Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
The German Resistance refers to those individuals and groups in Nazi Germany who opposed the regime of Adolf Hitler between 1933 and 1945. Some of these engaged in active plans to remove Hitler from power and overthrow his regime. Their plans culminated in the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 (the July 20 Plot). Among the more well-known attempts at resistance included the student movement, the White Rose and the effort of German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoffer. Bonhoffer’s work questioned the “cheap grace” that was offered by modern Christianity. In the end, he would pay the ultimate price for his beliefs.
The term German Resistance should not be understood as meaning that there was a united resistance movement in Germany at any time during the Nazi period, analogous to the more coordinated (for example) French Resistance. The German resistance consisted of small and usually isolated groups. They were unable to mobilize political opposition to Hitler, and their only real strategy was to persuade leaders of the German Army to stage a coup against the regime: the 1944 assassination plan was intended to trigger such a coup.
The German Resistance movement consisted of several disparate strands, which represented different classes of German society and were seldom able to work together; for much of the period there was little or no contact between the different strands of resistance.
One strand was the underground networks of the banned Social Democrats (SPD) and Communists (KPD). These networks might better be described as “opposition” rather than “resistance,” since they engaged in little overt resistance activity against the regime apart from incitement of strikes, but rather sought to keep their parties alive in the hope of being able to take advantage of a political change in the future. An exception was the SPD activist Julius Leber, who was an active resistance figure. There was also resistance from the anarcho-syndicalist union, the Freie Arbeiter Union (FAUD) which distributed anti-Nazi propaganda and assisted people to flee the country.
Another strand was resistance based on minorities within the Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Their role was mostly symbolic. A small minority of Christian clergy spoke out against the regime, such as the Protestant pastors Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller (the latter after having initially supported Hitler), and the Catholic Bishop Clemens von Galen; their example inspired some acts of overt resistance, such as that of the White Rose student group in Munich. The Catholic Church as a whole opposed the regime only when its own deepest values were challenged, as in opposition to the Nazi T4 “euthanasia” program. The Protestant churches never directly opposed the regime, although a number of Protestant ministers did so.
A third strand was might be called the “unorganized resistance”–individual Germans or small groups of people acting in defiance of government policies or orders, or in ways seen as subversive of the Nazi system. Most notably, these included a significant number of Germans who helped Jews survive the Nazi Holocaust by hiding them, obtaining papers for them or in others ways aiding them. More than 300 Germans have been recognized for this kind of activity. It also included, particularly in the later years of the regime, informal networks of young Germans who evaded serving in the Hitler Youth and defied the cultural policies of the Nazis in various ways.
Finally there was the resistance network within the German state machinery itself, centered in the Army, the Foreign Office and the military intelligence organization, the Abwehr. These groups hatched conspiracies against Hitler in 1938 and again in 1939, but for a variety of reasons were unable to take action. After the German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, they were able to make contact with a significant number of Army officers who were convinced that Hitler was leading Germany to disaster, although fewer who were willing to engage in overt resistance. Active resisters were drawn largely from the old Prussian aristocracy, since this was the only social class which had not been successfully penetrated by Nazi ideology.
Prewar Resistance, 1933-1939
There was almost no organized resistance to Hitler’s regime in the period between his appointment as Chancellor in January 1933 and the crisis over Czechoslovakia in 1938. By July 1933 all other political parties and the trade unions had been suppressed, the press and radio brought under state control, and most elements of civil society neutralized. The July 1933 Concordat between Germany and the Holy See ended any possibility of systematic resistance by the Catholic Church. The largest Protestant Church, the Lutheran Evangelical Church, was generally pro-Nazi, although a minority tendency resisted this position. The breaking of the power of the SA in the “Night of the Long Knives” in July 1934 ended any possibility of a challenge from the “socialist” wing of the Nazi Party, and also brought the Army into closer alliance with the regime.
All sources agree that Hitler’s regime was overwhelmingly popular with the German people during this period. The failures of the Weimar Republic had discredited democracy in the eyes of the majority of Germans. Hitler’s apparent success in restoring full employment after the ravages of the Great Depression (achieved mainly through the reintroduction of conscription, a policy advocating that women stay home and raise children, and a crash re-armament program), and his bloodless foreign policy successes such as the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 and the annexation of Austria in 1938, brought him almost universal acclaim.
During this period, the SPD and the KPD managed to maintain underground networks, although the legacy of pre-1933 conflicts between the two parties meant that they were unable to co-operate. These networks were frequently infiltrated by the Gestapo and the rate of arrests and executions of SPD and KPD activists was high, but the networks continued to be able recruit new members from the industrial working class, who resented the stringent labor discipline imposed by the regime during its race to rearm. The exiled SPD leadership in Prague was able to receive and publish accurate reports of events inside Germany. But beyond maintaining their existence and fomenting industrial unrest, sometimes resulting in short-lived strikes, these networks were able to achieve little.
There remained, however, a substantial base for opposition to Hitler’s regime. Although the Nazi Party had taken control of the German state, it had not completely destroyed and rebuilt the state apparatus in the way the Bolshevik regime had done in the Soviet Union. Institutions such as the Foreign Office, the intelligence services and, above all, the Army, while outwardly submitting to the new regime retained some measure of independence. The independence of the Army was eroded in 1938, when both the Defense Minister, General Werner von Blomberg, and the Army Chief, General Werner von Fritsch were removed from office, but an informal network of officers critical of the Nazi regime remained.
In 1936, thanks to an informer, the Gestapo raids decimated Anarcho-syndicalist groups all over Germany, resulting in the arrest of 89 people. Most ended up either imprisoned or murdered by the regime. The groups had been encouraging industrial action (such as strikes), printing and distributing anti-Nazi propaganda and recruiting people to fight the Nazi’s fascist allies during the Spanish Civil War.
As part of the agreement with the conservative forces by which Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, the non-party conservative Konstantin von Neurath remained Foreign Minister, a position he retained until 1938. During his period in office the Foreign Office, with its network of diplomats and access to intelligence, became home to an active circle of resistance, under the discreet patronage of the Under-Secretary of State Ernst von Weizsäcker. Prominent in this circle were the Ambassador in Rome Ulrich von Hassell, the Ambassador in Moscow Friedrich Graf von der Schulenburg, and officials Adam von Trott zu Solz, Erich Kordt and Hans-Bernd von Haeften. This circle survived even when the ardent Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop succeeded Neurath as Foreign Minister.
The most important center of opposition to the regime within the state apparatus was in the intelligence services, whose clandestine operations offered an excellent cover for political organization. The key figure here was Brigadier-General Hans Oster, head of the Military Intelligence Office from 1938, and a convinced anti-Nazi as early as 1934. He was protected by the Abwehr chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Oster was able to build up an extensive clandestine network of potential resisters in the Army and the intelligence services. He found an early ally in Hans-Bernd Gisevius, a senior official in the Interior Ministry. Hjalmar Schacht, the governor of the Reichsbank, was also in touch with this opposition.
