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.
Fearing something of the kind, and perhaps even informed of Chamberlain’s so-far closely held plan to travel to Germany and personally beseech Hitler for peace, von Weizsäcker asked a well-placed Swiss friend to repeat the essence of Kordt’s message, while urging the British to send to Berlin “an energetic military man who, if necessary, can shout and hit the table with a riding crop.” But Chamberlain went instead, sold Czechoslovakia (and more importantly its army, then actually larger than Hitler’s) down the river, and cut the ground from beneath the German generals who had justified coup plans as the only alternative to a general European war.
Halder later said: “We were firmly convinced we would be successful. But now came Mr. Chamberlain and with one stroke the danger of war was averted….” How could Halder and the others justify a coup at the very moment of Hitler’s resounding triumph over the Czechs at Munich? They did nothing. Gisevius, one of the few conspirators to survive the war, later recalled that a few days after Munich a group of them “sat around Witzleben’s fireplace and tossed our lovely plans and projects into the fire. We spent the rest of the evening meditating, not on Hitler’s triumph, but on the calamity that had befallen Europe.”4 In retrospect it is clear that Chamblerlain was firmly committed to his appeasement policy and under no circumstances would have issued the kind of order that the German dissidents wanted.
The drama was repeated the following year as Hitler made a series of stormy demands on Poland. Again German conspirators tried to urge resolution upon the British, but their warnings and message were ignored, misinterpreted, or rejected outright as tainted by their source. In January 1939 one of the anti-Hitler military officers, Colonel Gerhard von Schwerin, answered a query about German political aims put to him by the British intelligence officer Major Kenneth Strong (later chief of intelligence for Eisenhower), with two blunt words: “world domination.” Hans Oster helped Schwerin arrange a visit in June to London where he urged David Astor among others to press the British government to replace its ambassador in Berlin with a military man. When Schwerin finally won an opportunity to make his case directly to leading British army and naval officers for military demonstrations to convince Hitler of British resolve—“Hitler was the only person that had to be convinced, no one else counted”—he was dismissed as too “provocative” or discounted as unreliable because he was committing treason against his own country.
At about the same time Adam von Trott, who had made many British friends while studying at Oxford in the early 1930s, urged on several of them a policy diametrically opposed to Schwerin’s—further talks in hope of reaching a peaceful settlement with Hitler over Danzig and the Polish corridor. Trott’s purpose was to gain time for the military conspirators to prepare their coup. But many of his friends were furious at what they took to be his support of Nazi aims and one of them, the distinguished classicist Maurice Bowra, went so far after the war as to make a joke of his execution at Plötzensee prison, telling a friend that Trott was one of the few Nazis to be hanged.
But Trott’s advice was an anomaly. Other emissaries of the conspiracy like Fabian von Schlabrendorff and Weizsäcker’s Swiss friend, Carl Burckhardt, stressed Hitler’s belief, supported by Ribbentrop, that Britain would not fight. Both Kordt brothers came to London to warn that Hitler and Stalin were approaching agreement, something Hitler very much wanted before going to war, and Weizsäcker himself in Berlin urged the British ambassador to send a general to see Hitler who could make it unmistakably clear that any attack on Poland would mean war. But while the clock ticked away during the final days of peace no words of resolution came from Chamberlain, who was fishing in Scotland and complained that “the fish would not look at a fly”; or from the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, who had asked before accepting the job whether he could still shoot on Saturdays; or from the permanent head of the British Foreign Office, Alexander Cadogan, who was playing golf at La Touquet. The dithering continued until the end. In Germany the officers involved in the conspiracy also failed to summon the resolution to act. When the British in fact declared war on September 3 following the German invasion of Poland, Hitler was taken aback. He had expected another cheap triumph, not a general European war.
Even in the opening months of war some conspirators from the German Foreign Office and military circles continued to hope for an opportunity to overthrow Hitler and end the fighting; but Britain refused to say how it would treat a new German government, the generals now shrank from mounting a coup while their country was actually at war, and in any event the wholesale retirements and reassignments of military commanders on the outbreak of war had destroyed the delicate resistance networks which had been ready to act in 1938.
