Military history



On 4 October 1943, in Posen, Heinrich Himmler gave a speech to senior SS officers, which he repeated in more or less the same form two days later to Party Regional Leaders and other prominent figures, including Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer.227 The speech contained what have since become some of his most notorious utterances. ‘The evacuation of the Jews,’ he declared, ‘. . . is a laudable page in our history that will never be written.’ The Jews were a threat to the Reich, he declared. Therefore they were being killed, and not just the men:

We were approached with the question, what about the women and children? - I decided to find an absolutely clear solution here too. Thus I did not feel I had the right to exterminate - let’s say then, kill them or have them killed - the men while I allowed their avengers, in the form of their children, to grow up and avenge them upon our sons and grandsons. The really difficult decision had to be taken to make this people disappear off the face of the Earth. For the organization that had to carry out the task, it was the most difficult we had so far had.228

Several months later, on 5 May 1944 and again on 24 May 1944, he repeated these sentiments in addresses to senior army officers at Sonthofen, describing how difficult he found ‘the fulfilment of this soldierly command that was issued to me’ to exterminate the Jews. Killing the women and children as well as the men, he implied, was his own interpretation of Hitler’s order; the reference to a ‘soldierly command’ could only be a reference to Hitler himself, since there was nobody else from whom Himmler would accept commands of any kind. Hitler himself was clear enough about his own overall responsibility, however. As he remarked to senior military personnel on 26 May 1944: ‘By removing the Jews, I have removed from Germany the possibility of the construction of any kind of revolutionary cell or nucleus . . . Humanitarianism would mean the greatest cruelty towards one’s own people, here as in general, everywhere.’229 It was a life-or-death struggle. If the Jews were not eliminated, they would exterminate the entire German people. Not only the generals and Party satraps, but also Himmler himself seemed to share the view that the extermination of the Jews was a crime, a necessary crime in their view, but a crime none the less: for why, otherwise, would the history books to be written in the future never dare to mention it? Such a crime would invite retribution should Germany lose the war. So these speeches, delivered at a time when Germany’s military situation was becoming steadily more desperate, were designed not least to remind the senior Party figures and generals of their complicity in the genocide, in order to ensure that they would carry on fighting to the end, a point fully grasped by Goebbels, who wrote in his diary on 9 October 1944 that Himmler in his speech ‘pleaded for the most radical solution and the toughest, namely to exterminate Jewry, bag and baggage. That is certainly the most consistent solution, even if it is also a brutal one. For we have to take on the responsibility of completely solving this question for our time.’230

To SS leaders, on 4 May 1944, Himmler had an even more explicit message. He had no doubt that they would continue the struggle to the bitter end. He wanted to remind them, however, that the extermination of the Jews had to be carried out wherever and whenever it was possible, and without any exceptions:

‘The Jewish people will be exterminated’, says every Party comrade. ‘It’s clear, it’s in our programme. Elimination of the Jews, extermination and we’ll do it.’ And then they come along, the worthy eighty million Germans, and each one of them produces his decent Jew. It’s clear the others are swine, but this one is a fine Jew. Not one of those who talk like that has watched it happening, not one of them hs been through it. Most of you will know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred or a thousand are lying there. To have stuck it out and - apart from a few exceptions due to human weakness - to have remained decent, that is what has made us tough.231

Even the SS men who carried out the murders, therefore, were told by Himmler that what they were doing went against the wishes of the great majority of Germans.

Most of Europe’s Jews had already been murdered by this time; but one very large Jewish community remained more or less untouched, namely the Jews of Hungary, whom Hitler had for some time been pressing the Hórthy regime to hand over. With the rapidly worsening military situation, the signs that Hórthy was preparing to switch sides began to multiply. Still the major source of petroleum for the Reich, Hungary could not be allowed to slip out of German control. Hitler summoned Hórthy to meet him on 18 March 1944 and told him that German forces would occupy his country immediately. The only question was whether it was to be done without bloodshed. Hórthy had no option but to accept the ultimatum, and to agree to install the pro-German Ambassador in Berlin, Dome Sztójay, as Prime Minister. Not the least of Hitler’s complaints against Hórthy was, as he told the Hungarian Regent at their meeting, that ‘Hungary did nothing in the matter of the Jewish problem, and was not prepared to settle accounts with the large Jewish population in Hungary.’ Now all this was about to change.232

German troops marched into Hungary on 19 March 1944. On the very same day, Adolf Eichmann arrived in Budapest, to be followed shortly by a special unit led by Theodor Dannecker, charged with the arrest and deportation of the Hungarian Jews. Two radical antisemites, László Endre and László Bary, were appointed as the top civil servants in the Interior Ministry, to assist in the round-up. In the usual way, a Jewish Council was established, and on 7 April 1944 the compulsory wearing of the Jewish star was introduced. The first arrests of Jews now began in Hungarian Transylvania and Carpatho-Ukraine, where ghettos and camps were quickly erected, all with the full co-operation of the Hungarian police. In the meantime, the Gestapo arrested several thousand Jewish professionals, intellectuals, journalists, left-wing or liberal politicians and other prominent figures, mostly in Budapest, and sent them off to concentration camps in Austria. Their further fate remained for the moment uncertain. The same was not the case with the provincial Jews now being herded into the new temporary camps and ghettos in Hungary. Although the Council and also many individual Jews knew full well from personal contacts, the Hungarian service of the BBC and many other sources what awaited Jewish deportees who got on to the trains destined for Auschwitz, no steps were taken to warn Jews outside Budapest not to embark on them. Printed and widely distributed reports from four escapees from the camp did not change this situation. Most likely the Jewish Council did not want to cause unrest, and hesitated before urging people to break the law. At the same time, however, several Council members used their contacts with the SS to enable them, their families and their friends to flee to Romania or in some cases to other neighbouring countries. Up to 8,000 Jews managed to escape in this way.233 Meanwhile, in Berlin, the Propaganda Ministry began directing the German press to carry stories about the ‘Jewification’ of Hungary, which was now finally being rectified by the measures taken after the German invasion.234

The first trainloads of Jews left for Auschwitz on 14 May 1944. From now on, between 12,000 and 14,000 were packed into cattle-trucks and sent to the camp every day. Four gas chambers and crematoria were brought into action again and worked round the clock without a break. New Special Detachments were recruited to pull the bodies of the dead out of the gas chambers as fast as they could, to allow the next contingent of victims to be driven in. One prisoner in the buna factory nearby saw flames up to ten metres high roaring out of the crematoria chimneys at night, while the smell of burning flesh reached as far as the factory itself. One crematorium broke down under the strain, and the Special Detachments began burying bodies in pits. Visiting Hitler on 7 June 1944, Prime Minister Sztójay sought to convince the German Leader that the deportations were causing resentment in Hungary because they were widely perceived as resulting from foreign intervention in the country’s internal affairs. Hitler responded with a tirade against the Jews. He had warned Hórthy, he said, that the Jews had too much influence, but the Regent had done nothing. The Jews were responsible for killing tens of thousands of Germans in Allied bombing raids, he claimed. For this reason ‘nobody could demand of him that he should have the least pity for this global plague, and he is now only sticking to the old Jewish saying: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” ’.235 By this time, the King of Sweden and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt had both protested to Hórthy and asked him to bring the deportations to an end. However, Pius XII’s intervention, on 25 June 1944, neither mentioned the Jews by name nor specified the fate to which they were being sent. The leading figures in the Hungarian Catholic hierarchy refused to issue any public condemnation of the deportations; one of them, the Archbishop of Eger, considered that ‘what is currently happening to the Jews is nothing other than an appropriate punishment for their misdeeds in the past’.236 On 7 July 1944, finally overcoming the opposition of the most pro-Nazi members of the Hungarian government, Hórthy ordered them to stop. Eichmann managed none the less to send two more trainloads of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, on 19 and 24 July. By this time, in little over two months, no fewer than 438,000 Hungarian Jews had been taken to Auschwitz, where some 394,000 of them had been gassed immediately on arrival.237


