Military history

THE ZOSSEN “CONSPIRACY” TO OVERTHROW HITLER

The time had now come for the conspirators to spring to action once more, or so they thought. The unhappy Brauchitsch and Halder were faced with the stern alternatives of either carrying out the third of the “possibilities” they had seen on October 14—the removal of Hitler—or organizing an attack in the West which they thought would be disastrous for Germany. Both the military and civilian “plotters,” suddenly come to life, were urging the first alternative.

They had already been balked once since the start of the war. General von Hammerstein, recalled temporarily from his long retirement on the eve of the attack on Poland, had been given a command in the west. During the first week of the war he had urged Hitler to visit his headquarters in order to show that he was not neglecting that front while conquering Poland. Actually Hammerstein, an implacable foe of Hitler, planned to arrest him. Fabian von Schlabrendorff had already tipped Ogilvie Forbes on this plot the day Britain declared war, on September 3, at a hasty meeting in the Adlon Hotel in Berlin. But the Fuehrer had smelled a rat, had declined to visit the former Commander in Chief of the Army and shortly thereafter had sacked him.22

The conspirators continued to maintain contact with the British. Having failed to take any action to prevent Hitler from destroying Poland, they had concentrated their efforts on trying to keep the war from spreading to the West. The civilian members realized that, more than before, the Army was the only organization in the Reich which possessed the means of stopping Hitler: its power and importance had vastly increased with general mobilization and the lightning victory in Poland. But its expanded size, as Halder tried to explain to the civilians, also was a handicap. The officers’ ranks had been swollen with reserve officers many of whom were fanatical Nazis; and the mass of the troops were thoroughly indoctrinated with Nazism. It would be difficult, Halder pointed out—he was a great man to emphasize difficulties, whether to friend or foe—to find an army formation which could be trusted to move against the Fuehrer.

There was another consideration which the generals pointed out and which the men in mufti fully appreciated. If they were to stage a revolt against Hitler with the accompanying confusion in the Army as well as the country, might not the British and French take advantage of it to break through in the west, occupy Germany and mete out a harsh peace to the German people—even though they had got rid of their criminal leader? It was necessary therefore to keep in contact with the British in order to come to a clear understanding that the Allies would not take such an advantage of a German anti-Nazi coup.

Several channels were used. One was developed through the Vatican by Dr. Josef Mueller, a leading Munich lawyer, a devout Catholic, a man of such great physical bulk and tremendous energy and toughness that he had been dubbed in his youth “Joe the Ox”—Ochsensepp. Early in October, with the connivance of Colonel Oster of the Abwehr, Mueller had journeyed to Rome and at the Vatican had established contact with the British minister to the Holy See. According to German sources, he succeeded in obtaining not only an assurance from the British but the agreement of the Pope to act as an intermediary between a new anti-Nazi German regime and Britain.23

The other contact was in Berne, Switzerland. There Weizsaecker had installed Theodor Kordt, until recently the German chargé in London, as an attaché in the German Legation and it was in the Swiss capital that he saw on occasion an Englishman, Dr. Philip Conwell-Evans, whose professorship at the German University of Koenigsberg had made him both an expert on Nazism and to some extent a sympathizer with it. In the latter part of October Conwell-Evans brought to Kordt what the latter later described as a solemn promise by Chamberlain to deal justly and understandingly with a future anti-Nazi German government. Actually the Britisher had only brought extracts from Chamberlain’s speech to the Commons in which, while rejecting Hitler’s peace proposals, the Prime Minister had declared that Britain had no desire to “exclude from her rightful place in Europe a Germany which will live in amity and confidence with other nations.” Though this statement and others in the speech of a friendly nature toward the German people had been broadcast from London and presumably picked up by the conspirators, they hailed the “pledge” brought by the unofficial British representative to Berne as of the utmost importance. With this and the British assurances they thought they had through the Vatican, the conspirators turned hopefully to the German generals. Hopefully, but also desperately. “Our only hope of salvation,” Weizsaecker told Hassell on October 17, “lies in a military coup d’état. But how?”

