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Apr 21, 2005 4:49 pm

Resistance is Useless

I am not much interested in popes, but I am interested in the political concept of resistance, so Eric Muller’s “Resistance Was Possible. Even For Young People” naturally piqued my curiosity. What Eric is saying is that the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s claim that it was “impossible” for his teenage self to resist compulsory service in the Hitlerjugend (HJ) is a “self-absolving" attitude which is empirically untrue and which demonstrates a troubling lack of self-reflection. To show that resistance to and within the HJ was not impossible, Eric cites an extract from Michael Kater’s 2004 book Hitler Youth:

”Young Germans who mustered the courage to resist HJ incorporation often did so not just out of boredom or dislike of annoying routines and drills. Many were individualistic enough to reject, on their own behalf, the stereotypical mold into which the Hitler Youth leadership wished to press all of its members . . .

"Thus, even during times of (officially) universal HJ membership, when most members ... loved the daily cult and sports routines, there were always some reflective adolescents of both sexes who were different. They protested against the stifling rigor by refusing the state's youth conscription. . . . One boy in northern German Rendsburg, supported by his father, risked total confrontation with his leaders simply by growing his hair long. Another, Max von der Grun, later a writer, resented the demanding HJ because his father was incarcerated. Peter Wapnewski, later a professor of German literature, as a youth was hypnotized by American jazz and swing and thus forged a doctor's letter to stay away. A Frankfurt boy who skipped the Hitler Youth meetings in favor of the movies altered his HJ identity card in order to view the adult-only films. A particularly sensitive girl in Hamburg risked expulsion from the BDM [the girls' equivalent of the HJ] because she found its views to be drivel, after she had seen paintings by Emil Nolde, George Grosz, and members of the Bauhaus school which were displayed as deterrents at the 1937 Exhibition of Degenerate Art. . . . Like Wapnewski, Rosemarie Heise, socialized by Social Democratic parents, forged a medical certificate in order to stay home and listen clandestinely to the BBC. The noted Hitler biographer Joachim C. Fest, who even at seventeen was a critic of the Fuhrer and his Nazi regime, had never bothered to join the HJ. After he carved a small caricature of Hitler on his wooden desk in 1941, he faced expulsion from school as well as political recriminations from the Hitler Youth."

Now I have not read Kater’s book, and so I have no idea whether Eric’s extract is a fair and comprehensive summary of its argument or not, but assuming that it is I do have to wonder whether this description of HJ ‘resistance’ has been well thought through. The problem of defining resistance to (and collaboration with) an authoritarian state or institution is not of course restricted to the Third Reich, as students of, say, European imperialism will be well aware. It is an important topic in the study of Vichy France, and when I read the Kater extract I was immediately reminded of a piece in Julian Jackson’s excellent France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944, which I think is worth quoting at length:

”There are two possible pitfalls to avoid when broaching this subject [of resistance]. The first is the temptation to adopt an excessively narrow and military interpretation … [but] it is also necessary to avoid the other extreme of adopting an excessively broad interpretation of resistance, extending the term to include any manifestation of opposition to the German presence. This was the attitude satirized by Anouilh in his play L’Orchestre where one character who had performed in an orchestra during the Occupation defends herself by saying that it was an orchestra of resisters: ‘When there were German officers in the audience, we played wrong notes. It took a certain courage! We risked being denounced at any moment; they were all very musical.’ Several observers during the war were even to claim that the elegance of Parisian women was a form of resistance against the German attempt to break France’s spirit.

“The Resistance was increasingly sustained by the hostility of the mass of the population towards the Occupation, but not all acts of individual hostility can be characterized as resistance, although they are the necessary precondition of it. A distinction needs to be drawn between dissidence and resistance. Workers who evaded STO, or Jews who escaped the round-ups, or peasants who withheld their produce from the Germans, were transgressing the law, and their actions were subversive of authority. But they were not resisters in the same way as those who organized the escape of réfractaires and Jews. Contesting or disobeying a law on an individual basis is not the same as challenging the authority that makes those laws.

