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The Conspiracy That Failed

Plotting Hitler’s Death: The Story of the German Resistance

by Joachim Fest, translated by Bruce Little
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 419 pp., $30.00

The Unnecessary War: Whitehall and the German Resistance to Hitler

by Patricia Meehan
London: Sinclair-Stevenson (out of print)

Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944

by Peter Hoffmann
Cambridge University Press, 424 pp., $39.95

American Intelligence and the German Resistance to Hitler: A Documentary History

edited by Jürgen Heideking, edited by Christof Mauch
Westview Press, 457 pp., $35.00

The Unseen War in Europe: Espionage and Conspiracy in the Second World War

by John H. Waller
Random House, 475 pp., $35.00

Changing Enemies: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany

by Noel Annan
Norton, 266 pp., $27.50


Following the surrender of May 1945, American intelligence officers swarmed over the carcass of defeated Germany, searching for the lessons of the war. Among their reports was one compiled by US Army counterintelligence officers on “The Political and Social Background of the 20 July Incident”—the failed attempt by German military conspirators to assassinate Hitler in 1944—which concluded:

If the plot…had succeeded it would have undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers and the victors would have found Germany and Europe in a far better condition that it is in now. On the other hand the total defeat of Germany seems a far better guarantee for world security…

Total defeat is certainly what Germany experienced. Indeed, few nations in history, perhaps only Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War, have suffered military defeat so vast and so devastating. By war’s end over 7.5 million German soldiers and civilians had died, cities had been bombed flat, Hitler and many of his associates had committed suicide while hundreds of other Nazi leaders were in custody, awaiting trial for crimes against humanity and against peace. Large parcels of German territory were severed immediately—the former Austria restored to independence, part of East Prussia and German territory east of the Oder and Neisse rivers given to the revived state of Poland. At least twelve million Germans were expelled from their homes in the east and relocated in a shrunken Germany administered by four occupying armies.

While these huge population shifts were occurring, the eastern third of the truncated country held by the Soviet Union was first stripped of industrial machinery, raw materials, and plundered art works and later cut off entirely to form a new nation ruled in all but name by the Soviets for nearly fifty years. Much of the German population was forced to undergo a humiliating exercise in self-justification called “de-Nazification,” arbitrarily and inequitably imposed, and the very word “German” seemed to become a synonym for cruelty and villainy as the full magnitude of Hitler’s genocide against the Jews gradually emerged.

The Germany that resulted from this unprecedented ordeal was a whipped and beaten country, timid in international affairs, anxious to reassure its new allies that it harbored no grievances, posed no challenge, had relinquished all claim to its lost territories, would never again disturb the peace of Europe. In short, the crushing military defeat of 1945 once and for all replaced the overweening Germany of the Kaisers and the barbarous Germany of the Third Reich with a chastened state eager to be accepted as a model citizen in the European community of nations. This, presumably, was among the goals sought by the wartime Allies at Casablanca in 1943 when they solved the problem of conflicting war aims by agreeing to accept nothing short of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Time enough, they felt, to decide what the war was about after it was over.

The cost of inflicting this defeat was high on all sides. But the Germans had little claim on the world’s sympathy in 1945, despite their terrible losses in the last year of the war. Millions of Jews, Poles, and Russians died between July 20, 1944, and the war’s end nine and a half months later, along with many thousands of British, Italians, French, Americans, Netherlanders, and others. It is difficult to know what would have followed a successful assassination of Hitler in mid-1944, but it is at the very least possible that the organized killing of Jews would have halted, that the Nazis would have been deposed, and that the war would have come to an end before the winter of 1944-1945. What is striking about several new books on what is now generally called “the German Resistance” is the complete absence of any evidence that Allied intelligence officers who watched the conspiracy against Hitler unfold, or their policy-making superiors, ever asked themselves in a serious way whether the conspirators’ success and an early end to the war might be a good thing, and ought to be encouraged.

The history of the German resistance has been publicly known in general outline since the appearance of three books immediately after the war—two memoirs by conspirators who miraculously survived, Fabian von Schlabrendorff and Hans Bernd Gisevius, and a brief but remarkably full account published by Allen Dulles, the wartime OSS chief of station in the neutral capital of Bern, Switzerland, where he established close relations with members of the resistance soon after arriving in November 1942.1 Over the years scholars have added much supporting detail to the basic story, allowing us to track the various strands of resistance activity almost day by day. This vast literature has now been drawn upon by a well-known German historian of the Third Reich, Joachim Fest, for an authoritative new account of the events leading to July 20, Plotting Hitler’s Death: The Story of the German Resistance. What distinguishes Fest’s account is his calm and assured command of the large cast of conspirators and of the complex unfolding of events in what is probably the only example in modern European history of an organized attempt to assassinate the ruler of a state because he was evil.

