On this date in 1945, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, godfather of the anti-Hitler resistance that had bid unsuccessfully for his assassination, was hanged at Plotzensee Prison. With him went fellow regime foes, Johannes Popitz and Father Alfred Delp.
The monarchist pol Goerdeler enjoys pride of place as one of the first German elites to opposite Hitler, though that opposition was not quite so early as the very beginning. Goerdeler was a creature of the pre-Nazi establishment, and shared many of perspectives that prepared that world to accommodate national socialism: Goerdeler bitterly opposed the Versailles Treaty, wanted to take a bite out of Polish territory, and had the customary strictly-within-legal-bounds anti-Semitism of his class. Even lying under sentence of death late in 1944, having denounced the Holocaust to his Gestapo interrogators, his “Thoughts of a Condemned Man” reflected,
We should not attempt to minimize what has been happening, but we should also emphasize the great guilt of the Jews, who had invaded our public life in ways that lacked all customary restraint.
A German patriot, then, committed to a “a purified Germany with a government of decent people”; a humanist Liberal from a bygone age, who had no weapons to fight a terror state.
As Mayor of Leipzig, he openly opposed the Third Reich’s excesses and pushed to moderate its policy.* In 1937 he copped a principled resignation and started cultivating contacts abroad, warning of Hitler’s aggression — also managing to impress his foreign interlocutors with his incapacity to affect events himself. His many memoranda urging Hitler to moderate this or that outrage went for naught.
The resistance circle around Goerdeler, which drew in his fellow-sufferer Popitz,** would be marked throughout the war years by that incapacity — a monument to high-minded failure, eternally short of the last ounce of will or that one key resource.
Goerdeler’s name adorned the ministry of many a fanciful post-Hitler government, but he himself, according to his friend and fellow-conspirator Gerhard Ritter, “preferred to begin with a debate rather than a power stroke”.
To be sure, the man looked in vain for some decisive form of aid: within the Reich, the sympathetic Wehrmacht brass couldn’t quite see their way to something as radical as breaking their loyalty oaths; without, he got no terms short of unconditional surrender from the Allies.
But even come the summer of 1944 when all was well past lost, Goerdeler entertained delusions of persuading Hitler to give up power voluntarily, and opposed Stauffenberg‘s assassination gambit.
Indecision would be no defense when he was hailed before bloodthirsty judge Roland Freisler for treason.
Goerdeler and Popitz, both viewed as influential with Germany’s Western enemies, were kept alive for months after the judicial purges commenced: Himmler‘s hope for a back channel deal. Our man had many hours in this Gethsemane for that essential contemplation of the 20th century.
In sleepless nights I have asked myself whether a God exists who shares in the personal fate of men. It is becoming hard to believe it. For this God must for years now have allowed rivers of blood and suffering, mountains of horror and despair for mankind … He must have let millions of decent men die and suffer without moving a finger.
-Carl Goerdeler (Source)
We do not know what account Goerdeler gave of himself to the afterlife; even the account he left of himself for our terrestrial posterity is disputable.
“I ask the world to accept our martyrdom as penance for the German people,” he wrote in prison. Is it enough to accept for Goerdeler himself? His actions, intrepid by the standards of most countrymen, were fatally unequal to the heroism demanded of his circumstance. By any measure, his is a very human tragedy.
Carl Goerdeler’s brother Fritz shared the same fate a few weeks later. Other family members were imprisoned at Dachau; Carl’s son, Reinhard Goerdeler, became an accountant after the war and is the “G” in the big four firm KPMG.
* Including Berlin’s heretically expansionary economic policy. Goerdeler hated Keynes; his prescription for the capitalist crisis of the 1930s was falling wages, low deficits, a mighty Reichsmark, and free trade. (The April 1938 Foreign Affairs published a Goerdeler essay entitled “Do Government Price Controls Work?” Answer: no.)
It would be too much to say that Berlin’s profligacy outraged him as much as the fact that it was being squandered on dishonorable war, but said profligacy was definitely on the bill of attainder.
** Father Delp, the other man hanged this date, was involved in the resistance but even Freisler’s court decided he wasn’t in on the July 20 plot.