These tragic and desperate events took place in a rapidly deteriorating military situation for the Third Reich. On 3 November 1943 Hitler issued a general directive for the conduct of the war over the coming months. The Red Army might be advancing in the east, but German forces were still deep inside Soviet territory, so for the moment there was no direct threat to the survival of the Reich itself. The danger posed by the imminent Allied invasion of Western Europe, on the other hand, was far more acute, given the relatively short distance the Anglo-American armies would have to traverse before they got to the German border once they had succeeded in landing on the Continent. Priority therefore had to be given to building up defences in the west; the east could for the time being look after itself. At the same time, however, Hitler was unwilling to sacrifice territory in the east that provided Germany with major supplies of grain, raw materials and labour. And the Red Army was pressing on relentlessly, driving the German Army Group South under Manstein back west of Kiev and forcing Kleist’s Army Group A back from the Dnieper river bend. All along the front, from the Pripet marshes to the Black Sea, Soviet armoured divisions were pushing through the German armies, now depleted by the transfer of more forces and equipment to the west, outflanking their defences and advancing towards the borders of Hungary and Romania. The 120,000 German and Romanian troops cut off in the Crimea were annihilated by a Soviet pincer movement in April and May 1944. As in the past, Hitler blamed his generals for these defeats, sacking Manstein and Kleist on 28 March 1944 and replacing them with two of his favourite senior officers, Ferdinand Schörner and Walter Model.238

These defeats showed that the Red Army had now completely seized the initiative. German counter-attacks on any scale were effectively out of the question. All that Schörner, Model and the other field commanders could do was try to guess where the Red Army would strike next. But guessing was not easy. Stalin, Zhukov and the leading Soviet generals decided to deceive their German counterparts into thinking that the push would come in the Ukraine, building on the victories achieved in the spring. Model persuaded Hitler to move substantial reinforcements and equipment to support his own forces (now renamed Army Group North Ukraine), taking reserves away from Army Group Centre in Belarus under Field Marshal Ernst Busch. The central sector of the front was now bulging out to the east after the spring successes of the Red Army to the north and south. Previous attempts by the Soviet forces to reduce the bulge had been unsuccessful. Under conditions of great secrecy, Stalin and his commanders moved massive reinforcements of men, tanks and armaments into this area, concentrating on one big push - codenamed ‘Operation Bagration’ - rather than dissipating their forces over disparate sectors of the front. Lulled into complacency by repeated and deliberate deceptions carried out on German intelligence by the Russians, Busch went away for a few days, ignoring a massive spread of partisan activity to the rear of his forces. From the night of 19-20 June 1944 onwards pro-Soviet partisans blew up hundreds of railway lines and roads to make it more difficult for the Germans to bring up reinforcements. One and a half million Soviet troops, equipped with enormous quantities of tanks, armour and artillery, began a huge encirclement, of the kind so successfully practised by the Germans earlier in the war, with a series of armoured thrusts. Busch returned to the front, but Hitler refused his appeal to withdraw. In less than two weeks 300,000 German troops were killed or captured as the Red Army swept on. By the middle of July, the Soviet forces had advanced 200 miles in the central sector of the front and had to stop to regroup. On 17 July 1944 some 57,000 German prisoners were paraded through the middle of Moscow in a kind of Roman Triumph. Many of them had simply given themselves up. They were not prepared to undergo another Stalingrad. It was one of the greatest and most spectacular victories of the war.239

‘Operation Bagration’ opened the way for further victories all along the line. In the north, Soviet troops advanced as far as the Baltic, west of Riga; sent to rescue the situation, Schörner managed to fight back and recapture enough of the coastline to restore the line of communication, but his forces still had to retreat from Estonia and much of Latvia to avoid getting cut off. On 5-9 October 1944, Soviet troops pushed through again to the sea. The German forces lacked the resources for a counter-attack, but supplies and reinforcements came in by sea. A new note of desperation characterized their fighting as they defended the German territory of East Prussia. Soviet lines of communication were now over-extended. The German forces managed to slow down the Soviet advance until it ground to a halt. However, the Red Army had also launched an attack on Finland in June 1944, completing the relief of Leningrad and convincing the Finns that there was no option but to sue for peace. On 4 September 1944 a new government under Marshal Mannerheim signed an armistice under which the 1940 borders were to be restored and any German troops in the country arrested and interned. Further south, Model’s Army Group North Ukraine, weakened by the transfer of troops and equipment to Army Group Centre, was attacked by a series of savage armoured blows that sent it reeling back to the Carpathian mountains. Red Army commanders were helped by a massive superiority in arms and equipment, and by supremacy in the air after Germany’s fighter force had been redeployed to deal with Allied bombing raids from the west. Soviet artillery was being produced in huge quantities to pulverize the enemy before the tanks moved in. Particularly feared was the Katyusha rocket launcher, first used at Smolensk in 1941. It had been kept absolutely secret, so that when it came into action for the first time, firing dozens of rockets against the enemy with a huge noise, not only German troops but also Red Army soldiers fled in panic. Initially rather inefficient, with a range of less than 10 miles, by 1944 the device had been improved and was being manufactured en masse. German soldiers called it the ‘Stalin Organ’ from the appearance of its closely packed launch-tubes. They had no equivalent to use in return.240


19. The Long Retreat, 1942-4

By the autumn of 1944 Soviet forces were fast approaching the gates of Warsaw. Stalin announced the appointment of a puppet Polish government, a rival to the exiled Polish regime in London. The exiled regime’s underground Home Army, a nationalist organization opposed to the communists, was being crushed by the Red Army as it moved into Polish territory. Nevertheless, when Stalin called upon the citizens of Warsaw to rise up against their German oppressors, in the expectation that Soviet forces would shortly be entering the city, the Home Army in the city decided to stage an uprising on 1 August 1944, fearing that, if it did not, Stalin would brand it pro-German, and hoping in any case to gain political influence by taking control of the traditional capital of Poland. The Home Army in Warsaw was poorly equipped, since most of its weapons and ammunition were being used for partisan activities in the countryside, and it was ill prepared. Its commanders had paid little attention to the ghetto uprising the previous year, and learned nothing from its fate. With ‘Molotov cocktails’, pistols and rifles, the Poles fought a stubborn defence against tanks, artillery, machine-guns and flame-throwers. For two months, the terrible scenes of 1943 were repeated on a larger scale, as German SS and police units commanded by Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski confined the insurgents to isolated areas, then reduced them to pockets of resistance, and finally wiped them out altogether, razing most of the city to the ground in the process. 26,000 German troops were killed, wounded or missing, but the Polish dead, men, women and children, numbered more than 200,000. Bach-Zelewski, employing Ukrainians, Soviet renegades and convicts drafted in from the concentration camps, massacred everyone he could find. An insurgent nurse described a typical scene as German and Ukrainian SS troops entered her hospital,

kicking and beating the wounded who were lying on the floor and calling them sons of bitches and Polish bandits. They kicked the heads of those lying on the ground with their boots, screaming horribly as they did it. Blood and brains were spattered in all directions . . . A contingent of German soldiers with an officer at its head came in. ‘What is going on here?’ the officer asked. After driving out the murderers, he gave orders to clear up the dead bodies, and calmly requested those who had survived and could walk to get up and go to the courtyard. We were certain they would be shot. After an hour or two another German-Ukrainian horde came in, carrying straw. One of them poured some petrol over it . . . There was a blast, and a terrible cry - the fire was right behind us. The Germans had torched the hospital and were shooting the wounded.241

Similar and worse incidents repeated themselves throughout the Polish capital during these weeks. Himmler had ordered the whole city and its population to be destroyed. The centre of Polish culture would exist no longer. If the uprising was seen historically, he told Hitler, ‘it is a blessing that the Poles are doing it.’ It would enable Germany to bring the ‘Polish problem’ to a decisive end.242

