Military history


Deep gloom hung over Berlin, Prague, London and Paris as “Black Wednesday,” September 28, dawned. War seemed inevitable.

“A Great War can hardly be avoided any longer,” Jodl quoted Goering as saying that morning. “It may last seven years, and we will win it.”68

In London the digging of trenches, the evacuation of school children, the emptying of hospitals, continued. In Paris there was a scramble for the choked trains leaving the city, and the motor traffic out of the capital was jammed. There were similar scenes in western Germany. Jodl jotted in his diary that morning reports of German refugees fleeing from the border regions. At 2 P.M. Hitler’s time limit for Czechoslovakia’s acceptance of the Godesberg proposals would run out. There was no sign from Prague that they would be accepted. There were, however, certain other signs: great activity in the Wilhelmstrasse; a frantic coming and going of the French, British and Italian ambassadors. But of these the general public and indeed the German generals remained ignorant.

To some of the generals and to General Halder, Chief of the General Staff, above all, the time had come to carry out their plot to remove Hitler and save the Fatherland from plunging into a European war which they felt it was doomed to lose. All through September the conspirators, according to the later accounts of the survivors,* had been busy working out their plans.

General Halder was in close touch with Colonel Oster and his chief at the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, who tried to keep him abreast of Hitler’s political moves and of foreign intelligence. The plotters, as we have seen, had warned London of Hitler’s resolve to attack Czechoslovakia by the end of September and had begged the British government to make clear that Britain, along with France, would answer German aggression by armed force. For some months General von Witzleben, who commanded the Berlin Military District, and who would have to furnish most of the troops to carry out the coup, had been hesitant because he suspected that London and Paris had secretly given Hitler a free hand in the East and would therefore not go to war over Czechoslovakia—a view shared by several other generals and one which Hitler and Ribbentrop had encouraged. If this were true, the plot to depose Hitler, in the opinion of generals such as Witzleben and Halder, was senseless. For, at this stage of the Third Reich, they were concerned only with getting rid of the Fuehrer in order to avert a European war which Germany had no chance of winning. If there were really no risk of a big war, if Chamberlain were going to give Hitler what he wanted in Czechoslovakia without a war, then they saw no point in trying to carry out a revolt.

To assure the generals that Britain and France meant business, Colonel Oster and Gisevius arranged for General Halder and General von Witzleben to meet Schacht, who, besides having prestige with the military hierarchy as the man who financed German rearmament and who still was in the cabinet, was considered an expert on British affairs. Schacht assured them that the British would fight if Hitler resorted to arms against the Czechs.

The news that had reached Erich Kordt, one of the conspirators, in the German Foreign Office late on the night of September 13, that Chamberlain urgently proposed “to come over at once by air” to seek a peaceful solution of the Czech crisis, had caused consternation in the camp of the plotters. They had counted on Hitler’s returning to Berlin from the Nuremberg Party Rally on the fourteenth and, according to Kordt, had planned to carry out the putsch on that day or the next. But the Fuehrer did not return to the capital.* Instead, he went to Munich and on the fourteenth continued on to Berchtesgaden, where he awaited the visit of the British Prime Minister the next day.

There were double grounds for the feeling of utter frustration among the plotters. Their plans could be carried out only if Hitler were in Berlin, and they had been confident that, since the Nuremberg rally had only sharpened the Czech crisis, he would certainly return immediately to the capital. In the second place, although some of the members of the conspiracy complacently assumed, as did the people of Britain, that Chamberlain was flying to Berchtesgaden to warn Hitler not to make the mistake that Wilhelm II had made in 1914 as to what Great Britain would do in the case of German aggression, Kordt knew better. He had seen the text of Chamberlain’s urgent message explaining to Hitler that he wanted to see him “with a view to trying to find a peaceful solution.” Furthermore, he had seen the telegram from his brother, Theodor Kordt, counselor of the German Embassy in London, that day, confiding that the Prime Minister was prepared to go a long way to meet Hitler’s demands in the Sudetenland.

“The effect on our plans,” says Kordt, “was bound to be disastrous. It would have been absurd to stage a putsch to overthrow Hitler at a moment when the British Prime Minister was coming to Germany to discuss with Hitler ‘the peace of the world.’”

