1 - Rubbing Out the Opposition
2 - The Conspiracy Takes Shape
3 - The Unrecruitables
4 - "I Will Make an End of this Regime"
5 - Calling on London for Backup
6 - September 1938: The First Coup Attempt
7- Resistance Activity from Munich Poland
8 - November 1939: The Second Coup Attempt
9 - The Lone Assassin
10 - The Vatican Connection
11 - The Cry for Help
12 - "Absolute Silence"
13 - Killing the Anti-Christ
14 - Enter Stauffenberg
15 - July 20, 1944: The Final Attempt
16 - World Reaction
17 - What Might Have Been
Fate was against the German conspirators on that afternoon of July 20, 1944, when thirty-six year old Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg -
the beloved charismatic leader of the German Resistance - inched his briefcase under Hitler's map table in the certainty of blowing Germany's fuehrer to smithereens and overthrowing the Nazi regime. Miraculously, Hitler survived; or as the Ancient Greeks would have said, the Fates had spared him to finish his gruesome work on the stage of History.
Beside the countless internationally acclaimed motion pictures that
have immortalized the tragedies and heroic deeds of the Second World War, no award winning film was ever made to remind the world of the Germans of July 20th who knowingly risked and lost their lives in their seventeenth and final attempt to rid the world of Hitler and the Nazi terror. They never shared the fame and glory showered upon Eisenhower, Patton, Montgomery, or even Rommel who was on the losing side. These heroes were acclaimed in their own time and posthumously immortalized in countless books, films, and documentaries.
And the German conspirators? At best, their martyrdom yielded barely
a footnote's mention. Consequently, too many have only the faintest knowledge of the six-year German conspiracy behind July 20, 1944. Between September 1938 and that fateful July day, these Germans risked everything they had in a desperate unceasing effort to assassinate the cursed fuehrer and nemesis of Germany. They tried not once but seventeen times. Why all of these attempts failed is the focus of this paper.
Within the first 18 months of his 12 year reign, Adolf Hitler obliterated all forms of political opposition to his rule and finally German civil society itself. By the summer of 1934, not even his closest and most faithful associates were untouchable as his dog-loyal SA Chief Ernst Roehm discovered when arrested and executed, along with virtually the entire SA leadership in the June 30, 1934 massacre - euphemistically referred to as The Night of the Long Knives. By the time the killing had stopped, more than 400 "subversives" had been rubbed-out, including former Weimar Chancellor General Kurt von Schleicher and Major-General Kurt von Bredow. Both happened to be staunchly opposed to Hitler’s nazification plans for the German Army.
Appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg in December 1932, Schleicher served in that post only 57 days until Hitler booted him out on January 30, 1933. During his brief tenure, Schleicher failed to splinter the Nazi Party or build a coalition of the Left and Center parties in the Reichstag. Hitler never forgot nor forgave his opponents.
On June 30, 1934, while Schleicher was on the telephone, his maid answered the doorbell and was brushed aside by five men in long coats demanding to see him. They then barged into his study and opened fire with automatic pistols killing him instantly. Within seconds his wife came rushing downstairs and was also shot to death. That same afternoon, General Bredow answered his own door bell only to be greeted by the same deadly hail of bullets.
Many generals expressed relief at Hitler's purge of the SA believing
that the new Chancellor had acted in the interest of the army and Germany. General Werner von Blomberg congratulated Hitler's "soldierly decision in crushing the traitors and murderers" and President Hindenburg sent a telegram to Hitler reading "you have saved the German people from grave danger."(Mason, 12). Others were more perceptive.
Abwehr Chief Wilhelm Canaris, and Army Chief of Staff, General Ludwig Beck were both sickened by the SA purges and outraged by the murders of generals Schleicher and Bredow. They doubted that there was any truth to the SA "revolt" and saw it for what it really was - the seizure of absolute power by Adolf Hitler through his black-uniformed Praetorian Guard, the SS. These slayings were the opening act in Hitler's subjugation of Germany. Within months, the Reichstag was set ablaze, parliament disbanded, civil liberties voided and civil society strangled.
In March 1934, Hitler terrorized the Reichstag into accepting the Enabling Act which guaranteed him absolute power for the next four years. In August, the bed-ridden President von Hindenburg died. That same afternoon, Germany crossed the Rubicon: the armed forces of the Reich were forced to swear a sacred Oath of Allegiance to the person of Adolf Hitler as Fuehrer of the Reich. No longer allegiance to the flag, or to the Republic, but to one man: "I swear by God this holy oath, that I will render to Adolf Hitler, Fuehrer of the German Reich and people, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, unconditional obedience, and that I am ready, as a brave soldier, to risk my life at any time for this oath."
But Hitler's consolidation of absolute power was not yet complete. There were more figures who had to be purged or neutralized for this purpose. Chief among them were General Werner von Fritsch, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and War Minister Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg. Both opposed Hitler's decision to expand the German armed forces at break-neck speed pointing out that Britain and France would never allow it and that in any event such an ambitious program would wreak havoc with the economy.
In agreement with the senior officers was the aging Weimar holdover
Foreign Minister Constantin von Neurath. In November 1937, the three men asked for an audience with Hitler and came away dumbfounded when he told them in no uncertain terms of his territorial ambitions for Germany for the coming decade: the Reich would have to resolve it's need for living space through force. A war of conquest was no longer a question of if, but when and how, and it had to be done before 1943 to 1945 at the very latest. (Mason, 3).
It was perfectly clear to Hitler that his three guests were wholeheartedly opposed to his grandiose scheme and would do what they could to obstruct it, so they had to go. Hitler especially disliked Fritsch who made no effort to conceal his total disdain for the Nazi Party and leadership. Forced to attend a review of SS and Wehrmacht troops at Saarbrucken on March 5, 1935, Fritsch astonished those nearby by deriding the Party, SS, and Nazi government. Then on April 20th, when informed that the celebrations in the street were for Hitler's birthday, he snapped back: "Why celebrate that!" (Mason, 17).
Fritsch did not last long in his post. The disgraceful way in which
Hitler engineered his ouster by framing him on a homosexuality charge (subsequently dropped in court) shocked many army officers. Fritsch was the highest ranking and most respected army officer. The ignominious way in which Hitler eased him out therefore outraged scores of officers many of whom were later to join the conspiracy.
War Minister Blomberg was ousted with the same underhand tactics.
A widower for eight years, at 60 he sought solace in the arms of his mistress, Eva Gruhn, a 25 year-old Berlin night club dancer whom he later married. But when nude photos of Gruhn and another man were seized by the Berlin Police, Luftwaffe Field Marshal Hermann Goering- eager for Blomberg's job - hurried off to show these to Hitler. With this smoking gun, Blomberg's career was finished.
Goering delivered the coup de grace by barging into Blomberg's office and slapping down the Eva Gruhn photos on the desk of the awe-struck War Minister, telling him that he was dismissed without appeal. A nearby aide peered through the door and saw "the hale and hearty field marshal staggering, a broken man, to his private rooms." (Mason, 21). Much to Goering's disappointment, Hitler did not give him Blomberg's position as War Minister but instead bestowed the powers of that office upon himself.
The sackings continued relentlessly as Hitler forced twelve known anti-nazi generals into retirement while simultaneously packing the lower ranks with young Nazi officers fresh out of the Adolf Hitler schools.
He made a clean sweep of all known anti-nazis and non-nazis in all other government ministries as well. The brilliant Finance Minister
Dr. Halmar Schacht who had warned Hitler that his guns-before-butter policy would wreck the economy was demoted to President of the Reichsbank.
In the Foreign Ministry, Hitler forced the old gentleman-diplomat Constantin von Neurath who suffered from heart-seizures into retirement. Neurath was a nuisance to Hitler because he repeatedly sought to discourage any expansionist aims and opposed Hitler's decision to withdraw Germany from the League of Nations. Joachim von Ribbentrop, an ardent Nazi who backed Hitler's expansionist aims to the hilt, replaced Neurath. But he did not get on well with Goering who characterized him as an upstart champagne salesman or Goebbels who concluded disdainfully that Ribbentrop had "married his money and swindled his way to power."
In the face of the mafia-like new hierarchy stood the German officer corps, a quarter of whom belonged to the aristocracy and many of whom were disgusted with the new court from the very start. Hitler was an Austrian upstart; Goering a bloated caricature addicted to morphine; Propaganda Minister Dr. Jospeh Goebbels a dwarfish demagogue with Mickey Mouselike ears and a deformed club foot; Julius Streicher a rabid anti-semitic pornographer; the martyred Nazi hero Horst Wessel a one-time pimp; SA Chief Ernst Roehm a thug who wore cheap perfume; Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler a failed psychotic ex-chicken farmer turned police chief of Hitler's totalitarian system and soon to be administrator-in-chief of the Nazi death camps. Many German officers viewed the regime much as West Point officer graduates "would have looked upon an American government in the hands of Al Capone backed by men carrying tommy guns and brass knuckles." (Mason, viii).
As the Gestapo later discovered, the assassination attempt of July 20,
1944, was not the lone act of a single officer but represented instead the fruition of six years of relentless activity undertaken by a vast web of anti-nazi conspirators spanning the army, Abwehr, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Kreisau Circle, the Church, and the civil service. In this web lay army officers, intelligence agents, diplomats, lawyers, intellectuals, police officials, politicians, and clergymen hailing from the nobility, the landed gentry, the bourgeoisie, and the middle classes.
Conservative and socialist, they had differing views on the intended
shape of Germany's post-nazi new order. But regardless of their diverse
social origins, professional vocations, or political views, they coalesced around their common revulsion for the myriad of evils that Hitler perpetrated on Germany and later Europe.
The Wehrmacht officers, Abwehr intelligence agents, diplomats of the foreign ministry, civil servants, anti-nazi politicians, and clergymen who joined the conspiracy knew that they were risking their careers, their families, and above all their lives in scheming against Hitler. Under Nazi justice, all knew that if caught they faced certain conviction for high treason or hoch verrat for which was death by hanging. Worse still was the certainty of knowing that their families would be subject to public humiliation, their properties confiscated, and their children seized by the state and thrown into orphanages and foster homes. Nevertheless, they did not flinch from resisting the regime as best they could, and from 1938 onwards they shared a common dream - to destroy Hitler and the Nazi state.
Throughout this six-year endeavor, the army conspirators formed the
nucleus of the conspiracy and spearheaded nearly all of its assassination
plots. Only the army possessed the necessary resources in terms of weaponry, manpower, and authoritative command capable of overthrowing the Nazi regime. In the early years, the conspirators coalesced around army Chief of Staff (1933-38) General Ludwig Beck.
In later years, they gathered around younger officers like
Colonel Henning von Tresckow and finally Stauffenberg.
From 1938 to July 20, 1944, General Beck never ceased scheming against Hitler. Fluent in French and English, and an avid reader of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Clausewitz, he also belonged to Berlin's Wednesday Club - an intellectual circle of savants who met weekly to discuss philosophical and historical issues. Hitler and the Nazi regime had turned repugnant for Beck after the massacre of Rohm and the SA. When on Hindenburg's death, the army was forced to swear the sacred oath of allegiance to Hitler, Beck called the event "the blackest day of my life."
In 1937, Beck was shocked when Hitler ordered him to devise a "theoretical" attack on Czechoslovakia. Should this attack ever materialize, he warned, the Army High Command would suffer "the severest condemnation of History."(Mason, 36). Beck was so outraged over the request that he threatened to resign then and there rather than abete Hitler's ambitions of conquest. The disgraceful ouster of General Fritsch in February 1938 infuriated him even further. Later that year, as Hitler prepared to follow through on his Czech ambitions, Beck resigned his position as Army Chief of Staff. From then on he devoted himself entirely to the conspiracy against Hitler.
Throughout their six-year effort, the conspirators were forced to operate in a constrained world of absolute secrecy against Hitler's totalitarian system. Until his dismissal in early 1944, the man responsible for weaving that web of secrecy was none other than Hitler's Abwehr chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.
Upon his 47th birthday on January 1, 1934, Canaris became head of the
Abwehr. He would spend the next ten years of his career as Germany's intelligence chief doing his best to foil Hitler's plans for world domination while providing an umbrella of secrecy to shield the conspirators and their plots from discovery.
Canaris was softspoken and short in height. He lived in a fashionable
Berlin district with his wife and daughter. But unlike Hitler, Goering,
and Himmler, he had no fondness for living in Gothic opulence. Inside his office at Abwehr headquarters, his big heavy desk was scarred and stained and books stacked haphazardly. The bed near his desk was for his inseparable companion, a Dachsund that accompanied him wherever he went.
Like Beck, Canaris was sickened by the SA purge and disgusted over Fritsch's dismissal. Throughout his tenure, Canaris would warn London of Hitler's every strategic move in the hope of encouraging the British to help the conspirators. He tipped off London about Hitler's invasion plans for Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France, and Britain itself. (Colvin, 149-153). He posted his agents in all the major capitals of Europe and gave the conspirators the few captured British explosives the Abwehr possessed to assassinate Hitler. But at 78 Tirpitzufer Strasse (Berlin's Abwehr headquarters), Canaris was not alone in the plotting.
Deputy Abwehr Chief Colonel Hans Oster had nothing but contempt for Nazism and harbored a burning hatred for Hitler. Oster had been devoted to his former boss, General von Bredow, whom Hitler's SS assassins
had slain in cold blood. As Canaris's second in command, he labored furiously to stop Himmler's SS intelligence, commanded by
Reinhard Heydrich, from encroaching on the Abwehr while Canaris passed on state secrets to London and coordinated coup planning against Hitler.
Oster favored the restoration of Germany's Hohenzollern royal family
but along the lines of a British-style constitutional monarchy. Refined,
witty, cheerful, insistent on the best military tailoring in Berlin, and a master equestrian, he was also coolheaded and decisive in situations of panic, and in that capacity functioned outstandingly as Canaris's deputy.
Together, Canaris amd Oster provided false papers for conspiracy-emissaries when they traveled to London. Among other Abwehr officials plotting with Canaris and Oster was Dr. Hans von Dohnanyi, a brilliant lawyer who spent years ferreting away in government archives to compile a mountain of damaging legal and medical information on Hitler. Protected by Canaris, Dohnanyi helped Oster with Operation U-7 -
a secret Abwehr project that succeeded in rescuing a number of Jewish families from the Holocaust.
In the Foreign Ministry, senior diplomats like State Secretary
Ernst von Weizsacker and Germany's ambassador to Italy,
Ulrich von Hassel, led the conspiracy. Onther conspirator diplomats included Theo and Erich Kordt, Count Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin,
and Hans-Bernd von Haeften.
The Kreisau Circle of anti-Nazi intellectuals led by
Count Helmuth von Moltke rallied together Germans of all social classes and professions who kept in touch with friends or brothers who belonged to the military conspiracy. Most prominent in this circle was
Adam von Trott zu Solz - a key emissary of the conspirators who repeatedly tried to win British support. Trott was among the few in 1933 to foresee the disaster that lay ahead for Germany under Hitler. On the day Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor, Trott lamented to a friend that a catastrophe had befallen his country.
