Earlier this month, a small group of Canadian veterans returned to the beaches of Normandy in France to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Second World War D-Day landings of June 6, 1944. Among the 359 Canadians killed in the initial assault on Juno Beach were members of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and the Fort Garry Horse.
Six weeks later, Adolf Hitler would survive the assassination attempt that became known as Operation Valkyrie. Had the effort succeeded, the war might have ended a lot sooner, and thousands of lives might have been saved on both sides.
In Disobeying Hitler, Canadian historian Randall Hansen breaks some fresh ground by examining and documenting German resistance efforts after July 20, 1944, the date of the assassination attempt.
As horrible and destructive as the war's final months were before the final German surrender on May 8, 1945, Hansen concludes that it could easily have been a lot worse, and postwar recovery, particularly in Germany, would have taken much longer were it not for deliberate acts of disobedience by many senior German officers.
Long before D-Day, as German losses mounted on the eastern front in Russia, Hitler repeatedly decreed there would be "no surrender" -- that soldiers of the Wehrmacht would fight to the last man. Later, he ordered a rigid "scorched-earth" policy; roads, bridges and other infrastructure that might be used by advancing Allied forces were to be destroyed.
Hansen presents a comprehensive review of incidents where both commanding soldiers and civilian leaders chose to deliberately disobey the Fuehrer's orders. The events of July 20 are examined in considerable detail, with particular attention to those in Paris.
The leader of the resistance in Berlin was Gen. Ludwig Beck, the military governor in Paris Gen. Karl-Heinrich von Stulpnagel. The latter was the lone commander to follow Beck's orders in the brief period until it became known Hitler had survived the assassination attempt.
After the plot quickly unravelled, von Stulpnagel and several other commanders were executed by firing squad, and a special "court of honour" was created to purge the military.
Disobeying Hitler also details how Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz refused to obey later orders that Paris should be destroyed. There were similar orders that, if obeyed, would have seen the destruction of other French cities, including Marseille and Toulon.
Later, as Allied troops and tanks crossed into Germany, Hitler ordered all towns and villages, and their basic services, rendered useless. Some local commanders followed the Fuehrer's orders, but Hansen documents that in many other cases, commanders put their own lives at risk and refused to destroy property and kill civilians.
Hansen says some of these commanders went even further, and saved entire communities by negotiating local surrender deals with commanders of American, British, French and even Soviet forces advancing across Germany. He also suggests that those who made such deals were supported by Albert Speer. By early 1945, Speer was still Hitler's "Minister of Armaments," even though he tried unsuccessfully to convince his leader the war was lost.
Hansen makes a compelling case that the German leaders of the resistance who survived the Nazi purges that followed the failure of the July 20th assassination attempt should be credited with saving many thousands of lives on both sides in the European conflict. He says they also made a major contribution to Germany's postwar economic recovery.
More importantly, from the perspective of the European Union movement of more recent years, the necessary rapprochement with France would likely never have happened, if Paris and other cities had been destroyed, as was ordered by Hitler.
Roger Currie is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster. He is heard regularly on CJNU, 93.7 FM.