Resistance attempts to warn Britain, France, and the Low Countries of Hitler’s war plans in late 1939 and early 1940 created only suspicion and confusion as Hitler repeatedly ordered and then canceled attacks to the west. Those at the heart of the resistance, including Admiral Canaris and von Weizsäcker, and military officers like General Wilhelm Ulex, who called the murders in Poland a “blot on the honor of the entire German people,” were morally outraged by the brutality of the war’s opening phase on the eastern front, but a final attempt to halt the war with British help through the good offices of Pope Pius XII in the Vatican proceeded fitfully until it was ended entirely by Hitler’s string of brilliant victories in the spring of 1940.
The fall of France brought the pugnacious Winston Churchill to power, but the last thing on his mind, facing the Third Reich alone, was negotiations with Germans of any stripe. The resistance was never a single coherent group but a constantly shifting web of conspirators, sometimes active, sometimes in retreat, who held fast to the hope that Hitler might be overthrown and Germany saved from a catastrophe. But with the notable exceptions of Admiral Canaris’s deputy, Hans Oster, forced out of the Abwehr in 1943; of Canaris himself, forced into retirement early in 1944;5 and Weizsäcker, dispatched to Rome as Germany’s ambassador to the Vatican, most of those involved in the planned coup of 1938 were still active enough by July 20, 1944, to be swept up in the arrests that followed. The conspirators all seemed to know each other and to keep rough track of each other’s progress toward open opposition without ever coalescing into a single disciplined organization.
It was this core of conspirators, now loosely but customarily referred to by historians as “the resistance,” which continued in the first half year of the war its attempts to reach out to the Allies, but Churchill for his own reasons was as implacable as Chamberlain. “Our attitude towards all such inquiries or suggestions,” he instructed the Foreign Office, “should be absolute silence…”6 One result was that British intelligence, so far as we know, was caught almost completely by surprise on July 20, 1944, when German radio began to broadcast news of Hitler’s miraculous escape from a conspirator’s bomb.
Several leading members of the German resistance—especially Adam von Trott, one of the Foreign Office conspirators, and the Protestant clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer—sought support in the United States before the war but their influence on thinking in Washington was slight. When Allen Dulles slipped across the border of Vichy France into Switzerland in November 1942 he brought with him no preconceptions about the German resistance and was delighted a few months later to establish clandestine contact with it through an officer in the Abwehr, Hans Bernd Gisevius, sent to Bern under diplomatic cover by Admiral Canaris for exactly that purpose. Dulles made himself conspicuously available in Bern, and Gisevius was soon followed by numerous other visitors, contacts, and full-fledged agents—figures like Eduard Waetjen, an Abwehr colleague of Gisevius; the Dutch clergyman Wilhelm Visser’t Hooft, head of the World Council of Churches, who provided Dulles with a summary of the views of Adam von Trott; and the German Foreign Office clerk Fritz Kolbe, who made five trips to Bern carrying some 1600 documents.
The extraordinary volume as well as quality of wartime reporting from Dulles in Bern has been known to scholars in general outline for years but much new detail has recently become available with the transfer of the OSS files from the CIA to the National Archives in Washington. Over a hundred OSS documents dealing with the German resistance have now been reproduced, in whole or in part, in an extremely useful volume, American Intelligence and the German Resistance to Hitler, edited by two German scholars, Jürgen Heideking and Christof Mauch. Their collection demonstrates that American intelligence was in close contact with the July 20 conspirators for at least six months before the assassination attempt, but had no clearer idea than their British colleagues whether to encourage enemy nationals who sought the defeat of their own side, and, if so, how to exploit them. The skeletal account of Dulles’s wartime career provided by Heideking and Mauch is amplified in several chapters of John Waller’s The Unseen War in Europe: Espionage and Conspiracy in the Second World War. Waller is a retired veteran of American intelligence work, which began with a stint with the OSS in Cairo; his book recounts many important cases and serves as a good, although incomplete, introduction to the role of intelligence in the war, a subject which still lacks a comprehensive single-volume history.