However, on the evening of September 15, according to Erich Kordt, Dr. Paul Schmidt, who was in on the conspiracy, and who, as we have seen, acted as sole interpreter—and sole witness—at the Hitler–Chamberlain talk, informed him “by prearranged code” that the Fuehrer was still determined to conquer the whole of Czechoslovakia and that he had put forward to Chamberlain impossible demands “in the hope that they would be refused.” This intelligence revived the spirits of the conspirators. Kordt informed Colonel Oster of it the same evening and it was decided to go ahead with the plans as soon as Hitler returned to Berlin. “But first of all,” Oster said, “we must get the bird back into his cage in Berlin.”

The bird flew back to his “cage” from the Godesberg talks on the afternoon of September 24. On the morning of “Black Wednesday,” the twenty-eighth, Hitler had been in Berlin for nearly four days. On the twenty-sixth he apparently had burned his bridges in his outburst at the Sportpalast. On the twenty-seventh he had sent Sir Horace Wilson back to London empty-handed, and the British government’s reaction had been to mobilize the fleet and warn Prague to expect an immediate German attack. During the day he had also, as we have seen, ordered the “assault units” to take their combat positions on the Czech frontier and be ready for “action” on September 30—three days hence.

What were the conspirators waiting for? All the conditions they themselves had set had now been fulfilled. Hitler was in Berlin. He was determined to go to war. He had set the date for the attack on Czechoslovakia as September 30—two days away now. Either the putsch must be made at once, or it would be too late to overthrow the dictator and stop the war.

Kordt declares that during the day of September 27 the plotters set a definite date for action: September 29. Gisevius, in his testimony on the stand at Nuremberg and also in his book, claims that the generals—Halder and Witzleben—decided to act immediately on September 28 after they got a copy of Hitler’s “defiant letter” with its “insulting demand” to Chamberlain of the night before.

Oster received a copy of this defiant letter [Gisevius says] late that night [September 27], and on the morning of September 28 I took the copy to Witzleben. Witzleben went to Halder with it. Now, at last, the Chief of the General Staff had his desired, unequivocal proof that Hitler was not bluffing, that he wanted war.

Tears of indignation ran down Halder’s cheeks … Witzleben insisted that now it was time to take action. He persuaded Halder to go to see Brauchitsch. After a while Halder returned to say that he had good news: Brauchitsch was also outraged and would probably take part in the Putsch.70

But either the text of the letter had been altered in the copying or the generals misunderstood it, for, as we have seen, it was so moderate in tone, so full of promises to “negotiate details with the Czechs” and to “give a formal guarantee for the remainder of Czechoslovakia,” so conciliatory in suggesting to Chamberlain that he might continue his efforts, that the Prime Minister, after reading it, had immediately telegraphed Hitler suggesting a Big-Power conference to settle the details and at the same time wired Mussolini asking his support for such a proposal.

Of this eleventh-hour effort at appeasement the generals apparently had no knowledge, but General von Brauchitsch, the Commander in Chief of the Army, may have had some inkling. According to Gisevius, Witzleben telephoned Brauchitsch from Halder’s office, told him that all wasready and pleaded with him to lead the revolt himself. But the Army commander was noncommittal. He informed Halder and Witzleben that he would first have to go over to the Fuehrer’s Chancellery to see for himself whether the generals had assessed the situation correctly. Gisevius says that Witzleben rushed back to his military headquarters.

“Gisevius,” he declared excitedly, “the time has come!”

At eleven o’clock that morning of September 28 the phone rang at Kordt’s desk in the Foreign Office. Ciano was on the line from Rome and wanted urgently to speak to the German Foreign Minister. Ribbentrop was not available—he was at the Reich Chancellery—so the Italian Foreign Minister asked to be put through to his ambassador, Bernardo Attolico. The Germans listened in and recorded the call. It developed that Mussolini, and not his son-in-law, wanted to do the talking.

MUSSOLINI: This is the Duce speaking. Can you hear me?

ATTOLICO: Yes, I hear you.

MUSSOLINI: Ask immediately for an interview with the Chancellor. Tell him the British government asked me through Lord Perth* to mediate in the Sudeten question. The point of difference is very small. Tell the Chancellor that I and Fascist Italy stand behind him. He must decide. But tell him I favor accepting the suggestion. You hear me?

ATTOLICO: Yes, I hear you.


