Book Reviews
Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany - Nathan Stoltzfus

New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996. Pp. xxix + 386. Cloth $30.00. ISBN 0-393-03904-8.

Book Review, H-Net June 18, 1997
Reviewed for H-German by Richard S. Levy, U. of I. Chicago/History (m/c 198) 601 S Morgan, Chicago, IL 60607-7109, Phone: (312) 413-9356 (voice mail) Fax: (773)525-8740 email:

Nathan Stoltzfus tells the little-attended-to story of the German women who rescued their husbands from deportation and death in early 1943. Swept up from their forced labor jobs in what was meant to be the Final Roundup in the national capital, 1700-2000 Jews, mostly men married to non-Jewish women, were separated from the 6000 other victims of the Gestapo and SS and herded into Rosenstraße 2-4, a welfare office for the Jewish community in central Berlin. Because these Jews had German relatives, many of them highly connected, Adolf Eichmann hoped that segregating them from the others would convince family members that their loved ones were being sent to labor camps rather than to more ominous destinations in occupied Poland. Normally, those arrested remained in custody for two days before being loaded onto trains for the East. Before that could happen in this case, however, wives and other relatives got wind of what was happening and appeared at the Rosenstraße address, first in ones and twos, and then in ever-growing numbers. Perhaps as many as six thousand participated in the protest, although not all at the same time. Women demanded back their husbands, day after day, for a week. Unarmed, unorganized, and leaderless, they faced down the most brutal forces at the disposal of the Third Reich. Goebbels, Gauleiter of Berlin and anxious to have it racially cleansed, was also in charge of the nation's public morale. On both counts he was worried about the possible repercussions of the women's actions. Rather than inviting more open dissent by shooting the women down in the streets and fearful of jeopardizing the secrecy of the Final Solution, Goebbels with Hitler's concurrence released the Rosenstraße prisoners and also ordered the return of twenty-five of them already sent to Auschwitz. To both men, the decision was a mere postponement of the inevitable. But they were mistaken. Almost all of those released survived the war. The women won an astonishing victory over the forces of destruction.

All this Stoltzfus relates in about ten pages of the introduction, and the reader waits another two hundred pages to return to the scene of the protest. The reconstruction of the episode for the sake of its human drama or its moral uplift is clearly not the author's main purpose. He wants to explain it. Before admirably achieving this end, Stoltzfus engages the reader in a searching analysis of marriage, family, politics, and the possibilities of resistance in the Third Reich. He accomplishes one of the historian's major tasks -- contextualization -- with rare brilliance. By the time the book returns to Rosenstraße, readers are in far better position to understand the meaning of that event and thus to deepen their admiration for this tale of courage. It is not often that a book can inspire and instruct at the same time. The Fraenkel Prize has been well bestowed.

Although the author conducted numerous interviews with surviving participants, as well as with a high functionary in Goebbels' ministry and two members of the Berlin Gestapo, the all-important analysis of the social limitations on Hitler's dictatorship does not really emerge from this evidence. Oral testimony buttresses the presentation, illustrates its key points, or calls into question older historical conceptions Stoltzfus finds untenable. He is respectful enough of his human sources to let them speak, even when their remembered experiences do not directly contribute to the argument. But at times the oral history component of the book is made to bear too much of the weight for far-reaching assumptions and conclusions about the nature of the Third Reich.

Only a few of these conclusions can be discussed in the space allotted here. Stoltzfus's central assumption is that the Nazi regime constantly faced the difficult problem of balancing ideological imperatives with the maintenance of social peace, accommodation, and consensus. Hitler placed great emphasis on winning the support of Germans. Terror was never conceived of as the best means of achieving the perfectly united Volk or even the lesser goal of extorting its compliance. The problem of Jews in intermarriages, especially vexing for the regime, must be seen in this context. In the occupied East, those in charge of the Final Solution did not hesitate to wrest Jews from such marriages and consign them to death; sometimes non-Jewish spouses were killed as well. This was not acceptable in the old Reich. Neither the Nuremberg Laws, several subsequent draft decrees, nor various bureaucratic initiatives dared to interfere with the traditional institutions of marriage and family for fear of provoking unrest. Thus, the problems of Mischlinge (half and quarter-Jews) and Jews married to "Aryans," living mostly in Berlin by 1943, plagued the Gestapo, the RSHA, and Goebbels in his dual capacity. These Jews had not been abandoned, despite the best efforts of Nazis and civil servants. Stoltzfus contrasts them to those Jews without German relatives, the ones who had been totally isolated by German society -- more thoroughly so than any police agency could have enforced. Such isolation, he says repeatedly, was the prelude to certain death, the "critical foundation of genocide" (261). (Readers looking for the antidote to Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners will not find much solace here. The evidence of gratuitous cruelty and self-interested persecution on the part of ordinary Germans -- uncoerced by government -- is abundant in the oral testimony.)

When in February 1943 Goebbels decided to risk seizing and deporting all the Jews left in Berlin, even those married to Germans, he was met by women who had already endured years of harassment. Defined as members of "Jewish households," they became chief breadwinners as their husbands' incomes dwindled away; they took over the task of representing the family in the outside world, learned to evade the endless regulations designed to make married life unbearable, and defended themselves and their husbands against informal but intense social pressure. In the process they were toughened. Despite all the incentives to do so, very few divorced. These are the personal factors that Stoltzfus adduces to explain their victory. But there were larger causes as well. The protest came at a particularly perilous time for the Nazis. The debacle at Stalingrad, the fear that dissent might spread beyond those immediately affected, the crucial role of women in the maintenance of public support, the scrutiny of foreigners -- the demonstration was reported on the BBC -- all persuaded Goebbels to cut his losses and give in. Byzantine politics among Hitler's upper level functionaries may also have contributed to the retreat.

Stoltzfus attempts to disarm critics who might be inclined to see the Rosenstraße protest as a small, exceptional demonstration to which the regime bowed so that it could better pursue its larger purposes. After all, the women had no political agenda and did not envision an overthrow of the regime. They acted on a single issue in an obviously uncalculated way. By releasing the 1700 Jews, at least temporarily, the protest could be defused "cheaply" and the genocide could go on out of view and undisturbed. Such a small event proves nothing about the resistibility of the Final Solution because a larger protest might well have been answered with brutal force (261). Stoltzfus admits that one of the key problems in the evaluation of the Rosenstraße episode is its singularity. There is little in the way of resistance, dissent, or protest to compare it to, especially when more organized Catholics and workers are left out of consideration. Nevertheless, he makes a convincing case that the "history of intermarriage is substantial additional evidence that the Nazi dictatorship backed down when it encountered overt mass protest...that it relented, in small numbers, even on the issue constituting the core of its ideology" (266). Women unmistakably succeeded in modifying the behavior of the regime. Comparing these singular Germans to the rest of the population, Stoltzfus arrives at the stark conclusion: Germans did not fully exploit their chances for noncompliance. Even if they did not fathom the ultimate design of the Final Solution, their accommodation to official and unofficial oppression of Jews encouraged genocide.

Copyright © 1997 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied in whole or in part, with proper attribution, as long as the copying is not-for-profit "fair use" for research, commentary, study, or teaching. For other permission, please contact

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.