The evolution, often erratic, of Dulles’s views of the German resistance is amply documented by Heideking and Mauch. On January 16, 1943, he cabled Washington: “It is my personal opinion that there has as yet been no serious organization of the movement.” Three weeks later he is “still of the opinion that if Hitler were to disappear, the end of Germany would begin…” By November he has concluded that “75 percent or more” of the German public opposes “the Nazi regime” and the following January he confesses, “I do not understand what our policy is and what offers, if any, we could give to any resistance movement.” Washington’s answer, like London’s at the opening of the war, was no offers, no encouragement, no deals, lest Moscow catch scent of the secret talks and begin to fear a Western attempt to make a separate peace.
This was an abiding source of anxiety in Washington and London as well, and all parties had evidence for their suspicions. Moscow in the summer of 1943 established a Free Germany Committee with the aid of German generals who had been captured at Stalingrad. Described to the British and Americans as nothing more than a morale-sapping propaganda ploy, this effort remained a nagging source of concern to Western intelligence analysts, who feared a Russian attempt to foist its client committee upon the prostrate German state as the embryo of a new government, or even to negotiate directly with the Nazis. Some members of the resistance felt help was more likely to be found in the East than the West, but most feared above all an invasion of the German homeland by the Russians, burning with zeal for revenge for the horrific slaughters carried out by the Wehrmacht and the SS in the Soviet Union, and ready to impose a Communist regime.
In the summer of 1943 and again in December Helmuth von Moltke traveled under Foreign Office cover to Istanbul, where OSS agents gleaned from his remarks the outline of what might be called a grand deal—German generals in France would capitulate to the Americans and the British while “the continuance of an unbroken Eastern Front” would be maintained pending an end to the war with a de facto “condition” of no Russian occupation of German soil. An OSS officer argued that no alternative to the plan conveyed by von Moltke “can offer even a remotely comparable chance of ending the War in the West at one stroke, and save perhaps many hundred thousand lives….”
But in April 1944 the OSS chief of secret intelligence, Whitney Shepherdson, rejected the “Herman plan,” named for von Moltke’s OSS code name, as both inherently unworkable and “unacceptable to the Russians in the extreme,” which it would obviously have been. The original OSS report of the plan had stressed both the depth of von Moltke’s anti-Nazi convictions and the conspirators’ recognition of the necessity for the “unequivocal military defeat and occupation of Germany…” Shepherdson paid no attention to any of that and considered the plan a more or less naked attempt to divide the Allies and to allow Germany to escape the just wrath of the Russians, whose sufferings were well-known. But rather than turning aside von Moltke with “absolute silence,” Shepherdson proposed that the OSS chief in Istanbul, Lanning Macfarland, should
be instructed to play upon this group as a possible instrument of double agents or in any way coldly calculated to promote the success of the invasion, without any regard whatsoever for the German individuals involved, their safety, personal relations to them, or the ultimate effect upon Germany…
But it was too late for plans of that sort. Von Moltke had already been arrested in Germany by the Gestapo, which held him in custody until his execution in Plötzensee prison on January 23, 1945.
Von Moltke’s arrest came as the resistance plotters in Berlin, close to panic at the relentless approach of the Russians, renewed their efforts to plot Hitler’s assassination. As their plans took shape they continued their efforts to reach some understanding with the British and the Americans on the treatment Germany might expect after a successful coup. Adam von Trott travelled to Turkey, Sweden, and Switzerland. On January 27, 1944, Dulles reported from Bern with news of the plot, carried to him by a young German lawyer for Lufthansa, Otto John,7 on one of his regular trips to Madrid and Lisbon, the first in a series of cables code-named “Breakers.” “For a number of reasons,” Dulles reported to Washington, “I have not talked with Zulu [British intelligence officers stationed in Bern]…at this particular time, and pending further developments I recommend that you also refrain from doing so on the basis of information in my messages.” Just why Allen Dulles wanted to keep the British in the dark about reports of the plot he does not say. He seems to be implying that they were not sympathetic to the resistance.