“Resistance, then, requires some congruence between intentions and actions. Just as it is not enough to think anti-German thoughts to be a resister if nothing results from these thoughts, so acts which might have had unintended consequences beneficial to the Resistance cannot be qualified as resistance. On the other hand, once the organized Resistance grew in strength, and became a presence in society, there were increasing opportunities for individuals to contribute to it in informal ways. What might have once been individual acts of disobedience became part of the Resistance. In short, the Resistance must always be considered dynamically in relationship to the population at large.” (p. 387-88)

With this in mind, Kater’s HJ ‘resisters’ are an eclectic and not particularly coherent mix, and their (mostly rather trivial) acts of protest seem motivated more by adolescent bloody-mindedness than conviction. Only Rosemarie Heise, the unnamed Bauhaus admirer, and possibly Joachim Fest really qualify as resisters in any kind of political sense, and even then this conclusion remains provisional in the absence of more information: was finding the BDM’s rhetoric on aesthetics “drivel” (though not, it seems, going any further than that) necessarily proof that one actively rejected other facets of the Third Reich? What seems to tie Kater’s malcontents together, if anything, is not resistance to Hitler specifically but a generalized dislike of hierarchical authority – hardly unusual in teenagers, and deserving of neither praise nor censure in itself (juvenile halls are full of ‘resisters’ such as these). In other words, for the young Benedict XVI to join Kater’s roll of honor he would most likely have been the kind of boy who had a gut distaste for institutional life – an unlikely characteristic to find in the future leader of a dogmatic world religion. Or he would had to have been a saint: and saints had a poor life expectancy in Hitler’s Germany.
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More Comments:

Alan Allport - 5/23/2005

On the NYT's error which Mr. Muller makes so much of, 'BFD' is the phrase that comes to mind (the 'B' stands for 'big' and the 'D' for 'deal').

Martha Bridegam - 5/23/2005

On the other hand:

Martha Bridegam - 5/9/2005

FWIW I got around to asking Joel's dad what he thought about Ratzinger's account of being forced into Nazi youth activities. He believed it.

Alan Allport - 4/27/2005

I think you're missing my original point, Martha. I was not commenting on the social usefulness of this dissent given the circumstances of the time, but rather on the individual motive behind it and what that might tell us about the tricky concept of 'resistance'. A bank robber in Nazi Germany could, from a certain point of view, be regarded as a 'resister'. Does it matter that the basis for his resistance was personal greed rather than moral outrage? I'm not drawing any overall conclusion: I'm just saying that this needs to be thought about.

Martha Bridegam - 4/27/2005

The notion that small acts of resistance under fascism were "just" ordinary youthful anti-authoritarianism is missing the point. Ordinary anti-authoritarianism is a powerful and necessary corrective for maintaining a healthy society. Applying that corrective even in the face of criminalization was both brave and necessary.

(J's dad, then a kid, rescued a Dutch bicycle by outriding a puffing Nazi sergeant. We're very proud of him.)

Van L. Hayhow - 4/21/2005

Thanks, I had forgotten about the Guide to the universe. I just spent a little time reading some of what is posted.

Ben W. Brumfield - 4/21/2005

One of the things that's been so frustrating about the Ratzinger discussion is the imprecision of dates. Desertion from the army was a very different thing in May of 1944 than it was in May of 1945. Enrolling in the HJ was probably a different thing in 1939 than 1941. I've seen each date for both events.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/21/2005

Ok, it's early 1939. If you're in Germany then, it's pretty clear that the Nazi regime is a bad one. But the world is not at war, and many people in Germany think it might not come to that. Jews are persecuted dreadfully, but there is no easily discerbible hint of the Holocaust to come. The Hitler Youth clearly promotes Nazi values, but aspects of it are, let's face it, fun to a lot of people, and many of those aspects, taken one-by-one, are fairly innocent.

In short, even for someone who dislikes the regime, the Hitler Youth might not have seemed a terrible compromise. (It's certainly not joining the Wehrmacht.) I'm just not disturbed by his joining.

Eric Muller, in fact, is far less concerned with the new Pope having been a Hitler Youth than with the Pope's reflections upon that association with Nazism. He sees a thoughtlessness or facileness in his looking back and simply saying, "It was compulsory." Perhaps that is true and worth further discussion.

But unless someone can show me something new, I think raising this decision to join the HItler Youth up to the level of compromising with evil is a mistake. It's a classic example of judging someone's actions on the basis of future events. The Germany of 1939 was bad, but it was not yet the Germany of the Death Camps. For most people, the fullness of its evil was not yet known.

