Why and How People Resisted Nazi Dictatorship. The Example of Austria

Winfried R. Garscha

This text is an updated version of Friedl Garscha’s lecture “In Praise of Disobedience.” Why and How People Resisted Nazi Dictatorship at the University of Montana, Missoula, on April 25th 2017

When Hitlerite Germany started to conquer large parts of Europe, it was confronted with different forms of resistance: The attacked states responded with military force, however all but Great Britain in 1940 and the Soviet Union in 1941 surrendered after a few weeks of fighting the German – and in some cases also Italian – aggressor. Austria and Czechoslovakia gave in without military resistance: Austria yielded to the German pressure, because the Austrian chancellor regarded the Germans as brothers, and was not ready to shed “German blood”, as he put it in his farewell speech, broadcast on the evening of March 11,1938. The Czech government was not able to fight, after its allies France and Great Britain had agreed with Hitler that Czechoslovakia had to cede the Sudetenland to Germany, because they were inhabited by a mostly German speaking population.
In all the occupied countries resistance movements emerged. Some among them like the partisans in Yugoslavia or Belorussia even succeeded in defending liberated zones. A special case was Poland, where the Armia Krajowa, the so called “Home Army”, had such broad support from the population that they could establish a kind of underground state, which was closely connected to the exile government in London. Many people in English speaking countries are familiar with the strength of the French Résistance, whose fighters actively contributed to the liberation of their country by the Allied forces.
In all these cases, the German occupants were clearly defined as the enemy, and everybody who fought them, was fighting for his or her own country. Even those who disagreed with resistance, regarding it as futile and suicidal, assessed resistance fighters as patriots. This was true even in countries, where collaborationist local governments had been established, like the Vichy government led by Marshal Pétain in France, or the puppet administration of the infamous Vidkun Quisling in Norway.

However, in viewing those who resisted the Nazi dictatorship inside Germany or Austria, we must take into consideration that the vast majority of the population regarded Hitler as their “Leader”, their Führer, and did not doubt the legitimacy of that murderous regime. As soon as the war started, even people who disliked Hitler and contested the Nazis, regarded those who tried to obstruct the war effort of their country as high treason. One must not stab one’s own army in the back, was a widespread opinion. And because of this popular sentiment, death sentences for “traitors” were accepted by the populace.
So we always have to bear in mind that, when talking about resistance inside Nazi Germany, we are talking about the efforts of a tiny minority of people who, against all odds, tried to overcome this regime of criminals who had brought death and destruction to so many peoples of Europe, but were still regarded as the legitimate German government by the overwhelming majority.

There was a slight difference between Germany and Austria, even though Austria, had become part and parcel of Greater Germany in March 1938, and 1.2 million Austrian men were conscripted by the German Wehrmacht. For Germans, Hitler’s rule represented the legal government of their country; for many Austrians, although they regarded themselves as Germans, Hitler was the one who had forcefully annexed their country. Although 99% had voted in favor in the ex-post facto plebiscite in April 1938, Germans still remained foreign, and the longer they stayed and displayed their pretentiousness and sense of superiority toward the Austrians—whom they did not call “Austrian Germans”, but Ostmärker, “Eastern Provincials”—the more they became repugnant to increasing numbers of Austrians. This was especially true for the rural population, who disliked, among other things, anti-Catholic Nazi propaganda. All these hostile feelings which, I stress, remained those of a minority, were far from bona fide resistance, but this popular disaffection made it a little easier for true resistance fighters to develop clandestine networks—easier than in Nazi Germany itself.
So when we talk about Austrian resistance as a form of resisting one’s own government, we also have to consider the national differences between Austrians and Germans. Maybe at this point we should just call them, not national, but regional differences. The idea of regarding Austrians not as Germans but as their own nation, developed very slowly in Austria itself; most of its proponents were in exile or were incarcerated in concentration camps.
But let us put aside the national or regional differences between Germans and Austrians. Among Austrians who resisted, there are two distinctions which are much more important for the examples I’d like to present here, because they can answer the question as to for whom resistance was disobedience; for whom it was aiding one’s own; and for whom it was both. These distinctions are products of Nazi racism and of the Nazi war of extermination which the Wehrmacht and the SS waged against the Soviet Union.