Goerdeler worked tirelessly to enlist Anglo-American help and by virtue of his indefatigeable energy was one the main pillars of the conspiracy beside Stauffenber, Beck, and Canaris. He had battled anti-semitic legislation tenaciously, as mayor of Leipzig. In the spring of 1936 when he learnt that the Nazi town council planned to tear down the statue of 19th century Jewish-German composer Felix Mendelssohn, Goerdeler flew into a rage: "When that statue goes, so will I!" he vowed.
Goerdeler hated the Nazi party's paganlike rallies, the endless columns of Caesarlike salutes, banners, and bugles. He refused Hitler's offer to join the Party. When local Nazis requested that he fly the Swastika over City Hall, he ordered them off the premises then bolted the doors of the building and barricaded himself inside with the municipal police. But the regime soon prevailed. While on a visit abroad, Goerdeler learned that the Mendelssohn statue had been torn down. He flew straight to Berlin to demand that the act be reversed, but his request was denied. Upon hearing this, Goerdeler resigned on the spot as mayor ending 27 years of municipal service.
The Roehm massacre and the murders of generals Bredow and Scleicher had already filled Goerdeler with revulsion for Hitler and the regime. By 1938 Goerdeler, like Beck and Canaris, had metamorphosed from an opponent of the regime into a conspirator bent on its overthrow. He would spend the next six years traveling frenetically from one Western capital to another in vain attempts to enlist foreign help for the German conspiracy. Goerdeler's travel expenses were covered by Stuttgart's democratic -minded industrial magnate Robert Bosch who loathed Hitler and the nazi credo.
Many among the landed gentry also joined the conspiracy such as the
wealthy Pomeranian landowner, Ewald von Kleist- Schmenzin who had been working against the Nazis since before Hitler came to power. In 1932, he wrote a book in which he described National Socialism as "the dangerous sickness of our time" and asserted that Hitler had poisoned the minds of the people. The following year, Schmenzin told the SA that he would sooner be thrown into jail than submit to seeing the Swastika flag fly over his castle. He had been on the list of Hitler's enemies to be rubbed out on the Night of the Long Knives but had managed to hide with a friend. Schmenzin later traveled to London to yet another failed attempt to win British support for the German conspirators. (Mason, 39).
Even Germans working within the nazi police state soon turned against
the regime and joined the conspiracy such as Dr. Hans Bernd Gisevius and Kripo Chief Arthur Nebe. Both the chief and deputy chief of the Berlin Police, Heinrich von Helldorf and Paul von Hase also joined the conspiracy. Last but not least were men of the cloth like Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who founded the dissident Confessing church and recruited anti-nazis from among his flock into the ranks of the conspiracy.
Many other Germans were later to join the conspiracy. As Hitler's tryanny swiftly worsened, from opponents they turned into conspirators bent on destroying the fuehrer and his fuehrer state. Yet despite their unity of purpose, their zeal, initiative, and phenomenal bravery, the lot of them failed to overthrow Hitler and the Nazi regime. Why? What obstacles torpedoed their relentless conspiracies? What and who favored Hitler's destiny? Was this tragic turn of events truly predestined? Or could those whom the conspirators so feverishly petitioned for help have made a difference? Who and what ultimately tipped the scales in this covert war of assassination plots? Fate? Human frailty? The reticence of foreign powers?
The search for why the German conspiracy failed should start where the
plot began where it remained centered until the end - within the army.
What and who in the German army impeded the officers who belonged to the conspiracy? First was the oath of allegiance sworn by all army officers to the German head of state, as opposed to the German state itself, or the constitution, or national flag - none of which existed prior to 1870 when Bismark unified Germany.
By making the Wehrmacht swear the fuehrer oath to him personally, Hitler had appropriated to his person Article 64 of the Prussian-German constitution of 1871: "All German troops are obliged to obey unconditionally the commands of the Emperor." (Duffi & Ricci, 2). Having ousted the Kaiser, the founders of the Weimar Republic did away with this tradition and committed the Army to swearing allegiance to the Republic.
Why did the army top brass not resist the fuehrer oath? Because for
so many high ranking officers, schooled in the tradition of unconditional
obedience to the Kaiser, opposing the oath meant betraying Germany's head
of state (which Hitler was after January 30, 1933) and thus committing
hoch verrat or high treason. This is why senior ranking officers
like Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and Admiral Karl Doenitz remained faithful to Hitler to the end. It also explains why many battlefront generals could not bring themselves to disobey the fuuhrer's strategically insane orders.
Take Field Marshal Paulus's behavior at Stalingrad who meekly complied with Hitler's insane orders to hold the city at all costs. The result was the loss more than a third of a million men - the greatest defeat in military history.Within the space of four months, the 6th Army was cut-off and besieged by Zhukov's numerically superior Soviet army. Of the once 330,000-strong army, Paulus finally surrendered his depleted 90,000 frost-bitten, starved, exhausted, demoralized troops to the enemy. This still infuriated his commander in chief. Had he only disobeyed Hitler's orders sooner he could have saved the bulk of his army.
By tradition, the German officer corps had emerged from the military
academies so rigidly disciplined that all too many of its members proved
incapable of drawing the right conclusion if the head of state pursued
policies ruinous to the nation. It was this tragic paralysis that affected so many of Germany's finest generals and field marshals, depriving the conspiracy of the vital logistical support needed to stage a successful coup.
There was more than just the spellbinding fuehrer oath working against
the conspirators. Human faults such as naiveté, ambition, indecision, timidity, and betrayal were as prevalent in the Wehrmacht as anywhere else. Tragically for the plotters, Germany, and Europe, many of the generals and field marshals who had proven their bravery in war exhibited the opposite when it came to saving Germany from the fuehrer's destructive madness.
Unlike Oster, Tresckow, and Stauffenberg, too many high ranking officers lacked the ability to turn their hatred for Hitler into meaningul action. Some like Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch lacked the daring, others like General Friedrich Fromm were undisguised opportunists, and yet others like General Werner von Fritsch simply underestimated Hitler's capacity for evil.
Fritsch, though contemptuous of Hitler and the Nazis, did not believe the fuehrer could stoop to such ignominious methods as having him framed as a homosexual to remove him. When this happened, he went into shock. As Commander in Chief of the armed forces (until his dismissal in March 1935), Fritsch had all the means necessary to end Hitler's increasingly dictatorial rule. He did not do so because he underestimated Hitler's underhand methods for purging top brass officers who opposed his will.
Because the defense budget increased exponientally under his regime,
Hitler won enormous praise in every branch of the armed forces. The officer corps above the rank of Major General swelled from 44 in 1932 to nearly 300 by 1938. At the same time, Hitler was honeycombing the Wehrmacht with Nazi officers fresh out of the Hitler Youth schools.
(Duffi & Ricci, 40).
Then there was that inescapable human trait - Ambition. Many a colonel who sought a generalship and many a general who sought the ultimate prize, the Field Marshal's baton, were ready to please and appease the Hitler. General Franz Halder, secretly as contemptuous of Hitler as was openly General Beck, is a perfect example. On September 1, 1938, he succeeded Beck as Army Chief of Staff. Beck was outraged with Hitler's war-mongering foreign policy towards Czechoslavakia and had failed to persuade the top brass to resign en masse in protest.
Ambitious to say tghe least, Halder proved unreliable to the conspirators. Though he vowed to take part in Beck's September 1938 and November 1939 coups to remove Hitler, he refused to act on both occasions when in the former instance (the Czech-Sudeten crisis) Britain was unwilling to threaten Hitler and when in the latter his timorous superior, Brauchitsch, refused to take part in the second coup. Halder's obsequiousness only increased after Hitler assumed command of the armed forces. "Deluded by hopes of greatness for himself and for the General Staff, Halder abandoned his promise to oppose Hitler," blasted his predecessor's record, and made no effort to defend generals like von Rundstedt, von Kluge, and von Stuelpnagel who fell out of favor with Hitler.
The conspirators were further obstructed by timorous yes-men like General Brauchitsch whom Hitler had purposefully selected to replace the naïve Fritsch as Army Commander in Chief. Though personally averse to Hitler, Brauchitsch was bound to his master for financial reasons owing to an expensive divorce settlement for which Hitler had granted him a large sum of money. More importantly, Brauchitsch lacked the forceful character indispensable to his rank. His ambition, "focused to the point of the exclusion of everything else," made him "a compromiser" but was superceded only by his paralyzing fear of Hitler.
He was "so terrified of Hitler that he practically quaked in his presence...the way a small child is cowed by a domineering father." (Duffi & Ricci, 51). A fellow officer once remarked that Brauchitsch stood at attention before Hitler "like a little cadet before his commandant." (ibid, 16). When asked by the conspirators to support the second coup attempt in November 1939 (to forestall Hitler's Western Offensive) Brauchitsch could only reply that he knew that Hitler's campaign would be a disaster but that he could do nothing about it. Yet he promised to "do nothing if someone else does something."
Brauchitsch survived the war to tell posterity: "Of course, I could have had Hitler arrested and even imprisoned him. Easily! I had enough officers loyal to me who would have carried out even that order if given by me. But that was not the problem. Why should I have initiated action against Hitler - tell me that. It would have been action against the German people. The German people were pro-Hitler." (ibid, 113).
Brauchitsch was referring to the 1938-40 period when Hitler's popularity reached its zenith.
Repeatedly badgered by Beck, Brauchitsch and Halder reluctantly paid
a visit to the Reich Chancellory on November 5, 1939 to persuade Hitler
not to launch his western offensive. Yelled into submission by his master, Brauchitsch cowered out of the fuehrer's study "chalk-whitewith fear" according to Halder who waited outside in the antechamber.
The conspirators would spend the entire war trying to enlist generals
and field marshals into actively as opposed to verbally supporting a coup. The greater the number of troops they could muster, the more likely their chances of winning. But the conspirators commanded no armies. Many were desk generals who desperately needed to win over a general or field marshal in command of an army. But none could be found.
Conspirator and German ambassador to Italy Ulrich von Hassel lamented this in his diary when he wrote on March 6, 1943: "Failure has crowned every attempt to put a bit of backbone into the men who, with their instrument of power, are lending their support to a half-insane, half-criminal policy. This in spite of the military events, the irresponsible leadership of this wanton and and megalomaniac corporal." (Hassel, 47).
Hassel's despair only increased with time as his June 9,1943 entry shows: "The state is developing more and more into an immoral and bankrupt concern, led by an irresponsible gambler, who can himself hardly be accounted mentally normal, and who is surrounded by rabble. And so we roll towards the bottomless pit. No field marshal acts as a higher concept of duty would prompt. Even if he had no such thing, the bare interest of the soldiers in survival and the simple military principle of waging war should suffice." (Hassel, 48).
Even worse than the timorous Brauchitsch, whom the conspirators considered a dead loss, were the field marshals they could never be sure of - fence-sitters like Field Marshal Guenther von Kluge who pledged active support only if Hitler were killed - "Yes, if the swine had died," he later concluded. (Mueller, 63). Upon hearing that Hitler had survived Stauffenberg's bomb blast, Kluge first withdrew all support and then, fearing for his life, called Hitler personally to report the actions of leading Paris conspirator General von Stuelpnagel's actions.
Had von Kluge not behaved in this dishonorable manner, the joint cover
story of a mock Martial Law exercise put out by the Paris army conspiorators and their embarrassed rivals, the SS and Gestapo (who had surrendered immediately during the Paris coup), would have held. Remarkably, Stuelpnagel was able to shield all of his subordinates from the fate of the rest whom the regime uncovered and executed. But von Kluge's panic-induced phone call to Hitler cost Stuelpnagel his life.
Another attentiste turned traitor who doomed the July 20th conspiracy
was General Friedrich Fromm, the Commander-in- Chief of Nazi Germany's Home Army and Stauffenberg's superior. Fromm had expressed the same muted approval towards toppling Hitler as had Brauchitsch in 1940. But like Kluge, if the coup failed he would deny all knowledge. Prior to the coup, he told Stauffenberg, "For God's sake, don't forget that fellow Keitel when you make your putsch." (Duffi & Ricci, 147)
Yet another figure who was to doom the July 20th conspiracy by turning on the conspirators was the unwitting Major Ernst Remer who commanded the Gross Deutschland Battalion. The coup unraveled in Berlin when Remmer, sent by Stauffenberg to arrest Hitler's Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, after speaking to Hitler, turned his forces on the Berlin conspirators. General Fromm then assembled a firing squad to shoot Stauffenberg and his collegues in order to cover his own tracks. This did him little good as he was himself arrested and executed barely three weeks later.
Once they had both spoken personally to Hitler on the phone, Fromm and Remer unhesitatingly turned their guns on the Berlin conspirators. Clearly Hitler's aura and the spellbinding fuehrer oath paralyzed too many army officers into strict obedience. The conspirators could expect no help from their naive naive, timorous, obsequious, fence-sitting, and treacherous fellow officers as long as Hitler remained in good health. For all too many, the risks were just too great to plot against the regime and it's tyrant.
Then there were the other officers - Hitler's resilient enemies led by General Beck. Hitler was pleased when the more compromising General Halder replaced Beck as Army Chief of Staff. Thoroughly distrustful and apprehensive of Halder's predecessor, Hitler concluded: "The only man in the world I fear is Beck. That man would be capable of acting against me." (Duffi & Ricci, 53)
On April 21, 1938, Hitler asked his General Staff to plan a pre-emptive attack on Czechoslovakia - Case Green. Beck and his staff, in cooperation with Dr. Halmar Schacht who supplied the economic data and fresh diplomatic intelligence gathered by Goerdeler, prepared a memorandum which General Brauchitsch passed on to Hitler on May 7. The memo explained in detail why Hitler's plan would be disastrous for Germany:
"Germany's military situation is not as strong as in 1914...
Germany's defense economy is poor, poorer still than in 1917-18...
France and Russia are already on Britain's side, and America will attach herself to them...Britain is preparing to throw her sword into the balance should Germany march on Czechoslovakia...lying centrally within the continent, Germany cannot withstand a major war on land, sea, and air." (Mason, 36).
Hitler threw these statistics right out the window. He summoned instead the entire General Staff to the Chancellory to tell them: "It is my unalterable decision to smash Czechoslovakia in the near future by military action!" The generals were in shock. Then strolling over to where Beck stood, Hitler continued, "So we will tackle the Czech situation, then I will give you three or four years' time, then we will tackle the situation in the West."
Beck knew exactly what Hitler meant - a war of conquest across Europe.
to speak with Hitler's secretary, Captain Fritz Wiedemann, who revealed
still more. Hitler was determined to use whatever force necessary to forge a "German Empire which would include Poland, the Ukraine, the Baltic states, Scandinavia, Holland, Flemish Belgium, Luxembourg, Burgundy, Alsace-Lorraine, and Switzerland."
can be changed now. Ribbentrop has convinced the fuehrer
that the British won't fight."