Throughout the following winter and spring Dulles continued to report on the goals, the organization, and the leaders of the plot against Hitler. After the OSS chief William Donovan departed Washington for the June 6 invasion of France, which he would not have missed, he was kept up to date on the progress of Breakers as reported from Bern. On July 12, conveying news from Gisevius who had just returned from a trip to Berlin, Dulles cabled, “There is a possibility that a dramatic event may take place up north… ” Almost daily thereafter he reported on the various forces involved, and at last on the evening of July 20 he cabled, “The attempt on Hitler’s life is, of course, the outstanding item of news this evening.” But what Dulles knew about the attempt itself came exclusively from broadcast reports. Gisevius had returned to Berlin and disappeared;8 Eduard Waetjen at the German embassy in Bern reported that the Foreign Office had not even forwarded the customary Sprachregelung—instructions on what propaganda line to follow in public statements. It was not until mid-September, following Otto John’s successful escape to Madrid, that the OSS received a detailed firsthand report on the tragic failure of the conspirators on July 20.
After years of discussion, planning, missed opportunities, elaborate schemes for assassination that came to nothing, horror at the crimes committed by Hitler, and despair at the tightening of the noose as Allied armies closed in, the resistance finally managed to rise from farce to tragedy through the passion and the energy of one man—Claus von Stauffenberg, youngest son of minor South German nobility, whose vow at age seven was “to be a soldier and go to all the wars.”
Stauffenberg’s central role in the events of July 20 has long been known. He has been the subject of several previous biographies and was of course a central figure in Peter Hoffmann’s authoritative and still unsurpassed History of the German Resistance, 1933- 1945, first published in Germany in 1969.9 The portrait there is now expanded without being much changed in Hoffmann’s new biography, Stauffenberg, recently reviewed in these pages by Noel Annan, who discusses Stauffenberg’s social and intellectual background and his crucial role in bringing renewed energy to resistance circles in late 1943 and early 1944, when the resistance seemed to have run aground. 10 Stauffenberg and his brothers, like many other high-minded sons of the Catholic nobility in southern Germany, at first welcomed Hitler in 1933 as a kind of purgative for the state, corrupted (as they felt) by the tumult of Weimar democracy. But their illusions that Hitler promised anything of the sort did not last long. What Stauffenberg saw as a soldier, first in Poland and then in Russia, made him a bitter foe of the Nazis. In April 1942 on the Russian front he expressed to a fellow officer his outrage over German crimes, especially the killing of Jews and the mass starvation of Russian prisoners of war. In August he told a friend, “They are shooting Jews in masses. These crimes must not be allowed to continue.” At the end of September he jumped up at a meeting of military men to shout, “Hitler is responsible. No fundamental change is possible unless he is removed. I am ready to do it.”
Hoffmann has been meticulous in recording every similar statement from Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators in order to refute charges made in Britain and America immediately after the war, and often echoed by historians since, that the resistance was driven by self-interest, held no principled objection to Hitler’s crimes, and sought only to avoid the calamity of defeat by replacing the Führer with real military men who might simultaneously fight to better effect and negotiate softer treatment from the Allies.
But success in killing Hitler took more than the willingness expressed by Stauffenberg in the fall of 1942. Plenty of military officers, according to Hoffmann, were willing in varying degree. What was required was access to Hitler himself, and eighteen months passed before Stauffenberg was appointed chief of staff for General Friedrich Fromm in May 1944 and thereafter began to represent the Home Army at military briefings for Hitler. In the meantime, while serving on the staff of one of Rommel’s Panzer divisions in Tunisia in April 1943, Stauffenberg was terribly wounded when his car was strafed by an Allied fighter. He recovered some months later but had lost an eye, his right hand, and two fingers of his left hand. Back in Germany, Stauffenberg threw himself into resistance plotting. He became intensely frustrated as one plan after another came to nothing, and finally determined, despite his wounds, to kill Hitler himself. On June 7, 1944, he met Hitler for the first time, found the man weak and repellent, noted that the notoriously vain Field Marshal Hermann Goering was wearing makeup, and concluded that the Minister of War Production, Albert Speer, was the only sane man in the room. At his second meeting with Hitler a month later Stauffenberg carried explosives but did not act; on July 15 he was fully prepared but was blocked at the last moment when the other high officers in the conspiracy got cold feet.
