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Hitler: Hard to Resist

On July 20, 1944, with the Russians fewer than a hundred miles to the east and the Western Allies known by the Wehrmacht to be on the verge of a breakthrough in Normandy, a professional German army officer of great courage and determination, Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, left his briefcase in the hut at the East Prussia headquarters (Wolfschanze) where Hitler and his generals were assembling for the noonday briefing, and went out, ostensibly to make a telephone call. Minutes later a captured British-made explosive in the briefcase went off with a terrific bang, killing four officers but leaving Hitler physically more or less undamaged. It was Stauffenberg’s third try.

In Berlin, meantime, Stauffenberg’s fellow conspirators at the headquarters of the German Replacement (i.e., Reserve) Army on the Bendlerstrasse, Lieutenant-General Fritz Thiele and General Friedrich Olbricht, were waiting to set in motion the troops, seize the installations, make the arrests, and dispatch the messages calling for similar action throughout the shrinking German empire which would oust the Nazis and establish military rule by the Wehrmacht. But the news they now got from East Prussia seemed confusing, so they went out to lunch and did not get back until 3 PM.

Court Stauffenberg, not without luck and difficulty, got by the perimeter guards around Hitler’s headquarters and back to Berlin in a special plane which he had standing by. On arriving, he had some trouble getting a car, but in late afternoon arrived at the Bendlerstrasse, since renamed the Stauffenbergstrasse. Here, as chief of staff of the Replacement Army, he managed for a while to make things move. Two of the major Berlin radio stations were occupied, although, unfortunately, by men who did not know how to turn off the broadcasts. An officer was sent to arrest Goebbels, the highest Nazi currently in town, but was talked out of the action. Telexes were dispatched to the headquarters of the Wehrkreise (regional defense districts) into which Germany and Austria were divided and to Brussels, Paris, and Prague. These alerted the scratch forces there available to the regional military commanders and ordered the arrest of Gauleiters, top SS officers, Gestapo officials, and other inimical types. Unfortunately it seemed only proper that orders overthrowing a government should go out TOP SECRET, though it was hardly something that could be kept quiet for very long, and this meant major coding and decoding delays and, at the points of receipt, the need to find officers of sufficient rank to read them.

It was early evening before the messages were in hand, and by then most of the headquarters had shut shop for the day and the responsible officers were variously attending receptions, shooting dice, having a drink, or en route and unavailable. The Gauleiters had similarly bunged off. One was celebrating his tenth and visibly last anniversary in office, another was at a funeral, and Frank, the Nazi minister in Prague, was at a ceremony opening an SS training school, as was the general ordered to arrest him. German efficiency and attention to duty were everywhere at full flood. So, except in Paris, where Gestapo, SS, and Party officials were taken into custody, nothing much happened.

Meanwhile the people in East Prussia, proceeding in only slightly less confusion, had come to realize that something more than an assassination attempt was involved and were getting out word that orders from Berlin should be ignored. Finally Hitler went on the air to prove that he was still alive, and it was all over. On the Bendlerstrasse Colonel-General Friedrich Fromm, the commander of the Replacement Army, though he had previously shown sympathy for the conspirators, had thought it wise to sit out the afternoon under detention in his office. Now with the first display of determination of the day he resumed command, convened a court martial, had the conspirators (including, of course, Stauffenberg) convicted, one gathers in a matter of minutes, and taken down to the courtyard and shot. (Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, who was scheduled to be interim head of the new government, first tried without success to shoot himself.) Management was still sloppy. The insurgents were buried in their uniforms with their medals. In consequence, to preserve proper indignity, they had to be dug up again next day and burned.

There followed, in the ensuing weeks, a ferocious massacre of those of the conspirators who did not anticipate their own execution. Among the casualties was General Fromm, who was bumped off for cowardice. Nazi justice was not always imprecise. Justice of another sort was even visited on Dr. Roland Freisler, the unspeakable Nazi judge (so-called) who dispatched the top participants. While he was engaged in handing out automatic death sentences—usually by hanging on a rope over a hook—the courthouse was brought down on him by a bomb. The executions continued at an informal level quite literally up to the week of the surrender in 1945.