The problem these groups faced, however, was what form resistance to Hitler could take in the face of the regime’s successive triumphs. They recognized that it was impossible to stage any kind of open political resistance. This was not, as is sometimes stated, because the repressive apparatus of the regime was so all-pervasive that public protest was impossible–as was shown when Catholics protested against the removal of crucifixes from Bavarian schools in 1941, and the regime backed down. Rather it was because of Hitler’s massive support among the German people. While resistance movements in the occupied countries could mobilize patriotic sentiment against the German occupiers, in Germany the resistance risked being seen as unpatriotic, particularly in wartime. Even many Army officers and officials who detested Hitler had a deep aversion to being involved in “subversive” or “treasonous” acts against the government.
As early as 1936 Oster and Gisevius came to the view that a regime so totally dominated by one man could only be brought down by eliminating that man–either by assassinating Hitler or by staging an Army coup against him. But it was a long time before any significant number of Germans came to accept this view. Many clung to the belief that Hitler could be persuaded to moderate his regime, or that some other more moderate figure could replace him. Others argued that Hitler was not to blame for the regime’s excesses, and that the removal of Heinrich Himmler and the reduction in the power of the SS was needed. Some oppositionists were devout Christians who disapproved of assassination as a matter of principle. Others, particularly the Army officers, felt bound by the personal oath of loyalty they had taken to Hitler in 1934.
The opposition was also hampered by a lack of agreement about their objectives other than the need to remove Hitler from power. Some oppositionists were liberals who opposed the ideology of the Nazi regime in its entirety, and who wished to restore a system of parliamentary democracy. Most of the Army officers and many of the civil servants, however, were conservatives and nationalists, and many had initially supported Hitler’s policies–Carl Goerdeler, the Lord Mayor of Leipzig, was a good example. Some favored restoring the Hohenzollern dynasty, others favored an authoritarian, but not Nazi, regime. Some saw no problem with Hitler’s anti-Semitism and ultra-nationalism, and opposed only his apparent reckless determination to take Germany into a new world war. In these circumstances the opposition was unable to form a united movement, or to send a coherent message to potential allies outside Germany.
Resistance in the Army, 1938-1942
Despite the removal of Blomberg and Fritsch, the Army retained considerable independence, and senior officers were able to discuss their political views in private fairly freely. In May 1938 the Army leadership was made aware of Hitler’s intention of invading Czechoslovakia, even at the risk of war with Britain, France and/or the Soviet Union. The Army Chief of Staff, General Ludwig Beck, regarded this as not only immoral but reckless, since he believed that Germany would lose such a war. Oster and Beck sent emissaries to Paris and London to advise the British and French to resist Hitler’s demands, and thereby strengthen the hand of Hitler’s opponents in the Army. Weizsäcker also sent private messages to London urging resistance. The British and French did not know what to make of these messages and ignored them.
In August Beck spoke openly at a meeting of Army Generals in Berlin about his opposition to a war with the western powers over Czechoslovakia. When Hitler was informed of this, he demanded and received Beck’s resignation. Beck was highly respected in the Army and his removal shocked the officer corps. His successor as Chief of Staff, Franz Halder, remained in touch with him, and was also in touch with Oster. Privately, he said that he considered Hitler “the incarnation of evil.” During September, plans for a move against Hitler were formulated, involving Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, the Army commander of the Berlin Military Region and thus well-placed to stage a coup.
Oster, Gisevius and Schacht urged Halder and Beck to stage an immediate coup against Hitler, but the Army officers argued that they could only mobilize support among the officer corps for such a step if Hitler made overt moves towards war. Halder nevertheless asked Oster to draw up plans for a coup. Weizsäcker and Canaris were made aware of these plans. The conspirators disagreed on what to do about Hitler in the event of a successful Army coup–eventually most overcame their scruples and agreed that he must be killed if the majority of Army officers were to be freed from their oath of loyalty. It was agreed that Halder would instigate the coup when Hitler committed an overt step towards war.
Remarkably, the Army commander, General Walther von Brauchitsch, was well aware of the coup preparations. He told Halder he could not condone such an act, but he did not inform Hitler, to whom he was outwardly subservient, of what he knew. This was a striking example of the code of silent solidarity among senior German Army officers, which was to survive and provide a shield for the resistance groups down to, and in many cases beyond, the crisis of July 1944.
On September 13, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced that he would visit Germany to meet Hitler and defuse the crisis over Czechoslovakia. This threw the conspirators into uncertainty. When, on September 20, it appeared that the negotiations had broken down and that Chamberlain would resist Hitler’s demands, the coup preparations were revived and finalized. All that was required was the signal from Halder.
On September 28, however, Chamberlain backed down and agreed to a meeting in Munich, at which he accepted the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. This plunged the resistance into demoralization and division. Halder said he would no longer support a coup. The other conspirators were bitterly critical of Chamberlain, but were powerless to act. This was the nearest approach to a successful conspiracy against Hitler before the July Plot of 1944.
As war again grew more likely in mid-1939, the plans for a preemptive coup were revived. Oster was still in contact with Halder and Witzleben, although Witzleben had been transferred to Frankfurt am Main, reducing his ability to lead a coup attempt. At a meeting with Goerdeler, Witzleben agreed to form a network of Army commanders willing to take part to prevent a war against the western powers. But the level of support in the officer corps for a coup had dropped sharply since 1938. Most officers, particularly those from Prussian landowning backgrounds, were strongly anti-Polish and saw a war to regain Danzig and other lost eastern territories as justified.
This nevertheless marked an important turning point. In 1938 the plan had been for the Army as a whole, led by Halder and if possible Brauchitsch, to depose Hitler. Now it was recognized that this was not possible, and a conspiratorial organization was to be formed in the Army and civil service instead.
The opposition once again urged Britain and France to stand up to Hitler: Halder met secretly with the British Ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson to urge resistance. The plan was again to stage a coup at the moment Hitler moved to declare war. But although Britain and France were now prepared to go to war over Poland, as war approached Halder lost his nerve. Schacht, Gisevius and Canaris developed a plan to confront Brauchitsch and Halder and demand that they depose Hitler and prevent war, but nothing came of this. When Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September, the conspirators were unable to move.
The outbreak of war made the further mobilization of resistance in the Army more difficult. Halder continued to vacillate. In late 1939 and early 1940 he opposed Hitler’s plans to attack France, and kept in touch with the opposition via General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, an active oppositionist. Talk of a coup again began to circulate, and for the first time the idea of killing Hitler with a bomb was taken up by the more determined members of the resistance circles, such as Oster and Erich Kordt, who declared himself willing to do the deed. At the Army headquarters at Zossen, south of Berlin, a group of officers called Action Group Zossen was also planning a coup.
When in November 1939 it seemed that Hitler was about to order an immediate attack in the west, the conspirators persuaded General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, commander of Army Group C on the Belgian border, to support a planned coup if Hitler gave such an order. At the same time Oster warned the Dutch and the Belgians that Hitler was about to attack them–his warnings were not believed. But when Hitler postponed the attack until 1940, the conspiracy again lost momentum, and Halder formed the view that the German people would not accept a coup. Again, the chance was lost.