Stalin held back the Red Army while it focused on establishing bridge-heads on the Vistula and Narva rivers. He did nothing to assist the few Anglo-American planes that tried to airlift supplies to the insurgents. Most of the drops fell into German-held territory, and Stalin’s refusal to allow the planes to use Soviet airfields, along with the reluctance of the air force commanders, ensured that the airlift had no effect. From Stalin’s point of view, the uprising was a success: it inflicted heavy losses on the Germans, and it wiped out the politically inconvenient Polish Home Army as well. Once the last resisters surrendered, on 2 October 1944, he moved his forces in to take over the devastated city.243 ‘You have to seal your eyes and your heart,’ wrote the Warsaw-based German army officer Wilm Hosenfeld as the unequal fight continued. ‘The population is being pitilessly exterminated.’244 After the Warsaw uprising was finally defeated, he watched the ‘endless columns of the captured rebels. We were totally amazed by the proud bearing they showed when they came out.’ The women in particular impressed him, marching past, heads held high, singing patriotic songs.245 His attempt to get the captured resisters recognized as enemy combatants and so subject, at least in theory, to the laws of war, was predictably rebuffed by his superiors. Hosenfeld was ordered to interrogate the survivors. ‘I try to rescue everyone,’ he wrote, ‘who can be saved.’246

Resistance was also mounting in the west, and particularly in France, where the Maquis now numbered scores of thousands of men and women, engaged in sabotaging German military installations in preparation for the invasion of France across the English Channel. Elaborate deception measures mounted by British and American intelligence services persuaded the German commanders that the invasion would come in Norway or near Calais or some other seaport. Over a million British, American, French, Canadian and other Allied troops were assembled in southern England under the general command of US general Dwight D. Eisenhower. On the night of 5-6 June 1944, more than 4,000 landing craft and over 1,000 warships convoyed the troops across the Channel while three airborne divisions began parachuting down behind the German defences. With the German navy effectively out of action, the German air force seriously weakened by losses in the preceding months and German forces dispersed over other areas and lacking the crack divisions concentrated on the Eastern Front, resistance was weaker than expected. Pulverized by naval and aerial bombardment, German defences were overwhelmed by the force of the landings, and except on Omaha Beach the resistance was quickly overcome. By the end of 6 June 1944, 155,000 men and 16,000 vehicles had been safely landed by the Allied operation. Prefabricated ‘Mulberry harbours’ were towed in and assembled, and more Allied forces landed and joined up from their five beachheads before the German army could rush in sufficient reinforcements to repel them. The capture of Cherbourg by 27 June 1944 provided them with a seaport, and huge quantities of men and equipment began to come over. German reinforcements were rushed to the front and began to put up stiff resistance, but the German commanders, Rundstedt and his subordinate Rommel, had no effective strategic plan for dealing with the invading forces, who now began to fight their way slowly across Normandy. This was now a war on two fronts.247

Hitler reacted predictably by blaming this situation on the generals. They were constantly plying him with pessimistic assessments of the situation, he raged, and demanding withdrawals and retreats instead of staying put and fighting to the last. On 1 July 1944, worn out by the constant arguments with the Leader, Chief of the Army General Staff Kurt Zeitzler broke down, and simply abandoned his office. Hitler had him drummed out of the army in January 1945 and denied the right to wear a uniform. General Heinz Guderian was appointed his replacement on 21 July 1944. In the west, Field Marshal von Rundstedt was sacked two days later, along with Hugo Sperrle, the air force commander who had made a name for himself in the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, but was now blamed by his Leader for failing to mount an effective airborne defence against the Allied invasion. Field Marshal Günther von Kluge was appointed to replace Rundstedt. On the Eastern Front, Field Marshal Ernst Busch was sacked because of the catastrophic defeat of his Army Group Centre in Operation Bagration, and replaced by Field Marshal Walter Model, one of the few senior officers whom Hitler held in continuing high esteem. As he left the Berghof for the last time on 14 July 1944 to return to his field headquarters at the ‘Wolf’s Lair’ in Rastenburg, Hitler’s contempt for so many of his generals was becoming even more open than before.248


The military catastrophes of the spring and early summer of 1944 led to an upsurge of resistance not only in occupied Europe but also in the German Reich itself. Already, the defeats of the previous year had spread disillusion with the regime. The devastating effects of the bombing weakened the authority of the regime still more. Nevertheless, open acts of resistance or defiance were still rare. Individual acts of defiance were met with arrest, trial and not infrequently execution. Collective resistance was difficult in the extreme. Social Democratic and Communist resistance organizations had been crushed by the Gestapo by the mid- 1930s and the leading figures in both parties were either in exile or in prison or concentration camp. Not only the more restrictive police regime of the war years but also the Nazi-Soviet Pact had a dampening effect on the will of former labour movement activists to organize any kind of oppositional activity before June 1941. And the euphoria created by the stunning military victories of 1939 and 1940 was shared by many in the working class, including former Social Democrats. As a precaution, too, the Gestapo arrested and incarcerated a number of former Communist functionaries on the invasion of the Soviet Union in case they should start a campaign of subversion. It was only in 1942, after the defeat of the German army before Moscow, that clandestine Communist resistance groups began to emerge again, in strongholds of the industrial working class like Saxony, Thuringia, Berlin and the Ruhr. Some of them were able to establish contact with the exiled party leadership in Moscow, but it was only intermittent, and in general there was little central co-ordination. The Communists managed to put out some leaflets urging opposition to the Nazis and even advocating acts of sabotage, but in general they achieved relatively little before they too were smashed by the Gestapo. The most spectacular action was undoubtedly that mounted by a group of young Jewish Communists and their sympathizers, led by Herbert Baum, who, as we have seen, managed to blow up part of an anti-Soviet exhibition staged by Goebbels in Berlin, though without causing any serious damage or any casualties. They too were quickly betrayed to the Gestapo; thirty were arrested and tried by the People’s Court; fifteen of them were executed.249

Since the mid-1930s, the official party line from Moscow had emphasized the need for Communists to collaborate with Social Democrats in a ‘popular front’. But this tactic faced severe difficulties on both sides. The Social Democrats justifiably suspected the clandestine Communist groups of being under far more intensive surveillance than they were themselves, and the dangers of collaboration were dramatically illustrated on 22 June 1944 when a meeting in Berlin between the Social Democrats Julius Leber and Adolf Reichwein and a group of Communist functionaries resulted in the arrest of all those involved. As far as the Communists were concerned, it was more than likely that when the war was over the Social Democrats would re-emerge as their major rivals for the allegiance of the industrial working class, so that any co-operation could only be strictly tactical and temporary and should not involve concessions to a likely future political enemy. Within the concentration camps, and above all in Buchenwald, Communists formed their own groups, which could at times achieve a limited degree of prisoner self-management. The appointment of Communists as capos and block leaders was encouraged by the SS camp management, who saw the Communists as reliable and effective in this role. For their part, the Communist prisoners tried to maintain solidarity amongst themselves and protect their comrades, devolving difficult and dangerous work on to other categories of prisoner such as the ‘asocials’ and criminals. Through maintaining good relations with the SS they also hoped to improve conditions generally in the camp and so benefit all the inmates in the long run. In such a situation there were only limited prospects of meaningful co-operation with Social Democratic or other political prisoners. Solidarity within the Communist group was all-important. This precarious strategy, trying to strike a balance between ideological purity on the one hand, and self-protection through collaboration with the SS on the other, was to lead to widespread and sometimes bitter controversy after the war.250