A third opportunity presented itself on July 20, but the previous failure had seriously compromised prospects for a successful coup and Stauffenberg knew it. “The most terrible thing,” his brother Berthold said, “is knowing that we cannot succeed and yet that we have to do it, for our country and our children.” Stauffenberg himself detested the thought that he would not only fail but “go down in German history as a traitor,” but his conscience prodded him onto the courier plane from Berlin to Hitler’s base in East Prussia, the so-called Wolfschanze or Wolf’s Lair. At the headquarters of the Home Army on Bendlerstrasse back in Berlin Stauffenberg’s co-conspirators anxiously awaited news of Hitler’s death. When it arrived they would issue orders for Operation Valkyrie, an emergency plan, actually approved by Hitler, for the army’s seizure of the state in the event of a coup attempt.
When it was all over Hitler declared that only Providence could have saved him and it is not hard to see what he meant. With special pliers, designed for his crippled left hand, Stauffenberg had activated the fuse on the bomb in his briefcase, placed it beneath the round oak table close to Hitler’s place in the briefing room, then left on a pretext. Moments after the deafening explosion Stauffenberg thought he saw Hitler’s bloody form carried from the wreckage on a stretcher and he naturally concluded the tyrant was dead. But later in the day as the conspirators tried to get Operation Valkyrie off the ground Hitler’s miraculous survival was announced, the conspirators were placed under arrest, and the panicky General Fromm, fearful of what they might say under torture about his own involvement, had the principal ringleaders given a summary court martial, sentenced to death, and marched down to the courtyard to face a firing squad. There Stauffenberg was shot. His final words were, “Long live holy Germany!”
That Stauffenberg should have died and Hitler lived tells the history of the resistance in a sentence. While the coup sputtered that afternoon, Hitler, cleaned up and in a fresh uniform, met as previously scheduled with Mussolini, who had arrived on a special train. After the war one of the German generals present described to an American interrogator the mad quarreling that afternoon of Ribbentrop, Goering, and Admiral Doenitz. The interrogator’s report is quoted by Waller in The Unseen War in Europe:
All of a sudden the Führer leapt up in a fit of frenzy with foam on his lips, and yelled out that he would be revenged on all traitors, that Providence had just shown him once more that he had been chosen to make world history, and shouted about terrible punishments for women and children, all of them would have to be put inside concentration camps!… Mussolini found it most unpleasant. Meanwhile more tea was served by the footmen in white gloves…. The Führer was in a very peculiar state at the time. It was the time when his right arm began to develop tremors. He sat there almost the whole time eating his colored pastilles [medicine tablets]. He had pastilles of all kinds of colors in front of him and kept on eating them. He would be quiet for a time, and then suddenly he’d break out like a wild animal, and wanted to put everyone, women and children too, into a concentration camp. He was the one Providence had chosen!
Providence or accident—something saved Hitler. First the crippled Stauffenberg managed to activate the fuse on only one of the two bombs he had brought with him into a washroom under pretext of changing his shirt following his flight from Berlin. Interrupted by an orderly urging haste, Stauffenberg left one of his two bombs behind. The two together almost certainly would have killed everyone in the briefing room. The conspirators at Bendlerstrasse had insisted that Stauffenberg return to Berlin to lead them. After he left the room one of the other officers, kicking Stauffenberg’s briefcase with his foot, reached under the table and moved it—to the far side of the massive wooden central pedestal supporting the table. The blast was therefore deflected away from Hitler, saving his life.
At the end of the war one of the Foreign Office conspirators, Erich Kordt, who had survived in a backwater post as a German diplomat in China, described for an American intelligence officer the efforts to enlist British help in avoiding war or overthrowing Hitler between 1938 and early 1940. Initially he asked his American friend to keep this melancholy history private, explaining, “The efforts of my friends were considerable, even if all endeavors failed, and I feel I must protect them against cheap contempt which easily attaches itself to failure.”