The failed plots of 1938 and 1939 showed both the strength and weakness of the officer corps as potential leaders of a resistance movement. Its strength was its loyalty and solidarity. As Istvan Deak noted: “Officers, especially of the highest ranks, had been discussing, some as early as 1934… the possibility of deposing or even assassinating Hitler. Yet it seems that not a single one was betrayed by a comrade-in-arms to the Gestapo.” Indeed it is remarkable that in over two years of active plotting, this quite widespread and loosely structured conspiracy was never detected. One explanation is that at this time Himmler was still preoccupied with the traditional enemies of the Nazis, the SPD and the KPD (and, of course, the Jews), and did not suspect that the real center of opposition was within the state itself. Another factor was Canaris’s success in shielding the plotters, particularly Oster, from suspicion.
The corresponding weakness of the officer corps was its conception of loyalty to the state and its horror of mutiny. This explains the vacillations of Halder, who could never quite bring himself to take the decisive step. Halder hated Hitler, and believed that the Nazis were leading Germany to catastrophe. He was shocked and disgusted by the behavior of the SS in occupied Poland, but gave no support to his senior officer there, General Johannes Blaskowitz, when the latter officially protested to Hitler about the atrocities against the Poles and the Jews. In both 1938 and 1939, he lost his nerve and could not give the order to strike against Hitler. This was even more true of Brauchitsch, who knew of the conspiracies and assured Halder that he agreed with their objectives, but would not take any action to support them.
The First Assassination Attempt
The only really resolute attempt to remove Hitler during this period came in November 1939, from an unexpected quarter. Georg Elser, a carpenter from Württemberg, acting completely on his own, developed a plan to assassinate Hitler. Elser had been peripherally involved with the KPD before 1933, but his exact motives for acting as he did remain a mystery. He read in the newspapers that Hitler would be addressing a Nazi Party meeting on November 8, in the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer hall in Munich where Hitler had launched the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. Stealing explosives from his workplace, Elser built a powerful time-bomb. For over a month, he managed to stay inside the Bürgerbräukeller after closing hours each night, during which time he hollowed out the pillar behind the speaker’s rostrum to place the bomb inside.
On the night of November 7, Elser set the timer and left for the Swiss border. Unexpectedly, because of the pressure of wartime business, Hitler made a much shorter speech than usual and left the hall ten minutes before the bomb went off, killing eight people. Had Hitler still been speaking, the bomb almost certainly would have killed him, with consequences which can only be guessed at. Elser was arrested at the border, sent to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, and then in 1945 moved to the Dachau concentration camp. Elser was executed two weeks before the liberation of Dachau KZ. This attempt on Hitler’s life set off a witch-hunt for potential conspirators which intimidated the opposition and made further action more difficult.
The outbreak of war served to rally the German people around the Hitler regime, and the sweeping early successes of the German Army—occupying Poland in 1939, Denmark and Norway in April 1940, and swiftly defeating France in May and June 1940—stilled virtually all opposition to the regime. In particular, the opposition to Hitler within the Army was left isolated and apparently discredited, since the much-feared war with the western powers had apparently been won by Germany within a year and at very little cost. This mood continued well into 1941, although beneath the surface popular discontent at mounting economic hardship was apparent.
Even at the height of Hitler’s popularity, however, one issue quite unexpectedly provoked powerful and successful resistance to his regime. This was the program of so-called “euthanasia” directed at people with mental illness and/or severe physical disabilities, which had begun in 1939 under the code name T4. By 1941 more than 70,000 people had been killed under this program, many by gassing, and their bodies incinerated: a foreshadowing of the coming Holocaust against the Jews.
This policy aroused strong opposition across German society, and especially among Catholics. Despite the wish of the Vatican that there should be no overt political opposition to the Nazi regime by German Catholics, Catholic anger at the mass murder of people with disabilities could not be contained. Opposition to the policy sharpened after the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, because the war in the east produced for the first time large-scale German casualties, and the hospitals and asylums began to fill up with maimed and disabled young German soldiers. Rumors began to circulate that these men would also be subject to “euthanasia,” although in fact no such plans existed.
Catholic anger was further fueled by actions of the Gauleiter of Upper Bavaria, Adolf Wagner, a militantly anti-Christian Nazi, who in June 1941 ordered the removal of crucifixes from all schools in his Gau. This attack on Catholicism provoked the first public demonstrations against government policy since the Nazis had come to power, and the mass signing of petitions, including by Catholic soldiers serving at the front. When Hitler heard of this he ordered Wagner to rescind his decree, but the damage had been done. German Catholics had learned that the regime could be successfully opposed. This led to more outspoken protests against the “euthanasia” program.
In July the Bishop of Münster in Westphalia, Clemens August Graf von Galen (who was, not coincidentally, an old aristocratic conservative, like many of the anti-Hitler Army officers), publicly denounced the “euthanasia” program in a sermon, and telegrammed his text to Hitler, calling on “the Führer to defend the people against the Gestapo.” Another Bishop, Franz Bornewasser of Trier, also sent protests to Hitler, though not in public. On August 3 Galen was even more outspoken, broadening his attack to include the Nazi persecution of religious orders and the closing of Catholic institutions. Local Nazis asked for Galen to be arrested, but Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels told Hitler that if this happened there would be an open revolt in Westphalia.
By August the protests had spread to Bavaria. Hitler himself was jeered by an angry crowd at Hof, near Nuremberg–the only time he was opposed to his face in public during his 12 years of rule. Despite his private fury at the Catholic Church, Hitler knew that he could not afford a confrontation with the Church at a time when Germany was engaged in a life-and-death two-front war. (It needs to be remembered that following the annexations of Austria and the Sudetenland, nearly half of all Germans were Catholic.) On August 24 he ordered the cancellation of the T4 program, and also issued strict instructions to the Gauleiters that there were to be no further provocations of the churches for the duration of the war. This incident shows that contrary to the postwar protestations of many Germans, it was possible to oppose Hitler’s regime, raising the question of what might have happened if the churches had had the same views at the time of the deportation of the German Jews.
However, the deportation of Polish and Dutch priests by the occupying Nazis by 1942—after Polish resistance acts and the Dutch Catholic bishops’ conference’s official condemnation of anti-Semitic persecutions and deportations of Jews by the Nazis—also terrified ethnic German clergy in Germany itself, some of whom would come to share the same fate because of their resistance against the Nazi government in racial and social aspects, among them Fr. Bernhard Lichtenberg. Himmler’s 1941 Aktion Klostersturm (Operation Attack-the-Monastery) had also helped to spread fear among regime-critical Catholic clergy.
The Nadir of Resistance, 1940-1942
The sweeping success of Hitler’s attack on France in May 1940 made the task of deposing him even more difficult. The majority of Army officers, their fears of a war against the western powers apparently proved groundless, and gratified by Germany’s revenge against France for the defeat of 1918, reconciled themselves to Hitler’s regime, choosing to ignore its darker side. The task of leading the resistance groups for a time fell to civilians, although a hard core of military plotters remained active.
Carl Goerdeler, the former Lord Mayor of Leipzig, emerged as a key figure. His associates included the diplomat Ulrich von Hassell, the Prussian Finance Minister Johannes Popitz, and Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, heir to a famous name and the leading figure in the Kreisau Circle of Prussian oppositionists, which included other young aristocrats such as Adam von Trott zu Solz and Peter Yorck von Wartenburg, and later Gottfried Graf von Bismarck-Schönhausen, who was a Nazi member of the Reichstag and a senior officer in the SS. Goerdeler was also in touch with the SPD underground, whose most prominent figure was Julius Leber, and with Christian opposition groups, both Catholic and Protestant.