One exceptional group with Communist connections, though subject neither to Communist discipline nor to Stalinist ideology, had managed to survive since early on in the Third Reich. This was known by the Gestapo as the ‘Red Orchestra’ (Rote Kapelle), though it was in fact a series of overlapping and functionally rather different clandestine groups. Beginning late in 1941, German military counter-espionage in Brussels and Paris began to uncover an extensive network of Soviet intelligence agents. It had links to a resistance circle in Berlin, grouped around a civil servant in the Reich Economics Ministry, Arvid Harnack, and an attaché in the Air Ministry, Harro Schulze-Boysen. Harnack was a Marxist economist who believed in a peaceful, socialist Germany, while Schulze-Boysen was a radical nationalist revolutionary who had been arrested and tortured by the Nazis in 1933 but then released on good behaviour. Some of their followers were members of the Communist Party, but the group was essentially independent of any central direction from Moscow. Women played a particularly prominent role in it, notably Harnack’s American wife Mildred Harnack-Fish, a literary historian, and Schulze-Boysen’s wife Libertas, who gained a critical view of Nazi propaganda through her work in the film section of the Propaganda Ministry. In order to give himself ‘cover’, Harnack joined the Nazi Party in 1937. The group helped political fugitives to escape from Germany, distributed leaflets not only to Germans but also to foreign forced labourers, and took up contact with both the US and the Soviet embassies, whom they kept informed about the crimes of Nazism. The Soviets were impressed enough to supply them with radio equipment, and they managed to convey some information on the war economy to the Russians, but Stalin refused to believe the group’s warning of an imminent invasion in June 1941. Their leaflets became longer and more ambitious, including one written by Schulze-Boysen warning percipiently that Hitler would suffer the same fate in Russia as Napoleon had done. However, their clandestine radio messages to the Russians were intercepted by German military counter-intelligence. This led to Schulze-Boysen’s arrest on 30 August 1942 and Harnack’s on 7 September 1942. Other arrests followed, eventually numbering more than 130. After a series of rapid trials, more than fifty members of the group were executed, including both the Harnacks and the Schulze-Boysens. On Hitler’s personal insistence, the death sentences were carried out by hanging.251

The so-called ‘Red Orchestra’ was not the ring of Soviet spies portrayed in subsequent Nazi propaganda but a home-grown resistance movement whose contacts with Soviet intelligence were made on its own terms. It was far from being the only left-wing group of this kind, though it was larger than most. One of the most remarkable was a tiny, little-known but tightly knit organization called the ‘League: Community for Socialist Living’. Formed in the early 1920s by the adult education lecturer Artur Jacobs, it set up a number of centres where it held discussions, offered dance and movement classes, and tried to build a lifestyle that crossed class boundaries and transcended the egotism of the individual. Some of its members were Communists; others were Social Democrats; a good number had no party affiliation at all. In any case its members, as it were, left their party cards at the door when they entered the League’s premises. From the very beginning they identified antisemitism as the core of Nazi ideology, and in 1933 the League and its members went underground and began helping Jews to escape arrest and, from 1941, deportation. Here its small size - there were never more than a few hundred members even at the height of its popularity in the 1920s - and the close personal ties that had grown up between its members helped the League stay intact and to carry on its work undetected by the Gestapo. Its members organized false identities for Jews in hiding, ferried them secretly from one location to another, and helped them evade the attentions of the Gestapo. From the point of view of the League’s members, this was a way of keeping the spirit of social and racial equality alive in the face of Nazi persecution. In this way, they provided a practical alternative to the usual activities of left-wing resistance groups, which focused on the largely futile attempt to rouse popular opinion against the Nazis.252

The milieu from which the League emerged in the 1920s, in which small groups of various political hues tried to build new lifestyles of one kind or another, also gave rise, at a greater distance, to a far better-known resistance movement, the self-styled ‘White Rose’, some of whose members had been involved in the autonomous youth movement of the Weimar years. Any initial enthusiasm they might have had for the Nazi regime was quickly dispelled by its racism and its antisemitism, its restrictions on personal freedom, and above all the extreme violence it unleashed on the Eastern Front in 1941-2. While they were studying medicine at Munich University, some of the young men who played a key role in forming the group had been sent to work in the army medical service on the Eastern Front. The group gradually expanded to include not only Kurt Huber, a Munich professor who acted as a kind of mentor to many of its members, but also friends, colleagues and students in other university towns from Freiburg to Stuttgart, and especially Hamburg. Leading members included the Scholl siblings, Hans and Sophie, as well as a number of other Munich students, Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst and Willi Graf. Some of them tried to take up contact with Falk Harnack, brother of the key figure in the ‘Red Orchestra’ network, though he did not respond to their overtures. As it expanded, the group became bolder, typing, cyclostyling and posting to a wide and more or less random range of recipients a series of six leaflets in quantities ranging from just a hundred up to several thousand. Their aim, like that of traditional left-wing resistance groups, was to rouse popular opinion so that the masses would rise up and bring an end to the war by overthrowing Hitler and his regime. They roundly condemned the mass murder of the Jews and the Polish elites, and pilloried the apathy of the German people in the face of the Nazis’ crimes. After Stalingrad they began daubing graffiti on the walls of public buildings in Munich (‘Hitler Mass Murderer’, ‘Freedom’ and so on). On 18 February 1943, however, Hans and Sophie Scholl were observed by a university porter scattering copies of their latest leaflet in the courtyard. He reported them to the Gestapo, and they were arrested. Despite their refusal under torture to betray the other members of the group, the police soon identified and arrested Probst and the rest of the ‘White Rose’ activists. Hitler wanted a quick trial. Probst and the Scholls were brought before the People’s Court on 22 February 1943, found guilty of treason and beheaded; Huber, Schmorell and Graf were condemned on 19 April and also executed. Ten others were given prison sentences. The Hamburg group continued to distribute the leaflets but it was also eventually discovered by the Gestapo; the last of its members was arrested in June 1944. Copies of the final leaflet reached the British via Sweden, and the Royal Air Force dropped hundreds of thousands of copies over Germany in the spring of 1943.253 Thus the message of the ‘White Rose’ did not go unread.

For the most part, however, moral and political critics of the regime sat tight, hoping for better times, and keeping their beliefs to themselves. It is impossible to say with any certainty how widespread such behaviour was. One example can be found in the diary of Erika S., born in Hamburg in 1926, into a formerly Social Democratic family. Her journal mixed in unselfconscious juxtaposition with her own daily cares her moral outrage at the larger damage she thought the war was causing. ‘Ah,’ she wrote on 4 June 1942, ‘if only this unholy war were soon at an end! Nothing to eat and then these many cruel murders, it’s too terrible, especially when you think of all the victims and those left behind. Nobody knows how many young people have already had to sacrifice their lives for Hitler’s devilish cause, it’s no longer anything but one huge campaign of murder.’254 Such sentiments were doubtless shared by her father, who was taken into custody by the Gestapo on more than one occasion, the last time on 23 August 1944. Undaunted by this final arrest, Erika sat down and wrote a letter to Himmler, assuring him that her parents had ‘brought me and my 14-year-old brother up in a completely National Socialist way’. She reminded the SS chief that she was a member of the League of German Girls and had joined the Nazi Party the previous April. So she could not understand why her father had been taken into custody. After waiting in vain for a reply, she went to the nearest Gestapo office to pursue her quest. The officers were polite, but made no concessions. ‘It just can’t be borne any longer,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘how one is treated in Germany. And all the same, one still does everything to avoid attracting attention.’255


None of this was ever likely to achieve the overthrow of the Nazi regime. Only one group was in a position to do this, and that was the military resistance that had originally emerged in 1938 among senior army officers concerned about what they saw as Hitler’s rashness in risking a general European war by the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when Germany was unprepared for one. The victories of 1939-40 seemed to prove them wrong.256 Only a few, such as the former Ambassador to Italy, Ulrich von Hassell, remained convinced of what he called the criminal irresponsibility of the regime and were appalled at the destruction it was visiting upon Eastern Europe. Hassell found it intolerable, as he wrote in his diary on 8 October 1940, that ‘the Jews are systematically being exterminated, and a devilish campaign is being launched against the Polish intelligentsia with the express purpose of annihilating it’.257 Other Foreign Ministry officials, including State Secretary Ernst von Weizsäcker, Adam von Trott zu Solz and Hans-Bernd von Haeften, had long shared Hassell’s views. Hassell regularly discussed this and other issues with a small number of like-minded civilians who had occupied senior positions in government and administration, notably Carl Goerdeler, the former Price Commissioner and ex-Mayor of Leipzig, and Johannes Popitz, Prussian Minister of Finance. The group included the former Chief of the Army General Staff Ludwig Beck, who was one of the few senior military figures who were not bowled over by the military triumphs of the first phase of the war; others who had once contemplated arresting Hitler and installing a military regime, like Franz Halder, no longer went beyond grumbling about Hitler’s conduct of the war even when the going began to get tough in 1941, as we have seen. Like the vast majority of senior officers, Halder supported the concept of a crusade against the Soviet Union and considered the harshest measures justified. The circle around the head of the Military Intelligence, Admiral Wilhelm von Canaris, and his chief of staff, Hans Oster, had also been concerned for some time about Hitler’s reckless military ambition. But they bided their time, considering it was pointless trying to undertake anything while popular support for Hitler was so high. The group also included the young theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had been an inspirational figure in the Confessing Church but missed its main confrontation with the Nazi regime in the mid-1930s because he had been serving as a pastor in London. Bonhoeffer had been drafted into Military Intelligence in 1940, and soon began working with the oppositional group there.258

