelters as their neighbors. One woman, an Aryan married to a Jew, was told when she went to the Aryan air-raid shelter, “The air that you breathe out, we can’t stand to breathe in.” Yet, in the face of these immense legal and social pressures to abandon their spouses, about 93 percent of the Aryans married to Jews remained married. The Rosenstrasse protest was just one more overt step in their battle of wills with the regime.

Totalitarian Politics

The Rosenstrasse protest had powerful repercussions, reaching beyond March of 1943 and beyond Berlin. Goebbels reported in his diary on March 6 that by releasing Jews he was merely deferring deportations a few weeks, but on March 18 Himmler recorded in his telephone diary the decision reached after a conversation with the Gestapo chief, Heinrich Müller: “No deportation of privileged Jews [those related to Aryans].” About the same day twenty-five Jews from intermarriages who on March 6 had been sent from the Rosenstrasse camp to Auschwitz work camps were released. The Berlin Gestapo, not wanting to risk information leaks about Auschwitz, forced these twenty-five to sign statements that swore them to secrecy concerning their Auschwitz experiences, and on the basis of trumped-up charges of spying, spreading rumors, and breaking the rules of the concentration camp, they were then put under “protective custody” and sent to the Grossbeeren “work-education camp,” near Berlin. Goebbels declared Berlin judenfrei on May 19. He was under pressure to get this done and apparently preferred lying to risking another protest.

On May 21 Rolf Günther responded to a question from the German police in Paris, who had been waiting to hear from headquarters about what to do with French Jews in intermarriages. The treatment of intermarriages cannot be resolved for foreign areas now, the deputy wrote, because it is not yet solved in the Reich. The policy for the Reich had to be applied first to Berlin, because about half the intermarried couples lived in Berlin, and because it was in keeping with the Nazi sense of propriety that precedents for the Reich were set in its capital.

Also on May 21 Himmler’s deputy Ernst Kaltenbrunner issued a memorandum ordering the immediate release from concentration camps of all intermarried Jews except those interned on criminal charges. He turned to Himmler’s order that every Jew be removed from the Reich by June 30, and listed four categories of Jews that had often been spared up until this point, including those considered irreplaceable by weapons industries. The first three categories were now to be deported. But the fourth—Jews in intermarriage—was not: “I order expressly that Jewish intermarriage partners are in no case to be sent. There may also be protective custody arrests and deportations only when they have committed real offenses. In so far as Jewish intermarriage partners have been deported on general grounds [that is, strictly because of their Jewish identity] they are to be successively released.”

On December 18, 1943, Himmler himself ordered the deportation of Jews whose Aryan spouses had died or divorced them. He decreed, however, that no such Jew would be deported if he or she had a child or children who might stir up unrest as a result.

Apparently the exemption of a German Jew from Nazi genocide depended on whether an Aryan somewhere in German society was likely to make problems for the Nazi regime by threatening both the secrecy surrounding the Final Solution and the high morale needed for waging war. (The longer and more total the war, the more the leadership feared public dissent and its deleterious effect on patriotism.) The salvation of a German Jew, it seems, depended not on marriage to an Aryan per se but on whether a German Aryan might care enough to risk career and possibly life itself by joining with National Socialism’s victims, rather than with National Socialism.

The Nazi Party stressed that the source of its political power was the conscious decision of the people to support it. In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that mass popular support was the distinguishing characteristic of the Nazi Party, and by 1932 no other Weimar party was as successful at the polls as Hitler’s. Once in power, the party maintained support by making concessions to the masses. The regime temporarily restricted imports for arms production in order to forgo food rationing, and retreated on plans to mobilize labor when workers protested and women refused to report to work. Even the destruction of Jews married to Aryans, it seems, had to come second to the needs of this internal politics.