While the action of July 20 was largely confined to the army, the conspiracy extended to a group of conservative and aristocratic civilians and on to a number of moderate (and a few romantic) socialists. There were overtures to the Communists, who had their own operation, but this association was limited by the extreme distaste of the conspirators for such people and the very great hope of many, though it dwindled as the war continued, that with Hitler out of the way the Western Allies would join in a gleeful way in a march against the USSR.

The story just recounted was of the supreme and, in some respects, the only moment of the German resistance to Hitler. It has been told before, and another ordinary account would hardly be needed. But Professor Peter Hoffmann—he is a German by birth and early education who has studied and taught in the United States and is now professor of German history at McGill—has made it impossible for anyone ever to deal with the subject again, although no doubt some will try. He has researched the July 20 events in Berlin, East Prussia, the provinces and in Prague, Brussels, Vienna, and Paris down to the last minute and sergeant. And he has gone into all of the antecedent efforts and conversations going back to 1933. The Times Literary Supplement, reviewing the German original, said that it was “the essential, and surely final, handbook” on the subject, and the words—essential, final, handbook—are all well chosen.

If the detail is sometimes stupefying, it is also richly illuminating. In recent times an offensively imaginative revisionism has come to suggest that Hitler was a political and military genius who, in his lofty and statesmanlike way, was only marginally aware of the butchery of the Jews and the Poles. Much of this book consists of the case which German civilians and generals made to each other for deleting Hitler. They were not in the slightest doubt as to what his brainless military megalomania was doing to Germany or what he personally was doing to the Eastern peoples and the Jews. Indeed, Professor Hoffmann’s book accumulates into one of the most horrifying pictures of Hitler yet. One shudders as always that such a mad criminal could get loose with such a pack in a civilized country in this century.

At a less ominous level, Professor Hoffmann’s detail shows the extraordinary autonomy of the German Army in managing its own affairs and in keeping its own secrets. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of high officers, including a brace of field marshals, knew of the efforts to put out a contract on the Führer. Individuals were assigned and reassigned to facilitate the operation. The reaction was slow at Wolfschanze because the people there had no hint of the subversion. All who examined German wartime management, without, I believe, any qualified exception, were struck by its dreary, unimaginative incompetence.* Professor Hoffmann shows that this extended to the field where the greatest expertise was imagined, namely political repression.

At the least ominous level of all, Professor Hoffmann gives a superb, often grimly funny picture of the folk habits of the German officer class as it then was and of their aristocratic civilian counterparts. One forthright thought for giving Hitler the business in 1943 was to pull a gun on him while he was lunching with officers during a visit to the Eastern Front. Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge had to be warned so that he would keep out of the line of fire. (Kluge was passively sympathetic and after July 20 committed suicide to keep off the meat hooks.) He vetoed the method, saying “It was not seemly to shoot a man at lunch,” and adding that there might be casualties among “senior officers [including himself] who would have to be there and who could not be spared if the front was to be held.” Partly because there was nothing else they could do, the civilian members of the conspiracy spent their time drawing up lists of future cabinet officers, which later were a great gift to the Gestapo, and getting into the least pressing details of post-Nazi policy. At one session they considered policy on the multinational corporation, and, on June 21, 1943, Leber, a regular socialist leader, “met with Lukaschek, Husen and Yorck of the ‘Kreisau Circle’ at Yorck’s house; they discussed the important question of church and state schools and Leber accepted the right of parents to choose.”

The military discussion, almost continuous after 1933, of ways and means of eliminating Hitler was also, I would judge, mostly a substitute for action. Any excuse ranging from an officer becoming unavailable because of a new posting, to Neville Chamberlain flying to Berchtesgaden, to the unconditional surrender formula would cause a contemplated action to be postponed. Professor Hoffmann does not entirely agree with my view. He wants to think well of the plotters, and this causes him to take their intentions more seriously than he should.

