Hans Dohnányi

Hans Dohnanyi : Nazi Germany

Hans Dohnányi, the son of an Hungarian musician, Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960), was born in Vienna, on 1st January, 1902. He went to the Grunewald Gymnasium in Berlin where he became friends with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In 1924 he married Christel Bonhoeffer, the sister of Dietrich. The following year he received a doctorate in law and went to work at the Mendelson International Law Institute in Hamburg and with the Supreme Court at Leipzig. In 1929 he was employed by the Reich Ministry of Justice.

Dohnányi became adviser to the Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner, who was a long-time supporter of Adolf Hitler. As Alan Bullock, the author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962), has pointed out: "Franz Gürtner, was the Bavarian Minister who had most persistently protected Hitler in the 1920s." In 1934 Gürtner played a role in legitimizing the Night of the Long Knives, when hundreds of critics of Hitler were executed. Gürtner demonstrated his loyalty to the Nazi regime by writing a law that legalized the murders committed during the purge. Gürtner argued it was "justified as a means of State defense." Gürtner even quashed some initial efforts by local prosecutors to take legal action against those who carried out the murders. Gürtner was also involved in writing the Nuremberg Laws.

Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern have argued: "As Gürtner’s chief assistant Hans was privy to information about the Nazis’ crimes; by 1934 he was keeping a chronological record of them along with supporting documents; these were stored in an army safe at the Zossen military base near Berlin, Hans having been assured of its inviolability. He meant the documents to facilitate the prosecution of Nazi criminals after the end of the regime. Hans knew that in November 1937 Hitler had presented to the army high command his secret plans to establish a new German-dominated order in Europe."

Dohnányi became an opponent of Hans Frank, who he accused of corrupting German law. the historian, Harold C. Deutsch, has argued this "gained him the unfavorable notice of Nazi hierarchs" and was investigated to see if he had Jewish blood. It was eventually decided to remove him from the Ministry of Justice by making him a Supreme Court judge in Leipzig.

In 1939 Hans Oster, the head of the Military Intelligence Office's central division, arranged for Dohnányi to work at Abwehr. It has been claimed that Oster turned it into a centre of activity for opponents of the regime. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of Abwehr, was also an opponent of Adolf Hitler. As Alan Bullock has pointed out: "The Abwehr provided admirable cover and unique facilities for a conspiracy." According to his biographer, Mark M. Boatner III: "This made him a key member of the German resistance, and with Teutonic thoroughness he kept copious records for what he hoped would be a postwar criminal action by German courts against Third Reich officials."

In early 1943 a group of anti-Nazis that included Dohnányi, Friedrich Olbricht, Henning von Tresckow, Friedrich Olbricht, Werner von Haeften, Claus von Stauffenberg, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Wilhelm Canaris, Peter von Wartenburg, Erwin Rommel, Hans Oster, Franz Halder, Hans Gisevius, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Ludwig Beck and Erwin von Witzleben met to discuss what action they should take. Initially the group was divided over the issue of Hitler. Gisevius and a small group of predominantly younger conspirators felt that he should be killed immediately. Canaris, Witzleben, Beck, Rommel and most of the other conspirators believed that Hitler should be arrested and put on trial. By using the legal system to expose the crimes of the regime, they hoped to avoid making a martyr of Hitler. Oster and Dohnanyi argued that after Hitler was arrested he should be brought before a panel of physicians chaired by Dohnanyi's father-in-law, the psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer, and declared mentally ill.

On 5th April 1943, Schutzstaffel (SS) officers entered the Abwehr building in Berlin. Wilhelm Canaris was told that they had received information that Dohnányi had been taking bribes for smuggling Jews into Switzerland. After carrying out a search of the premises Dohnányi was arrested. Later that day Dohnányi's wife and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were also taken into custody. Dohnányi managed to send out a message to General Ludwig Beck asking him to destroy his records of the conspiracy. However, Beck insisted that they be preserved for historical evidence of what Good Germans had done to fight Nazism.

In letters to his wife Dohnányi argued that he was disappointed by the level of resistance to Adolf Hitler: “The obtuseness and cowardice of people of property and influence, and the stupidity of most officers, frustrated all efforts” and only the socialists and trade union activists he had met in prison "had it in themselves to be effective resisters". He described them as “idealists hardened by suffering”. In a letter to a young friend he suggested: "We realize that the world is in God’s wrathful and merciful hands…. We learned too late that it is not the thought but readiness to take responsibility that is the mainspring of action. Your generation will relate thought and action in a new way."

Dohnányi's archives were found by the Gestapo on 22nd January 1944. This led to the arrest of other conspirators, including Arthur Nebe. Although clearly guilty of treason, Dohnányi was kept alive in an attempt to discover the full extent of the conspiracy against Adolf Hitler. In June 1944 he smuggled out a message to Otto John: "Not one of us really knows how long he can resist torture once they start doing their worst." Dohnányi arranged for his wife to smuggle him a dysentery culture. This produced a grave case of the disease that provided periodic relief from the ordeal of interrogation.