The earliest British reactions to the assassination attempt were indeed a mixture of contempt and indifference. Alexander Cadogan of the Foreign Office recorded in his diary on the following day, “Papers full of attempt on Hitler’s life. Don’t know what it means. Not very much, I think… Others rather unduly excited about it. I threw a few little cold douches…” Churchill in Parliament dismissed the failed coup as simply a case of “the highest personalities in the German Reich” trying to kill each other off, and in Switzerland Carl Jung, who often passed on his reading of events to Allen Dulles, took a similar view. Moral principle, he told Dulles’s colleague and mistress, Mary Bancroft, had nothing to do with it. Gisevius and Stauffenberg simply wanted what Hitler had—power. “They were like a pair of lions fighting over a hunk of raw meat.”11
Within a few days of the failed coup the OSS at last shared the Breakers material with the British and the Russians. The response of the Russians is unclear but the British seem to have been caught completely by surprise, despite contacts between Adam von Trott and British intelligence in Sweden in March and June 1944 and reports passed on by Otto John to British intelligence officers in Lisbon in February and early July. The mammoth six-volume official history, British Intelligence in the Second World War, devotes only four pages to the July plot.12 One looks in vain for any reminder of the numerous secret contacts between German conspirators and the British Foreign Office in the years between 1938 and 1940. Surveying the scene in early 1944 British intelligence saw nothing but Hitler and his cronies. January 11: “No evidence that any faction exists within the Army…likely to overthrow the present regime…” February 18: “There is no subversive organisation.” At last, on March 23, “slight evidence” of an opposition movement appears. But as late as July 6, following meetings in Stockholm between British intelligence and Adam von Trott, the Foreign Office concluded that “these people…won’t act without our backing, which, if given, might gravely embarrass us later.”
The official record of British surprise on July 20 is so nearly complete one’s suspicions are aroused. How could the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), desperate for information about Hitler and his government, have failed to maintain contact with the many Germans who had knocked on British doors before the war? General Hans Oster, the chief deputy to Admiral Canaris in the Abwehr, had committed conventional treason in passing on reports of Hitler’s military plans to the British and the Dutch. Otto John had contacted British intelligence in Lisbon. Is it really possible the SIS had turned a cold shoulder toward these prime assets?
The answer appears to be yes. When Otto John met secretly with Rita Winsor of the SIS in Lisbon in February 1944 she told him that London had banned all future contact with the German opposition. Dulles’s best agent in Bern, Fritz Kolbe, had been turned away first by the British as a “provocation” (just as a later Dulles triumph, the Russian defector Oleg Penkovsky, was also brushed off initially by the British on the same grounds). Noel Annan, in a new and finely written memoir of his own wartime intelligence work mainly concerned with the Germans, confirms that July 20 came as a surprise to the Joint Intelligence Staff of the War Cabinet. Annan’s book is a sweeping, at times brilliantly succinct, overview of British-German relations during and just after the war. There is relatively little close description of day-to-day intelligence work, but it is clear from his account that the SIS saw no raw intelligence reports predicting a coup attempt, and that it sparked no interest on high when it occurred: “In Britain the word was put out that the plotters were nationalists trying to salvage as much as possible of Germany’s ill-gotten gains.”
Worse still—the BBC broadcast dismissive accounts of the plot, which included the names of possible or likely conspirators. Several were promptly arrested by the Gestapo and executed. Annan calls this broadcast “an appalling misjudgement.”
The British refusal to have anything to do with the opposition was almost certainly prompted, at least in part, by lingering embarrassment over the Chamberlain government’s miserable failure to resist Hitler stoutly when that might have been enough to prevent the war. But something else was clearly at work as well, a conviction, shared by the Americans, that the war was too big a thing to negotiate away with some unrepresentative group of German conspirators solely because they might kill Hitler and seize hold of the government. In a frank summary of the Foreign Office’s view, Annan writes, its officials “had no wish to be confronted by a group of Prussian Junkers who, they considered, would be scarcely less nationalist than the Nazis when putting forward conditions for peace.” The Allies appeared to have concluded that it was the entire German nation that had put Hitler in power and followed him into war and crime, and it was the entire German nation that would have to be taught a lesson it would never forget.