Of the many circles of those who opposed Hitler during the 1930s three may be identified as central to the events of July 20—a group of religious and philosophical opponents centering on Helmuth von Moltke, a great-grandnephew of the famous nineteenth-century general, whose ancestral estate in Silesia (now part of Poland) gave the group its name, “the Kreisau circle”; the nexus of German Foreign Office and military intelligence officials around Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, commander of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, and his close ally in the Foreign Office, Ernst von Weizsäcker; and a loosely knit, constantly fluctuating group of civilian politicians and high-ranking military officers centering on the former mayor of Leipzig, Carl Goerdeler, and General Ludwig Beck, who resigned as Army chief of staff in 1938 in protest against Hitler’s planned invasion of Czechoslovakia. Throughout the war, keeping pace with events, these overlapping groups grew from a few dozen individuals at the core to hundreds.

Any attempt to understand this extraordinary ferment of resistance at the heart of wartime Germany must begin with the recognition of two facts. The first is that just about everybody who played a central role was arrested and executed after July 20, some in the final days of the war. One of the leading historians of the resistance, Peter Hoffman of McGill University in Canada, has estimated the total number of executions resulting from the failed assassination attempt at two hundred. Fest in his book provides brief biographies of nearly sixty plotters, many of which end laconically with the phrase “executed in Plötzensee prison on [date].” Equally important in understanding the resistance is the second fact that the sacrifice of lives, considered narrowly, was in vain; virtually nothing the resistance attempted either stopped or hindered Hitler in anything he wanted to do, from making war in the first place to killing the Jews.

Opposition to Hitler was evident from the day he took power in 1933 but organized attempts to kill or depose him did not begin until the late 1930s, as it became increasingly apparent that Hitler’s policies were bound to bring on a catastrophic war. In September 1938 a realistic and well-organized attempt to mount a military coup under favorable circumstances never to be repeated was thwarted at the eleventh hour by the abject surrender of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to Hitler’s demands for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. The role played by the German diplomat Adam von Trott in the fall of 1938 was described in these pages2 by David Astor, who remarked that “no one seems to know what happened at the British end of this tragic story.” The omission has recently been made good by the British television journalist Patricia Meehan in The Unnecessary War, her thoroughly researched and well-written account of British dealings with the German resistance, in which she records the failure of leading British officials to recognize and exploit the chance they were given to stop Hitler before war had begun.3 The moral bankruptcy of Chamberlain’s policy of “appeasement” has long been accepted; Meehan provides many painful details of the process of surrender.

In March 1938 Hitler had occupied and absorbed Austria, then immediately began shouting demands of Czechoslovakia for its ill treatment of a German minority in the Sudetenland. Alexander Cadogan, the permanent head of the Foreign Office, wrote in his diary at the time, “Czechoslovakia is not worth the bones of a single Grenadier.” Chamberlain agreed. But in Germany a group of alarmed Wehrmacht officers around General Beck and General Franz Halder, who succeeded Beck as Army chief of staff, feared that the invasion of Czechoslovakia secretly ordered by Hitler would lead to a general European war.

By September, as the crisis mounted toward its climax, Halder had organized a military coup to take place as soon as Hitler issued the order to invade. A Panzer division would enter Berlin under the command of General Erwin von Witzleben. The takeover would be aided by the prefect of the Berlin police, Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf, and his deputy Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg. The generals planned Hitler’s arrest and trial but some of their allies, like Canaris’s deputy in the Abwehr, Colonel Hans Oster, quietly planned to have Hitler shot out of hand. When the Panzers arrived at the Reich Chancellery, where Hitler had his office, the building’s huge double doors would be opened by Erich Kordt, a trusted assistant to Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop.

The conspirators knew that Hitler planned to go to war if he did not get his way in Czechoslovakia, and they believed that both the army and the people would support Hitler’s overthrow if it was the only way to avoid war. The conspirators’ plans depended therefore on a genuine threat of war, and that depended in turn on the fortitude of the British. To ensure that London would play its part, the chief German Foreign Office conspirator, Ernst von Weizsäcker, arranged a back-channel contact with British leaders through Erich Kordt in Ribbentrop’s office, and his brother, Theo, who was attached to the German embassy in London. In September, Theo Kordt, acting on instructions from Erich Kordt, delivered by a cousin, met with Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, and urged the British to stand firm while hinting at the plans for a coup: “I am in a position to assure you that the political and military circles I am speaking for will ‘take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.”’ But despite knowing of this and other contacts, Chamberlain, in Scotland for the annual grouse shooting, could not steel himself for the blunt public challenge the German conspirators wanted. He wrote to his advisors that if Hitler marched “a very serious situation would arise and it might be necessary then to call ministers together to consider it. But I have a notion that it won’t come to that….” These are not the words of a man who needed to be taken seriously.

  1. 1

    Schlabrendorff, Revolt Against Hitler (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1948), later expanded and reissued as The Secret War Against Hitler (London: Pittman, 1965); Gisevius, To the Bitter End (Houghton Mifflin, 1947); and Dulles, Germany’s Underground (Macmillan, 1947).

  2. 2

    The Man Who Plotted Against Hitler,” The New York Review, April 28, 1983, pp. 16-21.

  3. 3

    The strength of Meehan’s book is its thorough mining of British Foreign Office records, documenting the perverse attitude which dismissed information from the resistance as unreliable because its sources were “anti-Nazi.”

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