These men saw themselves as the leaders of a post-Hitler government, but they had no clear conception of how to bring this about, except through assassinating Hitler–a step which many of them still opposed on ethical grounds. Their plans could never surmount the fundamental problem of Hitler’s overwhelming popularity among the German people. They preoccupied themselves with philosophical debates and devising grand schemes for postwar Germany. The fact was that for nearly two years after the defeat of France, there was very little scope for effective opposition activity.
In March 1941 Hitler revealed his plans for a “war of annihilation” against the Soviet Union to selected Army officers in a speech given in Posen. In the audience was Colonel Henning von Tresckow, who had not been involved in any of the earlier plots but was already a firm opponent of the Nazi regime. He was horrified by Hitler’s plan to unleash a new and even more terrible war in the east. As a nephew of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, he was very well connected. Assigned to the staff of his uncle’s command, Army Group Center, for the forthcoming Operation Barbarossa, Tresckow systematically recruited oppositionists to the Group’s staff, making it the new nerve center of the Army resistance.
Little could be done while Hitler’s armies advanced triumphantly into the western regions of the Soviet Union through 1941 and 1942–even after the setback before Moscow in December 1941 that brought about the dismissal of both Brauchitsch and Bock. In December 1941 the United States entered the war, persuading some more realistic Army officers that Germany must ultimately lose the war. But the life-and-death struggle on the eastern front posed new problems for the resistance. Most of its members were conservatives who hated and feared communism and the Soviet Union. They feared that the overthrow of the Nazi regime could lead to the Soviets gaining control of Germany or even the whole of Europe. This question was made more acute when the Allies adopted their policy of demanding Germany’s “unconditional surrender” at the Casablanca Conference of January 1943.
During 1942 the tireless Oster nevertheless succeeded in rebuilding an effective resistance network. His most important recruit was General Friedrich Olbricht, head of the General Army Office headquartered at the Bendlerblock in central Berlin, who controlled an independent system of communications to reserve units all over Germany. Linking this asset to Tresckow’s resistance group in Army Group Center created what appeared to a viable structure for a new effort at organizing a coup. Bock’s dismissal did not weaken Tresckow’s position. In fact he soon enticed Bock’s successor, General Hans von Kluge, at least part-way to supporting the resistance cause. Tresckow even brought Goerdeler, leader of the civilian resistance, to Army Group Center to meet Kluge–an extremely dangerous tactic.
The entry of the Soviet Union into the war had certain consequences for the civilian resistance. During the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the KPD’s only objective inside Germany was to keep itself in existence: it engaged in no active resistance to the Nazi regime. After June 1941, however, all Communists were expected to throw themselves into resistance work, including sabotage and espionage where this was possible, regardless of risk. A handful of Soviet agents, mostly exiled German Communists, were able to enter Germany to help the scattered underground KPD cells organize and take action. This led to the formation in 1942 of two separate communist groups, usually erroneously lumped together under the name Rote Kapelle (“Red Orchestra”), a codename given to these groups by the Gestapo.
The first “Red Orchestra” was an espionage network based in Berlin and coordinated by Leopold Trepper, an [[|KGB|NKVD]] agent sent into Germany in October 1941. This group made reports to the Soviet Union on German troop concentrations, air attacks on Germany, German aircraft production, and German fuel shipments. In France, it worked with the underground French Communist Party. Agents of this group even managed to tap the phone lines of the Abwehr in Paris. Trepper was eventually arrested and the group broken up by the spring of 1943.
The second and more important “Red Orchestra” group was entirely separate and was a genuine German resistance group, not controlled by the NKVD. This group was led by Harro Schulze-Boysen, an intelligence officer at the Reich Air Ministry, and Arvid Harnack, an official in the Ministry of Economics, both self-identified communists but not apparently KPD members. The group however contained people of various beliefs and affiliations. It included the theater producer Adam Kuckhoff, the author Günther Weisenborn, the journalist John Graudenz and the pianist Helmut Roloff. It thus conformed to the general pattern of German resistance groups of being drawn mainly from elite groups.
The main activity of the group was collecting information about Nazi atrocities and distributing leaflets against Hitler rather than espionage. They passed what they had learned to foreign countries, through personal contacts with the U.S. embassy and, via a less direct connection, to the Soviet government. When Soviet agents tried to enlist this group in their service, Schulze-Boysen and Harnack refused, since they wanted to maintain their political independence. The group was betrayed to the Gestapo in August 1942 by Johann Wenzel, a member of the Trepper group who also knew of the Schulze-Boysen group and who informed on them after being arrested. Schulze-Boysen, Harnack and other members of the group were arrested and secretly executed.
Meanwhile, another Communist resistance group was operating in Berlin, led by a Jewish electrician, Herbert Baum, and involving up to a hundred people. Until 1941 the group operated a study circle, but after the German attack on the Soviet Union a core group advanced to active resistance. In May 1942, the group staged an arson attack on an anti-Soviet propaganda display at the Lustgarten in central Berlin. The attack was poorly organized and most of the Baum group was arrested. Twenty were sentenced to death, while Baum himself “died in custody.” This fiasco ended overt Communist resistance activities, although the KPD underground continued to operate, and emerged from hiding in the last days of the war.
The Airplane Assassination Attempt
In late 1942 Tresckow and Olbricht formulated a plan to assassinate Hitler and stage a coup. On March 13, 1943, returning from his easternmost headquarters FHQ Wehrwolf near Vinnitsa to Wolfschanze in East Prussia, Hitler was scheduled to make a stop-over at the headquarters of Army Group Center at Smolensk. For such an occasion, Tresckow had prepared three options
- Major Georg von Boeselager, in command of a cavalry honor guard, would intercept Hitler in a forest and overwhelm the SS bodyguard and the Führer in a fair fight; this course was rejected because of the prospect of a large numbers of German soldiers fighting each other, and a possible failure regarding the unexpected strength of the escort
- the idea of a joint assassination during dinner was abandoned as otherwise supporting officers abhorred the idea of shooting the unarmed tyrant
- as last resort, a bomb should be smuggled on Hitler’s plane
Tresckow asked Colonel Brandt (de:Heinz Brandt (Offizier)), on Hitler’s staff and usually on the same plane that carried Hitler, to take a parcel with him, supposedly the price of a bet won by Tresckow’s friend General Stieff. It concealed a bomb, disguised in a box for two bottles of cognac. Tresckow’s aide, Lieutenant Fabian von Schlabrendorff, set the fuse and handed over the parcel to Brandt who boarded the same plane as Hitler.
It was expected that Hitler’s Focke-Wulf 200 Condor should explode about 30 minutes later near Minsk, close enough to the front to be attributed to Soviet fighters. Olbricht was to use the resulting crisis to mobilize his Reserve Army network to seize power in Berlin, Vienna, Munich and in the German Wehrkreis centers. It was an ambitious but credible plan, and might have worked if Hitler had indeed been killed, although persuading Army units to fight and overcome what could certainly have been fierce resistance from the SS could have been a major obstacle.