A small number of mostly aristocratic officers of the younger generation, however, like Fabian von Schlabrendorff and Henning von Tresckow, on the staff of Army Group Centre, were so outraged by the atrocities being committed in the east that they determined to take action. Tresckow in particular, though he had initially supported Hitler, had soon been appalled by the brutality and lawlessness of his regime. A Prussian officer in the classic mould, he considered that enemy soldiers should be treated according to the laws of war, and tried to circumvent the orders he was given to shoot Soviet political commissars on sight. His commanding officer, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, expressed an interest in joining the military opposition but was too cautious to commit himself. Moral objections to Nazism were also at the root of the growing opposition expressed (in private) by the Kreisau Circle (a name given to it later by the Gestapo). This was a loose network of intellectuals, eventually numbering over a hundred, who met at the estate of Count Helmuth von Moltke at Kreisau, in Lower Silesia, for discussions about the situation. On three occasions in 1942-3 the group held larger conferences that included theologians, lawyers, former Social Democratic politicians, and others from a wide variety of backgrounds. A number of members of the circle held minor government posts, among them Count Peter Yorck von Wartenburg (a civil servant in the Price Commissioner’s office) and Count Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, who was Deputy Police President of Berlin. Moltke himself worked in the prisoner-of-war department of the Combined Armed Forces Supreme Command. A number of the Kreisau Circle’s members had experience of other countries, which strengthened their critical perspective on Nazism. Their views were strongly idealistic. On 9 August 1943 they agreed a set of basic principles to be implemented after the collapse of Nazism. These emphasized Christianity as the basis for a moral regeneration of the German people. Basic freedoms had to be restored. Politically, Germany was to become a federal state with a weak central power. It was to be divided into provinces of between 3 and 5 million inhabitants each, which would be further divided into self-governing communities, organized into districts. The regions would have parliaments elected by the district assemblies, and a national Reichstag would be elected by the provincial parliaments. The minimum voting age was to be twenty-seven. The Kreisau Circle also wanted some kind of international community of states, to reduce the risk of war happening again. All of this expressed a kind of radical-conservative idealism, grounded in the suspicion of modern ‘mass society’ and aimed at re-creating a sense of rootedness and belonging based on Christian values and local identities. The members of the Kreisau Circle were suspicious of capitalism, and wanted both common ownership of vital industries and ‘co-responsibility’ in the individual plant. What they thought of as the excesses of urbanism would be overcome by the state guaranteeing to provide every family with a garden.259

The Kreisau Circle and its members developed multiple and shifting contacts with members of the military and civilian resistance, and on 8 January 1943 a meeting took place between representatives of the two groups. It did not go well. Moltke considered Goerdeler a reactionary, while more politically experienced men like Hassell thought many of the ‘youngsters’ unrealistic.260 Various attempts by Moltke, Trott and others to forge contacts with the Western Allies and persuade them to work together with them to rebuild Germany after victory came to nothing.261 The Allies had their own plans. Distrust of Western parliamentary models of democracy, which the Kreisau Circle regarded as having failed under Weimar, was almost universal in the various arms of the German resistance, and this alone was hardly likely to recommend their constitutional plans to the British or the Americans. Goerdeler and the military conspirators were even less likely to win Allied approval. Leading figures in the group hammered out and repeatedly revised a set of aims that became steadily more modest as Germany’s military situation worsened, but even in May 1944 they included a negotiated peace on the basis of the German frontiers of 1914 plus Austria, the Sudetenland and the South Tyrol, autonomy for Alsace-Lorraine, and the retention of an effective defence force in the east.262

The constitutional ideas of the conspirators ranged from an authoritarian, quasi-corporatist state, as suggested by Hassell, to a more parliamentary model advocated by Goerdeler in an attempt among other things to satisfy Social Democrats in the group like Julius Leber. Even here, however, Goerdeler wanted a strong corporative element, with candidates coming from economic interest groups and indirect elections to the Reichstag, which was to be restricted in influence by being granted only advisory powers and subordinated to a second chamber nominated by the head of state. Extra votes were to be given to fathers of families. Like the Kreisau Circle, Goerdeler and the military conspirators were determined to avoid the party-political animosities that had so undermined the Weimar Republic, so open electoral campaigning was not supposed to take place in the state they hoped to found. And like the Kreisau Circle, the military-conservative resistance regarded Christian values as the all-important foundation for the re-emergence of a morally upright Germany, though Leber and the Social Democrats were unhappy about this idea. The Social Democrats’ influence, which grew stronger over time, could be found in a degree of overlap with the Kreisau Circle’s emphasis on the need to control the capitalist economy. However, the vision of Goerdeler and his group, of a Germany in which class antagonisms would be overcome by the creation of a true national community dominated by the traditional aristocracy (the ‘stratum that carries the state’, as Schulenburg put it), was never likely to be accepted by the working-class followers of the Social Democrats. The hostility of the military-conservative resistance to a parliamentary constitution and a pluralist, open society demonstrated its backward-looking character and its lack of potential appeal to the masses. Indeed, given the participation of Prussian officers and conservative Prussian politicians in the group, it was hardly surprising that they looked back, as many in the Kreisau Circle also did, to the Prussian reforms of Baron Karl vom Stein at the beginning of the nineteenth century as a model for the future development of Germany. Here, too, their lack of realism was palpable.263

One of the factors motivating the German resistance was undoubtedly outrage and shame at the regime’s treatment of the Jews. Already in late August 1941, Helmuth von Moltke was writing to his wife about the mass murder of Jews and Soviet prisoners of war in the east. This was, he said, burdening the German people ‘with a blood-guilt that can never be expunged in our lifetime and can never be forgotten’.264 In similar vein, Ulrich von Hassell confided to his diary on 4 October 1941 that General Georg Thomas, the chief procurement officer of the armed forces, had reported on his return from the Eastern Front on ‘the continuance of repulsive cruelties, particularly against the Jews, who were shamelessly shot down in batches’.265 ‘Hundreds of thousands of people have been systematically killed just because of their Jewish descent’, noted an outraged memorandum penned by Goerdeler and others on the postwar future of Germany in November 1942. After the fall of Nazism, the authors promised that the Nuremberg Laws and all laws specially affecting the Jews would be abolished. Yet the reason they gave was not that they were unjust, but that they were unnecessary because the very small number of Jewish survivors would no longer constitute a ‘danger for the German race’. Nor, significantly, did this prevent the resisters from drawing up plans to classify the surviving Jews on the basis of their race as much as their religion.266