   Out of breath, his face flushed with excitement (as Dr. Schmidt, the interpreter, noted), Ambassador Attolico arrived at the Chancellery to find that the French ambassador was already closeted with Hitler. M. François-Poncet had had a hard time getting there. Very late the night before, Bonnet, the French Foreign Minister, who was now intent on going Chamberlain one better, had telephoned his ambassador in Berlin and instructed him to see Hitler at the earliest possible moment and present a French proposal for surrendering the Sudetenland which went much further than the British plan. Whereas the Prime Minister’s proposal, delivered to Hitler at 11 P.M. on September 27, offered Hitler the occupation of Zone I of the Sudetenland by October 1—a mere token occupation of a tiny enclave—the French now proposed to hand over three large zones, which comprised most of the disputed territory, by October 1.

It was a tempting offer, but the French ambassador had great difficulty in making it. He phoned at 8 A.M. on September 28 for an appointment with the Chancellor and when no response had been received by ten o’clock rushed his military attaché off to the Army General Staff to inform the German generals of the offer which he was as yet unable to deliver. He enlisted the aid of the British ambassador. Sir Nevile Henderson, who was only too ready to oblige anyone who might help prevent a war—at any cost—telephoned Goering, and the Field Marshal said he would try to make the appointment. As a matter of fact, Henderson was trying to make one for himself, for he had been instructed to present to Hitler “a final personal message from the Prime Minister,” the one which Chamberlain had drafted late the night before,* assuring Hitler that he could get everything he wanted “without war, and without delay,” and proposing a conference of the powers to work out the details.72

Hitler received François-Poncet at 11:15 A.M. The ambassador found him nervous and tense. Brandishing a map which he had hastily drawn up and which showed the large chunks of Czech territory which Czechoslovakia’s principal ally was now prepared to hand over to Hitler on a platter, the French ambassador urged the Fuehrer to accept the French proposals and spare Europe from war. Despite Ribbentrop’s negative comments, which François-Poncet says he dealt “roundly” with, Hitler was impressed—especially, as Dr. Schmidt noted, by the ambassador’s map, with its generous markings.

At 11:40 the interview was suddenly interrupted by a messenger who announced that Attolico had just arrived with an urgent message for the Fuehrer from Mussolini. Hitler left the room, with Schmidt, to greet the panting Italian ambassador.

“I have an urgent message to you from the Duce!” Attolico, who had a naturally hoarse voice, shouted from some distance off.73 After delivering it, he added that Mussolini begged the Fuehrer to refrain from mobilization.

It was at this moment, says Schmidt, the only surviving eyewitness of the scene, that the decision for peace was made. It was now just noon, two hours before the time limit on Hitler’s ultimatum to the Czechs ran out.

“Tell the Duce,” Hitler said, with obvious relief, to Attolico, “that I accept his proposal.”74

The rest of the day was anticlimactic. Ambassador Henderson followed Attolico and François-Poncet to the Fuehrer’s presence.

“At the request of my great friend and ally, Mussolini,” Hitler told Henderson, “I have postponed mobilizing my troops for twenty-four hours.” He would give his decision on other matters, such as the proposed conference of the powers, after he had again consulted Mussolini.75

There followed much telephoning between Berlin and Rome—Schmidt says the two fascist dictators talked directly once. A few minutes before 2 P.M. on September 28, just as his ultimatum was to expire, Hitler made up his mind and invitations were hastily issued to the heads of government of Great Britain, France and Italy to meet the Fuehrer at Munich at noon on the following day to settle the Czech question. No invitation was sent to Prague or Moscow. Russia, the coguarantor of Czechoslovakia’s integrity in case of a German attack, was not to be allowed to interfere. The Czechs were not even asked to be present at their own death sentence.

In his memoirs Sir Nevile Henderson gave most of the credit for saving the peace at this moment to Mussolini, and in this he has been backed by most of the historians who have written of this chapter in European history.* But surely this is being overgenerous. Italy was the weakest of the Big Powers in Europe and her military strength was so negligible that the German generals, as their papers make clear, treated it as a joke. Great Britain and France were the only powers that counted in German calculations. And it was the British Prime Minister who, from the start, had sought to convince Hitler that he could get the Sudetenland without a war. Chamberlain, not Mussolini, made Munich possible, and thus preserved the peace for exactly eleven months. The cost of such a feat to his own country and to its allies and friends will be considered later, but it was, by any accounting, as it turned out, almost beyond bearing.