Except for Hitler and Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, scarcely anyone in Germany, certainly none of the conspirators, could imagine that Britain and France would stand by and do nothing if Nazi Germany moved against their ally, Czechoslovakia. But since 1935 neither western nation had in fact done anything in the face of Hitler's numerous violations of Versailles Treaty.
As early as 1935, Hitler expanded the Germany army beyond the 100,000 troop ceiling allowed by the Versailles Treaty and then reintroduced conscription. He then set about rebuilding the navy and created the Luftwaffe. Britain and France having done nothing, he decided that he could get away with still more. In March 1936 he remilitarized the Rhineland. By that time he had in effect violated and voided every clause of the Versailles Peace Treaty imposed on Germany by Britain and France at the end of World War I.
Encountering no resistance Hitler pressed on relentlessly. In March
1938, he annexed Austria (a neutral and sovereign nation since 1919) to
Germany and marched Germany's troops into Vienna. Barely had Germany swallowed Austria that Hitler now demanded that Czechoslovakia cede her Sudetenland under the pretext that its four million ethnic Germans should belong to the Reich. The conspirators now desperately hoped that Britain and France would finally draw the line and stand up to Hitler by honoring their alliance with Czechoslovakia. Soviet Russia was also party to this Entente but would not move without France who in turn would not move without Britain.
Would Britain threaten war if Hitler violated Czech territory? That
was the question Beck, Oster, Canaris, and the other conspirators pondered as they started planning the best opportunity they ever had of overthrowing Hitler and the Nazi regime.
The two men who stood at the apex of Nazi Germany's armed forces – Army Commander-in-Chief General von Brauchitsch and his Chief of Staff General Franz Halder - were both aware of the coup planning but refused to authorize any action against Hitler unless Britain and France threatened to fight to protect Czechoslovakia. Onyl the risk of war could justify a coup d'etat.
The acquiescence of Halder and Brauchitsch in the event of a coup was
crucial since they commanded the German army. But Halder would not move against Hitler unless Brauchitsch moved first. Brauchitsch in turn would not move unless Britain and France displayed their determination to do so. It was that simple. If London failed to stand-up to Hitler, the coup
could never take place. Fully aware of this, the conspirators dispatched
a number of emissaries to London in August and early September.
Despite the false papers and covers with which Canaris resourcefully
supplied the conspiracy's emissaries, all were putting themselves in lethal danger from the Gestapo in coming to London to lobby the British government to stand up to Hitler.
The emissaries included Colonel Tettelbach (sent by Halder and Oster),
diplomats Count Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin, Theo Kordt, junior German embassy official in London Edward von Selzam, Adam von Trott, lawyer Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Lt.Col. Count Erhard von Schwerin, and of course the indefatigeable Dr. Carl Goerdeler.
But these emissaries to London came up against a wall of blind and deaf British policy makers and diplomats who would not follow their advice either for reasons of national expediency or because they completely ignored the long-term Lebensraum strategy Hitler had charted all along in Mein Kampf. Nothing these emissaries could say, no amount of detailed documentation Canaris could provide them with to expose Germany's concealed weaknesses, nothing at all could dissuade Chamberlain and company from abandoning their appeasement of Hitler which, as these emissaries so clearly but pointed out, only further strengthened Hitler's grip over Germany.
In the Fall of 1938, the conspirators also contacted the French and
U.S. governments, but they pinned their hopes above all on Britain. Although France possessed at the time the largest standing army in the world, President Daladier would not commit France to Czechoslovakia's defense unless Chamberlain did the same with Britain. When the German conspirators in desperation sent one of their emissaries to Washington, the Roosevelt White House listened to the advice of the British Foreign by refusing even a back-door visit.
Despite their unceasing efforts, the conspiracy's emissaries were unable to get London to take them seriously. That they were putting their lives, their families, and their friends in great danger by embarking on such missions, for which if caught they could be hanged for high treason, failed to evoke any understanding from the Chamberlain government. One by one, they were either ignored, mocked, distrusted, scorned, or politely shunned by the Foreign Office.
When Count Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin visited London on Beck's behalf
in late August 1938 to obtain from Britain a concrete pledge of support
(a pledge to defy Hitler over Czechoslovakia), British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Neville Henderson, advised Whitehall not to rebuff Schmenzin blatantly but not to take any initiative to receive him either. (Duffi & Ricci, 57).
In this saga of covert missions, Schmenzin encountered two men in London who were not appeasers: Winston Churchill, the Conservative Tory leader in opposition, and Robert Vansittart, advisor to Foreign Secretary Lord Edward Halifax who succeeded Eden in that capacity in February 1938. Both Churchill and Vansittart were committed to confronting Hitler.
Churchill believed Schmenzin and honored Beck's request. He wrote a
menacing letter clearly conveying to the fuehrer that any use of force
against Czechoslovakia would mean war with Britain. But Beck wanted that message to come straight from Chamberlain. Predictably, Churchill's letter had no effect because he did not become Prime Minister May 1940.
Vansittart, an ardent Germanophobe, did not differentiate between the
moderate demands of the conspirators to preserve Germany's restored power and Hitler's warmongering urge to expand it. Consequently, Goerdeler, who did his best to enlighten the Foreign Office about the stark difference between the ultimate goals of Hitler's foreign policy and his own, came across merely as "a stalking horse for military expansionism.
I do not count Dr. Goerdeler as a moderate. He is quite untrustworthy," said Vansittart. (von Klemperer, 114).
Schmenzin's mission was a complete loss. Upon his return to Berlin,
he reported back to Beck that "no one in London is prepared to wage a preventive war." (von Klemperer, 27). Leaving no stone unturned, Schmenzin ran desperately from one undecided general to another flashing Churchill's bellicose letter in the hope that it would spur the undecided to back General Beck. But nobody would.
After Vansittart acquainted Chamberlain with Schmenzin's visit, all
the prime minister could say was that Schmenzin reminded him of "the Jacobites at the court of France in King William's time and I think we should discount a good deal of what he says." (Duffi & Ricci, 58). Echoing Chamberlain, Foreign Office appeasers like Sir Alexander Cadogan rebuffed Goerdeler's warnings of Hitler's domestic and foreign intentions. Germany's form of government was an 'internal question' in which Britain had "no right to intervene." (von Klemperer, 112).
The British ackowledgement that greeted General Staff officer Lt. Col.
Count Gerhard von Schwerin's mission was worse still in that it heaped
insult on blindness. British military attaché in Berlin Kenneth
Strong conveyed Schwerin's inside information to London. The message warned that Hitler considered the Munich agreement nothing more than "a scrap of paper", that he was in fact aiming at the conquest
of Eastern Europe and would one day turn his guns on Britain, that while
the German army had not supported Hitler wholeheartedly over Czechoslovakia it was sure to do so over Poland if Hitler triumphed at Munich. Furthermore, the Danzig corridor, formerly part of the Reich, meant more to the Army than the Sudetenland. Sir Frank Roberts of the Foreign Office replied that he wondered whether "this gross treasonable disloyalty by a senior Army officer however 'significant' was not a Machiavellian lie." (von Klemperer, 119).
The consequences of this outlandish reasoning would have driven anyone to despair who was risking their life to achieve the exact opposite. But more disheartening still, Roberts' attitude was shared by a great many others - to such an extent that the Foreign Office came to see Herr Hitler as a safer person to deal with than General Beck. After all, the fuehrer wanted only to absorb the Sudeten Germans and had promised that the Czech question was his "last territorial demand."
Whereas his sworn enemies, Beck and Goerdeler, were asking openly for the return of the Danzig corridor.
If ever the Foreign Office harbored a fatally short-sighted outlook,
here it was. Yet the German conspirators had done everything in their power to convince London of the exact opposite. They had given their British hosts detailed inside information, leaked by General Beck, of Hitler's long-term strategic plans. Canaris had sent classified reports to convince London that standing up to Hitler was not as hazardous a gamble as the Foreign Office believed - given the wavering of the army high command, the German people's hidden reluctance to go to of war, the unpreparedness of the Wehrmacht, and the fact that London's sleeping allies, Generals Halder and Brauchitsch, needed only an unmistakeable signal to be awakened.
Confirming all of this at the Nuremberg Trials, General Keitel admitted that Hitler would never have carved up Czechoslovakia if Britain and France had rattled their sabres rather than dangled their carrots. (Duffi & Ricci, 80). The officials in the Chamberlain government responsible for ignoring, mocking, distrusting, and scorning all the warnings of the German conspirators advised their American counter-parts to do the same. Consequently, no German emissary ever obtained an audience with President Roosevelt.
There were a number of British and American officials and luminaries
who appreciated the efforts of these emissaries and did what they could
to help. In the Foreign Office, Ashton-Gwatkin saw "immense-advantage" in listening to and supporting the the German conspirators. (von Klemperer, 114). Likewise, Lady Astor appreciated what Adam von Trott had to say. She purposefully invited him to a dinner party at her Clivedon estate in order to seat him next to Lord Halifax so that his message might reach the highest circles of power in London. Trott's argument was overheard by William Douglas-Home who later recalled:
"von Trott, as passionate an anti-Nazi as he was a patriot, spoke with perfect mastery of English, of the aspirations of the German nation as a whole...He seemed to be trying to impress upon the Minister [Lord Halifax] the necessity for an immediate adjustment of the status quo.
He argued that some gesture of goodwill should be made toward Germany, not only to satisfy her just desire for a revision of the Versailles Treaty, but also - and this might be decisive - to remove some of the planks of Hitler's political platform and thus pave the way to power for those who had the interests of the world, as well as Germany, at heart...He saw the danger ahead, and he felt that, with mutual cooperation and sacrifice, the danger might yet be averted." (von Klemperer, 125-126).
Unfortunately, those in the West who sought to enlist their governments
in support for the German conspirators were but lone voices in the wilderness. They would eventually include British intelligence chief Sir Stewart Menzies, American intelligence chief William J. Donovan of the OSS, and OSS station chief in Berne, Switzerland, Allen Dulles. But Donovan, Dulles, and Menzies lacked the necessary political clout to persuade their respective heads of state to support the conspirators.
Not so the influential men who surrounded Chamberlain. In July 1937,
Eden received the Langnam Report (sent by Canaris and authenticated by
Vansittart) exposing the discrepancy between how industrially and militarily powerful Nazi Germany claimed to be and reality. Bearing the stamp "suppressed by Eden" the Langnam Report never reached Chamberlain's Cabinet. (von Klemperer, 86). Its members thus never had the opportunity to examine fresh information that might have caused them to entirely reassess the policy of Appeasement.
Regardless of the rebuffs they received, the conspirators refused to
believe that London and Paris would cave in to Hitler over Czechoslovakia. Consequently, they began planning their first coup attempt against the Nazi regime. Beck had already spent the summer summer badgering Brauchitsch to convene a meeting of all General Staff officers to persuade them to resign en masse if Hitler did not desist from his Czech adventure. Brauchtisch eventually gave in and the meeting was held in August.
Every General Staff officer concurred that nobody under their command wanted war over Czechoslovakia. They then debated how to approach Hitler. General von Reichenau insisted that under no circumstances should they all confront Hitler in a group but that one man alone should speak up for all of them. The timid Brauchitsch reluctantly agreed that he would go it alone.
When Brauchitsch broached the matter directly, Hitler flew into a rage
that shut him up immediately. By early September 1938 Beck and Oster were meeting daily under Canaris as Abwehr headquarters became the nerve center of the conspiracy.
At this point, many more officers joined the anti-nazi conspiracy pledging their full commitment to the planned coup d'etat. They included Ernst von Weiszacker and Ulrich von Hassel from the Foreign Ministry; General Karl-Heinrich von Stuelpnagel and General Georg Thomas, Chief of the War Economy Department; Gestapo official Dr. Hans Bernd Gisevius and his colleague Arthur Nebe; Berlin Police Chief Wolf von Helldorf and Deputy Chief Paul von Hase; the commander of Berlin's military district, General Erwin von Witzleben, who was immensely popular with his troops. General Count Walter von Brockdorff-Ahlefeld who commanded Potsdam's 23 Infantry Division also pledged to use all the troops under his command for the coup.
As the Czech crisis intensified in October, Beck and Oster worked feverishly to pinpoint all the necessary buildings that required a Blitzkrieg take-over for the coup to succeed - government ministries, radio stations, the public telephone system, Party offices, an above all the Gestapo, SS, and SD headquarters. But it was not just a matter of seizing their headquarters.
The Gestapo, SS, and SD had a myriad of substations throughout and around Berlin, and nobody within the Abwehr knew their whereabouts. Fortunately, Gisevius's collegue Arthur Nebe had access to the Gestapo's secret files. Together, Nebe and Police Chief Heinrich von Helldorf were able to provide Gisevius with a list of the various substations scattered throughout Berlin camouflaged inside innocuous-looking private homes. But further reconnaissance was needed. General Brockdorff provided it.
Together, Gisevius and Brockdorff spent an entire afternoon driving
all over Berlin. As the general took notes and sketched away furiously
on his pad marking the key points in question, he ordered his chauffeur
to circle the buildings. Gisevius and Brockdorff took note of possible
escape routes through rear gardens and over walls that the SS and Gestapo might use to evade the conspirators once the coup forces had surrounded the buildings.
Brockdorff's car drove past the SS barracks at Lichterfelde, rounded
the radio station at Konigswusterhausen and then drove northwest past Sachsenhausen concentration camp where 5,000 German citizens where already interned for speaking against the Party and Hitler. The new government would free the political prisoners once the coup had succeeded to prove to the world that Germany had returned to "ordinary human decency" in Goerdeler's words.
The key points to be captured having been noted, there still arose the
danger that the coup forces would be overwhelmed by Himmler's rapidly growing SS which were fast becoming a virtual army. Brockdorff estimated that his own forces could seize control of Berlin, but Witzleben worried about the likely intervention of Himmler's crack SS Liebstandardt Division stationed near Munich. The division was coated with nazi fanatics from top to bottom and fully mobilized. To tie it down, Witzleben called on
General Erich Hoepner, commander of the Wuppertal Panzer Divison based in the Thuringian forest near Munich. Hoepner loathed Himmler and the SS, to say nothing of Hitler. When informed of the planned coup d'etat, he immediately placed his Panzers on stand-by alert.
Gathering the manpower necessary to enact a coup was all fine and well
but how did the plotters intend to justify it to the German people when
Hitler was soaring fast toward the pinnacle of his popularity? Beck, Canaris, Oster, Witzleben, Brockdorff, and the other conspirators agreed that they would announce that an SS uprising led by Himmler seeking to replace Hitler had occurred and that the army had intervened to ensure the fuehrer's safety.
