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We like our stories of resistance to great evil to include bold cunning, great daring and a good complement of surprise attacks, night-time explosions and standing up to enemy torture, the sorts of things we might wish we ourselves could do.  Less popular, though more exemplary, are stories of quiet resistance, lost orders, misdirected messengers, decimal place errors in calculations, small acts of sabotage which ordinary people can dare to carry out, and live to carry out again.

Hans Deichmann, a German employee of I.G. Farben before and during Nazi rule, was such a person.  His little book, Objects, 1995, is a belated testimony to the small and larger things he tried to do to slow the end-of-war efforts of the German war machine.  Small at times, yet certainly putting him in danger of exposure, his most successful effort was to impede the forced labor transport of thousands of Italians to  the I.G. Farben facility adjoining Auschwitz.

In October, 1943, with the Allies advancing up the Italian peninsula, H.D., as he refers to himself,  an empthen working for Farben, the enormous chemical and rubber company,  was part of Nazi discussions in Rome to round up Italian men and transport them to the Reich as workers in the armaments industry –“something to be prevented at all costs,” he comments.   Requesting permission at the meeting,  to speak, he calmly itemized all the reasons such a mass round-up and transport would be impossible:

“The roads were not fit to accommodate the men on foot (the railway was only functioning part way.) There would surely be difficulties–perhaps insuperable–with provisions, sanitation, and last but not least, the police guarding the thousands of men thinking of nothing but escape.

Instead, why not take a census to identify the most capable workers? After heated arguments from the Germans who, however, had no better solution, the census was ordered.  With no paper, no presses to print the forms, no census takers, it was still being carried out when the Allies took Rome some months later.

Besides being an account of opposition from within, the termite-like weakening of the bureaucratic support structures of the Fascists and Nazis, Deichmann has a novel means of telling the tale.  Rather than organize his story around his own deeds and sequential dates, he gives certain objects the task of remembering — a chamber pot, three bicycles, gold tableware, eyeglasses. The episodes appear as the objects remember, not as the war progresses.

Extending Proust’s memory by means of objects, H.D. writes that the objects themselves have “quite a few tales to tell,” many told diffidently and casually, with an understated truth telling.

“From mid-March 1942, H.D. was a “drafted civilian, which meant that he was sworn in like a soldier but not in uniform and not on active military service … [serving under} his chief clerk, a dangerous Nazi who on April 24, 1945, fled from Milan to Bolzano in a stolen car filled to the brim with loot.”

In a chapter about two cars, Augusta and Topolino, more venality is revealed.

“December 2, 1944 .. Milan: Berlin freight car left… It would be a mistake to think this railroad car contained valuable chemicals crucial to the war effort.  The contents were exclusively black-market goods: cognac, wine, oil, flour, sugar, coffee, shoes, and even men’s and women’s underwear.”

The side revelation of what straits Germany was in at the end of 1944 –the war to continue for another six months– adds to the usefulness of the book.

Nor does Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church go without mention.  While willing to give audiences to German officers and accompanying Nazisduring the war, H.D. notes that by 1952, socialists could not be granted absolution after confessing.

Deichmann was no hero, as he tells us several times, no member of The Army of Shadows as Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel and Jean Pierre Melville’s 1969 film have it.  His position at I.G. Farben was due to clever delays in reporting for induction and a highly placed uncle.  His work to impede the war-effort was more from love of the Italians than from a deep Bonhoeffer morality.

“The chronicler’s main aim in the years between 1936 and 1942 was to keep as far away from Nazism as he possibly could.  In other words to challenge it in every way possible, even in seemingly trivial ways such as dodging the “Heil Hitler” greeting.  Today this hardly seems worth mentioning, but in those days it required a constant sense of responsibility.   Nazism had to be kept away from body and soul at all costs.”

As the only Italian speaking German in most meetings in Italy of officials and officers during the final years of the war, he was often called upon to translate, thus being able to add “inept” or mis-directed translations to his tool kit.  After the war, Deichmann lived the rest of his life in Italy.

Sometimes more amusing and personal than of courageous resistance, Objects nevertheless is worthy of reading, to enlarge the circle of possibilities ordinary people might entertain when imaging actions to be taken in a society going radically wrong.


The best story of ordinary people’s resistance to Nazi domination and terror is Hans Fallada’s marvelous Every Man Dies Alone, (my review here) about an elderly working-class couple in Berlin hand drawing, and distributing, anti-Nazi posters at night.

The Silence of the Sea is a French story of a father and daughter giving a non-cooperative silent treatment to a German officer billeted in their small home — made a bit more famous by a 1949 Jean Pierre Melville film of the same name. (My review here.)

Thomas Keneally’s 1982 Schindler’s Arc, subsequently made famous by Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Schindlr’s List, is only one of many volumes on Oskar Schindler. (See, for example)  As an industrialist of some standing — his factory in Krakow employed some 1,750 workers– he can’t be counted as an “ordinary” person.  However, his change of conscience and the risks he ran contribute to a growing culture of knowledge about and example of, resistance to evil.

Not quite as well known as Schindler, is Sophie Scholl who,  along with her brother, were members of a small network of German students who created The White Rose, a resistance movement in the heart of the Nazi state. Several films have been made both of her and the movement.  Sophie Scholl — The Final Days (2005) is perhaps the best known though Michael Verehoeven released The White Rose in 1982.  Several others have been released as well.

Dozens of books about Scholl, The White Rose and their aspirations and actions have been written.

More surprising, to me as well, I imagine, to others, are the novels by Japanese authors opposing the militarism of WWII Japan.  As early as 1937,  Ashihei Hino’s Wheat and Soldiers / Mugi to Heitai, sold over one million copies.  It was subversive merely for suggesting compassion for Chinese victims as written by a soldier of the invasion. Saiichi Maruya’s 1966 novel, Grass for My Pillow (translated by Dennis Keene in 2002) tells a story of one man’s evasion from conscription for the duration of the war. (My review here.)

I see there are recent young adult fiction offerings about girls, spies, and resistance.

All to the good!