   At five minutes to three on “Black Wednesday,” which now appeared less dark than it had in the bleak morning hours, the British Prime Minister had begun to address the House of Commons in London, giving a detailed account of the Czech crisis and of the part which he and his government had played in trying to solve it. The situation he depicted was still uncertain, but it had improved. Mussolini, he said, had succeeded in getting Hitler to postpone mobilization for twenty-four hours. It was now 4:15, and Chamberlain had been speaking for an hour and twenty minutes and was nearing the end of his speech. At this point he was interrupted. Sir John Simon, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, passed him a paper which had been handed down to the Treasury front bench by Lord Halifax, who had been sitting in the peers’ gallery.

   Whatever view honorable members may have had about Signor Mussolini [Chamberlain was saying] I believe that everyone will welcome his gesture … for peace.

   The Prime Minister paused, glanced at the paper, and smiled.

   That is not all. I have something further to say to the House yet. I have now been informed by Herr Hitler that he invites me to meet him at Munich tomorrow morning. He has also invited Signor Mussolini and Monsieur Daladier. Signor Mussolini has accepted and I have no doubt Monsieur Daladier will accept. I need not say what my answer will be …

   There was no need. The ancient chamber, the Mother of Parliaments, reacted with a mass hysteria without precedent in its long history. There was wild shouting and a wild throwing of order papers into the air and many were in tears and one voice was heard above the tumult which seemed to express the deep sentiments of all: “Thank God for the Prime Minister!”

Jan Masaryk, the Czech minister, the son of the founding father of the Czechoslovak Republic, looked on from the diplomatic gallery, unable to believe his eyes. Later he called on the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary in Downing Street to find out whether his country, which would have to make all the sacrifices, would be invited to Munich. Chamberlain and Halifax answered that it would not, that Hitler would not stand for it. Masaryk gazed at the two God-fearing Englishmen and struggled to keep control of himself.

“If you have sacrificed my nation to preserve the peace of the world,” he finally said, “I will be the first to applaud you. But if not, gentlemen, God help your souls!”76

   And what of the conspirators, the generals and the civilians, General Halder and General von Witzleben, Schacht and Gisevius and Kordt, and the rest, who shortly before noon on that fateful day had believed, as Witzleben said, that their time had come? The answer can be given briefly in their own words—spoken much later when all was over and they were anxious to prove to the world how opposed they had been to Hitler and his catastrophic follies which had brought Germany to utter ruin after a long and murderous war.

Neville Chamberlain, they all claimed, was the villain! By agreeing to come to Munich he had forced them at the very last minute to call off their plans to overthrow Hitler and the Nazi regime!

On February 25, 1946, as the long Nuremberg trial neared its end, General Halder was interrogated privately by Captain Sam Harris, a young New York attorney on the staff of the American prosecution.

   It had been planned [Halder said] to occupy by military force the Reich Chancellery and those government offices, particularly ministries, which were administered by party members and close supporters of Hitler, with the express intention of avoiding bloodshed and then trying the group before the whole German nation … On the day [September 28] Witzleben came to see me in my office during the noon hour. We discussed the matter. He requested that I give him the order of execution. We discussed other details—how much time he needed, etc. During this discussion, the news came that the British Prime Minister and the French Premier had agreed to come to Hitler for further talks. This happened in the presence of Witzleben. I therefore took back the order of execution because, owing to this fact, the entire basis for the action had been taken away …

We were firmly convinced that we would be successful. But now came Mr. Chamberlain and with one stroke the danger of war was averted … The critical hour for force was avoided … One could only wait in case a new chance should come …

“Do I understand you to say that if Chamberlain had not come to Munich, your plan would have been executed, and Hitler would have been deposed?” asked Captain Harris.