But, as with Elser’s bomb in 1939 and all other attempts, luck favored Hitler again, which was attributed to “Vorsehung” (providence). The British-made chemical pencil detonator on the bomb had been tested many times and was considered reliable. It went off, but the bomb did not. The Percussion cap apparently became too cold as the parcel was carried in the unheated cargo hold.
Displaying great sang froid, Schlabrendorff took the next plane to retrieve the package from Colonel Brandt before the content was discovered. The blocks of plastic explosives were later used by Gersdorff and Stauffenberg.
The Suicide Bombing Attempts
A second attempt was made a few days later on March 21, 1943, when Hitler visited an exhibition of captured Soviet weaponry in Berlin’s Zeughaus. One of Tresckow’s friends, Colonel Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff, was scheduled to explain some exhibits, and volunteered to carry out a suicide bombing using the same bomb that had failed to go off on the plane, concealed on his person. But the only new chemical fuse he could obtain was a ten-minute one. Hitler once again left prematurely after hurrying through the exhibition much quicker than the scheduled 30 minutes. Gersdorff had to dash to a bathroom to defuse the bomb to save his life, and more importantly, prevent any suspicion. This second failure temporarily demoralized the plotters at Army Group Center. Gersdorff reported about the attempt after the war, the footage is often seen on German TV documentaries (Die Nacht des Widerstands etc.), including a photo showing Gersdorff and Hitler.
Axel von dem Bussche, member of the elite de:Infanterie-Regiment 9, volunteered to kill Hitler with hand grenades in November 1943 during a presentation of new winter uniforms, but the train containing them was destroyed by Allied bombs in Berlin, and the event had to be postponed. A second presentation scheduled for December at the Wolfsschanze was canceled on short notice as Hitler decided to travel to Berchtesgaden.
In January 1944, Bussche volunteered for another assassination attempt, but then he lost a leg in Russia. On February 11 another young officer, Ewald Heinrich von Kleist tried to assassinate Hitler in the same way von dem Bussche had planned. However Hitler again canceled the event which would have allowed Kleist to approach him. The next occasion was a weapons exhibition on July 7 at Schloss Klessheim near Salzburg, but Helmuth Stieff did not trigger the bomb.
Stalingrad and White Rose
At the end of 1942 Germany suffered a series of military defeats, the first at El Alamein, the second with the successful Allied landings in North Africa (Operation Torch), and the third the disastrous defeat at Stalingrad, which ended any hope of defeating the Soviet Union. Most experienced senior officers now came to the conclusion that Hitler was leading Germany to defeat, and that the result of this would be the Soviet conquest of Germany–the worst fate imaginable. This gave the military resistance new impetus.
Halder had been dismissed in 1942 and there was now no independent central leadership of the Army. His nominal successors, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and General Alfred Jodl, were no more than Hitler’s messengers. Tresckow and Goerdeler tried again to recruit the senior Army field commanders to support a seizure of power. Kluge was by now won over completely. Gersdorff was sent to see Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, the commander of Army Group South in the Ukraine. Manstein agreed that Hitler was leading Germany to defeat, but told Gersdorff that “Prussian field marshals do not mutiny.” Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, commander in the west, gave a similar answer. The prospect of a united German Army seizing power from Hitler was as far away as ever. Once again, however, neither officer reported the fact that they had been approached in this way.
Nevertheless, the days when the military and civilian plotters could expect to escape detection were ending. After Stalingrad, Himmler would have had to be very naïve not to expect that conspiracies against the regime would be hatched in the Army and elsewhere. He already suspected Canaris and his subordinates at the Abwehr. In March 1943 two of them, Oster and Hans von Dohnanyi, were dismissed on suspicion of opposition activity, although there was as yet insufficient evidence to have them arrested. On the civilian front, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also arrested at this time, and Goerdeler was under suspicion.
The Gestapo had been led to Dohnanyi following the arrest of Wilhelm Schmidhuber, a smuggler and currency speculator who had helped Dohnanyi with information and with smuggling Jews out of Germany. Under interrogation, Schmidhuber gave the Gestapo details of the Oster-Dohnanyi group in the Abwehr and also Goerdeler and Beck’s involvement in opposition activities. The Gestapo reported all this to Himmler, with the observation that Canaris must be protecting Oster and Dohnanyi and the recommendation that he be arrested. Himmler passed the file back with the note “Kindly leave Canaris alone.” Either Himmler felt Canaris was too powerful to tackle at this stage, or he wanted him and his oppositional network protected for reasons of his own. Nevertheless, Oster’s usefulness to the resistance was now greatly reduced. But the Gestapo did not have information about the full workings of the resistance. Most importantly, they did not know about the resistance networks based on Army Group Centre or the Bendlerblock.
Meanwhile, the disaster at Stalingrad, which cost Germany 400,000 casualties, was sending waves of horror and grief through German society, but caused remarkably little reduction in the people’s faith in Hitler and in Germany’s ultimate victory. This was a source of great frustration to the military and civil service plotters, who virtually all came from the elite and had privileged access to information, giving them a much greater appreciation of the hopelessness of Germany’s situation than was possessed by the German people.
The only visible manifestation of opposition to the regime following Stalingrad was an unexpected and completely spontaneous outbreak of anti-war sentiment among a small number of university students, organized by a group called the White Rose, centered in Munich but with connections in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Vienna. In January 1943 they launched a campaign of antiwar handbills and graffiti in and around Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich. Inevitably, they were soon detected and arrested. The three ringleaders, Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, were given perfunctory trials and executed, as were Kurt Huber, a music teacher accused of inspiring their actions, and several others.
This outbreak was surprising and worrying to the Nazi regime, because the universities had been strongholds of Nazi sentiment even before Hitler had come to power. By the same token, it gave heart to the scattered and demoralized resistance groups. But White Rose was not a sign of widespread civilian disaffection from the regime, and had no imitators elsewhere. The underground SPD and KPD were able to maintain their networks, and reported increasing discontent at the course of the war and at the resultant economic hardship, particularly among the industrial workers and among farmers (who suffered from the acute shortage of labor with so many young men away at the front). But there was nothing approaching active hostility to the regime. Most Germans continued to revere Hitler and blamed Himmler or other subordinates for their troubles. And from late 1943 fear of the advancing Soviets and prospects of a military offensive from the Western Powers eclipsed resentment at the regime and if anything hardened the will to resist.
It cannot be disputed that many Germans supported the regime until the end of the war. But beneath the surface of German society there were also currents of resistance, if not always consciously political. The German historian Detlev Peukert, who pioneered the study of German society during the Nazi era, called this phenomenon “everyday resistance.” His research was based partly on the regular reports by the Gestapo and the SD on morale and public opinion, and on the “Reports on Germany” which were produced by the exiled SPD based on information from its underground network in Germany and which were acknowledged to be very well informed.
Peukert and other writers have shown that the most persistent sources of dissatisfaction in Nazi Germany were the state of the economy and anger at the corruption of Nazi Party officials–although these rarely affected the personal popularity of Hitler himself. The Nazi regime is frequently credited with “curing unemployment,” but this was done mainly by conscription and rearmament–the civilian economy remained weak throughout the Nazi period. Although prices were fixed by law, wages remained low and there were acute shortages, particularly once the war started. To this was added the acute misery caused by Allied air attacks on German cities after 1942. The high living and venality of Nazi officials such as Hermann Göring aroused increasing anger. The result was “deep dissatisfaction among the population of all parts of the country, caused by failings in the economy, government intrusions into private life, disruption of accepted tradition and custom, and police-state controls.”