The first and most important distinction was whether a resistance fighter was regarded by the Nazis as member of the so called “Volksgemeinschaft”, the German ethnic community, or not. If the person was Jewish or was regarded as being a Jew, he or she had no choice in deciding his or her position inside the Nazi regime. For such a person, the most important form of resisting the Nazi dictatorship was to obstruct its plans to annihilate one’s own. Not to capitulate when faced with degradation, starvation and mistreatment, meant: staying alive and helping others to survive the murderous conditions in ghettos and concentration camps. Even before their deportation, Jews lost their jobs, were evicted from their apartments, and deprived of all their civil rights. The situation for gypsies was quite similar. So for those people, resistance was not a matter of disobedience, but rather of civil rebellion against being excluded from one’s own society, since the majority of Jews regarded themselves as Germans. Many among them came to the conclusion that the only way to survive was to escape this hostile environment. Thus, the many who emigrated to the United States.
The contrary extreme was disobedience within the armed forces or the German war industry. For an Austrian soldier of the German Wehrmacht who tried to undermine military morale, not to speak of desertion or aiding the enemy by espionage or transmitting information to resistance networks in occupied countries, this was treason to one’s own country, to one’s army which was waging war, and therefore something that is punished in every country in the world.
An Austrian or German laborer who deliberately committed failures when producing tanks or grenades, could not exclude that the sabotage would result in the death of a brother or a son who had to use the weapon on the front. This made such a decision extremely complicated. Was it ethically correct to endanger the life of one’s owns in order to shorten the war and to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of other people?
But there was also a group of people for whom resistance was both disobedience and aiding one’s own, and this were Communists who wanted to hamper Hitler’s war in the East, because for them the Soviet Union represented a kind of second home country, and they could not stand the idea that they, by doing their duty as Wehrmacht soldiers, would help the Nazis to destroy the Soviet Union.
What was a common insight for all those people, is best expressed through a quotation attributed to Bertolt Brecht:
Wo Unrecht zu Recht wird, wird Widerstand zur Pflicht (“When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty”).

In 2015, the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance together with the Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna compiled an exhibition which tried to illustrate that quotation with examples of different political background.
When we conceived the exhibition, we were interested in the question as to what additional motives were needed that people really did resist Nazi dictatorship. Because it is no matter of course that a person, who agreed in principle with the idea that in, view of the Nazi crimes, resistance was a duty, actually did join the resistance.
We chose some of the most common reasons, why people did it, despite the danger; despite their concern over doing something that could harm their loved ones; and in spite of the fact that almost all the world they lived in, neighbors, friends, family, would be against them.

The most common reason was that these people realized that something had to be done by somebody, and that they could not tolerate the idea that they were sitting back while others like the soldiers of the Allied armies who fought the German Wehrmacht, risked their lives. And so, they just did it. Because somebody had to do it. Because of a sense of responsibility.
The second reason I would like to mention, is outrage about Nazi crimes: about the fate of the Jews; about the murder of thousands of civilians behind the front; about what was going on in the concentration camps. In many cases this outrage was linked to the moral need to help those oppressed people. When somebody feels pity, normally he or she does not consider the consequences of this compassion. In many reports from Jewish survivors we find examples of people who just wanted to help them. Of course, it is much easier to slip a piece of bread or an apple to a slave laborer marching by, than to hide an escaped prisoner or a persecuted Jewish family for months or even years.
The third reason is belief—either religious faith or political conviction. This is one of the reasons why in Austria it was the Communists and the Catholics among whom you could find the most active resistance fighters.
And, not to forget, also love could be a strong motivation for putting one’s life at stake. It was either the desire to support a loved one who was active in clandestine networks, or the shared political or religious conviction of two people who were closely united to each other in love.
The first example I’d like to present here about is a Catholic peasant living in a small village in Upper Austria, close to the Bavarian border. His name was Franz Jägerstätter. As a very pious person he was convinced that his religious beliefs and Nazism could not coincide. When he was drafted for military service in 1943, he spoke to his wife, to friends, and to the bishop of Linz on the Danube. He finally decided to accept the draft, but he declared that he could not be more than a military paramedic. His religious belief would not allow him to fight with or even carry a weapon. We know from Jägerstätter’s wife and from some documents that he was not a pacifist. He would have been ready to defend Austria’s independence in 1938, but he was unwilling to kill “people who did not inflict any harm on us”, as he said. For this reason the Reich Court-Martial in Berlin sentenced him to death on July 6, 1943, for “undermining military morale”. On August 9, 1943, he was beheaded. His wife Franziska stood behind her husband’s decision against military service, she did not want to abandon him in his decision. After the war, she was isolated for a long time from the community who made her feel responsible for the death of her husband. Did Franz Jägerstätter desert his family? One of his three daughters responded with a clear “no!” to such accusations. She said, “If our dad had accepted conscription, there would have been no guarantee for coming back. So many Wehrmacht soldiers had been killed during the war.”