Halder was let in on every detail of the coup planning and approved
it lock, stock, and barrel. First to be arrested would be Himmler and his
SS intelligence chief Reinhard Heydrich. And Hitler? Witzleben entrusted
that task to Major Wilhelm Heinz attached to Oster's staff. Heinz was a veteran of the Freikorps and had fought in the pitched street battles of the 1920s against the Communists. But he had long since become disillusioned with Hitler.
Witzleben commissioned Heinz to recruit a crack force of commandos to storm the Chancellory, seize Hitler, and spirit him away to a castle in
Bavaria. Witzleben also favored adding volunteer workers and students to
the assault force so that the world would see that the insurrection was
not a Latin-American style army junta coup but instead a popularly supported revolt against tyranny. Heinz got straight to work and within weeks had assembled a force of sixty commandos.
What should be done with Hitler after the commandos had captured him? Canaris, Halder, Beck, and Witzleben wanted him arrested and tried publicly for his crimes against the state and violation of internaitonal law. Oster favored having Hitler declared insane and committed to an asylum. Dohnanyi agreed. He had been combing government archives for years gathering damaging information on Hitler.
Among the Hitler files Dohnanyi handed to Oster was a World War I medical report written immediately after Corporal Hitler had carried back to a base hospital following a mustard gas attack during the last month of World War I. The attack had left Hitler delerious and temporarily blind. An army psychiatrist diagnosed the patient as a "psychopath with hysterical symptoms." (Mason, 45).
Canaris and Halder agreed that Hitler was to be arrested but in no way
physically harmed. Both considered assassination to be unethical and counter-productive. They wanted Hitler committed, not turned into a martyr. By contrast, Oster believed no coup d'etat could succeed as long as Hitler were alive due to his spellbinding power over the armed forces and people capped by the sacred fuehrer oath. Furthermore Oster argued, why should Hitler deserve better a fate than that which he inflicted on generals Bredow and Streicher and hundreds of others during the Night of the Long Knives massacre? Heinz agreed. A captive living fuehrer would remain a focal rallying point for the SS.
Halder replied that assassination could only be considered if Hitler
plunged Germany into war and that even then his death should be made to look accidental. But Heinz and Oster stuck to their guns. Secretly, the two men agreed that when storming the Chancellory with his commandos, Heinz would shoot Hitler dead and make it look like he had been killed in the cross-fire. (Duffi & Ricci, 69). Not even Beck was to know of this. At H-hour, the commandos would overpower the guards, dynamite the massive front doors of the Chancellory, and rush upstairs to Hitler's quarters. Only then would Brauchitsch be told of the blitzkrieg putch.
By the second week of September everyone and everything was in place. On September 12 all of Europe waited anxiously as Hitler arrived in Munich to speak at the annual Party rally. Beck, Canaris, Oster, Witzleben, and the other conspirators were sure he would use the occasion to deliver an ultimatum to Czechoslovakia: cede the Sudetenland or face war. But Hitler was slightly more cunning than that. After rambling on about the early days of Party's struggle, he raised his voice and delivered a tirade against Czechoslovakia, it's president, and it's history. But he stopped there. His speech was only vaguely threatening.
After Hitler's speech, Sudeten Germans rushed out into the streets and
riots ensued. President Benes called in Czech troops to restore order and
inevitably eleven Sudeten Germans were killed. The conspirators were now sure that Hitler would move. But instead it was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who announced on September 14 that he was going to Germany "to meet Herr Hitler."
At the first summit, Hitler ranted and raved about the "persecution" of the Sudetens and warned that he would move against the frontier despite what Britain and France guaranteed the Czechs. He then returned to Berlin to address 20,000 Germans in the Sportzpalast screaming that Benes was a Bolshevik agent bent on eradicating the Sudeten Germans and that if they weren't given their freedom, he would seize it by force. The next day Hitler was still enraged when he told a British diplomat that he didn't give a fig what Britain and France planned to do: "I am prepared for any eventuality," he asserted, "it's Tuesday today, and next Monday we shall be at war." (Mason, 40).
The following day, Hitler ordered a military parade to march past the
Chancellory in order to wip up public enthusiasm. Instead, the people who
had been told to assemble outside in front of his balcony stood there sullen with clenched fists. Disgusted, Hitler turned to an aide saying: "How can I wage a war with people like that?" (Mason, 41).
Inside Abwehr headquarters the corridors and offices buzzed with frantic activity as Canaris's men were working around the clock bringing in updates every hour. Oster's agents had been posted in all the government ministries. While Goering had been tapping telephone conversations between Chamberlain and Benes, Oster's men had been sending the transcripts to Abwehr HQ.
Suddenly Hitler announced that he had changed his mind on the deadline and that the Czechs now had until Wednesday September 28th to meet his demands. Early that morning, Oster held an emergency meeting with Beck, Witzleben, and Halder who broke into a brief fit of weeping after learning the news. Beck then suggested that Halder persuade Brauchitsch to go and see Hitler and convince him not to move against the Czechs. Brauchitsch agreed. But when he broached the matter to Hitler, he was subjected to such a vitriolic tirade that he left Hitler's study sickly pale – thankful that he still had his job.
The conspirators heard the news and Witzleben rushed back to his headquarters where he found Gisevius waiting for him and said excitedly: "Gisevius, the time has come!" Major Heinz and his sixty commandos were on stand-by laert, secreted in safe-houses near the Chancellery, their machine guns locked and loaded. Hitler's deadline was now three hours and counting.
Suddenly the Italian ambassador arrived in Berlin with an offer from
Mussolini to mediate an end to the crisis. Hitler and Chamberlain agreed,
and the rest was history. Chamberlain went to Munich and once again appeased Hitler and the Wehrmacht moved into Czechoslovakia unopposed. "Our revolt was done for," said Gisevius, "Schacht, Oster, and I sat around Witzleben's fireplace and tossed our 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." (Mason, 50).
During the Czech crisis, Sir Kingley Wood (Chamberlain's Air Minister) leaked to the press a report he had doctored to show that the Luftewaffe possessed at least 1,500 bombers capable of killing and wounding half a million Londoners in three weeks. In reality, the German Airforce could rely on barely a third of that number being a threat to the British Isles in the event of war. But Wood's disinformation campaign worked, and "the British public was painted a picture of skies darkened by masses of German bombers turning London and other major cities into infernos." (Duffi & Ricci, 73)
Little wonder that Chamberlain returned from Munich acclaimed by throngs of relieved compatriots as he waived Hitler's signed Munich agreement and assured them that "peace in our time" had safely been secured. If there was ever an ideal chance for a coup d'etat it was during the Czech crisis when Hitler was at his most vulnerable. But Mussolini's decision to convene a peace conference and Prime Minister Chamberlain's and President Daladier's consent to quench Hitler's territorial thirst in order to save the peace, or forestall the war, pulled the rug from underneath the conspirators.
The September 1938 coup fell apart before it could even begin. Never
again would such auspicious moment return. The undecided generals who might have rallied to the conspirators had war erupted, or been on the verge of erupting, thereafter mocked and shunned all future efforts of the conspirators to enlist their support. Beck had prophecied that Britain's failure to stand up to Hitler over Czechoslovakia would lose her the two most important allies she had against Hitler: "the General Staff and the German people." (von Klemperer, 99). Like Witzleben, Canaris, and Oster, Beck could only lament that "we are deserted" while an embittered Gisevius bitterly concluded "Chamberlain has rescued Hitler." (ibid, 108).
Despite the fact that the conspirators had lost their best chance to
overthrow Hitler, they refused to give up. Despite the British government's apathy, they still sought out London. On March 15, 1939, Hitler violated the Munich agreement and swallowed the western half of Czechoslovakia thereby destroying the nation state. Next on the menu - Poland. Only this time London and Paris vowed to fight to protect her. Meanwhile, the conspirators continued sending emissaries.
First came the tireless Goerdeler who called upon opposition leader
Winston Churchill to pressure Chamberlain to help the German opposition. Then came Berlin attorney Fabian von Schlabrendorff whose connections to the royal family would win him instant respect. His great grandfather had been Queen Victoria's personal physician. As such, he was invited to Windsor castle and then quickly secured a meeting with a member of the House of Lords - George Ambrose Lloyd. Lord Lloyd heard from Schlabrendorff something astounding: Hitler and Stalin were planning to sign a non-aggression pact. Lloyd immediately relayed this information to Lord Halifax at the Foreign Office. But Halifax insisted that he was reassured by "competent experts" that this was an utter impossibility. (Mason, 65).
In June, conspirators on the General Staff dispatched yet another emissary to London - the urbane aristocratic Lieutenant Colonel Count Gerhard von Schwerin whom British naval intelligence considered "a
very acceptable type of German with charming manners who spoke perfect English, was unobtrusive, receptive, and a good mixer." (ibid).
Schwerin offered Whitehall specific concrete suggestions on how
best to sober up Hitler. He explained that Hitler "took no account of words-only deeds." (ibid).
The British and French air forces should stage mass bomber and fighter exercises over French airspace and the Royal Navy show its metal in the North Sea to impress Hitler.
For once London listened and went ahead with the exercises. The RAF
did show itself over France and both nations reiterated their guarantee
to fight for Polish integrity. But Hitler did not take the display of force seriously, concluding: "I saw my enemies at Munich, and they are little worms." (ibid, 66). On August 22, 1939, Hitler convened the General Staff to tell them of his decision to destroy Poland in a lightning war. Neither the British nor the French would really move, and the Russians would sign a non-aggression pact momentarily. Poland would be destroyed in a matter of weeks at the very most. Hitler was dead right.
Canaris was at the meeting and sat inconspicuously at the back taking
notes so that Oster could relay these to the known anti-nazi top brass.
General Siegfried Westphal and other western-front commanders were terrified at the idea of having to stave off an army of 2 million motorized and artillery-supported French troops: "We felt our hair stand on end, when we considered the possibility of an immediate French attack," he recalled. (ibid, 67). General Thomas - who likewise thought Hitler's Polish adventure to be suicidal - gave Hitler a mountain of statistical data pointing to the catastrophy that would result from a massive Anglo-French offensive in the West. The Fuhrer again rejected caution wholesale, and once again he was right. Britain and France had in fact declared a phony war.
General Werner von Fritsch, who had never recovered from the disgraceful way Hitler had had him framed, was at the head of his forces leading the Army's attack on Warsaw. Insistant on leading a patrol into one of the city's suburbs, he was shot in the thigh by a Polish sniper. When his adjutant scrambled to make a tornaquet in the midst of a hail of gunfire, Fritsch pushed him back angrily, saying "Just leave me be!" He died 90 seconds later. Five days later, Warsaw surrendered.
Back in Berlin, Beck listened in on the BBC's radio broadcast covering
the destruction of Warsaw and burst into tears. (ibid, 70). He knew that Heydrich's SS extermination squads, the Einsatzgruppen, would follow on the heels of the Wehrmacht and do their sordid work. Canaris's men in the field reported it all prompting the Abwehr Chief to inform army
headquarters that "SS commanders are boasting of killing 200 Poles
a day." (ibid).
Receiving no reply from General Keitel, an outraged Canaris went immediately to Poland and confronted Keital directly aboard Hitler's special train. Slamming down a pile of atrocity reports on Keital's desk, Canaris exclaimed: "The world will one day hold the army responsible for these methods since these things are taking place under it's very nose!"
An unmoved Keitel snapped back that if the army did not wish to take part
in "these things" it had no right to blast the SS and SD for
doing so. (ibid, 71).
Many Wehrmacht officers knew what was going on and were horrified by what they saw. Many of them refused to shake hands with SS officers even in Hitler's presence at Fuhrer headquarters. General Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander-in-chief East, showed his disgust for the SS by expelling SS Obergruppenfuhrer Udo von Woyrsch - the most notorious of Himmler's butchers. But the butchery continued at full speed. By the end of the Polish campaign, Heydrich report to Himmler that "of the Polish upper classes in the occupied territories, only 3% still exist." (ibid).
In October 1939, Hitler told his General Staff that he would wage total war to ensure a complete German victory. He would deal the West a knock out blow by waging a lightning war through Belgium and Holland. Many senior ranking army officers were horrified. This would mean violating Belgian and Dutch neutrality. Hitler had already vilified Germany's name in the eyes of the world by smashing Poland. His justification for that was that the Danzig corridor was an intolerable violation of historical German sovereignty. But what justification could there be for attacking two even smaller nations that were still at peace with Germany and held no territory that formerly German?
Many officers knew that the German army faced serious munition shortages inadequate to sustain an offensive against Britain and France. They were certain Hitler's Western adventure would flounder in another World War I-like quagmire. And even if the offensive succeeded, how then could Germany ever be readmitted into the ranks of civlized nations.
Beck, Canaris, Oster, and Hitler's other sworn enemies began planning
another coup attempt. Halder ordered the plans of the 1938 coup attempt
- hidden for nearly a year in a secret safe at Army headquarters in Zossen
- removed, reread, and updated. Oster again took over the planning. Heinz
got back in touch with his sixty commandos and told them to see to their
weapons and pack their gear. A new arrest list was drawn up to include
Hitler, von Ribbentrop, Himmler, Goering, Goebbels, and SS Life Guards
commander Sepp Dietrich.
Theo Kordt and likeminded colleagues at the Foreign Office drafted a
lengthy memo to convince Brauchitsch to support the coup attempt. Refuting the argument that a coup attempt against Hitler would find no support when Germany was winning one stunning victory after another, Kordt wrote prophetically:
"The debacle would only be recognized once it is there. The coup d'etat would then, of course, be popular - but it would come too late and would no longer ward off the catastrophe into which we would all be plunged, with or without Hitler, even with our fine Polish laurels....The relative unpopularity of the undertaking must therefore be accepted with the necessary amount of civic courage. The soldier's oath is no longer valid since Hitler is planning to sacrifice Germany to his own diabolical aims." (Mason, 73).
But the fence-sitting Army Commander-in-Chief was incapable of making a firm decision and sticking to it. All the conspirators could wring out of Brauchitsch was the feeble reply, "I won't do anything, but I won't oppose it if someone else acts." (ibid).
Hitler now set a target date for his Western offensive - November 12th.
Aware of this, General Halder smuggled a small automatic pistol into his
pocket with the halfhearted intention of using it against him. According
to Professor Mason, "the motivation and means were at hand, but Halder could not bring himself to draw the weapon and kill Hitler in cold blood"...yet..."kept the pistol with him against the remote chance that his aversion to assassination might somehow be overcome." (ibid).
On November 5, Brauchitsch and Halder summoned the courage to drive to the Chancellery to try and persuade Hitler one last time to abort Case Yellow - the coming Western offensive. In the face of another one of Hitler's violent outbursts, the two men panicked and forced the conspirators to abort this second coup attempt before it could even begin.