Moreover, a number of the military participants in the conspiracy had themselves ordered actions against the Jews, including for example Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, army commander in Paris. As the senior official in Regional Leader Wagner’s Silesia, Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg had implemented antisemitic and anti-Polish policies with enthusiasm, including the forced labour conscription or deportation of Poles and Jews. It was above all the German military defeat at Stalingrad, which he took as evidence of Hitler’s military incompetence, that drove Schulenburg into the opposition; and indeed for many of the military figures among the resisters, the belief that Hitler was responsible for the worsening situation of Germany in the war was also crucial.267 Wolf Heinrich, Count Helldorf, Police President of Berlin, also involved in the conspiracy, had actually taken a leading part in persecuting the capital city’s Jews in the 1930s.268 The plot even included among its supporters and informants Arthur Nebe, commander of SS Task Force B in the Soviet Union, responsible for the murder of scores of thousands of Jews; his motives for joining the opposition were particularly obscure. Some of the conspirators, including Johannes Popitz, disapproved of the methods used by the Nazis to deal with ‘the Jewish question’ because they were too extreme, not because the idea of discriminating against the Jews was wrong in itself. As this suggests, it was not surprising that many of them had initially supported the Nazis for their racial policies as well as for other reasons. Well before 1944, however, such views had been all but obliterated by the view that, as Goerdeler put it, ‘the Jewish persecution . . . has taken the most inhuman, merciless and deeply shaming forms, for which no recompense can be adequate’.269

There was one crucial difference between the military conspirators and the Kreisau Circle. Moltke and most of his friends were against an assassination attempt on Hitler on religious grounds, preferring to wait for the military collapse of the Third Reich before putting their plans into action. To a degree, this view was shared by other members of the civilian resistance. The military had no such scruples. In particular, Henning von Tresckow was convinced that Hitler had to be killed if the Nazi regime was to be overthrown. He began to organize a series of assassination attempts shortly after Stalingrad. On 13 March 1943 he tried to blow up Hitler’s plane on a flight between his field headquarters with explosives supplied by Admiral Canaris and military counter-intelligence and smuggled into the plane’s hold. But the attempt failed because the detonator would not work in the extremely low temperature of the hold at high altitude. The bomb, disguised as a package containing two bottles of cognac, was still in the hold when the plane landed. In the nick of time, Tresckow’s co-conspirator Fabian von Schlabrendorff managed to fly to the scene, get hold of the package and defuse it. On 21 March 1943 another young conspirator, Colonel Rudolf-Christoph, Baron von Gersdorff, took a bag of explosives along to an exhibition of captured Soviet equipment in Berlin, hoping to kill Hitler during his planned visit. But the Nazi Leader rushed through the building at such a pace that the opportunity did not present itself. As one attempt after another came to nothing, Goerdeler pressed the military to move quickly, otherwise millions more lives would be lost and Germany would be so thoroughly defeated that the new regime he envisaged would be in no position to make terms with the Allies. That he believed this would still be possible despite the decision of the Allied leaders at Casablanca early in 1943 to accept nothing other than unconditional surrender from Germany shows the conspirators’ lack of political realism; and even had Churchill and Roosevelt been prepared to negotiate, there was no chance that they would accept the terms that Goerdeler and his co-conspirators were offering.270

Moreover, the conspiracy began to get into serious trouble as its members began for one reason or another to come to the attention of the Gestapo. Military Intelligence under Canaris and Oster, which the conspirators viewed as the key logistical centre of their operation, was increasingly threatened by the ambitions of Walter Schellenberg’s foreign intelligence department of the SS Security Service. This led to increased surveillance by the Gestapo. In the spring of 1943 Oster and some of his key officers, including Bonhoeffer, were arrested over allegations of currency offences. In January 1944 Hitler’s suspicions led to his ordering the takeover of foreign military intelligence, which Oster had been running until his arrest, by the Security Service of the SS. Canaris, an emigmatic figure who some suspected of betraying military secrets to the Allies, was interned. In a further blow, Moltke was arrested in January 1944. Meanwhile, Popitz, in an extraordinary act of political unrealism, approached Himmler with a view to winning him over to the idea of toppling Hitler on his own initiative. The initiative met with a vague expression of interest from the SS chief, but no more. Horrified, Goerdeler and the other civilian conspirators did their best to avoid contact with Popitz after this. Important figures dropped out - Kluge suffered serious injuries in a car accident, the Social Democrat Mierendorff and the retired army chief Hammerstein both died of natural causes. All of this set back the conspiracy by many months and reduced the coherence and potential effectiveness of the plot.271

Deeper problems faced the conspirators as they tried to revive their assassination plans. In order for the plot to succeed, they had to persuade key units of the reserve army to move on Berlin and take over the major institutions of government, but, though they made some headway with the delicate negotiations, there were still many uncertainties. While General Friedrich Olbricht, who headed the armed forces reserve section in Berlin, was with them, actively planning the troop movements that would secure power once Hitler was dead, his boss, General Friedrich Fromm, commander of the reserve army, a man with an eye to the main chance, decided to play a waiting game when he was told about the conspiracy, though he did not betray the conspirators for the time being. Together with the former Chief of the Army General Staff Ludwig Beck, and Tresckow, Olbricht drew up plans for ‘Operation Valkyrie’, a military coup to be launched immediately Hitler was pronounced dead. But who would kill the Leader? This was the final problem to be solved. It required someone who combined access to Hitler’s person with commitment to the resistance - a difficult if not impossible combination to find. On more than one occasion, an attempt had to be abandoned because the man who had agreed to carry it out could not get near the target. But in the late summer of 1943, a new figure entered the conspiracy who fulfilled all these qualities. Claus Schenk, Count von Stauffenberg, was a lieutenant-colonel who had been badly injured in North Africa, losing his right hand and the third and fourth fingers of his left. He wore a black patch over one eye. He was due to take up his appointment as chief of staff of the Army General Office on 1 October 1943. An able and extremely energetic officer, Stauffenberg had, like a few others in the military hierarchy, initially supported Nazism, and been enthused by the early victories of German arms in Poland and France. But he had become disillusioned with Hitler’s recklessness on the Eastern Front and thought, above all after Stalingrad, that it was taking Germany into the abyss. Stauffenberg also had an unusual kind of moral and patriotic commitment, derived from his youthful membership of the circle around the poet Stefan George. What turned him decisively against Hitler were the atrocities committed by the SS on and behind the Eastern Front against Slavs and Jews, and his feeling that they had to be stopped became ever stronger. With Tresckow, Stauffenberg became the central energizing and organizing figure in the conspiracy. They set up one new assassination attempt after another, only to see them all fail, often by pure chance. In the end, Stauffenberg resolved to kill Hitler himself.272

As the Gestapo began to close in on the plotters, finding a way of getting to Hitler became ever more urgent. On 1 July 1944 it presented itself out of the blue when Stauffenberg was promoted to a colonelcy and appointed chief of staff to Fromm, head of the army reserve. This gave him access to Hitler as Fromm’s emissary. At the same time, the purpose of the assassination was changing with the fast-moving military situation. After the Normandy landings, Stauffenberg doubted whether killing Hitler would serve any useful political purpose. Surely there was no hope any longer, if there had ever been any, of reaching a negotiated settlement with the Allies and rescuing something of Germany from the ruins. But, as Tresckow told him: ‘The assassination must be attempted at any cost. Even should that fail, the attempt to seize power in the capital must be undertaken. We must prove to the world and to future generations that the men of the German resistance movement dared to take the decisive step and to hazard their lives upon it. Compared with this object, nothing else matters.273 On 20 July 1944 Stauffenberg visited Hitler’s field headquarters at Rastenburg, carrying a briefcase containing two bombs. With only a thumb and two fingers at his disposal, he was slow in priming the time-delayed detonator, and he only had time to prepare one of the bombs before being ushered in to the barracks where Hitler was conducting a review of the military situation with his staff; the other bomb he entrusted to his companion Werner von Haeften, who later threw it out of his car. Putting the case down next to the large wooden map-table over which Hitler was leaning, Stauffenberg left the room, saying he had to make a phone call. He watched from a distance as the bomb exploded, wrecking the barracks. Then he bluffed his way through the SS security cordons, got into a plane and flew back to Berlin.274

Assured by Stauffenberg over the phone that Hitler could not have survived the explosion, Olbricht and the leading conspirators at army headquarters in Berlin launched the military takeover. But very quickly things began to go wrong. Had Stauffenberg been able to prime both bombs, or even left the unprimed one in his briefcase along with the other, there is no doubt that Hitler would have been killed. But the force of one explosion was not enough. The blast was not contained by the flimsy wooden walls of the barracks but blew them out together with the windows, while the heavy wooden map-table protected Hitler, who was standing on the other side. Even so, four of those present, standing near where the bomb went off, were either killed instantly or died later of their wounds. Hitler staggered out of the door, putting out the flames that were burning on his trousers. He ran into Keitel, the sycophantic Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff, who burst into tears, crying: ‘My Leader, you are alive, you are alive!’ Hitler’s clothing was torn and he had burns and abrasions on his arms and legs and some splinters of wood in his legs. Like everyone else in the hut apart from Keitel, he had burst ear-drums. But he had no serious injuries. This was to prove decisive. Almost as ominous for the conspirators was the fact that, while they had managed to sever some communications with the Rastenburg field headquarters, they had been unable to cut them all off. Within a short time, members of Hitler’s staff were able to telephone Berlin and pass on the news that Hitler was still alive.

