The German Resistance movement consisted of several disparate political and ideological strands, which represented different classes of German society and were seldom able to work together – indeed for much of the period there was little or no contact between the different strands of resistance. A few civilian resistance groups developed, but the Army was the only organisation with the capacity to overthrow the government, and from within it a small number of officers came to present the most serious threat posed to the Nazi regime. The Foreign Office and the Abwehr (Military Intelligence) also provided vital support to the movement. But many of those in the military who ultimately chose to seek to overthrow Hitler had initially supported the regime, if not all of its methods. Hitler's 1938 purge of the military was accompanied by increased militancy in the Nazification of Germany, a sharp intensification of the persecution of Jews, homosexuals, communists, socialists, and trade union leaders and aggressive foreign policy, bringing Germany to the brink of war and it was at this time that the German Resistance emerged.
The Resistance members were motivated by such factors as the mistreatment of Jews, harassment of the churches, and the harsh actions of Himmler and the Gestapo. In his history of the German Resistance, Peter Hoffmann wrote that "National Socialism was not simply a party like any other; with its total acceptance of criminality it was an incarnation of evil, so that all those whose minds were attuned to democracy, Christianity, freedom, humanity or even mere legality found themselves forced into alliance...".
One strand was the underground networks of the banned Social Democrats (SPD) and Communists (KPD), such as the SPD activist Julius Leber, who was an active resistance figure. There was also resistance from the anarcho-syndicalist group the Freie Arbeiter Union (FAUD), that distributed anti-Nazi propaganda and assisted people in fleeing the country. Another group, the Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle), consisted of anti-fascists, communists, and an American woman. The individuals in this group began to assist their Jewish friends as early as 1933.
Another strand was resistance coming from members of the Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant. Their stance was symbolically significant. The churches, as institutions, did not openly advocate for the overthrow of the Nazi state, but they remained one of the very few German institutions to retain some independence from the state, and were thus able to continue to co-ordinate a level of opposition to Government policies. They resisted the regime's efforts to intrude on ecclesiastical autonomy, but from the beginning, a minority of clergymen expressed broader reservations about the new order, and gradually their criticisms came to form a "coherent, systematic critique of many of the teachings of National Socialism". Some priests - such as the Jesuits Alfred Delp and Augustin Rösch and the Lutheran preacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer - were active and influential within the clandestine German Resistance, while figures such as Protestant Pastor Martin Niemöller (who founded the Confessing Church), and the Catholic Bishop August von Galen (who denounced Nazi euthanasia and lawlessness), offered some of the most trenchant public criticism of the Third Reich - not only against intrusions by the regime into church governance and to arrests of clergy and expropriation of church property, but also to the fundamentals of human rights and justice as the foundation of a political system. Their example inspired some acts of overt resistance, such as that of the White Rose student group in Munich, and provided moral stimulus and guidance for various leading figures in the political Resistance.
A third strand might be called the "unorganized resistance": individual Germans or small groups of people acting in defiance of government policies or orders, or in ways seen as subversive of the Nazi system. Most notably, these included a significant number of Germans who helped Jews survive the Nazi Holocaust by hiding them, obtaining papers for them or in other ways aiding them. More than 300 Germans have been recognised for this. It also included, particularly in the later years of the regime, informal networks of young Germans who evaded serving in the Hitler Youth and defied the cultural policies of the Nazis in various ways.
Finally, there was the resistance network within the German Army, the Foreign Office and the Abwehr, the military intelligence organization. These groups hatched conspiracies against Hitler in 1938 and again in 1939, but for a variety of reasons could not implement their plans. After the German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, they contacted many army officers who were convinced that Hitler was leading Germany to disaster, although fewer who were willing to engage in overt resistance. Active resisters in this group were frequently drawn from members of the Prussian aristocracy.
Almost every community in Germany had members taken away to concentration camps. As early as 1935 there were jingles warning:
"Dear Lord God, keep me quiet, so that I don't end up in Dachau." (It almost rhymes in German: Lieber Herr Gott mach mich stumm / Daß ich nicht nach Dachau komm.) "Dachau" refers to the Dachau concentration camp. This is a parody of a common German children's prayer, "Lieber Gott mach mich fromm, daß ich in den Himmel komm." ("Dear God, keep me pious, so I go to Heaven")