The first person to commemorate Jägerstätter after the war, was an American pacifist, Gordon Zahn. Zahn published a biography in 1964 entitled “In solitary witness. The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter.” He describes him as a conscientious objector and a rebel, and a role model for other conscientious objectors. Zahn’s book became rather popular in the movement against the Vietnam War in the US in the late 1960s. The Austrian Catholic church needed a few more decades to recognize Jägerstätter’s martyrdom: In 2007 he was beatified. His widow was still alive at that time—she died six years later at the age of 100—and when she entered the church in Linz, where the beatification was celebrated, she was welcomed enthusiastically by thousands of believers. As an observer stated, this was the canonization by the Catholic rank and file of a person who had been neglected by his church for too long a period.

My second example is a clandestine group of mostly communist youths, called “Soldiers’ Council” (Soldatenrat). Military obedience in the Wehrmacht was achieved not only with draconian penalties. Nazi fanaticism, the euphoria of victory during the Blitzkrieg, and the anticipation of booty, clouded the mind, and afforded the unquestioning incorporation of millions of soldiers into the criminal war machine of the Wehrmacht.
In contrast to the “five minutes to midnight” assassination attempt on Hitler of July 20, 1944, the resistance group “Soldiers Council”, led by medic Alfred Rabofsky, was active among simple Wehrmacht soldiers starting in 1939. At the highpoint of the German invasion of the Soviet Union they distributed the flyer, “Hitler has already lost the war,” designed by the Viennese chemistry student Walter Kämpf. Civilian men and women also belonged to the group, and distributed the flyers to soldiers by sending them to the soldiers as military letters.
13 members of the group were executed, the youngest among them, Anni Gräf, was not yet 19 years old when she was beheaded at the Vienna State Courthouse. Elfriede Hartmann, played a special role in coordinating the distribution of the flyers (see below). The Catholic journalist, Friedrich Heer, speaking in 1954 at a memorial gathering for the leader of the “Soldiers Council”, the Young Communist Alfred Rabofsky, said the following:
From this young typesetter we can learn what we need today above all else:  good strength and good hope without illusions; the strength to offer resistance even to an apparently all-powerful power machine; and the hope that there will always be people for whom conscience is more important fear and anxiety.

My third example refers also to the group “Soldiers Council”, it deals with love in the face of imminent execution. The lovers I’d like to talk of are Elfriede Hartmann and Rudolf Mašl.
Disclosure of military secrets belongs to the worst crimes a soldier can commit. During WW II that included the location of units, and therefore soldiers could only be reached at so-called field post addresses.
Any attempt to “undermine defense” directed at soldiers, therefore depended on collecting as many field post addresses as possible, to which flyers and copies of letters could be sent.
Rudolf Mašl, stationed in Norway collected such addresses, and his girlfriend Elfriede Hartmann bundled the information in Vienna. “Friedl” who because her father was Jewish had not been allowed to continue her studies, was one of the most fascinating personalities in the clandestine communist youth resistance in Austria. After both she and Rudolf Mašl were arrested, she smuggled dozens of secret messages (stiffs, in German Kassiber) from Gestapo imprisonment to her family in order to do all she could to save her boyfriend.
One quotation from a kassiber of Elfriede Hartmann to her parents of September 9, 1941, when they had announced that they would be present outside the courtroom where the main trial against her and another defendant took place:
…Please eat a proper and big breakfast; you have to force yourselves. So that when I leave the judgement hall, and I have to tell you, “Death”, you do not collapse. Get a hold of yourselves and be strong. I know what I have fought for, with the awareness that if I rest, there will be no salvation for me. I was always aware of that. For me the verdict is not difficult.
So my dear ones, courage, courage—I live still…
(In 2013 the stiffs of Elfriede Hartmann were published in the Viennese Mandelbaum Verlag.)

