Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Men Who Opposed Hitler

Rebecca Haynes has recently produced a volume I am keen to read: In the Shadow of Hitler: Personalities of the Right in Central and Eastern Europe. As the title suggests, we often forget that Hitler was not the only politician of the Right in the interwar period. Some of the men Haynes considers were Nazi-sympathizers, but others were rivals or even bitter enemies of the National Socialists.

Today is the anniversary of the July 20 Conspiracy (about which I have written before). The conspiracy was an attempt to kill Hitler in 1944 and remove the Nazis from power. Its center of gravity lay in the Germany army, but extended to other segments of German government and society as well. By and large, these were men of the Right, men who believed in tradition and in German greatness. They opposed Communism and had no desire to see anything like a Soviet state established in the Fatherland. Some of them were anti-Semitic; many were not.

Today I'd like to briefly mention two men who opposed the Nazis, and did so from the right wing of the political spectrum. Neither was a among the most important members of the plot against Hitler, nor is either one a well-known figure, even among history buffs. But perhaps that makes them all the more typical (if we can use the term for such extraordinary men) of those who opposed the Nazis. The first is Friedrich Gustav Jaeger. Born in Württemberg in 1895, his father was a doctor. With the outbreak of World War I he quickly completed his secondary studies (with honors) and joined the German army, seeing service in both Flanders and Italy, and being decorated numerous times. After the war he studied agriculture and joined the National Socialist German Workers Party - the Nazis.

But then an interesting thing happened. Although Jaeger was a member of the Freikorps Oberland and later re-joined the army in 1934, he refused to participate in the Kapp Putsch and left the Nazi Party, becoming a fierce critic before World War II.

During the war Jaeger fought in Poland, France and Russia, receiving Germany's highest military honor. All the while, however, he was making contact with anti-Nazi elements of the German army. It was only with reluctance, however, that he agreed to the plan to try to assassinate Hitler: Jaeger's Christian faith caused him to prefer a trial before a proper court.

On the day of the attempted assassination, Jaeger had a variety of tasks, commanding reserve troops, arresting key Nazis and seizing a radio station. All this fell apart as the conspiracy was discovered, and Jaeger was eventually executed for his role on 21 August.

Ernst Rüdiger Starhemberg was born in Eferding, Austria in 1899. A prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he served in the army during World War I, seeing action in Italy. Like Jaeger, he joined the Freikorps Oberland. Though the Austrian monarchy was abolished at the end of the war, he was keen to enter Austrian politics, joining the local branch of the Heimatschutz (an organization dedicated to protecting Austria's borders, but also its culture). He was intrigued by both Mussolini and Hitler, but gave up on the Nazis after the failed Beer Hall Putsch.

Starhemberg briefly served as Austrian Interior Minister in 1930 and became Deputy Leader of the conservative Christian Social Party in 1932. He then became Vice Chancellor in the right-wing government of Engelbert Dollfuß. Say what you will against Dollfuß - and there is probably much that can be said - he was no Nazi, as evidenced by the fact that they assassinated him in a failed bid to seize Austria. Starhemberg briefly served as acting Chancellor until a new government could be formed.

When the Nazis finally succeeded in annexing Austria, members of the Heimatschutz and various political parties with which Starhemberg had been associated were sent to concentration camps. He fled to Switzerland and eventually fought with the British and Free French air forces. Starhemberg was not a member of the July 20 Conspiracy. He abandoned the war effort when the Soviets joined the Allied side - what was the point of defeating Nazism if it were only followed by Soviet domination? - and moved to Argentina, staying until the year of Juan Peron's coup, and then returning to Austria.

Were these men heroes? The case for Jaeger is probably stronger than for Starhemberg. Both men certainly have associations that cause some raised eyebrows. But if they were not unqualified heroes, they were not villains either. They were men trying to make the best of difficult situations, men subject to all the human weaknesses. But in extraordinary circumstances, these men and other conservatives like them not only resisted the allure of Nazism, but opposed it. That is worth remembering.
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