What the Waffen SS could have finally achieved toward a European confederation, what caliber of leadership the Adolf Hitler Schools would have produced, or how education and advancement of Germany’s non-affluent classes might have reshaped the nation will never be known. Military defeat in 1945 ended the era of German self-determination, quelling a revolution of historical consequence that may never be emulated. Germany’s overthrow we broadly attribute to the larger populations and superior industrial capacity of the Allies, but a seldom-publicized, insidious factor also contributed to the outcome of the war. This was the systematic sabotage, conducted by disaffected, malevolent elements within Germany, of the Reich’s peacetime diplomacy and wartime military operations.
Unlike the Bolsheviks, Hitler did not oppress the aristocracy to promote labor. He personally considered the role of the nobility “played out". It would have to prove itself to regain its former prestige, but only by competing against other classes within the parameters of the Reich’s social programs. A tract published for officers declared, “The new nobility of the German nation, which is open to every German, is nobility based on accomplishment.” 1 Many from the country’s titled families accepted the challenge. They enrolled in the NSDAP or the SS or served with valor in the armed forces during the war. A small percentage, concentrated in the army general staff and in the diplomatic corps, resented the social devaluation of their high-born status. Rather than contribute to the new Germany, they conspired against her. Together with a self-absorbed minority of misguided intellectuals, clerics, financiers and Marxists, they intrigued to bring down both the National Socialist government and their country as well.
An especially harmful characteristic of this subversive resistance movement was that its leaders tenanted sensitive positions in public office and in the military. Major players included Leipzig’s Mayor Carl Goerdeler, Ribbentrop’s subordinates Baron von Weizsäcker, Ewald von Kleist-Schmenzin and Erich Kordt, and chief of military intelligence Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. They and their fellow conspirators knew that Hitler was too popular for them to incite a national insurrection against him. They sought assistance beyond Germany’s borders, from England. The subversives established contact with British politicians in June 1937. With Canaris providing a smoke screen, Goerdeler covertly travelled to London using foreign currency provided by the banker Schacht. He met with Halifax, Churchill, Eden, Vansittart and Montague Norman of the Bank of England. Goerdeler told his hosts of an approaching “unavoidable confrontation between Hitler and the conspirators,” giving the impression that plans for a coup were well under way. 2
That December, Ribbentrop submitted to Hitler a confidential analysis of attitudes in Britain. He warned that the English were by no means weak and decadent and would go to war were German ambitions considered a threat to their empire. In secret discussions with Vansittart, Churchill and British diplomats, Weizsäcker falsely claimed the opposite, that Ribbentrop was advising the Führer that London was too spineless to seriously oppose the Reich.3
During the Sudetenland crisis in the summer of 1938, the resistance attempted to persuade the British to reject Hitler’s proposed territorial revisions. Its envoy, Kleist-Schmenzin, was a patrician landowner and monarchist. He enjoyed a certain reverence among peers for his fight to reduce the wages of Pomerania’s farmers during the 1920s. He once maintained, “The nobility must adhere to the sovereign manner developed over centuries, the feeling of being master, the uncompromising feeling of superiority."4
On August 19, Kleist-Schmenzin told Churchill that in the event of war, German generals were prepared to assist in a revolt to establish a new government in Berlin “within 48 hours.” The envoy also supplied the British Secret Service with classified information regarding the Reich’s defense capabilities. Just as Goerdeler had previously described German rearmament as a “colossal bluff” in London the year before, Kleist-Schmenzin told the English that the German army was unprepared for war. The British agent Jan Colvin wrote later that every single sentence Kleist uttered would suffice on its own to earn him a death sentence for treason.5
The back gate of Number 10 Downing Street swung open on the evening of September 7, 1938, to admit Erich Kordt with a private letter from Weizsäcker for Halifax. The German baron wrote of how “the leaders of the army are ready to resort to armed force against Hitler’s policy. A diplomatic defeat would represent a very serious setback for Hitler in Germany, and in fact precipitate the end of the National Socialist regime."6 Thanks to his lofty position in the Reich’s Foreign Office, Weizsäcker knew that the Führer’s determination to recover the Sudetenland was no bluff. By encouraging London toward a showdown, he hoped to provoke an armed confrontation.