Joe O'Malley - 4/21/2005

By moral luck, I mean that ones circumstances are largely given by luck, and these circumstances strongly effect ones ability to do the right thing. It is a lot easier to be moral in some situations and societies rather than others. But, morality isn't graded on a curve. Torture is wrong; it doesn't matter if everyone is doing it.

Pope Benedict was unlucky to have been born in Germany in 1927. This made doing the right thing very difficult. Most people couldn't do the right thing under the circumstances Pope Benedict faced, but he could still be wrong.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/21/2005

I don't have a lot to add -- except to say that I do enjoy seeing the issues fruitfully complicated by the facts -- at the moment except to point out that the issue of resistance (and I'm kind of surprised that nobody has raised the spectre of the opposite of resistance:) and collaboration is one which is very much present in modern Japanese history as well. Particularly in the area of art and culture, interestingly enough, rather than politics, where all kinds of pro-Imperial sorts went on to long and distinguished political careers.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/21/2005

No, I thought he was arguing that context matters -- rather than there being a single position which is always morally correct -- and that someone who aspires to the position of Pope should be held to a higher standard in any context.

By the way, this is Alan Allport's first Cliopatria post, and I want to welcome him, and commend him for jumping fearlessly into interesting and challenging issues. That's what I love about this place, and I'm always thrilled to have new and smart folks aboard.

Alan Hogue - 4/21/2005

Let me see if I understand where you are going with the idea of "moral luck". Are you saying that Pope Benedict was simply unlucky enough to have wound up in the Hitler Youth, and therefore should be disqualified based on this bad luck?

This has consequences which I don't think I like at all, if the concept of free will is removed from morality and culpability is assigned on a basis of luck. One might as well start talking about original sin.

Joe O'Malley - 4/21/2005

A lot of it is moral luck. In a good society, it is probably better not to be anti-authoritarian. In a bad society, it is better to be anti-authoritarian. Just because a person's actions are rooted in their personality doesn't mean we can't hold them responsible for their actions.

Consider abu gharib. Some people tortured. Most people enabled the torture. One person stopped it. This strongly suggests to me that the average human wouldn't have the personality to stop the torture; this difficulty shouldn't prevent moral censor of those who caused or enabled the torture.

Even if it were true that noone who was Pope Benedict's age in germany with a personality that would make it possible for him to be pope one day would have a personality that would make it possible for him to avoid serving in the hitler youth doesn't mean that serving in the hitler youth shouldn't disqualify them for being pope.

Anne Zook - 4/21/2005

I'm a Dalek fan, myself.

Alan Allport - 4/21/2005

I had (rather more topically) Vogons in mind ...

Van L. Hayhow - 4/21/2005

If you have completed your education by watching enough Star Trek you would know that the correct phrase is "resistance is futile."

Alan Allport - 4/21/2005

I'm going to try to get hold of a copy of Kater's book when I can. My intention is not to slam Kater unread, which certainly would be unfair, but to illustrate what I think are some problems with Eric Muller's reading of him (for instance, I agree that 'labelling and identifying people's motives without knowing them or having read more than a paragraph of a work that describes them is surely a bit presumptuous'; I'm trying to illustrate that point as much as reinforce it). Whether or not the original book gets around the problem of definition is something I still need to find out for myself. My real reason for this posting was not to lay out any 'definitive conclusions' but rather to open up a dialogue of the nature of 'resistance', which I'm pleased you've made an opening contribution towards.

James Stanley Kabala - 4/21/2005

A good post, Mr. Allport.

David Silbey - 4/21/2005

I think you're drawing an awfully definitive conclusion for _not_ having read Kater's book.

And there are number of further problems I see with the discussion:

1. It strikes me as parsing things quite finely to come up with a distinction between 'dissent' and 'resistance' and legitimize one as more valiant than the other. There are surely degrees of resistance--hiding a downed allied pilot or Jewish family would obviously rank higher on some imaginary scale than forging a letter from a doctor--and we can recognize that without somehow identifying the letter forger as simply a teenage malcontent.

2. In addition, labelling and identifying people's motives without knowing them or having read more than a paragraph of a work that describes them is surely a bit presumptuous. Perhaps they were being adolescently 'bloody-minded.' Perhaps they were not. Perhaps we shouldn't quickly and perjoratively label them.

3. Finally, the issue is not the scale and motives of the resistance, but whether it was impossible for someone his age. Muller's point is that the assertion that it was impossible does not seem to be true, and has the effect of (to a certain extent) exonerating the Pope.

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