Hans Dohnanyi was a German attorney and resistance fighter who saved Jews and plotted to assassinate Hitler while working as a high-level advisor in the Nazi regime’s Ministry of Justice.
Hans was born in Vienna in 1902 to Hungarian immigrants who were well-known musicians: his father was a composer and his mother was a concert pianist. Hans grew up in Berlin after his parents’ divorce and went to school with the Bonhoeffer brothers, Dietrich and Klaus, members of a prominent family of intellectuals and Christian theologians. Hans and the Bonhoeffers became close, lifelong friends. Hans studied law in Berlin from 1920 to 1924, and after graduating he passed the bar exam and started working as a lawyer at the Hamburg Senate. He married Christel Bonhoeffer, his friends’ sister, in 1925.
Hans became a prosecutor at the Reich Ministry of Justice in 1929, and within a few years was promoted to high-level government advisor. After Hitler came into power in the early 1930’s, Hans continued working in government, becoming advisor to Hitler’s Minister of Justice, Frank Gurtner. In this role, Hans had high-level security clearance, and interacted with top Nazis including Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and Goring.
The year 1934 was a turning point for Hans. The “Night of the Long Knives” was a bloody purge of Nazi officials believed to threaten Hitler’s power. Eighty-five people are known to have been murdered on Hitler’s orders, and historians estimate the death toll was much higher. More than a thousand perceived political opponents were arrested and many disappeared. The murders were committed extrajudicially, without trial or sentence. At this point, Hans’ eyes were opened to the dangerous immorality of the Nazi regime, and he refused to stand idly by. Hans’ first act of resistance was openly opposing Nazi racial policies, which led Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary and right-hand man, to demote him to a position with less prestige and access to sensitive information.
Hans continued working for the Nazi regime so that he could compile evidence of their egregious human rights abuses. Meanwhile, he connected with other important government and military officials who also opposed Hitler, such as Hans Oster, a general in the Wehrmacht (German army) who was the head of counterintelligence.
In 1942, Hans Dohnanyi arranged for two Jewish lawyers from Berlin, Friedrich Arnold and Julius Fliess, to flee Germany and find safety in Switzerland. Hans forged documents and called in favors from his contacts within Hitler’s own government to save the lives of Arnold, Fliess, and their extended families – thirteen people in total. Hans traveled to Switzerland to make sure the Jewish families were allowed in, and he also provided them with money to support themselves.
Meanwhile, a coup was brewing against Hitler, organized by German army officer Henning von Tresckow. Hans joined those plotting Hitler’s assassination, and he played a crucial role in the scheme. In February 1943, Hans planted a bomb aboard Hitler’s plane while the Fuhrer was visiting the Russian front. Unfortunately, for unknown reasons the bomb failed to go off. The Gestapo never suspected Hans of being involved in the assassination plot, but they were suspicious of his activities and thought he might be helping Jews. On April 5, 1943, Hans Dohnanyi was arrested by the Gestapo on charges of foreign currency violations for transferring funds from Germany to a Swiss bank to help the Jews he’d saved.
The judge, Karl Sack, was a member of the anti-Nazi resistance himself, and he repeatedly delayed Hans’ trial to buy some time. However, in 1944 Hans was sent to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp for political prisoners. While he was there, the Gestapo discovered that he’d been involved in another failed plot to assassinate Hitler, the 20 July Plot. They found some documents implicating Hans, and accused him of being the “spiritual head of the conspiracy.”
Hans was tried before a kangaroo court, and on Hitler’s direct orders he was sentenced to death. On April 8, 1945, Hans Dohnanyi was strangled with a piece of piano wire. His longtime friends, Dietrich and Klaus Bonhoeffer, were also executed that day for their involvement in the assassination plot. Exactly one month later, Germany surrendered and the war in Europe came to an end.
In 2003, Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem honored Hans Dohnanyi as Righteous Among the Nations for saving the Arnold and Fliess families, at great risk to his own life.
For rescuing thirteen Jews from certain death, and for his involvement in two plots to assassinate Hitler which led to his own execution, we honor Hans Dohnanyi as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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