Chamberlain however, received more accurate reports from his ambassador in Berlin. Henderson had already written Undersecretary Cadogan in July that although Hitler did not want war, the Germans were preparing for every eventuality. The astute Henderson also lanced Weizsäcker’s mendacious claim that Ribbentrop was advising the Führer that the British have no backbone: “Certainly Ribbentrop did not give me the impression that he thought we were averse of war. Quite the contrary: he seems to think we were seeking it."7
Chamberlain prudently concluded the Munich accord with Hitler on September 30, peacefully transferring the Sudetenland to Germany. The resistance movement considered this a “crushing defeat” for its machinations.8 Disappointed, Kordt declared that “the best solution would have been war."9 Undaunted, its members exploited covert diplomatic channels to flood London with more bogus news about Germany. Goerdeler told the English on October 18 how supposedly Ribbentrop was boasting that Chamberlain “signed the death sentence of the British Empire” in Munich: “Hitler will now pursue a relentless path to destroy the empire."10
As the Polish crisis charged the diplomatic atmosphere in the summer of 1939, the resistance again poured oil on the fire. After meeting with Danzig’s Commissioner Burckhardt in June, the British diplomat Roger Makins stated in a Foreign Office memo, “Great Britain should continue to show an absolutely firm front. This is the course advocated by Baron von Weizsäcker and by most well-disposed Germans.” Assistant Undersecretary Sargent summarized, “Weizsäcker is constant in his advice that the only thing which makes Hitler see reason is the maintenance of a firm front and no premature offer to negotiate under pressure.” Weizsäcker, the number-two man in German foreign affairs, contributed to the inflexibility of the other side.11
The resistance continued to supply Chamberlain with descriptions alleging the desperate economic situation in Germany, Hitler’s unpopularity and the army’s readiness to mutiny. The better-informed British emissaries in Berlin maintained a sober perspective. Henderson’s subordinate, Ogilvie-Forbes, wrote Halifax about the conspirators on July 4, 1939: “I have a deep-rooted mistrust of their advice and their information. They are quite powerless to get rid of the Nazi leaders by their own efforts and they place all their hopes for this purpose in war with England and the defeat of Germany. One can have little respect for or confidence in Germans for whom the destruction of a regime is a higher aim than the success in war of their own country."12
Despite such warnings, Henderson saw with dismay how his government based some policy decisions on intelligence provided by the resistance movement. To be sure, Chamberlain was aware of the risk posed by war. An all-out conflict with Germany would compel England to seek American aid, increasing U.S. influence abroad. Waging war against the Reich was therefore contingent on an immediate collapse of enemy resistance. Told by conspirators in August 1939 that German generals anxiously await London’s declaration of war so that they can topple the government, and that Hitler is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Britain’s prime minister reacted.13 The director of the Central European Section of the British Secret Service, Sigismund Best, recalled, “At the outbreak of the war our Intelligence Service had reliable information that Hitler faced the opposition of many men who occupied the highest functions in his armed forces and his public offices. According to our information, this opposition movement had assumed such proportions as to be able to lead to a revolt and overthrow the Nazis."14
French Foreign Minister Bonnet wrote in his memoirs, “We expected an easy and rapid victory. The declaration of war by England and France on Germany of September 3 was supposed to clear the way for the military coup so sincerely promised to us."15General Gamelin told Benoist-Mechin, “I don't anticipate having to deal with the German army. Hitler will be ousted the day we declare war!"16 Right after the war’s start, Chamberlain noted in his diary, “What I hope for is not a military victory – I doubt very much that this is possible – but a collapse of the German home front."17 Ribbentrop himself wrote in 1946, “We didn't know then that London was counting on the conspiratorial group of prominent military men and politicians, and therefore came to hope for an easy victory over Germany. The circle of conspirators in this way played a decisive role in the outbreak of the war. They thwarted all of our efforts to reach a peaceful solution . . . and very likely tipped the scales for the English decision to declare war."18