Having heard Hitler bellowing that he would "destroy the spirit of Zossen" Halder mistakenly interpreted this to mean that Hitler knew of the impending coup attempt. He was haunted by the recurring nightmare of Heydrich's SD agents swooping down on Zossen and discovering the smoking gun: the safe that contained not only the coup blueprints but a list of all the members who belonged to the conspiracy and those selected to head the new government once the coup had succeeded - courtesy of Canaris's meticulous notekeeping.
So vanished the last opportunity to stop Hitler from plunging Europe
into another world war. Fed up with Brauchitsch's shilly shallying and
Halder's last minute panick attack, Theo Kordt of the Foreign Ministry
went to see Oster and assured him of his resolve to kill Hitler even if
he himself died in the process. Kordt was a regular visitor to the Chancellery. His scheme would involve blowing up Hitler. Oster would procure the explosives from Abwehr's Section II (Sabotage) commanded by Major Erwin Lahousen, another conspirator. But an unexpected event intervened to prevent Kordt from realizing his plot.
Every November 8, Hitler came to speak at the Burgerbraukeller beer
hall in Munich to honor his failed 1923 putsch when he and his followers
attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic. The army's swift and brutal
crackdown had left many putschists dead and wounded and Hitler honored their memory every year with a ninety minute impassioned harangue.
On November 8, 1938, a Swiss carpenter and clock manufacturer by the
name of George Elser attended the ceremony noting when Hitler arrived,
how long he spoke and where he stood on the podium when he spoke. He was determined to kill Hitler for reasons similar to those of the conspirators but also out of anger against the increasingly stringent paternalism the Nazi state was developing over German workers.
Elser had been working in Germany as a common laborer and resented the myriad of restrictions forced on workers by the regime. Though he and Oster had the same goal in mind, Elser was in no way connected to the conspirators. News of his attempt startled the coup plotters as much as it did everyone else. Elser’s visit to the Burgerbraukeller in November 1938 served as a reconaissance mission allowing him an entire year to prepare the assassination.
Having thoroughly cased the building, Elser decided that the best way
to kill Hitler would be to smuggle a time bomb inside and set it to detonate during Hitler’s speech. Over the next eight months, he carefully garnered his tools and expertise to build the most accurate time-bomb possible with the means at his disposal : "an assortment of wooden planes, three hammers, two set squares, two tin shears, two graving tools, a padsaw, a precision ruler, scissors, pliers, wood clamps, and
several rasps and fine wood files." (Mason, 81).
His bomb making kit also included fifty kilograms of high explosive,
six clock movements, insulated wire, and a six-volt battery. His bag of
tricks lay enclosed in a 180-mm brass artillery casing he had somehow procured. On August 5, 1939, George Elser arrived in Munich to begin his lethal work. Every night, shortly before 11:30PM, he hid in the Burgerbraukeller's gallery waiting for the building to empty and the lights to go off. Herbert Mason relates the details:
"Working by the weak beam of a flashlight shrouded with a blue handkerchief, Elser carefully prised away the molding that surrounded a rectangular section of the column. Then he carefully drilled a small hole in one upper corner of the veneer panel and inserted the tip of a special cabinetmaker's saw. With exquisite care Elser began cutting away the panel. He worked three or four hours, then cleaned up evidence of his work before falling asleep in a chair. The painstaking sawing of a few millimeters at a time, the replacing of the molding, the picking up of each grain of sawdust after each stint of work - none of this tried the craftsman's patience. He spent three nights just removing the panel.
No trace of his tampering could be detected....He chipped out a cavity bits and pieces at a time using hammers and steel hand drills of various diameters. Each tap reverberated through the empty hall, sounding to Elser like pistol shots. When some obstruction required heavier blows than usual, he waited for noises from the street to cover the sounds. Since he worked during the predawn hours, he often had to wait a long time between hammer blows." (Mason, 81-82).
Elser would leave the building each morning at 8:00 A.M. explaining
to his landlord that he was working on a secret invention in a shop open
to him only after midnight. What of the timers? Elser used two fifteen
day alarm clocks one of which he fitted with a parallel back-up triggering device should the main trigger fail. To this he fitted a system of cog wheels and levers which when set in motion would accurately run their time. Elser's smart-bomb would allow him to activate the timer up to 144 hours or six days to the second prior to the explosion. Finally, he procured a thin sheet of steel and fixed it to the column so that should a security guard wonder through the hall tapping away in search of suspicious hollow sounds none could be detected.
On the night of Thursday November 2, Elser began placing the charges
and detonators inside the column. On November 4, he tested the timers for the last time. They performed flawlessly. Shortly before 1:00 A.M. on Monday, November 6, he started to wire and arm his deadly device. By the time he set off the timer it was 6:00 A.M.. The bomb would go off precisely 63 hours and 20 minutes later on Wednesday November 8th at 9:20 P.M.
On Monday morning Elser packed his gear and checked out of his room
to catch a train for Stuttgart. He returned one last time to the Burgerbraukeller in the early hours of Wednesday morning to check his gadget - the clocks were ticking away perfectly. He snuck out at 6:30 A.M. the following morning bound for Switzerland. If all went according to schedule, 15 hours and 50 minutes later Hitler would be blown to pieces.
Hitler entered the Burgerbraukeller on Wednesday, November 8, at 8:10 PM amid hoarse screams of sieg heil! In his speech he ranted and raved about the plight of British workers and the incompetence of the capitalist West in the face of the Great Depression while Germany had made enormous economic strides under National Socialism. The minute hand crawled ever closer to 9:20 PM.
Suddenly at 9:12PM - 57 minutes into his speech - Hitler ended his tirade, gave the Nazi salute, and trotted out of the beerhall. His heavily armored motorcade then wisked him away to the train station. Eight minutes later, a deafening explosion was heard coming from the Burgerbraukeller. The six people closest to the podium were killed instantly and two more died within hours. Sixty five others lay injured. Elser's pillar had exploded sending shards of wood flying in all directions. The explosion had been so powerful that much of the ceiling collapsed. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, had Hitler bellowed on for another twenty minutes, as he always had in the past, there would have been nothing left of him to identify. Instead fate or his own instinct had caused him to leave sooner than expected.
Elser never made it to Switzerland. Arrested by the border police 100
yards short of the Swiss-German frontier, he was forced to turn out his
pockets to reveal some not so mundane items - a clock spring, a few small cogs, a tiny aluminum detonator, and a postcard of the Burgerbraukeller.
His suspicious captives handed him over to the Gestapo who upon hearing the startling news of the bomb attempt on Hitler drew an immediate connection to the items in Elser's pocket.
Despite unending interrogation sessions, the Gestapo believed his story that he was a lone agent. Inexplicably, the convicted Elser was not executed swiftly but would instead spend the rest of the war in Sachsenhausen until Himmler had him murdered barely two weeks before V-E day. Some believe Elser may in fact have been secretly carrying out his scheme with the full knowledge of Himmler and Heydrich who happened to be the two greatest beneficiaries from Elser's attempt.
It is a testament to their phenomenal steadfastness that the German
conspirators did not give up but instead persevered in their sustained
efforts to win the support of the British and American governments throughout the war. Even after the Battle of Britain, when Churchill refused to have anything more to do with them by committing Britain to a policy of absolute silence, the conspirators continued risking their lives ceaselessly trying to open a dialogue. During 1939-40, Canaris protected that effort.
After Britain declared war, Whitehall officially severed all relations
with German officials. The conspirators needed an indirect channel, a middleman so to speak, capable of conveying its messages to the British government. While private citizens like Sweden's Jakob Wallenberg served in that capacity, they needed a third party with far greater clout. Pope Pius XII stepped i n as the honest broker. (Duffi & Ricci, 108).
Only the Pope could and did guarantee that they would not be swindled
in the event of a coup-related deal. Contrary to popular belief, he was
never an appeaser of Hitler but if anything a staunch opponent forced by
his position to cloak his aversion. Furthermore, as Vatican head of state, it was his duty to see that as little harm as possible came to its priests and property throughout Nazi Germany.
Pope Pius (formerly Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli) knew Germany well, having served as the papal nuncio in Berlin (1920-29). As Vatican Secretary of State, he had countered Nazi anti-religious practices in the early thirties. When the conspirators asked him to appeal to the British to convey their request that London refrain from attacking Germany if they launched a coup, the Pope immediately supported their plan and agreed to intercede on their behalf. This course of action was very hazardous to take for a modern pope. By helping conspirators planning the overthrow of the Nazi regime, Pius placed the Vatican and its rank and file serving in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe at great risk. Nevertheless, he was shrewd enough to keep his distance which is why he never personally came into contact with any members of the German conspiracy.
Through Canaris's stealthy machinations, this is how the Resistance-Vatican-London channel functioned: Beck or Oster would hand the secret correspondence (outlining peace terms that the conspirators hoped to obtain and their request for a cessation of hostilities during the interval of a coup d'etat) to Dr. Joseph Mueller, Canaris's secret courier
and a lawyer and advisor to high ranking Catholic church officials in Germany. Upon arriving in Rome, Muller would meet Father Lieber in the secluded confines of the Gregorian Seminary and pass on the correspondence. Lieber would then hand it to the Pope who would read it and later hand it to Sir Francis d'Arcy Osborne. Once back in London, Osborne would hand the secret correspondence to Halifax.
(Duffy & Ricci, 106).
Throughout the 1939-40 period, the Pope never once met Mueller to insure that if either were ever questioned about their relationship, both could honestly reply that they had not seen each other since before the war. Wily Canaris cleverly threw off the scent of SS intelligence by convincing Heydrich that he had sent Mueller on a secret mission to pose as an Abwehr defector and thereby unmask the British intelligence network in Rome.
Exploiting that unique talent - that capacity to mask his cunning with
an impenetrable indiscernible veil of honesty - a straight-faced Canaris
looked that "violent and fanatical man" [his words] in the eye asking Heydrich's permission to allow Mueller to leak classified information to the British in order to establish Mueller's credibility as a defector. (Colvin, 20). Though Heydrich consented he nevertheless retained his suspicions of Canaris warning his Himmler that the Abwehr chief was "an old-fox who can not be trusted." (ibid, 108). What was Canaris really thinking when he assured Himmler at Heydrich's funeral that he had "lost a great man and true friend in Reinhard Heydrich."? (ibid, 182).
The Conspiracy-Vatican-London correspondence was compiled and summarized in the X-Report ["X" being Dr. Muller's codename] by Dohnanyi and typed up by his wife. Unwisely, he failed to destroy it as Lieber and Mueller had urged him to. When the Gestapo discovered the file on September 22, 1944, they found among its contents a list of all the people selected to head the planned Beck-Goerdeler government.
As a result, Himmler's July 20th investigation widened enormously dooming far more people than would have been the case had Dohnanyi heeded Mueller's advice. In any event, all the conspirators' efforts via the Vatican failed because the British government refused to pledge that it would suspend hostilities pending a coup d'etat. What were the conspirators asking for?
Throughout the six year conspiracy, the conditional peace terms sought
by the German conspirators changed from demands in 1938-40 to requests in 1943 to appeals by 1944. But even during 1938-40, when owing to Hitler's aggression Germany's strength crested, those demands were not that excessive. What the Foreign Office did not understand, or refused to acknowledge, was how committed the General Staff and conservative politicians and diplomats like Beck, Goerdeler, and Kleist-Schmenzin were to preserving Germany's regained great-power status which ironically they owed to the very man whom they so hated and sought to destroy.
The fact that the conspirators were as committed to dismantling the
punitive Versailles Peace Treaty as was Hitler led Foreign Office officials like Robert Vansittart to think that their long-term foreign policy aims were no different to HItler's nefarious schemes. Consequently, during Hitler's offensive against the Low Countries, Vansittart came away from his meeting with Goerdeler believing that the conspirators aims were but "the same sort of ambitions sponsored by a different body of men and that is about all." (von Klemperer, 435). What were those ambitions?
During the Czech crisis the conspirators insisted that, should their
coup succeed, the new Germany be allowed to retain Austria and the Sudetenland and reclaim the Danzig corridor. Their government would recognize Poland's independence and respect her territorial sovereignty but Germany's 1914 eastern frontiers must be restored. Chamberlain had actually agreed to accept the first two clauses but refused to concede to returning the Danzig corridor since Poland was an ally of Britain. He could not cut a deal affecting her size behind her back. But so was Czechoslovakia and he was going to Munich to do precisely that. The answer to this irony is that, as mentioned earlier, Chamberlain did not believe Hitler had further territorial ambitions (despite the conspirators' warnings); and again, the Foreign Office feared those of the plotters more than Hitler's.
More than a year later, in October 1939, as the conspirators started
preparing their second coup against Hitler, they promised London that the
new Germany would immediately vacate Bohemia-Moravia and fully restore Czechoslovakia's independence and territoral sovereignty (minus the Sudetenland) as the prelude to any peace conference so that Britain and the world would have concrete proof that the new government cheriched peace and intended to abide strictly by international law. But London still would not deal owing to the conspirators continued insistence on restoring Germany's 1914 eastern frontiers.
In the Summer of 1940, when Nazi Germany reached the zenith having defeated France and chased the British off the continent, the Resistance sought now more than ever to reap the fruits of Hitler's victory by overthrowing him and putting an end to the war on the most favorable peace terms possible for Germany. As a goodwill gesture, the conspirators vowed their government would withdraw all German forces from France, Holland, Belgium, Norway, and Denmark unilaterally as a basis for opening peace talks. Again they sought the restoration of Germany's 1914 frontiers and for Alsace-Lorraine an internationally monitored plebiscite to settle once and for all whether Germany or France would receive the age-old disputed province. (von Klemperer, 223).
What did Beck, Goerdeler, and the other conspirators want? What would
the new Germany demand? Nothing more than an honorable peace along the lines of Wilson's 14 points - no reparations, no annexation of territories not belonging to Germany prior to 1914, and her rightfully restored great power status as a benevolent hegemon leading "an enlightened organization of free peoples" in Central and Eastern Europe. Cooperation, adjudication, and mutual consultation were to embody the new German foreign Politik. This was the gist of the Rigi-Kaltbad Memorandum that German diplomats
Erich and Theo Kordt drafted for Beck which the conspirators emissaries conveyed to the Foreign Office.
London found the terms totally unacceptable because it was averse to
allowing Germany to remain a hegemon on the continent. But why should the British government have expected anything less from the German conspirators? As von Klemperer points out,
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"Now that the German Reich had clearly established itself as the major power on the continent, why should they [von Hassel, Goerdeler, Beck] have surrendered all the gains?" (von Klemperer, 225). Yet, even these terms were not final and were open to negotiation. Before long even Goerdeler, who was most attached to the idea of enlightened German hegemony, abandoned these hegemonical aspirations.
As the war took its toll and Germany's fortunes plummeted, by 1944 the conspirators could only plead with the Western Allies for fair peace terms. After D-Day, they asked only for an Allied pledge to (1) cease all aerial bombing during the intended coup and (2) not invade Germany.
In exchange, the new government would unconditionally withdraw all German forces from Western and Northern Europe back to the Weimar frontiers.