“I can only say the plan would have been executed,” General Halder replied. “I do not know if it would have been successful.”77

Dr. Schacht, who at Nuremberg and in his postwar books clearly exaggerated the importance of his role in the various conspiracies against Hitler, also blamed Chamberlain for the failure of the Germans to carry out the plot on September 28:

   It is quite clear from the later course of history that this first attempt at a coup d’etat by Witzleben and myself was the only one which could have brought a real turning point in Germany’s fate. It was the only attempt which was planned and prepared in good time … In the autumn of 1938 it was still possible to count on bringing Hitler to trial before the Supreme Court, but all subsequent efforts to get rid of him necessarily involved attempts on his life … I had made preparations for a coup d’etat in good time and I had brought them to within an ace of success. History had decided against me. The intervention of foreign statesmen was something I could not possibly have taken into account.78

   And Gisevius, who was Schacht’s stoutest champion on the witness stand at Nuremberg, added:

   The impossible had happened. Chamberlain and Daladier were flying to Munich. Our revolt was done for. For a few hours I went on imagining that we could revolt anyway. But Witzleben soon demonstrated to me that the troops would never revolt against the victorious Fuehrer … Chamberlain saved Hitler.79

Did he? Or was this merely an excuse of the German civilians and generals for their failure to act?

In his interrogation at Nuremberg Halder explained to Captain Harris that there were three conditions for a successful “revolutionary action”:

   The first condition is a clear and resolute leadership. The second condition is the readiness of the masses of the people to follow the idea of the revolution. The third condition is the right choice of time. According to our views, the first condition of a clear resolute leadership was there. The second condition we thought fulfilled too, because … the German people did not want war. Therefore the nation was ready to consent to a revolutionary act for fear of war. The third condition—the right choice of time—was good because we had to expect within forty-eight hours the order for carrying out a military action. Therefore we were firmly convinced that we would be successful.

But now came Mr. Chamberlain and with one stroke the danger of war was avoided.

One can doubt that General Halder’s first condition was ever fulfilled, as he claimed. For had there been “clear and resolute leadership” why should the generals have hesitated for four days? They had on tap the military force to easily sweep Hitler and his regime aside: Witzleben had a whole army corps—the IIIrd—in and around Berlin, Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt had a crack infantry division in nearby Potsdam, Hoefner had a panzer division to the south, and the two ranking police officers in the capital, Count von Helldorf and Count von der Schulenburg, had a large force of well-armed police to help out. All of these officers, according to the plotters themselves, were but waiting for the word from Halder to spring into action with overwhelming armed force. And the population of Berlin, scared to death that Hitler was about to bring on a war, would have—so far as this writer could, at first hand, judge them—spontaneously backed the coup.

Whether Halder and Witzleben would have finally acted had Chamberlain not agreed to come to Munich is a question that can never be answered with any degree of finality. Given the peculiar attitude of these generals at this time which made them concerned with overthrowing Hitler not in order to bring an end to the tyranny and terror of his regime but merely to avert a lost war, it is possible that they might have acted had not the Munich Conference been arranged. The information necessary to establish how well the plot was hatched, how ready the armed forces were to march and how near Halder and Witzleben really came to giving the order to act has so far been lacking. We have only the Statements of a handful of participants who after the war were anxious to prove their opposition to National Socialism, and what they have said and written in self-defense is often conflicting and confusing.*

If, as the conspirators claim, their plans were on the point of being carried out, the announcement of Chamberlain’s trip to Munich certainly cut the ground from underneath their feet. The generals could scarcely have arrested Hitler and tried him as a war criminal when it was obvious that he was about to achieve an important conquest without war.

What is certain among all these uncertainties—and here Dr. Schacht must be conceded his point—is that such a golden opportunity never again presented itself to the German opposition to dispose of Hitler, bring a swift end to the Third Reich and save Germany and the world from war. The Germans, if one may risk a generalization, have a weakness for blaming foreigners for their failures. The responsibility of Chamberlain and Halifax, of Daladier and Bonnet, for Munich and thus for all the disastrous consequences which ensued is overwhelming. But they may be pardoned to some extent for not taking very seriously the warnings of a “revolt” of a group of German generals and civilians most of whom had served Hitler with great ability up to this moment. They, or at least some of their advisers in London and Paris, may have recalled the bleak facts of recent German history: that the Army had helped put the former Austrian corporal into power, had been delighted at the opportunities he gave it to rearm, had apparently not objected to the destruction of individual freedom under National Socialism or done anything about the murder of its own General von Schleicher or the removal, on a dastardly frame-up, of its commanding officer, General von Fritsch; and—recently—had gone along with the rape of Austria, indeed had supplied the military force to carry it out. Whatever blame may be heaped on the archappeasers in London and Paris, and great it undoubtedly is, the fact remains that the German generals themselves, and their civilian coconspirators, failed at an opportune moment to act on their own.

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