Professor Hoffman does not, however, leave anyone in doubt about the deeply ambiguous mood of those actively involved in the conspiracy. Some like Fromm were caught between the pressure to do right and the equal or deeper impulse to save their ass. But more, it is plain, were caught up in the conflict that besets all organization men—the same conflict that is faced by a Gulf Oil executive contemplating a political slush fund or a General Motors man seeing a clandestine engine switch, or that was the private trauma of numerous State Department and Pentagon officials contending with the war in Vietnam. But the difference in degree in Nazi Germany was enormous. Hitler and the Nazis were avowedly a throwback to Attila (whose Stauffenberg was the equally unsuccessful Vigilas), and with no real disguising social or moral purpose. And for the officers the ancient Prussian mystique of the state and the powerful tradition of disciplined military service made dissent uniquely difficult. Americans, Englishmen, or Frenchmen would not more easily have resolved such a conflict. The Latin American military golpe is entered upon easily, for the underlying conditions are almost exactly the reverse. The state has no similar prestige; the Latin American army is not a disciplined organization but a loose association of more or less ambitious individuals. There is no personal crisis of loyalty or discipline in acting to throw out a government. It also helps, no doubt, that failure can usually be survived.

Withal, as Professor Hoffmann shows more clearly than anyone has before, the July 20 effort was a near thing. Among the high Nazis the handwriting of defeat was being read. As nearly as one can ever be certain on such matters, there was no one capable of gathering authority in his hands, taking even the feeble action that would have been required to put down the revolt and showing the much greater strength that in face of certain defeat would have been required to carry on. In Berlin, when threatened with arrest, even Goebbels fingered his cyanide pills. In Paris, where the military end was most clearly in view, the SS leaders and Party officials surrendered readily to the army and cooperated as far as possible afterward in keeping word of what had happened from Berlin.

Count Stauffenberg, as the result of wounds received in North Africa, was without one arm and a couple of fingers on the other hand. While getting the explosive organized in his briefcase a few minutes before the explosion, he was interrupted and had to sacrifice half the charge. (He managed to throw it out of the car on the way to the plane.) Had the explosion been twice as strong, it is not credible that even Hitler would have expected to survive. Without his mindless desperation, National Socialism would have come to an end that day. There would have been a different set of German leaders to reckon with in the years following, and the relations between the West and the Soviet Union would also have been interesting. Assuming, as I would, that the British and Americans rejected the overtures that would surely have come, the Western Front would hardly have been held by the Germans with the same determination as that in the east. Certainly there would have been no winter offensive in the Ardennes if the war had lasted that long. Europe and our relations with the Soviets would have been very different, but this is not a line of speculation that should be pursued. Not even the massed wisdom on Russia of the Committee on the Current Danger could now tell us how things would have been changed and by how much.

I first heard of the July 20 affair, newspaper accounts and speculation around military headquarters apart, from Albert Speer in May 1945. He was then a minister in the government of Admiral Dönitz, which, in a manner of speaking, was still functioning in Flensburg on the Danish border, and we were interrogating him on the effect of the air attacks on arms production and related matters having to do with the German war economy. He spoke of the participants—my memory is not completely firm on the point—as conservative, parochial, and without much mass appeal. I remember more clearly his criticism of their penchant for lists, for his name had appeared on one, and for some weeks, in consequence, he had been regarded in a thoughtful way by the Gestapo. On one of the lists in Professor Hoffmann’s book Speer continues in charge of armaments, although it is noted that his agreement has yet to be obtained. That anyone so close to Hitler, both personally and officially, would be thought an acceptable figure in a future government is further indication of the ambiguity of the enterprise.

During the course of that summer it became a joke among Allied personnel in Germany that July 20 must have been the largest conspiracy in history, for it embraced the entire German population. It was true that scarcely a general came into our hands who had not, by his voluble account, been deeply involved. However, Professor Hoffmann shows that, at the level of conversation, most had—we were right only in our guess that the operational importance of most people’s participation increased greatly after the surrender.