In Berlin, the cautious General Fromm, asked by the conspirators to set the military coup in motion, telephoned Rastenburg to see if their claim that Hitler was dead was correct. He was told that it was not. Trying to arrest Olbricht and the other conspirators at army headquarters, he was himself placed under arrest as they attempted to go on with the coup. Amid mounting confusion, some army units went into action according to the planned ‘Operation Valkyrie’, but others were stopped in their tracks as Hitler began to have instructions transmitted from Rastenburg countermanding the conspirator’s orders. Caught in the cross-fire of claim and counter-claim, Major Otto Ernst Remer, commander of a guards battalion in the capital, and a fanatical Nazi, had obeyed orders to surround the government quarter with his troops, in the belief that Hitler was dead. With machine-gunners taking up positions near the Brandenburg Gate, things looked bad for ministers, such as Goebbels, who were caught in the trap. Fearing the worst, Goebbels pocketed a supply of cyanide pills before moving into action. He persuaded Remer to come and discuss the situation with him, in the presence of Albert Speer, who later remembered the Propaganda Minister’s nervousness as the major entered his room. Hitler was not dead, Goebbels assured Remer: and surely the Leader could override the orders of any general. He telephoned Hitler’s direct line in Rastenburg. Hitler spoke to Remer in person and ordered him to restore order. Remer withdrew his troops from the government ministries. Those of Olbricht’s subordinates who had not been taken into his confidence now joined forces with Remer. Shooting broke out at army headquarters, and Stauffenberg was wounded. Fromm was released, and now arrested Olbricht, Stauffenberg and the other conspirators in turn. Beck produced a revolver and shot himself twice; as he lay injured on the floor, Fromm ordered a sergeant to take him into the next room and finish him off. Then he hurriedly condemned the other conspirators to death. If they were left alive to talk to the Gestapo, his own earlier complicity in the plot would have been revealed. A firing-squad lined up Olbricht, Stauffenberg, Haeften and their fellow-plotter Colonel Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim in the courtyard and shot them one by one. As he was about to be killed, Stauffenberg shouted: ‘Long live sanctified Germany!’275


The news of Hitler’s survival torpedoed the conspiracy not only in Berlin but also in Prague and Vienna, where some of the conspirators had also tried to stage a coup. In Paris, the military commander of occupied France, General Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, put the coup in motion as soon as Stauffenberg telephoned him to say Hitler was dead. Over a thousand SS officers were arrested, including the top commanders of the SS and its Security Service in Paris, Carl-Albrecht Oberg and Helmut Knochen. But before any more could be done, the vacillating Field Marshal Kluge discovered that Hitler was after all alive, and stopped the measures in their tracks. The SS men were released. For Oberg and Knochen, their detention and their failure to take any steps against the conspiracy were deeply shaming and potentially dangerous. Kluge’s representative in Paris, General Günther Blumentritt, took advantage of their evident embarrassment to patch up a deal over several bottles of champagne in the Salon Bleu of the Hotel Raphaël. He put the main events down to a misunderstanding and prevented the complicity of most of the conspirators in Paris from being discovered. For Stülpnagel, however, there was no reprieve. ‘So, Herr General,’ Oberg had said to Stülpnagel on entering the hotel, ‘you seem to have bet on the wrong horse.’ Indeed, Kluge had already reported Stülpnagel’s actions to Berlin. Guessing the fate that was in store for him, the general drove out of Paris towards the First World War battlefield of Verdun, where he stopped his car, got out and shot himself in the head. Like Beck, however, he did not succeed in killing himself. Blinded and badly disfigured, he was taken to Berlin under arrest.276

News of the bomb and Hitler’s survival had already been broadcast over the radio by this time. Shaken but not badly injured, Hitler managed to find time for a prearranged meeting with Mussolini at his field headquarters, showing him proudly round the scene of the explosion, before broadcasting to the nation just before one in the morning of 21 July 1944. Reassuring Germans that he was alive and unharmed, he declared that ‘a tiny clique of ambitious, unscrupulous and at the same time criminally stupid officers hatched a plot to remove me, and together with me, virtually to exterminate the staff of the German Supreme Command.’ Providence, he continued predictably, had preserved his life. Privately, he fulminated against the conspirators, raging that he would ‘annihilate and exterminate’ every one of them. He appointed Himmler to replace Fromm, whose attempt to cover up his own complicity had not fooled anyone. Guderian became Chief of the Army General Staff. All Germans, said Hitler, had to join in hunting down those responsible. By this time, Remer and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the SS Security Service, had arrived at army headquarters in Berlin, and Otto Skorzeny, who had sprung Mussolini from captivity a year before, turned up with an armed squad of SS men. They stopped any other executions from taking place. Meanwhile, Fromm attempted to telephone Hitler from Goebbels’s office, but the suspicious Propaganda Minister made the call himself, and received orders to put the general under arrest. Goebbels instructed the media to emphasize again that only a small group of reactionary aristocrats had been involved. Public demonstrations had to be organized to celebrate the failure of the coup.277

Meanwhile, Himmler and the Gestapo moved into action to identify and arrest the surviving conspirators. As the investigation gathered pace, it became apparent that Hitler’s first estimation that the plot was the work of no more than a handful of reactionary officers was mistaken. Soon Canaris, Oster and the Military Intelligence group were brought in for questioning, along with many army officers involved in the conspiracy. Arrests of civilians followed, including Hjalmar Schacht, the former economic supremo of the Third Reich. Schacht had been in touch with the plotters, but even before he knew this, Hitler ordered him to be taken in because, he still felt, Schacht had sabotaged rearmament in the 1930s. Hess too would be arrested when England was finally beaten, he raged. He would be ‘mercilessly hanged’ because he had given the others an ‘example of treason’. Johannes Popitz and the Social Democratic participants and sympathizers, including Gustav Noske and Wilhelm Leuschner, were also arrested. Carl Goerdeler went into hiding, then made his way eastwards, camping out in forests, until he was finally recognized, denounced and arrested in his turn. Exhausted, demoralized and subjected to sleep deprivation by his captors, and like some of the other resisters in thrall to a moral conviction not only that the truth had to be told but also that it would have a persuasive effect on those who heard it, he gave the Gestapo the names of other members of the conspiracy, making it clear that it was far more than a plot hatched by a handful of military malcontents. He never wavered from his now openly expressed conviction that Hitler was a ‘vampire’ and that ‘the bestial murder of a million Jews’ was a crime that besmirched the name of Germany.278

