When it comes to recognizing Germans who lived during the Nazi era, there is one group that has every right to be honored and gratefully remembered. It was made up of men and women, young and old and in between, Christians and unbelievers, who never yielded to Hitlerian blandishments, who in countless instances suffered unspeakably and died for those beliefs.
These men and women are known in history -- and rightly so -- as "the German opposition to Hitler."
To anyone familiar with the history of the Nazi years -- sadly, that doesn't seem to include many around the White House these days -- the history of the German resistance is a well-known subject. Hundreds of books have been written about it, and probably thousands of articles. The question cries out to be asked: How could the White House not have known, or asked someone who did?
For years, in the 1930s and early '40s, Hitler and company liked to make the world believe that the German people were solidly, even unanimously, behind them. We have long known better; indeed, we knew better at the time.
The German opposition to Hitler has a long and proud history. It began in the hours and days following his takeover on Jan. 30, 1933, and continued, uninterrupted, until his "Thousand Year Reich" ended 12 years and four months later. Its politics was right and left and center. Its climactic effort -- the famous assassination attempt of July 20, 1944 -- proved unsuccessful, but the incidence of opposition to Hitler and National Socialism, the acts of courage and dissidence, the deeds of kindness and helpfulness to the hunted and persecuted were legion all the same.
Such attitudes and deeds were duly noted by the American Embassy in Berlin as late as the autumn of 1941. As one ranking U.S. diplomat reported to the State Department on Oct. 14. 1941 (a telegram not published in full until 1982): "The revival of the Jewish question by the required wearing of the Star of David has met with almost universal disapproval by the people of Berlin and in some cases with astonishing manifestations of sympathy with the Jews in public. This reaction has become increasingly obvious to all observers."
No one who experienced those unspeakable days in Nazi Germany, or knows survivors who did, will be surprised by this report.
For years, the Communists -- Soviet and East German -- liked to claim the German resistance to Hitler as their own. They may well resurrect the old party line next month. In fact, the historical record amply shows the resistance was nothing of the kind.
There were Social Democrats and labor leaders, such as Fritz Leber. There were aristocrats and army officers, such as Claus Count Schenk von Stauffenberg, who planted the near fatal bomb in Hitler's headquarters in 1944, and others like Lt. Gen. Ludwig Beck and Helmuth James Count von Moltke, whom George F. Kennan described later in his memoirs as "the greatest person, morally, . . . that I met on either side of the battle lines."
There were ranking government officials, such as Carl Goerdeler, the former lord mayor of Leipzig, Johannes Popitz, the Prussian secretary of the treasury, and Adm. Wilhelm Canaris. There were noted theologians, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and diplomats, such as Adam von Trott zu Solz and Ulrich von Hassell, and leading historians, such as Gerhard Ritter, whose deeply moving letters from his Berlin imprisonment in 1944-45 have recently been published by the West German Bundesarchiv. Before and after July 1944, the prisons and concentration camps held many such people. The executioner claimed thousands more.
Of course, the resisters remained too few. And they were often uncertain and perhaps inevitably divided over tactics and strategy. Tragically, as has been noted again recently, they were unable to confront the Jewish situation head-on. Some, too, had goals and visions of Germany's postwar future -- and boundaries -- that were clearly and wildly unrealistic.
The democracies did not help. Apprised of the opposition's existence and plans for a possible coup against Hitler in the summer of 1938, before Munich, the British government deliberately turned its head the other way. In this country, President Roosevelt and the men around him showed no greater interest and offered no significant support, then or later.
Some of the resisters, a proud tribe, survive today. One of the most notable, the leading West German diplomat, Hans Heinrich Herwarth von Bittenfeld, visited this country -- including Houston and my classroom -- in October 1983. It proved an unforgettable encounter.
As a young diplomat in the Nazi embassy in Moscow in early 1939, von Herwarth risked his life by disclosing to the late Charles E. Bohlen, himself then a young Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. embassy, the beginnings and unfolding of the super- secret diplomatic negotiations leading to the Nazi- Soviet pact in August 1939 -- revelations that reached President Roosevelt and the Department of State in a matter of hours.
In Germany's years of unspeakable shame, the resistance set an example of courage and humanity at its best. In their country's darkest night, they provided a standard of honor, of decency, of integrity. And they persisted under almost unimaginable circumstances.
As Carl Goerdeler, brutally executed on Feb. 2, 1945, put in a secret letter to German generals in 1943:
"It is a great mistake to assume that the moral force of the German people is exhausted; the fact is that it has been deliberately weakened. The only hope of salvation is to sweep away the secrecy and terror, to restore justice and decent government and so to pave the way for a great moral revival. We must not be shaken in our belief that the German people will want justice, honesty and truthfulness in the future, as they have in the past."
In these days of remembrance, these are the German men and women -- known and unknown -- worthy of acknowledgment. For these, as Elie Wiesel has rightly said, are "the real heroes of Germany." On May 8 these are the Germans the president should remember and honor on behalf of the people of the United States.