Regarding Germany's eastern frontiers, it would compensate Poland with East Prussia in exchange for the restitution of all pre-1914 German territory west of the Vistula - that is the Danzig corridor. The conspirators also asked for an Allied pledge not to force the new German government to pay reparations for the crimes of its predecessor and not to geopolitically encircle and isolate the new Germany. (Kramarz, 165).
Failing to obtain any reassuring answer from either government, Stauffenberg asked his Paris conspirators to put him in touch with General Eisenhower in the hope that a 'soldier to soldier' dialogue
would lead to a ceasefire. (von Klemperer, 383). But it all came to nothing.
The effect of the Battle of Britain, the Nazi blitz over London, and above all the Venlo kidnapping, prompted incoming Prime Minister Winston Churchill to commit Britain to a policy of absolute silence towards the German conspirators. In his worldwide radio address on August 24, 1941, Churchilll vowed to obtain nothing less than a peace that would "disarm the guilty nations." (von Klemperer, 231).
But what self-respecting German, especially the generals, could tolerate his nation being once again emasculated? How would the conspirators ever succeed in recruiting a single field marshal when the enemy might take advantage of the upheaval? After all, what proof did they have to believe otherwise?
Throughout 1938-39, London refused to pledge that it would cease hostilities in the event of a coup. Then in 1940 Churchill
formulated his absolute silence doctrine, and was now pledging to disarm the guilty. But there was still worse to come. When Roosevelt and Churchill met at Casablanca, in January 1943, the President emerged from the meeting to tell the world that America and Britain would accept nothing short of unconditional surrender. This took the Prime Minister by surprise as Roosevelt had not consulted him prior to issuing that earthshaking statement.
As Churchill later recounted: "The statement was made by President Roosevelt without consultation with me. I was there on the spot, and I had very rapidly to consider whether the state of our position in the world was such as would justify me in not giving support to it. I did give support to it, but that was not the idea which I had formed in my own mind....I have not the slightest doubt that...the British Cabinet...would have advised against it, but working with a great alliance and with great, loyal and powerful friends from across the ocean, we had to accomodate ourselves." (von Klemperer, 239).
To put it more tersely, America had entered the war and President Roosevelt now called the shots in the Western Alliance.
If Roosevelt's Unconditional Surrender policy surprised Churchill, it demoralized the German conspirators to the point of complete despair. Now General Beck could be certain that no undecided Wehrmacht officer would support a coup.
For what? To be invaded, occupied, and humiliated by the enemy? Never!
Better to stand by Nazi Germany, even if it meant following Hitler's madness, than to commit such dishonorable high treason.
For Canaris, the Allies had comitted "a calamitous mistake, our generals will not swallow that." (von Klemperer, 241).
Coming when it did in January 1943 the same month the German 6th army surrendered at Stalingrad, the unconditional surrender clause prompted Ulrich von Hassel to conclude that the Allies had bailed out Hitler from his disaster at Stalingrad. The demand, he said, had "jeopardized, if not destroyed, the work of six years." (ibid).
Nevertheless, a number of British and American government officials opposed the unconditonal surrender demand. Diplomats, intelligence officers, and even generals in the Foreign Office and the Department of State, in MI-5 and the OSS, and in SHAEF aired their dissent
among them U.S. State Secretary Cordell Hull.
General George C. Marshal, for example, was reported to have told Field Marshal Sir John Dill that with Roosevelt the British were "up against an obstinate Dutchman" who had blurted this policy out and would not now go back on it. (von Klemperer, 239).
The most vociferous protests came from OSS Chief William Donovan and his man in Berne, Allen Dulles, and British intelligence chief
Sir Stewart Menzies. Both Donovan and Menzies repeatedly pleaded for concrete Allied assistance to the conspirators. Dulles was in touch with them from his post in Berne. He passed into Switzerland on November 8, 1942 - the day US forces landed in French North Africa prompting Hitler to order the German army to occupy all of France in retaliation. His crossing into Switzerland seemed like an episode from an Ian Fleming novel: Dulles managed to slip across the border only minutes before German troops had closed the frontier. Due to his privileged status as special emissary, he could sound out the German conspirators in a manner that the U.S. legation in Berne could not.
Vociferously critical of the policy of unconditional surrender, Dulles understood his mission to be not merely to gather intelligence on the conspirators' activity but "to encourage, stimulate, guide, and support it." (von Klemperer, 317). Gero von Schulze Gaevernitz,
his right-hand man in touch with the conspirators believed that U.S. policy should "help the anti-Hitler Resistance within Germany." (ibid, 318). Made aware of Germany's appalling losses and quickening retreat on the Eastern Front, Gaevernitz believed that an army coup was the only alternative to the inevitable Stalinization of Eastern Europe. Mary Bancroft who communicated with Gisevius for Dulles shared Gaevernitz's aversion to the unconditional surrender clause.
For all their efforts, none of these understanding men and women in the U.S. and British governments, possessed the necessary clout to affect a change in Allied policy. Not even U.S. State Secretary Cordell Hull, who feared that the unconditional surrender clause would ultimately cement German Nazis and anti-Nazis into one opposing block, could get the President to reevaluate that policy. Why? Because, as von Klemperer points out, U.S. policy was shaped "neither by the State Department nor by the OSS but rather in the White House, the Treasury, and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff." (von Klemperer, 379). But Dulles did not give up. Only days before Stauffenberg's July 20th attempt, he advised Washington to lend 'encouragement' to the coup in the making that might "help save thousands of Allied soldiers." (von Klemperer, 380). He tried to impress on his indifferent Commander-in-Chief that "the Russians were at the doors of East Prussia." (ibid). But Roosevelt was discarded the matter.
The fact that the Soviet Union was bearing the brunt of the war against Nazi Germany was undoubtedly the overriding cause of Churchill's policy of absolute silence and Roosevelt's unconditional surrender demand. For the President and Prime Minister, it was vital not to give Stalin any incentive that would tempt him to strike a separate deal with Nazi Germany that would lead to a separate peace. Hindenberg and Ludendorff had pulled off such an affair with Soviet Russia in early
1918, but too late to allow them to move their forces westward and smash
the Anglo-French lines before U.S. forces arrived. It was very likely that the Allies might never win if Stalin, having regained the 1939 Soviet border, suddenly backed out of the war.
The fact that the Western powers had not yet opened a second front (and would not do so until June 1944) was tempting enough for Stalin to seek a separate peace. Churchill and Roosevelt were fully aware of this. Moreover, the United States was eager to get Russia to declare war on Japan since the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb was still years away from completion.
Neither of Stalin's partners felt that they could afford to send separate peace feelers to the German conspirators. But then could Stalin himself? For this is precisely what he did. He lost no opportunity to contact both the Nazis and the German Resistance. Throughout 1942-43
Hitler angrily refused to negotiate a ceasefire with Russia when von Ribbentrop eagerly conveyed the news. But the staunchly anti-communist German conspirators were far more intent on securing peace first with the West. Stalin made no effort to conceal his peace feelers to Germany, most likely to frighten his western partners into speeding up their opening of a second front.
Vansittart again was among those in the Foreign Office spear-heading Britain's policy of absolute silence. But there was also another character who led defended that policy, though not because he was a Germanophobe like Vansittart. Rather, he sympathized with the Soviets and, as their double-agent, had penetrated the highest circles of the British intelligence service. A master double-spy in his own right like Canaris, Kim Philby was one of the leading enforcers of absolute silence. When a November 1942 SIS report entitled Canaris & Himmler (pointing out SS-Abwehr rivalry) reached London, Philby prevented its circulation. (von Klemperer, 316). On another occasion, when German conspirator Otto John sent the British government a letter pleading for covert British support to the German conspirators, the message never reached its destination. Philby had intercepted it and prevented its circulation on the grounds that it was "unreliable." (ibid, 351).
Hitler's spectacular diplomatic and military triumphs from Munich to Paris had left the German conspirators exposed to ridicule and contempt. Yet with no foreign help, they stuck together and feverishly concocted one assassination attempt after another - as many as 17 between September 1938 July 20,1944. But with eery good fortune, Hitler, by fate or by design, escaped them all.
Sensitive to how hated he was by the aristocratic army officer corps, Hitler rarely visited the front line during World War II. When in late 1939,
General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord asked him to come and inspect the Siegfried Line on the pretext that it would impress the enemy, Hitler politely refused. When Hammerstein confided to his collegues that he intended to "neutalize Hitler once and for all" they knew exactly what this man of iron repute had in mind - arranging a fatal accident.
(Duffy & Ricci, 86).
The common realization among the conspirators that there was no way to safely rid Germany of Hitler other than killing him crystallized during the height of his success in 1940. Many generals, like Erwin Rommel, favored removing Hitler but not killing him for ethical reasons. In the planning of the September 1938 and November 1939 coups, even the conspirators entertained differing views.
On both occasions Halder, Beck, Witzleben, and Canaris wanted Hitler arrested and tried publicly for his crimes against the state. Oster and Dohnanyi favored having Hitler declared certifiably insane by a panel of doctors and committed to an asylum. But as mentioned earlier, Oster and Major Heinz in fact secretly agreed between themselves to have Hitler killed. In November 1939, the conspirators were again divided along the same lines.
By 1940, the conspirators realized that the German people - elated by Hitler's short victorious wars over Denmark, Norway, Holland and Belgium within a few months, and France was itself within three weeks! - could hardly be expected to endorse Hitler's arrest and trial or commitment to an asylum. This time they all agreed with Major Heinz that the spellbinding fuehrer must be killed. But Hitler was not to be had for the asking.
Paranoid about his safety, Hitler consistentlly rendered his travel itinerary inconsistent. He would suddenly delay or cancel trips at the last minute or appear unexpectedly ahead of time and nearly always without prior warning. Many of the 17 assassination plots were aborted owing to this practice alone. It was also impossible for an officer, no matter how high-ranking, to enter the fuehrer's quarters without being searched. Even field marshals were required to leave their caps and
belts in the anteroom prior to entering the fuehrer's briefing room. If caught carrying a concealed weapon, they were liable to arrest. The bomb-concealed briefcase therefore became Stauffenberg's preferred weapon.
Preferring bullets to explosives, conspirator Count Fritz Dietlof von der Schulenberg planned to have Hitler shot on July 20, 1940, during a reviewing parade in Paris. Hitler cancelled his plan to attend and without warning slipped into Paris in the early morning hours of July 23 to tour a few landmarks. Barely a year later, in May 1941, Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben had assembled a team of four shooters from among his staff to kill Hitler during another military parade. Again Hitler canceled. In 1942, a third similar assassination attempt was planned this time by Field Marshal von Rundstedt. Yet again Hitler canceled at the last minute.
In March 1943, Army Group Center chief of staff
Colonel Henning von Tresckow planned the most elaborate assassination plot yet. To get a sure kill, the ingenious Tresckow put together three separate assassination plots should any of them fail.
The first would involve Hitler's motorcade being suddenly attacked by the
escorting cavalry formation at a given signal. Failing that plan, Trescow's co-conspirators would attempt to shoot Hitler collectively the officer's mess hall at Army Group Center headquarters. The ultimate back plan involved smuggling a concealed time-bomb onto Hitler's Condor aircraft which would explode in mid-flight.
Because Hitler's passenger compartment was especially well armored, Tresckow asked and obtained from fellow conspirator Otto John (who worked for Lufthansa) the blueprints of the fuehrer's Focke-Wolfe 200 Condor. John warned him however that the plane was tightly guarded round the clock by SS guards who searched all mechanics coming near the plane. (Duffy & Ricci, 127).
A greater problem was obtaining a bomb with a silent time-fuse. German time-bombs emitted an audible hissing noise. But Oster was able to come up with the goods. British SOE forces often parachuted explosives to partisans in France and in the Balkans. On some occasions the Abwehr managed to capture silent British Plastic-C time bombs. Only these had one defect: at very low temperatures, the Plastic-C explosive often failed to ignite. (Duffy & Ricci, 128).
After having received numerous requests to inspect Army Group Center Headquarters in Smolensk, Hitler finally accepted - if only ensure that his orders were being obediently followed - and not before cancelling, rescheduling, and cancelling his arrival date several times.
On March 13, 1943, Hitler's plane arrived escorted by a formation of Luftwaffe fighters. Conspirator Captain Georg von Boeselager's cavalry regiment was poised to strike but never got the opportunity because the fuehrer's speeding motorcade was cordoned with a motorized SS machine-gun armed guards. The plan to shoot Hitler in the mess hall was also aborted owing to the fact that Army Group Center C-in-C Field Marshal Guenther von Kluge was sitting right next to Hitler and Tresckow feared the possibility of him being injured. Tresckow was however able to smuggle his bomb onto Hitler's plane by disguising it innocuously in a package of two Cointreau bottles supposedly intended for an army colleague in Rastenberg (Hitler's return destination). But Hitler's flight occurred without incident. Fortunately for Tresckow, the deadly contents of the Cointreau package were never discovered. His friend and co-conspirator Lt. Fabian von Schlabrendorff caught up with the package.
Four more assassination attempts were planned over the next year. In the first of these, Colonel Rudolph Christoph von Gersdorff (who had procured for Tresckow the Plastic-C bomb) volunteered to kill Hitler in a suicide bombing mission in which he intended to grab hold of the fuehrer and after detonating two charges in the pockets of his great-coat. The occasion was to be Hitler's announced visit to the Berlin Armory to inspect captured Soviet weapons. Hitler did show up but stayed far less time than expected. His tour, which Gersdorff had calculated to last at least fifteen minutes, took less than two. To everybody's amazement present, Hitler suddenly and for no apparent reason trotted out of the arms exhibit.
In yet another attempt organized by Tresckow, two army conspirators smuggled a bomb into Hitler's Wolf's Lair and lowered it into a water tower. But the bomb mysteriously exploded a few weeks later jolting the SS guards. From then on, the Wolf's Lair adopted airtight security.
Himmler immediately launched an inquiry into the incident which was deliberately blocked by Colonel Werner von Schrader - the investigative officer in charge and, as it turned out, a fellow conspirator.
Among the few conspirators not caught by the Gestapo, SS, or People's Court, was Captain Axel von Dem Bussche who survived the war to recount how he, like Gersdorff, also volunteered for a suicide mission in December 1943 in which he was to model in a new army winter uniform before Hitler. As Fate would have it, the night before the scheduled demonstration, the train car in which the new uniforms had been stored took a direct hit from an Allied bombing raid.
In March 1944, Captain Eberhard von Breitenbuch (another Tresckow recruitee) volunteered to walk into Hitler's conference room and shoot the fuehrer at point blank range knowing that he himself would be killed by SS guards. But Breitenbuch never had his chance because, owing to a fuehrer directive issued the same day he planned to carry out his mission, officers of his rank were no longer allowed to attend fuehrer briefings.
