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Originally published Sunday, August 17, 2014 at 6:06 AM

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‘Disobeying Hitler:’ a harrowing choice at WWII’s end

In “Disobeying Hitler,” University of Toronto historian Randall Hansen tells the true story of German commanders in the waning days of World War II, whose orders from Hitler were to fight the enemy to the last man. Some complied, others tried to save their troops and their cities.

Special to The Seattle Times


“Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance After Valkyrie”

by Randall Hansen

Oxford University Press, 480 pp., $29.95

In the last months of World War II in Europe the issue for German commanders was surrender — whether to do it, and how much death and destruction to tolerate first. The order from Adolf Hitler was that every position was to be defended to the last cartridge and last man, and that nothing of value should be given to the enemy. Sometimes commanders followed these orders, and sometimes not. Historian Randall Hansen of the University of Toronto tells the story of those who didn’t in his new book, “Disobeying Hitler.”

Hansen includes the story of Paris, which Hitler ordered destroyed. The French underground rose up just before the Allied army arrived, and historians have tended to credit the French resistance with saving the city. Hansen also credits the German officers living there, who saw no military purpose in attempting to wreck it. And he argues that in Paris, as in many other places, the German military had neither the time nor the ordnance to achieve the level of ruin that Hitler envisioned.

Paris is the famous case, but in all the occupied cities, and in cities in Germany itself, similar choices had to be made. In the German military the political arm, the Waffen SS, “was more fanatical than the army,” Hansen writes, and “unlike the army, had no tradition, logic or future without the National Socialist Party.”

The SS would defend any city it held “to the end, killing without hesitation any civilians who opposed them or sought to surrender,” he writes. “For civilians throughout the Reich, flying a white flag was often a death sentence.”

Still, Germans put up white flags.

With U.S., British and French armies at their doorstep, most Germans were ready to give up (they were not quite so ready to surrender to vengeful Red Army troops, who had German’s brutal invasion of the Soviet Union on their minds).

The regular military had the same orders as the Waffen SS: Leave nothing for the enemy but rubble. Army leaders, Hansen writes, “faced a political, a military and above all a moral choice: whether to defend cities, thus ensuring their destruction, or to surrender them without a fight.”

Different commanders made different choices. Some commanders ignored orders by seeming to follow them. In Freiburg, the military commander was ordered to wire explosives on the river bridges. He had it done — with duds. In Hamburg, when Rear Admiral Hans Bütow was ordered to wreck the harbor, he agreed to do it and demanded 6,000 tons of explosives and an entire engineer regiment. “He was going to get neither, and he knew it,” Hansen writes. The harbor was saved.

Sometimes civilians were the key. In Düsseldorf, a secret anti-Nazi group, Antifako, confronted engineers who were preparing to dynamite a railroad tunnel under the city and talked them out of doing it. Often the outcome depended on the Allied commanders, who were asked to trust a German mayor who offered an open city but had no authority over the troops. Some of those mayors saved their cities.

With the exception of the story of Paris, “Disobeying Hitler” offers stories not often told. They are stories about the falling apart of a totalitarian state and the opening of personal choice for those with the courage to disobey. Ordinary people are given brief chances for heroism that only sometimes ends well.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle writer.

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