According to Louis L. Snyder: "In 1944 immediately after the July Plot and accused of being the instigator of the movement to kill Hitler. Removed from a Gestapo cell, he was taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where his treatment was especially severe. Paralyzed by brutal beatings, he was unable to wash himself or even turn over on his cot." He smuggled out a note to his wife: "I have faith that I will win through, even if the world is full of devils."

On 4th April 1945 the Gestapo discovered the secret diaries of Wilhelm Canaris. Hitler now gave orders for the conspirators to be executed. This information was used in the trial of Dohnányi, Canaris, Hans Oster, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ludwig Gehre and Karl Sack. Oster appeared first and having abandoned hope, admitted everything. Canaris also confessed and the others followed. That evening the court pronounced the death sentence on all the men. That evening Canaris tapped out a final message to the prisoner in the next cell, a Danish secret service officer: "My days are done. Was not a traitor."

Hans Dohnányi was hanged at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp on 9th April 1945. Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern have suggested: "One truth we can affirm: Hitler had no greater, more courageous, and more admirable enemies than Hans von Dohnányi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Both men and those closest to them deserve to be remembered and honored. Dohnanyi summed up their work and spirit with apt simplicity when he said that they were 'on the path that a decent person inevitably takes.' So few traveled that path - anywhere."

Primary Sources

(1) Joachim Fest, Plotting Hitler's Death (1997)

Around September 20, the innermost circle of conspirators met in Oster's apartment for a final conclave: Witzleben, Gisevius, Dohnanyi, and probably Goerdeler, as well as Captain Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz and Lieutenant Commander Franz Maria Liedig. Heinz and Liedig had recently been asked to assemble a special task force, whose precise mission the assembled group now determined. When Halder issued the signal for the coup, the task force, under Witzleben's command, was to overpower the sentries at the main entrance to the Reich Chancellery at 78 Wilhelmstrasse, enter the building, neutralize any resistance, especially from Hitler's bodyguards, and enter Hitler's quarters.

(2) Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, New York Review of Books (25th October, 2012)

In 1929 Dohnanyi entered the Reich Ministry of Justice as an aide to State Secretary Curt Jöel, a strict conservative of Jewish descent; in June 1933 he became assistant to Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner, a conservative non-Nazi lawyer whom Hitler kept on to reassure people that the “law” remained in non-Nazi hands. As Gürtner’s chief assistant Hans was privy to information about the Nazis’ crimes; by 1934 he was keeping a chronological record of them along with supporting documents; these were stored in an army safe at the Zossen military base near Berlin, Hans having been assured of its inviolability. He meant the documents to facilitate the prosecution of Nazi criminals after the end of the regime.

Hans knew that in November 1937 Hitler had presented to the army high command his secret plans to establish a new German-dominated order in Europe. After he got rid, by various vile means, of the top officers he found “unreliable” and presided over the Anschluss with Austria, his next target was Czechoslovakia, the one remaining democracy in Central Europe and militarily strong. Dohnanyi became close to the Wehrmacht officers who were appalled by the prospect of war over Czechoslovakia; they were determined to remove Hitler from power in order to avert his reckless adventure.

The leading figure in this effort was Chief of Staff Ludwig Beck, a patriot of high intelligence and great integrity; Hans also drew close to Colonel Hans Oster, who worked in the Abwehr—military counterintelligence—with its head, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. These conspirators wanted to obtain assurances from Britain that a post-Hitler Germany would be treated generously. But the Anglo-French policy to appease Hitler went into high gear, and at Munich in September 1938 the Western powers virtually compelled the Czechs to surrender to Germany’s demands. This triumph emboldened Hitler, and the regime became more and more violent: Would the Nazis have dared to give the orders for Kristallnacht in November 1938 if they had feared the Western powers? Hans and Dietrich were shaken that autumn night when synagogues burned, the churches remained silent, and 30,000 Jews were herded into concentration camps.

(3) Otto John, Twice Through the Lines (1972)

Roeder in his investigations used methods which we at the time used to call Gestapo methods. I knew that not only from what Frau Dohnanyi and Frau Muller told me after their release. He put them under great mental pressure by threatening to persecute their wives if they did not make statements. I also remember the notes smuggled out of prison by Dohnanyi stating that Roeder would stop at nothing to get his way.

Dohnanyi lived under constant threat that Roeder would hand him over to the Gestapo. I remember this very clearly because that would have led to Dohnanyi being tortured. None of us was under any illusion that subject to such appalling duress he might well be forced to make statements which could jeopardize the entire conspiracy against Hitler.