In the first months of Nazi rule, labor unions and opposition political parties ceased to exist as government and society were subjected to the Gleichschaltung process, which was intended to reorganize all institutions of German society to better align with Nazi policy. Leaders of the German Social Democratic and Communist parties (SPD and KPD, respectively) were forced into exile or shipped either to local ad hoc prisons or to the new concentration camp at Dachau.
Though these actions decapitated the best organized sources of early resistance to Nazi rule, it didn’t destroy them outright. Members of the SPD and KPD continued to put out newspapers, raise money for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, pass information to sympathizers abroad, and encourage industrial strikes through the 1930s. But because many of their actions were conspicuous, and because the Nazi regime considered their destruction a top ideological priority, arrest rates of SPD and KPD activists were high, and punishments increasingly severe. Also, the SPD and KPD were crippled by the legacy of rivalry and distrust between them, which owed both to differences in ideology and to the SPD’s cooperation with the Freikorps in the suppression of the Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacist League and the short-lived Munich Soviet Raterrepublik. Further, during the 1930s, the Nazi regime was broadly popular among the German people, which meant that many Germans were either indifferent or hostile to the efforts of these activists and unsympathetic to those the Gestapo and police arrested, jailed, tortured, and executed. So though resistance persisted, those who participated risked their lives while gaining next to nothing.
Bureaucratic resistance also persisted through the 1930s, and was sometimes effective enough that the Nazis had to construct extra-governmental entities like the SS to implement its more controversial policies. Bureaucrats had to be careful and pick their friends wisely, balancing the career imperatives of promotion and accumulation of official power with the demands of resisting policy changes. They were also stymied to some degree by differences in goals. Some bureaucrats resisted less because of moral objections to a policy than a belief that the tactics Hitler was pursuing seemed likely to fail. Some wanted to see the Hitler government fall, others just wanted a more effective, reality-based variant. (For a close up look at the latter species, read this article on Ernst Von Weizsacker, a diplomat who objected to the Nazi policy of seizing Czechoslovakia.) These differences combined with the inevitable coordination problems that arise when officials can’t discuss issues openly eventually hobbled this form of resistance.
The army and the German intelligence apparatus also had some potential for harboring resistance to the regime, and several members did see Hitler as a looming disaster, partly thanks to Ex-General Ludendorff, a one time admirer and supporter of Hitler’s who soured on him after the Beer Hall Putsch. Ludendorff would denigrate Hitler to anyone who’d listen, and, despite Ludendorff’s reputation for being a conspiracy minded nut, many army officers did. Still, Hitler was reluctant to do anything to the man he’d once been “a drummer” for. Ludendorff’s death by natural causes in 1937 probably came as a relief to Hitler, who threw the old man a state funeral. As for the army as a whole, Hitler effectively defanged them by decapitating their rival, Ernst Roehm’s Stormtroopers, in 1934. Afterwards, the army swore a personal oath to serve not the German constitution, but instead, Adolf Hitler personally. Most officers and soldiers, even those that disliked Hitler regime, would have a hard time violating such an oath–though a few did eventually try. As for German intelligence (the Abwehr), they were busy with a bureaucratic struggle against Reinhard Heydrich, the SD, the Gestapo, and the SS, which gradually chipped away at their mandate and resources. Their leader, Admiral Canaris, took pains to surround himself with operatives and officials who weren’t Nazis, passed intelligence to foreign capitols, and he developed plans for a coup against Hitler. However, all this had to be balanced with the appearance of efficiency and loyalty. Hitler distrusted the Abwehr, and Heydrich’s Gestapo and SD put considerable resources into spying on Nazi Germany’s spies.
Church resistance to the Nazis stumbled badly out of the gate because of the Nazi concordat with the Catholic Church, which forbid priests from engaging in political activity. Members of the Catholic conservative party were arrested. Protestants, whom Hitler had tried to reorganize into the “Reich Church”, protested Nazi policy in letters to leading officials, which led to many more arrests. This resistance tended to center around areas where Nazi policy and church policies conflicted, though by the late 1930s clerics broadened their criticism of Nazi anti-semitism and human rights policies. Their criticism of anti-semitism was often tame, however, because many in the clergy or laity were themselves antisemitic. Their criticism of human rights violations were similarly muted at first because the initial targets were communists and socialists, whom the clergy also disliked, becoming stronger only when their members also found themselves in prison. That said, there were individual clergy who risked their lives to shelter Jews and resistance members or help them escape the country.
While there were many in the Nazi leadership who wanted to take a hard line toward the Christian church, Hitler was reluctant to pick too many high profile fights. Though parish clergymen could find themselves sent to Dachau, the higher ranking clergy remained untouched. The churches’ acts of resistance, such as they were, occasionally forced the Nazis to be more secretive about their policies, particularly those connected with the euthanasia program, but did little to threaten the regime.
Jewish resistance to Nazi Germany during this period was often connected to other extant resistance organizations like the SPD or KPD. (The Nazis, though hostile to Jews, were preoccupied with suppressing political opposition during the early to mid 1930s.) There were some independent Zionist organizations as well, which distributed leaflets denouncing the regime. There was also the Baum Gruppe in Berlin, founded in 1937, which not only distributed propaganda but also engaged in direct action, culminating in an arson attack on a Nazi anti-Soviet exhibit in 1942. Individual Jews, unconnected to larger groups, killed two Nazi officials. David Frankfurter assassinated Wilhelm Gustloff, a Nazi party official in Switzerland in 1935. This assassination, along with Herschel Grynszpan‘s assassination of German diplomat Ernst von Rath, served as propaganda ammunition for the Nazi’s launching of Kristallnacht in November of 1938.
There was even resistance to the Nazis within their own families. A key example of this is Hermann Goering’s brother, Albert. The profile I wrote about him is here.
Behind the screen of parade footage, goose stepping, and sieg heilling, there were many in Germany who resisted the Nazis from the start. But they were badly organized, divided, under constant pressure from police and security organizations, and, if these weren’t fatal enough, faced with a populace either indifferent or openly hostile to their efforts, making it impossible to rally mass support. It can be hard to imagine just how terrifyingly bleak their position was in the 1930s.