Opposition based on this widespread dissatisfaction usually took “passive” forms–absenteeism, malingering, spreading rumors, trading on the black market, hoarding, avoiding various forms of state service such as donations to Nazi causes. But sometimes it took more active forms, such as warning people about to be arrested, hiding them or helping them to escape, or turning a blind eye to oppositionist activities. Among the industrial working class, where the underground SPD and KPD networks were always active, there were frequent if short-lived strikes. These were generally tolerated, at least before the outbreak of war, provided the demands of the strikers were purely economic and not political.
Another form of resistance was assisting the persecuted German Jews. By mid-1942 the deportation of German and Austrian Jews to the extermination camps in Poland was well under way. As recent writers have shown, the great majority of Germans were indifferent to the fate of the Jews, and a substantial proportion actively supported the Nazi program of extermination  But a minority persisted in trying to help Jews, even in the face of serious risk to themselves and their families. This was easiest in Berlin (where in any case the Jews were progressively concentrated by the regime), and easiest for wealthy and well-connected people, particularly women.
Aristocrats such as Maria Gräfin von Maltzan and Marie Therese von Hammerstein obtained papers for Jews and helped many to escape from Germany. In Wieblingen in Baden, Elisabeth von Thadden, a private girls’ school principal, disregarded official edicts and continued to enroll Jewish girls at her school until May 1941 when the school was nationalized and she was dismissed (she was executed in 1944, following the Frau Solf Tea Party). A Berlin Protestant Minister, Heinrich Grüber, organized the smuggling of Jews to the Netherlands. At the Foreign Office, Canaris conspired to send a number of Jews to Switzerland under various pretexts. It is estimated that 2000 Jews were hidden in Berlin until the end of the war. Martin Gilbert has documented numerous cases of Germans and Austrians, including officials and Army officers, who saved the lives of Jews.
There was only one public manifestation of opposition to the Nazi persecution of the German Jews, the Rosenstrasse protest of February 1943, sparked by the arrest and threatened deportation to death camps of 1800 Jewish men married to non-Jewish women. Before these men could be deported, their wives and other relatives rallied outside the building in Rosenstrasse where the men were held. An estimated 6000 people, mostly women, rallied in shifts in the winter cold for over a week. Eventually Himmler, worried about the effect on civilian morale, gave in and allowed the arrested men to be released. Some who had already been deported and were on their way to Auschwitz were actually brought back. There was no retaliation against the protesters, and most of the Jewish men survived the war. This incident was remarkable both for its success and its uniqueness, and again raises the question of what might have happened if more Germans had been willing to protest against the deportations.
Nazism had a powerful appeal to German youth, particularly middle-class youth, and German universities were strongholds of Nazism even before Hitler came to power. The Hitler Youth sought to mobilize all young Germans behind the regime, and apart from stubborn resistance in some rural Catholic areas, was generally successful in the first period of Nazi rule. After about 1938, however, persistent alienation among some sections of German youth began to appear. This rarely took the form of overt political opposition–the White Rose group was a striking exception, but was striking mainly for its uniqueness. Much more common was what would now be called “dropping out”–a passive refusal to take part in official youth culture and a search for alternatives. Although none of the unofficial youth groups amounted to a serious threat to the Nazi regime, and although they provided no aid or comfort to those groups within the German elite who were actively plotting against Hitler, they do serve to show that there were currents of opposition at other levels of German society.
Examples were the so-called Edelweisspiraten (“Edelweiss Pirates”), a loose network of working-class youth groups in a number of cities, who held unauthorized meetings and engaged in street fights with the Hitler Youth; the Meuten group in Leipzig, a more politicized group with links to the KPD underground, which had more than a thousand members in the late 1930s; and, most notably, the Swingjugend, middle-class youth who met in secret clubs in Berlin and most other large cities to listen to swing, jazz and other music deemed “degenerate” by the Nazi authorities. This movement, which involved distinctive forms of dress and gradually become more consciously political, became so popular that it provoked a crackdown: in 1941 Himmler ordered the arrest of Swing activists and had some sent to concentration camps.
In October 1944, as the American and British armies approached the western borders of Germany, there was a serious outbreak of disorder in the bomb-ravaged city of Cologne, which had been largely evacuated. The Edelweisspiraten linked up with gangs of deserters, escaped prisoners and foreign workers, and the undergrounds KPD network, to engage in looting and sabotage, and the assassination of Gestapo and Nazi Party officials. Explosives were stolen with the objective of blowing up the Gestapo headquarters. Himmler, fearing the resistance would spread to other cities as the Allied armies advanced into Germany, ordered a savage crackdown, and for days gun battles raged in the ruined streets of Cologne. More than 200 people were arrested and dozens were hanged in public, among them six teenaged Edelweisspiraten, including Bartholomäus Schink.
Towards the July Plot
By mid-1943 the tide of war was turning decisively against Germany. The last great offensive on the eastern front, Operation Citadel, ended in the defeat at Kursk, and in July Mussolini was overthrown. The Army and civilian plotters became more convinced than ever that Hitler must be assassinated so that a government acceptable to the western Allies could be formed and a separate peace negotiated in time to prevent a Soviet invasion of Germany. This scenario, while more credible than some of the resistance’s earlier plans, was based on a false premise: that the western Allies would be willing to break with Stalin and negotiate a separate peace with a non-Nazi German government. In fact both Churchill and Roosevelt were committed to the “unconditional surrender” formula.
Since the Foreign Office was a stronghold of resistance activists, it was not difficult for the conspirators to make contact with the Allies via diplomats in neutral countries. Theo Kordt, based in the German Embassy in Bern, and advised by the Foreign Officers resisters Ulrich von Hassell and Adam von Trott zu Solz, communicated with the British via intermediaries such as Willem Visser’t Hooft, secretary-general of the World Council of Churches, based in Geneva. The Kreisau Circle sent Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Helmut von Moltke to meet George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, at a church conference in Stockholm. Bell passed their messages and plans on to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. An American journalist, Louis P. Lochner, carried coded messages out of Germany and took them to Roosevelt. Other envoys worked through Vatican channels, or via diplomats in Lisbon–a recognized site for indirect communication between Germany and the Allied countries.
All of these overtures were rejected, and indeed they were usually simply ignored. The western Allies would give the German resistance no assistance or even recognition. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, they did not know or trust the resisters, who seemed to them to be a clique of Prussian reactionaries concerned mainly to save their own skins now that Germany was losing the war. This attitude was encouraged by visceral anti-Germans such as Lord Vansittart, Churchill’s diplomatic adviser, who regarded all Germans as evil. Second, Roosevelt and Churchill were both acutely aware that the Soviet Union was bearing the brunt of the war against Hitler, and were aware of Stalin’s constant suspicions that they were doing deals behind his back. They thus refused any discussions that might be seen as suggesting a willingness to reach a separate peace with Germany. Third, the Allies were determined that in World War II, unlike in World War I, Germany must be comprehensively defeated in the field if another “stab in the back” myth was not to arise in Germany.