Time was short. The German attack through Belgium and Holland was scheduled to begin on November 12. The plot had to be carried out before that date. As Hassell warned the others, it would be impossible to get a “decent peace” after Germany had violated Belgium.

There are several accounts from the participants as to what happened next, or rather why nothing much happened, and they are conflicting and confusing. General Halder, the Chief of the Army General Staff, was again the key figure, as he had been at the time of Munich. But he blew hot and cold, was hesitant and confused. In his interrogation at Nuremberg he explained that the “Field Army” could not stage the revolt because it had a “fully armed enemy in front of it.” He says he appealed to the “Home Army,” which was not up against the enemy, to act but the most he could get from its commander, General Friedrich (Fritz) Fromm, was an understanding that “as a soldier”24 he would execute any order from Brauchitsch.

But Brauchitsch was even more wishy-washy than his General Staff Chief. “If Brauchitsch hasn’t enough force of character,” General Beck told Halder, “to make a decision, then you must make the decision and present him with a fait accompli.” But Halder insisted that since Brauchitsch was the Commander in Chief of the Army, the final responsibility was his. Thus the buck was continually passed. “Halder,” Hassell mourned in his diary at the end of October, “is not equal to the situation either in caliber or in authority.” As for Brauchitsch, he was, as Beck said, “a sixth-grader.” Still the conspirators, led this time by General Thomas, the economic expert of the Army, and Colonel Oster of the Abwehr, worked on Halder, who finally agreed, they thought, to stage a putsch as soon as Hitler gave the final order for the attack in the West. Halder himself says it was still conditional on Brauchitsch’s making the final decision. At any rate, on November 3, according to Colonel Hans Groscurth of OKW, a confidant of both Halder and Oster, Halder sent word to General Beck and Goerdeler, two of the chief conspirators, to hold themselves in readiness from November 5 on. Zossen, the headquarters of both the Army Command and the General Staff, became a hotbed of conspiratorial activity.

November 5 was a key date. On that day the movement of troops to their jump-off points opposite Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg was to begin. Also on that day, Brauchitsch had an appointment for a showdown with Hitler. He and Halder had visited the top army commands in the west on November 2 and 3 and fortified themselves with the negative opinions of the field commanders. “None of the higher headquarters,” Halder confided to his diary, “thinks the offensive … has any prospect of success.” Thus amply supplied with arguments from the generals on the Western front as well as his own and Halder’s and Thomas’, which were assembled in a memorandum, and carrying for good measure a “countermemorandum,” as Halder calls it, replying to Hitler’s memorandum of October 9, the Commander in Chief of the German Army drove over to the Chancellery in Berlin on November 5 determined to talk the Fuehrer out of his offensive in the West. If Brauchitsch were unsuccessful, he would then join the conspiracy to remove the dictator—or so the conspirators understood. They were in a high state of excitement—and optimism. Goerdeler, according to Gisevius, was already drawing up a cabinet list for the provisional anti-Nazi government and had to be restrained by the more sober Beck. Schacht alone was highly skeptical. “Just you watch,” he warned. “Hitler will smell a rat and won’t make any decision at all tomorrow.”

They were all, as usual, wrong.

Brauchitsch, as might have been expected, got nowhere with his memoranda or his reports from the front-line commanders or his own arguments. When he stressed the bad weather in the West at this time of year, Hitler retorted that it was as bad for the enemy as for the Germans and moreover that it might be no better in the spring. Finally in desperation the spineless Army chief informed the Fuehrer that the morale of the troops in the west was similar to that in 1917–18, when there was defeatism, insubordination and even mutiny in the German Army.

At hearing this, Hitler, according to Halder (whose diary is the principal source for this highly secret meeting), flew into a rage. “In what units,” he demanded to know, “have there been any cases of lack of discipline? What happened? Where?” He would fly there himself tomorrow. Poor Brauchitsch, as Halder notes, had deliberately exaggerated “in order to deter Hitler,” and he now felt the full force of the Leader’s uncontrolled wrath. “What action has been taken by the Army Command?” the Fuehrer shouted. “How many death sentences have been carried out?” The truth was, Hitler stormed, that “the Army did not want to fight.”