The Cross Over the Swastika

Catholic schools were the locus of Nazi efforts to usurp the place of traditional Catholic leadership and dominate German Catholics through their own organizations. By late 1936 the Nazi dictatorship, impatient with the failure of the Church to abandon traditional Christian allegiance for the new Nazi faith, made a bold attempt to win the struggle for ideological domination by forcibly replacing Catholic symbols with Nazi ones. When the Nazi regional leader from Oldenburg, in Protestant northern Germany, issued a decree, on November 4, 1936, ordering the removal of crucifixes (and pictures of Luther) from public schools throughout his district, his action resulted in what secret police reports called a “storm of indignation” in the town of Cloppenburg, a Catholic enclave. Prelates of the area supported the protests “with all means,” and cried that godless Bolshevism was threatening the fatherland. A special nine-day church service of entreaty and penance was held, church bells were rung in protest every evening, and families began holding their own devotional ceremonies at home. Children went to school wearing crucifixes around their necks; numerous protest commissions sprang up, demanding that officials rescind the decree; and church officials complained bitterly to the government. To the consternation of officials in Berlin, the “grave unrest” caused by the crucifix decree spread even into Nazi Party circles. Nazi administrators put office resources at the disposal of protest groups; the Nazi Women’s Organization refused to carry out certain orders; even members of the Hitler Youth failed to cooperate.

On November 25 the Oldenburg leader called a meeting at a large auditorium in Cloppenburg to announce that the Nazis were backing down. Such a public announcement suggests that those in charge considered the problem to be widespread, and not to be solved merely by punishing organization leaders.

The police reported that Catholic activists were telling each other that “all regulations of the state would remain unsuccessful if the Catholic people stand together united.” The clergy had begun to think of collective action as a tactic for resisting Nazi infringements on church traditions.

The success of what became known as the Spirit of Cloppenburg was an important precedent for a struggle in 1941, when Catholics again forced the retraction of a crucifix decree, this time in southern Germany, by using various forms of noncooperation and public protest. On April 23 of that year the Bavarian minister of education, Adolf Wagner, ordered that crucifixes be removed from his district, that the usual school prayer be dropped in favor of Nazi slogans or songs, and that by the end of the summer holidays Christian pictures be replaced by “pictures suited to the present time.” When the local population—and many local functionaries—protested, Wagner stepped up his timetable. This only caused more protests. Two weeks later Wagner was forced to rescind the decree, but in the hope of saving face, he did so secretly.

The result was explosive civil disobedience by devout villagers which was “greater than at any previous time during the Third Reich in Bavaria,” the historian Ian Kershaw wrote in his account of this region. Mothers of schoolchildren used a variety of tactics to mobilize popular opinion and noncooperation with the regime. Kershaw continued,

The most frequent tactic used by the activist mothers was to send a delegation to the head teacher, the mayor, the local Party leader, and the [district magistrate], with a threat to remove their children from school until the crosses were replaced. In many instances a school strike began and successfully persuaded the local authorities that the time had come to bow to the pressure. … Any form of unwillingness to concede on the part of the local authorities led to demonstrations by angry groups or crowds of people, prominent among them the women of the village.

Other methods of resistance used in this “mother’s revolt” included petitions threatening school strikes; criticism that while Germany fought “godless Bolshevism” in Russia, godlessness was rearing its head at home; and threats of resignation from the party and the women’s organization. Exploiting their intimate link with the war front, women encouraged one another to write to their husbands about their struggle. The replies they received—recording their husbands’ dismay and falling morale—were then used as ammunition in the fight for crosses. One wife claimed to have received a letter from her husband saying that the news made him decide to stop concealing how horrible conditions at the front really were. According to Kershaw, women were prominent in this civil disobedience because of their close ties to school and church. Once women took the initiative, others joined in their fight, on the Rosenstrasse as well as in these schools.

The Euthanasia Protest

All roads to power start with the people, the Führer had written. In the interest of maintaining power, the Nazi dictatorship released Jews and rescinded crucifix decrees. Also responding to the force of popular opinion, Hitler ordered a stop to “euthanasia”—as the Nazis called the murder of the insane and deformed—by gassing. In nineteen months, from January of 1940 to August of 1941, euthanasia claimed some seventy thousand victims. But the doctors and bureaucrats grew careless: families of those murdered received two urns of ashes, persons who had long ago had appendectomies were reported to have died of appendicitis, and asylum staff members, tongues loosened at the local pub, let slip the tale of their ghastly work.