Even some of the conspirators seem to have shared this view, however hard they struggled to avoid the calamity they had seen coming for some time. On the last page of his book Joachim Fest recounts a conversation in Berlin on July 21, 1944, between Emmi Bonhoeffer, her husband Klaus, and her brother Justus Delbrück. (Klaus was executed on April 23, 1945; Justus almost suffered the same fate two days later, but survived when a group of prisoners convinced their executioner he might be shot himself by the Red Army if he carried out his orders.) The three were clearing the wreckage of a neighbor’s house.
When they sat down to rest amid the ruins, [Emmi] asked whether the two men could draw any lesson at all from the failure of the plot. There was a momentary pause while they weighed their answer. Finally Delbrück responded in a way that captured the pathos and paradox of the resistance: “I think it was good that it happened, and good too, perhaps, that it did not succeed.”
One sees why he could have said this at that moment, not knowing how many people were soon to be killed. Germany certainly learned a lesson, and it may be argued that the whole world learned the same lesson at the same time. But by Fest’s own account, 4.8 million German soldiers and civilians died between July 20, 1944, and the German surrender on May 8, 1945—“not to mention the countless casualties in other countries or the victims of Hitler’s extermination policy, which continued to the very end.” Is it possible that vigorous Allied support for the resistance might have saved some or many of these millions of lives?
The question must be asked twice—first of the period before the war, when the conspirators simply urged Britain to do what all but a few historians have since agreed it should have done—threatened war if Hitler set foot in Czechoslovakia. Resolution then, when Hitler wanted a war but was still unready, almost certainly would have avoided a big war and the Holocaust alike. But later, in mid-war, what the Allies might have done to help the conspirators mount a successful coup is far from clear. The reassurance sought by von Moltke in Istanbul, von Trott in Stockholm, Otto John in Lisbon, and Gisevius in Bern was never offered; but the conspirators went forward anyway, convinced that the moral gesture was as important as success. As it happened, luck was against them. Only if they had been successful might the Allies have been presented with the opportunity for an armistice that would have saved millions of lives. But the failure of the resistance and the Allies to understand each other should not surprise us; they had different goals in mind. The resistance was trying to end the war, while the Allies were trying to win it, and they did.
January 9, 1997
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). ↩
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.” ↩
Witzleben was arrested on July 21, 1944, condemned on August 8, and executed the same day in Plötzensee prison. Schulenberg was executed in Plötzensee prison on August 10, 1944. Helldorf was executed in Plötzensee prison on August 15, 1944. Oster was executed in Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945. The Kordt brothers survived the war. Ernst von Weizsäcker was tried by an American tribunal in 1949, was repudiated by English diplomats who had known of his pre-war efforts, and largely as a consequence was convicted of crimes against the peace. In 1951, after the intervention of numerous friends, Weizsäcker’s sentence was reduced to time served. Meehan examines in great detail the case against Weizsäcker, and the British reluctance fully to admit what they knew of his pre-war efforts. ↩
Canaris was nevertheless also arrested after July 20, 1944, and hanged, along with his former deputy Hans Oster, on April 9, 1945, in the Flossenbürg concentration camp. ↩
The Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945 of Marie “Missie” Vassiltchikov (Knopf, 1986), provide a vivid portrait of the psychology of resistance circles. Vassiltchikov, a young Russian émigré working in the German Foreign Office, was a friend of many in the resistance, especially Adam von Trott. Churchill’s minute to the Foreign Office is quoted by her brother George, who edited the diaries for publication, on page 187. ↩
Otto John later became chief of a West German secret intelligence organization and was briefly notorious following a mysterious disappearance into East Germany in the 1950s. He was tried and imprisoned for espionage in West Germany after his return. The first half of his memoir, Twice Through the Lines (Harper & Row, 1972), deals with his role in the German resistance. ↩
After the collapse of the coup in Army headquarters on Bendlerstrasse, Gisevius spent six months in hiding before he managed to escape back across the border into Switzerland. There he remained until the end of the war, polishing his memoir of the resistance with the help of Mary Bancroft. ↩
Third English edition, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996. ↩
Mary Bancroft, Autobiography of a Spy (Morrow, 1983), p. 239. ↩
Volume 3, Part 2, Appendix 22, pp. 893-896. ↩