Rudolf Mašl and Elfriede Hartmann were executed on August 27 and November 2, 1943, resp. For Elfriede Hartmann, her love for Wehrmacht soldier Rudolf Mašl and her political engagement against the war of destruction of the Wehrmacht and the SS were inseparable from each other. The following lines from Turkish author Nazim Hikmet served as her motto:
If I don’t burn,
if you don’t burn,
how will the light
vanquish the darkness?

The fourth example is Maria Stromberger, called “the angel of Auschwitz.”
Maria Stromberger first heard about Nazi cruelties in Eastern Europe from the wounded soldiers in Klagenfurt. The reports seemed so unbelievable to her that she had herself transferred to in an infectious diseases station in occupied Poland in order to see for herself. From two patients delirious from typhoid fever, she learned of the crimes at Auschwitz. In October 1942 she began serving in the SS Revier, the sickbay for the camp SS.
Hermann Langbein, the famous Austrian Auschwitz survivor who wrote numerous books about the death camp, among them “People in Auschwitz”  wrote:
Others acted blind, deaf, and dumb when they found out something; Maria Stromberger sought the truth.
Nurse Maria organized medications for the prisoner nursing stations; passed on information; and smuggled out plans, photo plates, and other proof to the Polish underground movement. Despite attempts to denounce her and despite her own deteriorating health status, she had and maintained the courage and the strength to deliver secret messages, explosives, and weapons from the Polish resistance to “Auschwitz Combat Group” (Kampfgruppe Auschwitz / Grupa Bojowa Oświęcim). The Combat Group was led by the Austrian Communist Ernst Burger and the Polish Socialist Józef Cyrankiewicz.
In her letter of thanks to the Concentration Camp Prisoners’ Association “KZ-Verband” on the occasion of her being named as honorary member Maria Stromberger wrote, on March 4, 1955: What I did was human duty, and sadly only a drop in the ocean.

My last example deals with military disobedience at the end of the war: Breaking the Pledge as a condition to preventing death and destruction, when the Nazi dictatorship came to its end. This is the story of Major Biedermann, Captain Huth, First Lieutenant Raschke – and the courage of Lotte Rohrer.
Despite the pledge they took that bound them to absolute obedience, some Wehrmacht officers—especially towards war’s end—refused to obey illegal orders, and attempted to surrender cities without a fight despite Hitler’s “Nero Decree”. Thus, Viennese Major Carl Szokoll undertook contact with the Red Army on behalf of Austrian patriotic officers. The group was betrayed and several of their members arrested on April 7, 1945.
The arrests happened at around 8 am, and Lotte Rohner, lead secretary to
Major Szokoll, and fiancée of Captain Huth, was sitting in her office sewing white flags. She had the presence of mind, in view of SS personnel, to burn the conspiracy documents in a little potbelly stove, having politely asked the SS whether she could at least make some tea. Then when Szokoll phoned while the arrests were going on, she quickly grabbed the receiver and addressed the major Szokoll as “Madame”, thereby warning him, so that the SS men standing next to her did not realize what was going on.
Szokoll escaped the SS, but on April 8, 1945 (six days before the fall of Vienna) Karl Biedermann, Alfred Huth, and Rudolf Raschke were hanged in in Floridsdorf (Vienna’s 21st district).