The purpose of Hitler’s order was to stop public protests against euthanasia rather than euthanasia itself. In the final forty-four months of Nazi Germany euthanasia claimed an additional thirty thousand victims. The gassing of the insane and deformed stopped, but was replaced by a decentralized effort, more difficult to blame on the regime. Trustworthy doctors, nurses, and caretakers were told that it was not undesired to kill such people through overdoses of medication and starvation diets. Patients were fed potato peels, thistles, and dandelions. Suffered in the chill of poorly heated or unheated rooms, this fare led to death by intestinal catarrh, diarrhea, and lung infection—all “natural causes.” Overdoses of medication, especially in combination with starvation rations and cold, also resulted in death only gradually, so that death could again be characterized as natural.

Another measure to minimize protests was the selection of victims without German families. Many of the thirty thousand later victims were not Germans but forced laborers from the east. They were the “Untermenschen,” racially inferior persons who, no longer fit for work after falling ill, or falling apart, were killed by starvation or poison. Many others of the later victims were orphans and juvenile delinquents in concentration camps—Germans with no families or with very weak family ties. Without family members among the Volk, they had no voice among the Volk, and so would never occasion a protest.

Like the removals of crucifixes in 1936 and 1941, the euthanasia by gassing was stopped as a direct consequence of the force of popular opinion. But the fight against euthanasia was primarily conducted by religious leaders such as Catholic bishops, especially Clemens August von Galen. Unlike the crucifix protest, it was not expressed through direct action (the task of rescuing victims of euthanasia would have been formidable in comparison with replacing Hitler’s visage with the cross). Collective civil disobedience was not important in the fight against euthanasia, nor were mass protests.

But the leaders who condemned euthanasia from the pulpit were effective only because they represented the public will. The regime was probably not much worried about a few letters from a bishop here or there: isolated individuals could be threatened into silence or imprisoned, and their letters could be burned. Von Galen was not executed, because the public loved and respected him. And he made public what the regime meant to keep secret.

Because popular opinion was powerful, the regime wished to carry out both euthanasia and the Final Solution behind the backs of the people (euphemisms for murder were just the outside veil of the regime’s cover-up). Nazi policies for breeding a “racially pure” and plentiful German population meant the sterilization and destruction of lebensunwerten Lebens, “life unworthy of life.” Racial hygiene, the cornerstone of Nazi politics, eventually began to threaten popular support, the cornerstone of Nazi power. Whereas the regime relied on public support, its totalitarian attempt to change Germany’s racial composition through murder would elicit public wrath and social unrest—unless it could be carried out in secret.

German officials first acknowledged the existence of troublesome rumors about euthanasia in late 1940. When the party’s local group leader in Bruckberg wondered how he could combat rumors that inmates of a nearby asylum were being killed, the party regional leader instructed him that it was better to say nothing at all than to draw attention to an action that the general populace would denounce. In a letter to the Reich’s Chancellor on March 4, 1941, Franz Schlegelberger, the acting Minister of Justice, warned that rumors were mounting because the boundaries of the murder program were unknown. Who was to be killed, and why? Fears mounted that euthanasia would extend to those injured in the war, old people incapable of working and political opponents. Schlegelberger argued that the rumormongers could not be prosecuted, because this would only spread reports about the program, with consequent unrest. Trials held in secret would be just as problematic as public trials, the minister wrote, because the regime would still have to explain “the particular elements of offense [which] would unfurl the entire problem.”