In August 1943 Tresckow met a young staff officer, Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, for the first time. Badly wounded in North Africa, Stauffenberg was a devout Catholic, a political conservative and a zealous German nationalist with a taste for philosophy. He had at first welcomed the Nazi regime but had become rapidly disillusioned. By 1942 he shared the widespread conviction among Army officers that Germany was being led to disaster and that Hitler must be removed from power. For some time his religious scruples had prevented him from coming to the conclusion that assassination was the correct way to achieve this. After Stalingrad, however, he decided that not assassinating Hitler would be a greater moral evil. He brought a new tone of fanaticism to the ranks of the resistance.
Olbricht now put forward to Tresckow and Stauffenberg a new strategy for staging a coup against Hitler. The Reserve Army had an operational plan called Operation Valkyrie, which was to be used in the event that the disruption caused by the Allied bombing of German cities caused a breakdown in law and order, or a rising by the millions of slave laborers from occupied countries now being used in German factories. Olbricht suggested that this plan could be used to mobilize the Reserve Army to take control of German cities, disarm the SS and arrest the Nazi leadership, once Hitler had been successfully assassinated. Operation Valkyrie could only be put into effect by General Friedrich Fromm, commander of the Reserve Army, so he must either be won over to the conspiracy or in some way neutralized if the plan was to succeed. Fromm, like many senior officers, knew in general about the military conspiracies against Hitler but neither supported them nor reported them to the Gestapo.
During late 1943 and early 1944 there were a series of attempts to get one of the military conspirators near enough to Hitler for long enough to kill him with a bomb or a revolver. But the task was becoming increasingly difficult. As the war situation deteriorated, Hitler no longer appeared in public and rarely visited Berlin. He spent most of his time at his headquarters in East Prussia, with occasional breaks at his Bavarian mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden. In both places he was heavily guarded and rarely saw people he did not already know and trust. Himmler and the Gestapo were increasingly suspicious of plots against Hitler, and specifically suspected the officers of the General Staff, which was indeed the place where most of the young officers willing to sacrifice themselves to kill Hitler were located. All these attempts therefore failed, sometimes by a matter of minutes.
Further blows came in January and February 1944 when first Moltke and then Canaris were arrested. By the summer of 1944 the Gestapo was closing in on the conspirators. On July 4, Julius Leber, who was trying to establish contact between his own underground SPD network and the KPD’s network in the interests of the “united front,” was arrested after attending a meeting which had been infiltrated by the Gestapo. There was a sense that time was running out, both on the battlefield, where the eastern front was in full retreat and where the Allies had landed in France on June 6, and in Germany, where the resistance’s room for maneuver was rapidly contracting. The belief that this was the last chance for action seized the conspirators. Few now believed that the Allies would agree to a separate peace with a non-Nazi government, even if Hitler was assassinated. Leber in particular had argued that “unconditional surrender” was inevitable and the only question was whether it would be before or after the Soviets invaded Germany.
By this time the core of the conspirators had begun to think of themselves as doomed men, whose actions were more symbolic than real. The purpose of the conspiracy came to be seen by some of them as saving their honor, their families, the Army and Germany through a grand, if futile, gesture, rather than actually altering the course of history. One of Tresckow’s aides, Lieutenant Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort, wrote to Stauffenberg: “The assassination must be attempted, coûte que coûte [whatever the cost]. Even if it fails, we must take action in Berlin. For the practical purpose no longer matters; what matters now is that the German resistance movement must take the plunge before the eyes of the world and of history. Compared to that, nothing else matters.”
In retrospect it is surprising that these months of plotting by the resistance groups in the Army and the state apparatus, in which dozens of people were involved and of which many more, including very senior Army officers, were aware, apparently totally escaped the attentions of the Gestapo. In fact, as was noted earlier, the Gestapo had known since February 1943 of both the Abwehr resistance group under the patronage of Canaris and of the Goedeler-Beck circle. If all these people had been arrested and interrogated, the Gestapo might well have uncovered the group based in Army Group Centre as well and the July 20 assassination attempt would never have happened. This raises the possibility that Himmler knew about the plot and, for reasons of his own, allowed it to go ahead.
Himmler had in fact had at least one conversation with a known oppositionist when, in August 1943, the Prussian Finance Minister Johannes Popitz came to see him and offered him the support of the opposition if he would make a move to displace Hitler and secure a negotiated end to the war. Nothing came of this meeting, but Popitz was not arrested and Himmler apparently did nothing to track down the resistance network which he knew was operating within the state bureaucracy. It is possible that Himmler, who by late 1943 knew that the war was unwinnable, allowed the July 20 plot to go ahead in the knowledge that if it succeeded he would be Hitler’s successor, and could then bring about a peace settlement. Popitz was not alone in seeing in Himmler a potential ally. General von Bock advised Tresckow to seek his support, but there is no evidence that he did so. Gordeler was apparently also in indirect contact with Himmler via a mutual acquaintance Carl Langbehn. Canaris’s biographer Heinz Höhne suggests that Canaris and Himmler were working together to bring about a change of regime. All of this remains speculation.
Himmler in fact knew more about the real level of opposition to the Nazi regime than did the opposition itself. To the resistance activists it seemed that the German people continued to place their faith in Hitler no matter how dire the military and economic situation had become. But Himmler was receiving regular reports from the SD (Security Service, the intelligence arm of the SS), about the real state of German morale. These were compiled by SS-Gruppenfüher Otto Ohlendorf and were drawn from the SD’s wide range of contacts all over Germany. They showed a sharp decline in civilian morale and in the level of support for the Nazi regime, beginning after Stalingrad and accelerating through 1943 as the military setbacks continued, the economic situation deteriorated and the Allied bombing of German cities grew more intense. By the end of 1943 Himmler knew that most Germans no longer believed that war could be won and that many, perhaps a majority, had lost faith in Hitler. But fear of the Gestapo meant that this disillusionment did not translate into political opposition to the regime–even though, as the Rosenstrasse protest showed, it was possible even as late as 1943 for courageous opponents of Nazi policies to make public and successful protests.
Nevertheless, organized resistance begun to stir during 1944. While the SPD and KPD trade unions had been destroyed in 1933, the Catholic unions had voluntarily dissolved along with the Center Party. As a result Catholic unionists had been less zealously repressed than their socialist counterparts, and had maintained an informal network of activists. Their leaders, Jakob Kaiser and Max Habermann, judged by the beginning of 1944 that it was time to take action. They organized a network of resistance cells in government offices across Germany, ready to rise and take control of their buildings when the word was given by the military that Hitler was dead.
To the Bitter End
On July 1, Stauffenberg was appointed chief-of-staff to General Fromm at the Reserve Army headquarters on Bendlerstrasse in central Berlin. This position enabled Stauffenberg to attend Hitler’s military conferences, either in East Prussia or at Berchtesgaden, and would thus give him a golden opportunity, perhaps the last that would present itself, to kill Hitler with a bomb or a pistol. Conspirators who had long resisted on moral grounds the idea of killing Hitler now changed their minds–partly because they were hearing reports of the mass murder at Auschwitz of up to 400,000 Hungarian Jews, the culmination of the Nazi Holocaust. Meanwhile new key allies had been gained. These included General Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, the German military commander in France, who would take control in Paris when Hitler was killed and, it was hoped, negotiate an immediate armistice with the invading Allied armies.