As though all these misfortunes were not enough, the conspiracy began to unravel in early 1943 when the Gestapo uncovered Operation U-7
(the secret Abwehr operation to rescue Jews from the Holocaust) and arrested Dohnanyi. Oster himself was fired for his involvement. In January 1944, Kreisau Circle leader Count Helmuth von Moltke was arrested. In February Canaris fell in the wake of the defection of Abwehr agent Erich Vermehren to British intelligence in Ankara. Vermehren's defection was the talk of Berlin and the Gestapo knew that he had escaped with classified documents - among these no doubt information on the army conspiracy to overthrow Hitler and the Nazi regime.
The sense of increasing urgency called for a coup leader who possessed not only daring but blitzkrieg-like initiative to respond to rapidly changing circumstances. The conspirators found their leader Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg who took over in September 1943.
Tresckow was now more preoccupied than ever with the rapidly deteriorating Eastern Front and could no longer effectively coordinate the conspiracy.
Stauffenberg had been severely wounded earlier that summer, having lost his right hand, the middle two fingers of his left hand, and his left eye when his car was straffed by Allied fighter planes in North Africa). He was now no longer assigned to any particular front but instead promoted to Chief of Staff to General Friedrich Fromm, the commander-in-chief of the German Home Army.
Though initially supportive of Hitler as the latter wiped out unemployment and dismantled the Versailles Treaty, Stauffenberg rapidly became disillusioned with the fuehrer and Nazism following the violence of Kristallnacht (November 1938) in which scores of Jewish shops, homes, and synagogues were ransacked and set ablaze. Stauffenberg had never been a Nazi but was proud that Germany had been resurrected. As the thirties progressed however, he cringed in horror at Nazism's excesses and became a committed opponent after Kristallnacht which he saw as having tarnished Germany's good name in the civilized world. (Kramarz, 71).
The numerous assassination attempts mentioned above should dispel the mistaken popular belief that the conspirators did nothing until the tide of war turned against Germany. They were Hitler's committed enemies since Kristallnacht and not since Stalingrad. Nor did Germany's spectacular military triumphs in the summer of 1940 diminish their hatred for Hitler and Nazism. Quite the contrary as another excerpt from Ulrich von Hassel's diary (dated May 20-27, 1940) shows: "Since National Socialism, as it has developed, lacks any semblance of a soul and has force as it's only ideal, we shall have a Nature without God, a Germany with neither soul nor culture and a Europe raw and without conscience." (Berto-Verlag, 46).
Countless army officers who served in Russia were horrified by the SS atrocities they witnessed. Many of them turned from committed opponents to committed conspirators. Men like Captain Axel von dem Bussche and Stauufenberg were among them. The SS genocide resulting from Hitler's Partisan Order to shoot captured Russian prisoners of war and the Order for Guerrilla Warfare sanctioning the execution of women and children outraged Stauffenberg. His noble character and sense of decency had caused him to right wrongs wherever he encountered them.
In 1938, when German troops under his command marched into the Sudetenland, he forbade any of them from exploiting non-Germans evicted from their homes. When he found out that some of his troops had forced desperate refugees to sell their possessions for topence, he forced them to return the goods. (Kramarz, 66). On the Eastern Front he and many other officers desperately wanted to do away with the Commissar Order and instead turn Hitler's war into a liberation campaign to free the Ukraine and Russia from Stalin. Never one to cower to his superiors, he sent a highly critical memo to the Wehrmacht OKW (Hitler's General Staff) blasting the brutality of SS policies in Russia. Then in October 1942, in a speech to forty staff officers, he explained how German forces were in the process of sowing such hatred in the East that "our children will reap the reward of it one day." (ibid, 100).
Stauffenberg and officers like him did more than just talk.
In the Caucasus, he and his collegues implemented their own policies with the enthusiastic approval of General postring and Field Marshal von Kleist. German forces were exhorted to exercise the same civility towards the conquered peoples of the Caucasus, as they would towards fellow Germans. Entire regions of Russian Caucasia were granted full autonomy and the hated collective farm system dismantled wholesale - something the Nazis refused to do in the Ukraine. The result? No guerrilla warfare in those regions and instead enthusiastic collaboration on the part of the liberated Caucasians. (Kramarz, 98).
Stauffenberg had a remarkable talent for recruiting officers into active conspirators. His political wisdom, professional brilliance, moral courage, upright integrity, Teutonic chivalry, unforgettable kindness, and above all exceptional charm impressed and seduced virtually everyone who came to know him and won the conspiracy many dedicated new members. Even Hitler expressed fondness for Stauffenberg and had a kind word to say to him only five days before the intrepid young count tried to kill him.
Stauffenberg was fully aware of the fact that the only way to rid Germany of Hitler and the Nazi scourge was in his own words "not to try and reason with him, but to kill him." In 1944, Hitler still retained his spell over too many Germans and, above all and to the end, over his dreaded SS Praetorian Guard which had by 1944 become an army in itself. The conspirators realized that no field marshal or general would support the conspiracy unless Hitler had been killed.
Recovering in the hospital from his wounds, Stauffenberg was convinced that God had spared him for a high purpose. He believed it was his mission and destiny to free his country and Europe from war and Nazi oppression. Though many conspirators volunteered to take his place,
he doubted that anyone else was really cold blooded enough to calmly walk into Hitler's headquarters, deposit a briefcase-concealed time bomb, and then leave with as much perfectly feigned composure as Stauffenberg felt he could. His promotion in the summer of 1944 to serve on Hitler's staff finally put him within striking distance of Hitler. His visibly severe handicap also made him the ideal candidate to perform the task as nobody would consider him a security threat.
Operation Valkyrie was the scenario for the last coup attempt against Hitler. In 1942, General Friedrich Olbricht convinced Hitler of the necessity for a counter-coup strategy to defeat any potential uprising against the Nazi regime. Hitler then directed the General Staff to draw up a contingency plan that would make the Nazi-regime coup-proof: Operation Valkyrie. This plan contained an elaborate list of coded directives to activate local garrisons, secure key government buildings, and place the entire country under Martial Law.
What Hitler and the General Staff did not know was that Olbricht planned
to use the Valkyrie scenario to overthrow the Nazi regime.
By early July 1944, preparations for the Valkyrie conspiracy were moving at break-neck speed as the Gestapo closed in on the plotters.
Until Canaris's dismissal (February 1944), the Abwehr had successfully thwarted virtually all Gestapo investigation attempts against the conspirators. But when Himmler absorbed the Abwehr into his SS realm, Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators knew that Time was running out fast. With every passing week, the SD and Gestapo uncovered ever more
anti-Nazi suspects and leads. With every passing day, German cities suffered ever greater destruction and the Wehrmacht lost ever more ground. The success of the Allied invasion in Normandy on June 6 threw havoc into Stauffenberg's plans. Though fully aware of Germany's military debacles on all fronts, Stauffenberg and his colleagues expected an allied landing to occur later than June. By early July the Valkyrie planning stage was moving dangerously fast. Time was now of the essence.
Looking back on the last six years of coup attempts aborted due to commanders like Brauchitsch, Stauffenberg declared: "since the generals have failed, it is now time for the colonels to seize the
initiative." However, not even Stauffenberg proved able to surmount
the awesome forces pitted against the conspirators in this final attempt.
Any successful coup in Berlin depended on many requisites.
The SS garrisons would have to be swiftly overpowered before Hitler's Praetorian Guard could realize what hit them. All communications facilities - the telephone networks and radio stations - would have to
be seized immediately to prevent their use by the Nazi regime after the
Abomb had gone off. Above all was the Himmler factor. The conspirators
all agreed that for the coup to succeed it was vital to kill both Hitler
and Himmler. If Himmler survived the coup, he could replace Hitler given
the fact that the SS were his personal army. An opportunity would have
to be found when Hitler and Himmler were both in the same room at the same time. Consequently, on July 11 and July 15 Stauffenberg was forced to abort his assassination plot against Hitler due to Himmler's absence. By July 20, time had become a more important factor than Himmler's absence.
On July 11 Stauffenberg was summoned to Hitler's Berghof headquarters to speak if called upon by Hitler. Co-conspirator and Abwehr officer Lt. Freytag von Loringhoven accompanied him as his aide. Stauffenberg had with him his "bag of tricks" as liked to refer to his briefcase- concealed time bomb. But Himmler was not there. Noting Himmler's absence, Stauffenberg excused himself to make a personal phonecall. Over the phone he spoke to Beck and Witzleben using a predetermined language - mundane talk like "My wife is away for the day," meaning "Himmler is not there. Do we still go ahead as planned?" "Absolutely not! Abort now!" Beck insisted and the others insisted. Stauffenberg agreed. It was too risky to allow Himmler to escape alive. The assassination would have to be postponed but rescheduled as soon as possible.
Stauffenberg's next chance came four days later on July 15 at Hitler's Wolf's Lair headquarters in East Prussia. He was again requested to attend the conference on a stand-by basis and to report to Hitler only if called upon. Stauffenberg again showed up with his briefcase-concealed
time bomb, accompanied this time by co-conspirator Captain Karl Klausing serving as aide. But Himmler was again absent and Stauffenberg again ordered by Beck and the others to abort the mission. This time however, he and Olbricht in Berlin decided to go ahead anyway.
Olbricht issued Phase-1 of Operation Valkyrie which consisted of putting Home Army units in and around Berlin on stand-by alert. But when Stauffenberg returned to the fuehrer's briefing he suddenly discovered that it had ended well ahead of schedule. He then rushed a call to Berlin to tell Olbricht to abort Valkyrie immediately. Olbricht and co-conspirator
Colonel Albrecht von Mertz von Quiernheim then scrambled to shut down Valkyrie. To make sure that all local forces on stand-by alert had received the order to stand down, Olbricht rushed through Berlin in his car from one garrison to another issuing the order personally. When Home Army C-in-C General Fromm learned about Olbricht's insubordinate actions later that day he was outraged and reported the matter to Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel who was even more furious that a subordinate officer like Olbricht had taken it upon himself to issue the Valkryie Phase 1 directive without the permission of C-in-C Fromm.
Olbricht managed to convince his superiors that his action was only meant as a dress rehearsal in the event the regime were ever in serious danger. Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators now knew that there could be no further rehearsals. For better or for worse, their next time would be their last. A sense of uneasy foreboding gripped the conspirators in that last week prior to July 20th.
On July 5, the Gestapo arrested Dr. Julius Leber which caused Stauffenberg enormous anxiety as he considered Leber indispensable in any future post-nazi government. On July 16 the military governor for
occupied Belgium, General Alexander von Falkenhausen, was relieved of command. He had promised to commit all the forces under his command to Stauffenberg's side. The following day Rommel was seriously wounded when his car was straffed by an Allied fighter attack.
On July 18, Carl Goerdeler - the coup-designated Chancellor to replace Hitler - was arrested by the Gestapo. Were his ties to the conspirators known? If so, would he be tortured for information and reveal names? Stauffenberg had forseen such eventualities and therefore insisted that within the conspiracy only a tiny minority was to know that an assassination was being planned. Within that minority, fewer conspirators
still were to know the exact day of the attack. And among these, only the
inner circle - the officers responsible for issuing the Valkyrie orders
- were to know all the details. Stauffenberg had carefully shrouded the
July conspiracy along these successive concentric circles to ensure that
if any conspirators were caught and tortured, the information they leaked
would be as limited as possible. Thus if the Gestapo destroyed the outer
most circle, the inner circles would still be intact.
All the secrecy in the world, however, could not deter the Gestapo and SD from accelerating the hunt for anti-nazis within the army and civil service. With precious little time left, the conspirators agreed that next time the bomb would have to be activated - whether or not Hitler and Himmler were together in the same room. On July 18, Stauffenberg was ordered to report to the Wolf's Lair the next day to brief Hitler on the latest logistics situations report for the Eastern Front. He readied all of his colleagues that same day telling them that July 20 would be the last opportunity: "There is no other choice," he concluded, "the Rubicon has been crossed." (Kramarz, 184). July 20 would be the point of no return when the German Resistance played its last card.
Either Germany would be liberated or doomed to annihilation and the conspirators hanged.
On the night of July 19, Stauffenberg ordered his driver on the way home to stop by a church where a service was being held. Stauffenberg then went inside the church and stood at the back, no doubt to pray and to calm his spirits for the herculean task he was to take on the following day. For what was about to occur on July 20 would decide the fate of Germany and all of Europe, and whether millions more would live or die.
Stauffenberg knew full well that when his bomb exploded in the briefing room it would destroy not only Hitler but kill and maim others. This thought alone caused his Christian conscience immense anguish for he desperately wanted to kill Hitler in such a way that no one else would get hurt. But there was just no practial way to do so. Stauffenberg
would have gladly walked into the conference room with a Lugar pistol and shot Hitler in the chest at point blank range knowing that he himself would be instantly killed by the SS guards. But crippled as he was, Stauffenberg could not possibly fire a pistol, nor did he trust anyone else to be cold blooded enough to do so. Furthermore, he would have to return to Berlin immediately to direct the coup. Only a time bomb would allow him to kill Hitler and get to back to the Bendlerstrasse to launch the uprising.
On the night of July 19-20, Stauffenberg stayed at his brother's house in Berlin. As American and British bombs rained down on the capital throughout the night, the two of them stayed awake well into the early morning finalizing last minute details for the coup.
The immense task he was about to undertake within a few hours would have left anyone sleepless, and understandably Stauffenberg caught a bare four hours sleep that night.
At six o'clock the following morning, Stauffenberg was woken up by Berthold who helped him to dress.
As he put on his uniform Stauffenberg's anguish yielded to determination and confidence. If all went according to plan, July 20 would be Germany's finest hour in modern history. Within a few hours the German people would be set free. Liberated by a severely crippled but fearless young nobleman who loved his country and his fellow Germans to such an extant that he was ready to suffer the worst consequences imaginable to achieve his mission.
At 8:00AM, the Haeften brothers arrived at Berthold's house. Hand-Bernd von Haeften would wait for news at the Foreign Ministry while his brother Lt. Werner von Haeften would accompany Stauffenberg to the Wolf's Lair as aide de camp and accomplice. Claus and Werner then said
goodbye to their brothers and drove to Berlin's Tempelhoff airport to take a military courier plane bound for Rastenberg.
That same morning, General Ludwig Beck received a coded telephone call from General Olbricht who asked him: "Are you feeling well today?", the signal that Stauffenberg's long-awaited coup d'etat was finally to take place. Once word of Hitler's death was certain, Beck intended to deliver several radio speeches to Germany and the world.
He would announce Hitler's murder at the hands of the power-hungry
Nazi elite, the German Army's seizure of power under Martial Law, and the
immediate start of ceasefire talks to end the war as quickly as possible.
Beck would act as interim head of state and Witzleben as interim Wehrmacht Commander in Chief. Goerdeler would serve as Chancellor in the interim pending the end of hostilities and a return to the democratic
electoral process forthwith. The new government's foreign minister Ulrich
von Hassel would be responsible for negotiating a ceasefire and peace settlement with the enemy.