In July and August of 1941 Von Galen preached three blistering sermons from his pulpit in Münster-Westphalia against the lawless power of the Gestapo, warning his congregation that no one was safe from arbitrary arrest and punishment, and that, according to the logic of a program that sacrificed those who were of no obvious productive use to the war effort, the state could soon be administering euthanasia to wounded soldiers at the front as well as to cripples, the old, and the weak. Walter Tiessler, an official in the party chancellery, suggested to Goebbels that Von Galen be hanged. But Goebbels told Tiessler that only Hitler himself could condemn the bishop to die, and said, “If something against the bishop was done, one could forget about receiving support of the people of Münster for the rest of the war”—perhaps, he went on, even the population of the entire region of Westphalia. Many soldiers at the front derived their will to fight from their Catholic beliefs, and others less devout would be demoralized if their relatives at home lost their faith in Germany’s cause. The soldiers’ morale would understandably be undermined if a bishop were executed for warning that they, too, if wounded, might be targets of a state that killed all those it deemed useless.

As soon as Von Galen spoke out, he had public awareness on his side. If he were arrested, the public would know immediately both about his arrest and about the reason for it. Von Galen helped to form the opinion that protected him. He gave the many whispered fears about euthanasia public voice. Now that euthanasia was being publicly discussed, it had to be ended.

According to the writer Conor Cruise O’Brien, Hitler backed away from confrontation with the German churches “because he thought this was bad for the morale of Germany’s armed forces.” O’Brien concluded that the churches “might well have” forced the Nazi regime to stop the Holocaust if they had “spoken out against the persecution of the Jews with the same vigor as they had shown in the case of ‘Euthanasia.’” The scholar J. P. Stern agrees. He writes that it “seems beyond any doubt that if the Churches had opposed the persecution of the Jews as they opposed the killing of the congenitally insane and sick, there would have been no ‘Final Solution.’”


The civilian actions that forced state concessions in widely varying political circumstances and that represented a spectrum of threats to Nazi power shared certain fundamental qualities essential to their success. First, successful acts of noncooperation or protest at least appeared to have been undertaken collectively by an integral part of society, rather than demonstrating isolated disaffection. People were executed for offenses as minor as telling an anti-Nazi joke—when they acted individually.

Second, successful actions were nonviolent. Nonviolent actions avoided the appearance of treason and failed to legitimate the crushing violence of the Nazi regime. Police violence generally had the potential to be ineffective or counterproductive against broadly based opposition, rooted in social customs and traditions. If the protesters on the Rosenstrasse had come armed, the police would have had to shoot them, Leopold Gutterer, who was Joseph Goebbels’s deputy from 1941 to 1944, told me in a recent interview. Gutterer also said that it was important that the protesters had acted for all to see, risking their lives, making public confessions of their loyalty to their families, rather than acting behind the back of the state, in the manner of traitors: “They were as persons there; anyone could recognize who they were; they demonstrated openly and risked their existence.”

Third, then, opposition that succeeded in reversing Nazi policies was overt as well as broad-based and nonviolent. The state controlled the press and radio, but public noncooperation and direct action, rumors, public preaching, and open protest were all forms of communication difficult to control. Goebbels needed to clear the streets of protesters to stop others from getting the same idea, according to Gutterer. Publicly expressed opposition not only drew attention to secret programs and demonstrated dissent but also potentially transmitted knowledge about a politically powerful means of dissent. Certainly secrecy, rather than publicity, was a key condition for saving many Jews, including those hiding in the German underground. But in the incidents discussed here, public opposition led to the public reversal of the offensive decrees and programs.

Those on the Rosenstrasse who risked their lives for Jews did not express opposition to anti-Semitic policies per se. They displayed primarily what the late Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, called “selfishness extended to the person closest to you … us-ism.” In most of the stories I have heard of Aryans who risked their lives for Jews to whom they were married, they withdrew to safety, one by one, the moment their loved ones were released. Their protests bring home to us the iron limits, the tragically narrow borders, of us-ism.

In his Question of German Guilt, Karl Jaspers that what we see in the crimes of the Nazis and in the silent complicity of the German people—as well, we might add, in the us-ism of the protesters—is “the human essence” in “its German form.” That is a disquieting observation. While not absolving the Germans of guilt for the greatest crime in history, it leaves us squarely on the moral hook, reminding us of the inescapable responsibility of peoples for the conduct of their governments.