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Conspiring Against Hitler

In response to:

The Conspiracy That Failed from the January 9, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

May I add a word to your admirable review by Thomas Powers [NYR, January 9] of recent books on the German conspiracy against Hitler?

He writes of two German visitors with urgent messages who arrived in London in June-July 1939. One was Adam von Trott: the other, Colonel Gerd von Schwerin. I had known the former as a close friend for eight years since our Oxford days. The latter I knew during his short London stay.

As Mr. Powers says, they were offering the British apparently contradictory advice. Trott was urging that it was all-important that the outbreak of war should be delayed, even if this meant more negotiations with Hitler. Schwerin was emphasising that Hitler did not yet believe the British would go to war over Poland and could only be convinced if the British took active steps, such as moving RAF planes to French airfields.

Mr. Powers found Trott’s message “an anomaly” and “diametrically opposed” to that of Schwerin. I am sure that their “carrot and stick” approaches were complementary. Trott knew of Schwerin’s visit and the gist of his message: and he recommended me to help Schwerin make governmental contacts, which I did.

This is not surprising. These two men represented the two parties to the most important, and least recorded, of all the conspiratorial efforts: that of September 1938 to overthrow Hitler if he invaded Czechoslovakia. These parties were elements in the leadership of the German Foreign Office and elements of the Army’s General Staff: Ernst von Weizsäcker and Generals Beck and Halder.

It can be demonstrated that Trott in June 1939 was certainly not advocating a further surrender to Hitler, as some of his English friends imagined, but was attempting, on behalf of the diplomatic wing of the Weizsäcker-Beck-Halder conspiracy, to lure Hitler into a trap in which the military wing would overthrow him.

When Trott was talking to his English friends in 1939, he could not possibly have given them the smallest hint of the military preparations of 1938 or of the extremely courageous act of High Treason of informing the British government of these plans. Trott’s aim in 1939 was to reach Lord Halifax, the recipient of this treasonable message conveyed by the diplomat Theo Kordt the year before. His purpose was to tell the British government of the somewhat desperate proposals of the conspirators to create a second opportunity to overthrow Hitler before a probably unstoppable war began.

To reach Halifax, he had to meet him socially; he enlisted my help and I in turn that of my father. As I needed some idea of the degree of importance of his message, I asked Trott to confide in me what he was about. He said he now knew that “the most unlikely people” in Germany had shown themselves willing to take action against Hitler. He naturally declined to specify what this amazing statement meant.

The idea that Halifax and Chamberlain at that time preferred country sports to talking to German oppositionists was not supported by their response to my father’s invitation to Halifax to meet Trott. He accepted without hesitation and at a meal with some half-dozen others, Trott was asked about the situation in Germany. He gave an account that, without naming names, indicated that the opposition of significant people in Germany to their government continued.

Halifax, the man who had met Kordt, arranged within a matter of days for Trott to be invited to Downing Street for an informal meeting with the Prime Minister. Neville Chamberlain was only accompanied by his Parliamentary Private Secretary (Alec Douglas Home) with no officials present: presumably this was to maintain secrecy.

After that visit, Trott spoke more freely. He had liked “old Neville,” had found him serious and direct. But he felt he had been talking to an old man who was tired after making great exertions. In asking Chamberlain to take part in what, he said, Chamberlain must have seen as “a conspiracy in a foreign country which he had great difficulty in understanding,” he felt he was almost being unkind. However, Chamberlain had listened attentively.

When I asked Trott to explain in simple terms what he was really up to, he jokingly paraphrased his mission thus. He was, he said, suggesting that Hitler should be treated as a village drunkard who was brandishing a revolver and had to be taken by his best friend (the German Army) and his favourite neighbour (the British) one by each arm, and walked to a rough place, somewhere like Tanganyika, and there be hit on the head with his own revolver.

Writers often ask why the German opposition was not better organised and co-ordinated. The answer, surely, is in another question: “In which totalitarian dictatorship has there ever been a successful opposition?” It may not have been as easy to do as it has looked to spectators.

David Astor
London, England

Thomas Powers replies:

David Astor’s friendly letter helps to explain both the motive and the failure of Adam von Trott’s efforts in London in the early summer of 1939 to avoid the war which broke out in September. It seems clear that the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, and his Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax, did understand and accept the drift of von Trott’s message that not all Germans supported Hitler, and some were conspiring for his overthrow. But it’s also clear that nothing von Trott said convinced Chamberlain, or even came close to convincing him, that the last hope for peace was to make Hitler understand that an invasion of Poland meant all-out war. Pugnacity was not in Chamberlain’s nature; he could no more spit in Hitler’s eye than fail to rise when a lady entered the room. Von Trott’s mission was doomed before it began, but it is important all the same to do honor to his courage and to his sacrifice. David Astor does both.

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