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…

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