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The Man Who Plotted Against Hitler


I first met Adam von Trott in the porter’s lodge of Balliol in September 1931: we were signing on as new arrivals. I had just been spending a term at Heidelberg in what was to be the last eighteen months of the Weimar Republic. This experience made me curious to get to know the German Rhodes scholars at Oxford and two of them became my friends. One was Adam, the other, Fritz Schumacher (later to become an economist and write Small is Beautiful).

They were friends. Both came from liberal-conservative families: one diplomatic, the other academic. Of the two families, Trott’s was the more freethinking: he had been brought up in the kind of idiosyncratic home where every question of the day was debated, the elder brother, Wernher, arguing as a Marxist, Adam as a Social Democrat.

Trott found the atmosphere of Oxford immediately congenial. He very soon became a popular figure, and a friend of some of the ablest younger dons, such as Isaiah Berlin, Richard Crossman, Maurice Bowra. Then in January 1933 came those events that changed everything: Hitler began to maneuver his way into power. Within weeks, the situation of the German students in Oxford had become subtly transformed. There was henceforth an element of threat in their lives. If they denounced Hitler openly—as Trott had done in his first term at Oxford—they knew what was already happening to people who did so in Germany.

They must have had at least an awareness of physical fear. They could see that the Nazis did not hesitate to put anyone into their new oubliettes. On the other hand, the role of students-turned-émigrés must also have looked uninviting. No one had paid attention to the émigrés from Mussolini’s Italy.

To this situation, Trott’s first reaction, as I recall, was gloom, tempered by challenge. He was, of course, fully aware of what was happening in Germany, particularly to the left, both communist and Social Democrat, and he had no illusions about what would happen to him if he made himself conspicuous. He decided that he would complete his law studies in Germany; and that he would move among his fellow citizens to discover their basic feelings. He was to draw most comfort from the reactions of the Berlin working class. He talked at this time of “not giving the country over to Hitler.”

He also spoke of the hatred that the rest of the world had felt for Germans during the Great War and how Hitler would surely bring this back. He yearned to retain some sense of a common humanity between nations. With Hitler talking of the “master race” and behaving with the utmost brutality, apparently unopposed, it was difficult to maintain this hope. Yet Trott, to the abiding annoyance of some of his British friends, always continued to think, and to speak privately, as if a normal Germany still existed within the Third Reich.

After some three years of this sub-life in Hitler’s regime—which was, at this time, enjoying a popular success partly because of the elimination of the previous unemployment—he began to feel a compulsion to interfere in the course of events. He strongly sensed that the Nazis were moving in a dangerous direction and, still in his twenties, felt a personal obligation to try to stop Germany from taking the world into another war.

By the end of 1936, he had already accepted that popular action against Hitler—the original hope of the German left—was an impossibility. He therefore conceived the plan of making a visit to America and the Far East. His purpose was partly to look at Germany from the outside. But his main concern was to decide what part he himself should play.

By that time, he had heard of discontent among a group of talented Army officers. He already recognized the military as being alone in possessing the means to strike down the regime—but also as being those most inhibited, by their training to obedience, from doing so. So any signs of political allies in that quarter were exciting and sharpened his choice.

That choice was whether to pursue his opposition to the Nazis from inside or from outside Germany. Should he join the opposition he knew was beginning to exist inside the government service and the Army? Or should he try to influence events from outside Germany, using his contacts in England and America?

His long journey to think this out was much beyond his own means. How he managed to finance it shows how highly he was regarded by some experienced men of the world in Britain. One who helped him was Philip Kerr (later Lord Lothian), secretary of the Rhodes Trust. Kerr had himself been a precocious young man. He had been private secretary to the then prime minister, Lloyd George, during the First World War and at the Versailles Conference, when little older than Trott was at this time. He had, incidentally, greatly doubted the wisdom of the punitive clauses of the Versailles Treaty and this later impelled him to interview Hitler to assess their relevance to his thinking.

He was made British ambassador to Washington shortly before the outbreak of the war and, although he had supported Chamberlain’s appeasement policy, Churchill confirmed Lothian in that key post, which he held till he died. His loyalty to Trott extended to meeting him in America (no doubt improperly) after the outbreak of war and giving him all the help he could.