There was also a parallel desire by the Nazis to detach from the ensuing slaughter. In June or early July we were interrogating Göring, Ribbentrop, Funk, Ley, and the top Nazi generals at the special high-level jail called Ashcan which had been established in Luxembourg. Because the war crimes investigators—the Donovan Committee—had no similar personnel and access, we had been asked to get various of the people we were interrogating on the record as to their more odious achievements. Field Marshal Keitel had presided over the Wehrmacht honor court that turned the conspiring generals over to Freisler for execution. He was asked how many had been so consigned. A man of comfortably obtuse manner, somewhat resembling a terminal career case at the vicepresidential level in Chase Manhattan, he replied that there had been none. He was then reminded of the condign punishment, possibly enhanced for the occasion, that, according to regulations, awaited those who supplied false information to the occupation forces. He asked for time to think, for him an obviously difficult and time-consuming exercise, and came up with a revised estimate of a dozen or two.

Someone on our team expressed astonishment at the humanity and restraint that he had shown, and later that evening he approached us on our way from another interrogation, fingering a piece of paper. There had been a further upward revision, this time to several score. The Field Marshal too had been caught in a conflict—this between the consequences of lying and the consequences of truth. Hoffmann puts the number of executions resulting directly from the July 20 events at around 200. However, the official records show that 5,764 Germans were executed in 1944, and the number was also high in 1945 after the counting came to an end. Some of these got it for the conspiracy, and quite a few more were done away with in the camps or elsewhere without achieving the dignity of being a statistic.

My final memory of these matters in that electric summer was of returning to our headquarters at Bad Nauheim near Frankfurt from a trip (as I recall) to Hamburg. It was a few days before the British election, and on my arrival, George Ball, one of my fellow directors of the US Strategic Bombing Survey, told me with much delight that an unresolvable choice between military responsibility and political faith awaited me.

Earlier that day, Nicholas Kaldor, the noted economist, now Lord Kaldor, and then a civilian recruit to our staff, together with Kurt Martin, another distinguished political economist who shared Kaldor’s strong social democratic views, had interrogated Colonel-General Franz Halder. Halder had told them in rich and unduly firm detail of the plans of the army to take over the Reich in September 1938, to forestall war over the Sudetenland. All the generals were set for the action when, on September 15, news came that Neville Chamberlain was flying to Berchtesgaden. This meant that the British were caving in. Kaldor and Martin wanted orders allowing them to fly to London by military courier plane—the only transportation available—to give the news to Clement Attlee for an election speech. Tory appeasement had been the cause of a wholly unnecessary war. With that news Attlee would be sure to win. I went to face Nicky; the argument went on for hours.

I too wanted to see Attlee win. But if I allowed American army transport to be used for so flagrant a political purpose, the blame and punishment would fall on me and not Kaldor. I also doubted that Attlee would use the information. Churchill had been anything but an appeaser; mention of the plot would have brought from him a terrifying rebuttal. “And to whom are my opponents now turning for support? They are turning to the defeated Naaa-zzi generals.”

But my real commitment, also, was to the organization ethic. When I confessed this to Kaldor, he was distraught and deeply disappointed by my lack of character. However, a lifetime of enmity and recrimination was avoided when, a few days later, Attlee won anyway. Kaldor and I have been close friends ever since. Professor Hoffmann makes it clear that my supine course was really an act of democratic virtue. For if Kaldor had gone and if Attlee had used the information, it would have been a terrible fraud on the British electorate. Halder and Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, the Army commander-in-chief whose participation was also needed, were, as Professor Hoffmann shows, the ultimate in ambiguity and reluctance. Had it not been the trip to Berchtesgaden, they would, it is absolutely certain, have found some other reason for bugging out.


Reluctant Resistance? February 9, 1978

  1. *

    Dealt with in Burton Klein’s Germany’s Economic Preparation For War (Harvard University Press, 1959). Further documentation is in the several reports of the US Strategic Bombing Survey 1945-1946, of which I was a director. On returning from Germany in 1945, I wrote a piece for Fortune entitled “Germany was Badly Run” (Fortune, December 1945).

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