Himmler organized a huge sweep of known opponents of the regime, arresting in the end as many as 5,000 people. As late as 23 September 1944, documents came to light implicating the earlier conspirators, including top army officers such as Halder, Brauchitsch and the armed forces’ chief procurement officer, General Georg Thomas. Many others had already given themselves up, like Ulrich von Hassell, or courted death by resisting arrest, or committed suicide by shooting themselves. Henning von Tresckow, still on the Eastern Front, drove out towards the enemy lines on the morning of 21 July and blew himself up with a grenade after learning that the plot had failed. Worried that torture might force him to name names, he told Fabian von Schlabrendorff before he set out: ‘Hitler is the arch-enemy not only of Germany but of the whole world.’279 Others took poison, or shot themselves for similar reasons. One army officer who had joined the coup attempt in Berlin put a grenade in his mouth and pulled the pin as he was about to be led away by the Gestapo. A number of the resisters were severely beaten. Metal spikes were driven underneath their fingernails to make them talk. But they did not reveal the names of their co-conspirators. Hitler’s growing suspicion of Kluge, who he feared would negotiate a surrender with the invading Allies, led him on 17 August 1944 to appoint the ever-faithful Model Commander-in-Chief in the west in his stead. Knowing the game was up, Kluge drove off eastwards, and near the spot where Stülpnagel had tried to kill himself, he stopped the car and swallowed a phial of poison. The popular Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who had known of the conspiracy but not approved of it, had nevertheless told Hitler to his face that he should bring the war to an end. Rommel was still convalescing from war wounds when Hitler presented him with the alternatives of suicide disguised as death from his injuries and followed by a state funeral, or arrest, trial and public humiliation. As the SS surrounded the village where he was resting, Rommel realized he would never reach Berlin alive, and took poison. The state funeral duly followed. Twenty-two other military conspirators were dismissed with dishonour from the army by a court-martial hastily convened on Hitler’s orders and presided over by Field Marshal von Rundstedt.280

On 7 August 1944 the trial of the first eight conspirators, including General Erwin von Witzleben, who had been involved in military conspiracies against Hitler since 1938, and Yorck von Wartenburg, opened before the People’s Court in Berlin. Subsequent trials were held over the following weeks, involving many other conspirators, including Schulenburg, Trott, Goerdeler, Leuschner, Hassell and the blinded Stülpnagel. The trial of Leber, Popitz and the former Württemberg state president, Eugen Bolz, and members of the Kreisau Circle, including Moltke, took place as late as January 1945. Many of the conspirators had hoped that a trial would give them the opportunity to expound their views, and indeed Hassell among others had probably given himself up in this expectation. But the President of the People’s Court, Roland Freisler, bullied and hectored the accused men, showered them with crude insults, and did not allow them to speak more than a few words at a time. His conduct was so outrageous that even Nazi Minister of Justice Otto-Georg Thierack complained about it. Most of the lawyers appointed to defend them prudently accepted the prosecution’s case from the start and made no attempt to plead mitigation. To try to ensure they would appear as pathetic and undignified as possible, the accused had been physically maltreated beforehand, were forbidden to wear neckties, and were banned from using belts or braces to hold up their trousers. Nevertheless, a few managed to get a word in edgeways. When Freisler told one of them he would soon roast in hell, the defendant bowed and responded swiftly: ‘I’ll look forward to your own imminent arrival, your honour!’ Another told Freisler that though his own neck would shortly be on the block, ‘in a year it will be yours!’ But Hitler had personally ordered that they should be hanged, a dishonouring punishment generally reserved by this time for foreign workers, though also applied to the ‘Red Orchestra’. The first group of men were hanged from crude hooks suspended from the ceiling in an outbuilding at the Plötzensee prison in Berlin. Specially thin rope was used so that they would die of slow strangulation. As they died, their trousers were pulled down in a last act of humiliation. Hitler had the executions filmed and watched them in his headquarters at night.281

Some of the conspirators escaped death and lived on after the Third Reich was over, to tell their story to posterity. They included Fabian von Schlabrendorff, who was sheltering in the cellar of the People’s Court with the judge and legal officials on 3 February 1945 when an Allied bombing raid demolished the courthouse. A beam crashed through the floor into the cellar below. Freisler was killed instantly. His was the only injury, but the trial had to be postponed; by the time it restarted, in mid-March, the court was beginning to temporize in the face of imminent defeat, and acquitted him because he had been illegally tortured, a scruple that had not troubled it at all in the months before. Altogether perhaps 1,000 people were killed or committed suicide in the wake of the failed coup attempt. In addition, Himmler, declaring that anyone involved in such a heinous crime against Germany must have bad blood, drew on what he said was the old Germanic tradition of punishing criminals’ families as well as the criminals themselves, and arrested the wives and children, and in some cases brothers and sisters, parents, cousins, uncles and aunts of a number of the conspirators. Stauffenberg’s wife was sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp and her children given a new identity and put into an orphanage. Those whose families were treated in similar fashion included Goerdeler, Hammerstein, Oster, Popitz, Tresckow, Trott and others. The property and assets of the conspirators and their families were confiscated by the state.282

The plot, the most serious and widespread attempt to overthrow Hitler since he had come to power in 1933, had failed, with the most disastrous possible consequences for almost everybody involved in it, for a variety of reasons, both specific and general. The conspirators had not managed to kill Hitler, nor had they succeeded in preventing news of his survival being broadcast from his field headquarters to the outside world. Their preparations were careless and paid too little attention to detail. Although it was fast fading, Hitler’s charismatic authority, backed by Goebbels, Goring, Himmler and Bormann, was still enough to prevent vacillating senior officers like Fromm and Kluge from throwing their weight behind the coup attempt. Goebbels, Hitler, Himmler and the SS acted quickly and decisively, while the conspirators were dilatory. The plotters had not managed to persuade enough key military commanders to back the coup; although the majority of senior officers knew by now that there was little hope of Germany winning the war, most of them were still locked into a rigid military mentality in which orders from above had to be obeyed, the oath they had taken to Hitler was sacrosanct, and killing the head of state was an act of treachery. Typical was the attitude taken by General Gotthard Heinrici, who in his diary insisted on the sacred nature of the personal oath of allegiance he had taken to Hitler, as had all other German soldiers, and strongly disapproved of the July 1944 bomb plot.283

Those who backed the coup attempt were always in a small minority. Some top officers were no doubt influenced by the money lavished on them by Hitler. Many officers were deterred by the fear that they would be blamed for Germany’s defeat in the kind of ‘stab-in-the-back’ which many of them thought had been responsible for Germany losing the First World War. More generally, the ideas of the conspirators were backward-looking, and for all their attempts to forge a unified programme, they were deeply divided on many central issues. As the most clear-headed among them already recognized in June 1944, the assassination attempt was more a moral gesture than a political act. Had they succeeded in their earlier attempts on Hitler’s life, in 1943, they might have made more of a difference. But they were dogged by ill-fortune from the start. Had Stauffenberg managed to kill Hitler, the result would most likely have been a civil war between army units backing the plotters, and those which opposed them, supported by the SS. Even then, it seems unlikely that the plotters would have won: the forces at their command were simply not strong or numerous enough. The Allies had no intention of negotiating with them, and indeed, when the news of the attempt reached London and New York, it was quickly dismissed as a meaningless squabble within the Nazi hierarchy. Some of the conspirators had hoped that a coup would enable them to make a separate peace with the Western Allies, but the British and Americans were aware of this, and were concerned about the damage it would do to their alliance with the Soviet Union if they gave any kind of positive response to the conspiracy. A separate peace would have raised the alarming prospect of a conflict with the Soviet Union, and this was something that Churchill and Roosevelt were not prepared to contemplate.284

The plotters’ aim was to stage a military coup, and despite Stauffenberg’s attempts to gain wider backing by negotiating with Social Democrats like Leber, the military-conservative resistance had very little support in the German population at large.285 Yet the death of Hitler might well have hastened the disintegration of the regime, loosened the bonds of loyalty that tied so many Germans to it still in mid-1944, and shortened the war by some months, saving millions of lives on all sides by doing so. This alone was more than enough justification for the undertaking. It was not easy for the conspirators to reach the conclusions they reached or take the actions they took. In the end, however, they acted. Count Peter Yorck von Wartenburg implicitly spoke for them all when he wrote in his last letter to his mother, shortly before his execution, that ‘it was not ambition or lust for power which determined my actions. My actions were influenced solely by my patriotic feeling, my concern for my Germany as it has grown over the past two thousand years.’286 His, like theirs, was the Germany of the past, above all the Prussian past, and he had come to recognize that Hitler, in myriad different ways, was destroying it.

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