Another backer of his trip was Sir Stafford Cripps (whose son John was another Balliol friend of Trott). Already a highly successful barrister, Cripps was shortly to become leader of the left wing of the Labour Party, together with Aneurin Bevan. He was an outstanding antifascist campaigner, and his advocacy of alignment with the Soviet Union made Churchill choose him as ambassador to Moscow. Cripps helped to finance Trott’s Far Eastern journey out of his own pocket. He was, undoubtedly, Trott’s closest political friend in Great Britain.

With introductions from Lothian and Cripps, Trott made friends in the United States with some highly influential people: for instance, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife; Roger Baldwin, the founder of the civil liberties movement; Edward C. Carter, who organized the Institute for Pacific Relations; and Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, the widely respected theologian and writer on political affairs—who was to defend Trott vigorously when, later, his name came under attack.

It was, in fact, inevitable that Trott should incur American and British official suspicion during this visit to the United States and China. He was pursuing two courses that appeared irreconcilable. On the one hand, he was meeting influential Americans as an anti-Nazi; on the other, he was keeping in regular touch with the German embassy wherever he went. Why did he do this?

The reason was that he was primarily determined to keep open the possibility of returning to Germany, to join the embryonic opposition. He realized that to do this seriously meant being able to get a job in a key government office, such as the Foreign Ministry. Obviously this would be impossible if he had already become openly suspect to the Nazis. Hence, the importance of visits to German embassies.

Such visits were, however, easy to observe, if he was followed by British or American security officers. And this is what happened. Those visits were later to be considered by the American and British security authorities to be conclusive evidence against him.

Meanwhile, Trott was at times tempted not to return to Germany at all. He spoke of seeking an academic post in America. Indeed, when Hitler seemed about to bring about a world war in 1938 at the time of the Munich crisis, Trott became filled with foreboding that war was now inevitable and he spoke of settling in the States and working from there.

His decision to return to Germany to engage in active treason was made quite alone. Moreover, he fully realized that once he made that decision, it would be irresponsible to tell friends what he was intending to do—unless they were themselves actively involved or especially able to help. To whisper to his Oxford friends, for instance, that what he would appear to be doing in Germany was not what he was really doing would endanger his whole purpose and the lives of his fellow conspirators, merely to gain approval.

He chose to tell me of his decision (originally, cryptically in a letter from China) because he needed my help. He knew my parents and he thought that they, as supporters of Chamberlain’s government, were his best hope of making direct contact with that government. And it was throughout to be Trott’s hope to bring about a working partnership between the British government and the opposition inside Germany.

He arrived back from Germany in December 1938—that is to say, shortly after the Munich crisis—and, by the end of that month, he had made a major discovery. Through a friend in the Foreign Ministry, he learned that an oppositional act of the most important kind had already been taken by no less a person than the head of the Foreign Ministry staff, Ernst von Weizsäcker.

This had happened some three months previously, when Hitler was threatening to invade the Sudeten province of Czechoslovakia and there had seemed every probability of a full-scale war. In that event, senior commanders of the German Army, led by the redoubtable General Ludwig Beck, secretly decided to arrest Hitler at the moment that he gave the order to cross the Czech frontier. Their preparations included the movement of an armored division to Thuringia in central Germany, so as to cut off the SS troops stationed in Munich from using the new motorway to reinforce those in Berlin, where the action against the government would be taken. The mutinous generals were, at this time, fully confident that the German public would be greatly relieved to be spared another war and would support them.

The most extraordinary step that these generals took was to ask Weizsäcker to inform the British government of their intention. This meant that they were willing to work with a foreign government against their own government—highly unusual for German senior officers or, indeed, for senior officers of any country. As Weizsäcker proved perfectly willing to deliver their message, the chief officers of the German state, both civil and military, were at this crucial juncture taking part in nothing less than an attempt to overthrow their government.

The transmission of their message to London had to be kept absolutely secret, not only from Hitler’s foreign minister, Ribbentrop, but from everyone else in the diplomatic service, except those whom Weizsäcker trusted personally. The message, therefore, had to reach the British government without passing through the German ambassador in London. So, who should convey it? The British government was, after all, not likely to receive a German diplomat who was not introduced by his own embassy.

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