The plot was now as ready as it would ever be. Twice in early July Stauffenberg attended Hitler’s conferences carrying a bomb in his briefcase. But because the conspirators had decided that Himmler, too, must be assassinated if the planned mobilization of Operation Valkyrie was to have any chance of success, he had held back at the last minute because Himmler was not present; in fact it was unusual for Himmler to attend military conferences. By July 15, when Stauffenberg again flew to East Prussia, this condition had been dropped. The plan was for Stauffenberg to plant the briefcase with the bomb in Hitler’s conference room with a timer running, excuse himself from the meeting, wait for the explosion, then fly back to Berlin and join the other plotters at the Bendlerblock. Operation Valkyrie would be mobilized, the Reserve Army would take control of Germany and the other Nazi leaders would be arrested. Beck would be appointed head of state, Gordeler Chancellor and Witzleben commander-in-chief. The plan was ambitious and depended on a run of very good luck, but it was not totally fanciful.
Again on July 15 the attempt was called off at the last minute, for reasons which are not known because all the participants in the phone conversations which led to the postponement were dead by the end of the year. Stauffenberg, depressed and angry, returned to Berlin. On July 18 rumors reached him that the Gestapo had wind of the conspiracy and that he might be arrested at any time; this was apparently not true, but there was a sense that the net was closing in and that the next opportunity to kill Hitler must be taken because there might not be another. At 10:00 A.M. on July 20, Stauffenberg flew back to Rastenburg for another Hitler military conference, once again with a bomb in his briefcase. It is remarkable in retrospect that despite Hitler’s mania for security, officers attending his conferences were not searched.
At about 12:10 the conference began. Stauffenberg, having previously activated the timer on the bomb, placed his briefcase under the table around which Hitler and more than 20 officers were seated or standing. After ten minutes, he made an excuse and left the room. At 12:40 the bomb went off, demolishing the conference room. Several officers were killed, but not Hitler. Possibly he had been saved because the heavy oak leg of the conference table, behind which Stauffenberg’s briefcase had been left, deflected the blast. But Stauffenberg, seeing the building collapse in smoke and flame, assumed Hitler was dead, leaped into a staff car and made a dash for the airfield before the alarm could be raised. By 13:00 he was airborne.
By the time Stauffenberg’s plane reached Berlin at about 15:00, General Erich Fellgiebel, an officer at Rastenburg who was in on the plot, had called the Bendlerblock and told the plotters that Hitler had survived the explosion. This was a fatal step (literally so for Fellgiebel and many others), because the Berlin plotters immediately lost their nerve, and judged, probably correctly, that the plan to mobilize Operation Valkyrie would have no chance of succeeding once the officers of the Reserve Army knew that Hitler was alive. There was more confusion when Stauffenberg’s plane landed and he phoned from the airport to say that Hitler was in fact dead. The Benderblock plotters did not know whom to believe. Finally at 16:00 Olbricht issued the orders for Operation Valkyrie to be mobilized. The vacillating General Fromm, however, phoned Keitel and was assured that Hitler was alive, and demanded to know Stauffenberg’s whereabouts. This told Fromm that the plot had been traced to his headquarters, and that he was in mortal danger.
At 16:40 Stauffenberg arrived at the Bendlerblock. Fromm now changed sides and attempted to have Stauffenberg arrested, but Olbricht and Stauffenberg restrained him at gunpoint. By this time Himmler had taken charge of the situation and has issued orders countermanding Olbricht’s mobilization of Operation Valkyrie. In many places the coup was going ahead, led by officers who believed that Hitler was dead. The Propaganda Ministry on the Wilhelmstrasse, with Joseph Goebbels inside, was surrounded by troops. In Paris Stülpnagel issued orders for the arrest of the SS and SD commanders. In Vienna, Prague and many other places troops occupied Nazi Party offices and arrested Gauleiters and SS officers.
The decisive moment came at 19:00, when Hitler was sufficiently recovered to make phone calls. By phone he personally empowered a loyal officer, Major Otto Remer, to regain control of the situation in Berlin. At 20:00 a furious Witzleben arrived at the Bendlerblock and had a bitter argument with Stauffenberg, who was still insisting that the coup could go ahead. Witzleben left shortly afterwards. At around this time the planned seizure of power in Paris was aborted when Kluge, who had recently been appointed commander-in-chief in the west, learned that Hitler was alive, changed sides with alacrity and had Stülpnagel arrested.
The less resolute members of the conspiracy in Berlin also now began to change sides. Fighting broke out in the Bendlerblock between officers supporting and opposing the coup, and Stauffenberg was wounded. By 23:00 Fromm had regained control, hoping by a show of zealous loyalty to save his own skin. Beck, realizing their failure, shot himself–the first of many suicides in the coming days. Fromm declared that he had convened a court-martial consisting of himself, and had sentenced Olbricht, Stauffenberg and two other officers to death. At 00:10 on July 21 they were shot in the courtyard outside. Others would have been executed as well, but at 00:30 the SS led by Otto Skorzeny arrived on the scene and further executions were forbidden. Fromm went off to see Goebbels to claim credit for suppressing the coup. He was immediately arrested.
That was the end of the German resistance. Over the coming weeks Himmler’s Gestapo, driven by a furious Hitler, rounded up nearly everyone who had had the remotest connection with the July 20 plot. The discovery of letters and diaries in the homes and offices of those arrested revealed the plots of 1938, 1939 and 1943, and this led to further rounds of arrests, including that of Halder, who finished the war in a concentration camp. Under Himmler’s new Sippenhaft (blood guilt) laws, all the relatives of the principal plotters were also arrested. Many people killed themselves, including Tresckow, Stülpnagel and Kluge.
Very few of the plotters tried to escape, or to deny their guilt when arrested. It was as if they felt that now that honor had been satisfied, there was nothing further to be done. Hassell, who was at home in Bavaria, returned to his office in Berlin and awaited arrest. Others turned themselves in. Some less unworldly plotters did manage to get away–Gisevius to Switzerland, for example. Others survived by luck or accident. It appears that none of the conspirators implicated anyone else, even under torture. It was well into August before the Gestapo learned of the Kreisau Circle. Goerdeler was not arrested until August 12.
Those who survived interrogation were given perfunctory trials before the People’s Court and its bullying Nazi judge Roland Freisler. Eventually some 5000 people were arrested and about 200 were executed –not all of them connected with the July 20 plot, since the Gestapo used the occasion to settle scores with many other people suspected of opposition sympathies. After February 1945, when Freisler was killed in an air raid, there were no more formal trials, but as late as April, with the war weeks away from its end, Canaris’s diary was found, and many more people were implicated. Executions continued down to the last days of the war.
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- Fest, 95
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- Fest, 200
- Peter Padfield. Himmler: Reichsfuhrer – SS. (Henry Holt and Company, 1993), 422
- Gordon Craig, New York Review of Books, July 12, 1987, (reviewing Peukert’s book Inside Nazi Germany
- Eric Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband. What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany. (New York: Basic Books, 2006), chapter 13
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- Kershaw, 2001, 693
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Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 02.23.2009, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.