As Stauffenberg and Haeften drove up the mountains along the winding road leading to the Wolf's Lair, they realized that time was of the essence. Upon arrival, they instructed the car driver not to wonder away from the car and to be ready to leave at a moment's notice. To make certain that Hitler would be killed, Stauffenberg was carrying two time-bombs inside his brief case and planned to activate both.
As Stauffenberg and Haeften made their way to Hitler's briefing hut, several officers repeatedly urged Stauffenberg to let them carry his brief- case, to his persistent refusals. Haeften then accompanied Stauffenberg into the briefing hut. But due to his rank he was not allowed to enter the briefing room. At 12:30 P.M. exactly, the doors of the briefing room opened, and Stauffenberg and other members of Hitler's General Staff entered by rank. Moments later, Hitler entered the room and Field Marshal Keitel presented Stauffenberg to the fuehrer who shook his left hand.
After briefing Hitler on the logistics required to move various army divisions along the Eastern Front, Stauffenberg excused himself to go to the changing room whereupon Haeften accompanied him to make sure that nobody entered. Stauffenberg then set about activating the first bomb with special plyers built for his three remaining fingers of his left hand. But this took some time and Sargeant-Major Vogel was sent to fetch Stauffenberg as Hitler might call upon him at any moment. As Vogel
pressed him to hurry back Stauffenberg yelled to be left alone while he
changed into his fresh shirt. When Vogel attempted to pry open the room's
lockless door he caught a quick glimpse of Stauffenberg and Haeften fiddling with some package tied up with string. Owing to Vogel's interruption, Stauffenberg did not have enough time to arm the second time bomb - a fatal lapse in the plan since as the Gestapo later revealed, two bombs would have killed everyone in the briefing room.
As the minute hand on the clock inched its way towards 12:40 P.M., Stauffenberg was back in the conference room having inched his briefcase under Hitler's map table. Hitler and his General Staff were busy listening to General Heusinger who was reporting on the unfolding
catastrophe taking place along the Eastern Front in Army Group Center's
vicinity. Stauffenberg seized the moment to whisper quietly to an officer
standing by that he needed to step out to make an urgent telephone call
to Berlin. The officer in question saw him pick up the receiver in the
As soon as the officer turned away to go back to the briefing room, Stauffenberg immediately put down the receiver and sprinted out of the briefing hut forgetting his cap and belt. He then quickly made his way towards the signals bunker where co-conspirator General Erich Fellgiebel was standing outside. Moments later, at 12:42 P.M. a deafening explosion came from the briefing hut stunning everyone that heard it. Stauffenberg and Haeften made their way immediately to their waiting driver and sped off bound for Berlin.
Although Stauffenberg was daring and fortunate enough to bluff his way past the Wolf's Lair's two security check points, Haeften threw the second bomb into the woods as their car sped down the mountain side. Days later, Himmler's SS investigators discovered it while combing the woods.
Stauffenberg's return flight to Berlin took approximately two hours. But during all that time, General Olbricht, unsure of whether or nor the attempt had succeeded or had even been carried out, cautiously chose to await Stauffenberg's return before launching Operation Valkyrie.
Upon arrival, Stauffenberg urged him to disbelany ieve incoming reports
that Hitler had survived, and Olbricht finally moved. But even at this
ominously late stage further mistakes were committed.
Having been assigned top secret classification, the Valkyrie directives, sent via telex to army throughout the Reich took hours rather than minutes to be dispatched. Due to their top secret status, the orders had to be seperately hand-typed for every destination. (Duffy & Ricci, 174).
Even more surprising, the conspirators had forgotten to disarm unsuspecting pro-Nazi officers within the Bendlerstrasse who were later to turn their guns on them when Major Remer and his Gross Deutschland
battalion rallied to the side of the Nazi regime.
Also, many key government buildings were never seized because Helldorf's police force and Hase's troops did not receive orders to move. Lieutenant-General Otto Hitzfeld and Colonel Wolfgang Mueller who were also to have led their forces to help Stauffenberg take over Berlin were not available until fatally too late having been on duty elsewhere that day.
Coupled with these mistakes were a series of fatal mishaps, the worst being Stauffenberg's failure to kill Hitler. The Gestapo later determined the force of the blast had been absorbed by the briefing room's thin walls and three large windows. Had the briefing instead taken place in Hitler's windowless underground concrete bunker, Hitler and everyone else in the room would have been instantly killed. (Duffi & Ricci, 168).
Another serious flaw in the coup was General Fellgiebel's inability to sever all of the Wolf's Lair's communication lines to the outside world. Hitler headquarters had not one but many communications bunkers rendering it practically impossible to completely cut off the Wolf's Lair.
Another factor working against the conspirators was that the Wolf's Lair automatically received all outgoing teleprinter messages from the
Home Army High Command headquarters at the Bendlerstrasse. This allowed
Hitler and his staff to discover that the bomb blast was not the work of
a lone assassin but the tip of a vast military conspiracy.
No doubt the most costly mistake in terms of human lives lost, was the fact that the conspirators had not had sufficient time on July 20 to destroy all imcriminating evidence. True to the German penchant for meticulous record-keeping, Canaris's Abwehr had documented its coups
attempts, conspirators involved, and lists of people to be appointed to
the new government. When the Gestapo discovered these files, they were
able to piece together the full extent of the conspiracy and execute more
than a thousand victims, many of whom had no knowledge of the conspiracy.
Above all, no contingency plan existed for how to conduct the coup in the event that the unthinkeable happened and Hitler survived a bomb blast so close to him. Olbricht's dilemma was that during the two earliest and most crucial hours of July 20, he could not be sure what if anything had occurred at the Wolf's Lair. The first few hours of any coup d'etat are often the most pivotal. But in light of his July 15th decision to mobilize the Valkyrie forces prematurely, Olbricht could not afford to repeat his mistake. For the sake of the conspiracy itself, he unknowingly doomed the July 20th coup by waiting for confirmation from Stauffenberg before launching Valkyrie.
Because Olbricht could not possibly know what had happened, he chose to do what many of us would no doubt have also done in his place, await confirmation before acting too hastily. It is doubtful whether any other conspirator, except Stauffenberg, would have better managed the coup.
So many responsibilities heaped on the shoulders of one man in Berlin was a terrible burden. Not knowing whether Hitler had been killed, many other conspirators exhibited the same caution.
Oster, Tresckow, or Beck might have better managed the coup. But Oster could no longer take part in the plot since his dismissal in connection with Dohnanyi's arrest. He was from then on spied on by the Gestapo. Tresckow, confined as he was to the Eastern Front, was too far removed from the center of the conspiracy to play a meaningful role. Nevertheless, he too comitted suicide after the coup unraveled for fear that he would be captured and might give away others under torture. Finally, Beck was too ill with Cancer to play a more active role than advisor. The coup would have had a far greater chance of success if Stauffenberg had been at the Wolf's Lair and the Bendlerstrasse simultaneously, because only he possessed that unique initiative wedded to daring that made up his personality. Two Stauffenbergs were needed when only one existed.
As the coup unraveled, some like Major Remer, General Fromm, and ultimately Field Marshal von Kluge turned against the conspirators while others like Major General Stieff (who later blocked all further coup orders issued by Beck and Witzleben) abandoned Stauffenberg and his sinking ship.
Then there were those who voluntarily decided to stand by Stauffenberg to the end like General Beck, Colonel Mertz, and Lt. Werner von Haeften who threw himself in front Stauffenberg in a final gesture of loyalty as the latter three were executed by firing squad. Beck unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide and was given the coup de grace as he lay dying.
In France, Stuelpnagel had engineered a brilliant July 20th coup d'etat. Within two hours, his deputy conspirators had captured and imprisoned the entire SS and Gestapo contingent in Paris. But news of the collapse of Stauffenberg's coup in Berlin and Kluge's refusal to back Stuelpnagel coupled with Admiral Kranke's threat to use his 3,000
Marines to liberate the SS forced Stuelpnagel to concede defeat. The following morning he was relieved of command by Kluge and ordered to return to Berlin. He left Paris fully aware of the fate that awaited him. Passing by the fields of Verdun where he had served as a young officer, he too tried to commit suicide but only succeeded in blinding himself. He was revived by army doctors, condemned to death two weeks later, and executed.
Gisevius chose to return to the Bendlerstrasse to share Stauffenberg's fate insisting that it was a matter of personal honor. (Duffy & Ricci, 111). Then ordered by Stauffenberg to leave the Bendlerstrasse and report to Hase, he left only shortly before the building was overrun. He succeeded in evading the Gestapo by hiding underground over the next several days and finally making it across the frontier to Switzerland to brief OSS station chief Allen Dulles about everything that had happened.
Canaris, Oster, Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer and a number of other conspirators who had been arrested after July 20 survived until April 1945. Barely three weeks before V-E day, the SS stripped them naked and led them out of their cells where they deliberately hanged them in a manner that took them half an hour to die. (Colvin, 112). All in all,
Hitler's revenge resulted in the execution and torture of more than 157
German officers. Among them 15 Lieutenant Colonels, 17 Colonels, 13 Generals, one field marshal, and 9 Counts. Another 5,000 Germans were to follow them to the gallows before Hitler had satisfied his thirst for vengeance.
The shocking extent to which the Western world misjudged and completely misunderstood the motives and the collective character of the conspirators is best illustrated by the appalling comments of the
American and British press who, like The New York Times, characterized
the conspirators as "gangsters of a lurid underworld" (von Klemperer, 386) or, like The Herald Tribune, concluded that Americans would not feel sorry that the bomb had spared Hitler: "let the generals kill the corporal or vice-versa, preferably both." (ibid). The London Times added that it need hardly be said that Hitler's rivals were no friends of the allies: "the generals who set themselves up as pretenders did so 'as champions not of liberty but of militarism." (ibid).
President Roosevelt later issued a directive that there was to be no printed mention of the German Resistance having ever existed. This ban remained in effect well after the war throughout occupied Germany. (von Klemperer, 386). The most dishonorable epitaph yet came from
John W. Wheeler-Bennett - an erstwhile friend of Trott and Goerdeler -
who, upon briefing the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, concluded
that Britain was "better off than if the plot of July20th had succeeded and Hitler had been assassinated." (ibid, 387).
Of course not everyone in the West shared these views. Dulles was greatly distraught by the July 20th tragedy and George Anthony Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, was particularly outraged with Allied reaction, demanding that everything possible be done to spirit those conspirators who had not yet been caught by the SS out of Germany. His plea went unanswered. (ibid).
It is tempting to imagine what might have transpired in Germany and Europe had Stauffenberg and his noble band of brothers prevailed.
The entire Nazi leadership would have been swept from power; the SS, SD, Gestapo, and Propaganda Ministry abolished; and the Nazi Party and Hitler Youth disbanded. Most importantly, had all warring sides agreed to a general ceasefire following the successful overthrow of Hitler in mid-1944, World War II would have ended 10 months earlier thereby sparing the lives of the ten million Europeans who were killed between July 20, 1944 and May 8, 1945.
Perhaps a general ceasefire including Russia might have been possible since by July 1944, the Red Army had regained the USSR's 1939 frontiers. Would the Western powers, whose leaders were comitted to bringing the boys home as soon as possible, have agreed to a ceasefire then? Perhaps that depended on Stalin since by 1944 the ailing Roosevelt got on so well with him. Would Stalin have accepted ending the war on the Soviet Union's doorstep? The Soviets later claimed they deserved Eastern Europe because they had bled themselves white to liberate it. This begs the question: What would Stalin have preferred? The conquest of Eastern
Europe? Or sparing the lives of millions of Soviets, Germans, and East
Europeans? Given his infamous disregard for human life, which allowed him to deliberately exterminate 40 million Soviets, Stalin would probably have considered a few million more deaths well worth the plunder of Eastern Europe for the benefit of the Soviet Union.
How would Britain and the United States have reacted? Would Churchill have allowed Stalin to conquer Poland for whom Britain had gone to war against Germany? Of course, he did nothing to stop this at Yalta. But that was only because at the time of the Yalta Conference (early February 1945) the Red Army had already overrun most of Poland and was closing in fast on the Oder. Furthermore, Germany by then lay completely smashed and an enormous power vaccum covered Eastern Europe which the Red Army had moved in to fill.
But in the fictional scenario of a successful July 20th attempt, despite the enormous destruction its forces and cities had sustained, belligerent Germany in mid-1944 was still far from finished.
So it is conceivable that if a change of policy in Washington and London
had occurred in reaction to a successful July 20th, Churchill and Roosevelt could have demanded that all parties agree to an immediate armistice. Had Stalin refused and instead decided to press on, then the United States and Britain could have considered breaking their pact with Russia, signing a separate and conditional peace with Germany, and allowing the new German government to move all of its forces eastward to stem the Soviet advance into Eastern Europe.
Although Germany was by then exhausted from years of allied bombing and a disastrous land war in the East, the Soviet Union had suffered more than 20 million dead and its infrastructure had sustained far greater destruction. Would the Wehrmacht now facing only a one front war have been able to hold the Red Army in check? Possibly. Would Britain and the United States have helped? Perhaps in an underhand and covert manner.
The Dulles brothers and many others in the US government who shared their strident anti-communist beliefs, would surely have had no objections to doing everything possible to preventing a Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe.
Open support would have been hard to justify. For how could the American
and British people be expected to understand why their boys should be fighting alongside the enemy whom they had battled for four years.
Ultimately, a successful July 20th coup would have allowed Germany to liberate not just itself but the victims of Hitler's concentration camps. One of the first acts of the new regime, as Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators had planned, would have been the immediate release
of all those still alive in Hitler's death camps who had been imprisoned
for their race, political beliefs, sexual persuasion, or mental and physical handicaps. All Nazi officials guilty of Holocaust atrocities, and for the myriad of other evils perpetrated on Germany and Europe, would have been tried and condemned by fellow Germans in a German court as opposed to Soviet, American, and British judges in an international tribunal.
In a successful coup d’etat, the Germans themselves would have destroyed Hitler and Nazism. So many of them knowingly gambled and lost their lives for this purpose. But fate was against them. The Allies who helped every other resistance movement in Europe might have greatly
counter-balanced that fate had they at least recognized the efforts of
the German conspirators by modifying their unconditional surrender clause to read: "Unconditional surrender as long as Hitler and the Nazi regime stay in power."
Many a general might have been persuaded to back the conspiracy had the Allies at least offered some hope that a post and non-nazi Germany could obtain better terms than those offered to Nazi Germany.
Tragically the Allies never explored this option. Despite a ceaseless six-year effort to destroy Hitler and the Nazi regime, the German conspirators were ultimately defeated by Fate and Allied intransigeance. End result? Between July 20, 1944 and May 8, 1945, ten million people were killed in the European theater of World War II, more than in the preceding five years of that most devastating conflict in human history.
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