“Any further conversation was impossible,” Brauchitsch told the tribunal at Nuremberg in recalling his unhappy experience. “So I left.” Others remembered that he staggered into headquarters at Zossen, eighteen miles away, in such a state of shock that he was unable at first to give a coherent account of what had happened.

That was the end of the “Zossen Conspiracy.” It had failed as ignobly as the “Halder Plot” at the time of Munich. Each time the conditions laid down by the plotters in order to enable them to act had been fulfilled. This time Hitler had stuck to his decision to attack on November 12. In fact, after the stricken Brauchitsch had left his presence he had the order reconfirmed by telephone to Zossen. When Halder asked that it be sent in writing, he was immediately obliged. Thus the conspirators had in writing the evidence which they had said they needed in order to overthrow Hitler—the order for an attack which they thought would bring disaster to Germany. But they did nothing further except to panic. There was a great scramble to burn incriminating papers and cover up traces. Only Colonel Oster seems to have kept his head. He sent a warning to the Belgian and Dutch legations in Berlin to expect an attack on the morning of November 12.25 Then he set out for the Western front on a fruitless expedition to see if he could again interest General von Witzleben in bumping off Hitler. The generals, Witzleben included, knew when they were beaten. The former corporal had once again triumphed over them with the greatest of ease. A few days later Rundstedt, commanding Army Group A, called in his corps and divisional commanders to discuss details of the attack. While still doubting its success he advised his generals to bury their doubts. “The Army,” he said, “has been given its task, and it will fulfill that task!”

   The day after provoking Brauchitsch to the edge of a nervous breakdown Hitler busied himself with composing the texts of proclamations to the Dutch and Belgian people justifying his attack on them. Halder noted the pretext: “French march into Belgium.”

But on the next day, November 7, to the relief of the generals, Hitler postponed the date of the attack.

TOP SECRET

Berlin, November 7, 1939

… The Fuehrer and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, after hearing reports on the meteorological and the railway transport situation, has ordered:

A-day is postponed by three days. The next decision will be made at 6 P.M. on November 9, 1939.

KEITEL

This was the first of fourteen postponements ordered by Hitler throughout the fall and winter, copies of which were found in the OKW archives at the end of the war.26 They show that at no time did the Fuehrer abandon for one moment his decision to attack in the West; he merely put off the date from week to week. On November 9, the attack was postponed to November 19; on November 13, to November 22; and so on, with five or six days’ notice being given each time, and usually the weather stated as the reason. Probably the Fuehrer was, to some extent, deferring to the generals. Probably he got it through his head that the Army was not ready. Certainly the strategic and tactical plans had not been fully worked out, for he was always tinkering with them.

There may have been other reasons for Hitler’s first postponement of the offensive. On November 7, the day the decision was made, the Germans had been considerably embarrassed by a joint declaration of the King of the Belgians and the Queen of the Netherlands, offering, “before the war in Western Europe begins in full violence,” to mediate a peace. In such circumstances it would have been difficult to convince anyone, as Hitler was attempting to do in the proclamations he was drafting, that the German Army was moving into the two Low Countries because it had learned the French Army was about to march into Belgium.

Also Hitler may have got wind that his attack on the neutral little country of Belgium would not have the benefit of surprise, on which he had counted. At the end of October, Goerdeler had journeyed to Brussels with a secret message from Weizsaecker urging the German ambassador,Buelow-Schwante, to privately warn the King of the “extreme gravity of the situation.” This the ambassador did and shortly thereafter King Leopold rushed to The Hague to consult with the Queen and draw up their declaration. But the Belgians had more specific information. Some of it came from Oster, as we have seen. On November 8, Buelow-Schwante wired Berlin a warning that King Leopold had told the Dutch Queen that he had “exact information” of a German military build-up on the Belgian frontier which pointed toward a German offensive through Belgium “in two or three days.”27

Then on the evening of November 8 and the afternoon of the following day there occurred two strange events—a bomb explosion that just missed killing Hitler and the kidnaping by the S.S. of two British agents in Holland near the German border—which at first distracted the Nazi warlord from his plans for attacking the West and yet in the end bolstered his prestige in Germany while frightening the Zossen conspirators, who actually had nothing to do with either happening.

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