I would not want to talk about resistance in Austria without referring to one of the most impressive examples of Jewish resistance in Vienna and, later on, in the ghetto of Theresienstadt.
For an Austrian Jew, active resistance against the Nazi dictatorship was, as I mentioned at the beginning, first and foremost to thwart Nazi plans to deprive Jews of all their rights as the first step in annihilation of all Jews in Europe. As long as the Nazis just tried to cleanse German cities of their Jewish population, this meant: emigrating by any means, even in a situation where most foreign governments restricted Jewish immigration. This included support for those who could not emigrate by legal means because they had no assets that the Nazis could confiscate in exchange for letting them go; or for those who had already been arrested. In most cases this kind of helping one’s own was not possible without a certain degree of collaboration with Nazi officials. In Vienna, the Nazi’s Central Office for Jewish Emigration was led by Adolf Eichmann, so that all functionaries of the Jewish community who tried to facilitate emigration had to cooperate with Eichmann. For many survivors this was a highly questionable, embarrassing fact which they had to struggle with. I agree with those who refuse to include in Jewish resistance the functionaries, who, by collaborating with Eichmann, saved their own life and the lives of their families. But nevertheless, even functionaries like the Viennese rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, later on “Judenältester” (head of the Council of Elders) of the Theresienstadt ghetto, and the only Jewish Head Elder to survive the Holocaust, did contribute to the effort to save Jewish lives.
Instead of the contested figure of Murmelstein, I would like to share here information about a brilliant young man, who, for some time cooperated with Eichmann, but made a martyr of himself at the age of 26, by accompanying desolate orphans to the Auschwitz gas chambers. His name was Aron Menczer, and I want to devote the rest of my talk to this stunning person.
In April 2017 the Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia published a book which refers to Aron Menczer’s sacrifice: Mordecai Paldiel, “Saving One’s Own: Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust”. Paldiel devotes a whole chapter about Menczer in his book.

For decades, only a few survivors remembered Aron Menczer. On November 9th 2012 the city of Vienna erected a small monument in front of the former Jewish “Palästinaamt” (Palestine Office) in Vienna’s Marc Aurel Street, from which he organized youth Aliyahs from Vienna to then British Palestine from 1938 through 1941, saving thousands. As a 22 year old in February 1939, he accompanied a group of young émigrés to Palestine, visited Kibbutzim and met his family, who had already fled Nazi Germany, and begged him not to return to Vienna. He refused saying, “As long as there is one single Jewish child in Vienna, I have to go back”.
In 1942, after the closure of the Viennese Palestine Office by the Nazis, he was deported to Theresienstadt. There again he took care of children.
In 1995 a Viennese survivor, Gertrude Schneider, published a book, called “Exile and Destruction”. Schneider had moved to the US in 1947 and become a professor at the City University of New York. In this book she describes what happened when she and some other Viennese Jews who had been deported to Riga in 1942, but had escaped the killings there, arrived at the concentration camp of Stutthof, on the Baltic Sea, east of Danzig. In 1944, when she was 16 years old, a woman who had come from Auschwitz and had been in Theresienstadt before, told her this unbelievable story of Aron Menczer’s sacrifice for Polish Jewish children:
On 24 August 1943, a transport of 1,260 children arrived in Theresienstadt. Aron Menczer, because of his knowledge of Yiddish, found out that these children were orphans from the Bialystok ghetto in Poland. The adult Jews had been murdered, and the children taken to Theresienstadt, because Adolf Eichmann wanted to try to send the children to some foreign country in exchange for money. Because of their state of neglect, the children were isolated, and the inmates were forbidden to have any contact with them. Aron Menczer volunteered to look after them. He told other Theresienstadt inmates that the children refused to take a shower and cried “gas!, gas!”—at that time nobody in Theresienstadt understood why, but the children had heard rumors about what happened in Treblinka. There was also a group of 50 women who had to take care of the orphans, including the favorite sister of Franz Kafka, Ottilie Davidová. (cf. “Letters to Ottla” by Franz Kafka.)
Because the Nazis feared the spread of disease, the women were not allowed to leave the special shelter for the isolated children. Only Menczer and the Theresienstadt Jewish Head Elder Murmelstein were allowed to enter and leave the isolation block. When the children and their caretakers were deported to Auschwitz in October 1943, Aron Menczer, because of his privileged position, could have stayed in Theresienstadt. But he decided to join the children, because he was one of the few persons they trusted. Upon arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau the whole group was gassed.

An important concluding remark:
By far not all of those who resisted lost their lives. However, all of them had to face the threat of being beheaded or hanged or sent to a concentration camp and being murdered there—and still they did it. They just did it, because they considered it necessary to not stand aside and wait until Allied troops liberated Austria.